"God Forgive These Bastards" Songs from the Forgotten Life of Henry Turner by The Taxpayers (2012)
The first time I met Henry Turner I feared for my life. I remember the exact date – February 18th, 2007 – because the day before, a close friend of mine had unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide in his studio apartment and I'd spent the entire night at the hospital. It was one of those terrible and typical Pacific Northwest winter nights where the rain seemed relentless and the gloom was contagious, and as I waited at a sheltered bus stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for the # 6 to arrive, a man approached me for a cigarette.
I shook my head and gave him a half-smile.
“Sorry. I quit a few years back.”
I stuck my head back into the newspaper I was reading, and he took a few steps closer.
“How about a buck and a quarter then? All I need is a dollar and a quarter and I'll have enough for bus fair.”
I shrugged and fumbled around in my pocket.
“I'm using an expired bus transfer myself, but I might have a few extra dimes. It ain't much, but if it helps, it's yours.”
I passed him the change, and when he grabbed it, he ducked down to my level and looked me straight in the eyes.
“Look at me. Does it look like a few extra dimes would help? You think a few extra dimes would do any good to anybody? Take a look at me. I got a rotten heart and a bad shoulder and I ain't slept a good night's sleep in the past ten years, and you wanna know the kicker? I get fuckers like you tossing me their condescending extra dimes.”
He was tall and intimidating, with wild gray hair and deep wrinkle lines all across his face, and his eyes would occasionally roll up into his head, quiver, and then refocus. His thick, wet coat and his tangled beard had bits of crumpled leaves stuck to them, and he carried himself with the strange confidence of an angry and confused lion.
“And the best part about all of this is that I know you're cheating me. And you know what I did to the last bastard that cheated me? “
He paused for a few silent, terrifying seconds.
“I bit his ear off.”
I almost pissed my pants. My brain was telling me, “get up and run”, but my body was frozen in fear, and I sat there shaking in excruciating silence. Sure, maybe he was harmless, but something about the look in his eyes terrified me. I could see the bus approaching from about a quarter of a mile away. I did the math. From that distance, it would be another minute or so before the bus arrived, saving me from certain death. I could try to fight back. But while he was an old man, he was an enormous old man, and anyways, you just can't fight a crazy person. I could run. That was it. I was going to have to get up and run before he sunk his teeth into me, or pulled out a knife, or worse.
Suddenly, he burst into laughter. Not a maniacal laughter, but a booming, good-natured laughter, and his angry eyes became kind and warm. His snarl turned into a crooked smile, and he slapped me on the back like an old friend.
“Aw, I'm just fucking with you, kid. Ain't much for laughs around here. You'll have to forgive me.”
He held out his massive hand for me to shake.
“Henry Turner. Friends call me Hank. How ya doin'?”
I was still petrified. Was this some sort of a trick? Was he going to grab my hand and then snap it off like a tree branch? He looked me over and laughed again, reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a bus pass.
“Here. This one ain't expired. Go on, take it, I got a whole stack of 'em.”
And with that, the bus pulled up to our stop in the rain, the doors opened with a loud mechanical sigh, and Henry held out both his arms, outstretched, in the direction of the doors.
“After you, kid.”
I didn't realize it at the time, but he was a semi-celebrity around town, although most people wrote him off as just another one of the crazy folks that told rambling, drunken tales - amusing for a few minutes, but best largely avoided. It was true, he had his demons, but he also had a magical brilliant quality to him, and whenever I ran into him around town, I'd end up spending a few hours with him, if for no other reason than to listen to his unbelievable stories. It didn't really matter whether they were true or not, it was the way he told them, with absolute clarity and confidence, no matter how crazy they sounded. Some of it even checked out. He'd often talk about his years playing baseball with Georgia Tech, and the famous play-off game where he pitched a two-hitter in 1979. When I got home, I went on the internet and looked up the Georgia Tech roster from 1979, and there he was. Henry Turner. I'll be damned.
The years went by. I'd leave town for months at a time, but when I came home I could always expect to run into Henry for the latest news and a ridiculous tale. Businesses closed and new ones opened, houses changed ownership, new faces arrived and old ones disappeared, but he was like an ancient marble pillar – unaffected by the changes around him. Or so it seemed. In the winter of 2010, three years after we first met, I ran into Henry on one of the downtown park blocks. He was disheveled and had these crazy eyes, and when he recognized me, he touched me on the shoulder and said something to the effect of, “Gonna go away for a while. You'll hold onto something for me, yeah?”. He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a huge stack of unused bus passes, thrust them into my hands, and walked away. It was the last time I would see him.
Henry Turner died on March 25th, 2010, a product of years of substance abuse and tough living. If a funeral was held I wasn't aware of it. The news of his death hit me harder than expected, and it sparked an obsession: I began compulsively writing down every outlandish and unbelievable story he'd ever told me, as a sort of tribute. My band started working on an album of songs pertaining to Henry's life. My nights were spent researching everything I could find about the Turner family. I would rant on and on to complete strangers about the whole ordeal. Then slowly, it began to subside. Life went back to normal. Though I never quite forgot about it, my utter entrancement with the Turners faded.
What follows is an amalgamation of the stories Henry told me, as best as I can remember them. I hope I did him justice. There are some embellishments and I took quite a few liberties, but like all good narrators, Henry knew that any story worth telling should be grand, significant, and a little bit false. It's important to note that Henry was no hero, and I'm not trying to romanticize or defend him – as you'll find out, he was a murderer, an abusive husband, an unapologetic addict, and a crook who was haunted by his most awful moments. But he was also at times a tender, loving father, a brave adventurer, and an amazing pitcher, who was surprisingly candid and an absolute charm to listen to. No person can be summed up by their worst actions. And despite his insistence that “forgiveness ain't an inherent human quality”, that's what this whole thing's been about for me: the capacity to forgive someone's most wretched moments.
Ultimately, I think that when Henry was at his best, he was something simple: a kind, strange friend.