For years each Sunday in the Dick Tracy comic strip, Chester Gould, the artist, drew a one-panel box in the upper right-hand corner and called it "Crime Stoppers."
Some of the hints were good (if you happened to carry a whistle or a hand grenade) and some had the kids spying on a suspicious-acting uncle who was maybe just sneaking out for a drink.
I knew a guy who clipped and saved every one of them. He also failed the Boston police exam six times.
As delightful as they were, and as informative to every amateur bent on poking his nose into crime, not once in any given week was there a line drawing an electric chair.
If there had been one, the caption beneath it might have said, "only for some."
During the early years of my life I ran across three guys who later sat on the chair for the final count for taking someone's life. A fourth, a former shipmate, was convicted of murder but beat the chair by hair, ending up with a long, stiff sentence.
The first rumblings about the electric chair that we heard in Massachusetts as young kids were about a pair of Italians named Sacco and Vanzetti, but they disappeared from our minds when the ball scores came on the radio.
The Massachusetts state prison, a soot-covered stone fort, was in the Charlestown section of Boston. Built during the Civil War, it had a look of decay on the outside that suggested the decay of the men of the inside.
Once a week we would drive by the prison on our way home from visiting relatives in the North End.
Each time we passed the prison my mother would bless herself and say a short prayer. As we passed the last gun tower she would turn and slap me on the cheek, admonishing, "I never want to see you in there"
That was a "Crime Stopper" right there.
Inside those dingy walls was the electric chair that took 65 lives between 1901 and 1947.
A little before midnight on the night of an excution, the narrow tenement-lined streets od Charlestown would be crowded with people watching the prison.
There would gather celebrants, hawkers with their balloons, ice cream vendors -- all of them using every opportunity to make a buck, including a few bookies shouting, "Five-to-one no pardon by midnight"
Shortly after midnight the crowd would get its reward when the lights in the prison would dim three times.
Depending on who had gone to the chair and the crime committed, there would be loud cheers and some applause and sometimes a more solemn, group off to one side -- weeping members of the family and friends of the deceased.
The executions took place, everyone knew, in a separate wing of the penitentiary, built since the Civil War.
It was a large, green glass dome, like an arboretum, but nothing grew there.
It had a long, glass-paneled corridor leading from the old prison to the death house, and spectators imagined they could see the condemned walking the "last mile."
What they saw, according to veteran newsmen who covered the executions, were a few guards walking back and forth. They used another route for the grim processions, but the moving shadows behing the glass walls seemed to satisfy the crowd's imagination.
My only trio there was on the night a couple of guys I grew up with made the walk, and then the lights went dim three times and later another three times, I stood on a street corner with the more solemn group, not weeping but wondering.
One of them who went that night was Junior Nickerson. He was one of 13 kids, a neighborhood bully whose father had hit the road the road, leaving his mother to raise the family.
He had a gang of roughnecks who paid attention to him and he wanted to rid the neighborhood of the "Micks" and "Wops." He later teamed up with an Irishman and an Italian who helped pave his way to the chair.
We met frequently -- across a field during a rock fight, or sometimes eye-to-eye in a narrow alley. On the few occasions when we met socially, the only meal I ever saw him eat was a slice of white bread covered with ketchup.
For some reason we stood in awe of kids who took more chances than we did, but one antisocial day when he and his gang had me alone and surrounded, my fiesty older sister Rita flew into the melee grabbed him by the throat and banged his head on the fender of a car until his crossed.
It was then I realized that at 15, he was still sucking his thumb and with the other hand he had the habit of twisting and yanking at his hair, until he was now bald at the brow and one of his thumbs was smaller than his little finger.
A neighborhood crime wave was quieted by the owner of the corner drug store, "Brandy" Newman, when he hired Nickerson's older and more stable brother to be a clerk. After that, the burglaries at Brandy's disappeared from the police blotter.
One of the guys with whom Nickerson teamed up for the crime that put him away was Joe Giacomazza, whose father ran a pool room where Joe would have to wait for an empty table each night so he could curl up and go to sleep.
It was a Saturday night the three went off together, with an Irish kid behind the wheel, and headed for a nearby city to hold up a gas station.
The 85-year-old man behind the desk opened a drawer to reach for a gun and was shot by one of the three. He lived for several months after the shooting.
The thumb-sucker was picked up after he had joined the Army, and was brought back to justice in his soldier suit.
The Italian kid was pulled from under a pool table, screaming. The Irish kid turned state's evidence, served some time in the Concord reformatory, went into the army and now tends bar somewhere near the city where he grew up.
Another guy I knew who was involved with a murder was a shipmate of mine of a submarine.
He was tried for the murder of a young woman, and barely beat the chair.
He was a giant, about 6-foot-5 and a very muscular 230 pounds.
During his trial, word went out for old mates to testify to his sanity and aid his defense.
Then you remembered him: a regular Navy guy coming apart before your eyes, a good submariner who would sit and weep after a few beers because he thought radar would make him sterile and if he married he would not have children.
Then there was the time he made chief petty officer. The tradition was to give one's flat hat to one's best friend.
For some reason he gave it to me. I put it on and it sank right down on my nose.
I was in a sailor's hangout, the Four-O Cafe in San Francisco, one night when he walked in, stood at the bar and asked if I had his hat with me.
I told him it didn't fit, that it fell over my eyes.
With a wide grin he hit me with all his might in the belly. My wind gone, I managed to stagger backward and avoid his next roundhouse. Finally, with my back to the wall, I pick up a chair and was ready to crash him with it when he burst into laughter and clasped me in a bear hug that almost crushed my ribs.
Later in the week, before we left port, a San Francisco paper printed over a three-column photo a headline that read, "Blond Giant Wrecks Our Police Force."
There was Red in the picture, along with a bunch of cops -- all of them in disarray -- and we figured the caption writer had him wrong on the hair color -- it was red.
He was transfeered and never heard from again until his former crew-mates, most now civilians, were asked to testify in his instanity plea.
The other guy I knew who went to the chair was a drifter from our old neighbourhood.
He was a friend of my older brother, and he slept over at our house a lot, whenever his family threw him out. Edward "Dutchy" Gertsen came to some national distinction.
I was very young, but I remember my mother washing and ironing a shirt for him so that he could go look for a job.
But Dutchy looked for the easy money, and one night he and an ex-Marine held up a serious crap game. After that, word got out that some heavies were looking for them.
The ex-Marine, in an effort to save his own life, betrayed Dutchy to the mob, and therefore lost his life to Dutchy, who feared the mob more than the chair.
His distinction in his crumbled sort of life was that he was the last guy to die in the chair in Massachusetts.
He went on May 9, sharing with a man named Bellino the double bill the state presented for the crowd outside the penitentiary.
It was only because someone wanted to be fair, and took the men in alphabetical order, that "Dutchy's name went into some state record book as the last man to walk the last mile in Massachusets.
"So who goes to the chair with courage?" a friend of mine asked me over lunch the other day.
Then he told about an execution he covered as a young reporter at the state prison in Boston.
It was the execution of a very tough hired killer who, from early in his career, had an idea of just how he was going to go if he were caught with the paraffin on his hand over a very heavy bump-off.
The night my friend saw him he had finally made it. He was strapped into the chair when the warden asked if he had any last requests.
"Yeah," he said defiantly, "come sit here on my lap."
It was different with Nickerson whom we saw for the last time outside the Middlesex courthouse after his sentencing.
He was handcuffed to a marshal.
We stood across the street and yelled to him.
When he raised his right hand to acknowledge our hail, it was the manacled wrist, and half way up the marshal yanked his arm down, denying the condemned man a full farewell wave.
It was June 30, 1942, the morning after Nickerson, then 22 years old, and Giacomazza, 19, were executed. One sentence in the newspaper story made the neighborhood guys feel that Nickerson had come up a little way in life.
It said: "The condemned man's last request for his meal was a bologna sandwich and a bottle of orange ade."
None of the three I knew would have thought of inviting the warden to sit on their laps. They were all rank amateurs. CAPTION: Picture, The electric chair, by UPI