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Sorry It Had to Happen This Way

April 4, 2007 |  3:49 pm

April 4, 1957

Los Angeles

 

By Larry Harnisch

Sometime in the night, Robert Tunis Palmer, a 27-year-old meatpacker from Marysville, Ohio, sat on the steps of the church at 14th and Union, finished his can of beer, put the muzzle of a .45 revolver to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

A neighbor who was walking his dog found Palmer at dawn, sprawled next to the Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church, 1575 W. 14th St. There was a note beside the beer can: “I’m sorry it had to happen this way.”

 

At 5:30 that Thursday morning, Clara Barnes, the landlady at Palmer's apartment house next to the church, discovered a note pinned to the telephone in the hallway: “Please contact Mary at once. I’m sorry it had to happen this way.”   

 

There was another note to Barnes in Palmer’s room. Please send his service discharge papers and birth certificate to his mother back in Ohio. Have his TV set repossessed and give his alarm clock and “other possessions” to Mary. Since he went to the trouble to mention what he wanted done with his TV and alarm clock and said nothing about a car, I assume he didn’t have one.   

 

A .45 is not a delicate weapon, nor does it make a modest sound, but if anybody heard the gunshot, nobody called the police. I wonder if Mary was supposed to get his gun too. I wonder if anyone claimed the body or if he just lay there, waiting.   

 

Most of all I wonder whom he was addressing when he said he was sorry. And what was the “it” that had to happen? His suicide? All the loose ends that had to be tied up now that he was gone?   

 

On a bright, sunny Saturday 50 years later, I drove down to the little corner of Los Angeles to see where Robert Tunis Palmer, 27-year-old meatpacker from Ohio, sprayed his brains all over the concrete.   

14th Street and Union is a block south of Pico, the heart of Mara Salvatrucha country in one of the poorest areas in Los Angeles. On my way, I got lost in one of the neighborhoods that’s closed off to the outside world—or at least the MS-13s.

 

 

Palmer’s apartment house, 1352 S. Union, is still in business, an off-white two-story building that looks like it’s from the 1920s. Back in the 1940s it was the Del Rio Hotel, DRexel-0342.

 

 

 

What was once the Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1923, has become the Iglesia Evangelica Missionera. While I was taking pictures of the steps where Palmer killed himself, I met the minister, Pastor Rodolfo, who was picking up trash along 14th Street.

 

 

 

Pastor Rodolfo is gentle man, with liquid eyes, a quiet voice and a soft handshake. Could I see inside the church? Of course. The congregation bought the building from the Methodists a few years ago, he says.   

 

He explains the red flag on the altar, with the star and crescent, by saying that the church sponsors a family of Salvadoran missionaries who are serving in Turkey. Because Turkey wants to join the European Union, they are open to Christianity, he says.   

 

When I comment on the beauty of the stained-glass window facing Union, Pastor Rodolfo voices an almost physical pain. He wants to get the window repaired because unbelievers in the neighborhood have thrown rocks through it. He had a phone number for someone who could fix the window but lost it.   

 

I reassure him that my church just had its windows repaired and I’ll find out the number so he can the work done. Please do, he says. When I finally get the information I struggle with calling him. I attend a wealthy church in Pasadena with an annual budget of nearly $5 million. I suspect it might cost more to fix the window than it does to send Iglesia Evangelista’s family of missionaries to Turkey.

 

 

Someone long ago and far wiser than I said suicide is permanent answer to a temporary problem. If Robert Tunis Palmer hadn’t pulled that trigger, he would be 77 now, maybe playing golf or heading to Laughlin in his RV. What was he looking for at the church that night? Sanctuary? Salvation? A place to pray? Or just a good spot to drink a beer and kill himself? And for the moment, I too am sorry it had to happen this way.

ps. I finally called the church with the phone number of Judson Studios, which specializes in repairing stained-glass windows. Pastor Rodolfo was busy so I left the information with someone. Then I wrote out a check, in memory of Robert Tunis Palmer, to Iglesia Evangelica Missionera, 1575 W. 14th St., Los Angeles, 90015. It seemed like the least I could do.

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