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Spring Was Breaking Out All Over

By Carl Langley
web posted September 22, 2008
GUEST COLUMN – Fifty Aprils have long since disappeared from the calendar, but I can still recall spring breaking out all over on a beautiful Sunday morning in Aiken’s historic district.

On this glorious day trees and shrubbery were busy putting on their coats of green, the early flowers were forming in carefully cared for nooks and crannies on lawns along Colleton Avenue and York Street.

Cardinals, wrens and brown thrashers were hopping about, gathering up twigs, leaves and bits of floss, the prelude to nest building and the annual rites of replenishment of the species.

A friend once told me that Spring, the vernal equinox, was her favorite time of the year, surpassing the lazy days of summer and the chill winds of winter, which heralded the dying of another year.

Along Colleton Avenue and York Street in the final year of the 1950s, which some of us cling to as the greatest decade in the history of our country, families had cleared away the breakfast dishes and were preparing for church.

But while all this awakening and preparation was going on, across the railroad cut that slices through the most venerable heart of our town another breaking out was in the making.

Three men, who had been locked up for several days in the county’s old jail on charges of attempted burglary, were putting the final touches on a “pistol” carved from a large cake of Ivory soap.

John Reno Casper and two newly found confederates, both Army privates AWOL from their detachments at nearby Fort Gordon, had been caught by alert law enforcement officers as they dropped through a skylight in a local business.

“It was like catching fly balls,” one deputy remarked with a smirk. He and two other lawmen had been fed information about the planned burglary and waited for Casper and his cohorts.

Casper been working on his “weapon” for several days. He turned out a perfect duplicate for a snub-nose .22 caliber pistol. A transient who was destined to experience a life-changing moment several years in the future, Casper used a single-edged razor blade to fashion his ticket out of the jail, finishing it off with a coat of black shoe polish.

While the choirs were slipping into their robes and warming up at several nearby churches, Casper and his two cellmates summoned the jailer to their cell. The jailer was the only one working in the jail this morning, and he wasn’t the sharpest knife in any drawer. He walked back to the four-man cell on the summons of one of the inmates who was complaining about a headache.

“What do you want?” the jailer asked, his nose almost touching the bars. “We want out of here,” said Casper, reaching through the bars and grabbing the jailer’s shirt while sticking the fake gun up to his nose. “You can just hand us those keys.”

The jailer meekly complied, after fumbling about his waist and producing a ring of keys hanging from his belt. The cell door was opened and Casper and his pals strolled out. The jailer was shoved inside, the cell door locked and away the trio went.

Casper and the two others, whose last names were Durland and Noel, raced across the Chesterfield Street bridge on the west side of the jail and began casually strolling down Colleton Avenue.

They hadn’t gone far when they saw a homeowner standing in his yard. Robert Laird, a World War II Navy officer, was gazing about at the beauty surrounding him while waiting patiently for his wife. The two had intentions of going to church.

Casper and his new friends approached Laird with a plea. Casper told Laird that one of the others had just lost his mother who had died during the night. They said they needed to get to her house near Windsor but their car had broken down.

Laird, a gentle and kind man, shouted to his wife, Helen, that he had to give some fellows a lift and would be back shortly. He said he was taking a grieving son and his two companions to the home of the man’s deceased mother..

Helen was moved by the plight of the young man and while waiting for her husband to return wrote a sympathy note. She would mail it when her husband returned with a name and an address. He would not return home until the following day.

Shortly after leaving Aiken, Casper produced his “pistol” and told Laird to just keep on going, toward Charleston. Fifty miles later Casper ordered Laird to stop the car, removed his wallet and the Good Samaritan was abandoned beside the highway near a place called Branchville.

Laird was fetched home by law enforcement officers, who had mounted up a posse and were in hot pursuit. They were told that Laird probably had been kidnapped and were given a description of the car. Laird was returned home by officers, but without his car.

Three days after the jailbreak, Casper and his friends were rounded up in a swamp near Charleston. The details about their capture remain murky, but they were brought back to Aiken and taken before a magistrate to hear new charges read to them - escape, kidnapping, strong arm robbery and flight to avoid prosecution.

But Casper, Noel and Durland were not finished by any means. While appearing before Magistrate Glen Holley the warrants drawn up against them mysteriously disappeared. “I think they stole the warrants right off of my desk,“ Holley told an incredulous news reporter. “At least I think that’s where they went. But the joke’s on them, I am having new warrants typed up.“

Casper, Noel and Durland were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and years after, on being released from the state penitentiary, they reportedly all parted in different directions. Casper chose Texas, so a popular story went.

Twenty years after the men were released a newcomer to Aiken was chatting idly with friends at a restaurant where they had gathered for coffee. The discussion got around to religion, particularly revivals, after Billy Graham’s name was mentioned.

The new Aikenite told of attending a revival in Texas where an evangelist spoke glowingly about the churches of Aiken and the hospitality of its people. It was said that a member of the coffee group inquired about the name of the evangelist.

“He is the Rev. John Reno Casper,“ the newcomer remarked. “He is one of the most spell-binding preachers I have ever heard, and, you know, he mentioned one time that he had visited Aiken while a young man and really liked this town.

“He told us that Aiken had a lot to offer, especially for those willing to work hard, attend church regularly and respect their friends and neighbors. I really got a lot out of his preaching.“

There have been many days over the last 20 years when I wondered what ever happened to John Reno Casper. He was a master carver who turned out to be a molder of those who follow the teachings of the Scriptures.

Everyone loves a story with a happy ending, and this just happens to be one of them.

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