Poor is one thing, poverty-stricken is another. I came to grips with the difference when I wrote about the O’Kasick brothers, a gang of three armed robbers who struck about a dozen times in Minneapolis in the 1950s.
The O’Kasick’s crime spree came to a halt when they got into a gunfight with the police, killed one cop, crippled another one for life and got away clean. At that point they’d stolen more than $20,000 over a 15 month period, real money in those days, yet they barely had cash for gas to make their getaway. They hid out in what is now the Boundary Waters wilderness, where horseflies and mosquitoes feasted on them and they slept in their car for lack of blankets. They weren’t stupid, in fact the leader, Roger O’Kasick, was pretty bright, but they were children of poverty and all the money in the world couldn’t change that.
They had 10 brothers and sisters, a father who routinely beat his sons and raped his daughters, and a mother who, according to an older sister, “fell apart and died one day when we were kids. She wasn’t sick or nothing, she just couldn’t take it any more.” Dad had the boys out boosting car parts when they were eight years old. He sent them to local junkyards to sell what they’d stolen, while he lurked outside and confiscated whatever cash they received. A couple of them went to reform school for those thefts.
One summer day when the O’Kasick brothers were children, a probation officer came around. He was trying to find their father. Dad was out on a bender, but their mom talked to the officer, who took note of her “distraught, downcast demeanor and disheveled appearance.” When he inquired about the welts all over her hands and face, she explained that they didn’t have much in the way of screens, so the mosquitoes bit them. “We can’t sleep at night,” she said.
If they can’t afford to get the screens fixed, poor people find boards or some other crummy-looking thing and use it to patch the windows. Poverty-stricken people lay awake all night and let the mosquitoes bite them.
Roger and two of his brothers started robbing stores in their mid-20s. Roger planned the robberies. They went off like clockwork. In the shootout with the police, which came about due to a fluke when they were on their way to rob a supermarket, it was Roger’s forethought that put them in a position to outgun their pursuers and elude the massive dragnet put in place to capture them. Nevertheless, he was at a loss when they sat in the woods and tried to figure out what came next. His imagination hit a wall.
The O’Kasicks emerged from the wilderness less than a week after they arrived, and made a bee-line for the worst place in the world they could go, back to Minneapolis and their fate. The title of the story I wrote about them is “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night”. It’s in the book by the same title, published by Calumet Editions.