Murray, Kentucky, July 1976
Mark Graham had a plan. It was the summer of 1976, and he was finally ready to propose to Carol Shroat, his girlfriend of almost twelve months. Like the military officer he was training to become, Mark had spent months secretly working over the details of how he would ask Carol to marry him. Earlier that summer he snuck away from Murray State, the small state university he and Carol attended, and purchased an engagement ring from a pawnshop in St. Louis. He spent pretty much every dollar he had, but Mark smiled every time he looked into the small white box holding the ring and saw its diamond sparkle brightly in the light.
The second part of Mark’s plan involved taking Carol to nearby Kentucky Lake, rowing her out to the middle of the water, and then gazing deeply into her eyes as he told her how much he loved her and how excited he was for the two of them to build a life together. He was certain that it would be both romantic and memorable. It was, though not for the reasons he’d thought. Mark had hidden the ring inside a rolled-up magazine so Carol wouldn’t see it during their walk to the lake. He stumbled as they left his apartment, and the ring slipped out and bounced down the stairs.
“Don’t move,” Mark said quickly. “That’s your engagement ring.”
“My what?” Carol replied.
Mark picked up the ring and got down on one knee. Carol, laughing, said yes.
Mark and Carol had taken very different paths to Murray State. Carol saw it as the family school; her parents were alumni, as were two of her three sisters. Carl, her father, had met her mother, Jackie, when he gave her a ride home from class in his blue Studebaker during a heavy rainstorm. Jackie soon began noticing that Carl would park near her house virtually every morning to offer her a ride back to campus. A few months later Carl asked her out to a local drive-in movie theater to see a western starring Randolph Scott. They got engaged in the summer of 1952 and married the following year.
Carl attended medical school and then moved to Frankfort to start his own practice. He became one of the city’s best-known doctors, famous for serving as the personal physician of Kentucky governor Wendell Ford—he saved the politician’s life by diagnosing a brain aneurysm before it could do much harm—while still finding time to make house calls to ordinary citizens throughout Frankfort. The Shroats enjoyed a comfortable, upper-middle-class life. They drove late-model luxury cars like Chrysler Fifth Avenues and lived in a custom-built, three-story house in an upscale part of town. A white brick post at the edge of the driveway was engraved with the words c.e. shroat m.d. When they graduated from high school, Carl paid for each of his daughters to take a monthlong trip through Europe. Carol never worried about how she’d afford Murray State. Thanks to her father, she didn’t need to.
Mark wasn’t so fortunate. He was born in St. Louis, the only child of Russel and Pat Graham. Russel was a self-educated truck driver who switched to the real estate business and quickly found success selling condominiums throughout St. Louis. Russel used his year-end bonuses to send Mark to summer baseball camps and told Pat to quit her job at the grocery warehouse where she worked. She put in her two weeks’ notice and started to prepare for a new life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Russel began telling friends that he would take Mark into the family business and one day open a real estate company called Graham and Son.
A few days later Pat noticed that her husband’s nose had started bleeding and wouldn’t stop. Alarmed, she had him rushed to the hospital. The doctors assured her that he’d be out in a few days, but Russel’s condition worsened and he began spitting up large amounts of blood. One afternoon a doctor walked into the room and brusquely said, “This man is dying.” Russel died from a heart attack a few hours later, barely three days after he’d checked in. He was thirty-three; Mark was eleven and still very much a boy. When a neighbor knocked on his door to say that Russel wouldn’t go to heaven because he hadn’t been religious, Mark promptly flattened him with a punch to the face.
With her husband gone, Pat took a new job at a factory that supplied parts to Westinghouse and spent long hours painstakingly winding copper wire onto spools for its washing machines and dryers. At night Mark watched his mother put Vaseline on her chafed and cut-up fingers and then gingerly slip them into a pair of white cotton gloves. The little family held on, but just barely. Pat would sometimes drive to work with only a quarter in her purse in case she had to use the telephone in an emergency. She spent evenings counting nickels, quarters, and dimes at the kitchen table, sorting the coins into neat piles. Mark, watching her work, often wondered why the stacks were so small.
After his father’s death, Mark stopped going to summer baseball camp and started taking odd jobs to earn spending money. He bused tables at a country club restaurant, mowed lawns, raked leaves, sold greeting cards, and served as a Little League baseball umpire. He didn’t take a full-time job until he joined his mother at the grocery warehouse the summer after his senior year in high school. Pat had married a sweet-natured bricklayer named Bill Conrad and returned to her old position with the wholesaler, and Mark worked eight-hour shifts filling trucks bound for individual grocers with boxes of milk, meat, and produce. He joined the Teamsters at age eighteen, and Pat jokes that he may have been the youngest union member in the entire state of Missouri. It was a physically taxing job, and Mark would occasionally nap on a grassy field outside the warehouse. One afternoon Mark and a friend were sleeping when a coworker stumbled across their prone bodies and worried that both young men were dead. He kicked their feet to be sure. When Mark opened his eyes, the man screamed and ran into the warehouse.
Shortly before his death Russel took out a $10,000 life insurance policy that listed Pat as the sole beneficiary. When Mark was getting ready to graduate high school, Pat told him that she’d be able to use the money to help pay for college. Those funds, plus the money he’d earned over the summers, meant that Mark was able to afford the tuition at Murray State, which he’d visited as a senior and fallen in love with because of its bucolic campus and small-town feel. His high school guidance counselor told him that the military’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps would pay part of his tuition if he agreed to spend a few years in the army after he graduated. Mark enrolled in the school’s ROTC program, figuring it would help him quickly decide if the military was right for him.
Mark’s army career almost ended before it started. Murray State’s ROTC cadets spent most of their time marching through empty classrooms and practicing military formations. Mark found those exercises so boring that he quickly dropped out of ROTC altogether. Mark had barely resumed his classes the following semester when one of the professors running the program called and asked that he give it another chance.
“We’ve got some different things we’re doing with the program here, and I think you’ll like it,” the professor told him. “Why don’t you just try one class?”
The instructor was right—Murray State’s program had changed significantly. The cadets practiced rappelling down mountains and conducting mock patrols of potentially hostile areas rather than endlessly drilling proper military formations. They studied marksmanship and practiced firing M16s and .22 rifles, which was an entirely new experience for a nonhunter such as Mark. They ditched the classroom and spent long, happy days in a nearby national park learning how to read maps and navigate using nothing but the sun and stars. Mark thrived; he was finally spending time in the outdoors with other driven young men who were willing to serve in the military during a time of war. When a military recruiter offered him a formal ROTC scholarship that would pay for his senior year at Murray State in exchange for four years of army service, Mark said yes. It was a chance to see the world and have the kinds of adventures that he’d dreamed about growing up. He planned to do his stint in the army and then go to law school. It was the start of what would eventually be a thirty-four-year army career.
Carol was just as driven, but in a very different direction. She studied social work and psychology with an eye toward helping others deal with the kinds of depression and anxiety that had hung over her own life like dark clouds. “My favorite class was abnormal psychology, because it was the one thing that made me feel normal,” she said. During the summers Carol stayed at Murray State to take extra classes and work as a campus phone operator, answering calls with a chirpy “Good morning, Murray State.” The summer classes allowed her to finish her undergraduate degree in three years, but she decided to spend an additional year at Murray State so she could get a master’s degree in counseling while waiting for Mark to graduate. Her father, old-fashioned and protective, wouldn’t allow her to get her own off-campus apartment. Carol dutifully stayed in the dorms.
She didn’t wear jeans. Mark tried, but he just couldn’t get past that one detail. She didn’t wear jeans. It was the early 1970s, but Carol looked like she belonged in an earlier, more innocent time. Her classmates wore bell-bottoms, let their hair grow long and unkempt, and made a point of not wearing lipstick or eyeliner. Carol wore skirts or dress pants around campus, carefully styled and blow-dried her hair, and wore makeup to class. Her classmates drank, smoked pot, and had sex. Carol played the tenor saxophone in Murray State’s marching band and largely focused on her rehearsals and schoolwork. “I was a bit of a nerd,” she said. But Carol wasn’t a saint; in high school, she and her younger sister Debbie had snuck out of their house and driven to parties where they could drink with their friends years before any of them were of age. Still, she stood out on the Murray State campus for her dignified appearance and demure behavior. Before meeting Mark, Carol had been dating a devout young man who was now in Scotland studying for a degree in theology and preparing for a life as a Methodist minister.
Mark was leading a very different kind of life. He and his best friend, Jeff Hohman, pledged Kappa Alpha, one of the wildest fraternities on Murray State’s campus. KA brothers tied pledges to trees and pelted them with spoiled food. They’d replace each other’s shampoo with baby oil. During Mark and Jeff’s freshman year, the KA brothers took a group road trip to a nearby strip club called the Black Poodle to party with dancers with names like Heaven Lee and EZ Rider. It wouldn’t be their only visit.
The KA house had grimy bathrooms that women were reluctant to use and decrepit furniture speckled with mysterious stains. Jeff lived in a basement bedroom that had no real ceiling; any movement upstairs, especially dancing, would send dust and dirt cascading down onto his mattress. Mark’s room was covered with so many loose mounds of socks, underwear, jeans, and T-shirts that Pat remembers being shocked and somewhat horrified when she first visited the house. Mark and Jeff both had beards and flowing, shoulder-length hair. “We looked like Jesus and the apostles,” Jeff said.
Appearances aside, Mark was flourishing. He was elected president of his pledge class and was quickly tapped to oversee the fraternity’s finances. KA was broke, and Mark devised a plan to sell small books of coupons for local restaurants and stores. He and his frat brothers stayed up late at night stapling the crude packets together, and the project was an immediate success. Mark also worked to improve KA’s crumbling headquarters. His stepfather, Bill Conrad, had taught him to mix mortar and lay bricks, and Mark used those skills to build a new cement deck, bar, and grill at the back of the house. He was elected president of the entire fraternity a short time later.
He settled on political science as a major and watched his grades steadily improve. Academics seemed to come fairly easily to him, and so did girls. Mark was tall and thin, with piercing eyes and a muscular physique honed by the ROTC program’s grueling early-morning workouts, and he quickly earned a reputation as a campus Lothario. Jeff knew Carol from Frankfort and kept thinking that she and Mark would be a good match. He invited her to a KA party, and she was smitten with Mark the first time she laid eyes on him. “I just introduced them, and Carol kind of took it from there,” Jeff said. “Mark never knew what hit him.”
Mark initially had his doubts about Carol, though they had nothing to do with her looks. She was a thin brunette with a radiant smile. She had been a baton twirler in her high school marching band and could easily have passed for a Murray State cheerleader. But Mark just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was too straitlaced for his taste. “She was a bookworm, studying all the time, and I didn’t even know where the library was,” Mark said. “She smiled so much that I thought it had to be fake. I just felt like no one could possibly be that happy.”
A few months later Carol was at the KA house for a party, looking and feeling uncomfortable. There was a jukebox in the back room, and Mark asked her to dance. He didn’t think things would go much further, but when he leaned in to kiss her, she kissed him right back. It wasn’t the chaste, quick peck he’d expected. It was a full-on kiss. “I was like, ‘Wow, she kisses really good,’ ” Mark said. “I knew right away that there was something there. I just knew.”
Their first real date was far from romantic. Mark took Carol to see Carrie, a horror movie, which she sat through mostly with her eyes clenched shut. As their relationship progressed, another issue surfaced: Carol’s parents were deeply uncomfortable about their eldest daughter dating a bearded young man who didn’t look like any of her male friends and classmates from Frankfort. Carl Shroat wore a dark suit to work every day and kept his hair cut short. Mark favored jeans and T-shirts and wore his hair long. “Daddy just didn’t know what to make of Mark the first time they met,” Carol said. “It was like opposites colliding.” Carl and Jackie eventually came to cherish Mark and treat him like the son they never had, but it took time.