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4 P.M. COUNT Supervisor of Education / Publisher Kyle Roberson 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence / Editor-in-Chief Jim Reese Copy Editor
S. Marielle Frigge
Assistant Copy Editor
Design and Layout
Copyright ÂŠ 2017 by Federal Prison Camp, Yankton, SD All poems, prose, and artwork are used with permission by the authors and artists, and they retain all rights to their work published herein. Except for brief quotations in reviews, no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. Federal Prison Camp Yankton P.O. Box 680 Yankton, SD 57078 Cover photo concept by Shawn Merriman Cover photo by Ken Kulhavy
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Special thanks go to the following people for their help in the production of the 2017 issue of 4 P.M. Count: Dr. Beth Bienvenu and Lauren Tuzzolino of the Office of Accessibility at the National Endowment for the Arts. Deltone Moore, Recreation Program Manager for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Warden Richard Hudgins; Kyle Roberson, Supervisor of Education; Cory Uecker, Special Education Teacher; Dana Jodozi, Literacy Coordinator; and the fine staff at Federal Prison Camp Yankton. S. Marielle Frigge for her continued guidance and support. Stephanie Schultz for her continued design expertise and editing. And thanks to all of my new students. You guys are a talented bunch of writers-donâ€™t ever forget that. Dr. Jim Reese
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TABLE OF CONTENTS All writing is poetry or nonfiction unless otherwise noted. 15 Donald Hynes ·After a Prison Visit ·Invasive Space Invaders ·Learning about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Me ·Rosa Parks ·The Greatest Invention Ever 39 Frank Constant ·Early Release ·More of the Same ·My Daughter’s To-Do List ·Out for a Stroll ·The Chalk Board 48
Best of 2008
Letter from Matthew Jockers
What You Don’t Know About Prison
61 Shawn Merriman ·Michelangelo and the Bacchus Pretense: Prologue, fiction ·The Director and Me 84
Best of 2009
96 Edward Allen ·I Want.... ·Learning to Drive ·The Most Valuable Lessons My Parents Taught Me 108
Best of 2010
Letter from Jane Wood
120 Marquise Bowie ·All of a Sudden ·Beautiful Liars ·Black Klansman
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·Domestic Silence ·Resurrection
RTEC Welding Class and CNC Class
Best of 2011
Letter from Jim Daniels
Binh Vo ·Nature’s Gifts ·The Diverse Memories of a Vietnamese Refugee
Pencil Portraits and Paintings
Community Service Project, Food Service, Leathercraft, F.I.D.O. Program
Kimberly Mosqueda ·The Pursuit of Happiness: Interviews with Hopeful Men
Best of 2012
Letter from Bonnie Johnson-Bartee
218 George Morris ·Horses and Hounds, creative nonfiction ·More Than Me, creative nonfiction ·Pryor Mountain, creative nonfiction ·The Little People, creative nonfiction 228
Best of 2013
Letter from Neil Harrison
239 Mr. Wolfe ·Freedom: A Short Somewhat Metaphorical Essay ·The Long Game of Growing Old Together is a Lost Art (A Haiku) ·My Wife is Doing Great ·An Arrested Vantage Point of the First Trump/Clinton Presidential Debate 251
Best of 2014
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National Players Letter from Kevin Carey
265 Jeff Cronenbold ·County Fair, fiction ·Raggedy Man, fiction 295
Best of 2015
300 Jon Sloan ·Alien Clown ·Leadville ·What It’s Like being in Prison With Your Dad 319
Best of 2016
322 Micah Morgan ·A Perfect Picture Broken ·Brotherly Love ·The Arrival 329
What I Miss
Letter from S. Marielle Frigge
The Eagle Project
Horticulture and Woodworking
341 Michael Patrick Murphy ·California Dreamin’ ·Chewing Gum and Walking at the Same Time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail ·From Paperboy to Soldier ·Rescue Me ·Snake Charmer 365 Alfredo Ascension ·Photographic Eyes ·Poisoned Mind ·The Car Salesman ·The Word “Love” 376
MMC Graduates and 2017 NEA Writing and Publishing Class
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AN INTRODUCTION FROM WARDEN RICHARD HUDGINS I arrived for my first day of work at Federal Prison Camp (FPC) Yankton on August 10, 2016. It was a stark difference from my last duty station. On first impression, it reminded me of the many colleges I had visited during recruitment visits with my college bound son. The historical buildings, beautiful landscape, and parklike setting provided the institution with a sense of community. FPC Yankton has a diverse education mission that provides numerous opportunities to affect and change the lives of the men participating. As you pick up this book and begin reading the submissions, it will become clear that there is something unique taking place at Yankton. It goes beyond the grounds and landscape that I previously described; it extends into the classrooms, it honors the tradition of Yankton College, and provides an opportunity for change. The men featured in this edition of 4 P.M. Count are no different than most federal prisoners, in fact they share many similarities with the men designated at minimum federal security prisons across the United States. As you read their writings, you will see that they have clearly benefited from the exposure to the Writer-In-Residence program. Dr. Jim Reese has helped them to reflect upon their choices and see the impact they have had on their lives and the lives of loved ones. Through this reflective writing these men can find answers and look to make changes in their lives. I hope you enjoy their submissions and appreciate the effort that went into the book. I personally believe that education provides an opportunity for these men to change, and I think that the mission of FPC Yankton is the vehicle for this opportunity. This is the tenth edition of 4 P.M. Count and Dr. Reese continues his dedication and commitment to the students of this program. I want to personally thank Dr. Reese for his service to the institution and the men that are housed here. Through the 4 P.M. COUNT
Artist-In-Residence program and the partnership with Mount Marty College, a difference can be made with an opportunity to move forward, and one can continue to hope for change.
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2017 NEA WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE Jim Reese is an Associate Professor of English; Director of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, SD; and Editor-in-Chief of 4 P.M. Count. Reese’s poetry and prose have been widely published, and he has performed readings at venues throughout the country, including the Library of Congress and San Quentin Prison. His third book Really Happy was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2014. In 2015 Reese received an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and in 2012 a Distinguished Public Service Award in recognition of his exemplary dedication and contributions to the Education Department at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp. Since 2008 Reese has been one of six artistsin-residence throughout the country who are part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ interagency initiative with the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. For more information visit: www.jimreese.org. Drawing by Dallas Rusk.
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JIM’S PREFACE “You’ve been teaching at the prison for ten years already? Man, time flies.” This is an expression I hear from close friends and associates, and I’d like to believe time does fly for my students in the creative writing class at the prison— that it’s given them a purpose and something to look forward to. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life helping men, through writing, come to terms with why they are in prison. Did you know around seventy million Americans have some sort of criminal record? That’s almost one in three Americans of working age (White House). Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated are getting out of prison (Bureau of Justice). “Do you want them educated or not?” That’s what our former warden, Jordan R. Hollingsworth, used to ask. “These guys are coming to a neighborhood near you. Do you want them educated or not?” He taught us to prepare men to be better people. Right now, there are approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars. The United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, and twenty-five percent of its inmates. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released from federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million individuals cycle through local jails. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every thirty-one adults, or more than three percent of the population, is under some form of correctional control (NAACP). There are 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities and 3,200 local and county jails. To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S.—5,000 plus—than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly 10
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the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses (Ingraham). WHY SHOULD WE CARE? Chances are really high that crime has affected you, your family or your extended family in some capacity. As a taxpayer, I know I don’t want to pay money just to lock someone up. I would hope incarceration is teaching these men something. Is just locking someone up doing that? Statistics say no. Statistics say two-thirds of men will reoffend within three years, unless they receive some education and/or vocational training. If those services are utilized, recidivism rates go down. I think it’s crucial to mention a 2013 RAND Corporation report that found strong evidence that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism. The study concluded that every dollar spent on prison education translated into four to five dollars’ worth of savings during the first three years, post-release. You can lock a person up and let him out after so long. Maybe during his incarceration you teach him a trade— that’s great. What you also have to do is help him tap into the emotional instabilities that brought him to prison in the first place. Writing, art, and more importantly, education in corrections helps open that door. If a person never comes to terms with himself, one more angry person will be released back into society. This has been the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had. It’s made me a better professor. It’s made me a better person. I really feel I am making a difference in these guys’ life—or helping make a difference. My students at Mount Marty College, where I am an Associate Professor, benefit, too. My creative writing classes work together at both locations to workshop their creative writing. MMC students visit the prison once a semester to see what an education program looks like in corrections, and to work with other creative writers. They get feedback and opinions on their work from inmate students who take their classes very seriously. Everyone benefits—and he or she is learning a lot more than just how to make his or her creative writing better. There’s a large empathy factor that comes into play 4 P.M. COUNT
for all the students participating. All of the students take this experience with them for their future endeavors. One can read about these interactions in this year’s journal. Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I really feel like what I’m doing at the prison is what I have been called to do. I’m human, I’ve made some mistakes in my life. I wish I could take them back, but I can’t. There are a lot of guys at the prison who are in that same boat. My students at the prison can do their time productively and walk out richer for the show. This year I asked my students to answer this question: What’s the purpose of this class? Here’s what they had to say. “In prison there is typically little to look forward to other than the day you are released. However, over the past two years I have found myself looking forward to Tuesday afternoons. That is when I report to Dr. Jim Reese’s Writing for Transformative Justice class at Yankton Federal Prison Camp. It is here that I am able to spend time searching myself and my life and expressing what I discover in both poetry and prose. “Being in my early sixties, I feel that I have experienced a lot in life. It appears that I have found that voice that wants to tell my stories and I can’t seem to stop it from speaking to me. The guest speakers add to Dr. Reese’s expertise and bring more real-world experiences to my writing. I also have found a sense of pride, which is sometimes hard to come by right now, in having things I have written published in our journal titled 4 P.M. Count. Being able to express myself through writing has been such a blessing for me and I am grateful for this opportunity.” - Frank Constant “Dr. Reese’s creative writing class provides me with: a channel for my pent-up energy, a productive and proactive use of my time, an avenue for bringing my experiences out of the dark and into the light as printed text, an opportunity to develop my writing skills, and a way to cultivate my potential to communicate with people. Additionally, the 12
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class offers an opportunity to interact with professional writers and realize that regular people can become noted authors and produce best-selling books. The time and effort of both Dr. Reese of Mount Marty College and Mr. Roberson of the Yankton Federal Prison Camp Education Department were well spent guiding participants of the creative writing class towards enhancing their knowledge of writing. This was not only a learning experience that made me feel like a better person, it was a step towards rehabilitation.” - Mike Murphy “To me, the purpose of this class was expression. By having us share our personal stories on a level that allows us to be vulnerable, open, and honest in hope of inspiring others to share of themselves is a big risk in a prison setting; but sometimes it is necessary for change. Hopefully this class makes a major difference in someone else’s life by letting us take off our masks to show others that we also have ugly scars that we carry around. Creative writing uncovers wounds that need air to breathe so they can heal. Additionally, I hope that this project shows that we are all the same despite our differences of race, religion, wealth, and social status, and that if we work together we can all make this world a better place.” - Marquise Bowie “The purpose of the Creative Writing class is to teach inmates how to escape from prison; even if it is only to the inside of our own minds.” - Jon Sloan “This class was very beneficial and it helped me step outside of myself to explore and learn better writing techniques. Since I look forward to being a professional writer, this class allowed me to reach deeper than the surface by talking, questioning, and learning from those who are already established as writers. This class allowed me to dig deeper and face myself; this allowed the truth to flow. I would say that I feel this class was more than a simple opportunity; it enabled me to experience what I feel is my purpose on a level outside of dreaming.” - Micah Morgan 4 P.M. COUNT
“The creative Writing class offered me the opportunity to practice and improve on my writing skills. I was able to express my thoughts, emotions, and parts of my life story, so I could reflect on past mistakes and come to terms with them. I forgave myself for my blunders and now aim to practice beneficial behaviors daily for constant selfimprovement. Class interactions with Professor Reese and fellow classmates, along with visits and video conferences with writing professionals, presented a valuable exchange of knowledge that benefitted everybody involved.” - Binh Vo “My purpose for participating in the Creative Writing program has been to learn how to share myself through my writing. I have become deeply engaged with my own emotions and the cathartic process that prison fuels by participating in the many writing prompts and exercises presented. I believe that my developing writing and communication skills will help lead me to a full and excellent life.” - Edward Allen “The purpose of this class is to assist incarcerated individuals in clear communication. Additionally, many class participants may discover that they have a skill or interest in writing. Furthermore, the more people use their minds to write, the more they seem to read. As people read they become more educated and creative, therefore they will likely decrease their chance of returning to prison.” - Donald Hynes We have uploaded the last few issues of the journal online. To read the 2014, 2015, 2016, or 2017 issue of 4 P.M. Count please visit: www.issuu.com and type in “4 P.M. Count” in their search engine (issuu is the largest collection of free-to-read publications from publishers around the globe). Another book of interest that featured our program is the Federal Bureau of Prisons publication of Making Changes. This publication highlights programs, events, inmate reentry stories, and more to showcase various ways the 14
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Bureau supports inmates in making a successful transition to the community. To download and read this visit: https://www. bop.gov/resources/publications.jsp I am honored and grateful for being the National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence at FPC Yankton for the past ten years. I believe all people want to do the right thing—to live healthy, productive lives—to give to their communities, even if they’ve failed at such endeavors before. If people are given a chance to learn, lives can change. All of us make misdirected decisions, but that shouldn’t restrict anyone from the right to an education, or a right to a second chance. Sincerely, Jim Reese, Ph.D. NEA Writer-in-Residence Federal Prison Camp Yankton, 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics “Reentry Trends in the U.S.” https://www.bjs.gov/content/reentry/reentry.cfm “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, donate.naacp. org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet. Ingraham, Christopher. “The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live” www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/01/06/ the-u-s-has-more-jails-than-colleges-heres-a-map-ofwhere-those-prisoners-live/ Office of the Press Secretary. “FACT SHEET: White House Launches the Fair Chance Business Pledge.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration. https:// obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-pressoffice/2016/04/11/fact-sheet-white-house-launches-fair chance-business-pledge 4 P.M. COUNT
Donald Hynes Hynes is a fifty-six-yearold divorced man with two children. He feels like he’s forty, looks like he’s seventy, and thinks like he’s twenty. He is a former entrepreneur, mostly as a mini real estate mogul, who worked a fifteen-year stint as a Detroit police officer. In addition, and contrary to popular opinion, he is also a Christian. His mother was not excited about him making these specific stories public. She said, “Don, there are so many admirable things you could write about yourself. You saved lives. You were a great father, son, and brother. You were an excellent police officer, most of the time. You were the Officer of the Month, for heaven’s sake. “In addition, you were a super so-so husband. Why publish these particular stories? What if you wanna get a good job or find a new wife when you get out of prison? They’ll want to know a bit about your character, and, well, your stories reveal some character flaws.” He said, “Mom, I’m sure if someone’s gonna search into my character, their Google search, showing that I was a retired Detroit police officer who was convicted of drug crimes will reveal all the apparent flaws they’d care to know about. They certainly wouldn’t care what I did before that. At least I don’t think so.”
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AFTER A PRISON VISIT Those minutes or hours inside the prison visiting room with friends and family are priceless. There’s no way to express the joy I feel when I’m with visitors. That said, there is one negative thing associated with getting visits in prison, in fact, it’s the worst experience ever. It’s called the post-visit shakedown, especially the ones at the higher security prisons. But it’s a necessary procedure because a correction officer (CO) wants to make sure inmates haven’t received any contraband from their visitors. However, it seems like there could be a more humane way to check an inmate’s body. Perhaps a small private cubicle with comfortable temperatures and classical music would be a good start. Nevertheless, these shakedown rooms are cold and large enough for simultaneous shakedowns of up to eight inmates at a time. The shakedown room becomes a very intimate place, like a bedroom or bathroom of sorts, a place where you get nude. When I had my first visit at the Virginia prison, I vaguely understood they’d be strip-searching me, but wasn’t clear on the details. I hated for my first visit to end for two reasons; the second one was the strip. After I hugged my family and said goodbye, I entered the scary room. I didn’t know I was about to experience my most embarrassing moment ever. I then heard this guy say something that didn’t really sound like a request: “Take off your clothes.” At that moment, I think I could imagine how a shy bride must feel. I was worried about anyone seeing my fat. The man speaking to me was a CO they called Flashlight Holden. I assumed they named him that because of the bright flashlight he used while counting us at night. It lit up our rooms like a Florida beach. Anyhow, I took my time unbuttoning my shirt, while 4 P.M. COUNT
gazing to the side, hoping he didn’t really mean for me to take off everything. A couple of moments later, Holden firmly suggested, “Come on, Hynes, strip already.” All I could think was, “Be patient with me, this is my first time.” Nevertheless, I slowly removed my clothing and folded it onto a chair. I stopped disrobing when I got to my boxer briefs and then waited for someone to tell me this entire situation was only a nightmare. Holden then said, “Hynes, you know that you haven’t taken off your clothes yet, right?” I thought about acting as if I didn’t hear him, but instead I said, “OK, OK,, I’m not an exhibitionist by nature. This is humiliating. Give me a second, OK?” There I stood, cold, sad, and naked. I waited for the man to give me additional instructions. He finally said, “Lift your sack,” while simulating his own sack lift. I complied. Then he said, turn around and spread ‘em.” “Spread ‘em?” I asked. “Yea, turn around, bend over, and spread your cheeks.” I turned around slowly, hoping he’d stop me to say he was joking. But he didn’t. As I was bending over and holding the spread, I started thinking about how far I’ve fallen from grace and how humble I’ve become in prison. I was once one of twenty-five Detroit police officers picked by the Secret Service to be on the Pope’s security detail for his Detroit visit. I was the officer that ordered the entire New York Yankees baseball team to enter the dugout when people were throwing firecrackers onto the Tiger Stadium outfield. I was the officer who comforted Rosa Parks when someone fired bullets into her Detroit home. But now, my keister was hanging in the wind for the whole world to see while a CO was walking towards me with a flashlight in his hand. Talk about a turn of events. As he got closer, I stood up and asked, “Hey, what are you doing with that flashlight, sir?” He said, “Hynes, I’m doing my job, now turn around, spread ‘em, and wait ‘til I’m finished.” 18
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I complied, but kept asking myself, finished doing what? The next thing I knew he was shining his halogen flashlight an inch from where the sun doesn’t shine. He then said, “OK, Hynes, it’s OK to get dressed, I didn’t see anything.” I now felt like a cheap prostitute. As I got accustomed to the strip search, it became bearable, even comfortable. No longer the bride, I now felt like an old married woman, and couldn’t care less about my fat. I even started stripping before I got to the shakedown room. Before long, I left a fifteen-foot trail of clothes on the floor behind me. Holden had me trained well. He no longer had to tell me anything. However, I began to take advantage of him. I always spread ‘em first before he had a chance to speak, which made him forget all about making me do the sack lift. I really got over on him. The Virginia prison was a higher security prison than the one I was being transferred to at Terre Haute. It never occurred to me that there’d be different strip search procedures at a minimum-security prison camp. Following my first Terre Haute camp visit, I entered the strip room and began my old routine. The CO had his back towards me while he wrote in a logbook. By the time he turned around, I was buck-naked and had my buns spread like butter, aimed right at ’im. He screamed in horror, “Hynes, what are you doing? Please put your clothes back on.” He seemed afraid of me from then on. Nevertheless, after I dressed, he said, “Thank you,” and allowed me leave. This incident had now become my most embarrassing moment ever. After I was in Terre Haute for a while, I heard that Holden became a Lieutenant and would not be doing visiting room shakedowns with his flashlight. I wish he had gotten his promotion much sooner. Oh well, better light than never.
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INVASIVE SPACE INVADERS I was challenged to take an emotional journey and uncover something that I feared. Then I was supposed to write about it. I soon discovered that apparently, I’m neurotic. I have numerous phobias. I compiled a list into a database and randomly chose to discuss my fear of germs. Those little buggers have been a lifelong source of continuous anxiety. It was one thing when I was free with relative control of my environment. However, when I became incarcerated, my stress level increased tenfold. It all started in a fourth-grade science class. I entered the lab and noticed the projector was ready to roll. Then Ms. Ritter said we were gonna watch a cartoon entitled, “Who is Living on Our Skin?” The film began with an animated doctor looking at a man’s arm through a magnifying glass. He then leaned down and pushed the lens through a jungle of arm hair. Coming into view on the man’s skin were colorful creatures of various shapes. They had faces, arms, legs, and even houses. They were laughing, smoking, and carrying lunch pails. I recall a fat purple germ lying in a hammock, which was suspended between two arm hairs. The cartoon doctor told our class that these aliens were living on everyone’s skin. I didn’t know what a germophobe was before that video, but afterwards, I said, “Sign me up.” Prior to that horrifying day, I had never thought about someone’s improperly processed cough or sneeze. Today I am always on alert for these and other germy atrocities. It blows my mind that most people are not overwhelmed by vaporized phlegm that flies. Every time I see someone’s face contorting for a sneeze, I want to scream out, “Fire in the hole!” However, I just duck for cover. I often wonder what someone sees in his mind’s eye when people fail to bury their cough or sneeze. Most folks seem oblivious. I see a fiery explosion of bacteria-filled 20
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sputum blasting through the air at the speed of a paint ball, usually in the form of an imperceptible mist, which quickly infiltrates the entire room. Granted, we all cough and sneeze, but let’s snuff those projectiles in a safe manner. If someone’s gonna discharge mucus directly into the atmosphere of a person within twenty feet, he may as well help that person chew his lunch. It’d be healthier to deposit our viruses into a proper receptacle, like inside our clothing. Better yet, we should always carry disposable plastic bags to cover our heads or other heads during a sneeze. I recall an incident when I first got to prison in Virginia. I was told to have my blood drawn at the medical section. When I got there, I saw a line of ten or so men. I couldn’t get a good look at the woman who was drawing blood, or her procedures. I soon noticed that she didn’t change her gloves between customers. I decided to turn this into a teaching moment for her. When my turn came around, I sat in front of her and asked, “Excuse me, Miss, why are you wearing gloves?” She replied, “Ahhhh, so I don’t get bacteria on my skin.” That is precisely what I wanted her to recognize. I then told her, “I don’t want to get bacteria on my skin either. Would you please put on a new pair of gloves?” She smiled and answered, “No, Hynes. If I did that for you, I’d have to do it for everyone.” Well, I couldn’t argue with that logic. So instead, I decided to watch her closely as she drew my blood, to be certain she didn’t contaminate anything that went inside me. She knew I was eyeballing her, so she was very careful. Just as she began, someone handed her a cup of urine. She set it to the side. Great, more germs. She then ripped open an alcohol pad, being careful not to touch both sides of it, and proceeded to scrub my arm clean. A moment later, at the speed of a sewing machine, she thumped my vein with two fingers of her dirty glove, and then stuffed a needle into my arm. I nearly fainted at the sight of that endeavor. Here’s how it would have appeared under the cartoon 4 P.M. COUNT
magnifying glass. First, she wiped the germs off my arm. Then, she applied someone else’s purple, green, and blue germs onto my arm with her dirty gloves. Finally, those colorful monsters grabbed hold of the needle with their little hands, just before it penetrated my bloodstream. I was certain she dispensed a red, cigar-chomping virus into my system, one that would lie dormant in my liver for years before killing me off. I wanted to be immediately shipped to the hospital and placed in ICU for observation. I sought out the warden to make my demands heard. I saw her in the chow hall at lunchtime. She was generally a good-spirited woman of over 300 pounds. I updated her on my precarious new problem and health scare. She smiled, patted me on the back, and said, “Don’t worry, baby, you aint’ gonna catch no AIDS.” I was relieved to hear that. Now, for the bathroom contaminants. At one prison, I was conscious of the fact that urine was always on the floor surrounding the toilets. Now, I never explicitly pay attention to what inmates do in the prison restroom, but sometimes I do so covertly. Once I heard a man go into the stall next to me. I was impressed to hear him spraying the toilet seat with cleaning solution and lining the seat with layers of tissue. The partition between stalls was high and we could see each other’s legs. Suddenly, like an open parachute being discarded on a windy desert surface, this dude’s 4X shorts floated down, covering his shoes, then the floor. They soaked up the urine like a dry mop. He didn’t even attempt to pull them up. I was shocked at his hygienic inconsistency. I completed my business before he did and loitered at the sink, scrubbing my hands raw. I had to see who the man was inside that stall. The guy finished several moments later. He turned out to be an associate of mine. I made a quick mental note, reminding myself not to cook with him anymore. Ten minutes afterwards, he stopped by my room and asked if he could sit on my bunk and chat. I yelled, “No. I just saw your shorts hit the floor next to the toilet. You have actual 22
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urine on your clothing at this very moment.” He looked surprised, gazed down at his pants, and then said, “No shit?” I said, “No shit, just urine.” Then there are the guys who brush their teeth at the urinal. Most of them use the same hand to grab the peter pedal to flush and then their toothbrush to brush. I’ve often asked them to follow the trail of cross contamination. Germs go from someone’s peter to pedal, from pedal to toothbrush, and finally from toothbrush to mouth. Oh, and then they kiss their girls in the visiting room. People often make fun of me because I always use tissue to cover the bathroom door handle before pulling. They ask me why I don’t use tissue to touch everything else. I tell them my life is all about reducing infection opportunities. I certainly can’t avoid all of them. But I’ll never touch ground zero in the bathroom under any circumstances. That bathroom handle contains more growth than all the petri dishes at the CDC. If I should die in prison because of that liver virus, I’m sure the prison will do a comprehensive autopsy. They’ll discover that the blood lady from the Virginia prison injected the deadly red virus into me many years ago. Perhaps they will find its little cigar. I am so glad I reported the incident to the warden at that time, because there’ll be an official report contained in my file. I’m sure the prison will do everything in its power to compensate my family with a fair cash payment. Somehow, my daughter inherited my germ anxiety. Or perhaps she acquired it after I explained exactly what occurred during the most dangerous encounter known to mankind, the handshake. In any case, she later developed something called the elbow bump in high school, in lieu of exchanging palm bacteria or a fist bump. I am so proud of her. There you have it. I have barely scratched the dirty surface of my deep microbial fear, but have confessed it nonetheless. It has been difficult spending years living in a 4 P.M. COUNT
crowded, germ-filled prison environment, detached from society. Ironically, during incarceration, I developed two strong, diametrically opposing aspirations that Iâ€™d like to accomplish simultaneously, after I leave prison. On one hand, I have a desire to spend the first year of my freedom living alone in the sterile house thatâ€™s awaiting me. However, at the same time, I have a desire to see my family, find new friends, locate old classmates no matter where they live in the world, and even shop, without ever having to come into the physical presence of another human being. Oh, I wish it were possible to do both. Well, it canâ€™t hurt to dream, right?
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LEARNING ABOUT OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER AND ME I spell my name DON. People that know me spell it OCD. For as long as I can remember, I have been called OCD. I didn’t know that OCD was an acronym for a mental illness. I just assumed it was a Spanish word that meant effective or productive. I thought it was spelled o-s-e-e-de-e. I wore my OCD badge with a sense of honor. There were signs of course, like organizing, organizing, organizing, followed by daily visits to the office supply store. Just how many colorful markers and Post-it notes can a person possibly use? Did I really need another plastic storage container with thirty-two individual compartments? I already had enough file folders on reserve to supply Google employees for a year. Well, perhaps I am a hoarder of sorts. Perhaps I do have backups for my backups, but my hoard is organized and neat. Regardless, the handwriting was clearly on the dry-erase board. The fact is, I have issues. People with OCD can’t help but exhibit their unusual characteristics. It’s in their DNA. I often overheard my family explaining to strangers that I was basically OK, I just had a few “idiosyncrasies.” Until recently, I’ve always believed that I simply possessed supernatural abilities that allowed me to accomplish the impossible, except being able to put on my left shoe before my right one. Because that’s just too impossible. I was told that my earliest memories should have been of me smoothing out the wrinkles in my cloth diapers, before folding and stacking them neatly on the shelf next to my wipes. Since I don’t clearly remember doing these things, I can’t claim these events as facts. I do know that I always hated germs and dirt, and recall moving into my brother’s bedroom where I was horrified to see a thin line 4 P.M. COUNT
of dust around the edges of his carpet. How could he live like such an animal? I quickly scraped away the filth with a brand-new toothbrush. Then of course I re-vacuumed, making sure that the lines in the carpet were straight and of equal variations. I used to shake with joy as a four-year-old, when my parents returned with fifteen bags of groceries for our large family on Saturdays. I was so lucky, because instead of an allowance, my folks allowed me to unload and organize every single grocery item by myself, while my brothers and sisters were forced to watch cartoons in the living room. Before putting anything on the shelves, I would perform a detailed analysis of the receipt to make sure we weren’t charged for anything that we didn’t get. I then immediately manufactured shelf labels and taped them everywhere. I impressed Dad and Mom with my storage skills, but to me, being OCD organized was as natural as breathing. The following year, I started to carry a piece of paper with my schedule and a writing instrument, such as a crayon. I documented everything that I needed to do or remember. For instance, I once wrote: #1, Lay out clothes for day one of school in the morning. After meeting my kindergarten teacher that day, she immediately told me where to hang my coat, where to sit, and where to return the coloring books. She said we had a daily schedule and we would rigidly follow it. Naptime was at 10:00 a.m. Everything she told me was clear and concise. There was no vagueness in her instructions. Her motto was, “Everything had a place to be stored, and everything had to be in its place when not in use.” I instantly fell in love with her. The world suddenly made sense. I finally discovered that I was not the only person in Detroit who knew how to do things competently. I’ve always gravitated towards any assignment that had to do with keeping track of or counting things. My first grade teacher asked us who wanted to collect the safety scissors after an art project. I raised my hand before she finished her question. I won. I ended up numbering 26
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each pair of scissors, and later handed the teacher a neatly prepared record, in triplicate, indicating who used which pair at what times. She told me that I went a bit overboard. I said, “Thank you.” For people like me, certain language simply doesn’t register in our minds. One such idiom is the suffix-ish. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 3,257 times. I remember the first occasion when someone told me a word that ended with-ish. My friend’s mom said I could come over at fiveish. I began to shake. Sweat formed on my forehead. I had absolutely no clue what she meant. Did she imply 4:55 or 5:05? Was she talking about a.m. or p.m.? There were just too many variables. Another imprecise expression that I dislike is “oh, about.” On the first day of my creative writing class, the professor looked up at the clock and said we’d take a break at oh, about 1:15. I was forced to assume that he meant p.m. and became emotionally and physically prepared. However, we didn’t actually take that break until 2:07 p.m. I was in distress for 52 minutes as I waited for the unknown. If he would have said our break was going to be at 2:07 p.m. to begin with, I would have been fine. What I really hate, though, is when people use a combination of imprecise language, like when my boss told me I could discuss getting a raise sometime next week around, oh about two-ish or so. I know I can get men to relate to this particular emotional issue of mine. Imagine for a moment that you asked your girlfriend how many boyfriends she’s had before you. How would you feel if she started her answer with the phrase “Oh… about….”? Because OCDers always prepare for disasters that rarely happen, I’m never late. I used to attend fifteen real estate closings per year. No matter what time the closing was scheduled, I would arrive two hours early and wait in my truck. I’d always carry important paperwork with me to work on because we hate downtime. And no, I didn’t park in the lot at the real estate office where they might see me; that would just be odd. I’d park two blocks away from the office. 4 P.M. COUNT
Now, if for some reason my Jeep wouldn’t start back up, I’d be in walking distance and could still arrive on time. In addition, to be on the safe side, I’d also keep crutches and a wheelchair in the truck in case something happened to my legs while I was waiting. Furthermore, just in case, I also carried in my truck…well you get the picture. Just kidding about the wheelchair. I hate change. OCDers should do well in prison, because we can relate to the concepts of “Hey, that’s my spot,” or, “Hey, I always use that sink.” We absolutely require routines and schedules. For instance, my exwife and I enjoyed playing music during our intimate encounters, so every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night at precisely 10:30 p.m. we played one Chicago song. On the other nights, it was at 11:00 p.m. and we played our collection of Norah Jones albums. One of our most used phrases is “just in case.” People have always asked me to check on things for them, just in case, to make sure something got done. OCDers are great double-checkers. Actually we are more than doublecheckers; I’m personally compelled to check on doors, windows, appliances, plumbing, crying babies, and the like, a minimum of ten times before I feel like I’ve checked on them enough, just in case. My friends and family think it’s funny to move things on my desk because I always notice immediately. But wouldn’t anyone notice a stapler that had been moved one-eighth of an inch or a pencil in the wrong location? Heck, I could glance at my perfect lawn from a speeding car and still spot a single blade of grass out of place from a hundred yards away. I must detect symmetry in all things or my blood curdles. In art appreciation class, painted faces must have only one eye on each side. In construction, buildings must possess equilibrium. Needless to say, a true OCDer hates paintings by Picasso, or architectural designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re just bizarre. I love details. I could spend many happy hours going 28
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through the fine print on a contract. Before every game, I must explore all aspects of the rules. I can’t stand it when people jump into something and say things like, “Hey, let’s just play and see what happens,” or “Let’s be spontaneous and free about this game.” Are these people mad? I’ll take a detailed game plan anytime over what these hippies suggest. OCDers are fantastic worriers. In fact, our national motto is “Worry about everything; prepare for anything.” There are some downsides though, like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. On the other hand, if there’s ever a disaster, like the one in the movie Sharknado, we’d be the only ones prepared. One time as I was parking at a mall five miles from home, my daughter reached my visor and pushed the button on the garage door opener. I froze. I worried for several minutes, wondering if it were possible for the electric signal to bounce through the nearby anomaly of greenish clouds and make it all the way to my garage. I then quickly backed out and drove home to make sure the garage door was still shut. It was. My daughter thought that was strange. I said “No, it would be strange if we were 200 miles away from home and I returned. No, check that, make that 300 miles away.” We love to be in control of everything, even the days and hours that pass off the calendar. We hate the unexpected, so don’t even think about throwing us a surprise party, unless it’s on our schedule. OCDers have an uncanny ability to focus like a laser beam on things that catch our interest. We have no choice but to stress and obsess over it. Our minds overheat as we dissect and analyze everything that has to do with our area of interest. We can live on two hours of sleep per day while our brains ponder the interesting. Focusing is a great skill to have when an OCD doctor is interested in curing baldness. It’s a bad skill to have when an OCDer like me is interested in every single word that comes from the mouth of that beautiful girl who worked at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Sheldon Street. Especially when 4 P.M. COUNT
she tells me, “Oh Don, why don’t you call me someday, say around eight-ish or so?” I stayed awake seventy-two straight hours, and still couldn’t answer that question. I’ve always been excited about making lists and documenting mundane dates and times. In addition, I enjoy writing in a journal like a United States president, which by the way, is totally different from writing in a diary like a girl. Much of my documented information is frivolous. However, it helps me as a man to have a historically accurate record, because I’ve always interacted with women, and as everyone knows, they never forget anything. I must admit that I really don’t know why I document some things. For example, if someone tells me his or her birth date, I put it in my calendar and it stays there forever. Apparently, I once met someone named Teri Jorgenson. I don’t remember her, but every June third for the past forty years I’m reminded that it’s her birthday. Sometimes I hate that I’m compelled to journal because it often backfires. Case in point, I was on a first date with a fellow senior in high school. We were alone in a dark parking lot on a Friday night. We sat in the front seat of my dad’s Oldsmobile. The radio was playing romantic music. This gorgeous girl was leaning into my side. My arm was wrapped around her shoulders. I gently touched the tip of her nose and said, “Sherry, when I first met you in the ninth grade, you were wearing a red baseball cap, a white V-neck sweater, a gold necklace, blue stone-washed jeans, and a pair of white Converse All-Stars with red shoe laces.” I felt her body slightly tremble. She turned toward me with watery eyes. A tear rolled down her cheek. She brought her lips closer to mine. I smelled her apple lipgloss, and then she whispered, “Oh Don, you actually remembered what I wore that day?” And then for some stupid reason, I laughed. I said, “Remember? Oh, no, no! That was four long years ago. What am I, an elephant?” Then I explained to her that I had reviewed my ninth grade journal before our date. Our 30
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tender moment was lost forever. The last thing I remember about that night was her saying something about me being creepy. I could tell you more if I had my old journal handy. I often wondered why more people weren’t blessed like me. Almost everyone I’ve ever met, except for my kindergarten teacher and a friend named Crash, was mentally screwed up. If people could simply do things the OCD way, this world would be a better place and much more organized. I lived over fifty years before it finally dawned on me that I might be the one with a problem. It began when I studied Spanish and learned that OCD was not a Spanish word at all. It was an English acronym for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I compulsively obsessed over these three words and not one of them sounded promising. Then to top things off, I started watching the “Big Bang Theory” TV show. A character on the show named Sheldon Cooper possessed the same skill set of behaviors that I’ve had my entire life. I could really relate to him. The things he did seemed logical. Sheldon was simply an astonishing human being. However, I soon noticed that his friends considered him problematic. They called his habits quirky. He was portrayed as an oddball. I was dumbfounded. Then a light went off in my head, and I worried. Do my friends and family think I’m an oddball too? I then became depressed after reading a medical book at the library. I learned about my so-called OCD that I had previously assumed was a prodigal gift. The symptoms sounded all too familiar. To make matters worse, the title of the book was not merely disorders, but Mental Disorders. That made OCD sound even more dreadful. My niece is a psychologist. I asked her if she thought I was OCD like Sheldon Cooper. She told me that Sheldon was not OCD, but he would actually be diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome along with numerous OCD symptoms. She also assured me that I was definitely not OCD. And who was I to argue with her? After all, she is a doctor. I was instantly relieved, and crossed OCD off my 4 P.M. COUNT
thousand- page list of things to worry about. Then she said that I probably had OCDP. She explained that OCD and OCDP were distinctively separate medical conditions and that I was not to worry. She said OCDP was like OCD’s little brother, kind of like an OCD-lite. At last, at last, I was thrilled to learn that I don’t have OCD. Now I don’t have to worry about people thinking that I’m a weirdo.
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ROSA PARKS Many years ago, the Police Department partitioned the city of Detroit into sixteen large grids of neighborhoods. Each one was called a precinct. I patrolled the tenth precinct for a total of three years in the late 1980s. It was by far the most dangerous area to work. Every day someone was shot or shot at. We also had more than our fair share of murders, stolen cars, sex crimes, robberies, and drug gang banging. In spite of all this action, we had numerous VIPs living within our neighborhood borders. VIPs got special treatment, thus they were called VIPs. We had a list of their addresses, and our bosses strongly requested that we drive past as many of their houses as possible during our shift. We were to make a notation on our log sheet that we checked for suspicious activity. VIPs were typically people who knew people in Detroit. For instance, all of every mayor’s friends became VIPs. We also had some untraditional, inanimate VIPs as well. Singer Aretha Franklin’s childhood home was a VIP. It was located just north of the church that her father pastored on Linwood. Miss Franklin still owned the house but it was always vacant. We kept a close eye on it. In addition, several VIP big shot lawyers and surgeons lived in the old mansions located in what is known as the Boston/Edison district. During my stint in the tenth, I must say I was more than ignorant about the Civil Rights Movement. It was something I never tried to learn about. I believe this was because I was a boy during the infamous 1967 Detroit race riots. I could no longer play in the streets after dinner due to the curfew that was put in place because of the riots. I equated civil rights with curfew and sweaty nights of boredom. I didn’t realize the bigger picture. So when I was told that one of the tenth precinct’s VIPs was Miss Rosa Parks, I wasn’t all that impressed. The only 4 P.M. COUNT
thing I knew about her was that she was arrested on a bus somewhere far far away in the south. I couldn’t imagine why she would be a VIP all the way over here in the Motor City. We didn’t usually celebrate people who were famous for being arrested. I say usually because I’m certain there were a lot of Detroit criminals celebrating about me or other officers when we got arrested. Although I thought of Miss Parks as a Detroit outsider for some reason, she was actually more of a Detroiter than I was, having moved to Detroit several years before I was born. Rosa Parks didn’t live in a mansion. In fact, her house was a bit rundown and located several blocks from where the Detroit riots started on Claremont. I never saw her during my first year of routinely driving past her house. However, one night around 10 p.m., someone fired three or four bullets into Miss Parks’ home and she called 911. My partner and I were the first responders. Keep in mind that it was not unusual for someone’s house to be shot up like that. It happened every day, hence, Detroit can be a dangerous place to live even if you stayed locked up in the house all day. We arrived at her residence within two minutes after receiving the radio run. Miss Parks was around seventyfive and wore a fluffy green night robe. She quickly assured us that she was unharmed. She was home alone and had been sitting in her living room near the front of the house when she heard a car screech. Then she heard several shots ring out as her front window exploded. We immediately had to inform the radio dispatcher that Miss Parks was fine. We also had to make routine notifications to the homicide section and control section every time shots were fired. In addition, we called our precinct supervisor because a VIP was involved. My partner acted as if Miss Parks was movie star, and even got an autograph. I made a mental note to ask Pam about the bus incident that led to this VIP’s arrest. Pam always told me, “Don, it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” I thought that perhaps her interest in our VIP 34
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was something like that. Anyhow, Miss Parks was as composed as a Mozart symphony. You would have thought this kind of thing happened to her often. She was kind and gentle and asked us if we wanted something to drink. We declined. We were only alone with Miss Parks for about ten minutes before a barrage of police vehicles parked and made their way to assist this quiet, elderly VIP. One of the bosses who arrived at the scene made the unusual decision to remove her front door and place it on evidence because it had a bullet in it. They also replaced her door with a heavy-duty steel door. Are you kidding? This NEVER happened to regular victims of shootings. I only remember that her door was green, because years later when I worked in the evidence room, I saw it every day leaning against a wall in the basement. For the most part, this whole ordeal was orderly and controlled. At least until the last visitor showed up. It was another elderly woman who turned out to be a friend of Miss Parks. This woman ran towards us screaming. I thought she was there to tell us that a stray bullet had killed someone. Miss Parks seemed a bit embarrassed by her friendâ€™s frantic behavior. The friend arrived there to console Miss Parks, but between the two, it was Miss Parks who did the consoling. It wasnâ€™t until years later, when I saw thousands of people, including hundreds of VIPs, attend Rosa Parksâ€™ funeral, that I started to understand and appreciate what she meant to all America. I felt proud that I was able to have met her and assist her in any way that I could. I said goodbye to Rosa Parks before I left her house that day. She kindly thanked me for everything as she patted my arm and smiled. She turned out to be the most VIP VIP I ever met. To the best of my knowledge, the shooter(s) or the reason for the shooting was never discovered.
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THE GREATEST INVENTION EVER We live in a marvelous world of inventions, created by an assortment of geniuses. How could we ever choose which invention is the greatest? Ultimately, we should decide which one created the overall good. There are literally millions of inventions to consider. Henry Ford’s automobiles and assembly line are definitely top-tier contenders. But then there’s Thomas Edison’s proliferation of electric ideas. However, after much thought, I think the greatest invention ever was developed by a man who lives in hermit-like obscurity. This man invented the most essential invention that humankind has ever imagined. That invention, of course, is the butt wipe. When I was twelve, my older brother Bill instilled in me the need for an innovation such as a butt wipe. Although baby wipes already existed, we didn’t have any babies in our house so I never thought about wipes. Anyhow, my fondness for butt wipes started when Bill was in the kitchen making a sandwich and I had just taken a crap. He said, “Hey Don, did you clean your ass?” I snarled, “Of course I did, what kind of dumb question is that?” He then asked me how I cleaned it. I told him the same way I always did, with toilet paper. Then he wiped peanut butter on my arm with a spoon. I thought he was crazy. “What was that for?” I barked. He then challenged me to clean the peanut butter off my arm using only toilet paper. I took the dare. In fact, I went the extra mile and scrubbed my skin squeaky clean, using nothing but toilet paper. Then Bill smiled, and said, “Now smell your arm.” I did. It was the strangest thing. Would you believe it smelled like peanut butter? How could that be? I cleaned it so completely. My ever-inquisitive brother then asked, “What do you 36
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think your butt smells like right now?” I knew he was trying to make a point, but I wasn’t exactly sure what he was getting at. So I timidly answered, “Peanut Butter?” “No. It smells like shit, dummy. You need to clean with soap and water, or at least something wet or you’re gonna stink and never get a girlfriend.” I loved girls a lot, so from that day forward, I cleaned up my act. Many years later, when I got to my first prison, I immediately noticed that they didn’t sell wipes, so I had to make do with a small container of wet paper towels. They didn’t sell wipes at my second prison either, but they did issue large quantities of wipes to obese people for some reason. I had two choices at that prison. I could either become heavy, or buy wipes from the big boys. Needless to say, I ended up paying Fat Fred thousands of candy bars and honeybuns over the years, but it was well worth it. Unfortunately, I struck out altogether at my third prison, a camp of all places. They didn’t sell or issue wipes. However, someone introduced me to an inmate named Wal-Mart Willie, who snuck off the prison grounds and returned with Wal-Mart products once a week. Sadly, I believed that the correctional officers frowned upon that sort of behavior, so I wanted nothing to do with that rule breaker. I’d never even think of asking Wal-Mart Willie to buy me butt wipes, chocolate covered peanuts, or watermelon bubblegum every week. I was living the dream when I moved to my fourth prison, the one I’m at now in Yankton. This was the first prison that actually sold wipes at the commissary. To this day, I always keep at least ten bags of wipes in my locker, just in case, and everyone knows I stockpile them. Sometimes the prison store will run out of wipes and other inmates will inevitably ask me, “Hey Don, do you have any extra wipes?” I always say, “I’m sorry, there are only forty wipes in each package, and I never have any extra ones. But thanks 4 P.M. COUNT
for asking.” That’s right, when people think of butt wipes, they always think of me. I actually began dreaming of marketing my own brand of butt wipes when I left prison. I would be competing with companies such as Procter and Gamble and their moist towelettes and fancy packaging. I thought I would use a niche advertising campaign and simply call my product, “Butt Wipes,” and have a motto like “Unless You Want to Smell like Peanut Butter” stamped on the bottom of every plain white package. I even scripted a ten-second commercial, showing a man leaving a crowded movie theater. He had to slide his butt past a row of seated moviegoers. Everyone held their nose or turned their head as he passed, and then one of them whispered, “Hey, did you smell peanut butter?” Five years ago, I had an inmate pal named Jacob. He was a married man with a large family, waiting for his release in eight months. One of his cellies eventually told me, “Hey Don, talk to your dude Jacob, cause he always stands in the middle of our room to put his underwear on. We don’t wanna be forced to see a naked man. That’s disgusting.” I located Jacob right away and asked, “Hey Jake, I hear you’ve been exposing your privates to your cellies. Why don’t you just put your underwear on while you’re inside the gigantic shower stall after you shower?” He formed a perplexed look on his face, and said, “Donnie, I always do that. But what about the times I wanna put on some underwear when I haven’t just taken a shower?” I started to ask when would that ever happen. Instead, I just told him my peanut butter story. He never heard of adults using butt wipes. A few days later, he excitedly invited me into his living area. He explained how he had just taken a dump and wiped with toilet paper before returning to his cell. Once he arrived there, he recalled that he had a brand new package of WalMart wipes that were unopened in his locker, so he tried his first wipe ever. 38
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He then discovered that his rear end wasn’t as clean as he thought. He said the wipe actually changed colors, like a leaf in the fall, and then he became a believer. I was happy to hear the good news. However, I wanted clarification, and asked him if he had used the butt wipe inside his cell. He said he did. Naturally, my next question was, “Where did you put the dirty wipe?” He pointed towards the garbage can next to his cellmate’s lower bunk, near the dude’s pillow. Jacob seemed to be business savvy, so I shared my idea about the Butt Wipes brand towelettes and my commercial. He thought it was the best idea he’s ever heard and wanted to become my partner and get things started when he got out. He explained the ins and outs of the business venture and promised to give me five percent of the profits if the product sold well. He said I could potentially become a millionaire. I asked, “Where do I sign?” Several months after Jacob went home, he mailed me a letter. His entire family was now using butt wipes. He made my day when he said, “My house has never smelled so fresh. Thanks, Donnie.” The letter was nice, but I’m still waiting for the Butt Wipe money to roll in. Okay, enough talk about butts, I’m really wiped out.
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Frank Constant Frank Constant has enjoyed writing and public speaking throughout his life. His first published poem was written in kindergarten. He was an editor of his high school newspaper, and he continued his passion for writing as a journalism major in college. Frank plans to continue writing when he returns to his home and family.
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EARLY RELEASE It’s Sunday afternoon as I walk in front of the Forbes building. The reflection of the sun catches my eye off the silver side of the Mylar balloon drifting over the prison camp. I have to watch it as it traverses north to south on a gentle mid-August breeze. Just level with the second story windows, the balloon spins to show me its purple side. I can see that a white ribbon dangles but I cannot read the balloon’s message. I imagine what it says. I am free! Still frozen in my tracks and watching its movement, I feel jealousy that the balloon has gotten an early release. At least that’s what I’m guessing. It has been set free prior to the appointed time. Somewhere north of here may be a child crying or a birthday party that will have one less balloon in attendance. I used to dread going to those birthday parties. “Oh goody,” I would say when my wife told me that Saturday we would be attending another first birthday party for a niece or nephew or neighbor kid. On the way there I would keep repeating the kid’s name to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. Wouldn’t forget it, at least until after the party was over. Now, I would give just about anything to go to a first birthday party. The balloon reminds me that people are celebrating things in many places today and somehow having fun without me. They have been doing that for over four years now and will continue to do it for a while. If there is a party back home and my wife is there, someone may ask her, “How’s Frank doing?” “He’s doing well,” she will most likely say. Then they will both probably talk about the birthday kid, or the cake, or the weather or the cute balloons that are secured by their ribbons to a chair or a foil wrapped weight on the table. At least I got a mention. They haven’t quite forgotten me. Not yet. 4 P.M. COUNT
The balloon has now forced me to turn my head toward the south in order to follow its flight. I oblige it as a couple of inmates walk by and instinctively look up to see what I am staring at in the sky. One of the inmates shrugs. His body language tells me that seeing a balloon floating by on a beautiful summer day is no big deal to him. I turn back and watch as it just misses the pointy roof on the chow hall. For me, this is as important as a shooting star in broad daylight. It spins slowly again and gently begins to rise. The sunâ€™s reflection helps me to track it just a bit longer before it becomes a tiny purple speck in the sky. Three turkey vultures pay little attention as they freely ride the air currents that also carry the balloon out and over toward the Missouri River, then over Nebraska, and out of my sight. I thank the balloon for the momentary distraction. Then I quickly curse it for reminding me what freedom is. I wonder whether anyone besides me and the two other prisoners even noticed its unauthorized trip through the compound. I wonder if anyone is even thinking of me today as I think of them. I wonder if Iâ€™ll ever be handed a Mylar balloon again.
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MORE OF THE SAME In or out. High or low. Up or down. Stay or go. Black or white. Nice or mean. Hard or soft. Dirty or clean. Soft or hard. Rich or poor. Tall or short. Less or more. All or one. Happy or Sad. Truth or lie. Good or bad. Plump or lean. Gold or lead. Healthy or sick. Alive or dead. Fast or slow. Light or dark. Sweet or sour. Meow or bark. Thick or thin. Loose or tight. Uphill or downhill. Day or night. Rough or smooth. Hot or cold. Fresh or stale. Timid or bold. Land or water. Slow or quick. Mountain or valley. Thin or thick. Fair or biased. Open or shut. Bullet or arrow. Drive or putt. Son or daughter. Yes or no. Mother or father. Friend or foe. Help or hurt. Left or right. Heaven or Hell. Fight or flight. Credit or debit. Work or play. Understanding or closeminded. Straight or gay. Unwanted or welcome. Walk or ride. Stand up or sit down. Humility or pride. Succeed or fail. Booze or dope. Reach out or shun. Despair or hope. They say opposites attract, but I don’t know if that’s a fact. We’re choosing sides in many ways, more so it seems in recent days. Are we that different and far apart, just using our brain and not our heart? It’s not too early or too late, to show some love and banish hate.... But I’m so busy there’s much to do, and so I will leave it up to you. 4 P.M. COUNT
MY DAUGHTER’S TO-DO LIST My husband will be home soon so I should: Go in and pay some bills Get dinner started Shovel the snow off the driveway Call Mother and let her know that I made it home safely Email Dad and tell him about the blizzard Start some laundry Feed the dog and the cats ✓ Lie in the backyard and make a snow angel My daughter lives far away from where I am here in prison. I am reading the email that she sent me describing this internal debate she had lying there in the backyard of her new home, in the snow. I am so pleased to read that of all the things on her to-do list tonight, she chose making snow angels. She is such a big girl now. Staring up into the night as the Colorado sky sheds fresh powder like it has an endless supply. And I wonder if this will be her last snow angel? She turns thirty this year, and I speculate as to whether this is her final snow angel. I don’t remember the last one I ever made, but I do remember her first. I was there with her for that. In fact, there were several snow angels made that marvelous day. I could hardly get her to stop making them. I kept wiping her runny nose as she fluttered her wings in the big snow that had canceled school and work. Her face and cheeks were bright red, the only things exposed from her little pink snow suit. “I want to keep making them, Daddy. Do I have to stop?” “Yes, honey.” I can see her mother standing at the kitchen window pointing at her wrist and then waving us in. “It’s time to go get warm,” I chattered. Another inmate here taps me on the shoulder. “Hey 44
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man. Are you just gonna sit there and stare at the screen? There are other people waiting here to use the computer.” I finish reading the email and with a bit of a lump in my throat I hit Reply: I type “I am so proud of you. Please don’t stop making snow angels until you become one. Love, Dad.” Then I click on the Send button.
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OUT FOR A STROLL Today I am out walking and wanting to do good things. A bearded man, John the Baptist maybe, wearing a tattered Army jacket and an unpleasant smell approaches. “Can you help a guy?” he asks. So I write him a check and keep walking. A panting dog, a stray I presume, follows me. It’s limping and missing fur on its back. A lot of fur. If I wanted to, I could count its ribs. But I don’t want to. A warm tongue licks my hand and its tired eyes meet mine. So I write another check and keep walking. I can hear waves crashing in the distance as I walk. I listen for those pretty yellow and black birds that sing like sopranos sing. There seems to be fewer and fewer of them lately. I didn’t hear a single one yesterday. And again today, no singing. So I write a check and keep walking. The sound of the waves grows louder as a wrinkled man steps into my path, forcing me to stop, a white cane in one hand a yellow and blue canister in the other. He thrusts the canister toward where he thinks I might be standing. “Can you help a guy?” he says in a quiet, worn-out voice. I quickly scribble out a check, fold it up, and tap it into the slot of his can, making a little tapping sound so he knows that I’m finished. He may have smiled faintly but I’m uncertain. I turn the corner and walk toward the sea, big and gray there in the distance. One block from the water, a man without legs sits on a big flat piece of cardboard, a paper Starbucks coffee cup held by both his dirty hands. He shakes the cup so the few coins in the bottom make some noise. “Can you help a guy?” I bend down and drop a check in the cup. My last one. I walk along the deserted beach. My shoes leave footprints in the wet sand just for a moment. Almost immediately, the waves briskly scrub them away. I hear 46
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screaming. A man. There in the water. Waving his arms frantically. Going under each wave and coming back up. Arms still flailing. “Can you help a guy?” he pleads, choking on the water. I cup my hands to my mouth and yell back to him as loud as I can. “I’m sorry. I’m all out of checks.”
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THE CHALK BOARD In an angry weak moment I wrote some hurtful things On the chalk board that is your heart. I quickly tried to erase my words and Most of what I wrote turned to fine dust. There was a faint trace of those words That could still be seen. You said it was fine-finished-FORGOTTEN But every time I look at you I can still see itâ€™s there. Faded, yet still legible.
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BEST OF: 2008
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BE A MAN By Isaac Searcy, 2008 A cow’s horns can become dangerous not only to humans, but to other cows. They can get their horns hung up in a gate, or even inadvertently poke another cow’s eye out. Because of this, their horns need to be removed when the cattle are young and the horns very small. One method used to remove the horns is to burn them off. It is the least expensive and also, least time consuming—something dairy farmers have little of. The tool used to remove the horns is shaped like a curling iron used by women to curl their hair. The iron is electric and heats up to a red-hot temperature. After a young calf is secured in a headgate—equipment that secures the calf ’s head and will not allow the calf to move—the iron is pressed over the horn and held for a full twenty seconds, burning out the source of the horn’s growth, the root. When the eyes of them black and white calves roll back until I can see the white in them, I cringe, and it hurts in the spot where a man don’t let no one else see. Grandpa says we have to de-horn the calves or their horns will be a nuisance, and I can understand that. He says we have to burn ‘em off because it cost too much to do surgery, and I can understand that, too. But I don’t understand the pain in my chest, twisting my insides up when that searing hot iron touches the calf ’s horn and she bawls and bellers and it strikes a chord deep down inside me. Grandpa presses down with the iron and the muscles and veins of his scarred and leathered forearms ripple. He looks right into my eyes through the smoke of burnt horn and flesh billowing up around us, and his face says what his lips won’t. “Be a man, Isaac. This is business.”
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BEHIND THESE WALLS By Michael ‘Mac’ Clennon, 2008 Behind these walls is a bitter old man. Every day is the same. Survival relying on routine. He has been growing his beard since the day he came in. He will not shave until the day he leaves. An idle mind is his happiest time. Most of the time he’s thinking of a cheating wife, kids he has not heard from in seven years. Five years have passed since his mother died; that was the last time he’s spoken on a phone. Everyone is in his way, everyone is to blame. Behind these walls is a scared boy. Barely the age of eighteen. His mind races with questions fears of the unknown. Will his girlfriend write to him? Is she still his girl? How can he do five years? A whole lifetime to him. Here—he is surrounded—he is alone. Where are the friends he protected? He holds tears back each night until the other three are asleep; then lets them flow. Only to make himself more frightened. 4 P.M. COUNT
Behind these walls is a family man. Doing a three piece for cheating his taxes. The voice of his five-year-old daughter still echoes in his head. “Are you gonna come home soon, daddy?” “No, sweetheart I’m not.” He continues the phone call with a lump in his throat. He tells his son he wishes he could see the big game. “I love you,” he tells his wife just as the timed phone call hangs up on him. She did not have time to respond, six days to think about that. He will call again next Sunday. Behind these walls is a street-raised young man. A gangster—mean to the bone. A haunted aftertaste of childhood is the fuel for his fire. A weakness kept secret. Considering himself king of the streets, fronting problems by talking tough. Every day he plans payback on the rats that put him away. No plans to change, only to get even. Using each day of the next twelve years to develop the perfect revenge. Behind these walls four men share a cell. The four walls contain Bitterness, Fear, Guilt, and Anger. So many problems in such a small space. Each man looks at the other in disgust Too busy wallowing in his own problems to help another—to help himself. 52
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Each one considers his sentence a lifetime. If they never open their eyes, and look for answers It might just beâ€Ś.
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THOUGHTS FROM AN IMPRISONED FATHER By Mario G. Covington, 2008 As I lie on this double bunkbed, in this sixteen-man dorm room, the size of a master bedroom where if one breathes everyone smells your breath, I think of the past. I think of that warm June day, a day that has been forever engraved in my heart. Seeing all eight pounds, four ounces of you, when you were born, brought tears of joy to my eyes. I fall asleep thinking of the first steps you took; how mama stood you up and I called you to me; I said: “Come to daddy,” and you wobbled to me like a drunken man, then you fell into my arms. Remembering this moment brings a smile to my heart. I began to think of your first day of school. Hearing your unstable, nervous voice, as you sniffled out the words: “I… don’t…wanna…go!” I remember taking your hand, like I was rescuing a drowning man and I said: “It’s going to be all right son, daddy’s with you, always!” I then wake to the sounds of the intercom at six-thirty in the morning telling me that it’s time for breakfast. I feel sad and gloomy because I don’t get to see your face. I can’t walk you to school, nor can I help you with your homework. Most importantly, I don’t get to say, “I love you!” My soul feels empty like a pillow without feathers, or a balloon that has lost its air. Being away from you is a pain that is unbearable. But knowing that you, my son, are always with me—can sustain me through the negativity of this prison life. I can understand the pain of the other fathers that are missing their sons as I miss you. I can smile upon the late night counts that are done with a flashlight being shone in my face awakening me out of my dreams of you, because I am with you, and you are with me, “always.” 54
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Matthew Jockers Matthew L. Jockers is the Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean for Research and Partnerships in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska. He is a Faculty Fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, Faculty Fellow in the Center for Great Plains Studies, and Director of the Nebraska Literary Lab. Jockers is a text miner with expertise in computational approaches to the study of literature. His books include Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (UIUC Press 2013), Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature (Spring 2014) and, with Jodie Archer, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel (St. Martins 2016). In addition to twenty years in the academy as a professor and administrator, Jockers has founded and directed a nonprofit, directed R&D at a technology startup company, and worked as Principal Research Scientist and Software Development Engineer in iBooks engineering at Apple Computer in California. Jockersâ€™ research has been profiled in the academic and mainstream press, including features in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Nature, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired, New Scientist, Smithsonian, NBC News and many others. More on Jockers can be found at www.matthewjockers.net.
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A LETTER FROM MATTHEW JOCKERS To the writers of FPC Yankton, I give a lot of talks about my research. This year I lectured about The Bestseller Code in Prague, in London, at the University of Virginia, at Vanderbilt, at Wesleyan, at Harvard and at FPC Yankton. Yankton was the clear standout. I mean it. (Prague was a close second.) Truth is, I’m accustomed to speaking to rooms full of academic types, and it was a real pleasure to let down my hair and talk to some normal human beings for a change. I didn’t know it would be like that beforehand, and I’ll admit that I was a bit anxious about what I should say to a group of inmates. I wondered if you guys were going to get it, if you were serious about writing or just treading water until release. But from the get-go, Shawn’s letter of invitation was intriguing. First off, Shawn is a good writer. He hooked me in the first sentence. You remember the opening to Moby Dick? “Call me Ishmael.” Melville stole that approach from Edgar Allen Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordan Pym, which begins: “My name is Arthur Gordan Pym.” Pym is another seafaring story that’s mostly been forgotten by today’s professors. Check it out sometime. Anyhow, Shawn began his letter to me like this: “My name is Shawn Merriman and I am one of sixteen inmates. . .” Fact, you see, is very often better than fiction. This was a good start. See how that line captures the attention; it’s the bit about being an inmate that comes as a surprise; I don’t get letters like that. The sentence continues “. . . I am one of sixteen inmates participating in the creative writing program at Federal Prison Camp Yankton. . .” That’s irony, another good move; play with your reader’s expectations. Now things are getting 56
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good, I’m hooked. But even before the opening line, Shawn did something clever. He did not address me as “Dr. Jockers” or “Professor Jockers” or “Dear Sir.” Nope, he opens informally with “Dear Matthew.” Ballsy. Confident. I don’t get a lot of letters from prisoners. Come to think of it, I don’t get any letters from prisoners at all, and I sure do not get any letters that are written on actual paper. So Shawn got my attention with his familiar tone, and he followed that with a solid opening line. In the next paragraph, Shawn praises my book, but not with fawning platitudes; I can tell that this guy has read the book, and read it carefully, absorbing things he thought were meaningful, useful. He tells me that he’s even tried to apply some of the methods in the book by “word searching” his own novel “for some of the key words.” With enthusiasm and a well-placed exclamation point, he reports that he’s even “found them!” Nice move. So now I’m all buttered up and thinking, “Well, Shawn, what do you want?” His third paragraph begins: “Now for the fun part.” Nice, he’s leading me along, delaying just a bit and at the same time taunting me. Fun for whom? Why fun? “Now for the fun part.” Perfect transition. That’s gold. The next line gets to the point: “We the creative writing class at FPC Yankton would like to invite you to speak to us.” He’s circled back to the opening line, which is good, but it’s the next line that seals the deal: “We’re a diverse group of criminals: poets, memoirists, and fiction writers.” Brilliant. Now there is no question: I’m going to say yes. When you read “a diverse group of criminals” what goes through your head? Certainly not “poets, memoirists, and fiction writers.” That’s a damn fine bit of writing. This is a writer who understands the way the mind works. Shawn needs to stick that line in a book somewhere. My follow-up conversation with Jim [Reese] was encouraging. Jim assured me that you all were a sharp group and that you were serious about writing. He sent me a copy of 4 P.M. Count. When I read it, I was not 4 P.M. COUNT
disappointed. As the time for my visit rolled around, I felt I got to know a few of you from your writing. I became more interested and a lot more curious to meet you. I started looking forward to my visit. And, frankly, this whole business made for good banter around the house and the water cooler: You know, stuff like, “I won’t be in the office tomorrow, I’m going to prison.” I’m sure a few of my colleagues here would tell me I was being insensitive. Prison is serious. Yep, it’s serious. But I’ve read your work, and I’ve had a chance to meet you and hear about your aspirations; I don’t think you’ll be offended. You get it, you understand the situation; there’s no sense in beating around the bush. Shawn didn’t BS me in his letter, and that’s what made it genuine and compelling. He didn’t worry about all that “Dr. Jockers” stuff. He wrote from a place that was his own. Good stuff. Anyhow, you need to know that I found it downright enjoyable to sit with you guys for a few hours and talk about my work and about your ambitions. I wish we’d had more time. It’s always flattering to be invited to give a lecture, but it’s not always fun. I had a good time at FPC Yankton, and I’d love to come back and see you again. And when things change for you, when you get out, maybe the bestsellerometer can have a run at your novel. I think that would be fun too. And it sure was nice to get your letters last week and to hear from you about the ways that my research and my book have led you to think in new ways about your own work as writers. No one from Harvard or Prague sent me any letters. Academics like to ask a lot of fancy theoretical and methodological questions. Often these questions are designed to demonstrate the questioner’s erudition. I liked the questions you guys asked. They were real, sincere, and they came from a place of genuine curiosity and from a place of experience. Don’t get me wrong, my colleagues are not always annoying, and we have a good time pissing each other off with convoluted questions; it’s part of the business. 58
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But with you folks, I sensed an unpretentious curiosity and, more importantly, a kind of quick-witted thinking. You were engaged with the material, and that is something I see in your writing too. It’s good. Instead of challenging my approach or “problematizing” (that’s academic speak for “I don’t have an actual question, I just want to mess with you”) what I was presenting, I could tell that you were thinking about how you could apply what I was saying to your own writing. As we talked, I saw some lights come on and you processed what I was saying and connected it into your own experiences of the world. That was exciting. When I got your letters, and read about how many of you were inspired to stay late in the writing lab that night working on your novels and poems and stories. Well, that was about the finest compliment I could imagine. I was touched by that; and for a few moments in my day nothing else mattered. I just sat there feeling like I had accomplished something good. Thanks for that moment. And frankly, the kind of passion you folks exuded is exactly what Jodie and I were hoping to nurture when we wrote The Bestseller Code. At some point in the book, we write about our belief that all good writers will eventually find an audience. I think we also make it clear that very few good writers are simply born as such. There is work involved and, no kidding, publishing is a tough market. It takes a crap load of grit to stick it out. I suspect that you guys are developing loads of grit right now. That’s good. Use it, and your time, to your advantage. It is true that you can hone your craft and that there are winning words and losing words. Some writers seem to intuitively know just how many times they can drop a “very” into their prose, most writers must work at it consciously. If my computer has helped you get a little closer to knowing which of those words to keep and which one to delete, then I’m happy. Keep up the hard work. Get out, be good, and don’t stop writing. Matt Jockers Lincoln, NE 4 P.M. COUNT
WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT PRISON Jay Nolan: What you don’t know about prison: ear plugs can be your most valuable possession. Chad Sloat: What you don’t know about being in prison is that no one’s dream ever began with this in mind. Dallas Rusk: What you don’t know about being in prison is that if you’ve never been in a higher classified institution anything you do can send you to a place miles and miles away from your family because you choose to break a rule, e.g. fighting, contraband, or just too many incident reports can cause this to happen. Warren Mckeithen, Sr. : What you don’t know about being in prison is: when you are chained up to be moved from one place to another, there is a very good chance that the same chains used to bind you for several hours also create an extreme sense of freedom when they are removed. Marquise Bowie: What you don’t know about being in prison: to all the youngsters who don’t want to listen to their parents—you will listen to the officers and do what they say or you will face the consequences. You will be held accountable! John Christian: What you do not know about being in prison: it does not matter if your mom, dad, aunts, uncles, siblings or children, or all of them, die in some horrific accident, if it is your first year in prison, you will not get a furlough to the funeral; you will not say your goodbyes in person, you will mourn alone. Mark Yost: What you don’t know about being in prison is that you have all the time you always claimed you didn’t have when free. 60
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DREAM CONTRABAND CHAINS ACCOUNTABLE GOODBYES
ALL THE TIME
MILES AND MILES AWAY
FIGHTING 4 P.M. COUNT
Shawn Merriman Shawn Merriman is from Denver, CO. He is the father of four great kids.
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MICHELANGELO AND THE BACCHUS PRETENSE: PROLOGUE Rome – August 408 A. D. Flavius Stilicho, general of all Roman armies, sat alone in his private study. Time was short. He unrolled another map. The empire was crumbling. He knew it, so did the emperor and his minions, and yet they persisted in playing politics, pitting one group against another and stirring the pot of discontent, assigning blame and making excuses when they should have been uniting the republic to stand against its enemies. Like sharks picking away at a doomed whale, Rome’s enemies circled the empire’s outer boundaries, taunting the dying beast. Every day he received reports of brazen bands of barbarians challenging his troops. And who could blame them? Rome had been a cruel, demanding tyrant. Now the sharks they’d taunted for eight hundred years smelled blood and were in a frenzy as the whale that was Rome took its last breath. Born in 352 A. D. to a Roman mother and a barbarian father – an auxiliary leader in the Vandal army of Emperor Valens – Stilicho never once thought of himself as anything other than a Roman, and lived his life such that no one in Rome would either. He looked up from the stack of maps covering his desk and rubbed the bright red scar on his left arm. New wounds brought old memories. Friends won and lost, battles sore and bloody, grief tempered by the sweet release of victory. Memories erupted and cooled and as they did, the books lining the shelves of his study came into focus. If only he could spend the next few days immersed in one of the many technical manuscripts he’d collected. How long had it been since he’d spent a whole day savoring the insights of Euclid 4 P.M. COUNT
and Ptolemy, or Protagoras? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d rejoiced in the oratorical brilliance of Cicero or pondered Cato’s moral exposition. Stilicho shifted his gaze, locking eyes with the marble likeness of Pompey the Great; a gift from the artist, his then twelve-year-old son, Eucharius. If Eucharius could envision it, he could draw it, paint it, or carve it, and, after seeing a subject only once, could portray it from any perspective, in any pose, in any setting. Stone, clay, bronze, charcoal, or paint, it didn’t matter, he’d mastered them all. It was an extraordinary gift that only became more pronounced as the young man matured. Now seventeen, if Eucharius saw a young colt, he could depict that same colt as a stallion. Not merely a larger-bodied colt, but the stallion that colt would become, with the personality and attributes of the young colt weathered by time and tempered by maturity. Eucharius saw past façades and false projections. Nothing escaped his view. Not only did the marble bust of Pompey exude the great general’s confidence, it projected the air of supremacy that radiates from great men and it did so naturally, as if Pompey himself were present. On the other side of the room, Hannibal stared back at him with wisdom and determination that defied the centuries separating them. Only Eucharius could breathe life into Rome’s greatest foe with such elegance and authority. Perhaps it was all the stories he’d been told as a child. Perhaps the stories had contributed to his gift. It certainly wasn’t an inherited talent. A natural warrior, Stilicho fought as he lived; with all his heart, with every thought, every stroke of his sword, every command, focused on victory. As a legionnaire, he fought with distinction. As a centurion, he obeyed orders with exactness. As a general officer of the army, he exhibited an uncanny ability to direct his men exactly where they needed to go, regardless of what was happening around him. Tall and strong, even by Roman standards, he was not a man easily dismissed by those of inferior intellect, 64
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regardless of their station. A veteran of sixteen full-fledged campaigns and thirty-two major battles, he’d fought in every region of the empire, faced foes from the far reaches of the world and always returned home to a hero’s welcome. But the Rome he’d known had changed. Thinking about it now, he realized the only thing that had changed was the position from which he saw the republic: instead of looking in from the rim of the wheel, he had become the hub, feeling as Caesar must have on the ides of March. Like Caesar, seven hundred years before him, Stilicho’s rise through the ranks had been as swift as his campaign victories. But, unlike Caesar, the men with whom Stilicho served cheered his advancement, believing him a man worthy of their trust and, more importantly, a man who would lead them to victory, regardless of the odds. Over the years, he’d faced menacing armies, often with numbers far superior to his, and always achieved the victory. Some credited this remarkable record to his foresight, others, the gods, or, as was now common in Rome, the one God. The Christian God. Stilicho credited his men and their love of family and Rome. In his forty-year career, he’d done it all: fought side-by-side with his men, dragged wounded soldiers from harm’s way, held dying men in his arms, buried those who fell, and comforted the widows of those he’d lost, and never once doubted his cause. Now, some 120,000 barbarians, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Sueves, Alans and Burgundians were swarming over the Alps on their way to Rome. An army of unimaginable size that outnumbered his legionnaires thirteen to one. But that wasn’t what concerned him. He would prevail over this army just as he had every other foe. Large invading armies required more provisions than could be obtained by plunder. All he had to do was disrupt the flow of supplies and the enormous army would crumble under its own weight. If only Roman politics were as straightforward. But the simplistic days of youth and minor commands 4 P.M. COUNT
were gone. Appointed general of the armies by Emperor Valentinian II, prior to his assassination, Stilicho’s position as commander of the army under Valentinian’s replacement, Theodosius, was at first tenuous. However, a decisive victory over Eugenius, an ambitious minion of the Frankish warlord Argobast in the battle of the Frigidus, earned him the trust and confidence of the new emperor. In appreciation for Stilicho’s brilliance and dedication – and no doubt to ensure his continued loyalty – Theodosius gave Stilicho a bride: his niece, a beautiful, brown-eyed Roman with an intellect as stunning as her delicate features. She bore him a son and two fine daughters. As much as he loved them, he spent the formative years of his children’s lives far from home, defending the empire’s borders from all who dared challenge Rome’s supremacy, fighting one campaign after another, under-manned and underprovisioned while Rome’s politicians dined on fatted calves in the comfort of their villas. And it only got worse. While fighting a campaign in Illyria, a senator Rufinus had the audacity to pull Stilicho’s army out just two days short of victory. To show their appreciation for Rufinus’ treachery, Stilicho’s men caught up with the senator in Constantinople, killed his bodyguards, then publicly lynched the senator. With no further objections from the senate, they returned to the campaign, defeating Illyria within a month. While Stilicho’s distinguished service and loyalty to the empire may have been unappreciated by the Roman Senate, the emperor was once again quick to show his appreciation for Stilicho’s continued loyalty. Upon Stilicho’s return from Illyria, the emperor betrothed the younger of his two sons, six-year-old Honorius, to Stilicho’s oldest daughter, Maria. While the second son of an emperor made for an impressive husband, even Stilicho failed to see the impact their marriage would have on his life. Shortly after the betrothal, Theodosius died, leaving the empire divided between his two sons: Arcadius, his older son, to rule the east, and Honorius to rule the west, a division that further 66
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weakened an already ailing empire. Acting as guardian to Honorius, Stilicho became the face of the imperial court and de facto leader of the western empire and, like most of Rome’s leaders before him, it didn’t take long for Stilicho to realize he had no friends in the senate. In this, Roman politics was perfectly consistent. Despite the senate’s selfish ethos and an inherent distrust of those with the intelligence to lead, Roman politics were pretty straightforward, a constant in a universe of change. Generations passed, emperors came and went, but the senate remained true to its heritage and Stilicho sensed it always would. Seven hundred years previously, Romans cheered as senators killed Caesar, the one man who built the only empire in the world capable of protecting them from the invaders marauding Europe. As much as Romans loved Caesar, they loved spectacle and intrigue more. Stilicho shook his head again. Nothing had changed. Given the chance, the people of Rome would make the same mistake again. The door to his study opened. “I’m sorry, father. I didn’t know you were here.” Eucharius bowed and backed out of the doorway. “Please forgive the intrusion.” “There is nothing to forgive.” The general motioned Eucharius to a seat on the other side of the table. “I am glad to see you.” “And you, father.” Eucharius closed the door and held up a sketch. “I was going to leave it on your desk as a surprise. But since you’re here….” Eucharius had his mother’s bright eyes and disarming demeanor, her sense of balance and his father’s physique. The general looked at the sketch. Eucharius had depicted him in battle armor, sword raised. A pose Eucharius had never seen, and yet the boy had captured the emotion of battle and endowed his father with the same qualities he’d given Pompey and Hannibal. “It’s remarkable,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t believe I am worthy of such honor.” 4 P.M. COUNT
Eucharius tilted his head. It wasn’t often his father’s emotions betrayed him. “What’s wrong, father?” The general smiled. “For thirty-five years, I’ve managed to fool your mother with regularity, but never once have my deceptions escaped your scrutiny. Even as a young child you saw through my best attempts to disguise my feelings.” “I’ve never seen you nervous before,” Eucharius reached out for his father’s arm. “Tell me, what troubles you. Is it the invading force?” he asked. “No. Their fate is sealed. They cannot prevail.” The general rubbed his hands together, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Eucharius, I know of your involvement in the Bacchus Brotherhood.” Eucharius did his best not to react but felt the blood flowing from his face. He’d only ever had one secret. At least until this moment, he believed he had one secret. “I am not disappointed with you or your choice. In fact,” the general swallowed his emotion, “I only mention it now because I need your help.” Eucharius’ eyes widened. Had he heard correctly? His father, general of all Roman armies, the man he respected above all others, had come to him for help. “I am here, father.” The general placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Thank you, Eucharius.” He removed his hand form his son’s knee, then walked to the front of the desk. “I promised myself that I would never do this….” “It doesn’t matter what it is, father. Ask and it will be done.” “I know your heart, Eucharius. You are a good man and I am about to put you, your sisters and your mother in great jeopardy. For that, I am sincerely sorry.” Eucharius didn’t know how to respond. He’d never seen this side of his father – he hadn’t even known it existed. He sat there, waiting for his father to continue. “The emperor is about to make a series of mistakes from which Rome will never recover and I am powerless to stop him. However, with your help, and the assistance of the 68
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Bacchus Brotherhood, I believe we can preserve some of the more crucial elements of Roman history.” “You know the Brotherhood is dedicated to preserving the old ways….” Eucharius stopped, reluctant to reveal too much. Christians were loyal to their God at the exclusion of all others and, given the chance, would destroy every image of ancient deity the world over. “And we will do so even if it means going against the will of the senate or the emperor himself.” The general nodded. “That’s why I’m coming to you, Eucharius. Shortly after I leave the city, the emperor will seize the gold held in the temple treasuries and burn the Sibylline Books.” Eucharius’ jaw slackened. His hands started to shake. “There must be a mistake. The books of Sybil are sacred. They’ve guided our people for seven centuries.” “Destroying the books is merely a distraction. The empire is broke. That is the dirty secret no one wants to discuss. The emperor needs the gold held in the treasuries of the pagan temples to continue his reign.” Eucharius thought his heart would stop beating. “Unfortunately for us, the emperor has chosen his path well. In fact, most of Rome will perceive this as a necessary step in unifying the Republic under one god.” “The Christian God,” whispered Eucharius. “This will no doubt bode well for the Bishop of Rome as he seeks to consolidate his power.” Stilicho nodded. “Regardless of the Emperor’s motive or the ancillary benefits to the Bishop of Rome, the emperor will attempt to pass off both the burning of the Sibylline Books and the sacking of all pagan temples as an effort to create a better, stronger Rome – no doubt, under the Christian God. But he won’t stop there; he will do everything within his power to erase the gods of our ancestors and rewrite the history of our people.” They were about to live the Brotherhood’s worst nightmare. “Eucharius, you should know that, as a Christian, I 4 P.M. COUNT
believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know we differ in this view. However,” he continued before Eucharius could object, “Jesus Christ taught that every man must choose for himself and while I choose to believe in the Christian faith, I would lay down my life to defend your right to make your own choice, whatever that choice may be. No one, not I, and certainly not a twelve-year-old emperor, should tell you what to believe. The ability to choose is the foundation upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ is built.” “And everyone who knows you, father, knows that you are a man of honor. Now if I may, how did you come by this information?” “For a sculptor, you are quite discerning when it comes to strategy.” Eucharius laughed. “I had a good teacher.” “Thank you. One of the emperor’s bodyguards – a man loyal to me – overheard a conversation between the emperor and Senator Braxtus, a naturally charming, and, dare I say, fatherly figure who lacks any semblance of genuine wisdom.” Eucharius leaned forward. “I must bring this matter to my brethren.” “I’m afraid you have little time. Once I’m out of the way, things will happen quickly.” “It’s going to be difficult. Our numbers are few and we have little influence within the senate, even less in the way of money with which to procure the support of even a junior senator, let alone one capable of challenging Senator Braxtus.” The general smiled. “I know how you feel.” Eucharius laughed. “I suppose you do.” “Deficiencies aside, you are not without hope. In fact, you are better positioned than you think.” Eucharius gave his father a look of disbelief. “You would do well to remember that a small, wellorganized force can prevail over a larger, seemingly more capable force under two conditions. First it must adhere to a well thought-out strategy that takes advantage of the 70
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superior force’s sense of invulnerability. Second, it must be motivated by a higher cause. I know that sounds trite, but I assure you, it is anything but. Do not underestimate the strength of a father’s love for his son, or the love you and your brethren of the Bacchus Brotherhood have for the history of Rome. Emotional attachments are remarkably powerful.” Eucharius heard every word his father said, but was lost in his own thoughts. Seconds passed in an eerie calm. “Father, may I share a few thoughts with you?” “Please.” “We are powerless to protect the monetary wealth of the temples. In my mind, it is already forfeit.” “Good. Never engage in a fight you cannot win and you cannot win that particular battle. The emperor will not stop until the gold from all the pagan temples is in his treasury. ” “Unfortunately, the emperor’s stated objective – burning the Sibylline Books – is a battle we cannot hope to win.” “I disagree with your conclusion. You can preserve the books by giving the emperor his victory.” “That doesn’t make any sense. If I give the emperor his victory, won’t the books be in ashes?” “Not if he doesn’t burn them.” Eucharius shook his head. “Forgive me, father, how can he have his victory if I preserve the books? The outcomes are mutually exclusive.” “What is the most powerful weapon in the inferior forces arsenal?” Eucharius grinned, “Deception.” “Lead him to believe he has indeed burned the Sibylline Books and both of you will walk away victorious.” Built by King Tarquin the Arrogant in 509 B.C.E. and later enlarged by his son, Servius Tullius, after a lucrative campaign against the Volscians in 534 B.C.E., the temple of Jupiter was the largest of Rome’s pagan temples. It was also home to the Sibylline Books, the oracular record of the mysterious and highly favored Sibyl of Cumae. Cresting the Capitoline Hill, Eucharius slowed his 4 P.M. COUNT
pace. Then, like an innocent child captivated with the first flower of spring, he stopped, gaping in open wonder at the gleaming white structure. How many times had he seen it? Hundreds? Thousands? And not once had he noticed the myriad details that made it beautiful: the deep, inviting porch, the delicately carved columns with their wide spacing, or how the temple used the very shadows it created to mask its masculine structure, converting what was an ordinary rectangle into something infinitely more complex and pleasing. One exquisite detail led to another as his gaze rose from the base of one column up the fluted shaft to the Doric capital, the architrave, the frieze – with its deeply carved oak trees, a symbol of Jupiter – the cornice and then to the golden roof with its terra-cotta antefixes. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The clay figures were dancing, moving left and right as if warning him away. It was a sign from the gods – they knew his purpose and would protect the temple’s treasure. He wanted to run, but his legs wouldn’t move. Frozen in place, he looked more earnestly. The antefixes weren’t dancing – it was an illusion. Now more curious than scared, he stared at the figures until he understood the method of the implied movements. What he initially perceived as motion was in fact a conspiracy of light, shadow and color. The red clay figures were not simply red: they were a multitude of colors that combined to give an overall appearance of red, much the way a field of grain is comprised of yellow, brown, tan, silver, black and white, but when viewed from afar appears golden. The images were also deeply carved, the depth and shadow enhancing the sense of movement begun by the subtle variance in color. Lowering his gaze to the temple proper, he noticed the same variations of color in the Luna white marble that sometimes glistened and sometimes simply blended into the background. Eucharius smiled. It was easy to see why the ancients attributed their efforts to the gods, if not to Jupiter himself. He shivered. They couldn’t possibly know he was coming… 72
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could they? He took a few breaths and looked around. Seeing no one, Eucharius mustered his courage and headed for the open door at the back of the porch. Protecting the Sibylline Books was the primary charge of the Flamen of Jupiter. Unlike most ancient relics, the books were never put on public display, never allowed out of the temple, and never examined by anyone other than the flamen. Of course there were rumored exceptions, the most famous of which was Cicero, who, after claiming to have read a few passages, said the prophecies were so vague as to be incomprehensible and, therefore, of no practical value. And yet the Books of Fate continued to guide the people of Rome for four hundred years after Ciceroâ€™s death. The Flamen of Jupiter were themselves an odd lot and subject to many arcane rules. They were not allowed to ride horses or eat certain foods. In fact, there were certain foods they could not even mention by name. Their manner of dress was especially peculiar. Inside the temple they wore curious multi-colored robes, but when venturing out they wore strange caps that covered not just their heads but much of their faces. Under no circumstances were they permitted to view the army in battle array or sleep outside the temple for more than three nights in a row, and in their absence, no one was allowed to sleep in their beds. Odd as they were, the Flamen of Jupiter had succeeded in protecting the books from all threats within and without the empire for more than a millennium and now Eucharius was about to violate the sanctity of the grandest of all the ancient temples, defy the greatest of all the gods, steal the most sacred of ancient relics, and break his own oath to Bacchus. All because he thought he could do what the flamen could not. Trembling under the weight of his own arrogance, Eucharius stepped inside the temple. The interior was even more beautiful than the exterior and, despite its age, looked as though it had been completed yesterday: the columns retained their original brilliance, unstained by dust or hands or the passage time, the altars square and crisp with 4 P.M. COUNT
sharp corners, their relief carvings fresh, replete with fine detail, the silk curtains the deepest red, bright and unfaded by the harsh Roman sun. Every detail, every accoutrement, appeared new when in fact all were centuries old. Emboldened by the absence of patrons and flamen alike, Eucharius walked straight through the public area to a dark, ancient door at the temple’s rear, counting his steps as he went. The door was ajar. He peeked down the long empty hallway, then pushed the door open. Eucharius entered the hallway and very carefully, very quietly, closed the door behind him. Lit by three torches, two on his left and one on his right, the hallway appeared longer than the temple itself. A sense of foreboding washed over him like the dark of night approaching across the open glade. He stopped. What he was doing was wrong. He swallowed hard and placed his hand on the door latch to leave. The click of a metal latch opening echoed down the corridor as the narrow door at the far end of the hallway opened. Eucharius froze. An elderly man, with tightly cropped silver hair, a long unkempt beard, and bright silver eyes that glowed brighter than the torches on the wall, appeared in front of the door, his white toga floating around him like a cloud, his silver eyes fixed on Eucharius as though…. “How much longer would you have me wait?” asked the man. Eucharius’ eyes widened. This man was expecting him, but how? Eucharius waved his hand. The old man’s expression didn’t change. Was he blind? Is that why his eyes glowed? “Come now. There is much to be done and precious little time in which to do it,” said the man before disappearing through the doorway at the end of the hall. Eucharius closed his eyes, tightening his grip on the door behind him. Then for reasons he could not explain, strode toward the door at the end of the hall. 74
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Walking slowly, counting his steps as he walked, he passed the first torch after just ten paces, the second after twenty. The hallway wasn’t nearly as long as it appeared. He looked to his rear, then to the door in front of him. Once again the deception was subtle; an innocuous series of cleverly placed features gave the hallway its improbable appearance: a slight upward slope, a gentle narrowing of the corridor itself, and a narrow door at the far end of the hall all conspired to give the appearance of extraordinary length. These flamen are clever. Eucharius had to turn his shoulders sideways to squeeze through the doorway. The room was cool and dark like night, but somehow bright and warm if not outright comforting in tone and feel. Eucharius looked up. Stars twinkled and a silver quarter moon hung above the corner molding where the wall met the ceiling. He looked at the odd little man standing in the center of the room. The man bowed his head. “We’ve been expecting you for some time.” “I think you have me confused with someone else. I ….” “You are the one,” said the old man, closing his eyes and bowing his head for the second time. “Who do you think I am?” asked Eucharius, with marked trepidation. “You are the protector spoken of by the Sybil of Cumae, almost a thousand years ago. Our time has come, yours has just begun. We must hurry. Tell me how my brothers and I may be of assistance?” Eucharius looked around the room. Only then did he see the other flamen, prostrate on the floor. The old man waved his arm, gesturing toward the men lying motionless on the floor, “This is for your protection. Only I will see your face and I will not be here when the soldiers come.” It was more than Eucharius was prepared to take in. “How do you…you called me the protector…how…?” 4 P.M. COUNT
“The Sybil of Cumae told us of you and your cause. The Books of Fate must be protected and though our order has done so for a millennium, we face a new threat, one we cannot hope to defeat, and must therefore turn the books over to you, that the record be preserved until the time man is prepared to receive them.” Eucharius felt his knees weaken. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe. He did. At least he wanted to. But this man was prepared to turn over the most sacred of relics in all of Roman history without so much as a single question. The old man sensed Eucharius’s apprehension. “You are the protector or you would not have seen our deceptions for what they are.” “I almost ran.” “And yet you are here.” Eucharius stammered, “How,” he paused, “how many books are there?” he asked, not sure why it mattered. The man gestured toward the nearest wall. Eucharius turned his head. Three books sat askew on an ornate shelf. The shelf ’s ostentatious design didn’t fit the spirit of the room. “Tell me what you see?” asked the old man. Eucharius hesitated. The man smiled, then waved an arm. Eucharius followed the man’s movement with his eyes and to his amazement; a wall lined with books came into view. “How did you do that?” “I did nothing. You simply opened your eyes to that which was always there.” The shelves ran the length of the wall and were filled with books, at least two hundred of them. “Which of these are the Sibylline Books?” asked Eucharius. “They are all the books of Sibylline.” “But there must be at least two hundred of them.” The old man smiled, “Then you see them all.” Eucharius’s knees were weak, his head was spinning, “But I am one man.” 76
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“Not one man. The Protector. And you are not alone; we will assist you in any way you require.” “I need to sit down for a minute.” The man motioned for him to take a seat where he stood. “Time is short. What is your plan?” “Deception,” said Eucharius, his voice soft, his mind distant. “A good plan when one is outnumbered.” Eucharius looked at the flamen face down on the floor before him, then back at the man. The old man motioned to the priests on the floor. “You needn’t worry about them. My brethren are far away from this place and cannot hear you. Please, enlighten me with your plan.” Eucharis bit his lip, looked at the priests, then at the wall of books. “I wasn’t expecting so many books. Three or four, maybe five. Certainly not two hundred. The emperor must have his victory….” he said, his voice trailing off as he spoke. “I agree, or he will never stop looking for them.” The old man knelt before him. “While the task is larger than you expected, it is no more challenging because of the number.” Eucharius still hadn’t recovered. With his eyes fixed on the books before him, he droned, “The emperor will come for the books. He expects to find them as they are and, when he does, he will destroy them. What we have to do is give him something that he believes is the Sibylline books but isn’t.” “Deception is a powerful tool.” Eucharius looked at the books again and shook his head. He’d never expected so many. “How many books are there? Exactly?” “Two hundred twelve.” For the first time that day, Eucharius smiled. “My father has two hundred twelve books in his library.” “An astonishing coincidence,” said the old man with a sly grin. “I don’t believe in coincidence,” replied Eucharius, his disbelief giving way to the reality of his situation. 4 P.M. COUNT
“Nor do I,” said the old man, noting the dawn of understanding in Eucharius’ eyes. Eucharius smiled, “We exchange the books in my father’s library with these. And if we exchange bindings, even if the emperor becomes wise to the deception and continues his search, he would never expect to find the Sibylline Books in the home of a Christian general.” “A sound plan,” said the man. “Shall we proceed?” “It would be best if we waited until nightfall.” “Night has already fallen. My brethren are prepared.” The flamen stood as if on command. Eucharius’ eyes darted left and right. “Their togas are black. They were white when I came in.” “Black, white, it is all the same. Only now you see differently,” said the man. Eucharius turned to him. “You too had a white toga when we began this conversation. Only when I turned did it change to black.” “You see more than most and yet you have much to learn. I will teach you what I can. Shall we proceed?”
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THE DIRECTOR AND ME Hemingway said writing isn’t hard. In fact, he actually said, “Writing is easy.” Of course he followed that with, “All you do is sit in front of the typewriter and bleed.” I’m living proof that his words are true. I’ve been working on my first novel for four years and I am bleeding like a shirtless hemophiliac after a head-first slide into second base. After writing hundreds of pages – most of them long since torn up in frustration – I’ve eked out a few good scenes, somehow managed a little character development, and have a vague idea where I want the story to go, but no way to get there because I can’t solve the most basic of plot elements. I keep telling myself that I am one good idea away from having a best seller and that if I just persevere, if I solve just one of the many problems with my story, the rest will follow. So here I am, an inmate in Federal Prison Camp Yankton, staring at a computer screen, unable to advance my story because – and you can imagine how difficult this is to admit after four long years of working on it – I don’t have a story. By the way, if you ever hear someone say, “You should write a book about that,” hit him. Hit him hard, and let him know that novels (this includes interesting memoirs) are complex and difficult to create; you need more than a beautiful woman with great legs and her own G6. You need intrigue and suspense, conflict, plots and subplots, foreshadowing and most of all your characters need somewhere to go; they need something meaningful to do; they need to be, well, characters. Hence, to be good, stories need to be interesting, and not just to the one creating them. One of my inmate buddies sees me staring at a blank computer screen and asks if I’ve met the director. My first thought is, what director? Obviously another poor sap finds himself incarcerated in FPC Yankton, but I ask myself what kind of director ends up in federal prison? Porn, it has to 4 P.M. COUNT
be porn. I tell him I haven’t met the director and go back to staring at the computer screen. He doesn’t take the hint, and can’t comprehend that I want to be alone with my thoughts. “Good news for you, Merriman,” he says. “According to Wikipedia, you are not the most notorious inmate in Yankton anymore. This director is.” I don’t know if this is the first time someone’s actually referred to me as notorious to my face or if it’s just such a stark reminder that most of America perceives me as such, but the affirmation really sets me back. Now, instead of thinking about my story, I am consumed by memories of the dark days that followed my confession: of satellite trucks parked outside my house, of an angry judge, and of former friends. With the woes I worked so hard to keep hidden away now roaming unabated through the open plains of my consciousness, I throw in the towel and head back to my housing unit, depressed and defeated, to lie on my bunk and mope. After dinner—two biscuits that should have been sent to the NHL as low-cost puck replacements, a white paste they referred to as gravy and a spoonful of green scrambled eggs (I don’t know why the eggs are green, they just are and frankly it’s a bit disturbing) but I’m in prison and my choices are limited—the two guys next to me are talking about the director. Seems everyone is talking about the director. Turns out he’s the real deal, a genuine Hollywood director who turned my all-time favorite book into a movie. A bell chimes in the fog of my mind. It’s Fate and her friend Destiny; they remind me directors are storytellers and suddenly I have a mission. This director guy doesn’t know it yet, but he is about to help me with my story. All I have to do is meet him. But there’s a problem. We don’t live in the same housing unit and I can’t just walk into his (it’s a rule), and introduce myself, which means I have to find him out on the yard (yard is tough-guy prison talk for walking track). So I do what every desperate, star-crazed idiot does. I stalk him. It sounds harder and creepier than it is. I have a vague 80
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physical description – he looks like he’s lost weight, gray hair, medium build, old – which, coming from a twentytwo-year-old can mean anywhere between thirty and eighty. The good news is: it’s summer and everyone’s outside. Except the director. It takes me three days to find him. I don’t hesitate. I walk right up to him and introduce myself, tell him I am writing a novel and ask if I can pick his brain. He isn’t thrilled for my company but stops short of dismissing me outright. Instead, he asks several hard questions – the same ones I’ve been asking myself, the same ones I can’t answer: what’s the plotline? How do your characters become ghosts? How does it end? I don’t have good answers for any of his questions. Worse, he is now looking at me like I’m a drama school flunky who thinks he’s an undiscovered star. So much for first impressions. Still, I’m not giving up. I have a dream and this guy is going to help me fulfill it. I see him again the next day. In fairness, I never ask if I can join him; rejection is a risk I’m not going to take. I walk up alongside him as he’s walking the track and start talking as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Three days and twelve miles later, he tells me the cold hard truth. I have nothing but a dream. Ironically, I am OK with that. Then in his next breath, he tells me, “If you want to write a novel, dissect one and tell me what you learn.” Now we are getting somewhere. This is quantitative. I understand quantitative. “Which novel?” I ask. “Any novel,” he says, then corrects himself, “No, pick one I know very well….” He raises his right index finger, “The Firm by John Grisham.” I read The Firm in three days, map it out, and meet the director on the track. When I tell him I have mapped out The Firm, he asks what the story is about. I start telling him all that happened. He stops me. “No, I asked what the story is about.” I am dumbstruck. Turns out I can’t see the trees for the forest and this guy’s way too smart to BS. I shrug. He sighs, then says, “It’s about a kid who graduates 4 P.M. COUNT
from law school and wants a BMW!” WOW. That was simple. If I’d read that book a hundred times I never would have deduced that. In fact, I still can’t read a book and summarize it in a sentence or two. Or thirty, for that matter. Thankfully, this too opens a dialog and soon we are once again talking about my story and it doesn’t take long to realize how far off course I am. Truth be told, I veered off course with the first idea – making my main character a ghost. It was an unnecessary distraction. Only when I ditch the really bad idea do I find the story! It still needs help, but I have the basis of a story. I had it all along, but wasn’t smart enough to see it. I go back to work writing, editing and deleting by day, walking and talking with the director every evening, reduce two hundred pages to ninety, then muster my courage to ask the director if he’ll read it. He smiles, takes the pages from my hand, then disappears for four days. I’m not ashamed to say that those were four long, agonizing days. When I finally see him again, he smiles, hands me back the ninety pages and says, “Look at page seventeen.” I turn to page seventeen. He’s circled a single paragraph. “That’s why this is a good story.” I’m thrilled he thinks it’s a good story but I don’t understand why he’s circled that one paragraph. I read the ninety pages again, then again, looking for context and I still don’t get it. The paragraph he’s circled has nothing to do with Michelangelo. It’s a conversation between the bad guy and his son. The father wants to deviate from the course laid three generations ago and the son isn’t happy. I ask the director to tell me what he likes about the discussion. “That’s the story!” he says emphatically. I blow out my cheeks. I still have no idea what he’s talking about. “The grudge is bigger than the protagonist. Most writers don’t develop meaningful conflict and judging by the blank expression on your face, you seem to come by your ignorance naturally.” And that’s the beginning of our friendship. It’s also the opening salvo in what will become the greatest literary 82
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educational experience of my life. In his next breath he asks what time I usually walk the track. When I grin, he sees the truth. I walk the track when he does. He suggests we meet every night at eight, which will give me time to write and leave us an hour to walk and talk. He tells me that’s how he and the screenwriter worked their way through one of his biggest films. Now we really were getting somewhere and the coolest part of it is, I think he’s more interested in helping me develop this craft than in merely completing my story. I spend the night thinking about our conversation. The paragraph he circled wasn’t planned. That discussion between the bad guy and his son just happened as I was writing. I keep thinking, keep analyzing every word and nuance of our conversation. It’s not the conflict between father and son that he zeroed in on, it’s the notion that the grudge has been in place for generations – one more aspect of the paragraph that just came out as I was writing. This can only mean one thing. I’m a natural. A week or so later, I’m in the computer lab, writing away. It starts raining, just a gentle spring drizzle. As the clock ticks closer to eight, the heavens open and the rain pours. Resigned to a night of reading on my bunk, I grab my jacket and head out, thinking the director’s too refined to walk in the rain. Instead, I find him waiting at the base of the stairs, rain dripping off his hair, his uniform soaked through. He’s drenched but smiling. “It’s really not too bad,” he says. “You up for a walk?” There isn’t a soul on the track and yet, here he is, ready to walk and talk about my story and, in that moment, I learn two valuable lessons: teachers are only happy when they are teaching and if you want to succeed, if you really want to be the best, you have to work at it and you have to work at it all the time, rain or shine, when it’s flowing easily, and when you’re struggling, when you feel good and when you don’t feel like working at all. We walk until they close the compound an hour later, both soaked, both enlightened by the unspoken lesson we 4 P.M. COUNT
shared. From that day forward we walk every night. It’s not always pleasant. The rain is cold in both spring and fall. The hundred-degree heat of summer is suffocating and subzero winds of winter bite our faces and numbs our toes. None of that matters. We walk and as we walk I can’t help but wonder how many aspiring screenwriters would willingly trade places with me. We talk about plot, suspense, foreshadowing and the art of telling a story. My favorite lessons are those he draws from his own life experiences, when he illustrates how the most elegant solutions to complex problems are often so simple we overlook them. We talk about challenges all storytellers face, like doubt and second guessing ourselves. We talk about rejection and how no one gets it right on the first go-round. About how writers need to write even if they end up deleting every single word they write. He reminds me that the path to the end is never straight and that we only see the pearl after complaining about the sand. Eleven months later, we’ve worked through 475 pages, created some great characters, put them in even more interesting situations, united Michelangelo and Niccolo Machiavelli, but the story has to come to an end and my assignment is to outline the ending. I spend a week working on it, finally get it fleshed out, share it with the director as we’re walking the track. When I finish, he stops walking, grabs my arm and says, “I think that’s a wonderful way to end your story.” His sincerity touches me deeply. I want to thank him for all he’s done for me, for the things he’s taught me, for the time he spent with me but I’m all choked up and I can’t speak. We walk half way around the track in silence, then he turns to me and says, “So, do you think it’d make a good movie?” I laugh and say, “Of course it would. You’ve been working on it for almost a year.” He smiles a wonderful, fatherly smile and says, “I may have fanned the flames, but you had the spark. Keep at it and call me when you get out.” 84
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BEST OF: 2009
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ABSENT PALLBEARER By Kyle Young, 2009 For Harry Nies, 1923-2007 First born grandson of a German wheat farmer. I hoisted a corner of the coffin the day your wife was laid to rest. Couldn’t bring myself to confess on your deathbed I was going to prison. In your office, turned final resting place, light blue paint hugs the walls. We hope that color or the rosary and braided wheat from Grandma’s hands comforted you. I took the midnight shift. Administering Albuterol and Ipratropium allowing you and a Bi-pap machine to breathe was the last time I saw you smile. Concerned with who looked after you. This last smile was better than infinite I love you’s. The tracheotomy took your voice, so many years ago, now too weak even to use an artificial voice box. Your smile told me that you were comfortable in my hands. I promise I will never forget. I walked out of your office across an aging wood floor. Only one of us knew this would be the last time we saw each other. Summoned to the chapel on the day you passed. 86
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Constrained in prison. I was unable to hoist a corner of the coffin laying you next to your wife. Forgive me Grandpaâ€”this is the life I chose.
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AJAX SOAP By Ryan Nordstrom, 2009 I count down my prison sentence with Ajax soap bottles— lemon ones that I use to wash my silverware and plastic bowls. I can’t stand the counting of days—3,000 of them for a drug and weapons offence. Months don’t sound very promising either—98.5 is too daunting a number. I almost went with years. 8.2 is a more manageable number, but at age nineteen that sounds like forever. So, I search for a lower and a more discrete solution—3.5 bottles of soap that will last my duration. It’s helped me quit thinking about how much time I have left, except for when I squeeze the last drop and fling the thing in the trash.
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SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES By Michael Belieu, 2009 Itâ€™s 2:15 a.m. as I slam the snooze button on the alarm clock. I need to get up and get a little caffeine into me before I even attempt to drag myself to work. This has to be one of the easiest things that I will do today. Because once I leave my home, I become part of another world that most will never see, or believe. I have been working at the Swift Independent Packing House for close to three years. We work twelve-hour days, six days a week, twelve months a year. We currently process three thousand, two hundred head of cattleâ€”per day. Process. Packing House. These are the terms that they would prefer to use. We slaughter heifers and steers, and the occasional calf will come across one of the big stainless steel, blood-soaked tables. This place has a purpose. A large portion of us consume red meat. I would just like to shed a little light on a darker side of the daily activities that go on behind these walls. I am approaching the bridge that leads to the plant. At approximately five miles away, you can already smell the stench that is coming off the surrounding neighborhood. The rendering plant that is connected to the slaughter floor is receiving a load of dead and bloated cattle, hogs and possibly an occasional sheep or horse. Even at over five miles the smell is so foul and acrid I can feel the bile in my stomach start to rise. I used to pack a lunch but I can no longer eat until long after I leave for home. This is my second month working in the rendering plant. It has proven to be the most difficult. Right after I punch in, I am escorted to my work area by an employee of the U.S.D.A. Amongst the piles of dead bodies, piles of hides that once covered them and the large vats of cooking shit and flesh, these gentlemen look out of place. With their 4 P.M. COUNT
long white coats, hip wader rubber boots and the clipboards they all carry. As we reach our destination, a fifteen foot by fifteen foot square cage with two levels, I work the upper deck and there is a guy below me that has a stranger job than I. After I am let in he gives me the nod with a halfassed smirk upon his face, then proceeds to put a band or seal on the caged door. This is basically a lock to keep me in and everybody else out. Oh, itâ€™s not as bad as one might think. After all I can eat right here on the job and I have my own personal toilet and running water. They have been killing upstairs for close to an hour now. I can hear the rumble of machinery and I can feel the cold air from the refrigerated cutting rooms. I am just below the kill floor and to my right is an opening that is where we are connected. The clear plastic drapes are starting to shift and separate to reveal the strong odor of manure, blood and rotting flesh. My job is simple: catch the entire overflow from the kill floor. The paunches (stomachs), abscessed livers, lungs, hearts and whatever else may come down the chute, including the unborn calves. The paunches are usually filled with water and grain to give them a little extra weight. This makes for a really shitty mess when they hit the wall of the chute. I have no idea when or how many or how fast they are coming. I might get between fifty and seventy-five in on a good day. The guys upstairs think itâ€™s funny to make a small slit down the length of the bag, so that when it hits the wall it will send a shower of manure and corn, and whatever else that particular beast has ingested, covering me and the guy below and all that is within a twenty-foot radius. This happens continually throughout the day. I never see these people, therefore I have never been able to thank them properly. I grab the slippery, gelatinous bag of fat and liquid shit, and slit it the rest of the way across the lower portion. In front of me are two augers, one for the contents which is used for fertilizer, and the other that is for the remainder 90
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of the paunch and everything else to be transformed into dog food. As I cut into it, a huge combination of wind and gas hits me in the face. At the same time I realize that I am making some sort of facial expression that has left my mouth open. And instantly I can taste the effects of my mistake. Only then do I also realize that I am covered in blood as well as manure. This goes on throughout the morning. I look down and see the dude from the U.S.D.A. coming my way. The floor is covered in guts and crap overflowing from one of the large cookers. I fight to hold back a smile as he slips and comes close to falling. He finally makes it to my area, gives me the nod, says to be alert; there is a calf coming down pretty soon. I lift a flap on my table and peer down at the fellow below me. I whistle and give him the thumbs up signal. He flips me the bird, smiles, and starts the motor on his compressor. The calf slams into the wall with tremendous force, sending the same spray of fluids that I have been enjoying all day. To my surprise, theyâ€™ve sent a little present along with it. It is the remainder of a skull from a full-grown steer. The eyes, the tongue and all of the skin on the top of its head and part of its nose. I do my daily ritual and pull out one eye, slice it wide open to release the clear gel from within. Then I toss the entire thing down into the auger where it will end up in some lucky dogâ€™s bowl. I grab the calf by the front legs and pull it towards me. I try not to look into the big black eyes that always just stare back. I bang on the table, lift the flap, the downstairs neighbor flips me off again, and gives me the okay to drop her away. He is standing next to the table with a needle about twenty inches long. There are tubes and wires and bags setting near. There is also a cooler on the floor with several bags of ice and a block of dry ice. He catches the calf and starts flipping him around on the table until he gets him into the position he desires. He jabs the needle deep into the chest of the thing, and I can immediately see the compressor kick in and go to work. 4 P.M. COUNT
The little bags that are hanging there begin to fill up with what was once the life force of this creature. I think he gets about four to six pints of blood from this particular calf. He strips off his gloves, throws the bags of blood into the chest with the ice, slams the lid down, flips me off and away he goes. To my understanding, this has to be taken as quickly as possible to a lab at Iowa State University for some type of research. There are no more calves expected today. Sunday rolls around and we are in for a special treat. Once every three months we have the opportunity to get in a little overtime. They ask for fifteen volunteers to come in and work a twenty-hour shift. This is the only time that this specific job can be done. There is a large pit that is used to serve two purposes. The first is to hold the rock salt that is used during the process of curing the hides. There is a combination of salts and acids amongst other chemicals to soak, cure, and prepare the hides to be stored and shipped all over the U.S. The other use for these large tanks is to catch the entire overflow from the vats that the hides cure in over night. The hides go directly into these vats immediately after the kill, where they must soak for at least twenty-four hours to start the cure. The tanks are divided into four individual tanks that are twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet deep. We are going to clean one tank today. We will work in rotating groups of fives. Five up, five in the pit, five on rest or reserve. The five in the pit are given pitchforks to begin. Everybody is also given a set of rubber hip waders. This all sounds simple enough, right? I may have left out a few details! The overflow from the vats is a combination of hair, manure and fat from the hides. This collects on top of the salt and is often in a stage of buoyancy as a reaction to the salt. It has the appearance of a large tub of root beer. On top of this mass of floating hair is about a foot of maggots. Yes, twelve inches of live maggots. When you step out into the pit, the first thing that happens is you start to sink. You will not sink very far, as long as you keep moving. So you need to keep taking little steps back and forth, side to side or just 92
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in small circles. This will help you to stay on top. The smell is incomprehensible. Nothing I have described previously will even come close. Overhead a large dump bucket, like one that might be used on a construction site transporting concrete, moves into position. It is lowered down by chain hoist operated by the foreman, who gives us the OK to begin. We take turns using our forks to dig and heave the loads into the bucket. Since we are dealing with a wet and moving substance, it is impossible to avoid wearing it. We encircle the bucket, do our little shuffle/ dance around each other and try to keep a furious pace, so that we may please the boss. When we get within five feet of the bottom, one of our guys is tired of moving in circles. The quicksand-like muck pulls him down. He has stopped moving, thinking that he will be OK. It is obvious he cannot do anything. We just look at him and shake our heads. We are using pitchforks. There is no safe way to dig him out. We decide to try to use the hoist to pull him free. We get a two-and-a-half-inch woven hemp rope, toss it down to him and have him tie it around his legs through his groin area, and then back up around his waist. He does as we instructed, and we attach it to the hoist and begin to lift. At first it seems to be helping, so we continue to pull. All of a sudden the look on his face tells us a completely different story. At the same time that we see the rope go from tight to loose, we hear a whooshing, sucking noise ending with a loud pop! He comes up out of the muck with a shriek of pain. Both of his legs have been pulled out of socket. Needless to say, he will forfeit three hours of his pay. We continue to work non-stop until we hit the bottom. They drop a ladder down to the last five in the pit and they scramble to the top. Twenty hours at $8.50 per hour, times two. We have to take a break, get a bite to eat and maybe get a short nap. Monday morningâ€™s shift starts in about thirty minutes.
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TRAILER PARK QUEEN By Justin Brooks, 2009 Zelpha Jean could be downright ruthless when it came to people that lived in one of her three trailer parks. Since she was my grandmother, and my parents raised my siblings and me in one of her parks. I have seen people get evicted for just about everything. Grandma firmly believed that “her” parks were held to a higher standard. I never could quite figure out who on earth, or in God’s Kingdom for that matter, would try to hold her to those standards. Grandma was a firery redhead who could detect bull crap at a moment’s notice. Like most redheads, she was sharp, feisty, intelligent, outspoken, and the most independent person I will ever know. Her nickname was Rusty, which was written on a brown and tan trucker hat that she often wore. Back in the 1980s, trailer parks were kind of a booming business in Oklahoma. They were cheap to live in, so there was always a waiting list to get in. When most people think of trailer parks, they instantly think “white trash.” That wasn’t the entire case here. It was like a small community; everyone knew everyone. There was even a public pool with a clubhouse that could be rented for a good ol’ fashioned trailer park hoedown. Grandma usually had park managers to run things for her because she lived in Hiezer, KS. But when there wasn’t anyone for the job, she would have to manage the park herself. When she ran things, if she didn’t like what a person was doing, she would evict him or her on the spot. It didn’t matter. One time, when I was around ten years old, she had to run the park. I stayed the night with her and the next morning the phone started ringing. She answered it in her typical authoritarian way, “Neumyer Trailer Park. This is 94
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Rusty. How can I help you?” I don’t know who was on the other end, but she instantly started getting red-faced and demanded, “He has what?!” As soon as she hung up the phone, she started dialing animal control and told me to find her car keys. By the tone of her voice, I knew someone was going to get evicted. I had never been a part of a person’s eviction and was eager to see Granny in action. Grams and Mom would often talk about evictions and even laugh about some of the bizarre and weird situations that people can fall into. We got into her ‘85 Lincoln Town Car and headed down to Lot 123. It was the Shipley’s place. They were always driving Grandma mad, but for some reason, she had a soft spot for them. Their place looked like a trailer a person might find down in the swamps, with junk piled all around it, disabled cars and parts everywhere, and cats and dogs running rampant. If anyone was to be a prime example of an eviction waiting to happen, it was these people. When we turned the corner, a red chicken darted across the road with Mr. Shipley fast on its heels, and four more were standing in the road clucking away. She turned to me and asked in a very docile voice, “Justin, was that a chicken?” I, myself, was completely dumbfounded. Chickens didn’t live in the city, much less a trailer park that was in the middle of a city. Mr. Shipley was chasing chickens around, and waving at us, when the animal control vehicle pulled up behind us. Needless to say, the chickens were taken away because there was a city ordinance against it. Grandma got out of her car and said to Mr. Shipley in a very stern way, “Robert! What are chickens doing in my trailer park?” Mr. Shipley replied, “Rusty, I got ‘em from a pal of mine.” Then he gave her that snaggle-toothed grin of his that almost made my stomach turn. “Where on Earth did you think you were going to keep them?” Robert, being the Honest Abe type that he was, stated, “Oh! I’ve had ‘em for ‘bout a month now. Been keepin’ ‘em 4 P.M. COUNT
right under my trailer. Best damn eggs I’ve ever eaten.” It took Grandma a minute or so to even comprehend what he had just said, and she held her composure quite well. In a controlled manner, she said, “Robert. I’ve had it. Get your shit and get out of my trailer park. I’ll give you thirty days. If you are not out by then, I’m calling the cops.” Mr. Shipley just kind of stared at her and asked, “Now, why am I gittin’ runned off?” It was Grandma’s turn to stare dumbfounded. She then stated, “You are being evicted because you had chickens living under your trailer. Under no circumstances will I allow farm animals to live in this trailer park.” Grandma had many rules for her tenants to follow. In fact, everyone who lived in the trailer park had to sign a list of rules. If they weren’t followed, then that was grounds for eviction. Everyone knew this. Robert started grinning when he stated to Grandma, “Rusty. I looked over them there rules you had me sign, and I didn’t see nothin’ ’bout not havin’ chickens.” Grandma just said, “Get out of my park, Robert.” Then she turned around and we left, and the Shipleys were gone in the allotted time she gave them. Looking back on all of the experiences I’ve had with my grandma, it’s really hard to write about her in just a few short pages. She was a very remarkable woman who put family above all else. At the same time, she carried enough authority over other members of the family that if someone didn’t make it to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, well, that just didn’t happen. Even my great uncles, who hardly ever spoke to each other, were at these dinners because of Grandma. Zelpha Jean Clark left her mark on this world and in the lives of the people around her.
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Edward Allen Edward Allen grew up in the small rural town of Arcadia, FL. After graduating from Florida Southern College in 1998 with a degree in business, he pursued a career in financial services and real estate investing. Edward is a novice writer who joined the Creative Writing program in hopes of developing his hidden writing talents.
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I WANT.... I want to lie down in a bed that is soft and comfortable; not one worn out in the middle with creaking springs that cause backaches and a new fatigue to replace the one left from the previous day. I want to sleep through the night in a quiet, dark room, no longer having my sleep interrupted by guards’ flickering flashlights and jangling keys doing counts, or snoring cellmates, or coughs, or conversations, or boots stomping off the snow after inmates return from their pre-dawn breakfast. I want to enjoy a few hours of reading in a comfortable chair in a quiet corner of my house, alone, no longer having my inner world interrupted by the perpetual presence of other inmates, announcements over loudspeakers, or fellow inmates who believe it’s OK to use me for their entertainment, on-demand. I want to just flip through the channels and watch the TV show that catches my attention, no longer forced to watch a pre-planned schedule of shows, or contend with fifty other inmates’ opinions, or endure the noise pollution of a TV room packed with a hundred other inmates. I want to text, chat, call, or FaceTime my mom whenever the mood hits me, because I love her, miss her, and thought of her randomly during my day. I no longer want the intimacy of my relationships to be constrained by three-dollar phone calls that last only fifteen minutes and are interrupted periodically by a recording, “This call is from a Federal Inmate.” I want to feel thankful, grateful, happy, and at peace, no longer struggling against the feelings of being tired, frustrated, annoyed, and depressed. I want to feel an attitude of gratitude as my response to a great day, no longer using gratitude as an exercise of will to reframe my emotions and fight against the slippery slope of 98
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self-pity. I want to make amends, to repay my debts, to rebuild trust, to recover relationships, no longer stagnant while enduring the punishment, the abandonment, the shame, and the loss. I want my heart to swell with vision, ambition, hope, and excitement for my life and the future. No longer do I want to be oppressed by shame, embarrassment, disillusionment, and regrets. I want for this to be over....
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LEARNING TO DRIVE Daddy eased our little brown Jeep through the wire gap. The trailer squeaked and groaned as it bumped through the gate, complaining bitterly of its struggle under the heavy load. I stood at attention. I was holding the end post of the wire gap and presenting my best version of a twelveyear-oldâ€™s salute. My self-appointed duty, as copilot of the fence building crew, was the role of official gate opener. My job, at least I believed it to be, was to launch myself out of the still rolling Jeep, at precisely the exact moment when Dad first depressed the brake pedal. This precision timing would allow me to transfer the Jeepâ€™s momentum directly into my super-human feat of running, triple my normal speed, toward the gate. Success was achieved only if I could manage to fully open the gate and allow the Jeep to pass through without ever having to come to a full stop. Most attempts failed, of course. A premature launch would shoot me forward with more speed than my little legs could contain, resulting in an uncontrolled stumble, possibly even a faceplant. Or, if I let out too late, then the Jeep would beat me to the cattle gap and reach a full stop before I could get the gate open. And these initial challenges didnâ€™t even take into account the wide range of possible complications and problems I would face when trying to actually open the gate. On most cross fences in our cattle pastures, the economical choice was to forgo an aluminum pipe gate and instead to install a wiregap consisting of five strands of barbed wire attached to two end posts spanning the length of the gate opening. The act of closing the gate leveraged the top of the post into a tight wire loop, stretching the whole gate taut. At twelve, I had grown just big enough to have sufficient strength to manage the gates in the first place, so I took my job as gate-opener very seriously. This was one of the reasons I loved the Jeep. During good weather, Dad would take the removable doors 100
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off, which tremendously increased my odds of success, and also my thrill of flinging myself from the moving vehicle. As I stood at attention, I pretended to be inspecting the one-vehicle convoy as it passed. The Jeep CJ-5 had a plastic and vinyl top, a few shades lighter brown than the vehicle’s body. My cheek tightened with a slight twitch of disapproval as my inspection revealed the Jeep was adorned with an insufficient coating of mud. The Jeep, in my opinion, needed a good thick layer of caked-on mud behind each fender splattering up the sidewalls to properly display its true personality of grit and invincibility. A lightweight frame and body, a high torque little in-line six, and the final touch of a front bumper winch meant it just wasn’t possible to get this little badass buggy so stuck you couldn’t get her out again. With the top off, our Jeep became the Swamp Buggy. The flatbed trailer creaked angrily as it was dragged up and out of a hole the old bull had dug. The trailer was fully loaded with a bundle of light green pressure-treated line posts, a half dozen of the much bigger corner posts, six rolls of spiky barbed wire, and two five-gallon buckets of fence building tools and supplies. The trailer was homemade, put together from an old boat trailer’s tongue and axle. It had an angle iron frame that Dad had Gorilla Glue welded—beads that are ugly but strong. The trailer had side rails about a foot high and a two-by-six wood decking bolted into place. Not much to look at, but an indispensable tool for the fence building operation. I jumped back into the Jeep and we bumped along across the pasture. We made our way to the back of the 200 acres where Dad had prepared a path for the new cross fence the week before, using the big tractor and a box blade. I wasn’t sure what we would be doing first, but I was excited to start the project. I was a little surprised when Dad left the Jeep running as he pulled alongside the space where the new fencerow was to start. He stepped out of the Jeep nonchalantly, walked the to the trailer tongue and unhooked the trailer from the back of the Jeep. I gave him a quizzical look and delivered the unspoken question, “What’s up? 4 P.M. COUNT
Why’d you unhook the trailer?” He ignored my questioning look and said, “Get back in the Jeep, I have something else for you to do. I am going to come back here and build the H-brace to start the fence, so I’ll just leave the trailer here for now.” Confused but eager and easily persuaded, I jumped back in the Jeep as Dad turned the vehicle out toward open pasture and drove about fifty feet away from the side fence and the now lonely trailer. Out of nowhere, Dad began explaining a few things about the Jeep. All stuff I had heard before. I couldn’t make sense of why he felt the need to enumerate these facts to me now. “When you put it into four-wheel drive and down into the granny gear, you can basically drop the clutch and the Jeep still won’t stall out. Otherwise moving through all four gears and reverse works the same. You only need to remember two things for safety: 1) don’t turn too sharp because this puts too much pressure on the front U-joints, so just keep the turns wide and smooth when using fourwheel drive, and 2) if anything weird or dangerous is happening, just cut the key off so you can figure things out before breaking something.” And with that, he wobbled the gear shifter into neutral, stepped out of the idling Jeep, and said, “OK, Buster, get over here and learn how to drive.” Fear and excitement were at equal proportions as I slid over into the driver seat. Dad reached under my legs releasing the seat lock and slid the driver’s seat all the way forward. Even so, I could barely see over the steering wheel or reach the pedals. Dad smiled in amusement at my expression of bewilderment and shock. He encouraged me with a few more instructions. “You’ll do good. Just ease out on the clutch, like I’ve showed you. I want you to try shifting through all the gears and try backing up too. Just don’t go too far or get going too fast. Keep a lookout for the bull holes and try not to run over any of the cows.” He turned and walked away, back toward the trailer and the space on the fencerow where the new cross fence would be started. I eased myself up to the edge of the seat and peered out over the steering wheel. A half-mile of open pasture ahead 102
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of me, a quarter-mile of open pasture on both sides. Like a giant grassy parking lot. Thankfully, almost all of the cows were grazing on the far side of the pasture. Well, better get to it, I thought to myself. My hands were already sweating and my heart racing with nervous energy. My left leg quivered in strain as I pushed the clutch all the way in and eased the gear shifter into first gear. Exhaling a full breath and gripping the wheel for dear life, I tried to ease out the clutch. But my untrained leg muscles couldnâ€™t hold against the pressure. The pedal popped up and the Jeep lunged forward, bucking again and again, flopping me against the seatâ€”rrrghh, rrgghh, rrgghh. I stood up on the clutch with all my weight pulling with my all my arm strength to keep me forward in the seat. The Jeep stopped bucking but my uncoordinated right foot was all the way down in full force too, trying to match the left one on the clutch, so the engine screamed out as it raced up to redline RPMs. Fear from the sound of the racing engine caused me to jump back into the seat, releasing both pedals and sending the Jeep into another round of bucking, rrgghh, rrgghh, rrgghh. Thankfully, I found the gas pedal before I could push in the clutch and the little Jeep steadied out into a three-mile-an-hour crawl. I looked in the rear-view mirror to see Dad pull supplies off the trailer with his back to me, either unconcerned or unaware of my rough start. For the next hour, I made laps around the pasture, taking my dream machine through its paces, learning how to coordinate the pressure of two legs across three pedals, while shifting gears and weaving around the bull holes. My driving lessons continued over the next couple of days. I practiced driving while Dad built the two H-braces to anchor each end of the new fence. A few days later, when the corners were built and the barbed wire had been strung and stretched tight, it was time to lay out the line posts. Graduation from driving school came when I became the driver of both Jeep and trailer. Dad drove the trailer parallel to the stretched-out barbed wire and instructed me to just 4 P.M. COUNT
ease along and listen for further instructions. He was going to walk alongside the trailer and pull the fence posts off at the proper spacing. I was just big enough to drive the Jeep, but not yet quite man enough to throw the posts. But neither was I, any longer, just the gate opener.
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THE MOST VALUABLE LESSON MY PARENTS TAUGHT ME Despite their best efforts, Dad and Mom weren’t able to teach me how to stay out of trouble. When I was three, Mrs. King called Dad and Mom down to the church nursery, out of the Sunday morning service, because she wasn’t sure how to handle my— situation. She had tried to keep me safe, but I just had a way of getting into trouble. I was crying, Dad was giggling, and Mom just held up a tissue and said “Really hard now, Eddie, blow.” I snorted the hardest I could and shot out the sandspur that had been lodged in my right nostril. At home after church, I was afraid, thinking I would get a spankin’. But after I explained to Dad that I had just been trying to scratch an itch way up in my nose, he just laughed and said, “It’s OK, Buddy. I love you. We were just worried.” When I was five, on a Saturday morning trip to RB’s Foodway grocery store, my grandpa, Avner Allen, caught me with my skinny little arm jammed up in the bubble gum machine. He had tried to keep an eye on me, but I just had a way of getting into trouble. I had a half-dozen of those plastic bubbles scattered around me on the floor and a pocket full of the quarter toys and gumballs. Grandpa turned me over to Dad, who paid the grocery store manager for the cost of my loot. At home, after dinner, I got another of my many whoopin’s, and Dad said, “It’s OK, Buster. I love you. I was just disappointed you hurt Papa’s feelings—embarrassing him like that.” When I was about thirteen, Principal Kline called Dad to let him know the details of the “water-balloon incident.” He reassured my dad that, since he had already administered a paddling at school and since he knew I 4 P.M. COUNT
would be dealt with sufficiently at home, he saw no need to suspend me. He was confident my dad would help ensure I would show exemplary behavior for the rest of the year. He had tried to teach me not to be so mischievous, but I just had a way of getting into trouble. At home, I told Dad all about filling the water balloons while we were on the seventh-grade canoeing field trip, about throwing them out the bus window into the passing traffic, and “accidentally” getting a direct shot on the woman’s truck windshield. I told him how she had followed the bus all the way back to the school and then had gone berserk cussing and screaming at the bus driver until the principal had arrived. After a few hours for a “cool down” period, Dad administered my second paddling of the day and told me, “This behavior is not acceptable, but I still love you, and (after two weeks of restrictions), everything will be OK, I’m just frustrated with you.” When I was seventeen—on the Thursday night before our family’s Saturday morning departure for the spring break snow-skiing trip, a half-hour after I had gotten home minutes before my midnight curfew—Dad came into my room to tell me we had to go down to the sheriff ’s office. I calmly explained that I had no idea what Randy and Jody had gotten themselves into and that I was definitely innocent of any alleged crimes. After separate-room interrogations with a large sheriff ’s deputy putting the fear of God in us, I confessed to being the mad scientist behind the homemade pipe bomb that had blown apart our buddy Ray Frazier’s mailbox. Sheriff Varnadoe had tried to keep the community’s teenagers within the bounds of law and order, but I just had a way of getting into trouble. After another three hours of ordeal, which included the bomb squad from the next county, traveling two hours to secure all bomb-making paraphernalia from my bedroom— carefully depositing it into the lead bunker box for transport to the controlled detonation site—and both the county sheriff and the chief of police arriving at my house at three in the morning to reassure my dad of their friendship and 106
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support for our family, I was released back to my parents’ custody so we could get some sleep before my nine o’clock arraignment. The cool-down period was skipped this time and Dad executed my flogging in the living room. His face full of tears and deep pain in his eyes, he said, “I am just so hurt that you lied to me.” The newspaper read, “School Board Member’s Son Arrested,” and the judge decided on community service and a sealed juvenile record, but Dad said, “Son, I love you. We are going to leave all this behind us, forget about it for now, and go on family vacation tomorrow. Then we’ll deal with it when we get back—as a family.” It took some time, but everything would be OK. When I was 36, Dad and Mom were sitting in the courtroom as the federal judge read my charges in preparation for my sentencing. The indictment narrated how my real estate investment company had devolved as the housing market crashed. How the promises I made to my investors had become broken and how my failures resulted in so many losing so much. A few of my victims shared how catastrophically they had been impacted: savings lost, trust lost, dreams lost, hopes lost. I thought back to the college degree my parents helped provide, my lifetime of having been raised by a father and mother who modeled sound character, and the long list of men and women who had mentored and discipled me. The judge acknowledged the presence of my dad and mom in the courtroom and confirmed receiving their letter of support. The judged thanked my parents for their attendance and acknowledged how they had expressed their unconditional love and support for their son. Then the judge announced my sentence—ninety months of incarceration in a federal prison. This time, everything was not going to be OK. Despite their best efforts, Dad and Mom’s attempts at teaching me to stay out of trouble just never seemed to take hold. But through their response to all of my troubles, my parents have taught me a lesson far more profound 4 P.M. COUNT
and a lesson that has represented a gift of far greater value: absolute, irrevocable, unconditional love. At the points when my past behaviors summon my deepest sense of shame and regret, I draw vision and strength for a better future by recalling my mother’s words as we left the courtroom that day: “Remember, son, your best actions don’t define you, but neither do your worst ones. This too shall pass. And we will always love you.”
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BEST OF: 2010
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ALFALFA By Willow Springs, 2010 “Meet me outside in five minutes,” I whispered in my son’s ear, leaning over to where he sat next to me at the dining room table. Zen looked up at me, our matching blue eyes meeting in silent agreement. For my idea to work we would have to slip out of the house without his two sisters taking notice, and after having to be apart from each other for the last three months I knew we could use a few moments, just the two of us, father and son. Zen’s mother and I had been separated for almost a year, and as a result I had ended up back in Iowa, four hundred miles from Zen and his two sisters in Ohio. I finished eating the barbeque chicken and fried potatoes in front of me, savoring the last few bites of home cooked food and soaking in the unique energy created when my whole family is together in one place. I am blessed to have an intelligent and witty family, our gatherings filled with interesting conversation and bursting with laughter. As Woody, my younger brother, starts telling a particularly funny story, the family’s attention is engaged; Zen takes advantage and quietly slips away from the table. I wait a few seconds and then stealthily follow. We tiptoe out the front door; I’m careful not to let it slam, the sounds of laughter following us out of the house. We step outside into the warm summer evening; the orange glow of dusk lights the yard and the sounds of crickets, cicadas, and tree frogs drown out the now-muffled conversations within the house. Fireflies fill the evening air forming ever-changing constellations against the darkening trees. I look down at my son as we silently soak up the world around us. I can see in him, even at the young age of seven, a mature appreciation for the beauty and magic of these moments. 110
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It amazes me how much of myself I see in the boy. My mother, his grandmother, tells me he is a mirror image of me at that age: ash blond hair, bright blue eyes, always smiling, and unusually big for his age. He is unselfish with other children, polite and well-mannered with adults and gentle, showing a tender patience for his four-year-old sister. My ex-wife, Annie, on the other hand, had her own opinion. “He is just like me at that age,” I tell Annie after Zen had passed her the phone. “He is better than you, better than you could ever be,” she replied coldly, without the slightest hesitation. “You’re right,” I shamefully conceded. That was the first thing we had agreed upon in years without an argument. We walk to the edge of the forest that surrounds the clearing where my parent’s house stands. “Where are we going, Dad?” Zen asks me, his eyes probing into the dark woods. “You’ll see, bub,” I respond, “but you have to be very quiet; otherwise they will hear us coming.” “Who will hear us coming?” he asks as he looks up at me, his brow wrinkled, eyes curious. “You’ll see. Now do you think you can manage to stay quiet?” He looks up at me with his lips pursed and nods cooperatively, already dedicated to the task at hand. “Are you ready?” Furious nodding. I take his small hand in mine and we plunge into the forest. Within a few steps we are engulfed within a shadowy world. Giant white oaks, centuries old, tower above us, limbs reaching into the night sky; their silver-barked trunks look like ancient pillars glowing in the twilight. The path, a grassy field access, is lined on both sides by dense underbrush; the sounds of the night grow more intense with every step we take. To our left, out of sight, something fourlegged crashes through the thicket, spooked by our passing. 4 P.M. COUNT
I look down expecting to see Zen’s face anxious with fear, but my heart swells with fatherly pride when I find a big smile and his eyes alight with excitement. I realize that he is actually pulling me along the path, completely fearless, eager to explore the dark forest’s mysteries. This is the forest of my childhood, eighty acres of old timber that filled my young world. Woody and I would spend every day tromping through these woods, limited only by the scope of our imagination. Whether we were building a fort and defending it against some phantom foe, swimming in the winding, sand-bottomed creek down in the valley or camping out under the stars with only ancient oaks to keep a watchful eye, my fondest memories, my limited existence, was defined under this majestic canopy. Now as we walk silently under those same oaks, I happily imagine those same watchful eyes peering down at little Zen, and those old souls nodding to each other in approval. I am so grateful that my son can share in the wonder of this place. It’s strange the way life directs one’s path. As I grew into a teenager, these woods, this pristine corner of the world, began to feel suffocatingly small. So I left, thankless of everything that this place had given and taught me. I soon found myself far away, living in the suburbs of a large, dirty city, completely surrounded by the grimy grinding gears of mankind. Time passed, as it always does, and I started a family of my own. One day as I watched Zen play within the limited confines of our postage-stamp yard, I began to realize how fortunate I had been, how much I missed those woods, and how I wanted him to have at least a taste of the same experiences I had at his age. It’s strange how sometimes you have to run so far from a place before you realize that place is where you belong. The path begins to brighten ahead of us as we approach the forest’s border. I stop, crouching down so I am at eye level with Zen. “All right,” I whisper, “when we get to the edge of the field we’re going to have to kneel down and crawl so they don’t see us, okay?” Zen nods, big blue eyes 112
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sparkling with anticipation. I stay crouched over as we get closer to the field. I can now see the alfalfa’s green edge. I stand to full height for just long enough to look out into the field, and then quickly duck back down to avoid drawing attention. The field is full of white-tailed deer; there must be two dozen of them out there milling around, grazing in the last of the day’s light. I smile to myself, silently thankful for what is about to happen. As we come within a few paces of the alfalfa I drop down on all fours and begin to crawl, Zen the perfect mimic beside me. We creep into the nearly waist-high lush green plants, our movements masked, sounds of our travel muffled. As we crawl our bodies crush the alfalfa, releasing a rich fertile perfume; tiny grasshoppers jump on and away from us, giant intruders in their fodder paradise. We crawl on about fifty paces and I stop, Zen quickly halting beside me. I motion for him to peek above the short wall of plants in front of us and as he does, his eyes grow huge in an instant, his mouth falls open in awe. I cover his mouth with my hand and gently pull him next to me and then I cautiously take a peek. We have crawled within twenty feet of the deer, still lazily enjoying the endless grazing, heads occasionally popping up to casually look around. I put my head close to Zen’s so I can whisper as quietly as possible into his ear. “When I say go, run as fast as you can right at them.” He looks at me his face a swirl of confusion and disbelief, and then slowly nods his head. I grab his hand and smile, he answers with a squeeze and smiles back, his eyes glimmering in the fading light. “Go!” In an instant we are among the deer, running with them, alongside them, thick brown fur almost close enough to touch. Some stand right in front of us, momentarily frozen in fear, alert brown eyes startled, ears pricked up in surprise, then an explosion of motion like the release of a giant coiled spring. As they bound gracefully away, tails shoot up in warning, flashes of white in the dusk. Zen is sprinting along 4 P.M. COUNT
beside me, his hand held tightly in mine, his mouth open in yelps of joy. We run for what seems like minutes (but probably amounted to only fifteen seconds) before finally stopping. On the far edge of the field one remaining deer stands looking at us, seems to bristle with disgust, then turns and walks into the trees, disappearing into the forest, the sounds of its passage slowly fading away. We both laugh gleefully, in giddy disbelief over what we had just experienced. I look down at Zen as we stop laughing, the last of the day’s sun lighting up my son’s smiling face. When he makes eye contact I see his eyes fill with tears and my heart breaks. This time I am the perfect mimic; soon tears are rolling down my cheeks, months of lonely sadness pouring out. I reach down and pick him up, pulling him into my arms and hold him close to me. “I love you so much Zen,” I whisper, my voice suddenly hoarse. “I love you too, Dad,” his warm tears mingling with mine as he presses his face into the crook of my neck. I hold him for a few moments more, hesitant to ever let go of him again and then gently set him back on his feet. We both wipe the tears off our face with the backs of our hands, an act of momentary embarrassment, then our smiles return as we see each other doing the exact same thing. I take Zen’s little hand in mine and we turn and start walking back to the house, night falling around us.
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THE COMPOUND OF YANKTON By John Merrill, 2010 A small brown leaf in the green grass sits, isolated from the men on the compound of Yankton. One man waits to do pull-ups, while another stretches his leg preparing to jog the yard, his radio tuned to news, sports, or music only his ears know. A nearby tree reflects perfectly in a clear puddle mirror as overcast clouds move across the grayish sky above; the man begins raising his hanging body and lifting his chin over the cold steel bar on the compound of Yankton. Suddenly a funny clown horn is honked. The black rubber bulb is squeezed by a man wearing an official uniform. He is known as â€œC.O.â€? and his mode of transportation is a three-wheeled bike. His spinning wheels travel past men shoveling and raking sand in a makeshift volleyball court. The closest thing to a beach many will see for years, where at night I run my feet through coarse sand to the sounds of serve, volley, and set. No ocean, no girls in bikinis, or smells of coconut oil. Right now just men with shovels and rakes dressed in a mandatory uniform: khaki pants, undershirt, button-down-collared outer shirt, and steel-toed boots. A uniform too hot for a July afternoon. I feel the sweat at the nape of my neck as those exercising and working wipe their brows on the compound of Yankton. 4 P.M. COUNT
Humidity is one of the things perfected in this region of middle America. Nearby, a pigeon is perched on the tile roof of our housing unit known as Kingsbury. Potted flowers sway, hanging above the cement porch where nearby signs read: “No Loitering” and “Out of Bounds.” Able to fly through the thick, heavy air at anytime, the bird chooses to stay in a place where so many wish to leave. For now, this prison is my home, too. Unlike the bird of Kingsbury, I would choose to fly. Right now. Immediately. No hesitation. If only that freedom were mine. Bird, give me your wings to fly back home, if just for a day. A flight worth 1400 frequent flyer miles. Back to a life with different uniforms, rules, workers. Different signs, and different men. Different sand and beaches. A place different from the compound of Yankton.
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Jane Wood Jane Wood is Vice President for Aademic Affairs and Dean at Mount Marty College. She began at Mount Marty in July of 2016, after serving as the Chief Academic Officer at Westminster College (PA) for three years. During the academic year 201617, Wood collaborated with faculty and staff to lead a successful HLC reaccreditation visit, begin a new Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner’s track within the existing MSN degree program, and created an interdisciplinary Performing Arts degree. While at Westminster, Wood collaboratively led a program prioritization process, added seven new majors, and restructured academic departments into divisions and schools. Previously, she served as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Park University. She is co-author, with Reverend Sue Dolquist, of a collection of autobiographical essays, What Eve Didn’t Tell Us, and editor of a volume of essays, The Theme of War and Peace in Virginia Woolf ’s War Writings (2010). Wood currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Southeast South Dakota chapter of CASA, and is active in the Sioux Falls and Yankton Chamber of Commerce.
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A LETTER FROM JANE WOOD Dear Scholars: It was a pleasure to visit with you about Toni Morrison and, in particular, her novel Beloved. I also very much enjoyed reading your letters to me and have placed some of your questions below with my answers following: 1. Why were you (a white woman) drawn to Toni Morrison and her literature? I became interested in Toni Morrison because of her first book, The Bluest Eye, which is about a little girl who believes that if she could just have blue eyes and look like Shirley Temple then all of the world would love her and her life would be okay. I was named after the Dick and Jane series of readers that Morrison criticizes in her novel, and, like Morrison, I agree with the incongruity of the series for almost all children. As I continued to read Morrison’s emerging novels, I was drawn to her female characters. They reminded me of the women in my own life, my strong mother, grandmothers, and so on. One of my grandmothers, struggling to come out of the Depression, sold all of the family possessions and bought an old hotel and ran a boarding house to support her family. Morrison’s characters, with all of their strengths and flaws, remind me of my people, even though their skin color is different. 2. Do you think that it is right that a white woman should teach African American literature when she doesn’t have any experience with racism? This is a good question. And I think the answer is both yes and no. First, if we (society) start to limit who has access to literature and to art based on having to have “experience” in the culture, then only rich white men (and 118
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dead!) would be allowed to teach Shakespeare and only rich white women could teach Edith Wharton novels and only working class lesbian women could teach Dorothy Allison’s amazing novel Bastard Out of Carolina. However, given the particular history of race in the United States, the fact of a white person teaching African American literature, given the history of whites suppressing and appropriating black people’s literature and stories, then the color of the skin does matter. Thus, I think it is important, and even imperative, that if a white person such as myself teaches African American literature that we (I) discuss up front with the class the history of African American literature and the importance of authorship. An African American saying is “You gotta go there to know there” and because I, as a white person, have not experienced black culture and the racism of being black in a society that generally privileges whites, I might miss something in the literature. Having acknowledged this, however, I think that one of the many and important functions of literature is to help us “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” Literature can bring people together and help us to understand one another in ways that offer us new ways of thinking, relating, and living. One of my students once asked me if I was married to a black man because I understood African American literature and culture so well. I responded that my husband was white, but that I had spent many hours with the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara and Gwendolyn Brooks and Zora Neale Hurston. They have taught me well. 3. Why are you so passionate about teaching literature? I suppose, like many other people, that I grew up with a profound feeling of loneliness. I always felt “different.” I was always taller than most of my peers (and most of the boys for many years). Also, I was a reader in a family of athletes. We didn’t have any books in the house that I grew up in, 4 P.M. COUNT
and my four older brothers and sisters were quite a bit older than I. The only thing to read, aside from the newspaper, was a set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias that my mother bought one at a time from the grocery store with “stamps” (she received so many “stamps” for every fifty or one-hundre dollars that she purchased in groceries). When I finally figured out how to get my own library card and started to read I felt like I had entered a new world. I was transported to new places and was able to meet people more like me and unlike me, but I was drawn to their stories. I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time and feeling like I had found a soulmate in Meg. And Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Franny in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I started my own small library in a corner of the bedroom that I shared with my sister and I guarded my books like they were gold. Literature not only invites people into a story, it asks people to consider all human life as valuable, as special, as necessary. Some of my best friends are in literature, and I miss them if I haven’t taught or read them for a while: Flannery O’Connor, e.e. cummings, Willa Cather, the great novel, How Green Was My Valley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In Search of My Mother’s Garden. Hemingway. Faulkner. Fitzgerald. Often, people will ask me, what is your favorite novel? Almost all of them, I say, almost all of them. Dr. Jane Wood
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their hearts into their stories.
Marquise Bowie is an avid reader and lifelong learner. This is his third time being in this creative writing class. Sister Marielle calls him a glutton for punishment. Mr. Bowie would say that it is a blessing and a privilege to be forever linked to and with these great talents in this book, especially Dr. Reese for his teaching, time, and patience. And all the people involved in the class that put
“A leader is a reader, and a reader is a leader.” Mr. Bowie dedicates his writings to his family, friends and loved ones, especially his daughters Marquissa and Marquia, from whom he draws strength and motivation. Thanks also to Joy Brown and Sophia Hibbler, for holding the girls down. Special thanks to Ms. Candy for her positive support, in more ways than one can count. Extra thanks to Lynn Bowie and Mark Mitchell; none of this would be possible if not for them. And to the brothers and sisters still in the struggle. It’s OK to not be OK sometimes, just don’t stay that way. Change is necessary. God bless.
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ALL OF A SUDDEN After a long exhausting week, I woke up one Saturday morning looking forward to some much-needed stress relief and playing some basketball. So I headed on over to the local rec center to shoot some hoops. While on the court, I attempted to guard a much younger player who hit me with a crossover shake move similar to a rattlesnake’s tail, which is to say he shook me out of my skin. I chalked it up to being rusty and having a bad game. I went home and took a long hot shower to wash off the game’s residue. I put my head under the nozzle, closed my eyes, and whipped my hair back to rinse my long black mane. Only then did I realize that I had been rocking the black Kojak and Mr. Clean look for over a decade and a half. I attributed that to the heat and a day that I wanted to forget. Later in the evening as I was preparing for dinner I overheard my sixteen-year-old daughter and her cousin talking about music so I had to put in my two cents, since I belonged to the generation of some of the greatest music ever created, that being the 1980s through the 1990s. I mentioned New Edition and the upcoming show on BET. They shook their heads and gave me the gas-face; they then started telling me about the new musicians like Miley Cyrus, Migos, and Lil Yachty which I know little to nothing about musically. They then attempted to show me how to do the newest dance moves, the Dougie and the Whip-n-Nae Nae. I informed them that some of those acts are recycled groups with very little talent at all, and are mostly gimmicks. Some of those original musicians came from my era, like Miley Cyrus’s dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Dougie Fresh from the Get Fresh Crew, the originator of the Dougie, but with the Whip-N-Nae Nae I was completely lost. So I showed them a move or two of my own from my time, the Cabbage Patch and the Whop, then hit them with 122
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some Kid-n-Play footwork. They laughed at me until they were blue in the face. Score one for the old timers. So as the night came closer to an end and as I went to brush my teeth and wash my face, I took a longer-thanusual look in the mirror and noticed a difference: I had some new added color to my beard and mustache. Then my whole day started to make sense; it all dawned on me, Iâ€™m old. Iâ€™m not the young energetic spring chicken I used to be. All those things that I used to do are all long gone, prehistoric; they were all from a different time and a different space. My time came and went; Father Time still remains undefeated; some of my best memories were BG: before grays.
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BEAUTIFUL LIARS Hollywood, the City of Angels but it’s too good to be true. The stars have lost their shine they are scared of the real world and will do whatever it takes to stay in the limelight not wanting to look like Boo-Boo the fool. How are you keeping it real when everything about you is manufactured or comes out of a seal? From the numerous nose jobs, tummy tucks, and breast implants, fake as a three dollar bill, man, what’s the deal? They’re professional deceivers trying to sell us a lie. Acting like they’ve lost all this weight working out when in reality they paid to have fat removed. Falsifying their skin tones and how natural their hair is while using make-up and dye. Then you see an old picture of them and they look like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz or Cyclops with a pimple on their foreheads as big as a third eye. Lying to kick it and tricking the public for endorsements selling their souls for the almighty dollar. Fake everything from butts to thighs some of the most beautiful people do the ugliest things on the road to riches and diamonds rings. I was also once what I call a “wonderful-looking mess.” I struggled with self-esteem issues not feeling wanted or loved and many “African American” taboo insecurities. The life of a child shouldn’t be so stressed. Born out of wedlock raised by a single mother 124
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she struggled trying to raise a son on her own I tried to call out for help by my reckless living but no one ever picked up the phone. Everything looked marvelous on the outside but inward total chaos I was like a puzzle missing many pieces. We try our hardest to keep up the front and put on a good show like everything is fine, when inside we are dying and falling apart at the seams. Begging for help but not having the courage nor the means to express how we really feel scared of looking “weak” or “soft.” Often support is all we need someone to have our backs because the pressures of life and the way the world will build you up then break you down, will leave you hopeless lying flat on your back. Trying to live up to everybody else’s expectations is tough, I feel the pain too. The “sharks of the ocean” will eat you alive and spit out the bones. The whole world is a stage. We are all characters some just better actors then others. The sleep-face on when we wake up then another by the time we walk out the front door. Whatever the scene calls for go for an Academy award. Everything is “reality TV” trying to keep up with the Kardashians forget the Joneses. Make your own lane we were all created different for a reason. 4 P.M. COUNT
Some people may be better than you depending on the task, and that’s OK. So worry less about what others think of you; a “work in progress” is better than being “a piece of work.” So don’t live your life as a beautiful liar Live your life to the fullest because you are beautiful!
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BLACK KLANSMAN For hundreds of years my people have been oppressed, made to feel less-than, hanged, sold as slaves, raped, castrated, robbed of basic human rights, and have even been put to death over their skin color. The U. S is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it has been everything but that for a black man like me. Freedom should come natural, so why do my people have to pay with their bodies? We protest and fight to get the same opportunities human beings are allowed to have each and every day. Racist bigots have hidden behind unjust laws and bed sheets and have controlled minorities in the name of religion. In fact, almost everybody’s ancestors in the U.S are from another country; the first people to settle here were the American Indians. I was raised in a culture where people were loyal to death, claiming certain neighborhoods while putting their lives on the line for their respected colors. Not only as in blacks versus whites but red against blue; Gangsters, Vicelords, Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings and many others too. It saddens me reading history books about African Americans and looking back, but I rejoice in the future because of how much we have overcome. Reminiscing about my gangbanging days, hurting families of similar fates going through the same struggles that I was going through, but pointing the finger when other races hurt black people makes me feel small, weak, and numb. It’s as if the great leaders that paved the way for my people, shedding their blood, sweat, and tears, having sit-ins and demonstrations, even going to jail for equality to show how serious they were, were doing this all for nothing; it wasn’t a game, and no, it wasn’t fun. A lot of times we are our own worst enemies; the 4 P.M. COUNT
hate they gave us we accepted, internalized, recycled and tried to give it right back. This is not rational or healthy for society because I can say when I was out there on foolishness peddling poison, and causing havoc in my community, most of the people I ever had a beef with and showed frustration towards were predominantly black. So as white Klansmen hid behind masks and torchesâ€™, we still hide behind revenge, colors, and pride. Ignorance and excuses are now out the window; we have continued to do their jobs for them: hating ourselves, killing each other in vain at alarming rates, taking penitentiary chances for peanuts; advancing the great divide. The only differences from then and now are that today we go by modern names; when you hate you destroy no matter the pigment. The method and practices may differ, but the results remain the same. Discrimination set the tone back then, but blacks have taken the torch and are secretly running the same race. I canâ€™t keep blaming others for past incidents, for the destructive life I live today; because when I stoop down to anotherâ€™s level I will always end up filthy. So before I can condemn all white people of being dirty, first I must make sure I clean up my own yard, and wash that mud off of my own face.
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DOMESTIC SILENCE I was raised around bloody murder, crimes, drugs, and dope smoking back when it used to be cool to leave your screen doors opened to let mosquitoes and the flies sneak in. Since Momma and the adults were playing cards us kids would go play hide-and-go-get-it with the mannish boys and our female friends. But those times are broken like a wish-bone I wish I had my innocence back instead of watching brothers fall to the senseless perils in my neighborhood at every beck and call. I used to feel unwanted and then I joined a gang of young hunters my understanding of God changed from day to day but I still took time to pray before I went looking for my prey. Because where I came from if you didn’t work then you didn’t eat and that’s the way it was running wild with them Peyton Manning’s scary feet. There were two types of people those who lived in jail but periodically would get out to the streets, or those I like to call chiefs who made the money 4 P.M. COUNT
which I call the cooks calling shots in the kitchen always stirring up beef. I used to get drunk out of my mind then I would call hurl while gripping the toilet but no one answered. So I’d attempt to drive home drunk and on occasion get pulled over they’d give me a sobriety test the police wanted me to say the alphabet backwards I’m thinking, it’s over I can’t even say the alphabet backwards when I’m sober. My hometown is in mourning because the man who made Doves Cry won’t wake up from his “accidental” overdose now the sky is pouring Purple Rain, Purple Rain. I saw a puppy love grow up to be a relationship filled with violence I felt just as guilty as the two parties involved because I didn’t step in to help. He was my best friend and she was like a sister so shame on me for what I call loyal blindness. See no evil hear no evil speak no evil and mind your own business. 130
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Those were the codes of the streets, for me to come up someone I knew had to fall the game is dirty and cold but we hustled for keeps. It might not have been right at the times no it wasnâ€™t always fair but silence was golden growing up on the Southside streets in Murda-apolis so between us you didnâ€™t hear this from me trust me I know because I was there.
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A lot of people believe that when we die we will come back as something different. It explains why that bird doodooed on my head. It could have been that one girl in high school that I never called back after I talked her out of her Good-n-Plentys. I often wondered about those angry pitbulls, the ones that would run to the fence barking while trying to scare everybody to death; could it have been that guy who got bullied back in the day about his soft voice, puny arms, and skinny legs? It could be. What about that butterfly? Could that be the girl who had low self-esteem and was teased during gym class about her flat butt, braces, and glasses? Or the girl who thought that she was God’s gift to man, who went from prom queen to dope fiend, is she that ugly moth? Think about the old mean neighbor who always told you to stay out of his yard, when all you were doing was getting your basketball or football that bounced over the fence. Imagine him being that old toad that you dismantled in biology class, you tortured it from head to toe to bring a slow grueling death, thinking to yourself, revenge is sweet, huh? When I think of the after-life, being reincarnated, I cringe. We’d all like to think of the most beastly of creature as ourselves. A lion, tiger or maybe a hawk, if possible, but poetic justice is cruel, and I vision myself as a roach, gnat, or even a beetle, a short, black, shiny bald-headed insect that’s always where it shouldn’t be, and just up to no good. Roaches and beetles never seem to die when you step on them; they just multiply, and they scatter when exposed, the same way I did in my former way of life when the police lights came on. Could all this be a dream? I think not; it could be a shadow of things to come, to a degree. I realize that I did die 132
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to self when I gave up childish things. When I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought as a child, and I reasoned as a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me (1 Corinthians 13:11). This brings me back to the butterfly that I hope my life will represent when it’s all said and done. A butterfly needs to struggle in the cocoon in order to grow by strengthening its wings for future flights. All lives are viewed in potential; growth has to develop in order for us to maximize the best of ourselves. As we face challenges in day-to-day experiences it’d be wise not to resist them all, because they can be used as fuel and motivation. Criticism is bad to most of us, but it can also help us grow like fertilizer. Some things are even better off dead. A seed has to be buried in order for a plant, fruit, or flower to come alive. This is one of the great mysteries in life that everyone has to face. So don’t ask, I say, don’t ask no questions, just believe!
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RTEC WELDING CLASS & COMPUTER NUMERIC CONTROL (CNC) CLASS
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The Regional Technical Education Center (RTEC) welding program is in its third year and has been very popular with the inmate population. Students selected for this course are near release. With their new skills and an American Welding Society (AWS) G1 certification, they are primed and ready for entry level positions in the welding and manufacturing industry. During the 100 plus hour course the students are provided with â€œreal worldâ€? projects that benefit the local community. This class built bicycle racks, raw stock and material racks, tool cribs, coolant baffles, and also played around with some artistic pieces to practice different welds. Pictured above, left to right: Standing: David Hoggard, Francisco Serrano, Mark Glidden, Adrian BuenoHernandez, Stephen Gunn; Kneeling: Kevin Rodgers, John Ramos, Michael Gholson
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The Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Machine Operator Course is new program developed in cooperation with RTEC to prepare students for working in the manufacturing industry. Students selected for the program are near release in hopes of allowing them to take their new skills directly into the job market. The students learn to operate both manual and computer numeric control (CNC) machines. The course is over 100 hours in length, with multiple certifications obtained upon successful completion. Pictured above, left to right: Instructor John Darcy, Shawn Owen, Joshua Hossner, Benjiman Essien, and Juan Urias
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BEST OF: 2011
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ONE PERSON, ONE VOICE WHY EDUCATION IS KEY By Marlon Chamberlain, 2011 I use my voice to share my experience because I want people to learn from my mistakes. I also want people to know I have learned the value of an education through my experience. There’s a proverb that says, “My people perish because of a lack of knowledge”; I can attest to this being true. Our decision-making is based on the knowledge that we have and the experience that we have been thorough; the more knowledge we obtain, the more we will develop in a positive way and in our decision-making skills. Knowledge, I believe, is simply meaningful information applied to situations you face and once you gain an understanding of the information, experience speaks and becomes your guide. It is up to you to listen and to follow through with it. Whenever an opportunity presents itself for me to share my experience, I use that opportunity to tell people the importance of learning from experience and to emphasize the importance of education. I cannot tell them enough how important it is to read: just read everything you can get your hands on and think about what you have read and discuss it with your friends and family. Use your time wisely and challenge yourself as I have. I have taken college classes to learn and broaden my perspective of the world. I also try to associate with people that I think are more knowledgeable than myself and who I believe will help me on my journey to become educated and a better person. Some time ago, I became friends with someone who is very educated and he told me the way to learn each day is to be in the company of people that are well-educated and who are willing to share their knowledge with others. This will help me stay motived to learn and to formulate good habits that support learning. I have adopted 4 P.M. COUNT
this principle, and know it has helped me greatly. I advocate the same to my children and to their moms and to my family and friends. We live in a dynamic world and we all must change to meet the challenges that it presents. But how can we change in a positive way? I stress to my family that through experience we can recognize the need to change, which is the first step toward self-improvement. The second step is to evaluate oneself, set goals, create an action plan, and then repeat, because repetition is the mother of all teachers. The third step is to keep an open mind, and expose yourself to new subjects that challenge your mind. The more you avoid change, the more you hinder the process of growth in your life. If you do not change and you do not recognize the need to change, situations can lead you down a path to difficulty and self-destruction. For example, I recall the situation that led to my incarceration. My girlfriend and I were expecting our first child and the realization of this brought on tremendous anxiety for me; I was a college student playing basketball, with no job and no prospects of being able to provide for a new family. I kept asking myself, “How am I going to take care of this new family?” I just did not know what to do or where to turn for advice. Unfortunately, I asked the wrong people. Their advice led my down the wrong path. I know now to be careful of getting advice from individuals who are well-meaning, but ignorant. They told me to take care of my situation “by any means necessary. A real man does what is necessary to survive.” I was unduly influenced by their insistence and bought into their philosophy. I struggled with the decision and their cajoling, but nevertheless, I complied and have regretted it ever since. Never once did they explain to me the penalty and the consequences of selling drugs and I never thought past the idea of making a good living for my new family. I just did not think! Now, I understand I cannot stand here and put the blame solely on them. I did not have the voice to say “No,” and as a result I got experience that I did not expect. 140
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They did not tell me of the possibility that I could spend ten years in prison for what I was doing, which is a long time away from my children, family, and friends. I never knew how precious time was until it was taken away. I invested my time involving myself in criminal activities, and the return on my investment was a prison sentence. Within these ten years, I’ve lost my mother, both grandparents, my cousin, an uncle, and my aunt. This is time I will never be able to spend with them again; this is time I can never get back. Neither did the voice of my past explain to me that raising a child requires more than financial support. The voice of the present understands that the phrase “any means necessary” means desperation. It means making selfish decisions to involve myself in illegal acts such as selling drugs to survive. The voice of desperation doesn’t take into consideration how your decisions impact more than just you. My voice of the present understands that raising a child is one of the most awesome responsibilities you can take on; your child depends on you for love, for guidance, for wisdom, for knowledge, for everything. I understand now that I control my own destiny and I must stress to my children that through the power of self-education you can be anything you want to be or do anything you want to do. The voice of the future tells me the world is changing and you must educate yourself to adapt to these new changes so that you can prepare your children to compete on a global scare because they’re the voice of the future. The situation that I have just described has caused me to develop a passion for learning and an endless desire to strive for self-improvement. I’ve embraced change, I’ve taken full responsibility for my ignorance, and I’ve dedicated my life to change, which I believe is a neverending process. I’m determined to continue to educate myself because knowledge is the key to dealing with change. I will share all of these principles I’ve learned through experience with my children, and continue to encourage them to do well in school. 4 P.M. COUNT
I will also encourage the mothers of my children to expose our children to books and activities in the subjects that our children show interest in, so that they will have an opportunity to excel and be creative. I know from my personal experience that if one follows his interest he will learn, and this principle is also applicable to the way children learn. This is how creativity is developed. Some time ago I was given the following quote, â€œA smart man learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool learns from neither.â€?
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PRODIGAL FATHER By Shawn Sunday, 2011 Losing self-respect and also my dignity, trying to salvage a father-son relationship, really this is all new to me. No new discovery of who produced me, but I’m the one who’s reaching out and putting myself on Front Street. While I’m recognizing small signs of you being too discreet, as my soul and our relationship still is incomplete. I guess that comes from you vanishing before I reached the age of twelve. Gone for so long, never would I recognize your smell. I do remember one thing, that you were a giant of a man, standing around 6-5, ex-boxer with extra-large hands. Sometimes though my mind wonders if we are similar in any way. Something I’m scared to admit, but I’m sure I’ll have to face, that day when we’ll man up and view each other eye to eye. I just hope I can keep my composure, control the desire to want to cry out in pain, as I say, “Dad, where were you? I’ve never knew you.” How can I be initiated into manhood, when I’m green and don’t know what to do? The burdens you escaped and left behind put us into a hell hole. The effect left the seed-bearer forced to play the woman and the male role. My aim is not to hurt you, because you’re definitely not the one to blame. I’m just viewing this from all angles, trying to subdue all this pain. And my quest is for us to connect before it gets too late in 4 P.M. COUNT
this game. Three decades later I wonder if you are ashamed of who I became. Will you understand my feelings, surely I don’t know? But I feel if you figure it out, we’ll have time to make it grow. I’ve shuffled all the cards and we’ll play with what’s dealt. I’ve even prayed to God a thousand times; let’s face it, he’s the only one who can help. Two grown men, you, the prodigal father, and me, the son. My heart is questioning my love for you, my father, so we’ll see what it becomes.
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FREE OF BEING COLLATERAL By Luis Garza, 2011 Mother, Iâ€™ve been meaning to tell you how much I love and appreciate you. I thank you for your prayers, and I know that you have been worried about me. I read your letter and it broke my heart when you said that you had been praying day and night for my freedom. You said that you have not received any response from God, and I want you to know that he did answer your prayers. In answer to your prayers I received a 124-month sentence, instead of life in prison. My life was heading down the wrong path. Your prayers gave me the freedom I needed all along to be free of addiction, something that I hope you never have to experience. I am freed to make the right decisions that will lead me away from destruction. I am free of being in the streets and being part of an organization that is not a family to me, and that will use me as collateral in a war that is fought for the wrong purposes. I am free of the kill-or-be-killed lifestyle, free of the chance of getting shot or even shooting someone else. Thank you, Mother, for your prayers, love, help, and support throughout this mess I have got myself into. You have always been there and without that I would never have seen the reality of life. You help me every day, in my thoughts and my heart, to find the man I am and to discover the meaning of life. Because of you, Mother, I now have God in my life and that is double the love.
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Jim Daniels Jim Daniels is the author of numerous poetry books, including his most recent, Rowing Inland, Wayne State University Press, and Street Calligraphy, Steel Toe Books, and the forthcoming The Middle Ages, Red Mountain Press. His fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, was published by Michigan State University Press. He edited the new anthology Challenges to the Dream: the Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards, Carnegie Mellon University Press. â€œThe End of Blessings,â€? the fourth short film he has written and produced, appeared in many film festivals last year. A native of Detroit, Daniels is the Thomas Stockham University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
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A LETTER FROM JIM DANIELS Dear Guys at Yankton, I certainly enjoyed reading and talking with you all last month, and I appreciate the thoughtful letters you sent to me recently. It was fun to talk about turning the poem into the film. So much can go wrong on a film set—and in life— that it’s nice to talk about something that went pretty well. The hard work pays off sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t, but you don’t want to see those movies…I never made it to Sundance, and that’s okay. We did the best we could. Last week, we were scheduled to be a part of the Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival, and a halfhour before the film was to screen, John Rice (the director) and I got an urgent message from the festival director that they’d lost our film (we’d delivered two Blu-ray copies weeks earlier). John turned around on his way to the theater to head home and try to find one, but I found a DVD copy and rushed it over to the auditorium. Luckily, the DVD worked out (though lower quality than Blu-ray), but it was a bit of a humiliating experience to have the school where I teach treat us that way, and it made me appreciate even more the respect and attention you all gave to me in “the cultural hotbed” of Yankton when I was visiting. And it reminded me of how we can take nothing for granted. Even giving them a spare copy was not enough. The challenge of getting thoughts onto paper is never easy. I hope you all keep taking notes—connecting to your private selves, and to the larger world. I saw the men behind those uniforms. An old college seems like an odd place for a prison, but it felt comfortable. You seem motivated to learn, perhaps more so than some of the college students I teach….They often lack the patience to take time and do justice to their material. Acknowledging our mistakes and 4 P.M. COUNT
moving on is part of life. We interpret writing through the lens of our own experiences, inevitably, and I hope I was able to make some of my experiences accessible to you. I appreciate your humor and your openness to discovering things about yourself—it’s hard to maintain that openness out in the world, so it must be even more challenging to maintain it in prison. If I have any advice (and my advice can be pretty suspect, just ask my younger brother) it might be simply to value your own stories and don’t let anyone take them away from you—they have their own worth and currency apart from monetary experiences. Best wishes to you all. Sincerely, Jim Daniels
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Binh Vo Binh Vo came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in 1979 with his parents and two siblings. After college, he established a successful managerial career. Binh remains grateful for the opportunities accorded to him while growing up in this country.
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NATURE’S GIFT Sunday morning in the mountains, gurgling creeks and babbling fountains. Night slowly fading to light, darkness steadily losing the fight. Rays of colors soothing my eyes, gifts of nature full of surprise. Stepping on the golden brown leaves, seeds maturing, breaking the freeze. Smell of damp soil floods my nose, nature’s fragrance massaging the soul. Wild forest berries sourly sweet, wildlife dancing on delicate feet. Birds singing in concert with insect sounds, organic orchestra performance abounds. A gentle breeze awakes the trees, soft shadows move, my spirit breathes. Pure clean air inhaled deep, nature’s songs make my heart leap. I find serenity in aimless wandering, basking in landscape of peace and pondering. Stress melting away as a child from birth, longing to remain one with Mother Earth.
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THE DIVERSE MEMORIES OF A VIETNAMESE REFUGEE My family escaped war-torn Vietnam in a forty-foot fishing boat. I was seven years old. It was 1979. In 1995, I returned to my homeland for the first time with twelve classmates in a study abroad program. On our way we spent a week in Bangkok. Jet lag from the half-day time difference knocked me out for the first three days. I didnâ€™t know it at the time, but Bangkok was a couple of decades ahead of Vietnam, with modern skyscrapers dotting the skyline, paved roads, sufficient twenty-four-hour-a-day electricity, significant infrastructure, and a booming tourism industry. Not quite what I was used to, but so much more than I was about to experience in Vietnam. Approaching Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC,), formerly known as Saigon, from the air, I felt like I was being transported back in time. No tall buildings, only a few paved roads, and a landscape dominated by tin-roofed houses, many unpaved dirt roads supported sparse old cars amongst thousands of bicycles, cyclos, and motor-scooters as the main means of transportation. I was taken aback and nervous. I instantly regretted my ignorance about Vietnam, particularly HCMC. The scene of backwardness dumbfounded me. My Americanized childhood, combined with parents unwilling to share their experiences during the war except for the bits and pieces of news I obtained from eavesdropping on their private conversations, left me ignorant of the Vietnamese plight. Iâ€™ll never forget walking off the air-conditioned plane in HCMC. The heavy, humid air fell on me like an anchor; my glasses fogged, a mixture of jet fuel, tropical mildew, and nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) rushed into my nostrils. I was in nausea. Despite the initial backwardness and unpleasant smell, I felt at home. As I explored the Tan 4 P.M. COUNT
Son Nhat International Airport, I couldnâ€™t help but notice the dilapidated conditions. Weeds grew unchecked and ugly cement buildings that looked like homeless shelters welcomed us. Everything seemed backwards, as if I had just stepped back in time. Stripped of the modern conveniences I took for granted in the United States, I started to worry. Thay Chi, our group leader, brought us bottled water, then disappeared, adding to my anxiety as we sat in front of a fan blowing hot air. The intense, muggy air made me sweat and caused my clothes to cling to my skin. My oily, thin, flat hair became unbearable. I screamed for a nice cool shower. Fear slowly crept into me. I suddenly had second thoughts about the trip. After a two-hour wait, the authorities advised us that we had entry visa problems, and told us to leave the country. Stress, disappointment, and relief flooded my mind simultaneously. Two brutal hours later, after waiting in suspense, several of my fellow students gladly agreed to take the next flight home. Then the authorities changed their minds and allowed us into the country. I suspect that our group leader bribed the person in charge. Thay Chi made contact with Dai Hoc Tong Hop Dinh Tien Hoang, a Vietnamese government funded university. They sponsored our group trip and assisted in our visa processing. We finally collected our baggage and exited the airport into a small crowd where I saw my waiting father, who had arrived the week before to ensure my safety. My cousin, who still lived in Vietnam, approached with an antiquated video camera on his shoulder, looking very much like a news reporter from the sixties. I was a bit embarrassed by the hoopla. After greeting my relatives, the group took an eye-opening bus ride to the guesthouse, where we would spend the next four months together. After filming our reunion, we boarded an old, nondescript, tourist bus with vinyl seats. There were not many cars on the streets and the few we saw were all ancient. The Vietnamese considered cars extravagant or unnecessary luxuries. The cyclo, a fascinating three152
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wheeled bicycle, can maneuver through traffic with two passengers in the front and a driver pedaling in the rear. The scrawny drivers wore tattered clothing, usually sweatsoaked T-shirts with shorts or loose torn pants, and pedaled with powerfully built legs. These cyclo drivers competed for customers and then negotiated measly fares to earn the right to grunt and breathe heavily to get their passengers to the agreed-upon destinations. Amazingly, the locals transported every imaginable item, from chickens to fencing, on these small, unique vehicles. They were very clever packers. The traffic was in a constant state of organized chaos. The unpaved roads had no traffic signs or street markings; they were little more than racetracks for the people who continually inhaled engine fumes. The sound of honking horns nearly deafened me. Fatal accidents were common, and every minute exciting if not life-threatening. On one of my free weekends there, my aunt offered to take me to My Tho, a town in Ben Tre province about an hour’s drive south from HCMC, and to the region itself to visit my mother’s relatives. She warned me that it would be a rough bus ride followed by a crowded ferry journey across the Mekong River. Yet, I eagerly agreed to go. I rode my bike to auntie’s house. We woke at 4:00 a.m. the next morning and took a cyclo to the trash-ridden bus station. All the buses there were older than any bus in the United States. I was in charge of carrying and protecting our food: grilled pig, roasted chicken, bread, and veggies. I was afraid to set it down, even for a second. Every bus roof was cleverly loaded with a plethora of luggage, fruits, live chickens, and even pigs. As the buses filled, local children sold all types of food and drinks. My auntie scored two nice seats behind the driver, which allowed me a great view of the passing landscape despite having eighty people crammed onto a bus built for forty. The bus driver gave the crowd a once-over, and then gave me a friendly smirk, as I’m sure he could tell I was a 4 P.M. COUNT
Vietnamese who lived abroad, known as “Viet Kieu” (VK) to the locals, based on my appearance and mannerisms. Many locals considered Viet Kieus traitors for leaving the country. He told me, “You haven’t seen anything yet, young man.” Approximately 5:30 a.m., we began our bus ride to My Tho. As we sped along, the numerous potholes nearly threw passengers to the ceiling several times. No thrills of American roller coasters, mini racecars, or haunted houses compared to the excitement of Vietnamese roads and the traveling circus of assorted vehicles. My bus driver avoided the brake pedal, and instead used his steering wheel to toss people from one side of the bus to the other. Occasionally speeders got pulled over by police, but a little bribe kept tickets to a minimum. I had a little anxiety about being killed in Vietnam’s crazy traffic. My aunt, in her sixties with minimal wrinkles on her face, remained calm with a peaceful smile, and kept telling me how excited my relatives were to see me. After a brief visit with my mother’s youngest sister in My Tho, we got on an old, big, crowded ferry made of metal to cross the Mekong River. The Mekong is a major river that originates in China, winds its way through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and exits through Vietnam’s southeast coast into the South China Sea. Millions of people from those countries depend on the Mekong for their livelihood. As I approached the ferry, big trucks, buses, and cars quickly boarded, followed by motor-scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians all packed tightly together. Amazingly, the entire loading process took only fifteen minutes. Then the ferry’s powerful motors transported the heavy load speedily across the wide expanse of rushing murky water. I saw lush green vegetation on both sides of the river. Small motorized and pedal boats transported fruits, vegetables, and meats to and from the markets. The Mekong River Delta is the fertile crescent area of Vietnam where most of the country’s agricultural products and livestock are grown. At least 300 people crossed the river with me that day dressed in conical hats, a terrific invention that protected them from the sun’s 154
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intense heat. I enjoyed the fresh tropical air for an hour as we chugged to the other side. But it was our last use of modern transit. Once in Ben Tre, we walked for the duration of the trip. It took us two hours on hot, red dirt roads. We crossed several four-inch-wide monkey bridges made of bamboo and tightly woven flexible tree branches that acted as guides, though all of this challenged my balance. My aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in thatched-roof huts with hard, dark dirt floors. They welcomed me with warm smiles, hugs, tender hand squeezes and numerous questions about my family and life in the United States. I exchanged pleasantries and stories with my relatives. Furniture was non-existent except for a few hammocks and wooden planks propped up on four corners with makeshift legs as beds. There was no running water, electricity, TV, or modern conveniences. Rainwater was captured, stored, and boiled for cooking and drinking. Everything was recyclable, with no trash. After a wonderful meal together, I had to go to the bathroom. One of my uncles led me to their toilet situated over a small manmade pond approximately fifteen by fifteen feet with lots of fish swimming about. I walked about seven feet on a plank of tied-together tree branches to a structure covered with large dried leaves on four sides for privacy, supported by stilts buried deep into the bottom of the pond. A twofeet wide hole allowed me to do my business. A splash ten feet below sent the fish into a feeding frenzy. What an incredible experience, to say the least. I did not carry toilet paper with me as suggested by my group leader; instead I used banana leaves to clean myself. I spent a sleepless night uncomfortably fighting mosquitoes and returned to Ho Chi Minh City the next morning with my aunt, exhausted and caked with slimy dirt all over my body. I suspected that Vietnam was a rural place full of rice paddies and water buffaloes. Fortunately, HCMC surprised me; I found a large functioning semi-modern city of 4,000,000 people. The country as a whole, filled 4 P.M. COUNT
with hardships and lacking organization, caused me to feel guilty, empathetic, and compassionate toward the many impoverished citizens. While harboring some discouraging feelings, excitement welled within me to explore and learn about the country of my birth. The presence of air-conditioned quarters, considered a luxury, in our guesthouse surprised and thrilled me. Thay Chi assigned us to our rooms in pairs. We spent the remainder of that first day relaxing and gathering our second wind. My parents initially disapproved of my decision to go to Vietnam instead of France. My father said, “We did not escape that country for you to go back there.” My rebellion and their discouragement actually pushed me toward visiting Vietnam. I must admit I had the jitters at the thought of returning to my old country run by Communists. I was only a child when I left Vietnam, so I hoped that perhaps the Viet Kieus in our group of two boys and three girls would be treated well by the locals because we had nothing to do with the war. The lifting of the U.S. economic embargo in the summer of 1995 after my study abroad program finished commenced the reconciliation process between the two former adversaries. During the war, my parents exhibited tremendous mental and emotional courage and strength as they survived by hiding in underground tunnels and bunkers when American bombs fell like raindrops. Luck also played a part, because American bullets pierced the jungle. Some of my parents’ siblings and cousins, whom I had never met, were not so lucky. In 1975, following the war, Vietnam was nothing but a poor Communist country mismanaged by a mix of distrustful Northerners and Southerners. The victorious North took the assets belonging to the South, whom they considered enemies because of the help they gave the Americans. Southerners sent to labor and re-education camps also created more divisions. It was a sad time for the 156
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country as the Communists suppressed religious freedom and democracy. Geographically, Vietnam is not quite as big as California, and had previously endured 1000 years of Chinese rule, followed by a century of French colonization and twenty years of American bombing. Most surviving Vietnamese were malnourished. Fast forward to today: Vietnam is one of the top three rice exporters in the world. Many of the people who escaped the country, like my parents, were oppressed religious adherents, political asylum seekers, and the economically poor. The pro-American Vietnamese who missed the American-aided escape hid in the shadows of the Communist rule to plot their exits. Both of my parents were originally from South Vietnam. After the war, my father taught math to children in Bien Hoa, located sixty miles north of HCMC; the city once accommodated a big American military base and dabbled in the tea trade. Vietnam had two seasons, a wet one and a dry one, each lasting approximately six months. Father told me that the pre-1975 Vietnamese families consisted of five to fifteen children, likely born nine and a half months after the rainy season. I suspect that a large number of family members contributed labor for field work and served as insurance to carry on the lineage. Vietnamese families commonly didnâ€™t use names, but instead called their children by numbers based on their birth order. I have vague memories of my childhood in Vietnam, but remember being happy and grateful for a small spoonful of rice. The Vietnamese live in a hierarchical society where the eldest person is the most respected one, and leader of the household. My fatherâ€™s mother occupied that position, and so received the best food from our family, as culture dictates, mainly rice and fish or chicken. I would wait anxiously for any of her leftovers because I was literally at the bottom of the food chain. As I learned about the country of my birth, I understood better the risks my family had taken in that 1979 escape. My parents, seeking a better future for us, hatched an escape 4 P.M. COUNT
plan with my eight relatives. It jeopardized all of our lives. The plan began with the encouragement of a BBC news broadcast, which stated that President Carter implemented a policy to rescue all of the Vietnamese boat people floating in the South China Sea, officially known as the East Sea to the locals. We brought ninety days’ worth of rations and set out to sea, hoping American ships would follow their president’s policy and rescue us. Sadly, on the night of our planned escape, we discovered that the authorities knew the details of our secret escape plan. We were still at home when they arrested my cousin Phu, who involved himself heavily in the covert planning. Despite Phu’s arrest, we intended to follow through with the escape. The alternative, had we abandoned the plan, would be re-education camp or prison for the adults. The separation of family members would surely ensue. My aunt was well known in the fishing village of Binh Tuy, four hours’ drive on the northeast coast from HCMC, because she often fed the authorities free food. She pleaded with the police to allow her nephew Phu to leave unharmed. She convinced them that he was suffering mental anguish due to a death in the family, and he could not possibly operate a boat, because he worked in an office job in HCMC. In addition, she told them that her nephew came from a privileged background and had no motivation to escape. The police questioned my father at home that night as well. He said he was home taking care of me because I was having nightmares about my recent near drowning accident, and he had no knowledge of any escape plans. The police, well aware of my water incident, knew me as a low maintenance child. While the authorities questioned my father, my mother and sister hid outside behind a group of banyan trees and shrubs. My sister slept soundly, thanks to a sleeping pill. Although additional officers poked through people’s bushes searching for my mother and sister, they escaped detection. Meanwhile, my brother hid in the engine compartment of our escape boat. There were three separate escape plans 158
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involving three different boats, all hoping for the same results. My aunt soon returned with Phu from the police station and we began to implement our plan. It took many men to push our boats far enough from shore to where we could quietly drop anchor. Once anchored, men carried women and children from the shore. Pouring rain made it very difficult. One woman dropped another couple’s twin child into the water. The baby girl drowned and the couple was hysterical during the entire trip. My family climbed on our boat last, except for my brother who was hiding in the boat. The boat was forty-feet long and about fifteen-feet wide. Approximately fifty persons crammed onto the tiny vessel, which would normally hold twelve to fifteen uncomfortably. To avoid drawing attention to our escape, we could not turn on the engine until we had pedaled and drifted far from shore. The small engine could not produce enough power to take us through the rough waves, but somehow we managed. The stormy weather, we later learned, had actually saved us. The police eventually learned our escape became reality, but they refused to go after us due to the stormy weather. Once out in international waters, more than 200 nautical miles from Vietnam’s shore, everyone felt a bit calmer. My parents kept me below deck most of the time. However, I remember they allowed me to go outside just before the sun was at its hottest. Being only seven, I made my way through the crowd to get to the front of the boat. I saw people sitting tightly together with no room to lie down. They leaned against each other for support and rest. I thought the boat would sail off the horizon into some abyss. I recall my joy at seeing dolphins swimming and diving near the boat. The playful creatures brought a little joy to the crowd. My mom and a few fishermen saw a big whale from a distance and motioned everyone to remain silent without acknowledging it. The men whispered the whale’s appearance was a sign of good luck. I still wondered why we didn’t reach the horizon and fall off the world. I later learned why in an American 4 P.M. COUNT
classroom. Our rations consisted of one spoonful of rice and a swallow of water three times a day. Thirst was the main reason for displeasure and moaning, as people experienced dry mouths from dehydration. Some complainers voiced their discontent, but we stuck to our ration schedule. Fortunately, the expected storms passed us by and we entered calm international waters. We used the sails to conserve fuel and hoped someone would see us. Then we waited. After three days and nights, with no sign of land or other vessels, we heard a faint sound far in the distance. The leaders on board demanded everyone to be silent. We were all afraid. The sound became louder until we saw a helicopter racing towards us. The chopper made several passes around us before determining that we were refugees. They then dropped a package into the ocean, and then several more. At first, we didn’t go after the packages, until a man finally jumped overboard and retrieved one. It contained a radio to communicate with the men on the helicopter, as well as food and drinks. Once we established radio contact, a man asked us many questions about who we were, how many of us were there, and how long we had been at sea. We thought my aunt’s nephew spoke good English, but he had a hard time communicating with the man. Suddenly, the helicopter just flew away. My aunt’s nephew finally admitted he didn’t really know the instructions given to him from the people in the chopper. Uncertainty about whether they would ever return or if help was on the way led to loud arguments and emotional outbursts of blaming each other. Cooler heads finally prevailed. After another five hours, we fell into despair. Then suddenly we saw what looked like a tiny boat rapidly approaching us from a distance. Rumors that the boat might belong to Thai pirates who preyed on boat people terrified us. We started our engine in case we had to make a run for it. The men armed themselves with anything not 160
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attached to the boat and waited. The tiny boat morphed into a massive orange ship. We were like a mouse to an elephant. It turned out to be a Norwegian oil tanker named the Hardanger. They carefully moved in and yelled down to us; naturally, we didnâ€™t understand what they told us. There appeared to be a housing structure with many uniformly rectangular windows on board the vessel; I looked admiringly because it was so large and accommodated many people. Our rescuers dropped plastic floatation rings connected by ropes and a rope ladder into the water. Some of the men climbed down and motioned for us to approach slowly. Big noses protruded from the faces of the white men. The rescuers helped us one by one, women and children first, until we all safely boarded the oil ship. The entire process took about seven hours. The men also gave the last refugees a tool to poke holes in our boat so that it would sink. Our two strongest men smashed holes in the boatâ€™s floor. And my family was the last to climb aboard the Hardanger to the applause of everyone on board. Shortly after arriving on deck safely, the oilmen provided us with blankets and Coca-Cola. We considered ourselves fortunate, knowing that hundreds of thousands of boat people perished in storms or were killed by pirates. The oil ship didnâ€™t roar its engines to sail away until our little boat completely sank, a bittersweet ending for our tiny fishing vessel. Then they transported us to Singapore. The Singaporean authorities transported us to a Vietnamese refugee camp, one of many throughout Asia. Organizers of the camp assigned my family to a small corner in one of the ubiquitous structures. We hoped we would not wait years as some had, so instead we focused on the blessing of our rescue. When we were rescued in 1979, my father was in his early forties, my mother was in her thirties, I was seven, my older brother was eight, and my little sister was five. While in the camp, my parents tried networking to discover relatives or organizations that would sponsor our family. 4 P.M. COUNT
A sad moment occurred when my cousin and I were separated from our family to live with a white American couple in Singapore while we waited for more permanent arrangements. The nice couple spoiled us with clothes and toys. We stayed with the Americans for only a week before returning to our family. During that time, I wondered if the couple wanted to adopt us; however, I never knew for sure. While at the camp, we heard that the village people had recovered the body of the drowned twin baby girl. That brought a new wave of grief. The villagers placed the baby in a new set of clothing and into a coffin at a family memberâ€™s house for three days. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks chanted prayers while family members in white burned material possessionsmade of paper, such as a house, a motor-scooter, jewelry, and new clothes, the Vietnamese way of wishing the dead a smooth transition to the afterlife. All the refugees at the camp tried to contact people back home. In the 1990s the refugee exodus from Vietnam abated and many escapees who had been languishing in camps throughout Asia returned to Vietnam. The government gave assurances not to prosecute them. Our stay in the camp lasted only three months. Fortunately, my mother previously worked for an American convenience store at a U.S. base in Ho Chi Minh City for the GIs. This likely helped us get a U.S. sponsorship from a religious organization. Later, it seemed ironic that our dream escape transported us to the country that used, betrayed, and caused the most destruction imaginable to Vietnam. I recall that as our plane began its landing near our new American home, I looked out the window and wondered why white sand covered all the buildings and cars. It was not sand, but snow. After we landed in Denver, representatives from our religious sponsor greeted us with new coats. In our culture, it is a sign of disrespect if we accept gifts readily. We usually 162
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hesitate or decline to take the gifts initially, and do so only after repeated offers. However, once we felt the ridiculously cold temperature outside the airport, we swallowed our pride and decided to use the coats. We learned that the Norwegian government eventually sponsored everyone else from our escape boat and relocated them to Norway. Our sponsors initially placed my family in a ganginfested ghetto of Denver known as Five Points. We were thankful for the opportunity to lead new, free lives with our family intact. Our government-assisted Section 8 house consisted of a two-story red brick building that shared a backyard with four neighbors. Our sponsors furnished the necessities before we arrived. We had mattresses, bedding, towels, food, drinks, and hygiene products. A Vietnamese family named Nguyen lived two doors down from us. Upon our arrival, they warmly welcomed us by sharing Vietnamese food and basic neighborhood information. We received subsidized rent, welfare, and food stamp support from the state. My mom purchased our clothes from the local Goodwill store. I laugh when I see old 1980s pictures of us with our mismatched, colorful clothes. We looked so happy. We furnished our house with discarded alley furniture. My mom got a job as a maid, while my dad did yard work to help support us in the early 1980s. Our first car was a light green Ford Pinto. Both parents attended Metro State Community College and received graphic arts degrees, having shared several classes. My parents expected their children to study hard and graduate from college in order to get good jobs. My mother sacrificed her entire work life to ensure that her kids were mentally stable and comforted. Nobody has ever worked as hard as my mother. Although she did all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and laundry while taking care of the children, she never complained. I learned good work habits from her. While growing up, I heard every racist name imaginable, from Chink, Jap, Nip, to Gook. Kids who didnâ€™t know any better often yelled at my siblings and me to â€œgo back to your 4 P.M. COUNT
country.â€? They alienated and beat me up often, during and after school, without any provocation from me. However, my mother comforted me and gave me hope to endure. Our family always had the fear that the United States government would kick us out of the country if we got into any kind of trouble, so my parents advised us not to retaliate against the abusers. My parents taught us to ignore and walk away from trouble. On top of racism, other minority groups and poor white people blamed new Vietnamese arrivals for taking all of the menial jobs, when in actuality they passed over those jobs. My parentsâ€™ hard work fortunately earned us some extra money to send back home and to other refugees. Among the Vietnamese community, families were embarrassed by being on welfare and food stamps. The importance of the family reputation in the community motivated everyone to work hard to get off of government assistance as soon as feasible. The main measure of success was raising obedient children to attend top-notch universities in order to obtain good jobs. I remain grateful for the luxurious, free life and knowledge gained in the United States but regret not being accepted by the majority of Americans. I never had a sense of belonging, even though the United States Constitution gave me the comfort of protection and equality. At the same time, America gave me the opportunity to excel and achieve successes in life. Similarly, after visiting Vietnam and eventually working there for many years, most locals did not fully embrace me, and I detected hints of mistrust from them. My deficiency in delicately understanding the local cultural norms and my Americanized personality relegated me to being treated as a foreigner, though I am Vietnamese. My heart belonged to Vietnam, but I did not fit in there. In both societies, I felt like I was in no manâ€™s land. These are the diverse memories of a Vietnamese refugee.
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PENCIL PORTRAIT & PAINTINGS
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Andrew Leuhring, Fall 2016
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COMMUNITY SERVICE PROJECT Inmates can crochet as part of an ongoing Community Service Project that serves hospital patients, nursing home residents, and hospice care recipients through Avera Sacred Heart Hospital. In the last twelve months, participants have provided 336 hand-crafted items in support of the CSP Crochet program. The items produced include stuffed animals which are given to children in the emergency room, as well as lap blankets and shawls for nursing home residents and hospice care patients. There are currently thirty-two inmates participating in the program.
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FOOD SERVICE Within our Food Service Department, inmates can participate in three different apprenticeship programs; Cook, Baker, and Industrial Housekeeping. Pictured are some of the special projects completed by the baking apprentices. Inmates involved in the food service apprenticeships are responsible for making three meals a day, under the guidance of a Food Service Foreman (staff), for over 500 inmates. This is no small task, while learning valuable skills that translate into entry level and higher positions in the food service industry upon release. Many of our students have been released from the institution as very accomplished chefs! They not only cook for the inmates, but also prepare meals for the staff dining hall, which has had numerous accolades from VIPs visiting the institution.
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LEATHER CRAFT Through the Recreation Department, inmates can participate in leather craft as a leisure time activity. Each student has to complete an introductory course and projects, usually a belt and buckle. After completing the course the inmates can make special purchase requests to complete other projects within the program. Projects have included everything from backpacks, purses, wallets, and motorcycle saddle bags to horse tack. Developing healthy and productive leisure time is an important component of correctional management and reentry.
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Handlers, left to right: Joseph Hough, Jesse Salmons-Rice, Frankie Armstrong. Dog: Arnie.
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Top, left to right: Cory Uecker, Janette Kaddatz, Steve Martens. Bottom left to right: Shawn Berkstresser, Christiano Hashimoto. Dogs, left to right: Sally, Jack.
Left to right: Shawn Berkstresser, Christiano Hashimoto. Dogs, left to right: Sally, Jack.
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FEDERAL PRISON CAMP YANKTON F.I.D.O. PROGRAM By Cory Uecker Federal Prison Camp Yankton F.I.D.O program has been in existence since January 18, 2017. Since that time we have successfully trained for adoption nine rescued or abandoned dogs. The F.I.D.O. program at FPC Yankton started out utilizing two primary handlers for two rescued or abandoned dogs. Today, the F.I.D.O. program consists of ten primary handlers and four rescued or abandoned dogs. All ten of our primary dog handlers are in the process of completing a 4000 hour animal trainer apprenticeship through the South Dakota Department of Labor. The F.I.D.O. program at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp has been a huge success in its very short existence. Not only have we assisted in finding forever homes for nine rescued or abandoned dogs, we have also assisted in improving the social climate on the FPC Yankton campus. Every day I see and hear inmates and staff petting the dogs, smiling at the dogs, talking to and saying hello to the dogs, telling me stories about what the dogs did last night when they were petting or playing with them. Our dogs have been featured in college speeches, Community Relation Board meetings, and one of the subjects in our soon to be released 4 P.M. Count. FPC Yanktonâ€™s four-legged furry friends have proven themselves to be a positive force at FPC Yankton.
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F.I.D.O. TESTIMONIALS As the participating members of the FPC Yankton F.I.D.O. program, we consider it our duty and honor to provide this service for the Yankton community. We sincerely appreciate the opportunity and continued support of the Heartland Humane Society, for without them this program would not exist. Our mission is to properly train unwanted or neglected dogs from Yankton and the surrounding communities to prepare them to become a valued companion to some lucky family, thus enabling an opportunity for a better life for the dogs. This program also creates a positive experience for us, the inmates, providing us a nationally recognized vocational skill and certification, which will give us a step forward in life once we have completed our time at FPC Yankton. Over time, I have learned a lot in the F.I.D.O program. It has given me a new but better feeling about being in the BOP. I now have something other than myself to be responsible for. I also get to see neglected or abused dogs come in here not knowing how to act and I watch them transform into smart loving companions. I play a big part in this and it gives me a great sense of self-worth. I feel the future of this program has the potential to do some great things, not only for the inmates here at Yankton FPC, but also the Yankton community. I am honored and privileged to be a part of this program. -Joe Hough Since starting this program, Iâ€™ve gained patience while training the dogs. When I see them learn, it gives me confidence in my own actions and behaviors as well. For me, this program is very therapeutic and will help me here 4 P.M. COUNT
and on the outside when I return to my community. I’m very delighted and grateful to be a part of this program. -Frankie Armstrong Working in the FPC Yankton F.I.D.O. program is my job assignment, and I feel extremely fortunate and appreciative for having been given the opportunity and privilege of being involved in the day-to-day training and care of the dogs. My assigned duties consist of working as a secondary assistant/trainer for the dog’s primary trainer. I am also responsible for maintaining and ensuring the dog wash room is consistently clean and sanitary by doing a daily cleaning of the room, dog wash tub, washer and dryer, and laundering the dog blankets and towels. Because I have been around dogs all of my life, and I have always deeply cherished the unconditional love and companionship they so willingly give. My “job” is nothing short of a cool breath of fresh air to me every day I go to work. -Wallace George Who knew that I would come to prison and get the opportunity to train man’s best friend. I am indeed very lucky to get to do this for a “job”; so often you don’t get to do for a living what you passionately love in life. Here in this program, I get the companionship of dogs that need my help to become calm and submissive to find their forever home; that is a win-win no matter which way you look at it. The only downside is they leave you, but you know they’re in a better place and that’s what really counts. The fact that you helped a dog find a home that wants it is so selfsatisfying. Thanks for giving me this honor. -Chris Hashimoto
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THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: INTERVIEWS WITH HOPEFUL MEN By Kimberly Mosqueda I remember being in class listening to Dr. Dana DeWitt speak about an upcoming job fair to be held at the Federal Prison Camp. He asked if any of us were interested in meeting the prisoners, saying we must be willing to participate in mock job interviews to help the prisoners prepare for being released. I looked around and my fellow students seemed hesitant. I raised my hand, then others began to raise their hands as well. I was curious to visit the prisoners and the prison campus. Days in advance, we filled out applications to be approved for our visitation. The the day arrived when we would be visiting the prisoners. We arrived on site and checked in, signing forms and receiving visitor badges. We proceeded to meet with an employee who took us for a tour around the campus. I was not only surprised by the short fences that surrounded the campus but also the vibe of the prison which was very relaxed. Employees were talking to prisoners, almost as friends. Many prisoners were out gardening that day. The campus was beautiful and well kept. The brick buildings and architecture reminded me of a university rather than a prison. We were told the prison is a minimum security prison for non-violent criminals. Violent crime prisoners are taken to higher-level security prisons elsewhere. Although we ladies were advised not to wear tight pants or revealing clothing, we were told the prisoners were harmless. After briefly touring the campus, we were brought into a room where a presentation was being held for the prisoners. One older gentleman raised questions. â€œI 4 P.M. COUNT
am in my late sixties; I should be retiring if I hadn’t been involved in the lifestyle I now regret. Can I be successful at finding a job? I mean, I’m a prisoner and an old man; who would want me? Companies want the twenty-somethingyear-old, right? They will probably choose the young felon before they choose me, even though I have the skills and experience.” The presenter looked nervous and hesitant to answer. He replied in the most professional and kind way he could, encouraging the prisoner to not give up and giving him other advice. The prisoner rolled his eyes and huffed and puffed while the presenter spoke. When I looked around I saw a sea of men in khaki outfits and black boots staring back at my class. I was expecting rows of orange jumpsuits and deranged-looking men, like the movies and media show. I felt uncomfortable, perhaps regretting my decision to volunteer. We were given folders and told we would gather in the gymnasium to meet the group of prisoners we would be interviewing. We walked to the gymnasium and the prisoners were sitting on bleachers; we interviewers sat at tables. We each had practice resumes of three prisoners we would meet. I looked around the crowd nervously, wondering which prisoners I would meet. The first was a man from California. Although I did not tell him I too was from California, I was intrigued about how he had ended up in the Midwest. I began asking him some interview questions the prison provided. I reviewed his resume and noticed how well he had excelled at creating his resume. The prisoner talked about having a little girl back home and that he wanted to find a decent job to provide for her. After a series of questions, we were given permission to ask the prisoners what led them to be incarcerated. I asked the prisoner and he said he was trying to smuggle drugs, and it had been the first time he had ever done it. “One time is all you need, right?” he said. When I finished my interview with him I complimented him on his eye contact and posture. Perhaps he had rehearsed enough times because he was very successful at being interviewed. 202
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The next prisoner I was to interview came forward and took a seat. He seemed nervous but cooperative. I pulled out my question sheet again and asked away. His resume looked great and the level of construction skills he had was very impressive. He was very knowledgeable about his trade and answered all my questions in an intelligent manner. After asking him so many questions I asked about his crime. He said that he was caught buying and selling meth. He noticed I seemed shocked and embarassed, but he talked about how prisoners are encouraged to talk about their crimes since potential employers will ask them anyway. He said that he planned to enter the construction field when he is released. I complimented him on his interview skills and let him know where he needed to improve. He was grateful for the opportunity to improve his interviewing skills and walked back to the bleachers. All the prisoners were so wellmannered; not once did a prisoner act out or have to be escorted away. The third prisoner was far different from the last two. He had a bubbly personality. He was eager for his interview. I began the interview. He had a passion for cooking, and said he worked in the bakery at the prison. He had years of experience working at multiple restaurants throughout his life. The way he would light up talking about cooking was admirable. Cooking was his happy place; the way he spoke about it I got the feeling it would make him forget about his worries or his current life situation. I asked him, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” He said, “Happy.” Happiness was becoming a common pattern in these interviews; each prisoner was pursuing happiness in some form. “Maybe being a top chef at a good restaurant, something like that. I love to cook; it makes me happy.” He later spoke about being charged with possession of drugs and how he is taking classes and participating in groups to overcome his drug addiction. He claimed to be sober for a very long time. “I want to stay sober for my kids; I made the mistake of taking drugs but I’m done with that. I just want to be there for my kids; I do it for them.” 4 P.M. COUNT
I was very grateful to have the experience of interviewing these prisoners. As a society, we are all imperfect people, some just get caught while commiting a mistake. I recommend more students to participate in either Crime Literature and Film class or a criminal justice class with Dr. DeWitt, so that we not only understand crime, but also realize that criminals are just regular people. I became grateful to be a free person. I do not have to worry about being distrusted or feeling unwanted by society. The media has taught us to have no sympathy for criminals, implying that they are not to be trusted but feared. But meeting them face to face has changed my perceptions. It took only one visit for me to have compassion for these individuals who have come to terms with their mistakes and want to live a more conscious life. I have come to understand a main priority for people anywhere is happiness, whether the person is a prisoner, a student or a teacher. Are we really that different? It takes the loss of freedom to understand freedom, it takes sadness to understand happiness, and it takes one mistake to take it all away. We could really learn a lot from each other. We are all really just hopeful people wishing for a better future despite our mistakes.
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BEST OF: 2012
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GEORGE By Robert Surles, 2012 I remember those summers in North Carolina. They were very hot, humid, and sticky like the raw tobacco leaves gently swaying with each breeze; the air was always thick and during the day seemed heavy from the molten blue sky. No matter which direction I would wander, the winnowed breeze was filled with all kinds of bugs and stuff like pollen or dust from the dirt roads that gave access to different sections of the tobacco farm. Everywhere I looked there were horse flies, bumblebees, grasshoppers, hummingbirds, and the smell of clover, alfalfa, and pig shit, but also there were better, juicy smells wafting from the farm house, those aromas that caused my mouth to salivate. My mom and aunt were always baking fun stuff, as I called it; you know, those sweet things you just dream about and hope for, things that make for a comfortable, good feeling. I’ve heard some folks say farms are boring, but I think that is not so. There are lots of things to do and lots of adventures to have—it’s just up to you and something called your imagination. I recall running around and through the rows of tobacco plants, being a pirate or a cavalry officer and swordfighting with the enemy, which consisted of the shorter squatty tobacco plants, the ones that I could see eye to tassel with and feel superior to. I would always win, because my sword, a tobacco stick, was magic in that I could cut them in two with one whack, but my dad would whack me when he found them lying about or if he saw me in the dueling madness of mortal combat with them. Neither he nor my uncle ever believed my stories of having been attacked by the marauding savages as I walked along the rows minding myself. It is hard to believe that such beautiful plants could be so threatening to a little boy, or as a matter of fact to 206
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people in general who use the stuff. How could that be the case? I looked at their beauty as their white, flowery-tasseled tops trundled over the hills as far as I could see, even down to the edge of the fen, a swampy low-lying area that I was forbidden to enter though I did. The plants always grew bigger there and I was told not to go down in that area without my uncle or my dad because it was easy to get lost and besides, one might run into snakes. I never got lost and never ran into or over a snake but I did find a large chemistry set there with a big tank with coils running into other tanks with jugs under some of them with what looked like water dripping down into the jugs. At times there would be a fire under the big tank and I thought that rather strange when it was so hot outside, but I guess someone was cooking something or other. I liked going down to that area with my dad because the tobacco plants were so tall and very big. I would follow along between the plants with my dad and my uncle when they were suckering the tobacco or topping the plants. They would break off the little leaves that were sucking the nutrients from the main part of the plant and topping the plant was simply breaking off the tassels, which helped them to mature faster for harvest. Sometimes I would climb up the bigger ones, bending them over with my body weight, and sometimes I would put tobacco worms (they were fat like caterpillars) on the tassels, launching them into the air like a catapult. At times they would land on my uncle or on the back of my dad’s neck, which invoked a swat at the worm and a low-mumbled, “Son-of-a-bitch,” didn’t know they could fly.” My uncle and dad used that word a lot. I did not know what it meant or if it was something or someone. It is what they called my special friend. They always called him the big sonofabitch. So, I thought it was his name, but trouble came when I called him that. George was his name and big he was—an eyeful and more. I remember my first meeting with George. I just looked at him and he looked back. I didn’t say a thing and neither 4 P.M. COUNT
did he. I walked round him as his head and neck panned to follow my moves. I gave him my apple and a sugar cube or two. We were friends. George would follow me and would come running if I called or if he just saw me. I could walk all round him, under him, or on him. He always liked me patting his belly. He never let dad or my uncle do those things, and would not come when they called him. He was the biggest, blackest mule ever. People would come from all around the tri-county area just to see him. One day that was hotter than usual, I was playing near him and for want of shade I got under George as he was standing eating some alfalfa. I glanced up and saw what looked like my dad’s punching bag, so I did. KAH-THUMP! I picked myself up and struggled, looking dazed at George, but he was not looking at me. George was jumping and bucking and braying with his eyes bulging upward in agony, his ears back and nostrils flaring as he pranced around till sundown. He never let me near his hind-quarters again, never looked at me the same. He showed neither joy or sorrow, just a tremulous distant stare, but would always take my sugar cubes, though reluctantly, and would not run to meet me. I felt a deep sadness, but I could not place it and sorry was I for the mistook bag, but at five I just didn’t know. Folks would come from all around to see him. And you could always hear them say, “Look at that angry big sonofabitch.”
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OSCAR MAYER WEINER WHISTLE By Thomas Schroeder, 2012 It was just an Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle. A silly little marketing gimmick, shaped like a miniature hot dog, curling up at the ends and painted with the Oscar Mayer logo, about the size of a child’s thumb. I was home during the summer of my junior year in college. I’m not exactly sure of the message my mother was trying to convey with her usual dose of subtlety, but she had converted my bedroom into an office and workout room. My former domicile was now jam-packed with a commercial-sized treadmill, a white desk with baby blue trim, and one of those weight loss contraptions where you pretend you are skiing. Also, there was a three-foot ceramic Florence Nightingale proudly displayed in the corner where my golf clubs and baseball equipment used to be, and sky blue curtains on the windows decorated with the images of hundreds of Band-Aids of all shapes and sizes. My mom’s nursing diploma was proudly displayed on the paneled wall, replacing a framed photo of Wilt Chamberlain. Didn’t appear to be too much chance of the dreaded empty nest syndrome affecting my mother. “Clean out the two dressers in my office, honey, would ya? Throw away all the junk. I’m having your Dad haul them to the Salvation Army tomorrow.” Two more subtle messages, my treasured memorabilia from my entire life up to that point was junk, and my furniture was going to the Sally’s. Subtle as a poke in the eye. Anyway, while sorting through the middle drawer of the tall dresser, I came upon the Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle, and I remembered it instantly. My friend Jeff had bought it for me when we were nine, almost ten. He got one for himself also. His parents and my parents were friends. 4 P.M. COUNT
Our moms were in the Church Ladies’ Aid Association together, and our dads played together on the same fastpitch softball team. They both played for the Hillsdale Grain Elevator Red Sox in the Rock Island County Farm Bureau League. Most of their home games were played at the ballpark behind the old Hillsdale High School. My dad was the team’s center fielder, and Jeff ’s dad played short or second, depending on the condition of his bad knee on game day. The ball field was built into the bank of a hill, so the center field and right field walls were actually kind of an ivy-covered cliff. The kids would climb up to the top of the cliff and wrestle each other for home runs and foul balls in the right field corner. Pretty damn cool. I often tagged along with my dad to the games during the summer, and just as often, Jeff would show up with his dad. In those days, it didn’t seem as if parents, at least mine, were as concerned with child abduction, or as paranoid about accident prevention. My dad just gave me one of his no-nonsense looks when we pulled up in his truck, said, “Don’t cause trouble, stay where I can find you, and don’t bother me during the game. And here’s a buck, make it last.” On one particular warm Sunday afternoon, the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile was stationed in the ballpark, some kind of Farm Bureau promotion. The Weinermobile was a huge van, shaped like a hot dog, with a sound system that played the Oscar Mayer Weiner song. It went like this: “I wish I was an Oscar Mayer Weiner, that is what I’d truly like to be. For if I was an Oscar Mayer Weiner, everyone would be in love with me.” Hard to imagine, but the obnoxious rolling hot dog was a kid magnet. Jeff ’s dad must have given him more spending cash; he went right up and got in line at the Weinermobile. It was worth the wait. Jeff bought us each an Oscar Mayer hot dog. And with each hot dog purchased came a genuine Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle. That was big stuff when you’re nine, almost ten. Jeff was maybe the first real buddy I could remember. 210
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I had my classmates at George O. Barr Elementary School, but I only saw them during school days. And I had my four sisters, but they didn’t really count; they were girls. And my male cousins were too young and lived too far away. Then there was Mark Larson who lived in the space house, but he didn’t count because he was selfish and cried too much. We called it the space house because it looked like something from the Jetsons TV Show, all glass and steel and stone, with an honest-to-God bomb shelter. In the sixties, everyone was indoctrinated to believe the Soviet Union would start World War III and bomb us at any moment. So some people had bomb shelters in their homes. Also, in school we had regular drills where we had to stick our heads under the desk part of the student desk / chair combo, and often we were forced to quietly march into the halls of the school and crouch down against the walls. Not sure how any of that would keep us from being blown to pieces by the evil Soviets. Jeff was a cool kid. He loved baseball and flying kites; he talked non-stop which was OK with me because I was sort of quiet, and he was smart and funny. He wasn’t a very big kid, rather scrawny and pale. He also had no hair. None. At our dads’ games, he used to pretend he was Mickey Mantle, and I was Willie Mays, our favorite players. He was going to become the shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, and I was going to play center field for the San Francisco Giants. Guaranteed. We both turned ten that summer; my birthday was in June, and Jeff ’s was in July. I saw Jeff quite often, at my dad’s games or church events, or when our families got together for picnics. When our families were at the ballpark, Jeff ’s mom was constantly telling him to slow down. She’d say, “Come sit by me, sweetie. You need to rest now.” I remember thinking that was odd; my mom never said anything like that to me or my sisters. If anything, it was the opposite, “Get out of here, go outside and play something. You heard me, now go.” With five kids pawing at her most of the time, who could blame her? 4 P.M. COUNT
Jeff always carried his Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle with him that summer; he would laugh at the sound it made, and he liked that I had one too. But I lost mine. I’m not sure what happened to it. It was just a silly little thing, no big deal. Jeff didn’t go to my school. And when the school year started that fall, which just might be the worst day of the year for a ten-year-old, he told me he didn’t have to go to school that year. Not fair, I thought. In the early fall, we were all over at Jeff ’s house. His mom made him stay in bed in his room, but I was allowed to go in there to play with him if we promised to be quiet. He had a lot of G.I. Joes. He had a G.I. Joe Jeep, and a combat station, and a wire hooked up from one wall to the other in his bedroom for the G.I. Joes to zoom across the sky. When I told Jeff I lost my Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle, he said, “That’s OK, you can have mine. I don’t need it.” That day was the last time I saw him. Jeff ’s was the first funeral I can remember. I went with my parents, and sat next to my dad. I wore a white dress shirt with a blue clipon tie; my dad was in a dark suit. It was a school day, my sisters had to stay at school, and the church was about half full. The front of the sanctuary was filled with bouquets of colorful flowers. Some serious looking men wheeled the small coffin down the aisle to the front, and stopped it by the first row of pews. There sat Jeff ’s dad, looking ghostlike, tired and sad, as if all the joy had been sucked out of him. And Jeff ’s mom was by his side and surrounded by my mother and other ladies from the church. She was sobbing loudly and shaking, and the ladies were clutching her hands and gently patting her back. As the minister started to speak, I remember thinking, kids aren’t supposed to die. He went on an on, “There is a reason for everything, a season for living and a season for dying. Jeff is in a better place, his suffering has ended. We must trust in the Lord.” I’m not sure the preacher helped Jeff ’s dad to feel any better; he just sat there and stared straight ahead. And Jeff ’s mom couldn’t seem to stop. The 212
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minister kept at it. I was confused about the message in a ten-year-old dying of cancer, so I just thought of my funny and cool pal, smiled and looked down at my hand, where I was holding the Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle. All those years later, I pulled the whistle out of my soon-to-be-donated dresser drawer, and placed it in the box marked, “Tom’s Stuff To Be Saved, Please Don’t Throw Away, Mom!” I still have it. I found out that Jeff ’s parents had a daughter some years later. She is now the mother of a little boy, who is about seven or eight. I think that kid should soon have his very own, genuine, Oscar Mayer Weiner Whistle.
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TED By Bob Shallenberger, 2012 A two-liter bottle of Coke, half-empty, rests on the floor next to your chair directly in front of the console TV I won when we worked as the best father-and-son team Britannica ever had. A soft pack of True Blue 100’s sits next to your eighteen-carat gold flip-top Cartier lighter. The tar-filled Fourth Step filter waiting to be cleaned lies beside the half-full crystal ashtray. A velour robe, dark socks and paint-splattered light brown deerskin slippers half-cover your boxers and ribbed tank top; gold-rimmed glasses with the lenses that get darker outside help you see just enough. A flower-covered glass with the clear icebag sweating and diluting the soda sits beside you. The easy-over eggs with bacon, sausage, corned beef hash and toast are right on time. You cut it all up carefully and blend it effortlessly into a unique breakfast montage. The last bite and the only trace of food is the yolk’s yellow haze on the round flowered plate. It looked gross but tasted so good. I still eat it like that now. The folded Post-Dispatch sports section is opened to the page with today’s spreads. The games are marked with the up-to-date lines. Your picks are circled with notes in the margin for each. When the game comes on, you’ll tell me who we need to win and by how much. I only care if that team wins; if you win; if we win. The Banditos’ season is over and there’s no place to be. We sit there together watching the Big Red on channel four as you smoke and drink Coke. We eat Swenson’s French Vanilla or Mint-chip ice cream out of the container. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing together; we’re together and that’s all that matters. It’s been more than thirty years since then and everything is gone. You’ve been gone almost twenty years and I can still see you in your chair in your outfit. I wish you 214
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would be there when I get home so we can sit next to each other and eat breakfast at noon together, watch bad football and feed on Swensonâ€™s, a Coke and a smoke. You left too soon without saying good-bye. I miss that. I miss you.
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Bonnie Johnson-Bartee Bonnie Johnson-Bartee is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Bildungsroman 38 (2004) and Named, but Unknown (2006), and the editor of Teachers College: Essays on the Art of Education (WSC Press, 2007). Her work can be found in Words Like Rain (WSC Press, 2005) and editions of Voices Out of Nowhere and Judas Goat. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, where she also serves as the coordinator of the Visiting Writers Series and is the editor of Northeast Community Collegeâ€™s annual Voices Out of Nowhere.
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A LETTER FROM BONNIE JOHNSON-BARTEE To the students in Dr. Reese’s class in Yankton: Thank you for the warm welcome on a wet chilly day in Yankton. Neil and I appreciate the opportunity to read some poetry, have great conversation, and most importantly: learn from each other. I read through your response letters and was happily reminded of how poetry leaves a lasting impression on everyone. How each of us takes the same words, processes, and hears such different things; such as, Marquise Bowie introduced me to a new metaphorical connection in one of my poems. What do I want to be remembered for? This question was posed to you, and as a result, I spent a great amount of time pondering it myself. I live a very simple life: family, dogs, flowers, birds, teaching. We have in common in that none of your responses reflected lofty goals of being billionaires or going to the moon. The responses were down to earth. The very place we all start and we all end. Everything between birth and death is about communication in its various forms. On this, the eve of the birth of my newest granddaughter, that sense of overwhelming love for a child I have not met is the purest form of that communication. We all desire to be cared for unconditionally, to have someone in our corner regardless of circumstance, to be heard. As Frank Constant points out in his letter, “. . . I want to be remembered for sharing the love that I have in my heart with whomever come[s] into the circle I believe is around me.” And that, in part, is what I want to be remembered for also: expanding that circle of communication and compassion through teaching. Whether it is encouraging students to find their inner voice or how to find the courage to put that voice on paper. Or whether it is to teach my grandchildren the art of planting, 4 P.M. COUNT
caring, and harvesting, caring for animals and birds, or whether it is nurturing family, and respecting all human beings. This is where I will start – and let those I’ve touched through my words and actions, such as you, continue that cycle from there. As I will allow your words to influence me in how I think, write, act, and continue that same cycle for you. The poet Jeffrey Fry is quoted: “To realize that everything in the world is connected is to both accept our insignificance and understand our importance in it.” I’ve always appreciated these words because they don’t charge us with extreme action but rather just that we act in the best way we know how with the tools we have. Each of us is communicating through learning, teaching, reaching out, as well as taking time to think through responses and leave a lasting impression. Once again, I thank each of you for leaving a solid impact on me with your respect, interest, and words. I hope each of you continues to share your voice with others. Communication is certainly one of our most important tools in this world. We cannot afford to shut our minds and hearts to others. We’re all in this together. Again, thank you for the opportunity to share an afternoon with you. I appreciate the invitation, Dr. Reese. Bonnie Johnson-Bartee
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George Morris George Morris is a member of the Crow tribe and lives on the reservation in Montana. The Pryor Mountains, the Big Horn River, and the people of the Crow Nation inspire him and it is their stories that he wants to tell.
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HORSES AND HOUNDS In my younger days I worked for the Scott Cattle Company on the Cashen ranch in south central Montana. The Cashen spread was on part of the Crow Indian Reservation, and an old cowboy named George Bill Sanford worked there too, but everyone called him Hawkeye. I never knew how he came by that handle, but another old hand said it was because old Hawkeye could spot a cow up a coulee two ranges away. He was an old-time cowboy, a true friend of the working girls, and protector of the innocent. Hawkeye was getting up there in years, probably at least in his early seventies by the time I knew him. But don’t think he couldn’t keep up, because you would be wrong; he was as tough as the leather on Matt Dillon’s boots and a damn good camp cook, too. We lived in a two-room shack; one room had a dirt floor, and there was a little barn out back. The Scott Ranch was one of the last to run a chuckwagon and Cashon ranch was kind of a summer cow-camp, also called a line shack. I remember we had an old Zenith Radio with a wire that ran out the back and then up a thirty-foot pole. Two coat hangers and some baling wire made up its antenna. That was our two-way radio to call the main ranch with, at least whenever it worked. However, the old AM radio we listened to had a country station called KGHL, and a DJ called Lonnie Bell, known by all as the classic country music legend. One nice spring morning he played a song he had written, “Banks of The Yellowstone,” and in that song he sang, “Every man should have a good dog at one time or other in life.” After hearing that song, Hawkeye and I got to telling stories about our favorite dogs. I told him I had this one old dog named Frosty. Every time I went out to get in the pickup truck, just the minute I’d opened the door, Frosty would jump in the back. I didn’t even have to tell him to 220
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load up. Hawkeye said, “Well, one time I had this old dog, and every time I reached for my rifle and stepped out the door, the dog would run and scare up something to shoot. So one day I was going to fool him. I grabbed my rifle and he ran out the door. Then I set my rifle back down and grabb my fishing pole, and when I went outside, the darned dog was digging up worms.” Being a young hand, still in my early twenties, I had my mind in a whirlwind trying to top that one. Hawkeye was full of bullshit and knowledge and wasn’t afraid to share it. It didn’t matter if it was fixing fence, doctoring cattle, or riding horses, he was a master at them all. He could tell you some good ones, like “Son, it’s not the miles you put on, it’s the stops you make along the way.” He worked hard and he played hard. Just about anyone that knew him couldn’t wait for him to come to town. Saturday nights you could find him at the Spur Bar, and after he had a few drinks, you could hear him before you would see him. He’d rear back on his bar stool and yell, “Don’t take her away,” which seemed to be a line of a song he really liked. Money never meant much to him. If he had forty dollars, thirty of it was yours if you needed it; as long as he had his Copenhagen chew and some roll-your-own, he was happy. He was short of breath, and with his old broken down legs he walked like a frozen-toed rooster, but even after he was forced to retire when his health was becoming an issue, he still wouldn’t ever sit still. My wife and I leased a place just across the Yellowstone River. Since it had two houses on it, we lived in one, and I told Hawkeye he could live in the other one. All he had to pay was his phone and heat, and that way we could keep an eye on him, since he was close to town. He liked to have his friends around. If they needed a place to camp for the night, or maybe a week, old Hawkeye welcomed them in. I remember one of our friends, a young fella who shoed horses named Larry Carlson, camped there with Hawkeye. 4 P.M. COUNT
Larry didn’t drink much; he was known to have one now and then, and he was an easygoing kind of a guy. I can’t paint wings on him, but he was no trouble-maker by any means, either. One day I was surprised to see him lying out in the yard with both eyes beat plumb shut, with a raw beefsteaks on each eye. I said, “ What the hell did you run into, Larry, a door?” Hawkeye laughed and said, “Hell, it looks like more likely a pair of ‘em.” I went inside to get us some beers when the phone rang. I answered it and the guy on the other end was talking a mile a minute, so I couldn’t make heads or tails out of him. I said, “Whoa, slow down!” He had a real heavy accent, maybe Chinese or Vietnamese, and he just kept rattling on. He said he was calling from a Kung Fu self-defense martial arts class, for a “Meester Carlson.” I hollered out to Larry and said it was some person wanting to know if he was going to make it to Kung Fu class tonight. Larry said “Oh, Jesus! Ask him if we’re gonna’ be having physical contact.” I told Larry that the caller said, “Yes, they would be sparring in combat.” Larry said, “Tell him I am just way too sore to make it in tonight!” The Chinese fella’ said, “Oh, that mean, we too late.” Let me tell you, that old Hawkeye and me had a good laugh that day.
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MORE THAN ME We’re traveling down two different roads in worlds so far apart. You want me yet there’s something else before me in your heart. Everyone tried to warn me you were just playing a game. I told them all we were meant for each other; I thought our worlds were the same. You’re wanting me to change my life, the way you’re living yours, but I can’t change. I see “You never wanted me before.” There’s nothing I can do it seems; we’ll never get along with you believing as you do, you say I live so wrong. I can’t change my way of life; I’ve lived it much too long. You’ll either take me as I am or I’ll go it alone. So if it’s change my life or go, then go it’s going to be, ‘cause I can’t see changing my life when you want something more than me!
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PRYOR MOUNTAIN High on Pryor Mountain where the “Little People” live and the teepee poles grow tall, Two cowboys, Rod and Audie, ran a round-up camp last fall. They took their horses, and running irons, and scrawny dog or two, To brand every long-eared calf that came within their view. Any stray calf that flapped long ears and didn’t brush up by day, Was bound to get his long ears whittled and his old hide scorched in a most artistic way. Then one fine day, old Rod got mad and threw his rope down on the ground, And said, “I’m sick of smelling burning hair, and I allow I’m headed out for town.” So they saddled up and hit a lope, them boys sure could ride, You see, back then a good cowboy oiled up his old insides. They started out at Red’s Bar, at the head of whiskey row, And wound up down by Della’s Whorehouse some forty drinks below. They set their horses up, then turned around and headed back the other way, To tell the truth, old Rod and Audie got mighty drunk that day. The next morning heading back to camp, and packing a pretty good load, Who should they meet, but the Devil himself come prancing down the road. 224
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He said, “You ornery cowboy skunks had better hunt your holes, For I’ve come up from hell’s rimrocks to gather up your souls.” Old Rod said, “Devil, I think you oughta’ know, us boys are kind of tight, You’re not going to take our souls, without some kind of fight.” So, Rod poked a hole in his old stigo1 and swung it straight and true, Then lapped it on the Devil’s horns and took his dallies too. Well Audie was a Reata2 man with his gut line coiled up neat, He shook it out, built a loop, and roped the Devil’s hind feet. They stretched him out and held him down, and while their irons3 got real hot, They cropped and swallow-forked4 his ears, then branded him a lot. They pruned him up with a dehorning saw, tied knots in his tail for a joke. Then they left him tied up to a Pryor Mountain oak. So if you’re ever up on Pryor Mountain and you hear one hell of a wail, It’s not the “Little People” your hearing, it’s that Devil bitching about the knots them boys tied in his tail. Nylon or grass rope. Rawhide rope. 3 Branding Iron. 4 This phrase means to shorten and cut a notch in the calf ’s ears. 1 2
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THE LITTLE PEOPLE As a lifelong member of the Crow Nation, many times on the reservation the elders would tell the stories and legends that are important to the Crow culture. Many of these stories involved the “Little People.” The Little People are described as being about knee high, and built like dwarves, with short arms and legs, round bellies and sharp canine teeth. Some of the stories also say they have hairy faces and pointed ears. They are also supposed to be very strong. In fact the Crow often use the expression, “strong as a dwarf.” According to the legends the Little People live in the Pryor Mountains that are located in Carbon and Big Horn Counties in Montana. One story tells of a Crow boy who fell out of a travois when his family moved to a new hunting ground, and was found by the Little People. The boy absorbed part of their magic and grew to be supernaturally strong. For fun, he began building tall columns of stones. This is how the Medicine Rocks or Castle Rocks were formed. The Castle Rocks are considered to be sacred by the Crow people, and the area is linked strongly with the Little People because it is considered to be their home. Another Little People legend that concerns the Pryor Mountains is that the Little People are sacred to the tribe and that it is expected of us to leave an offering upon entering or leaving the Pryor Mountains. According to the legend, a Crow was befriended by the Little People, and told of a pass through the mountains and that the Crows could use. Using the pass now known as the Pryor Gap required that an offering for safe passage be left by shooting arrows ahead of themselves as they traveled through the pass, or by leaving beads, tobacco, cloth, or other offerings. According to our legend, the Little People enjoy playing pranks, such as sensing and then hiding from the person searching for the source of the music. They are also 226
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supposed to care for children whenever a child is left in the woods to fend for itself, or they may rescue children that have bad or abusive parents. The Little People are considered to have very strong magic and play a big part in our tribal ceremonies, including our sun dances and sweat lodge ceremonies. Some people believe that the Little People cause bad things to happen. But in my fifty-plus years I have never had a bad experience, although I do believe I have crossed paths with them. Iâ€™ll just say that there have been some strange things happen up in the Pryor Mountains, or at least some things I canâ€™t explain. One summer I was running my cows up on the Pryor Mountain and my cousin and I were also doing some logging. That Sunday he left me and headed into town. He had been gone about three hours when I saw one of my cows coming down from a stand of timber. This was odd since there is no food or water up that way. This made me think that perhaps someone might have left open the gate to the next pasture and that the cow had come down from there. I decided to go have a look and so I jumped in my pickup and drove up to see the gate. When I got there, the gate was closed so I headed back the three miles or so I had driven to get there. Then on my way back, I discovered that a tree had apparently fallen across the road since I came through there. This tree was at least fifty feet long and too big to drive over, so I was trapped. Not only that, but I had left my saw and ax behind so I had no way of making a path through it. I remembered seeing a large roll of barbed wire hanging on the fence so I thought I would try to use the wire to wrap around the tree and pull it off the road. This plan meant backing up at least a quarter mile because there was no way to turn around on the narrow cow trail, so I backed up the whole way until I could stop and get the barbed wire. Next, I threw it in the back of the pickup and headed back to the fallen tree. 4 P.M. COUNT
When I got there, the tree was gone. It was gone, like it was never there, it had plumb disappeared. Now I don’t know if the Little People were having a good joke at my expense, because I didn’t hear anyone laughing, but I’m pretty sure that they were. One thing I do know, though, is that I always make sure to leave an offering for them every time I pass through their land. I was told take care of the Little People and they will take care of you.
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BEST OF: 2013
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TODAY’S SPECIAL By Tim Neal, 2013 I remember you coming home from work. After standing all day, your feet were swollen like two giant balloons. I can still see all the burn marks on your arms that resembled the craters of the moon from carrying hot plates. You were always wearing that mauve uniform with your hair in a bun and your stained apron stained by a mix of mashed potatoes, chocolate pie, and a few kernels of corn. I can still see the bright, shiny badge with the words, “Donna, Server,” pinned to your uniform like a badge of honor. My senses, to this day, can still pick up the aroma of maple syrup, black coffee, whatever “today’s special” was, and the sweat of hard work. The same hard work of a single parent trying to put a meal on the table for her family by placing abundant meals on many other tables during a ten-hour shift. It was always the decisive moment when you came home and would call out in your exhausted voice, wornout from calling out your orders to the cooks, “Timmy, come help me count up my tips, I think it was a good day.” You and I would huddle up on the floor straightening up sticky dollar bills; stacking quarters, dimes, nickels, and, sadly enough, even pennies of appreciation. Counting the tips tucked away in the same stained apron. On a good day, you would count anywhere from seventy-five to eighty-five dollars. You would smile and say, “How about we order out for pizza tonight?” I was so proud to see you succeed for a day’s work. It also meant good news, we can pay the rent or maybe even the light bill. We could continue to do family things like watching our favorite television shows, Dallas, Knots Landing, and my favorite Head Bangers Ball on MTV, on that obnoxious lime green, nineteen-inch television that was so cheap because nobody else would own such an 230
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eyesore. However, there were the bad days as well; fifteen, twenty dollars. You and I knew what this meant. You would give me that blank stare; that “I’m sorry I failed you” look and say to me, “You know what we have to do, son.” I would feel so defeated and angry during the times we were eating hot dogs cut up in macaroni and cheese or potted meat sandwiches. There were too many nights of going to bed hungry, my stomach crying out for food like a baby needing a bottle. Our lives often played out according to the gratitude of your customers. I remember those long nights sitting in a booth at your work with no place to go. I would watch happy families laughing and enjoying their dinners, oblivious to the fact that we were homeless. I would sample all the flavored syrups on the table and tuck away the jelly packets for later. There were an unlimited supply of chocolate milk for me and coffee for you. I would watch servers put on these big smiles for their customers, knowing you had to perform the same act hours later, even though you truly had no reason to smile at all. Then there were the cold, snowy, wet nights. I remember us sleeping in the front seat of the cook’s beat-up Ford pickup because he felt sorry for us and that was all he could offer. I would watch our breath fog up the icy-cold windows; the sooner the better, that way nobody could see us living this way. I would sit and watch the outside world disappear into a glaze of ice forming on the windows due to the warmth slowly leaving our shivering bodies. I would often be in deep thought, unmindful of how cold it actually was. I would wonder why we had to live like this and why my dad could not provide for me. On the other hand, I wondered why you would spend your money at bingo, hoping for that big payoff that seemed to elude you. I would wake up in the morning with the sunshine slowly melting our breath off the frozen windows, that cruel cold world coming back into view. A new day meant another chance at you making enough tips for a motel room that night. Who could ever forget 4 P.M. COUNT
those hundreds of motel rooms? We stayed at whatever motel was the cheapest: filthy and stained carpets, broken windows, pimps and prostitutes using the motels for business motives, gunshots going off like fireworks on the fourth of July. Yet, this was comfortable to us, this was warmth for the night. It was a step above our lowest point. If we were lucky you would make enough for the room and a loaf of bread and sometimes bologna too. I would have to leave the motel by checkout time and hang out at a friendâ€™s house until you got off work. If you made enough for another room, we would start the process all over and find the cheapest rate once more. No doubt that there were rough times. So many nights spent watching the flame of a candle flicker back and forth because we had no electricity. I remember being too embarrassed to go to school because I had the same clothes on for multiple days in a row, while all our belongings sat in a five-by-ten storage unit. Even worse, they sat on the curb outside of the apartment complex the local Sheriff â€™s Department had just evicted us from. I could never have any friends over because we lived in a dilapidated motel room with roaches occupying more space than we did. These are times of my life that will be permanently etched into my memory. Furthermore, I believe these times were what gave me a good work ethic. Let us not forget that there are also good things that will remain with me forever: all of the laughter we shared, having no doubt that we would always be there for each other, and knowing that whatever I went through, you were going through too. There are families that live in mansions with overstuffed refrigerators, lights, and plenty of money, but they do not have a connection even close to ours. Because of the love you have for me and the love I have for you, we will always share the strong bond as mother and son. I often wonder what life would have been like if we were financially secure. However, I do not know if I would trade those days because even though there was always a shortage of money, there was never a shortage of 232
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love. As we always say, “We put the fun in dysfunctional.” I am grateful for you, mom, and my love and respect for you is as endless as the sun rising every morning. As a single parent, you tried so damn hard to provide for me and I will always appreciate that. You are a true story of perseverance, integrity, and loyalty. You are “my special” today and every day.
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MY FATHER VS. ADDICTION By Tim Neal, 2013 As a little boy, I remember my dad as a superhero. He stood tall and upright like the gladiators once stood in the Roman coliseum, to battle whatever beast stood before them. His steel blue eyes had the look of a man who never saw fear in his lifetime. I remember his hands being the size of a catcher’s glove, massive fingers the size of TNT sticks. From the stories I heard about his younger, wild days, they had the explosives to match as well. These hands once broke the jaw and nose of an individual with one punch, and that was from disrespecting his woman, my mother. He was a proud Irishman and his temper backed up his pride. There were bad sides of this temper as well, and there were times that he did not stand so straight. His eyes would have a far-off glazed-over look, as if the evil itself had entered his body. Those were the days my sisters and I would hide in a closet and listen to my mother, the same woman he stood up for, take a beating from those same explosive hands. My father was an abusive alcoholic. Dad was pleasant when sober. He was intelligent, charismatic, and very loving. He was everything you could ask for in a father when sober. He was always playing practical jokes on us kids. He was a master of sneaking up and scaring the heck out of you. He just made life as exciting as possible. We went for walks to the park all the time and during these walks he was always scanning the ground. I questioned him one day why he did this and he said, “Son, there is always money on the ground and every cent adds up.” He was right, there was money on the ground all the time, and I found a great deal of it since he shared his secret with me. Thirty-five years later, I still find myself observing the ground as a walk. At least I found a good habit to take from him. 234
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However, when he and booze got together it was never a good combination and life was not exciting, but scary as hell. As he and I got older, the drunken days seemed to always progress. I remember one time when I was about fifteen we got into an argument right outside his favorite hangout, an old hole in the wall bar in downtown Denver, Colorado, full of old timer alcoholics with the same demons as my father. I have never told anybody about the argument we had. It was ugly. He could barely stand, and his words were slurred; they ran together like one long song. I felt I was at the age where I deserved answers from him. I asked my father, “Why do you drink so much? Why don’t you help mom with money to support me?” This did not go over well with my father. Perhaps I should have asked him these questions when he was sober because what took place next might have never happened, and haunts me to this day. My father looked at me with those same glazed-over steel blue eyes, the same look he had in his eyes when he would come home from the bar and beat my mother, and he said to me, “You don’t know a damn thing, you little punk. Get the hell out of here and don’t come back.” Devastated by the hurtful words that slurred out of my father’s mouth, I replied to his barrage with spiteful words of my own. I looked my father directly in the eye and said, “You are a worthless father, nothing more than an abusive drunk, and I hate you.” I remember standing there in front of that damn tavern, the smell of booze mixed with hopelessness filling the air. I wanted so badly to run away from this hellhole of barstools, shot glasses, and dependency. I remember the look in my father’s eyes at that very moment when we stood toe to toe in front of that dive bar exchanging such spiteful words. This wounded soul that I had never seen before seemed to sober up on my malicious words instantly. For the first time in my life, I realized my dad was no superhero; he was not as invincible as I believed. I turned around and went my way, and he went back inside to drink away what had just transpired. 4 P.M. COUNT
We never said “Sorry” to each other for the remaining fourteen years that he lived before dying of cancer. We acted as if it never happened, but the resentment I carry with me to this day is a heavy burden. I know what addiction is like, having been addicted to drugs for the better part of my adulthood; I also have fought the demons my father battled when he was alive. I know my father loved me and I pray that he knew that I loved him. I just wish that we had had more sober days to spend with each other. I wish that my dad had told me he loved me more often. He did not have to hide his emotions behind that burly physique. If I could turn back the time, this is what I would have posed to him in front of that establishment that I so detested, “I am sorry, dad. You were not a bad father and I did not hate you. I now understand the battle with addiction that you faced. It is a hard battle and I hope that I have the strength to defeat my demons. I know you are on my side cheering for me. I am now that gladiator inside the Roman coliseum clashing with the beast of addiction that stands before me.”
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Neil Harrison Neil Harrisonâ€™s poetry publications include a chapbook, Story (Logan House Press, 1995 &1996), and the collections In a River of Wind (Bridge Burners Publishing, 2000), Into the River Canyon at Dusk (Lone Willow Press, 2005), and Back in the Animal Kingdom (Pinyon Publishing, 2011). A fourth collection, Where the Waters Take You, is forthcoming. His fiction has appeared in the anthology Here From There, and in various journals, including Platte Valley Review, Nebraska Territory, Elkhorn Review, and Paddlefish. He formerly taught English and Creative Writing at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he coordinated the Visiting Writers Series.
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A LETTER FROM NEIL HARRISON To the students in Dr. Reese’s class in Yankton, Thanks to you all for welcoming Bonnie and me into your class there in Yankton, and for your letters and thoughts on what you might like to be remembered for. I found that each of your responses reflected to some degree the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, even in adverse circumstances, and I agree that if we can manage that and be remembered for it, our lives will have mattered and the world will be a better place for our having been in it. Negativity seems a lot more common in the world today than when I was younger. There seems to be more fear and desperation in people as a whole. They say that people changed at the end of World War II, after the destructive power of the atomic bomb became a reality to them. But people still seemed more positive when I was a boy than they are today. Then we got involved in the Korean War, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, all interspersed with various attempted genocides and terrorist acts around the world. It seems humanity can be pretty damned inhuman a lot of the time. And with our present access to world events via contemporary media that often seems more focused on violence and destruction than on the many good things that happen daily around the world, it’s hard to find and stay focused on the positive. But I’ve found that one positive person can affect everyone they come in contact with for the better. I’ve seen it happen a number of times. And you know when you’re in the presence of such people, because your mood lightens, and you feel better just being around them. Of course, the opposite is also true—one negative person can darken the moods of everyone around them. 238
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And one of the problems today is that some of the programs on radio and TV are focused entirely on negativity, on dividing people rather than bringing them together in a positive way. It’s a dark but so far successful political strategy, spreading negative views of the opposing party, whether true or not. Contemporary politics seems to have nothing positive to offer, each party doing everything in its power to downgrade whatever the other party tries to do, even when it’s something that might be for the good of everyone. So we end up with a government that accomplishes little more than causing divisions among us, in spite of Lincoln’s speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” that echoed Jesus’ warning in the gospels. We can no longer afford to wait for outside leadership, from the government, the media, or even religion. It seems our only hope of escaping the negativity so prevalent today is for each of us to cultivate a positive personal outlook and to share it with one another. And I found that positive outlook reflected in each of your responses to the question of how you would want to be remembered. I want to thank each of you for sharing that, and I hope you continue to share it with one another. I believe, as it seems all of you do, that it’s the most important thing any of us will be remembered for. Each of us needs such a positive outlook, and the world needs us when we have it. Thanks to Dr. Reese for the invitation. And once more, thank you all. Neil Harrison
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Mr. Wolfe Mr. Wolfe is an inmate at Federal Prison Camp Yankton.
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FREEDOM: A SHORT SOMEWHAT METAPHORICAL ESSAY The word “freedom” is often used as if there are no bounds to its meaning. It is broad reaching because it encompasses the idea of unrestricted thought and behavior. But there are many flavors of freedom: societal, personal, and economic, to name a few. This short metaphorical exploration will focus on societal and personal freedoms. Societal and personal freedoms tend to be the two categories most individuals think about and regarding which they have strong emotions. One thing is certain. People want personal freedoms. They want to be able to think and behave as they wish, and many are willing to die to attain such an ideal. Remember Mel Gibson’s character in the movie Braveheart yelling “freedom” while being tortured and then executed. That scene evokes such strong emotion. But is that what freedom is? Is that all it is? Society, through laws and cultural norms, creates boundaries on many personal freedoms. Everyone wants personal freedom. But, to be truly free, there must be restrictions. True freedom requires boundaries. Societal and personal freedoms can be thought of in two metaphorical ways. The first may be called shield held freedom or “freedom from.” Shield held freedom would include freedom from persecution and freedom from censorship. Societies have been built around such freedoms. The second can be called sword wielding freedom or “freedom to.” Examples would include freedom to pursue one’s happiness, have a family, build a career, eat to one’s content, travel, live, and even die. Which freedom metaphor has more value to one’s personal life? Which is more valuable to society? Are society’s concepts of freedom the same as an individual’s 4 P.M. COUNT
concept of freedom? Most individuals strive for sword wielding freedom while society builds itself around shield held freedom, in part to protect individuals from society if society itself extends beyond certain boundaries. One mechanism to create shield held freedom is through the enactment of laws. A society without laws is a society without shield held freedom. But there is also personal value—not just societal value—in treating freedom as a shield. By creating self-imposed restrictions on personal freedoms, one can actually experience even greater freedom. There are subsets of society that live by shield held freedom, including church groups, and other religious societies. But, who, on their own, strives to attain shield held freedom to actually restrict one’s own activity and behavior? Not many. However, examples have been cropping up. For instance, there is a growing trend to free oneself from technology for at least some period of time. This technology-free activity seems to be trending upward over the last couple of years with technology-free meal times, weekends and even vacations. Weaning oneself off technology and the distractions it creates can be difficult to accomplish, especially for teenagers. For the average adult, there are numerous daily distractions and daily obligations which seem to necessitate the use of certain technology, not the least of which is the addictive and constant checking of one’s Facebook posts on a smartphone. Some societies, typically closed religious communities, have decided not to avail themselves of technology at all. They find they experience greater freedom by restricting such access. Could individuals living in an open society find similar freedoms if they do the same? Those following religious restrictions have been known to experience greater freedoms by taking part in those restrictions. Judeo-Christian followers who abide by the Ten Commandments would certainly hold that following these restrictions brings freedom. Imagine for a moment there were 4,000 commandments. Society would be stifled with rules of law. There would 242
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be widespread fear of violating one of the thousands of commandments. Moses would have had to ask an armada of volunteers to help carry the piles and piles of stone tablets down the mountain. Who would be able to keep track of all of them? How would they be interpreted? How would cases be adjudicated? Pharisitical bias in the Jewish justice system would have become significantly more rampant. Personal freedoms would have been lost while the perception of societal freedoms would have exponentially increased. Economic risk takers would be significantly less willing to take risks. Regulations would smother small business owners. The same is happening now in the twenty-first century. In fact, this is the case today in the United States. With over 4,000 criminal felony laws, rules, and regulations on the books, every American has likely committed dozens of felonies. If controlled, societally imposed restrictions can create greater freedom. For instance, if someone commits a crime, the likely result is incarceration. Incarceration takes away freedom. But, it takes away only a certain type of freedom. It takes away the individual’s sword wielding freedom. It leaves fully intact the individual’s shield held freedom. It is this freedom that should be explored when one finds himself in such a predicament. Looked upon with a suitable pair of lenses, incarceration provides freedom from the blizzard of life’s many distractions. “Freedom from” society-at-large allows one to explore the “freedom to” think, grow, change, explore one’s decision making abilities, and better oneself. Different sword wielding freedoms can be unlocked even if one is locked up. If self-imposed restrictions can create greater shield held freedoms in one’s life, then society-imposed restrictions such as incarceration can also create greater shield held freedoms. This is a paradox indeed. Experiencing self-imposed “freedom from” opens up different types of “freedom to.” Einstein was known to restrict the styles of clothes he wore. He typically wore black slacks and a white shirt. His closet was full of black slacks 4 P.M. COUNT
and white shirts. He purposely restricted his “freedom to” choose clothing styles from his thought process so as to provide additional “freedom to” think about more abstract concepts. There are trade-offs. Independence comes at the expense of interdependence, and aren’t both needed? But they don’t need to be at each other’s expense. Being truly independent allows one to be truly interdependent. The limitations of certain freedoms can accentuate the opportunity for other freedoms to flourish but Aristotle recognized the slippery slope. Aristotle’s aphorism that “too much of a good thing is a bad thing” certainly applies to the concept of freedom. Too much “freedom to” and one can develop addictions as well as create breakdowns in family, community, and society at large. Too much “freedom from” and the consequences can range from one’s individuality being stifled to physical freedom being taken away. Personal growth diminishes and eventually dies. Striving for and attaining certain freedoms requires a balance which demands discipline and a maturity of understanding. The perceived irony is that restrictions can create more freedom for those who seek additional freedom. True freedom is bounded by restriction. Wielding a sword and holding a shield provides protection. Just ensure that the sword is not too short to wield and the shield is not too big to hold.
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THE LONG GAME OF GROWING OLD TOGETHER IS A LOST ART (A HAIKU) Divorce is way too common children feel it more quick to marry, rip it up.
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MY WIFE IS DOING GREAT Tuesday, June 6, 2017 – email to friend How are you? I haven’t heard from you for a while. Are you avoiding me or something? HA, HA! I know you wouldn’t do something like that. As you know I’ve been on sabbatical serving time at a federal prison camp for a little more than two years now. In order to build and strengthen family relationships during such a sabbatical, the prison provides each inmate a maximum, yet generous 300 monthly phone minutes to speak to their loved ones. They are non-rollover minutes. If you don’t use them you lose them. Each phone call is limited to fifteen minutes to ensure the calls are both succinct and meaningful. Also, all calls are recorded and heard by staff members at the camp. My wife and I speak four times a week, twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday, and once on Friday, for the alotted fifteen minutes each time. I’ve been told here that one hour a week is more than enough time to build and maintain a marriage. Moreover, to further the prison’s goal of building relationships, each fifteen minute phone call is interrupted at a random time by an audio recording of a lovely female voice reminding both caller and recipient that the caller is a federal inmate. Oddly, I can tell it’s turning her on a little. Makes me more appealing—you know—the whole bad boy thing. She visits me, on average, every quarter. We recently had a thirty-six hour furlough which almost didn’t happen because I was told my wife visits me too much, which meant I didn’t need a furlough. I got it though. My wife really wanted to be with me physically, so she helped get it approved. On furlough we really strengthened our marriage, our relationship, and our future. I think she gets it. She really, really gets it. We are gonna be great. It’ll work 246
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out. I can’t tell you how many times I told her that. When you say something to someone enough times, it eventually sinks in. It has become clear to me, in the face of the tragic event which landed me here, our bond has strengthened. This unwelcome trial by fire has strengthened our spirits and our relationship. This experience has really brought the fight out in both of us. Just as the tribes of Israel gathered to fight against Egypt, Genghis Khan gathered the Mongolian tribes to fight against China, and Cyrus the Great gathered the Persian tribes to defeat Babylon, so we, my wife and I, have gathered to fight against the world. I recall a proverb which rings true as well. It goes something like this. Steel is strengthened and refined through the forging that comes only by fire. I think Frodo said it. I love Lord of the Rings! Anyway, that’s what’s up with me. Thursday June 16, 2017 – Follow-up email Hey, just touching base. Anyhoo, for a while my wife seemed worried because of financial stresses, lack of intimacy, and other stresses she has been experiencing. She is doing a wonderful job supporting herself financially, but still living month to month, taking in tenants to help pay the bills. I help out when I can. For example, I have her send only $200 a month now. It makes it a little tough for me, but hey, we’re a team. Now she finally seems content! I knew things would end up great and always told her so. During our last call I told her, “See. I told you it will all work out.” She gets it now. She’s lightened up lately. No doubt that my assurances have really helped her. During one of our recent fifteen minute phone dates she told me a funny story about our dog and the neighbor’s dog just barking away at each other. She made me laugh. I know it was funny because one of the staff members passed by me on the compound the next day and commented, “Funny story about the dogs, Wolfe.” 4 P.M. COUNT
“Thank you.” I responded. It’s all good. She’s happy. I’m happy. Hey, shoot me an email. I’m pretty busy so give me some time to respond. Don’t get upset if I can’t get back to you right away. OK? Good. Talk to you later. Tuesday, June 21, 2017 – Follow-up email I called my wife on Sunday. She’s amazing. She seemed happier than ever. I could hear it in her voice. I asked her why she seemed to have such a “spring in her step.” She said that she is seeing a pool boy and that she was filing for divorce on Monday and is taking the dog. She said, “You’d love him. He is goal-oriented and dreams of owning a pool cleaning business in a few years.” “Huh?” I said. She assured me, “Don’t worry though, if the two of us can get through this tragic prison experience together, imagine what the three of us can do!” “Huh?” The phone beeped earlier than usual, it seemed. That meant we had a minute left on the call. She said, “Trust me. It’s all going to be great. It’ll all work out. Let’s talk more about it when you call me in three days on Wednesday.” The phone then disconnected. I had to wait the allotted thirty minutes before making another phone call. My call wouldn’t go through. I was out of minutes for the month. Can you believe that? Now I can’t talk to her until my minutes reset. The next day, Monday, another staff member passed by me on the compound and said, “It seems like your wife is pretty happy. Nice going, Wolfe!” “Thank you.” I responded. “Wait—what?” He just kept walking. Another staff member passed by me and said, “I didn’t know you had a pool.” “I don’t.” I responded. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to our next fifteen 248
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minute phone date when my phone minutes reset. Wednesday, July 5, 2017 – Follow-up email to friend Hey, my minutes reset! I finally got to call my wife today. It’s only been eighteen days. Man, time flies! The first thing I said to her was, “Hey, what did you mean?” She said, “I don’t remember. I’m not sure.” She paused, “What are you talking about?” I said, “It was something about a divorce and that you wanted to talk more about it.” “Oh yeah,” she responded. “I already filed, whew, what a lot of paper work. Did I tell you I’m taking the dog too? Don’t worry, it’ll be great,” she said. “Listen, I got to go, I’m dropping the dog off at the doggy day care. I’m going to be out of town a couple of days. We’ll talk more later.” Thursday, July 6, 2017 – Friend’s email response Hey! Haven’t had time to read your emails. Lots of words. I’ve been really busy—I’m taking a medieval weapons-making class plus I’ve joined an on-line hip hop yoga site. I don’t know where the time goes. It looks like you and your wife are doing great. Sounds like it’s all working out. Gotta go.
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AN ARRESTED VANTAGE POINT OF THE FIRST TRUMP/CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE November 2016 The most important debate of our generation has just started. I’m excited. Trump versus Clinton. No commercial interruptions. Ninety minutes of pure adrenaline. I’m sitting in one of the TV rooms of a federal prison camp in which I’m currently an inmate. It is packed. It’s as crowded as I’ve ever seen the TV room, almost as crowded as when the guys watch Party Down South or Empire. There are three TVs in the room and not surprisingly, one of the stations has on Party Down South. The other, not surprisingly, has on Empire. But the center TV is reserved for the debate. Because there are three televisions in the room, each TV is assigned a radio channel for audio. Everyone brings his radio, tunes to the correct FM station, and voila, the respective TV show’s audio is heard. The Trump/Clinton debate is a big event even in prison because the inmate in charge of the TV schedules had to obtain consensus to change the normally scheduled reality TV show, which took a lot of effort. He was able to do it by convincing the TV committee that the debate was still reality TV. I turn my gaze to the center screen. Trump’s family is there. Clinton’s family is there. Even doting daughter Chelsea Clinton is there supporting her mom. All eyes in the room are fixated on the screen while all hands are grabbing popcorn out of their bowls and drinking their flavored Kool-aid out of their cups. I feel my heart rate increase just a bit, too, as the moderator asks the first question. I could hear the popcorn 250
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crunching all around me. I don’t eat popcorn. The reason is the kernel shells get stuck between my teeth and gums. Then, I have to brush my teeth, use a toothpick, floss and hope for the best. Plus, I don’t like the crunching. Enough about my flossing habits, and enough about popcorn. The ninety-minute debate was flying. Some left during the debate and quickly returned with more microwaved popcorn. In fact, it takes exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds to pop the corn in the oft-used microwaves. In order to prevent the popcorn from burning, guys sprinkle water on the outside of the popcorn bag. Sprinkling water on a bag of popcorn is a prison hack, one of the many prison hacks I have learned. Another is related to Kool-aid. The commissary sells single packs of Kool-aid. Guys pour the Kool-aid powder into their cups then cover it with very hot water to allow the crystals to completely dissolve. Then, they fill it with ice water. Perfect Kool-aid every time. To learn more useful prison hacks, just go to my website www. wolfeswonderfulandinvaluableprisonhacksforlife.com/ more/seriously/great/hacks.html. Then, the debate ended. What a show! “Wow!” I said. I could breathe again. All the popcorn had been eaten. I took off my headset to listen to the reactions and determine if I should participate in the conversation that would obviously follow such a verbal slug-fest. I was preparing myself to hear such open-ended questions as “What are your thoughts regarding Trump’s stance on foreign policy?” or “What did you think about how Clinton responded to Trump’s verbal attack?” Rather, the first and only question I heard was the following. “Did you see Chelsea’s ass?!” Epilogue: Trump is now president-elect. He and his family were recently interviewed on 60 Minutes. My fellow inmates watched, popcorn in hand, and were excited. After watching the interview all I could hear was “Did you see Ivanka’s...?” Author’s Note: It appears it didn’t matter to the inmates who won the election on the merits. It came down to whose daughter the inmates thought was more attractive. 4 P.M. COUNT
BEST OF: 2014
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INDEPENDENCE DAY By Michael Russell, 2014 The gentle rain is tapping, tip, tip, tapping our tent I have been lying awake for an hour now, just listening The sound soothes my soul and calms my heart Tip, tap, tap, tapping, gentle rain on our tent I inhale the summer rain-soaked sweet breeze deep into my lungs The taste is wonderful and arouses my waking senses Close to me and warm is Laurie, my love, the angel I married Tucked in close to her is our five-month-old son, Nathan They are a vision of serenity, peaceful as they lie there Sleeping all the while to the tip, tap, tapping of the gentle rain on our tent Little Julie, our five-year-old and her seven-year-old sister Anna Snuggled up in their Barbie sleeping bags in the corner of our tent Little Mike, age three, sleeps contently on the other side of me, Safe, wrapped up in his Thomas the Tank Engine sleeping bag. The gentle rain still taps, tip, tip, tapping all the while as I just lie here Iâ€™m content to be a father on this Fourth of July morning. I hear the older kids; theyâ€™re awake in their tent next to us. Terry, my oldest son, will turn fourteen next month and his little brother Justin who is ten are wrestling around and laughing. Amanda who is twelve wanted to sleep in the minivan last night I hear the sliding door slam as she runs for the park bathroom I assume 4 P.M. COUNT
Somehow, in the serenity of the morning I experience an epiphany of sorts At that moment in time I realize something profound, I have never been more Happy than I am right now, right here on this Independence Day I am more Content, more at peace with myself than I have ever been and quite possibly Could or would ever be again. So I listen, tip, tip, tap, tapping as the gentle rain taps our tent.
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EDGE OF THE BED By Flint Red Feather, 2014 I don’t understand how he can just get up and walk away after telling me he’s going to town. We both know what that means. I can’t believe he we would do this again! It’s always the same things, excuses and lies, so he can go get drunk, and I know he flirts with other women. But, what can I do, I love him! I can’t take this anymore! I need to talk to him; he needs to know how this makes me feel. But he never listens to me when he makes up his mind, but I have to try something. As I walk down the hallway I wonder what made him want to leave; was it me? Did I do something? I wonder what makes him do this. I walk up to the door and into the room as he sits on the edge of the bed tying his shoes. I wonder to myself how we got this far apart. It’s as if we are strangers under the same roof; I feel so anxious and frustrated with him. I stand at the door waiting, then I slowly turn and shut the door behind me and I pause facing the door for what feels like a lifetime as I think of what to say and how to say it. Besides, I don’t want the kids to hear us talking about our problems; they’re too young to have to go through this. I force myself to turn around and face him; I realize I need to, for us, for the kids. I look at him as he finishes tying his shoes and looks up at me. Our eyes meet and I speak, “Geez, Tom, why don’t you, like, to talk to me? All you want to do is go and hide in that bottle, not taking responsibility for all you do and say, all you want to do is drink, you don’t even spend time with me or the kids. I don’t understand why it’s so important for you to get so drunk you can’t walk straight or remember who you were with or what you did the night before. “It hurts me to feel so neglected, lonely, carrying the 4 P.M. COUNT
load myself while you live wild and carefree. Don’t get me wrong, I realize you had a tough life but so have I. We aren’t perfect people but I hoped after we got together things would be different and you would want to change; I never thought it would be like this. I was and am still in love with you. I know you’re a special man and have great potential but you’re throwing it all away and for what—so you don’t have to feel the pain and hurt, the full load of reality? “I lay awake late at night crying and thinking about us, the kids, and the life we live, and how your drinking is affecting us as a family, all the arguing, fighting, lies, the cheating and deception that’s hidden under this roof. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. We go through this all the time when you’re not happy or when things get hard. Life will always be tough and things from the past should teach us to do better not build walls and hold everything and everyone at bay. “All I want is for you to talk to me, but that’s hard for you to try, I don’t know why, you don’t tell me anything. Whatever happened in the past that hurt so bad for you to live like this, I wish you would talk to me about it. I know it will help you heal from it; just trust me, let me in, please, Tom! “I get so tired of talking to myself, and I’m never part of your decisions and when I inquire, you blow up at me, telling me to stay out of your business when you are my business. I don’t get it! Sometimes I feel I’m in this relationship alone and the kids and I don’t matter. “It scares me to even think of what you do outside this home and with whom, but I love you enough to say what I feel; I can’t take it anymore. I work all day while you sleep all day long; when I get up in the morning I clean up your mess, all the empty beer cans and the mess at the kitchen table. You even left the front door wide open while the boys slept on the couch. I don’t even know how you made it home last night; did you drive drunk again? You know that scares me! “Tom, you act as if you don’t care but I know you do, 256
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I see it each time you realize you want better, you quit and go cold turkey for weeks at a time, but it’s only a matter of time before you become a crabby sober drunk and you get so tense, irritated, and mean. You need help, the kind I can’t offer you; I know you don’t like to ask for help, but please, for me, for the kids. Get help! I’ll even go with you! I love you dearly but I’m out of answers. I don’t know what to do anymore. If we don’t get help soon, Tom, you’re going to lose us. I can’t wait forever for you to change, but I will support you in any way I can so we can beat this addiction. I know it’s hard but I’m willing to stand beside you through this. For us, for the kids, please let me help you!” As I stand there in front of the door, he sits with his head down as if he’s thinking about what I said, then he stands up, stares at me with this look as if nothing will change. He rolls his eyes and moves towards me and I step to the side as he opens the door, walks past me down the hall and out the front door. I can hear the car start up and my heart hits the floor, broken, as I drop to the edge of the bed I think, “Do we matter more than the alcohol and other women?” I cup my face in my hands and begin to cry.
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NATIONAL PLAYERS: THE GIVER By Frank Constant National Players theater touring program took time out of their busy sixty eighth year, to graciously perform for the inmates and staff of Yankton FPC. Once again it was standing room only at Nash Gym for America’s longestrunning touring company. The ten-member Players ensemble travels to all corners of the country presenting theater and theater education to communities of all sizes. We were fortunate to have them visit us again. Over the past few years, the troupe has delighted the audience here with one of William Shakespeare’s plays. This year was a departure from Shakespeare as we were treated to a performance of The Giver. Adapted from The Newbery Award-winning book by Lois Lowry, The Giver explores a “utopian” future of sameness, where young Jonas inherits an unusual career: to receive and keep the memories of his community’s past. The Giver teaches Jonas of love, war, and all of life’s unknown joys and pains. As his oppressive world continues unchanged, Jonas must decide whether to keep these new secrets or upend his community. This modern classic explores the risks and rewards of a full Life. The thought-provoking performance was well received as evidenced by a long and enthusiastic round of applause at the conclusion of the show. After the performance, National Players continued to entertain the crowd. The Players introduced themselves and gave the audience a little insight into where they were from, their history in the theater, and what they enjoy about acting and traveling with National Players. Then it was time for a Q & A with the audience. After another huge round of applause, the program came to a close. National Players remained at Nash Gym for a while longer and held a meet and greet with members of the 260
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crowd who remained to chat. The performers travel together by caravan with their costumes, amazing sets, props, lighting and sound equipment. This seasonâ€™s schedule kept them on the road from September 2016 through May 2017. One can quickly appreciate the preparation and effort that goes into one of these performances by simply looking at the professionalism. Many of the Players take on multiple roles in their performances, since the troupe is limited to only ten cast members. Rapid costume and character changes are just part of the wonderful entertainment they provide. Based in Washington DC, National Players tour from Vermont to New Mexico and have performed for almost three million audience members in forty-one states.
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UPON SEEING THE NATIONAL PLAYERS IN PRISON
SKILL AND DISCIPLINE
PLAYFUL WITHOUT SAYING A WORD
LOVE IS EXPRESSED
EVERY WORD MOMENTARILY TRANSPORTED STANDING OVATIONS BEST PERFORMANCE
IMAGINATION FREE AT LAST 262
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Kevin Carey Kevin Carey is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Salem State University. He has published three books: a chapbook of fiction, The Beach People from Red Bird Chapbooks (2014) and two books of poetry from Cavankerry Press, The One Fifteen to Penn Station (2012) and Jesus Was a Homeboy (2016), which was recently selected as an Honor Book for the 2017 Paterson Literary Prize. Two poems from this collection have been featured on The Writerâ€™s Almanac. Kevin is also a documentary filmmaker. His latest project, Unburying Malcolm Miller, produced with Mark Hillringhouse, premiered at the Mass Poetry Festival on May 5, and screened at the Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA Program in August. Kevincareywriter.com
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A LETTER FROM KEVIN CAREY Hello guys, Thank you for the letters about our video conference. I am so pleased you all took the time to respond. I thought we had a wonderful conversation and I’m so happy I was able to do it. I had fun talking with you and answering your intelligent questions. You were an interested audience. I am so glad you are involved with writing and are taking part in Professor Reese’s class. I have found that writing can be a valuable and worthwhile way to spend some time. I hope you all come to the same conclusion. I took much away from our meeting together. As with any class I teach, I found I learned something from all of you. You guys had thoughtful questions in your letters too. If I can address a few of them here: How hard is it to separate the man from the crime? To be honest, once I started reading and having a conversation with you all, it was like any other room full of interested writers (though you guys were more involved in the exchange than some of my students!) What you may have done didn’t factor into it. I suppose I did think about it a little on the way out there, but not with the idea of speaking to you any differently than I would to any group of writers. How do you copyright screenplays and how do you finance your film work? The easiest copyright is through the Library of Congress. There is a category for written material in the Performing Arts section, I believe. As far as financing my own films, sometimes with grants, sometimes out of pocket. Time is the biggest expense now that I have most of the equipment I need. What do I think about self-publishing? I am not a purist in this way. I have not self-published myself but many do, and have much success with it. If you can get the work out 264
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there, then go for it. A question about my life experience in my writing. Much of it is about me in some way. The poetry is true (in my memory), the fiction less so, but there are always characters who are modeled after people I knew or experiences I had. I hope I’ve answered some of your questions adequately. Thanks again for your interest. You made me feel like you were really interested in what an old guy like me had to say. I just turned sixty. It’s hard to believe! I‘ll leave you with a little piece of writing advice from the great Elmore Leonard: “Try and leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I look forward to visiting with you in person next year, if it all works out. Thanks again for your time and energy. Please keep writing! Kevin Carey
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Jeff Cronenbold Jeff Cronenbold is from the bootheel area in southeast Missouri. By attempting to tell the stories of the myriad of colorful characters he has known there, he finds inspiration to write.
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COUNTY FAIR So me and the missus, we had just about decided to leave. I mean it was just God-awful hot, and then after we stood there sweatin’ in line for over twenty minutes, the danged corndogs was still cold in the middle. And not only that, but everywhere you looked, there was a big bunch of kids, pushing and shoving, and running around rushing to get here and there. I had just about had enough! I told the missus, “Maybe coming to the fair wasn’t such a great idea after all. I might just be getting a little bit too old for all this rigamarole.” Then the missus, she sees a sign for funnelcakes. I go up to the counter and get her one. She then she starts tearing off pieces of that sugar-coated, greasy mess of a funnel-ake, first one for me and then one for her, and about that time, some kid was chasing his sister and the girl was looking back and not paying attention. Then wouldn’t you know it, that girl ran smack-dab into the missus and knocked her funnelcake right out of her hands, and it plopped straight down in the saw-dusty mud. After the girl saw what she had done, she ran off without a “Sorry,” or an “Excuse me,” or even a “Howdy-Doo!” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I was getting’ mighty riled up by then, and just about ready to blow my top. But before I can say a word, the missus leaned in to me real close and took her finger, the one with all that powdered sugar all over it, and stuck it right between my lips. Then she whispered, “SSSSH. Baby, it’s okay, we can get another one.” Tasting that sugar off her finger, and feeling her all pressed up close to me, my anger just melted, and pretty soon we both started laughing. I said to the missus, “You know me pretty good, don’t you?” She poked me playfully in the ribs, “Well, I think after thirty-four years of marriage, I guess I probably do.” 4 P.M. COUNT
I said, “You know what? Your finger tastes a whole lot better than that greasy funnelcake did anyhow.” She just smiled, hooked her arm inside mine, and we started strolling down the midway together. Well, part ways down the midway, she squeezed my hand, “Do you remember the first time we ever walked together down the midway here at the county fair, back when we were still in high school and you won me that little toy kangaroo at the arcade?” “You mean that stuffed red kangaroo that ended up missing one of his eyes?” “Yes, that’s the one; you know, after you won that little stuffed kangaroo and gave it to me, I put him in my hope chest, and kept him there until I carried him with me on our wedding day. And then after Kevin was born, and then Sarah was born, and then Tristan, that little red kangaroo was always the first toy I gave them in their cribs.” She rested her head against my shoulder. “I think it must have been Kevin who chewed the eye off, when he was still teething,” I replied. ‘He couldn’t have been more than two.” “That’s right, and then Kevin wouldn’t let me take him out of the crib long enough to sew his little eye back on; everytime I tried to picking him up, Kevin would start throwing a regular fit.” I laughed. “I remember he kept on blubbering, “I –‘unt Red-Roo, Mumma! Gib back Red- Roo Mumma! I -‘unt Red-Roo, Mumma! ” “That was so long ago, I’m surprised you remember,” she sighed. I asked her, “Whatever happened to that old ‘RedRoo’ anyway? I mean he was gettin’ pretty wore out, you probably re-stuffed and re-stitched him half a dozen times; did you finally just throw him away?” She stopped. “Oh no, I would never! Our Sarah took him with her when she went away to college up in St. Louis. She said she could simply not possibly ever bear to be apart from him. I’m sure that he’s still safe and sound and still 268
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with her up on a shelf in her dorm.” I nodded and she pulled my arm around her waist, and put her hand in mine and we resumed walking slowly down the midway. With the missus walking so close and us hand in hand, somehow it seemed that it wasn’t quite so hot and humid as it had been before, and that maybe all those kids and all that racket wasn’t quite so unbearable. I even got to thinkin’ that just maybe comin’ to the fair with her wasn’t such a terrible idea after all. By that time, we had arrived at the arcade’s basketball goals, with their smaller than normal rims and overinflated balls. I said to her, “ You know, Sweetheart, I’m not quite sure that I could still make the varsity, like the last time we were standin’ here, but I bet I can still sink a basket or two. Whadd’ya say I walk over there, and win you another stuffed animal? In fact, maybe you might want something different this time. So tell me, after all these years, if you could have any of them that you wanted, which one would you prefer?” I slowly waved at all the different stuffed animals there on display. Then the missus, she laid her head down on my shoulder, and just looked in my eyes and smiled up at me so sweet, and then she said, “Baby, I’ve always known that there’s just nothing else in the whole wide world that could ever possibly top that little red kangaroo.”
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RAGGEDY MAN Prologue As the out-of-control train entered the steep switchback curve, it sounded like the screams of wounded banshees, when first one, and then the entire succession of steel couplings, sheared away from their frames. A mile of freight cars flexed and coiled like some colossal dying serpent as the string of unbound cars first slowed and separated, then with the force of six thousand tons pushing them from behind, jumped the tracks and then violently collided with a staccato of deafening thunderclaps. Four men, hitching rides, ping-ponged off the iron walls inside an empty boxcar, until ejecting one by one out through the sliding door like cartwheeling rag dolls. After the derailment finally spent its fury of chaos and destruction, their broken bodies lay buried beneath mounds of coal and limestone that had spilled from overturned hopper cars. Multicolored plumes of various chemicals spewed from ruptured tankers, and then combined with the oily smoke of thirty thousand gallons of burning diesel to become a toxic, swirling black cloud that swept across the wreckage like a scene from Danteâ€™s Inferno. One of the men began to stir as he returned to consciousness. He touched the walnut-sized knot on his forehead and his fingers came away bloody. An unfamiliar taste like copper pennies filled his mouth; when he tried to spit it, three of his teeth tumbled out, trailed by long strings of saliva and blood. Those injuries seemed insignificant after he discovered the jagged pale-white splinters of his tibia piercing out through his thigh muscle. He clenched his eyes tightly, and wished silently that he were somewhere far away. It wasnâ€™t the pain, or even the fear of death, that made him do this. He remembered this place, and so he knew that he would survive. What had 270
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terrified him was knowing that if he were back there again, then surely â€œtheyâ€? would be there again as well. When his eyes fluttered open, they were standing over him, staring down at him with their flat and lifeless eyes. One of them was holding his own intestines. He kept glancing down at his upturned palms, as if confused about why they could not prevent them from spilling. Each time he tried to push part of his slick, ropy viscera back inside himself, more squeezed out past his filthy hands in long pink coils until it nearly dragged the ground. In his frenzy to escape them, he snatched thick clumps of switchgrass out from the black gumbo, as he desperately tried to claw himself forward. Dragging his shattered hip behind him, he advanced in small increments, until eventually reaching the relative safety of the edge of the wood line, where he knew they would not follow. Exhausted by his effort and weakened by blood loss, he collapsed into unconsciousness. After only a few minutes, the roaring hiss and intense heat from the burning tankers revived him and compelled him to get moving again. He tried to raise himself enough to crawl, until a lightning bolt of pain shot up from his shattered hip and forced him back down. Only his primal will to survive enabled him to propel his way into the dense undergrowth of greenthorn briars and stinging nettles that bordered the marsh. With the echoes of his screams of pain ringing in his ears, he slowly disappeared into the tangle of scrub oaks and cypress trees of the swamp forest. Gasping for breath, the old man jolted forward, as if someone had yanked him out from his sleep. His eyes darted about wildly until he realized he was back in the camp beneath the abandoned trestle that had been his flop for the last month. A cold chill wracked over him, as the cool night air evaporated the sheen of sweat that had covered him during the throes of the nightmare. The faint taste of burned diesel fuel was still on his lips as he watched the flickering orange embers of his dying fire, and debated whether to bank the fire up again, or to ignore the cold 4 P.M. COUNT
and try to go back to sleep. He stared up at the waning moon while the rhythm of his breathing slowly returned to normal, or at least as close to normal as it ever got to be anymore. He decided to stay awake, mainly because he just didn’t want to face the chance of having the dream again. For almost forty years, he had tried to drink himself into oblivion almost every night to escape that nightmare, but lately the whiskey didn’t seem to be working as well, and as his health had begun slipping further and further away from him the nightmare seemed to be returning more and more often. He decided he was just damn tired, tired of all of it, but mostly tired of running from something that he could never escape, something that he carried inside him. “To hell with it,” he mumbled. He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He gathered up a rusted iron skillet, his mess kit and tin cup and other few belongings, and rolled them up inside his thin blanket and six empty feed sacks that made up his bed. He tied his meager pack to the end of his walking stick and then rose unsteadily and crowhopped, to get it underneath him to help support his bad leg. He decided that his leg was just one more thing that seemed to be getting worse over time. It had never really healed properly, and waking up in the cold had caused it to stiffen up even more than normal. “And to hell with me too,” he added to no one in particular. He did not look back as he he gingerly began making his way up along the narrow footpath that led back to the tracks.. The Raggedy Man The screen door slammed with a pistol shot, as the freckle-faced eleven-year-old exited the white cracker box house. For a moment, he watched as a turkey vulture turned lazy circles high up in the bottomless sky. Losing interest, he looked up along the dusty lane, with his head cocked slightly. The normal summer vacation pandemonium of shouting kids, barking dogs, and nesting songbirds scolding the scrawny neighborhood cats was strangely absent. He 272
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knew the silence meant his friends had all fled indoors to escape the dog day heat, and were sprawled out under window fans watching the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. “Lazy chicken-shits,” he mumbled, and then he ambled back behind the little house. Upon reaching the back yard, he removed his sister’s Barbie from his pocket, along with the lens he had pilfered from an old pair of bifocals. He focused the sunlight through the curved lens until it became a white-hot pinpoint, and began burning holes into the doll’s eyes. The harsh smell from the burning plastic forced him to turn his face away. Satisfied that he had his defaced his little sister’s favorite doll enough to make her cry when she returned from vacation bible camp, he tossed the disfigured toy over his shoulder. A half-starved brindle colored mutt, lying in the sliver of shade beneath an ancient rusting Ford, stretched itself awake and then slowly stiff-legged over to the mangled toy, nudged the doll and sniffed it. After determining that the doll was not food, the ugly cur returned to the ring it had made in the dust with countless drops of its own saliva and lay back down, and paid neither the doll nor the boy any further attention as it then resumed its heavy panting. The boy noticed a long column of red ants marching below, and attacked them with his improvised laser. The ants fled in random directions, and then expired into tiny puffs of smoke. Becoming bored with the ants, he looked out over the barren field for something else he could destroy. A dust devil formed beside an abandoned icebox, and picked up a flattened plastic Sprite bottle and the foil paper from a long-ago discarded pack of Lucky-Strikes. The swirling green and flashing silver reminded him of tinsel on a Christmas tree. He scanned along the long curve of the tracks, until he came to the place where the polished steel rails perfectly aligned below the angle of the sun, and caused the reflected sunlight to form side-by-side twin coronas. The 4 P.M. COUNT
overwhelming brilliance reflected back from the tracks temporarily blinded him, and the boy flinched as if he had been hard-slapped. He tried to shake away the stars in his eyes, then placed a hand over his eyes like a visor and resumed his search. Shimmering, like a distant mirage, an unknown figure suddenly emerged out from between the brilliant lights. The boy bolted up to his feet, and the lens dropped from his hands, unnoticed. As the figure approached, it gradually took on the shape of a man. His stride was deliberate, and considering the heat, seemed almost hurried, as if marking the end of a long journey. The brindled cur sniffed the air, moved up alongside the boy and then growled low in its throat. The approaching stranger loomed larger and larger, and soon the mutt’s growling became a high-pitched whine. The mutt turned its attention to the boy and then back to the man again as if it was coming to some sort of decision; then it turned, yelped a quick surrender over its shoulder, and then skulked away fast, with its tail held low between its legs. The boy watched the dog’s retreat with raw contempt, then he balled his little-boy hands up into little-boy fists, stood up as tall as he could muster, and took two steps closer to the tracks. Then he set his jaw and waited. The stranger stopped where the curved tracks ran closest to the little house. His gray pants were threadbare and ended a few inches too high above his dusty boots, and his shirt had once been white, but was now the color of old paper. His beard was auburn, and shot through with gray. The boy thought it looked old fashioned, and reminded him of beards he had seen in movies set during the Civil War. As he noticed the boy’s clenched fists and unwelcoming stare, the stranger’s eyes flashed in anger, but only for an instant. Perhaps he had just seen too much in the world to be surprised anymore, or maybe his own rage had become tempered by the passage of time, but whatever it was, as quickly as it appeared, it vanished, and his eyes filled with kindness toward the boy. He even cracked a thin smile in 274
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admiration of the boy’s courage. His voice was as parched as the land he had travelled across that day when he spoke. “Hidey.” His word seemed to hang in the air between them like locomotive smoke. He removed his hat, ran his long thin fingers through his sweatdampened hair, then looked past the boy to the little white house, and tried again. “So, does this place here still belong to the Walker family?” Caught off guard that the stranger somehow knew his grandparents, the boy’s voice cracked noticeably when he answered, “It might be.” The man exhaled, as if growing impatient, and met the boy’s eyes, “So is Herman around then? Or maybe Mrs. Walker?” While still facing the stranger, the boy backed slowly toward the house. “You stay put right there,” the boy commanded, The man feigned a sudden interest in examining his hat. Satisfied, the boy spun on his heels, loped toward the little house, and disappeared inside it. In the kitchen, a heavyset woman was stirring a cast iron pot with a large wooden spoon. Her face showed the passage of more than seventy years, but her cheeks were still pink, and the lines around her mouth were turned upward, as if most of her days had been more happy than sad. Her hair was braided into one long plait that extended past her hips, and except for a few random streaks of pure white, was still as black as a well at midnight. As the boy burst into her kitchen like a bull in a china shop, she replaced the lid back onto the pot. “Grandma!” he blurted. “There’s a man out there that’s come down the tracks, and he’s asking ‘bout you and Grandpa.” “Settle down, young’un,” she exclaimed. “I cain’t hardly understand a word you’re saying. Did you say someone’s outside that came in off the tracks?” “That’s right, Grandma, some old raggedy man, with old fashioned clothes, and a long scraggly beard. I ain’t never seen him around here before, and I think he might even be 4 P.M. COUNT
some kind of an arsonist.” “An arsonist? Pray tell, now what on earth makes you think that man is an arsonist?” “Well, I ain’t for sure he’s an arsonist, Grandma, but I seen a movie last week about all these arsonist guys that was setting off bombs at the banks, and at the train stations, cause they was always tryin’ to bring down the government. Anyhow, all those guys, they all had long dirty beards like him, and they was all wearing old crazy clothes like him, and in the movie, all the newspaper headlines was calling them guys the arsonists.” “Well I swan, Jeffrey.” She laughed and continued, “Some of the things you can come up with sometimes. Anyway, I pretty sure those men in that movie were called anarchists, not arsonists.” Shaking her head, she moved to the door, and then continued outside. Following right on her heels, he keened, “It don’t matter what you call ’em, Grandma. It don’t matter whether you call them arsonists or whether you call them an-ark-in-ists. What does matter is that I don’t want him here. So I’m just gonna’ go tell that raggedy old an-ark-in-ist that he ain’t welcome here, and that he has got to go.” By this time, they were only a few yards from where the man stood waiting. She covered the boy’s mouth, gently shushing him. With her other hand, she combed through his hair, smoothing it down as best she could, and then wet her thumb with spit and wiped a dirt smudge from his cheek. Satisfied that the boy was then at least somewhat presentable, she turned and addressed the stranger. “Good afternoon, sir. Is there something I can help you with today?” From behind her, the boy glared at the stranger with a look that could be best described as unbridled fury. The man ignored him. Instead, he tipped his hat to the woman, and answered, “Yes, ma’am. I was wondering if you might need some stovewood chopped, or maybe some other kind of work to do around here, so that a man might be able to earn something to eat.” He paused. “Now I ain’t asking for no handouts, Mrs. Walker, and I ain’t looking for 276
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no cash pay. I only want the chance to earn myself a decent meal this evening.” The woman nodded, “Yes, sir, I understand, and that would be just fine, but I really don’t need any wood split. I‘ve got a gas cookstove now, and a gas furnace.” She took a quick look around. “But now that I think about it some, what I’ve really been needing done is to get those white posts on the porch repainted. Would you terribly mind doing that for me, instead?” “Why, no ma’am, I certainly wouldn’t mind. In fact, Mrs. Walker, I’d be very much obliged.” He walked to the porch and appeared to be intently examining the four wood posts supporting the roof. “Well, then it’s all settled. I’ll just run in right quick, and get that can of paint and a brush for you.” The woman hurried into the house. Not at all pleased with the way things seemed to be unfolding, the boy chased her into the house and attempted an appeal, “I can paint them posts for you, Grandma. I’ll just grab me a chair to stand up on, and paint ‘em right up, good as new. I’ll just run back out there and tell him that we sure don’t need no help from the likes of him.” She cut him off. “Jeffrey, now I need you to listen very carefully to Grandmother.” He immediately stopped jabbering. Aware that she had his full attention, she continued, “The Good Book tells us that, ‘In as much as ye do unto the least of these, ye do unto me.’ Honey, that means if a man, or a boy, or anyone else for that matter is ever hungry, and if that person asks us for help, then it’s our God-given duty to help them.” She paused. He slowly nodded. “Because if we refuse to help them, and then turn them away in their time of need, it’s just like as if we was turning the Lord Jesus himself away. Now that man outside is hungry, and he needs our help. That means that we are going to treat him as our guest. Do you understand Grandmother?” “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, very unenthusiastically. He was pretty skeptical about whole thing, but especially the part 4 P.M. COUNT
about the raggedy man somehow being equated with the Son of God. He knew though, that his grandmother took her responsibilities to the Lord very seriously, and that she was not at all likely going to bend on that point. However, the boy also knew that there was generally more than one way to skin a cat, and so he determined that he would keep a very sharp eye on that particular raggedy old cat, at least until the proper skinning opportunity presented itself. With the boy trailing her, she returned outside with large glasses filled with iced tea, each with a wedge of lemon on the rim. She addressed the stranger, “I’m sure you’re bound to be thirsty on a day like this. I do hope that you take your sweet tea with lemon.” The man took a long drink, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ma’am, I do believe that’s just about the finest glass of iced tea that I have ever tasted.” “Well it’s only instant,” she replied, “But I guess the hotter the day, the better the tea.” “Yes ma’am, well it’s plenty hot, that’s for sure,” he replied, and then finished off the glass with another long drink. Not to be outdone, the boy quickly drained his as well. She took the empty glasses and handed the man a small can of paint, along with an old brush. “I hope there’s enough paint. If not, just do the best you can. Now, I’m going back inside to check on supper and I’ll be back to see how you boys are doin’ in a little while.” On her way back in, she turned, “Jeffrey, you do remember everything we talked about, right?” The boy nodded dutifully. She patted him on top of the head with a reassuring smile, and continued inside. As soon as she disappeared, the boy’s expression changed. He looked as if he had just taken a large bite from a green persimmon. The man dipped the brush into the can, and cut the excess paint back inside it. He started at the top of the first post, and made a long smooth stroke. As he worked, he deftly circled the post, stopping only long enough to paint 278
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two sides each time before he moved. As he slowly circled the post clockwise, the boy circled him counter-clockwise. It was almost like watching the Earth slowly orbiting the sun, while the moon simultaneously orbits the Earth. At least it might have been like that, if the Earth had ever resembled a wounded field mouse, and the moon a starving hawk. About halfway down the post the man said, “So I guess you’re probably wondering who I am, and how I came to know your folks.” “I ain’t never seen you around here before, if that’s what you mean,” the boy replied. The man continued, “Well, that’s likely because I’m what you might call a hobo.” “I was a hobo for Halloween last year. Grandma dressed me in old baggy clothes and then drawed a fake beard on me, and gave me an old knapsack to put my trick-ortreatin’ candy in.” “Is that right?” “Yep, but to tell you the truth, I hated that outfit. I wanted to be Captain Kirk. They had of one the ‘Official Star Trek Junior Officer’ costumes on sale down at the Woolworth’s, and it even came with a ‘Genuine Star Trek Starship Enterprise Model Tella-Com Battle-Phaser’.” “Real life Starship Tella-Com Battle–Phaser, huh?” “I mean they wasn’t the real battle phazers, not like the actual ones that they use in the show, they was just models. It didn’t really matter what they was, after she told me we couldn’t afford to get the store-bought costume. So that’s how I got stuck with being a lousy damn hobo.” “Yea, not too many folks would ever choose to be hoboes if they could help it. I suppose that’s generally true for both Halloween costumes and in real life.” “If it aint never no fun being a hobo, then why do you keep on being one then?” The man paused, “Well, I guess I’ve been a hobo for so many years, I can’t hardly remember how not to be one anymore.” While he had stopped, a big glob of white paint dribbled from the end of the brush, and then splattered 4 P.M. COUNT
down onto the gray concrete porch. The boy’s eyes got big, and he grinned from ear to ear, the way Tom the Cat always does when he has Jerry the Mouse firmly grasped in his clutches. Then he dashed past the hobo and shot into the house as if he had been fired from a circus cannon. Almost immediately he reappeared, dragging the woman along behind him. “He made a great big mess right here, Grandma!” He dropped to the floor and desperately searched for the spilled paint. It was gone. “I swear he dropped a big glob right here, just a minute ago.” His voice trailed away as the woman went back inside, shaking her head. The man winked at him, and then folded up his paintstained handkerchief, and put it back into his pocket. “Whadd’ya think, kid?” he asked, “That pole don’t look half bad, does it? I mean considering it was painted by a raggedy old ‘an-ark-in-ist.’” The boy’s expression then most closely resembled the one Tom the Cat always wore after he chasing Jerry around the corner, and then seeing Spike the Bulldog standing there waiting to knock out all of his teeth with an oversized mallet. The man moved to the next post and resumed his work. After a few minutes, he asked, “You ever been down there under that trestle bridge that spans that little creek before it hits the river?” “That’s the bridge on Byrd’s Creek. Me and my friends play Jesse James and the train robbers under there, whenever the trains are parked there waiting to come through.” The man continued, “You ever notice that big cross painted underneath it, along with those triangles and other symbols?” “That’s our train robber’s code, like a secret message the James boys and Cole Younger left there for us.” “It’s funny that you should mention that, because those symbols really are a code of sorts. Well, a hobo code 280
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anyway.” “What kind of hobo code? I mean, what’s it supposed to say?” “Well you see, that cross tells the other hoboes that your grandparents are good Christian folks. And those other symbols mean that your folks are good to the hoboes, and might give us food if they can spare it, and that they at least won’t try to hurt us, or call the law down on us just for passin’ through.” “So if that’s all codes left for other hoboes, then how come I ain’t never seen no other hoboes around here then?” The old man sighed, “That’s likely because there ain’t but just a very few of us hoboes around anymore. Now a long time ago, back in the thirties and forties, there used to be lots of us fellas’ out riding the rails, millions of us, but over the years things changed.” “So what happened to ‘em all?” The hobo replied, ”Some settled down, and others quit hoboing for one reason or another. Some went back to their families, some found permanent work and some went away to fight in the war. A lot of them just died, and now with every passing day, there’s just less and less of us old hoboes still around.” The boy nodded and said nothing. The man had barely finished painting the last post when the woman reappeared at the screen. “Well, they look just lovely, just as good as new. I guess there was enough paint after all,” she exclaimed. “Yes, ma’am, just enough,” the man replied. He pressed the lid back down on the can. “You boys can rinse that brush out under the faucet over there, and then you can both come inside and wash up for supper. Jeffrey, would you please show our guest where we keep the clean towels in the bathroom closet?” “Yes, ma’am.” The boy grumbled. The woman smiled in approval, and disappeared back inside. The man held out the brush. “You want to help wash the brush out?” The boy spit on the ground. The man said, “I take 4 P.M. COUNT
it that’s a no, then?” He moved to the faucet and began whistling a little tune to himself as he washed the paint out of the brush, and then slung the water out of it. The boy held out his hand to take the brush and can of paint. “Come on,” he said sullenly, and then led the way inside. The man smiled beatifically and followed him. Inside the living room, a small couch and end table sat facing a black and white console television. A pair of rabbit ears tipped with wadded-up aluminum foil rested on top of the TV set, and a long wooden mantel ran above it. Centered over the mantel were two framed photographs. One showed a man in a military uniform, the other was a sepia print of the same man standing beside the much younger woman. Posed in front of them were a teenaged boy and two little girls wearing homemade gingham dresses. One of the girls was fair skinned and fair haired like her father, and the other had darker hair, and a dark complexion, as if she had inherited more of their mother’s Cherokee bloodline. All were dressed in their ‘Sunday’ clothes, the men in illfitting suits, and the females in homemade gingham dresses, cut and sewn in the utilitarian style of the nineteen thirties. They also all shared that slightly pained expression so common in many old family photos, the one caused from being self-conscious at being photographed to begin with. On the mantel, below the photo of the military man, three medals were displayed in open, velvet-lined boxes. Beneath the other photograph, a partial set of dark blue dishes in the style known as Depression glass had been placed on small stands made from wire. The hobo paused, he wiped away the thin layer of dust covering one of the blue saucers, and then slowly swirled the dust between his finger and thumb as he studied the old photographs. The boy noticed that the man was no longer behind him and turned, “Hey!” he said sharply. “The bathroom’s up this way.” The man nodded, and followed. They washed their hands with a rectangle-shaped bar of reddish-orange lye soap, and then dried them on thin 282
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white towels. Moving toward the kitchen, the boy rushed ahead and seated himself at the head of the table. The man remained standing as the woman ladled large portions of aromatic chicken and dumplings onto three plates. Next, she spooned collard greens cooked with ham hocks and onions from a different pot, and then removed a cast-iron skillet filled with steaming yellow cornbread from the oven. The woman cut the cornbread and then placed the pan onto a folded towel she had placed at the middle of the table. Finally, she signaled the man to sit at the other end and took her seat in a chair between them. The woman bowed her head. In her prayer she gave thanks to the Lord for the day’s blessings, for the food He had provided, and for allowing all of them to be together that day in His presence. Everyone then dug in and ate heartily. The boy and the man both quickly devoured their meals and then had both second helpings. Finally, the man folded his napkin and placed it across his plate. “Mrs. Walker, I sure do want to thank you, I don’t often get such a fine meal as this.” “Well, it certainly wasn’t anything fancy, but you’re quite welcome. I do hope you saved some room for blackberry cobbler.” The boy decided that he had pretty much reached his limit of Christian charity. Even the thought of the raggedy man being allowed to eat part of the blackberry cobbler that he perceived as his alone was simply too much for him to bear. “Grandma, I’m thinkin’ you might want to hold off on giving away any of that cobbler about now. I was wanting to save the rest of it for when Gunsmoke comes on tonight.” “Fiddlesticks,” she cut him off, “There’s plenty left, and if not, why you can run out and pick some more berries, and I’ll bake us another one.” “There’s no need to go to any trouble.” The man interjected. “Why, it’s no trouble at all.” She answered. She divided the cobbler into two saucers and passed one to the boy, which he accepted, albeit with his chin extended, 4 P.M. COUNT
grudgingly. “Well, if you insist, then,” the man graciously accepted the saucer filled with cobbler. After sampling it, he said, “Ma’am, I’d have to say, it’s been longer than a month of Sundays since the last time I’ve enjoyed homemade blackberry cobbler. We sure don’t often get any such fineries as like that down there in the hobo jungles.” “I can’t enjoy cobbler anymore, not with my diabetes, but I do still enjoy making them, and especially blackberry, since that always used to be Herman’s favorite,” she replied. “I suppose that must mean that Mr. Walker has passed on then?” “Yes, almost five years ago.” “I’m sorry, Mrs. Walker, you have my sincerest condolences.” She nodded her acceptance with a thin smile, then glanced down at her gold wedding band, and gave it a slight twist. After a moment, she stood and began gathering the dirty dishes and placing them in the sink. “Mrs. Walker, there’s something else I was wanting to talk to you about; well I guess it’s really more about something I found that’s yours, and so I came here to deliver it.” She turned. “I’m not sure that I understand.” “Maybe it would be easier to show you than to try to explain.” The man reached into his pocket and handed her a curved shard of dark blue glass. Although extensively damaged, it was obviously part of the handle and the curved side of a broken cobalt-blue cup. A cobalt-blue Depression glass cup that exactly matched the dishes displayed on the mantel. A flash of recognition appeared on her face. “Where did you get this?” she implored. “I was with Alonzo when he bought that cup for you in St. Louis, Mrs. Walker. I was also there when the train wrecked, and your son and all those other boys died, ma’am. I found this broken piece earlier today at the place where the wreck happened, about five miles north of here.” 284
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She cradled the broken glass in her hands as gently as if she were sheltering a baby bird, and she slowly walked toward the living room. Standing in front of the mantel, she placed it among the other dishes, and then lightly touched the image of the boy in the picture. “My Alonzo used to bring me little pretties every time he came back from the city. He knew the dark blue ones were always my favorites. Over the years, many of them got broken, washing and such. That’s why I finally put all that was left up here on the mantel for safekeeping. These dishes are about all I have left to remember him by.” She turned, “Thank you, sir, for bringing this back to me; it was very thoughtful of you.” The man spoke, “I should have brought it a long time ago, Mrs. Walker. I guess I just couldn’t come back and face what had really happened.” She looked concerned, “What do you mean, what really happened?” “That’s what I been running from, for more than thirty years, ma’am, the truth of what happened that day.” She announced, “The railroad had a full investigation, the railroad men came by with a big stack of reports and they said it wasn’t nobody’s fault. They said it was all just a terrible accident, just a mistake by a guy not used to that part of the tracks,” she sobbed. “They even helped us to pay for Alonzo’s funeral.” The man spoke solemnly, “Mrs. Walker, that brakeman, he done it on purpose.” “That can’t be so. No one would ever wreck a train on purpose!” “I don’t think he was trying to wreck it, ma’am, well not directly anyway. I think he did that just to keep us from jumpin’ off at the Neely’s Landing.” She began wailing uncontrollably, “Oh, my poor little Alonzo, my poor, poor baby.” The boy had heard enough; he stepped between them and poked his finger into the man’s chest, “I think you’ve upset my grandmother about all you’re going to.” He began trying to push the man backward. “You best just get on out 4 P.M. COUNT
of here, mister, and just leave me and my Grandmother alone!” “I suppose you’re right,” he said, and allowed the boy to push him across the room, “I’m just going to go now, Mrs. Walker. I really am sorry for everything; I surely never meant to cause you any harm.” He turned and then quickly fled out the door. The boy put his arm around her, and gently walked her to the couch. He hugged her and tried his best to console her as she cried. After having a good long cry, she dried her eyes, and then she stood and slowly made her way to back into her kitchen and resumed cleaning up the dishes. The boy remained on his best behavior for the rest of the evening. First, he helped her by drying the dishes and putting them away. At eight o’clock he fetched her slippers, and then together they watched as Marshal Dillon first survived an ambush, and then a showdown gunfight against the leader of a bunch of low-down cattle rustlers. After the commercial break, the marshal and Festus quickly rounded up the rest of the black-hats, and then finally enjoyed well-earned steak dinners at the Long Branch. The marshal then received a chaste congratulatory kiss on the cheek from Miss Kitty, while Doc and Festus bantered over the advantages and the overall characteristics of horses versus mules. After Gunsmoke, he did not put up his normal nightly fuss to stay up past his bedtime to watch Johnny Carson, and then since it was nearly time for bed, he went straight into the bathroom and brushed his teeth without being reminded. Upon returning to the living room, he yawned, stretched his arms over his head, and announced that he was bushed. He undressed, crawled into his pallet and quickly fell asleep. Well, at least he faked being asleep long enough to allow his grandmother to get soundly asleep in her bedroom. Around nine-thirty he slid off the couch and silently got dressed. Careful not to let the screen door slam behind him, he tiptoed outside. He stood and listened as the “suss-suss286
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suss” of the locusts, and the “chirrup-chirrup” of countless black crickets combined to form the normal nighttime din of Missouri summer. Guided by only a sliver of moonlight, he eased around the side of the house, and then picked up the wooden oar stored inside his grandpa’s flat-bottomed canoe. He had decided to carry it, to provide him some protection from the scores of hungry wolves and legions of marauding bears known to frequent his imagination. Or, just in case he needed something substantial to smack a raggedy old hobo with. Then with some trepidation, he headed out in the vast darkness toward the iron trestle bridge on Byrd’s Creek. After walking only a short distance, he saw the distant illumination of a glowing fire and the bright orange sparks of burning ashes swirling up into the sky like a ballet of fireflies. The raggedy man was camped under the iron trestle, right where the boy expected him. The boy walked into the clearing and the hobo turned to face him, “So what’s with the paddle, kid, you headed out for shit’s creek?” “What? No, this here’s Byrd’s Creek. I don’t know how to get to Shitz Creek.” “Never mind kid, maybe some other time. I am fairly curious about why you came down here though. Last I heard, you sure didn’t seem to want much else to do with me.” “I came down here because I think you’re a damned liar.” “Well, young Jeffrey, that’s pretty powerful language. You better not let your Granny hear you talking like that; she’d likely bust out some more of that lye soap and give your mouth a good washing out. I would have to admit though, that you might be at least halfway right. I might be damned alright, but I ain’t no liar, at least not when I don’t need to be. Still, I bet you didn’t come all the way down here, just to call me a liar. So what did you really come down here to talk about?” “Well, I want you to tell me what really happened that day, when the train wrecked.” 4 P.M. COUNT
“Tell you what, kid. I’ll tell you all about that wreck, if you really want to hear it. But first you’re going to need to do a little something for me.” The boy gripped the oar tightly with both hands and lifted it straight up over his head, as if preparing to swing it with all his might. “Whoa, calm down there, youngster! It’s nothing like that, I aint no damn jocker. I ain’t one of those guys that goes messing around with no punks. No, what I need from you is just a little drink to help me keep from having another bad night mare.” “What kind of drink?” “Try not to be so thick, boy. I need me some alcohol, something strong if you can get it. Now don’t you try to tell me there isn’t some kind of liquor up there. I know your granddad always kept plenty of whiskey around; hell, he used to make it.” “My Grandma don’t drink no alcohol.” “I’m not asking your Grandma to drink with me, kid. I just want whatever hooch Herman left there. I’ll take anything you can find, but bring something strong if you can get it. Then, I’ll tell you a lot more than you’re probably ready to hear. First off, you need to put down that danged boat oar down. You’re starting to make me nervous. Swinging it around, like that, you might accidently brain someone.” The boy lowered the oar, “So then you’ll tell me everything?” “I said I would, didn’t I? Heck, boy, that’s what I came back here for to begin with.” The boy placed the oar down and headed back to the little house, specifically to the cabinet under the sink, where he knew that his grandmother kept (for medicinal purposes only, of course) his grandfather’s whiskey bottle. He entered the house as quietly as a church mouse, and tiptoed into the kitchen. He held his hands overhead and walked in circles until he found, and then pulled, the string that turned on the light. 288
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After turning on the light, he paused. He knew where the bottle was stashed, but that wasn’t the problem. No, the problem was what to put the whiskey in to carry it. He couldn’t take the whole bottle, because the hobo might not give it back, and he couldn’t take one of her good glasses without it being missed right away. Then he remembered his school lunchbox and especially the thermos inside it. He also knew no one would miss it, at least until September, when he started back to school. He silently crept to the living room closet, found his Apollo XI lunchbox and removed the thermos. Back in the kitchen, he filled the thermos with 90 proof Old Granddad Kentucky Bourbon. He tightened down the thermos lid, and refilled the whiskey bottle with enough water to bring it back to the level it held previously. Next, he replaced the bottle under the sink, pulled the string, and then quietly sneaked back out of the house and headed back to the trestle. The old man accepted the thermos and took a long pull before shaking his head from side to side as if he had been kicked by a Missouri mule, or maybe it was a Kentucky mule. “All right mister, I held up my end, now you hold up yours.” “Yes, you did, kid. That’s certainly some good liquor. So what do you want to know?” “Well, why did that fella make the train wreck?” “He was trying to keep us from jumping off so we’d have to stay on the train till it hit the gandy town at Illmo.” “What’s a gandy town?” The boy asked. “A gandy town is bunch of empty boxcars that the railroad provides for its workers to live in. That particular gandy town was called Illmo, because after the IllinoisMissouri rail road went under, the cars left there all had Ill-Mo written on both their sides.” That town wouldn’t even exist today, except for having the railroad bridge over the Mississippi down there.” “So why did that brakeman fella want to hurt you hoboes?” 4 P.M. COUNT
“He was mad ‘cause we didn’t pay our hitch.” The hobo took another pull and continued, “See, that’s how it worked back then. The bulls would let you ride free, but only if you paid a little something on the side. But if you tried to pass on paying, it was Katy-Bar-the-Door.” “What’s that’s supposed to mean?” “Well, first they would try to catch you by yourself and throw you off, if they could. And if they couldn’t get you outnumbered enough you to whip you there on the train, they’d try to catch you inside the gandy town where all their buddies was waiting, and then they’d all gang up and beat the living hell out of you.” “So how did you know them guys anyway; didn’t they have different guys working different trains?” The hobo replied, “We made that run same every week. The four of us always rode up to St. Louis on Thursdays to sell your granddad’s moonshine to the soldier boys up at the Jefferson Barracks and to the Navy recruits at the intake station over on Arsenal Street.” “So how do you know that was the reason he wrecked you?” The hobo answered, “Because we knew all those guys, and we knew how bad they could get, and the worst one of them all was Dick Brawley.” “You sure he was the one that done it?” “Anytime it meant splitting some hobo’s skull or breaking some poor bum’s legs, you can be fairly certain that Dick Brawley tasted it.” “Why did you have to go all the way up there to St. Louis anyway? Wasn’t there no place to sell it down here?” “Well sure there was but down here Herm’s whiskey went for twenty-five cents a quart and them Navy boys paid double. The Navy always gave all its new recruits two dollars cash just for signing up. Those boys would then spend every bit of it, putting on a good dog before they got shipped out on the following Monday. Another reason was that the county sheriff down here was not adverse to overlook a little bootlegging, as long as the liquor being sold 290
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wasn’t causing problems in his jurisdiction.” “So why did things go wrong that time?” “Well, everything went just swell up in the city; we all had all of Herman’s money, and a little extra for us, plus we had two bottles, one for paying off the bulls and one left for us. When we was headed back to the switchyard to hop our southbound, it started raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.” The hobo continued, “So then Lonzo said, ‘Boys, there’s no way them bulls are going to see us hop that freight in this weather. I think I’ll just sell one more of these bottles and use that scratch to get momma another blue cup and saucer to finish off her set.’ It was his call, but looking back, it sure wasn’t the right one to make.” “So then what happened?” The man took another swig. “At first everything was fine. It was still raining heavy, so the yard bulls never saw us hop. Since Lonzo had sold that extra quart to pay for the dishes, that left us only one. We figured what the hell, since the bulls hadn’t seen us hop on, we could just go on and drink it ourselves and hop off at the Neely’s Landing switchback just like always. But then the rain started to dry up down around Crystal City, and then when we was rounding the big curve at St. Genevieve, Dick Brawley seen us from the caboose and then he started shaking his billy club at us.” “Why didn’t you guys just go pay him off then, when he seen you?” the boy inquired. The hobo continued, “One of us could have probably made our way down there and give him the rest of the bottle and maybe some money to boot, and likely that would have squared things. But then Lonzo said, ‘To hell with Dick Brawley, I ain’t never liked him anyway, he can go pound sand.’ You see, we was all pretty deep in our cups by then.” “You mean you guys were drunk?” The boy remarked. “Yes, that’s a pretty fair assessment, and then to make things worse, down around Perryville we rounded another bend and I jumped up by the door and gave old Brawley the 4 P.M. COUNT
bum’s salute. “What’s that supposed to mean, the bum’s salute?” “Well a bum’s salute is when you drop your drawers and then bend over and shine your bare butt at the guy, and then kind of shake it around a little.” “Crap, no wonder that guy was so hacked off.” “In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But like I said, we was all pretty drunk by then.” “So that made Dick Brawley wreck the train, just because some hobo showed his butt.” “No kid, Dick Brawley wrecked that train because he was a hate-filled greedy son of a bitch who didn’t get his way, and because of all that, three good men had to die.” The boy and the old hobo stared at the fire without speaking for a while as the boy considered everything he’d heard, and after pondering the story long enough, he said, “I think it might be best if we just keep all this between me and you and not tell my Grandmother about any of it.” The old man said, “That’s likely to be about the smartest thing you’ve said all day. To be honest, I can’t see how any of this would do anything but bring your granny a whole lot of fresh hurt.” Just then a hoot owl called out from somewhere in the distance, “Hooooo-hoo-hoo.” Then it called again. Both of them stared out into the darkness with dread, listening. After a palpable silence, the owl called out for a third time. They both shivered with trepidation. The man spoke, “Don’t worry kid, that death bird is calling out for me, he’s not calling out for you, and not for your grandmother. You see, I only came back here because I’m real sick, and so I had to get all this stuff off my chest before I die. Now I’ve said my piece and I’m done with it. Now it’s all yours, young Jeffrey, and you can danged sure have it.” The boy stood, and picked up his oar. “You can go ahead and keep that thermos, if you feel like it, mister. It’s lined so it’ll help keep your coffee hot longer, and your water good and cold for walking in the hot summer.” The 292
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boy then started walking back toward his little house. After taking three or four steps, he stopped and turned. “And one more thing, maybe the next time you’re passin’ through this way again, sir, you might could stop in and say hello. I might even try to bring you some more of whatever’s left of that whiskey.” The raggedy man nodded, in recognition of the boy’s newfound courtesy, and then without another word threw another stick on his fire. * *
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The next day the old hobo rode a northbound about five miles back to the switchback curve where he had nearly died thirty-seven years before. At the places where the ground had once been violently gouged away by sliding rail cars all those years ago, the scars had all been filled back in by the layers of silt deposited by the eternal ebb and flow cycles of the river. Lush stands of wildflowers and prairie grasses now were growing where the fires had once burned the earth black. In fact, other than the a few lumps of coal exposed here and there, all evidence of the event that had once transpired here had faded into obscurity, the land reclaimed by nature. The old man gathered six relatively straight pieces of driftwood. He tied them together to form three crosses with some rope that he had carried with him for that purpose. At each of the three places that to the best of his memory marked the spots where his friends had died, he drove a cross into the ground. The first cross was for Charley Childers, who had once walked across on a six-inch highway made of iron, suspended more than a hundred stories above New York City, when he had worked there building the Empire State Building. He walked a distance farther up the curve, and drove the second cross for Edward Cronenbold. He had once been a Kansas wheat farmer during the dust bowl years, at least 4 P.M. COUNT
until the summer of nineteen thirty-four, when all three of his three children died from the brown lung. After the last child passed away, his wife, grief-stricken and halfcrazy from the never-ending howls of the relentless wind, walked out of their cabin into a raging dust storm and then drowned herself in the Pawnee River. Then he walked about fifty more feet and drove the last cross for Alonzo Walker. Alonzo was a guy who would give a friend a nickel of his last dime. A real happy-go-lucky fella who could parrot all the voices of The Shadow and Lilâ€™ Abner and the other popular radio shows and combine them with imitations of his fellow hoboes to improvise his own comedy bits that made us all laugh until we thought our insides were going to bust. Then the old man thought about the others, the generation of men swept up like chaff in the maelstrom of a failed economy, dispersed in all directions by the necessity of survival and then left to lie in unmarked graves, their names no longer spoken, their stories forever lost into the mists of time. Having finished what he had come to do, the old man sat down by a stand of canes and willows. He watched the redwings and the sparrows flit about among the sedges, and the bumblebees conducted their normal industry among the wildflowers. After a while he took out his thermos and finished drinking the last of the whiskey and waited for the next ride to pass through. As he sat alone in his private vigil, three wild turkey hens and about a dozen of their young approached, slowly foraging in the tall grass. He watched them in their grotesque beauty as they fed within five feet and slowly went past. It was as if the birds somehow sensed that all the normal laws of predation had been suspended, and that in his time of communion there, he desired that no more blood should be spilled in that place. In the distance, he faintly heard the whistle of a southbound headed that way. The old man turned up the thermos and drank the last drops from it, and then for the 294
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first time, he carefully examined it. On one side, it portrayed a picture of the lunar landing module that had touched down on the Sea of Tranquility earlier that summer on the twentieth oh July. The other side of the thermos depicted the U.S. flag planted by the astronauts. Written below the flag were the words of John Glenn, who had become the first man who ever walked on the surface of the moon. “One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind.” As the old hobo walked over and placed the thermos on the ground in front of Alonzo’s cross, the approaching locomotive passed by him and the engineers riding in it stared and wondered what he was doing out there alone in the middle of nowhere. They continued watching him curiously until the locomotive eventually rounded the switchback and then disappeared. The train continued its long process of slowing down for the deadly curve, until eventually it was travelling at about the same pace that a man could comfortably walk. After about a minute, the man spotted the open door of an empty boxcar as it moved into view. He picked up his walking stick and his pack, and then walked back over and stood next to the tracks. Then as the car drew alongside of him, the raggedy man took one small step, and then leaped forward, and pulled himself up and into the lonely boxcar. Safely seated, he turned and watched as the crosses slowly faded away into obscurity. The boxcar rounded the bend and pulled away.
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BEST OF: 2015
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MY FATHER COULD FEEL THE WIND OF UNCERTAINTY ON THE BACK OF HIS NECK By Chad Sloat, 2015 My father could feel the wind of uncertainty on the back of his neck as he stood in front of the judge. He was uncertain of many things at that exact moment. I can’t exactly blame him. I mean, the reason he was even in this courtroom was yet another one of my risky business adventures gone bad. This time it was a hedge fund gone belly-up. None of my ventures had ever ended like this though. They never ended with innocent people losing money. They never ended with me drudging my way into a courtroom wearing an orange jumper and linked ankle bracelets. They usually just ended with me ambling shamefully up my father’s sidewalk, hoping that the back bedroom was still unoccupied. The wind of uncertainty stems from his being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia about four years ago. Ever since I can remember he has always been healthy. In fact, before this diagnosis I can’t recall one moment that I have ever seen him less than one-hundred percent. The doctors gave him a medication that regulates his white blood cells and while they tell us he will live a fairly normal life, I don’t believe them. I started noticing the changes even before he finally broke the news to us kids. I could see it in his puffy, inflamed face, his visible weight loss and his bloodshot eyes. He is but a shell of his former greatness that is being harrowed piece by piece like a carcass in the desert. Is this failure of mine going to be the thing that pushes him over the edge? 4 P.M. COUNT
The wind of uncertainty stems from my sentencing on this fateful day. My father’s carefully worded statement was tossed aside about five words in and replaced with a weeping “I can’t fix this, I can’t fix this, I can’t fix....” His pain spread virally throughout the courtroom like a yawn in statistics class. Before I knew it, I was crying. To think this setting is what it took to see my father cry for the very first time. This is what it took to see that he was human and I meant more to him than what he let on all those years. This is what it took to see that all my failures didn’t matter to him. It only took the fate of my freedom; maybe I should have given up my freedom long ago. The wind of uncertainty stems from not knowing if he will ever see me free again. He knows that my max sentence is only six years, but will he make it that long? Will he live long enough to have one more whisky and water with me on the back patio? One more conversation with me about how I really need to stop taking such big risks in life? One more “See, I told you so”? One more hug and reassurance that if I need anything, just call? Or is this the end for us? Are all of my failures culminating in one huge, overreaching punishment that robs me not only of my freedom, but of the closure I need with my father?
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MY FATHER’S DAY CARD BLUES By Marquise Bowie, 2015 Where art thou, father? I don’t know where you have been. Father’s Day rolls around every year, but for a father I have no card to send. I have been on the planet Earth for thirty-nine short years, and have only once bought a Father’s Day card. The reason is that I felt like I never had a father to send one to. I had a dad and I don’t think they make Happy Dad’s Day cards. So after that first time that I bought a Father’s Day card and sent it, something in me just didn’t feel right. So I decided not to send one the next year. Let me put it this way: there is a big difference between being a father and a dad. Example: My birthday was on September 15, but my dad didn’t send me a birthday card until January of the following year. Who does that? Any man can be a dad, but it takes a special man with courage to be a father. Being a father is a special privilege that takes hard work, dedication, patience, perseverance, and willingness. A father doesn’t let the failed relationship with the child’s mother dictate the relationship that he has with the child. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, and I must admit that I too struggled with being a father. I made many poor choices and mistakes. It was the most challenging experience that I have endured, with little to no preparation or training. I was learning on the fly. But knowing that someone I helped create was depending on me, and the joy that it brought me to see my child smile, made it all worthwhile. As long as there is breath in my body I will never quit trying or just give up. Never. My love for my children won’t let me. This comes from God’s love for me. He will never leave me nor forsake me, so how could I forsake or leave my 4 P.M. COUNT
own? The good thing is, as long as oneâ€™s children are alive, itâ€™s never too late to start being a father; one just has to try. Broken relationships can be mended and repaired. Communication, sincerity, and action are the keys. It has to be something that a man wants to do. If you have to start somewhere, why not here? And if youâ€˜ve got to start sometime, why not now? All it takes is time and effort. Be a man of courage and take the challenge, men; the reward is worth the risk. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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Jon Sloan Mr. Sloan is an inmate currently serving out his sentence at FPC Yankton.
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ALIEN CLOWN My uncle, Brad, is a smorgasbord of conflicting dichotomies: He’s a connoisseur of expensive drugs and cheap women; he’s patient and temperamental; great at acquiring money, but even better at losing it; a brilliant thinker, who doesn’t think things through; a literal genius and a gigantic idiot. I didn’t know about all of his various personality quirks when I was growing up. Or when I agreed to start a business with him, but I learned soon enough. Brad’s sleep schedule was on the whenever-he-got-enough-liquor-inhim-to-fall-asleep until whenever-the-alcohol-wore-offenough-for-him-to-wake-up, which was usually somewhere around five a.m. until two or three p.m. so he always came into work late. There were times when he actually had to be at work a little closer to noon to get something done, though. On one of those particular days, I called him around one in the afternoon to see why he wasn’t there yet. “I can’t come in right now,” he said. “Why not?” “The alien clown told me he called the DEA and they are on their way right now. So I’ve got the spoons wrapped up and I’m waiting here.” I waited a few seconds for him to start laughing, but he wasn’t kidding. So I asked the obvious question, “What alien clown?” He answered as if I were a moron, “The one in the door knob.” After another hour, I convinced him he could just go ahead and wait on the DEA while he worked. He showed up with some dirty freebasing spoons wrapped inside a T-shirt. “Why would you bring those here?” I asked. “It’s evidence,” he said. “That’s exactly why I’m asking.” “I’m going to give them to the DEA when they come.” I 302
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just stared at him, so he continued, “To prove to them that it wasn’t me. You know, to prove to them that the alien clown was wrong.” “You’re going to need to explain why that makes any sense,” I said. “Listen, it was about two in the morning. I was getting ready to go to bed so I could get up early, when the clown started laughing at me.” “The clown in the door knob?” “Yeah,” he said, “that one.” “Who is also an alien?” “Yeah!” He seemed pleased that I had been paying attention. “Does he also work for the DEA?” “No. That wouldn’t make sense.” “Obviously.” “But he works with them.” “You’re telling me you were talking to an alien clown DEA agent.” He scoffed and shook his head. “Not an agent,” he said. “An informant.” “Sorry. An alien clown DEA informant.” “Yeah.” “In your door knob?” “Yeah.” Somehow, he saw nothing illogical about any of this. “And he was laughing at you.” “Yeah. He thought he’d got me. But I showed him. I grabbed the spoons to prove it wasn’t me. Then I packed up a suitcase and sat on the bed, waiting for them. I was ready. They weren’t going to surprise me.” “You packed a suitcase?” I asked. “Yeah.” “For the DEA?” “Yeah.” “Why would you pack a suitcase?” “I didn’t know how long that kind of thing takes and I might need extra clothes.” 4 P.M. COUNT
“Okay. Then what? You said this was at two in the morning, right?” “Yeah.” “Well it’s now two in the afternoon.” “Yeah,” he said, disappointed. “They’re taking a while.” “What have you been doing for the last twelve hours?” “I told you. Sitting on my bed with my suitcase.” “While talking to an alien clown in the doorknob?” “Yeah.” “And you don’t see anything wrong with this story.” “If you don’t believe me, we can go to my house and I’ll show you.” I told him that sounded like a great idea, but I needed to finish my work first. He said he would help out while he waited, so he helped some customers in the store and returned phone calls. I was nervous at first, but I wanted him to stay away from me and, it turned out when he wasn’t talking about alien clown DEA informants, he was completely rational and lucid. I listened to a couple of his phone calls and was impressed. He actually seemed to be more professional than he normally was, so I finished my work and we left an hour later. As soon as we started driving, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake in not grabbing my voice recorder. Brad was excited and talking faster and about more topics than I could keep up with. After years of debating the supernatural with me, his straitlaced, super-skeptical nephew, he was finally going to get to prove that there were other dimensions; there were aliens; and, apparently, they were working with the DEA. He was finally going to prove me wrong and thought of the perfect way to do it. “OK. You know my elephant planter?” he asked me, referring to an elephant statue that had a hole to put in a flowerpot. “Yeah,” I said. “Well, when you walk in. You’ll look at that elephant. It will be on all fours, just like a normal elephant planter.” “OK.” “But then you’ll look in my TV. Look in, so it’s like a 304
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mirror, where you can see the elephant behind you.” “Why would I do that?” Brad sat up tall, smiled and said, “That elephant will be standing up on two legs, waving at you.” Now at this point, I was getting pretty weirded out. Despite this bout of apparent insanity, my uncle is one of the smartest, most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met and, even now, when he wasn’t having extra-dimensional conversations, he showed no signs of dementia. With how fast he was talking and how convinced he was that what he was saying was true, I have to say, I kind of started to believe him. When I parked in his driveway and got out of the car, I was thinking, I’m going to walk in that house, look in the TV and there’s going to be an elephant standing up waving at me. I opened the front door and started to walk through, but Brad grabbed me from behind, pulled me back and slammed the door. He leaned into my ear and whispered, “I forgot to tell you. There’s a bug under the entryway table.” “Like a police bug? A microphone?” He nodded. “Like a DEA bug.” The shit just got real. I slowly opened the front door and literally crawled inside on my hands and knees, then lay down underneath the table, looking for the bug. I turned back toward Brad, gesturing and mouthing, “Where?” while making sure to not talk. He crawled up beside me and pointed to something sticking out behind a leg. I leaned in and then felt it. “That’s a bolt,” I told him. “It is?” “Yeah. See?” He leaned in to confirm it and then dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Come on. Check out the elephant.” I tiptoed across the living room, eyeing the elephant planter the whole way, half expecting it to stand up and come running at me. “All right,” Brad said and pointed to the bottom of the TV. “Look right here.” 4 P.M. COUNT
With my heart pounding, I knelt down and looked at the black screen, completely expecting to see into another dimension. Instead, I saw a ripple in the screen that distorted the reflection. It made the elephant stretch, like a cheap house of mirrors, but it wasn’t another dimension. I pointed it out to Brad. “Really?” he said, disappointed and leaning in. “Damn. You’re right.” Then he waved his hand again. “It doesn’t matter either,” he said. “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? You spent the whole car ride over here telling me that elephant was going to be standing up when I looked in your TV.” “The elephant doesn’t matter. What matters is the clown. The alien clown.” He took me to his bedroom, shut the door and nodded to the doorknob. “Have a look,” he said with confidence. I knelt down and looked in the knob, seeing nothing but my reflection in the brass. “I think you were just seeing your reflection,” I said. “What?” he said, running over. He knelt down next to me and looked at the doorknob. “No. There he is. See?” he said, pointing at the doorknob. “No. That’s you. That’s your reflection.” “What? Really?” He squinted at the doorknob. “Damn.”
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LEADVILLE The Leadville Trail Marathon in Leadville, CO, is one of the hardest—if not the hardest—marathons in the world. The entire race is over 10,000 feet above sea level and it is almost completely off-road with big, loose rocks waiting to roll an ankle, portions still covered in snow and grades up to twenty-six percent, both ascending and descending. They say you can get a close estimate of your finishing time by doubling your regular marathon time and that seems to hold true. While the record for a regular marathon is an amazing two hours and three minutes, the Leadville record is right around four hours. The cutoff time for Leadville is eight and a half hours, so, if I expect to finish, I should be able to run a 4:15 marathon. I’d never run a 4:15 marathon, but I wasn’t worried. The marathon wasn’t even hard enough for what I wanted to do. I learned about Leadville by reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. The book talked about the Leadville Trail 100—an insanely hard, one hundred mile, off-road running race. I read it and thought, I want to do that! The one hundred mile race sells out every year, though, so the only way to guarantee myself an entry was to pay seven hundred dollars and become a “Leadman.” The Leadman Challenge takes place over two months and consists of the marathon, my choice of a fifty-mile mountain bike race or run (or both in one weekend, if I went insane), then a one hundred mile mountain bike race plus a 10K run the next day followed by the finale, the one hundred mile run the next weekend. If I needed to do all of that get to run the one hundred, then that’s what I’d do. The marathon is the first race. It’s supposed to be the warm-up, but for me it was a wake-up. My cousin, Jared, did the race with me, though neither of us knew the other was signing up beforehand. My cousin is a flooring installer who lugs around gigantic heavy rolls 4 P.M. COUNT
of carpeting and then follows that up by working out at the gym in the evenings and winning bike races on the weekends. “Loser buys the margaritas,” he says before the race. “Well,” I say, “I might as well give you some money now, so you don’t have to wait on me to get started.” Then I add, “You know, I’m doing the marathon, but I’m gonna take it easy since I signed up for Leadman and I don’t want to overdo it in the warm-up race.” It seems like a good line, giving me both an excuse for sucking as well as making me look tougher than my shirtless Adonis cousin. But then Jared says, “Yeah. I signed up for Leadman, too.” Well, shit. Instead of just one day of embarrassment, I now have two months of it to look forward to. While I hand over the margarita money and my pride, my wife takes pictures of Jared and me in our race gear, me in my t-shirt and basketball shorts, Jared in only small, tight running shorts with his hairless, chiseled torso on full display. For some reason, I’m missing from all of my wife’s pictures. The marathon starts innocently enough, masquerading as a normal race. A few hundred people are crowded into a downtown street behind the starting line with a big archway above that says “Start” on one side and “Finish” on the other. Man, I hope I get to see that Finish sign. Hundreds more people stand on the other side of flimsy barricades, yelling encouragement—friends and family, mostly, but also people who must like to torture small animals and watch executions in their spare time. That first half mile—the only paved part of the course— is the easiest portion of the race. I’m jogging slowly right behind Jared, but just a few seconds in, I’m already out of breath in the thin air. Then, miraculously, Jared turns around, looks past me and says, “That’s far enough. I don’t think they can see us anymore.” and starts to walk. “Run a minute, walk a minute,” he adds. “That OK with you?” “That sounds brilliant,” I say. To myself I think, holy crap, I might not be too embarrassed after all. 308
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A minute later, Jared turns again and says, “OK. Time to run.” I’m still out of breath, though. Instead of running, I mumble some gibberish, try to make my six foot, four inch frame disappear in the crowd and let him go on ahead. This is going to be bad. I’m glad I don’t know exactly how bad, though, or I’d probably just go get an eight-hour head start on the margaritas. The plan I come up with instead is to hike the uphill portions, jog the flat portions (which are basically nonexistent) and try to bomb the downhills. That has to be better than running every other minute, right? The marathon isn’t the only race ran that day. There is also “The Heavy Half ” marathon, which is fifteen miles instead of the normal 13.1. Why? Because 13.1 just wouldn’t be Leadville enough. About a mile into the race, a bridge goes over the gravel road we’re running on. The “Half ” goes under the bridge while the marathon turns right, climbs up to the trail above and then goes into the mountain woods on one hundred-year-old mining trails. Those trails prove one thing: miners were stupid. If the trails were a mixed drink, they’d be Hell on the Rocks. It’s hard enough maneuvering up them with five pounds of gear on my back. I can’t imagine going up and down these trails with carts full of rocks and supplies. Aid stations are spread out every two to four miles along the course. Ten miles in is the biggest aid station, packed with drinks, snacks and well-wishers. My spirits are high, while I load up on peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, M&Ms, chips and other junk food referred to today as “race fuel.” While a volunteer fills my Camelbak with pisscolored-and-tasting “sports drink,” I down a Coke. It’s great. Even though I’m not even halfway done after more than three hours of torture, I already feel like I’ve accomplished something and feel great. But that’s only because I don’t know what’s coming next. The jeep trail beyond the aid station is a rocky, muddy mess, but it is fairly flat. This is the start of the run/walk/ crawl up Mosquito Pass. I can see the mountain I’m getting 4 P.M. COUNT
ready to go up with the lines of people going both up and down. It doesn’t look so bad, but I wonder why the people coming down look like they’ve just come out of a coma. After that short section of flatness, the road angles up. Now that I’ve gone up Mosquito Pass, when someone uses the phrase, “When hell freezes over,” I can definitively tell them, “It has. I’ve been there.” Because that’s what the climb to Mosquito Pass is—a cold, snowy, soggy hell. While the climb is less than three miles long, it takes me almost an hour and a half to get up. The view from hell, though, is gorgeous. I spend well over five minutes of my hour and a half climb taking selfies and pictures of the view. What other people call “picture taking” I call “looking for any excuse I could come up with to stop and catch my breath.” The trail is a super-rocky, four by four road carved into the side of the mountain with a steep drop-off on one side and a steep rock wall on the other. It’s like climbing a 3,000foot high snowy, ankle-breaking flight of stairs. It’d be hard enough to walk up this thing when I was fresh, but starting it after I’ve already gone eleven miles up, down and over this terrain, well… I don’t want to do it. Lots of people quit before getting to the top and I’m beginning to think that’s the smart play here. I’ve been using hiking poles throughout the race and, at this point, my legs are Jell-O, so I am really depending on the poles to take some of the weight off my legs. Being so out of breath, I can’t move more than one part of my body at a time or my lungs and heart will explode, so I take a deep breath, place one pole, then the other, take another breath, step with my right foot, breathe again, step with my left foot, breathe and repeat, again and again and again. I’m hiking up on the right side of the road while runners who have already made it to the top are coming back down on my left. Sometimes snow or rocks make one side impassable, so we stop and take turns going through. The higher I climb up the mountain, the colder and windier it gets, dropping down into the twenties with a bitter wind blowing in my face. Over two-thirds of the way up, I realize, 310
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I haven’t seen my half-naked cousin. Then I see him— still shirtless. He is shivering and bright red all over from both the cold wind and what is developing into a serious sunburn. He looks miserable. I should feel sorry for him, but all I think is, Wow, I’m not nearly as far behind as I expected. “How much farther to the top?” I ask him. “About half a mile,” he says. My spirits sink. Another half mile of this shit? I can’t do it anymore. I sit down on a rock and throw myself a pity party. Racers coming down the mountain probably think I’m a schizophrenic with Tourette’s syndrome when they see me belching out a stream of curses and insults at myself. It works, though. I start moving up the mountain, determined not to disappoint that pissed-off man in my head again. I make it to the top, where there is a line to take a picture with the sign that says 13,000-whatever feet. I gladly wait in line to catch my breath again. Then I realize I’ve taken five hours to make it halfway. I have to be done in eight and a half hours. How am I supposed to go back through all of that in only three and a half hours? That’s not possible. I should just quit, but then they’d disqualify me from all of the other races. I can’t accept that, so I have only one option: it’s time to bust it. I take off back down the trail, picking my way over the snow, ice and boulders, but concentrating on a quick foot turnover and sprinting when it’s remotely clear. Now I’m moving. This is fun. It’s warmed up to about forty degrees on the way back down and hell starts to thaw, creating narrow but fastflowing streams of water running down or across the trail. I’m not only dodging snow and rocks; I’m hopping over mud and water, too. I’m not too worried about getting muddy, though. I just want to get down quick and finish the race on time, so I start taking chances and get sloppy with my foot landings, hit a mud stream and start sliding, looking like Bambi on ice, arms waving, legs dancing, trying to stay upright. I’m not heading down the path, though. I’m sliding toward the edge. While it isn’t a straight cliff over the side, it is steep enough that I’m not going to stop for 4 P.M. COUNT
a while and it’s going to hurt. Time slows down. I process everything around me and am really able to think. But the only thing I’m thinking is, I’m gonna die. Once again, I have bit off more than I can chew and this time it’s gonna get my ass killed. As I slide off the side of the trail, I’m able to have one more slow-motion thought and that is: Do something, dumbass! So I let go of my poles, pivot around and grab onto two small boulders that are on the side of the trail and, somehow, they hold. I can’t pull myself all the way back up, so I half walk, half rock climb horizontally twenty feet until I meet back up with the trail and start running again. Cheating death really changes my outlook on the race and my life. Maybe making it back to my family is more important than some stupid race goal, so I slow down a bit. A crazy thing happens when I get to the bottom of Mosquito Pass. I spent the first eleven miles thinking it was the worst thing ever. Now the same trail seems like a piece of cake. The ups and downs of the race follow the exact inverse of the elevation chart. It’s as if it causes some extreme inverse bipolar disorder. As my body goes up in elevation, my mood goes down. As my body goes down, my mood goes up. Now, I pride myself on being levelheaded and under control of my emotions, but emotions get out of whack during races. I call it Race-Induced Manic Depression. After getting down Mosquito Pass, I’m just going on endorphins. Everything is easy. I have just completed the biggest drop in elevation, so my mood is at its highest point. The hell of Mosquito Pass has changed my perspective—on the race and my life. This is the manic phase. I’m running along with people, high-fiving them, slapping them on the back, chatting them up, making lots of new BFFMs (Best Friends for Five Minutes). I ride that endorphin high until about mile twenty without thinking anything of it. And mile twenty is the start of the flattest, smoothest part of the race. It’s two miles of singletrack around the back side 312
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of a neighboring mountain. I hit this stretch and I’m still feeling great. I’m like, I’ve got this. Holy crap, I’ve got this. I’m going to do it! I’m texting my wife telling her the race is super easy and I’m going to finish, no problem. She texts back, “Oh my god. You are amazing.” Yes. Yes, I am. Then my shoe comes untied. Normally that wouldn’t be a big deal, but tying my shoe after I’ve been running for over six hours isn’t the same as tying my shoe before heading off to work. My legs, feet and back don’t bend the way they should. I try to bend over and tie my shoe, but I can’t bend at all. I look around, hoping someone will help me get this shoe tied, but, at this point in the race, I’m completely alone. All the people who properly trained are way ahead of me or even finished, kicked back drinking a beer, while all the people at my fitness level have realized their stupidity and dropped out. It’s just me, the mountain and my damned shoelace. I flop over on my right—the side of the trail that goes up toward the mountain peak. By flop, I mean flop. NBA flop. Shaq getting knocked to the ground by Spud Webb flop. There is nothing graceful about this. I just lean to my right and let gravity do its job. A weird thing happens when I hit the ground, though. It can’t be described as a muscle cramp. I’ve had muscle cramps. They suck, but, whatever. This isn’t a muscle cramp. The impact of hitting the ground sends a shockwave through my body that is just enough to overload all of my overused muscles at the same time. It isn’t a muscle cramp. It’s a body cramp. Trying to stretch one part of my body makes another part cramp even harder. It spreads from both legs, into my core, back, ears and eyeballs. I’m lying on the ground, looking around for anybody, but there is nobody there. For the second time in the race, I think, I’m gonna die. I’ve never actually heard of anybody dying from muscle cramps before, but there has to be a first time for everything and this time it’s gonna be me. Either that or I am just going to be stuck here on the ground for days and die of thirst. A few minutes later—even though I have come 4 P.M. COUNT
to terms with my inevitable demise—I decide to try to take my hiking poles and, after several attempts, I push myself up into a standing position. I look down and flip off that still-untied shoelace with both middle fingers, but I realize there is no way I’m going to be running anywhere for a while. I’m going to have to hike/limp this thing out. There’s just one problem with that plan, though. I’m running out of time. Near the end of endurance events, all racers start doing math in their heads, calculating their potential finishing times. These mental math problems are a welcome distraction from the physical pain. I’m convinced the fastest runners are the people who are the worst at math. They spend so much time distracting themselves with math equations, they finish the race still carrying over a two in their head, oblivious to the bone they broke in their foot three miles ago. Unfortunately, I’m good at math and quickly work through the equation in my head and get back to thinking about the pain. What I realize as I start limping toward the finish is that, if I’m going to finish in time, I’m going to have to run the last five miles faster than I ran any other five-mile section so far. And I have to do it exhausted, with my entire body on the verge of cramping and rocks inside my untied shoe and unable to breathe. I try to speed up, watching my pace on the Garmin on my wrist. Garmin is my new best friend—the only companion who hasn’t deserted me in my time of need. Each time Garmin tells me I’m getting close to my goal pace, though, a muscle cramps and I have to back off. I’m running at the edge of disaster, struggling not to go over. And then my best friend dies. My Garmin had the longest battery life of any GPS exercise watch: eight hours. I’m sure the engineers could have made it longer, but they probably asked, “Why would anybody need to go for a run longer than eight hours?” They didn’t anticipate slow, in-over-their-head, Leadville marathoners like me, though, so I’m all alone with a dead weight on my wrist. 314
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I’m running by feel now. A smooth, long downhill section lets me feel like I made up some time, but a rough and steep uphill section right afterward makes me feel that I’ve lost even more. I’m guesstimating how far I have to go, checking the time on my phone. Now, instead of texting my wife to tell her this isn’t a problem, I’m texting her to say, “This is going to be close.” She texts back, “I’ll be proud of you no matter what.” What a strange woman, I think. I don’t know how close I really am—to my goal pace or the finish—but I trudge on determined to give my wife a legitimate reason to be proud of me. Then I see the bridge where the marathoners split off from the half marathoners before. I’m closer than I thought! And, bonus, it’s all downhill and smooth from here! I check the time on my phone and text my wife again, “I think I can make it.” My pace and my spirits both pick up. I turn off the dirt road and onto pavement, run a quarter mile and turn left toward downtown Leadville. The finish line is less than half a mile away. I can hear the music and the announcer on the loudspeakers. I see the people, hundreds of them just waiting for me to finish so they can celebrate with me and start to party. I can’t let them down. I check the time on my phone again. I’m going to make it! The endorphins are back and they brought along their little buddy, adrenaline. I take off in a sprint. Which lasts for exactly one step and then my right foot snaps down, pulled and held in place by my calf, which has cramped into a rock. I thought the entire body cramp at mile twenty-one hurt, but this cramp took all of that pain and concentrated it into one muscle. I can’t move my foot, which means I can’t move, which means I can’t finish. I’m on the verge of tears, though I’m not sure if it’s from the pain or the disappointment. I look at the finish line again and yell, “No! I’m so close!” The timing clock down there is ticking closer and closer to the 8:30 cutoff time. I can see all the people down there. My family is down there. Surely, they can see me. Won’t someone come and help me? Nobody is coming, though. I 4 P.M. COUNT
put weight on my right big toe. It doesn’t move. I lean more onto it. It still doesn’t move. Who knew my calf muscle was so strong? Finally, I lift my left foot completely off the ground, balancing on my one toe and two hiking poles. My toe/foot/calf still won’t budge. For twenty seconds, I balance like that. Then it moves a millimeter. Then another, and it slowly relaxes and goes the rest of the way down. I start hobbling toward the finish line, careful to hold my toes up to avoid another cramp. Everybody is screaming and cheering as I approach the finish-line chute. I hit the red carpet and the announcer is yelling over the loudspeakers, “It looks like our last official finisher is going to be Jon Sloan!” I cross the finish line and look at the clock. 8:28:30— ninety seconds to spare. I stop one foot after the finish line and a woman comes over and puts a finisher’s medal over my head. My wife and son run up to me, smiling, but all I can say is, “I can’t move.” My wife says, “When I saw how long it took Jared, I didn’t think you’d be able to do it.” I turn my head and Jared, the lobster, is there. Still shirtless. He shakes my hand and tells me he beat me by only a few minutes and then, referring to the one hundredmile race, he asks, “Are you ready to do all of that four times?” No. No, I’m not. I don’t ever want to race, run or move again. My son comes over for what I think is to give me a hug, but he stops, grabs his nose and says, “Wow, you stink.” Yes, I do. But it’s glorious. I may have finished four and a half hours after first place, but I don’t care. To me, that stink is the smell of victory.
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WHAT IT’S LIKE BEING IN PRISON WITH YOUR DAD By Jon Sloan I sat down to eat with the new guy the other day and quickly realized he was the smartest person in prison when he said, “I hear your dad’s in here with you. That’s got to be weird.” Genius. Everyone else who has learned I’m in prison with my dad has responded with something along the lines of “Oh, that’s got to be pretty cool.” I don’t know what’s wrong with those people, but no, it’s not. Being in prison with your dad is weird. And for someone who prides himself on his independence and vowed to never, no matter what, live with his parents again, it’s frustrating on multiple levels. But asking me what it’s like to be in prison with my dad isn’t the right question and I’m not even the right person to ask. The better person to ask is my own son and the better question to ask is, “What’s it like having both your dad and granddad in prison?” or “What’s it like to go through adolescence after losing all of the male role models in your life?” or “What’s it like taking on the role of ‘man of the house’ at ten years old?” While our country is the best in the world at incarcerating fathers, most of the kids who are left behind have a grandfather there to be at least a cursory father replacement. My son doesn’t have that. Luckily for him, though, the age of mass incarceration has coincided with a proliferation of video games to retreat into, so he can deal with the distancing and shaming by former friends and neighbors as well as his mom’s stress-induced health problems by killing a zombie or two hundred.
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WHAT IT’S LIKE BEING IN PRISON WITH YOUR SON By Clark Sloan Many inmates and even correctional officers have told me, “Isn’t it great that you can do your time together with your son?” What a stupid question. If my son and I were doing hard labor in a North Korean prison, nobody would say, “At least you get to do your time together!” While most inmates understand the experience of being separated from family, most don’t experience it from the perspective of a parent watching a son who is separated from his own son. A father has certain expectations for his children: school, proms, sports, dating, marriage, children, etc. Prison is not on that list. We are not supposed to watch our children get separated from their own families—their own children—and helplessly watch all the suffering of all the circles of people who are touched. Every inmate knows what it’s like to be jerked from life as he knows it. And living with hundreds of other people in a similar situation can make it easy to forget this isn’t normal. But I’m reminded every day by seeing Jon as to how it should be. While I am spending more time with my adult son, he is missing out on time with his own young son, and we both know they’ll never get that time back. How does it make a father feel to be in prison with his son? Pissed! I’m pissed at a justice system that thinks it wise to separate non-violent fathers from children for years, to leave families stranded and desperate, to burden young children with the horrors of despair, loneliness and pain. It’s a system in its current design that causes more problems than it fixes, hurting families, communities and economies. 318
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Jon and I have been sentenced to a dysfunctional, failed social experiment, and the impact on our family of losing both of us is extreme. Another man, who has cerebral palsy, loses his dad and brother. A young child loses his dad and granddad. A woman loses a son and grandson. The economy loses two taxpaying members of a community. The explicit costs for society are doubled, but the implicit costs—which the government never counts—are more than doubled on society and, especially, on a family. Getting to check in with my son for five minutes in the evening makes prison more pleasant, but it doesn’t come close to making up for the destruction of our family’s lives.
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BEST OF: 2016
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WAITING FOR THE GOOD PART By Frank Constant, 2016 I had just wrapped up a call on my cell phone when someone with a large buttered popcorn and a box of Dots leaned over from the row behind me, and whispered in my ear, “Shhhhhh! Can’t you see the movie has started? As long as you are here, you should probably pay attention!” “I’m waiting for the good part to come.” I whispered back, turning my head slightly to the left so he could hear me. “It never comes in the beginning. When the good part comes, that’s when I’ll start paying attention.” I could sort of feel him shrugging his shoulders as if saying “OK, have it your way.” I knew the opening sequence of this movie didn’t really warrant my undivided attention. And so I waited. And I half paid attention but I was more focused on the good parts that I knew were coming later in the movie. Not so much what was happening right here, right now. I knew that my movie would begin getting really good in a little while. Like when the guy, actually the star of the movie, gets his college degree. Then the movie would really get going. Once he was done with college. I was distracted for a moment by some kid trying to suck the last little bit of his Jumbo Mountain Dew up through his tiny straw. Give it a break, I thought, and wanted to remind the little monster that they have free refills when you buy the jumbo. Because of the noisy kid, I missed the graduation part. No big deal because now he was working on getting that awesome job. The one that he would hopefully turn into a career. A great career! And of course, then he would get the girl. But that still wasn’t the good part, the part when the kids, and the house, and the nice cars, and the vacations, and the promotions, 4 P.M. COUNT
and the country club, and more promotions came along, which was sure to take place any minute. When those things started to happen, now that’s when the movie was going to get really good. So, I waited for that part. I drummed my fingers on the arm rest and thought, how boring. But I knew in my heart that quite soon the good stuff was going to start flashing across that screen. Probably right after another promotion or when the doctor said that the biopsy was benign. I still wasn’t all that pleased with the movie, so I killed some more time. And I thought about some things that the writer of this screenplay, this movie, could have done differently. Like this part right here where the star becomes the villain and the FBI comes, and the federal prosecutor and the judge and the courtroom, and the tears from his family and the separation and the pain he caused. I wanted to tell the projectionist to just fast forward through that. It just kept playing for what seemed like ninety months. Wearing khaki for ninety months. Who wants to watch that? I would have rewritten all that if I could, but it was too late for that. So, I waited for the next part. The better part. Because I knew that once the big party came, the one with the gold watch and the pats on the back and the world travels and the fishing poles and the grandkids and Winnebago and the “all the time in the world” part came. That’s when it was really going to rock! What a climax! That’s when I would be engaged. That’s when I would really start paying attention. When it started to be like it was supposed to be. Then all of a sudden, the lights went up in the theater and everyone started getting out of their seats and heading for the exits. As I was looking around, the guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned my head to the right this time and leaned back again saying, “What’s going on?” In my peripheral vision I could see his index finger pointed toward the screen where it said: The End.
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Micah Morgan Micah Morgan is thirtythree years old. He has one son, Micah Jr. He has been incarcerated for seven years on a ten-year federal sentence. His journey has been long, arduous, and filled with many struggles, but he has prevailed and thanks God for having had the opportunity to participate in the Creative Writing Program. This experience has helped him spread his wings and soar higher and farther.
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A PERFECT PICTURE BROKEN Precious and tender, bright and light, my newborn son wrapped nice and tight, weighing but a few pounds. I hold him close to my chest, embracing this moment, having spent years looking forward to this moment. He blinks his eyes as he yawns and reaches for my chest. I silently rub his hand and he wraps his little fingers around my finger. He stops and pauses, pondering what my finger may be. All so cute, I smile to myself embracing him as he embraces me. I stand there holding him as he holds me, pondering this moment. Us, both together as one, old and young, as father and son, embracing this moment pondering the greatness of what we are. Cuffed nice and tight in my right arm he radiates the life of love that began with me. A moment of time, emitting life as I stand there holding my son imagining the time that will soon consume this moment. So I embrace the moment holding my son, finally feeling complete as an over-achiever. Standing proudly, preparing for a new life and a great future, and having successfully cut his umbilical cord one day ago. Thirty days flew, as his cheesy smile and chunky cheeks complemented his hairy head, displaying his angelic face. I stood up once again, holding him at one month old, peering down at him, promising him the world, as my heart chanted, “My son, my son, how I have longed and waited so long, looking forward to you. My son, you’re just as much a part of me as I am of you.” My eyes twinkle and glitter at the brilliance of his eyes, as they echoed great beams of hope. Unbeknownst to me, that glare of light in his eyes was begging me not to sit him down and leave. What I wanted and needed I was holding. I did not know I was an hour from being arrested and on my way to prison by four o’clock that afternoon.
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BROTHERLY LOVE One day my older brother was messing with me and I hit him with my crutch. He picked up the matching crutch and hit me back. Without thinking, I whacked him again. Before he got a chance to retaliate, my mother intervened. But it was no ordinary interruption. She did it with calm. She flipped the newspaper down and looked over the fold of it, similar to Mr. Wilson looking over the fence on the Home Improvement television show, and said, “When you two get done let me know because I have something for the both of you,” and she folded the newspaper right back up. My big tough brother looked at me fearfully and I looked back and said, “I’m not quitting.” He replied, “Me neither.” We began to argue back and forth and were certainly going to fight all night. Then my mom did the most mysterious thing with that newspaper. She flipped it down with the greatest control and said, “That’s fine with me. The longer I wait, the longer your whoopings. So whenever you two are done and figure out who’s going to get the first dose of medicine, let me know.” Then she began to reverse that newspaper, while simultaneously looking us in the eyes. But then something happened. She stopped that paper in midair. It never shook, made a noise, nor appeared to have flipped over. She stopped and paused. She looked at us dead in our eyes and remained silent for a few seconds before saying, “By the way, I do not have to work tonight. I have all evening to wait, and please don’t make me wake you up.” Then she flipped the newspaper back so fast that it snapped, as it broke the sound barrier. I turned to look at my big tough brother who started everything that night and I could see the start of his waterworks. I could not believe that this big bully was crying. I began to panic and was confused and didn’t know 4 P.M. COUNT
what to do. I looked at my mother and all I could see was a stiff, motionless, scary newspaper with an old white guy pointing at me. Today I know this to be Uncle Sam the recruiter, but at that time it said to me “You’re Next.” So I did the smartest thing I could think of and started crying myself. What else could I do? If the biggest and toughest person cries first, the smartest thing for me to do was cry myself a river. So I cried the mercy cry even though I did not know it was a mercy cry. We were in there crying so much that you would have thought that we already received our whoopings. Laugh if you wish, all I know is we saved ourselves that day. But for the record, if my brother had not cried, I would have never cried. The good part of this situation is it worked and neither one of us got a whooping. The funniest thing of all this is how my mom handled the situation and never dropped the newspaper from in front of her face. We only heard her voice from behind it. This time it felt like we were talking to the Wizard of Oz. As she declared, “What are ya’ll crying for?” Before I could answer, my brother blurted some words, only God knows what they were. I never got a chance to speak, and just knew everything had become serious. As Mother sternly declared from behind that paper, “Stop all that crying! I have been sitting here the whole time.” Her voice just roared, I knew it was over because she cut my brother off in mid-sentence. I was sitting there scared to death, doing my best to catch my tears as my big brother cried a storm. My mother said, “Why are you doing all this crying when you apparently love whoopings more than you love your brother?” I sat there confused, as my brother mumbled through tears, slobber and snot while saying, “I don’t love whoopings, Mommy. I love my brother.” My mother replied, “If you love your brother, why did you hit him?” As he tried to blame me for being the instigator, she cut him off again, and said, “You’re the oldest. Why did you 326
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hit your brother?” His words began to fade through all that trembling. I knew for sure we were going to get a whooping, but she said, “Hug your brother right now and tell him that you love him.” He quickly hugged me, and said, “I love you.” Then she snapped off, “Why do I hear only one person speaking?” So I quickly hugged him and said, “I love you.” I could not believe what happened next because she had been sitting behind the newspaper talking to us the whole time while she caught up on the latest headlines. She flipped the paper down and said, “Tell each other ‘sorry.’ ” I think I was scared at this time because the newspaper was folded down again as she spoke, “If ya’ll fight one more time this week it will be hell to pay the Captain.” By the way, Mother was the Captain of our household.
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THE ARRIVAL I arrived to prison seven years ago but arrived at a different place, because I did not give up or give in and wallow in what I arrived with, which was the hatred of my anger for the life of bitterness. The endurance I gained, through the perseverance of my pain, got me here and I can now cherish my every tear that sent ripples of pain throughout me. Hopelessness chased me, as I fought to hold on to hope. My conditions desired to devour me with doubt. Even though I was down, I controlled the outcome, determining that my conditions would not define me according to the choices of my environment that allowed me to arrive at my destination. I made it here today because I departed from somewhere, determining my departure was greater than a layover. I was resisting, wallowing in something, to give it the opportunity to overtake my potential and manipulate me out of my future. So I flew, not understanding the turbulence or the unexpected damages, without a place to land. At the cost of myself, sacrificing my beliefs and letting go of who I was for an uncertain gear, for an unknown landing. It’s safe to say that I never expected to land where I landed, and that I was being prepared for something greater. But one thing I determined in my heart was that I was going to do and get everything I could, so that I would not return back to this route. I encourage anyone not to be afraid of the unknown or allow discomfort to discourage you. It is working for the benefit of you. Embrace the process! The humbler you are the higher and farther you’ll soar. Remember, the resistance you’re experiencing is nothing but friction that’s intended to strengthen and push you forward. So when the turbulent winds blow, you may be able to land and not be blown down. Know that your attitude is your greatest gear. It will either up-shift and promote you by pushing you forward or down-shift, which will demote you 328
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and hold you back. I arrived to prison having lost everything: my family, education, open doors of success, and my first love, due to my choices. I went from seeing myself married and successful to serving ten years in prison. I wanted to give up so bad, but Jesus would not allow me, and because of Him I have arrived to a place of peace and success. Never allow your circumstances to determine your outcome. It’s safe to say you never know where your unexpected arrival may be. I arrived where I did not know I would arrive. Today, I’m stronger and more educated. I’ve been preaching, teaching, and helping many others who arrived here as lost and hurt as me. Never give up or give in because you never know where you may arrive. The situation of today is just a destination you have arrived at to get you to your destiny.
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S. Marielle Frigge Marielle Frigge, OSB, holds an MA in biblical theology from Washington Theological Union and a PhD in theology and education from Boston College. She retired as professor of religious studies after thirty-three years at Mount Marty College in Yankton in May 2012. Since then she continues to teach and speak in various venues, including her own and other religious communities, the Avera Health System, and various local and regional communities and ecumenical adult education contexts. Sr. Marielle authored Beginning Biblical Studies (Anselm Academic, 2009) and a second, revised edition of her book was published in September 2013. Sr. Marielle also writes biblical commentaries for Liturgy Training Publications in Chicago, and serves as associate editor and book reviewer for The American Benedictine Review, a national scholarly journal dealing with topics of Benedictine and monastic interest.
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A LETTER FROM S. MARIELLE FRIGGE WHAT I SEE AS BENEFITS OF ONE-ON-ONE SESSIONS FOR MEMBERS OF THE WRITING CLASS There are several major benefits I see in having individual tutoring sessions with a copy editor in the process of finishing pieces to be published in 4 P.M. Count. The first is a chance to meet the specific needs of each person. The educational background of the men in the class spans a broad spectrum, from those who have not yet completed high school or a GED to some who hold graduate degrees. So my guidance can be suited to each one’s needs, ranging from clarifying spellings and meanings of three different words that sound the same, e.g., there, their, and they’re, to discussing tone or word choice for the writer’s intended audience. When I explain the why of a particular grammatical “rule,” a writer will often say something like, “Well, I saw that rule on the style sheet, but I didn’t know why it was that way.” Once the why becomes clear, a writer often quickly begins to see for himself where further corrections are needed. I always emphasize the practical importance of an ability to use standard English; a recent study indicates that fifty-eight percent of employers immediately discard a job application or resume that fails to do so. There are also benefits, I believe, that can carry over into the men’s personal lives. I repeatedly stress “audience awareness,” the writer’s ability to analyze, understand, and place oneself in the reader’s cultural, intellectual, and emotional context. Such awareness ought to guide any writer’s choice of content and how that content can be most effectively presented to the designated audience. For example, if one is writing a piece for the general public, prison slang or acronyms are not likely to be understood. 332
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Always, the fundamental purpose is communication; writing is not only about “expressing myself,” though that is part of the purpose. Good writing always truly communicates to an “other.” The writer who consciously attempts to communicate to a specific audience must take his particular audience into account when choosing content, point of view, voice, tone, and vocabulary. Regarding audience awareness, one of the men remarked, “It’s good to practice thinking about ‘the other’; not doing that is one of the big reasons I am where I am.” In addition, any good writer who wishes to communicate clearly must be consistent in all details, including use of capitalization, abbreviations, acronyms, numbers, time references, etc. Learning consistency can be an advantage in personal relations as well as in the workplace. There is another benefit not directly related to writing skill, but, I believe, a very important one. Tutoring sessions offer an opportunity for each prisoner to be treated like an individual human being, a person. I know from their writings that in their highly routinized and regulated life in a federal prison, some can begin to “identify” as simply “a prisoner” or the number on their clothing. One man asked me during a tutoring session, “Why do you do this? After all, we’re criminals.” I responded, “That is true, you are a criminal, or you wouldn’t be here. But I believe you are more than that: you are a human being, a person, created in the image of God. How will you learn to act like a person without being treated as one?”
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FPC YANKTON TRANSFORMS AMERICAN ELM TREE By Todd Cowman, 2014 In July 2014, an inmate at Federal Prison Camp Yankton completed a sculpture from the last surviving American Elm tree at the camp. The tree was planted between 1954 and 1964, when Yankton College occupied the land, but recently the tree had become infected with Dutch Elm disease. Rather than cutting down the infected tree, an inmate who participates in education-based art classes at the institution requested the opportunity to use the tree to create a sculpture. The finished sculpture displays an eagle with a fish in its talons, returning to a nest constructed of wood trimmed from other local trees. The project was finalized with additional plants and landscaping surrounding the tree.
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THE EAGLE PROJECT By Ray Hanson, 2014 It was mid-summer, 2013; the sun was out and I was having lunch with my friend, Paul, when Al from the horticulture department sat with us. Paul and I were wellknown in our prison community as good artists. Al said, “Ray Hanson, I have a job that I believe you would be good at.” I thought to myself, “Ho boy, why is Al buttering me up?” We were told that the horticulture professor was looking for people to do a chainsaw carving of a tree in the prison yard that had died. That afternoon, Paul and I talked to the horticulture professor to see what he had in mind for the project. He asked us to put together a presentation of what we proposed to carve, and then he would submit it to the warden for approval. Paul had some experience in small wood carvings; I, on the other hand, had none. What I did have was a creative mind and years of experience with chainsaws. When Paul and I went out to look at the tree, I identified it as an American Elm—Latin name Ulmus americana. This type of tree is a hardwood and not the best for carving. We did a lot of research on hardwood carvings and, to be honest, I was intimidated by the amount of effort required for a project like this. From here, Paul and I bounced ideas off one another about what we thought could be carved into the tree. When considering a project like this, it is important to let the art-form speak. For example, we looked at the shape and size of the tree to see what would fit into it. Anything can be cut out of wood, but it might look forced and unnatural; however, allowing the shapes to align properly to the contour of the tree makes it feel warm and natural. A couple 4 P.M. COUNT
of ideas we discussed were a bear standing on his hind legs or a pack of wolves jumping up to get some food. However, the one we liked best was an eagle with a fish in its claws, landing in a nest to feed its young. To me, the eagle represents freedom and all that America stands for, while the eaglet symbolizes re-birth or the rise of the next generation. That night, Paul drew a rough sketch of the eagle on paper and carved a clay model eagleâ€™s head. I went to work on carving a small scale model of the eagle and fish out of wax, to submit to the professor and the warden. These 3-D models allowed everyone to see exactly what it was going to look like. There were three or four other people working on ideas of their own for the carving, but in the end, Paul and I won approval. This is where things got difficult. Paul and I are prisoners, both serving ten years in prison, and have no authority whatsoever. The warden and his staff were going to put a lot of trust in us; some of the tools were potentially deadly. This was an enormous project. The tree was thirty feet tall and five feet wide at the base. We were going to be working with numerous Bureau of Prisons departments. For example, the paint shop put up the scaffolding and we got the chainsaws from the garage. Therefore, everything had to be done in sequence. At first, I could feel tension from the different departments; they didnâ€™t know what to think of two inmates asking for help. But as time went on, I believe the department bosses started to trust us and got behind the eagle project. From there, we were given a budget for the special tools we needed; then came the litany of training classes. We took a fall-protection class, a chainsaw class, and a safety class; you name it and we took it. After a lot of logistics work in late September, we erected the scaffolding around the tree so that we could start carving. All the planning had been done and now we were going to see what we were made of. I felt liberated, happy, and ready to start the carving. The first day was
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devoted to figuring out the size of things, making chalk marks, and measuring repeatedly to make sure that the dimensions were right. There is no going back once something is cut incorrectly. At first, we had to find out how to work together and it wasn’t long before we got a pattern down. I ran the chainsaw, but for most of the time I could not see the other side of the cut. Therefore, Paul would stand on the opposite side of the tree and tell me when to stop. In the beginning, the work was slow, but it wasn’t long before we had a good system. Paul and I wanted to make the carving great for several reasons: there seemed to be a large number of prisoners that wanted to see the project fail; the staff had put trust in us, something not done easily in the BOP system; and the biggest reason was to push ourselves to become better artists. It took us four weeks to rough-cut the shape of the eagle and fish. Each day we could see more and more of our vision. It was nice to hear people walk by and say, “Oh, I see it…there is the head and the tail.” This spring, Paul will do all the fine detail work, as I will finally be back home with my family. The carving will be here for many years, and I hope that people enjoy looking at it as much as I did making it. I felt privileged to be involved and would do it again in a heartbeat.
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2016 HORTICULTURE STUDENT PROJECT
Photo by Brooks Hegge The hillside design has been a horticulture student project since the early 1990s. Each year the Landscape Design students submit their design ideas for selection by the warden. The number of plants in this design included 5300 individual plants from six plant varieties. The design for 2016 took on the Summer Olympic spirit and was even featured in a KDLT news story. Each year the community anticipates the design, which is usually coordinated to be in full bloom about the time of the Riverboat Days parade, which travels right past the design each year on Douglas Avenue.
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Pictured: Warden Hudgins, Post 186 Legion Commander Dr. Thompson, Associate Warden Heyward, inmate craftsman Patrick Keough, General Maintenance Foreman Hegge, and Post 186 Sergeant-At-Arms Mr. Rolfes In their fourth year working together, FPC Yankton and American Legion Post 186 have built a rocker to be raffled off as a fund raiser for the Legion’s scholarship program. “The program has been a very positive community service project for all parties. The institution is happy to assist local non-profits, and the inmates enjoy working on something that gives back to the community,” says Warden Hudgins. For the program to work, the Legion supplies the materials, and the institution recruits willing craftsmen to build the project. This year Mr. Keough volunteered to build the rocker and added several unique features that were not in the original plans. In fact, the plans were converted by the inmate craftsman from a pedal car into the rocker. Legion Commander Dr. Thompson states, “This will help support our Senior Scholarship Program that awarded three $1000 scholarships last year. This is a real plus for our Legion and our community, to have the opportunity to work with FPC Yankton.” When this publication went to print, almost $900 had been raised with the rocker you see above! 4 P.M. COUNT
Michael Patrick Murphy What makes up the physical and mental character of Michael Patrick Murphy? He is a well-seasoned individual (68 years of age) that loves a challenge and the adventure that accompanies it. Being able to tell many stories relating to past adventures is one of his gifts, the gift of gab. Now, instead of telling these stories verbally he would like to develop a talent of writing them down. Putting the delivery of these tales into a new format can be quite trying at times. Development of this skill is coming along slowly, but at least at a steady pace. This new dimension of communication will vicariously transform his soul, outward from within an imposed box of containment, to the living, breathing world of reality and printed text.
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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ Cowell’s beach, Santa Cruz, California Fourth of July weekend, 1965 I am sixteen years old The fog has slowly moved offshore and the sun is quickly warming up the white sand Today, I coolly arrive at the beach on my Schwinn cruiser bicycle Surfboard neatly tucked under my left arm I live only a half mile away so why even look for a parking spot for my car Why risk getting door dings from the tourists’ cars My cherry, 57 Chevy Nomad is worth the extra care Beach bunnies are showing up to work on their summer tan Three of the girls coming down the steps I know personally, Marilee, Cindy, and Penny The aroma of Coppertone, cocoa butter, and baby oil fills the air Cheap Japanese transistor radios blare songs by the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Jan and Dean The girls bend over to spread out their large multi-colored beach towels The view from the back or from the front, it is all good What, Penny wants me to put suntan oil on her back Yes, it is all about being in the right place at the right time This sixteen-year-old beach bum will accommodate her wishes After all, we are all friends and have known each other for years As Penny lies down on her stomach I go to work with my slippery chore Nervously unhooking the back of her bikini strap and rubbing on tanning oil like an expert Penny tells me how good it feels Believe me it feels great from where I am too 4 P.M. COUNT
What, Marilee and Cindy want the same treatment Okay, a boy has to do what a boy has to do Marilee, Cindy, and Penny are the three cutest girls on the beach We all attend Santa Cruz High School together Our junior year is approaching in September Life is great Few cares in the world What could teenagers in the sixties possibly worry about? Vietnam, in its early stages, seems so distant and unimportant Few of us realize what lies in store for this younger generation In the meantime, youthful exuberance lives on for my friends and me Jobs for teenagers are plentiful Grass and booze are easy to score Muscle cars are in and gas prices are thirty cents a gallon Now that I have finished oiling my three classmates, itâ€™s time for me to move on Time to grab my surfboard and head for the cool ocean water
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CHEWING GUM AND WALKING AT THE SAME TIME ON THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL When I was a youngster I loved chewing gum, could not get enough of it! Luckily, Wrigley’s gum company, during the late 1950s, chose Santa Cruz, CA for the location of a new Wrigley’s gum factory, the second of only two Wrigley’s production plants in the nation and world. Santa Cruz’s temperate Mediterranean weather, seaside location, and readily available work force made Santa Cruz a good choice for Wrigley’s expansion. While the site preparation and construction of the facility was taking place, I rode my bike out to the job site and watched the heavy equipment excavate and grade the dirt into piles and haul away the excess. Interesting events to entertain an eight-year-old boy like me who was used to pushing sand around a backyard sandbox using toy tractors and trucks. Later, when the workers poured the concrete foundation and floors, I got close enough and asked them what they were building. That was when they told me about the planned Wrigley’s gum factory. After a year of construction, the plant started making the gum. At this time, Wrigley’s produced only three flavors of gum, Juicy Fruit, Spearmint, and Doublemint. Shortly after production started, the plant management gave daily guided tours of the operation and showed all the steps involved in making, packaging and shipping the chewing gum. At the end of the tour around the plant, one of the company’s representatives handed out a gift box that contained three packs of gum, one pack each of Juicy Fruit, Spearmint, and Doublemint. I never imagined the amount of free gum, hometown pride, and memories that this gum 4 P.M. COUNT
factory provided me in the future. The gum factory was located about one mile from my house. Soon my curious friends and I discovered a treasure trove at the rear of the gum plant. Behind a tall chain-link security fence, rows and rows of paper barrels brimmed with discarded gum that did not meet the companyâ€™s strict quality standards. My friends and I just showed our little Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn faces at the storage areas gate and a worker would let us in. Then the real fun started. The person in charge of the gum barrels told us to help ourselves. We had our pick of anything that the barrels contained. Gum cut to the wrong width or length, too much or not enough of a sugar dusting or production overages that they did not need to wrap or package. The gumâ€™s less than acceptable condition for a finished product did not matter to us little beggars; it tasted great and cost nothing. This good fortune became a marathon of flavorful sticks of gum. One after another, we shoved pieces of gum into our mouths and chewed until the initial blast of sweetness and taste wore off. We then spit the used gum into a trash barrel. Immediately the process started again, more gum chewed and spit out, until our jaw muscles ached, our teeth squeaked, and our tongues had enough. It usually took about half an hour before my friends and I gave in and cried uncle. My jaw would hurt for a day or two after every gumchewing episode until I learned to curb my enthusiasm a bit. I realized that there would always be a continual supply of gum; no need to worry about the sticks of gum running out. Afterall, it was a gum factory and making gum they did, by the truck and railroad boxcar load. Something that I always remember is the aroma of the gum as it was being made. The sweet smell drifted down over my neighborhood when the breeze blew in from just the right direction. The smell of Juicy Fruit gum gave my friends and me the impulse to stampede towards the gum plant. Up we went towards the factory, along the narrow footpath next to the train tracks, to satisfy our insatiable 346
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craving. Juicy Fruit gum was always the flavor of choice for the neighborhood kids and me. As my friends and I became older, we outgrew the need to run towards the gum factory every time we smelled the gum’s aroma. However, we still occasionally passed by the storage yard of the gum plant while we were out target shooting or on a hunting expedition with our BB guns. Our shooting area was just outside the city limits, alongside the railroad tracks and the nearby agricultural fields. We looked for small birds and other little critters that were hiding from us. When we passed by the back of the gum factory, an older man named Tunes, who worked in the storage yard, would say hello. He would let us in the yard and again we had our fill of chewing gum. At this time in my life, a stick or three suited me just fine. I soon discovered that each paper wrapper on each stick of gum had the name, Santa Cruz, printed on the inside, identifying the plant where the gum was made. Quite often, I felt a sense of pride and smiled when I had taken out a stick of Wrigley’s gum, peeled back the paper wrapper, and saw the name of my hometown. The bright red letters on a white background, jumped right out at me. After high school and one year of college, I joined the military and traveled extensively around the United States and to distant foreign lands. During these travels, whenever I had a stick of Wrigley’s gum, I peeled back the gum wrapper and again saw the words, Santa Cruz, printed on the inside. This sight still brought a smile to my face. Many times during the Vietnam conflict, I was sent on missions to locate lost aircrew members around the Ho Chi Minh trail and other areas in eastern and central Laos, from a U.S. Air Force base in Thailand. The airbase was named Nakhon Phanom, also known as NKP in military circles. It was located near the western bank of the Mekong River, which separated Thailand from Laos. One minute a squad of Green Berets and I were on alert status, and anxiously waited for the order to go. We 4 P.M. COUNT
patiently sat on our butts, bullshitted and nervously chewed Wrigleyâ€™s gum as we hung together on a flight line in friendly Thailand. No smoking was allowed near aircraft because of the presence of fuel and explosives, so gum was the tasty distraction of choice. When the command for us to go was sent down from headquarters, an officer in charge of dispatching usually trotted out of the command post and yelled for us to get on the helicopter that was ready and waiting to take us across the border into Laos. Our captain grabbed a set of orders with the grid coordinates of our objective and signaled for us to head out. We would all double-time the hundred yards to the waiting chopper and pile onboard. No sooner than we were strapped in, we were airlifted by helicopter at one hundred miles per hour eastbound, over the half-mile wide and muddy Mekong River. Once over land, we hugged the terrain and flew at treetop level into the treacherous territory of supposedly neutral Laos. These excursions were usually a rescue and recovery mission, looking for lost U.S. aircrew members. During the conflict in Southeast Asia, many aircraft that flew into North Vietnam sustained battle damage and could not make it back across Laos to a friendly runway in Thailand. Aviators bailed out of their disabled aircraft into unfriendly territory east of the Mekong River. When our normal rescue operations could not find them, it was decided to call in a special search team with a tracking dog, which I was handling. Fritz, my K-9 partner, was an excellent tracker, probably the best around. Our helicopter came in low and slowed down to fifteen miles per hour over the drop zone and maneuvered ten feet above the ground. The helicopters that inserted us into Laos never stopped and hovered. Helicopter blades made distinctive clapping noises when hovering; this alerted any enemy troops that were in the area that something was going on in their backyard. We had to keep the helicopter moving to cover our drop-off locations. We stood one after another on the helicopterâ€™s skids, then jumped off one at a 348
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time and dropped to the ground below. My dog hated this part of the mission where I hung him for a moment by his long leash and then let him go when his rear paws touched the ground. Then it was my turn as I jumped the ten feet to the ground below and crash-landed next to him. My weapons during these operations were much more powerful than the BB guns I lugged around in my younger years. I carried a fully automatic and modified M-16 rifle with a short barrel and collapsible stock that was known as a GAU-5A with two 30 round clips, taped together with one of the business ends loaded into the rifle. I was at the ready to help fellow aviators get their ass out of the bush and back to their base safe and sound. Plus, I had all the ammunition I could possibly carry, tucked away in the multitude of baggy pockets in my camouflage jungle fatigues. We were all cocked, locked, and ready to rock. We thought we were the biggest badasses on the planet, an attitude that made a fighting man seem invincible. Adrenaline was up and our senses were on high alert. Jammed in with all these items of death and destruction were a few packs of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. I always found room somewhere for Wrigley’s chewing gum. We were not practice shooting or hunting small birds on these jungle excursions. I had my tracking dog Fritz that assisted in seeking out any lost aviator. My dog also came in handy to detect and alert us to anybody that was lurking in the underbrush. Sometimes we ran across a patrol of unfriendly searchers also looking for downed aircrew members and the situation got interesting in a hurry. Those encounters I choose to remain silent about at this time. It was a dangerous game of cat and mouse; sometimes we were the cat and sometimes we were the mouse. I preferred the former. On many operations, our rescue and recovery squad of eight cautiously walked across the muddy and slippery terrain on and surrounding the Ho Chi Minh trail. We were quite often at the eastern border of Laos near North Vietnam’s western boundary, not a great place to be for the 4 P.M. COUNT
faint of heart. Fortunately, we were young and full of piss and vinegar, ready for whatever came our way. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a major supply route that transported war material from North Vietnam through Laos and into South Vietnam for use by the enemy. The trail had many roads, side roads, caves, and bike trails that weaved up and around the Laotian countryside. Periodically we crossed the trail but only if my tracking dog was locked onto a strong scent. The main trail was an area stripped of trees and brush and a wasteland that looked like the surface of the moon with craters everywhere formed by the thousands of bombs that were dropped. Walking out into the open space was a very uncomfortable and unadvisable exercise, but sometimes we threw the dice and hoped for the best. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a bombed-out wasteland beyond compare with no real cover or concealment. The area was constantly being bombed by large B-52â€™s, strafed by gunships at night, or sprayed with agent orange to kill all the vegetation. These measures revealed and slowed down the movement of enemy forces and materials down the trail. The large bomb craters were half filled with rainwater, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other flying and biting insects. Sometimes clouds of the little bugs filled the air and were so thick we would often inhale them. A nice puff of tobacco smoke kept these flying critters at bay but there was no smoking on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Smoking cigarettes while in close proximity to unfriendly forces was not allowed. The smell of the drifting tobacco smoke gave the opposition advance warning of our position. We carried a few packs of Wrigleyâ€™s chewing gum as an option for smoking cigarettes, or to trade with the friendly Hmong native people in the area for information or food. This tasty pastime provided the nervous release for the tension that surrounded the operation. Stealth was mandatory in this deadly and unpredictable environment. Military hand signals such as fingers or fists held overhead while being pumped up and down or circled 350
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around, and direct eye contact were the only way we quietly communicated thoughts or orders; silence was the rule for all missions in enemy territory. Give our position away at the wrong time and we were history. We never wanted to be added to the list of MIA’s (missing in action) or KIA’s (killed in action). Most of my comrades knew of Santa Cruz and its great reputation as a surf, college, and party town. During relaxing times, I reminded them of the printed Santa Cruz name on the gum wrapper every time they pulled a stick of gum out of its pack. I also bragged a bit about my neighborhood, and the history of the local Wrigley’s gum factory. Contagious small talk and reminiscing among the group temporarily projected all of us in the squad away from the sticky situation and back to our roots. This name-dropping ritual by me brought back fond memories of my past youth and many memorable experiences at and around the Wrigley’s gum plant. It also reminded me of where I hailed from and where I would return to, if I survived, when my tour of duty was completed. From the other members of the squad, my name-dropping quite often initiated the middle finger salute in my direction for my cocky attitude. That was okay; they still chewed and enjoyed the tasty Wrigley’s gum from Santa Cruz. It always comforted me to know that no matter where I happened to be in the world, peaceful or dangerous, I could get a taste of my hometown. Just a simple stick of Wrigley’s gum did the trick.
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FROM PAPERBOY TO SOLDIER In the early 1960s, most young boys had some kind of work that they did to earn spending money. In my neighborhood, a large combined paper route kept three of us boys occupied on the weekday late afternoons and Sunday mornings. My friends from just a few houses up the street, brothers Vince and Pepper, and I ran the operation as a team. Three hundred and sixty papers methodically tossed one at a time, by hand, from a moving bicycle. Each of us had roughly one hundred and twenty papers to deliver. Get the paper as close to the front steps or side of the lawn as possible, near the pathway between driveway and front door. We received two cents apiece for the weekday edition and four cents apiece for the heavyweight Sunday issue. Good money in the days of five-cent candy bars. Vince was the oldest of us by three years and ran the show. At the time I worked the route, I was between the age of twelve and fourteen. Upon Vinceâ€™s direction, we learned how to break apart the bales of papers, fold them and put on the rubber bands. On rainy days, we were also required to slip a plastic sleeve over the newspaper. Speed and coordination were important to keep things moving along. Our bicycles had heavy metal racks over both the front and rear tires, which we designed and installed ourselves. On these racks were the carrying bags that held extra newspapers, about forty papers per bag, twenty per side. Over my head and hanging down over my chest and back was the bag holding the newspapers ready to throw. Once the front was empty, I then spun the bag around and emptied the other full side. With a full bag hung on me, and the two bags on the racks in reserve, I had lots of moneymaking potential. Times change and so did my methods of making money. Vince graduated from high school and joined the U.S. 352
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Army in 1964. Pepper went to work in a grocery store, and I went to work in a pancake house where I washed dishes and cleaned off tables. For me the pay increased and the plentiful food tasted great. Life moved on, we all got older and moved apart into our own realms of evolving friends and different hobbies. Vince, who had moved on away from the sleepy little coastal town of Santa Cruz, CA, was but a memory of my past childhood. The younger and older kids did not hang around with each other. The difference of just a year or two separated the ages into different classes in school and social life. On a warm sunny day in November 1965, Thanksgiving week, while mowing the grass in the front yard of my house, the paperboy approached on his bicycle, throwing his papers to their designated spots. I stopped mowing the lawn and coaxed him to see if he could hit me on the run. I took off running across the grass and he tried to lead me, but came up short and the paper fell well behind me, next to my push mower. The paperboy and I laughed and he continued down the street. Oh well, I thought, paperboys are not as good as they used to be. I walked back to the paper lying on the ground, bent over, picked it up, sliding off the rubber band and eagerly ready to read the latest headlines. The headlines struck me like a bolt of lightning, followed by a cold feeling of disbelief in my heart. My neighborhood friend and fellow paperboy Vince would not be around anymore. Vince died in South Vietnam on November 17, 1965, in a famous battle at landing zone “Albany” in the Ia Drang Valley located in the country’s Central Highlands. Vince was the first local young man to lose his life in the conflict overseas in South Vietnam. Santa Cruz would lose three additional young men during the duration of the war. All were friends or acquaintances of mine, as Santa Cruz was a small and tightly knit community. A large picture of Vince, in his U.S. Army uniform, stared back at me from the front page of the newspaper. Just 4 P.M. COUNT
a few days before, he had died in the tall elephant grass of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Now as I stood in the short grass of a newly mowed lawn, I was shocked at his sacrifice. I clutched the newspaper with Vince’s picture in my motionless, limp, numb right arm. Four houses down the street was Vince’s family’s small farm and house. On this day, I received a harsh reality check on how suddenly a life can disappear. Vince’s cheerful young face on the newspaper’s front page would never grow old, his footsteps never be heard again. God bless Vince and all the other young men and women that died in Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, five years to the day from his passing, I ended up in Southeast Asia, a hundred miles to the northwest of the site where Vince had died in combat. However, on this day I walked through the jungle and elephant grass of Laos and not South Vietnam.
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RESCUE ME It was a beautiful day in early February of 1985 in Santa Cruz, CA. Santa Cruz is a small seaside town on the central California coast, noted for its beaches and numerous surfing locations. On this particular day, the surf was really up and cranking. Mitchellâ€™s Cove, which breaks on the outer reef only during a large swell, was in great form. To the delight of local surfers, monstrous waves spawned by a late winter storm three thousand miles away in the Gulf of Alaska steadily marched towards shore. Ten-foot waves were breaking, with only a dozen people lined up in the break to take their turn catching an awesome ride. The weather was clear and the air temperature was a pleasant sixty degrees. Fresh, crisp coastal air, heavy with the aroma and taste of the nearby ocean, surrounded me. Seabirds soared and hovered in the uplifting air currents created by the onshore wind against the tall, sheer vertical cliffs. It was one of those special days that make a person appreciate being in such unique surroundings. I decided to take an excursion in my pickup truck along West Cliff Drive adjacent to the shoreline and surf areas to observe the wave riding. Many other onlookers were also milling around, checking out the sights and sounds of the unusually massive surf. As I drove near an area of steep cliffs and large offshore rocks the size of houses, I noticed a gathered crowd. About a dozen people stood looking over the edge of a forty-foot-tall section of cliff and down into the water below. Out of curiosity, I parked my truck, scurried over to the crowdâ€™s location, and tried to see what was catching their attention. At the base of this forty-foot cliff, struggling against the turbulent, deep, cold water was a drifting surfer. He had lost his surfboard and been swept into a dangerous zone with no escape in sight. He was being relentlessly recycled between large rocks, swirling currents, and the face of the slippery 4 P.M. COUNT
cliff. Each breaking wave was pulling him underwater. Even with the added buoyancy of his thick winter wetsuit, the breaking waves were pulling him underwater and holding him down for ten to fifteen seconds at a time. Something needed to be done quickly to end his plight; time was not on the side of the exhausted young man fighting for his life in the turbulent ocean below me. Fortunately, there was a cliff rescue kit in a cabinet mounted on a large pole fifty feet away near the roadway. The local fire department has these rescue kits spaced at about quarter-mile intervals along these treacherous sections of cliff. I dashed over and lifted the red lever that secured the door, which broke a plastic seal that automatically alerted the fire department. Within the cabinet was a floating life ring and approximately one hundred feet of half-inch rope. Snatching the equipment from its enclosure, I hustled back over to the edge of the treacherous cliff. I anxiously looked for the swimmer, easily spotting his bobbing head and thrashing arms against the sea foam of the incoming waves and backwash. He was still hanging on, trying to survive the onslaught. I carefully pitched the life ring to his position and shouted for him to grab it and hold on tight. I then commanded the dozen spectators to grab the extra length of rope and to pull when I signaled them. The rescue was now underway. As a team, we started pulling the distressed swimmer slowly through the outgoing current and towards the bottom of the jagged, mossy cliff. Luckily, there was now a lull in the waves; it was a promising sign that rescue might be possible. At this time, my primary concern was that of the young manâ€™s present physical condition. His ongoing ordeal below in the forty-five-degree water was obviously testing his endurance. Would he be able to muster up the willpower, strength, and energy required for the long and arduous ascent up this foreboding obstacle? Valid concerns, which helped to motivate a quick execution of this rescue. As we pulled the swimmer near the bottom of the cliff, 356
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I yelled at him to hang onto the life-ring and not to let go under any circumstances. Little did he know that from my vantage point high above the water I saw a large set of waves rapidly approaching. He reached through the life-ring with his right arm and wrapped the rope twice around his right hand. Not exactly what I wanted but no time for new instructions. We needed to move forward with what we had in place. I stationed myself at the outer edge of the cliff and leaned slightly out, supported from behind by those dozen or so people helping to hold the rope taut. My precarious position provided the rope and victim a clear path upwards, away from the sharp, jagged edges of the sandstone cliff ’s face. The rope crew’s steady progress as they held and pulled on the rope was flawless. The coordination was superb. We all worked together in a determined manner. We were definitely on a mission that needed to succeed on the first attempt. Our slow yet deliberate pace was advancing the young man up the cliff towards safety one handful and pull of the rope after another. The large set of waves was now preparing to break just offshore the cliff. The temporary but timely lull in the ocean’s assault was quickly ending. As the suspended surfer was halfway up the vertical face of the cliff, the whitewater of the first of the newly arrived breaking waves impacted the cliff ’s face. Would our suspended hitchhiker be above the impact zone of these powerful waves? It was going to be close; we kept our steady pull, hoping for the best. The first big wave hit and miraculously the swimmer was just out of harm’s way. Heavy spray and an upward rush of wind from this wave’s collision with the cliff drenched me thoroughly. We all hung on. This team was not going to surrender, and neither was the ocean. As the victim steadily left the water behind and came closer to safety, I could see that the rescue rope was starting to cut into the right hand that he had wrapped it around. He was slowly leaving the violent scene beneath him and was 4 P.M. COUNT
nearing deliverance. He was now close enough for me to get ready to grasp him under his armpit and across his back. I told the crew anchoring the tail end of the rope, upon my command, to pull the victim and me back and away from the edge when I had a solid grasp under and around his left arm. I now had hold of his upper body, and as planned, the helpers in one swift movement pulled us back onto safer ground. The dramatic rescue took less than ten minutes. The young man, lying on his back, stared skyward, exhausted but visibly relieved to be out of his dire, lifethreatening predicament. I told him to breathe normally and relax. I informed him that the local fire department would be arriving soon. Gently, I untangled the imbedded rope from around his right hand, exposing his wounds. Not an easy job as he had a Vulcan death grip that did not want to let go. There was no indication of pain or whimpering from the rescued young man as the rope finally worked itself free. The rescue party gathered around the young man as they went through a ritual of high fives followed by a chorus of “thataboy” for a job well done. In addition, a larger crowd of rubberneckers had assembled during the rescue and praised the successful completion of the near impossible task. The spent surfer laboriously sat up and thanked all of us. Without warning, he threw up some of the vast amounts of saltwater that he swallowed during his battle for survival. Among the crowd of newly arrived onlookers, a young couple recognized the surfer. They bolted out of the crowd and ran towards him. The surfer appeared to try to regain his composure during this emotional reunion, but he was still vomiting saltwater, looking pale and shaken. The fire engine’s siren, heard rapidly approaching in the distance, meant that the young surfer would receive professional help shortly. My involvement was finished, rescue over, time for me to make my quiet exit. I thanked and said goodbye to the helpers who performed admirably. I walked back to my truck and as I reached the roadway, the fire truck and paramedics pulled up. I got their 358
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attention, pointed to the rescued surfer, and advised the first firefighter out of the truck that the young man was all in one piece but the lacerations on his hand might need some attention. All the firefighters exited the fire engine and hustled towards the victim, carrying their assortment of medical and other equipment bags. Upon reaching my truck, parked a short distance away, I still had a good vantage point of the rescue scene. Casually leaning against my pickup truck, I glanced overhead at the pelicans and seagulls soaring overhead on the uplifting air, oblivious to the life and death struggle that had just taken place in the ocean below. I never knew the young manâ€™s name or ever saw him again. Perhaps in the future our paths will again cross. If not, the memories of that miraculous rescue will no doubt live on in the minds of all who were involved.
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SNAKE CHARMER The year was 1970 and the location was Korat, Thailand. I was twenty-one years old and a member of the U.S. Air Force. My assignment in the military was that of a K-9 dog handler that provided protection and security for the assets of Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, manned and operated by the U.S. Air Force. This airbase was home to the 388th and 555th fighter/ bomber squadrons that were engaged in the air war during the Vietnam conflict. Sixty F-4 Phantoms for fighter and bombing roles, and two-seater F-105 Wild Weasels, which hunted out and destroyed enemy surface to air missile (SAM) sites, made up the complement of the fighter/ bombers at Korat. In addition, Korat had a squadron of older EC-121 four- engine piston-powered Constellations for radio and intelligence interception. Rounding out the roll call of aircraft was the B-66 electronic warfare platform that jammed radar signals and helped other aircraft escape detection. My primary responsibility was that of a dog trainer and handler, patrolling my designated area with my K-9 friend on the outside perimeter of the airbase, to detect and neutralize unfriendly intruders. My sentry dog and I walked the assigned post from sundown to sunrise. The perimeter of the airbase contained various types of terrain and vegetation to deal with, because cover and concealment varies with each post. I dealt with grasslands, jungle, and swampy zones mired in muck. I was armed with the latest in light weaponry, a compact version of the M-16 called a GAU-5A, and communication equipment consisted of a two-way radio worn on my hip to keep me tuned in to the command post and the current situation. In addition, I carried two hand grenades with the spoons taped down to minimize accidental activation, two slap flares for overhead illumination, and a couple of razor- sharp survival 360
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knives. My comrades and I thought we were badass, a required attitude to tackle adversity and prevail. This type of personality coupled with youthful exuberance kept my spirits up. I did my job well and enjoyed it. During night patrol, I discovered that snakes also came out by the dozens during the hours of darkness. These snakes hunted, fed, and chased their mates in rituals right under my feet. Pythons, cobras, vipers, and banded kraits were found with little effort everywhere. Pythons and kraits hunted around the swampy and wet areas looking for and feeding on frogs and other amphibians. Cobras tended to be in the grassy zones where they nested and fed on small rodents. Vipers loved the jungle where they hung from the lower limbs of trees and their green skin blended in quite well, looking like a twining vine. Most of my fellow dog handlers didnâ€™t like snakes or anything to do with the hissing, biting, or squirming creatures. Myself, I decided to hunt them down and capture them. I had already built a cage for the larger, soon-to-becaught pythons. I had no interest whatsoever in hunting down the tricky, highly venomous, unpredictable, and hardto-control vipers or kraits. The U.S. Army had a base adjacent to ours called Camp Friendship, doing research with cobra venom and appreciated any size cobras, large or small, that I could provide. The U.S. Army kept the cobras alive in individual cages and milked their venom to use in research for an antivenom formula. In addition, a number of snake charmers in the nearby town of Korat said that they could use the cobras for their attraction of pitting mongoose versus cobra. All I had to do was provide the snake handlers with smallto-medium-sized cobras for their show. For this, the snake charmers and the first class Korat hotel and restaurant where they performed provided me with a free Australian beefsteak dinner, a bacon-wrapped filet mignon with all the trimmings, and a quart bottle of ice-cold Singhai beer, brewed in Thailand. Just for furnishing a couple of frisky cobras to the charmers. Catching the non-venomous but large and powerful 4 P.M. COUNT
pythons was easy. I picked out a spot next to the watery part of a swamp and, using the slight reflection of the distant perimeter lighting of the airbase, I waited to see a stirring motion at the waterâ€™s edge. This indicated that a python was searching for or feeding on pond critters. Next move was to get closer and survey the situation. Once the python was unmistakably identified by using my flashlight, I made my move to capture the large snake. Without additional help, I was able to handle the smaller pythons that were eight feet long or less. The larger snakes required a team of two people, one helper who grabbed the tail while I put my hands behind the head and gripped down firmly. The python really came alive once I grabbed on, trying to bite me and hissing from deep in its throat. During this operation, my dog was patiently and obediently sitting by, watching the effort. Now the real fun would start as the wrestling match was on. Nearby I had a light canvas laundry bag that would eventually contain the python. I had the snake by both the tail and the head; luckily, I had most of the control over this smaller snake. A python is strong; trying to control one is like arm wrestling a strong man. Into the open, large laundry bag went the snake, tail first followed by the rest of the squirming body; then I thrust the head in and down and let go. I then quickly pulled the drawstrings tight, wrapped, and secured the top of the bag with the remaining length of drawstring. In the morning when the relief truck picked me up from my location, some of my workmates got excited and wanted to know what I caught during the night. A few of the other dog handlers got as far away from the bagged snake as they could. Upon reaching our dog kennels, I went out to the cage we had built and released the latest acquisition into its new environment. The python cage was first class, twenty feet long by ten feet wide with an eight-foot ceiling. Tree limbs, rocks, and hiding places were carefully designed into the wire-mesh structure for easy observation and cleaning. At one time, I had as many as eight pythons in the cage. Occasionally 362
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I released a snake that had been captive for a couple of months back into the wild, getting it back to nature. Something that was quite unusual was our method of feeding the pythons. I did not know what I was doing but by sheer luck, I discovered that the pythons would eat live food while in captivity. Experts said that food that was alive would not work and that I would have to force-feed them their nutrition by holding their jaws apart and stuffing the food down their throat or they would die. At the local outdoor market, I purchased a dozen small rabbits and quail for five cents apiece. All that I needed to do was raise the rabbits, quail, and snakes together and when the pythons got hungry, one of the quails or rabbits would disappear. When a quail stood comfortably on the head of a python, which was obviously not hungry at that moment, it was a strange sight. Now came the adventures and dangers of my corralling a cobra that does not want to be captured. Catching a poisonous and energetic cobra brought forth a completely new respect for the snake-catching game. Cobras were aggressive, territorial, and confronted me head-on, to drive me away from their habitat. My place of choice for cobra catching was the U.S. Air Forceâ€™s secure munitions storage area about five miles from the airbase where bombs, missiles and ammunition were kept. The perimeter outside the chain link security fencing was clear of all trees and shrubs for about a quarter of a mile, to ensure that anybody trying to wreak havoc on the thousands of tons of bombs and other explosives had no cover. Grasses one to two feet tall took hold and dominated the wide, flat landscape. This uniform cover of grass gave the cobra an advantage for both concealment and for hunting its food. The cobraâ€™s advantage created a disadvantage for me and my dog while transiting the grassy area. Stepping on a cobra or having my dog bitten by one was the least of my wishes. I carried anti-venom for my K-9 but I had none for myself. Go figure, the dogâ€™s health was more important than mine. Interesting enough though, I felt the same way towards my furry companion who alerted me to danger and 4 P.M. COUNT
kept me safe and alive. However, the aggressive nature of a cobra was used to my advantage. I discovered that a cobra would seek out my dog and me and rapidly close in on us in the tall grass. At approximately ten feet distant from us, the cobra stopped, rose up, and inflated his hood, while hissing and challenging our presence. The first time I was confronted with such a display I was afraid, and left the area quickly. After a few more intimidating encounters, I developed a method of trying to capture these cobras. I came up with a simple but ingenious idea of being able to control the snake. It involved using a length of parachute suspension cord, about ten to twelve feet long, tied to a heavy lug nut from one of our military trucks. When the cobra charged and stood up in front of me, I swung the lug nut at the end of the cord around and over my head. While I moved from side to side to confuse the cobra, I then took a few steps towards the snake and lowered the revolving line to make contact with the cobra. If everything went as planned, the line wrapped tightly around the snake’s upright body, just below the head. Once satisfied that I had snagged the snake’s neck, now came the tricky part. I pulled the cobra towards me and slammed its head into the ground, temporarily stunning the snake. Now, dangerous and potentially lethal steps needed addressing. Holding the stunned cobra’s head down with a long forked stick, I grabbed the cobra behind the head. The cobra whipped its tail around and rolled its body in contortions while hissing loudly. No time to waste, or become careless.The cobras were tough and recovered from this slight dizzy spell rapidly. My light canvas laundry bag was at my side, awaiting the arrival of the cobra. Again, just like slipping a python into a laundry bag, its tail went in first followed by a precise and quick thrust of the head into the deep recesses of the bag. I hurriedly closed the bag, and then doubly secured the drawstrings. Extra cautions were needed from this point on. I never exposed myself or anybody else to the bag’s surface; a cobra would be waiting to strike anything that disturbs the bag. Already 364
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I saw wet spots of venom on the bag from the cobraâ€™s futile efforts at defense. The cobra was obviously in a sour mood. My immediate supervisor and the U.S. Army doctors working on the venom experiments gave me special transportation away from the munitions storage area when I indicated to the command post that I had captured a cobra. To keep the secret of my results I radioed that a water buffalo had wandered onto my post and I had chased him away; this signaled my need for special transportation at sunrise. No cobra in a bag was carelessly intermingled in the back of a crowded relief truck full of dog handlers and their curious dogs. My catching of cobras was never approved by any of the higher-ups, mainly due to the danger involved. However, my venomous snake adventures were tolerated by my lower and immediate command structure. If I was willing to take the risk, they were willing to look the other way. If a cobra accidentally bit me, it was considered just a hazard of patrolling a snake-infested area. After all, the U.S. Army needed the cobras for their research, and for this effort, my immediate supervisor and I got carte blanche on the U.S. Armyâ€™s executive aircraft throughout the region. I flew to Bangkok, Thailand anytime that I had the desire and time off, and if the U.S. Army had space available on its aircraft. Many times I hitched a ride and rubbed elbows with high-ranking officers such as colonels and generals. I look back at the past adventures and challenges that I took part in with a sense of pride and fulfillment. I always lived life to its fullest and had never been a spectator wishing I had the fortitude to dare myself into an exciting venture performed by others. My deep-down philosophy was and still is: do not merely watch it happen or let it happen; truly make it happen.
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Alfredo Ascension Alfredo Ascencion is a father of two and is an inmate at FPC Yankton.
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PHOTOGRAPHIC EYES I’ve been longing to be with you, I need to get this through. Don’t matter what you say, ‘cause I swear it’s the truth. I stare at your beautiful eyes, while sitting in this prison of time. I’m fighting to find my way back into your day. So let us find each other again; let me be your lover and friend. Will you please take my hand and be my photographic friend. I wanted to live like Bonnie and Clyde; now I see that I was stupid and high. And now I dream of a life where I could’ve been that loving guy. So let us find each other again, let me be your lover and friend and let us create a happily-ever-after photographic end.
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POISONED MIND As the world goes by, you keep living a lie, and losing your mind along with your irreplaceable life. You’re out there using, created an illusion, searching for love in a guy who’s abusing. You’re Injecting your mind with sadistic lies, and now you see a false reality through your restless eyes. You’ve become good friends with the Angel of Death and with his help, earned you a place in The Faces Of Meth. Poisoned mind, poisoned life, I can’t believe I’m saying goodbye.
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THE CAR SALESMAN It was Tuesday afternoon. I glanced up from my book and looked up at the time—2:47 p.m. Class was really dragging. I went back to reading “The Things They Carried.” My professor for the creative writing class in front of me turned around and asked me, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you working on your story? The deadline is next week!” To be honest, I really did not want to write this story. As you will come to see, what I am about to share with you can bring up some pretty heavy emotions. I live this story every day, which is hard enough, but now I have to sit and write out the full narration of the very thing I’m trying to move on from. I never imagined I would experience a Tuesday like this, sitting in a prison writing class surrounded by other inmates with my own ID number on my khaki shirt, khaki pants, and black boots. I grew up in Nebraska and have fallen a long way from the loving parents that did everything they could to help their son. My upbringing was not perfect, but it wasn’t a rough one either. We were your average middle-class family trying to live the American dream. Throughout my adolescence, I had dreams of becoming someone in life. I imagined going to college or something, but I was never really sure what I wanted to do with my life. Even so, it was still a huge surprise to me when I became a car salesman. I had never imagined that I would be selling cars for a living. You see, growing up I was a shy kid. At first one might think I had just chosen the wrong profession, but I learned quickly that I was actually quite a natural with people. After experimenting with a few other jobs, I landed a position as a salesman at a small successful car lot in Grand Island, NE. The place used to be an old Sonic drive-in restaurant and then over time was converted into a car lot. The location is great. You can grab some grub next door at 4 P.M. COUNT
Tommy’s restaurant. You can buy some life insurance across the street or next door get tatted up by Smoking Joe or Lil Joe at Smoking Joe’s Tattoo Shop. Or if you’re feeling lucky, you can head one block behind us, over to Fonner Park Race Track, and place a bet on the ponies. I thought I had finally made a positive change in my life, but then times started to get rough. Sales started to plummet faster than the stock market, which meant I was earning very little money. Actually, that’s an understatement; I was broke as a joke. To pile on even more stress, my mom, dad, and sister had just moved back from California. We were all living in my one bedroom apartment—talk about bad timing. And the worst part was that I couldn’t do much for them. I started to feel desperate. And we all know, desperate times call for desperate measures. I had recently done some time for smuggling money into Mexico, exactly $199,980; twenty bucks short of the amount I was supposed to be delivering. I had driven a black Lincoln Town Car to Sonora, Mexico and got busted at the border. I pled guilty to smuggling cash and received a federal sentence of a year and a day. I had served my time at Englewood, CO and had just finished the five years of probation. Well here I was again, in dire need of cash. I thought this gig of selling cars was my escape route out of my money problems, but I was wrong. I decided the fastest way to earn cash was to get my hands dirty. I made a pledge that I was only going to do this for a little while. Just long enough to help myself out and get my family out of this mess. I wanted to have things and wanted money, lots of it. I wanted to give my daughter everything she ever wanted. I won’t go into all the details of how or when I started to get involved in the dope game; all you need to know is that I made the decision and started dealing dope. And by dope, I mean crystal meth. I had never used meth myself, but I started to deal it. At first the process was slow, but soon after I got the hang of dealing, the cash started to pour in. I 370
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couldn’t believe how much money I was making. I started to pay all of my bills and started really helping out my family. I started to give my daughter anything and everything she wanted. After I had taken care of the important things in life, I began to treat myself. I bought cars, clothes, watches, shoes, and dined out every day. I ordered prostitutes from the internet when my girlfriends weren’t in the mood. And I spent more money on a few of my favorite things to do: smoke weed and snort Colombian cocaine. I thought life was finally great. And I thought I was being smart about it too. During the days, I was your smiling, friendly car salesman. I was also your friendly, smiling dope dealer. I answered sales inquiries and set up car loans on one phone, and on another phone, I was setting up dope deals. When someone asked questions about my spending, I simply told them I was earning great commissions. But even with all the money I was making and the fun I was having, I was still missing something. I felt empty. My love life was never the greatest. I had hooked up with several women, but I would end up walking away or being dumped. One of my girlfriends broke up with me because she told me that I was conceited; go figure. And after that, I swore I wouldn’t get into another relationship. All that changed when I met Keylea. It was late one evening, the sun had started to set, and the street lights were coming on. I was still at the car lot working a deal on a Cadillac STS. After closing the deal I was ready to close up shop, but I still had one more job to do—to sell some dope. Finally, after that last errand, I was done for the day. My ex-wife called me, and wanted to hang out and have some drinks. I said sure. Then she mentioned that she had a friend with her. At first I was a bit hesitant, because I don’t like for random people to come over, but she convinced me and told me not to worry. My ex-wife and her friend arrived later that night. I had just arrived home, set a pack of Budweiser on the kitchen table, and heard someone 4 P.M. COUNT
knocking on the front door. I anxiously walked over, opened the door, and saw Keylea standing in the door way. I fell head over heels at first sight. She was tall with light brown skin, long black hair, and a beautiful face, eyes, and smile. I could see the form of her body under the blue jeans and soccer jersey she was wearing, and I was like, wow, she’s hot. Keylea and my ex-wife came inside and we began popping Budweiser bottles. Then hours later my ex-wife started to be a buzzkill wanting to go home, but her friend Keylea had other plans. She sat next to me, still clenching a bottle of Budweiser in her hands, leaned over and whispered a question: could she stay the night? I looked at her, speechless, and nodded yes. This is where things got a bit awkward. Keylea looked over at my ex-wife and for a moment I thought my ex was going to flip out, because she started to give us the stare. Keylea nervously asked her if it was OK if she stayed a little longer. I thought “Oh crap,” this could get ugly. But after what seemed to be an eternity my ex-wife reluctantly just huffed, “Whatever” and went home. It was just me and Keylea with the alcohol flowing in our blood and the marijuana fog in our minds. I knew she was going to be mine and I was going to make her mine. With my friendly smile and my charm, I turned to her and asked her if she wanted the couch or the bed. This very question is what I used to set the hook. She looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s very sweet of you.” She paused and then said, “How about we cuddle, instead.” I don’t need to tell you what happened next, but let’s just say that after we found my bedroom she never left. My life was now complete. I was making money. I was able to do many of the things that I wasn’t before. My family and daughter were now living comfortably. I was now in love with a beautiful girl and she was also in love with me. I was imagining we were your modern day Bonnie and Clyde. I was crazy about money, power, sex, love, adrenaline, weed, and cocaine. And she had similar ambitions and tastes. But I soon discovered there was one difference—she had 372
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been hooked on crystal meth, the very same shit that I was dealing. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told me she was a recovering addict. My heart sank when I heard this. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to continue the relationship. I came up with the idea of keeping my dope dealings a secret. She doesn’t have to know…right? So I decided to continue with my profession as a dope dealer. The relationship continued, and one night as we were being intimate, I looked at her said, “I’m gonna put a baby in you.” She just responded with, “OK, babe.” A few weeks later she was pregnant. Then we found out we were going to be having a boy. Life was going great, or so I thought. Our days of forming a family and enjoying the good life came to screeching halt when I got nabbed by the FBI in the fall of 2015. By now, you might have had an idea how this story was going to end. I got busted. Lost all the money I had made. I was soon to be sentenced to an unknown amount of time and would be in federal prison doing time, away from my family and kids. The story doesn’t end there, though. After getting busted, I was released out on pre-trial. I came clean and told my pregnant girlfriend that I had just been busted on a drug charge. It was even tougher having to explain to her that I had been dealing crystal meth. Now things really took a turn for the worst. I was humiliated, had lost my job, had lost trust amongst the people I cared about, and soon went broke after paying for a lawyer. While dealing with all of my mess, I was unaware that Keylea had relapsed and went back to using crystal meth. I was so busy swimming in my own self-pity that I became blind to what was happening in front of me. I was then hired on to a Ford dealership as a sales advisor; they were unaware of my circumstances. As I worked at the Ford place, I began to wonder if things would have been different for me if I had made a job change a lot sooner, because it seemed that in the midst of all of this, I was receiving new opportunities left and right. I had even received a job offer from a local State Farm Agency after 4 P.M. COUNT
I sold an F-150 to an agent. He was so impressed with the way I handled the sale that he wanted me to work for him. It was very tough for me handle the chaos of my life during this time. My mind always wondering: What if? Then, On January 29th, my son Marciel Elias Ascencion was born into the world. I can’t explain how I felt the day I held my little boy in my arms. I had a rush of wonderful emotions, but mostly I was overwhelmed with thoughts of uncertainty. I was scared of the future ahead of us. Months later, one especially bad night, Keylea and I got into a fight and the cops were called. Since I hadn’t touched her, she ended up being the one who got taken away to jail. It was Mother’s Day. It was going to be our first Mother’s Day together as a family. It was later that I learned that Keylea had in fact relapsed again and was using meth. After getting out of jail, she admitted to me about the recent drug use. We were experiencing the worst life we could have imagined. And things still weren’t about to get better. Next came the process of my court proceedings. At the end, I received a seventy-eight month sentence and was released until I was to report to prison on June 29th. I didn’t know how bad things really were or maybe you can say that I choose to look the other way and bury my head in the ground. When I arrived at Federal Prison Camp Yankton, I was still naïve about the whole situation of what I had done to my life. I made myself believe that things were not that bad, that somehow things would be all right. But the reality was this would be the start of me learning just how much the dope game really ruins lives. I had never seen the ugly truth, because I had never had someone very close to me be impacted by the potential destruction of the dope game. Through Keylea, I saw the effects of crystal meth use and addiction. And I realized that I had been making this shit available to people out in the world. How many people out there like her have fallen to this evil drug? How many mothers like her are out on the streets? How many are doing anything to get their hands on this drug? How many 374
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are not able to be a loving and caring mother because of this evil drug? I wasn’t worried about the consequences of my “salesmanship.” I justified my choices by telling myself it was the consumer’s choice whether they would buy a car or dope from me. The truth: all I cared about was the money. It wasn’t until I saw how the stuff that I was selling really affected the person closest to me and the repercussions that came with my dope dealings that I woke up to the full truth.
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THE WORD “LOVE” When I think of the word love, I think of illustrated images of Valentine’s Day and images of Cupid creeping up on Bugs Bunny, striking the white cotton tail of Bugs with a love arrow. In Webster’s Dictionary, love is defined as: “strong affection, warm attachment, a score of zero in tennis.” By now, you might have an idea where I’m going with this; if not, please allow me to further elaborate on the word. Love can be explained; it can be painted on a blank canvas, or beautifully composed in a song. In reality love comes within ourselves; love is the foundation that makes us humanly alive, a feeling that includes many other feelings, acceptance of self, others and divine life. The mind defines; the heart interprets. The word…Love.
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PARTNERSHIP WITH MOUNT MARTY COLLEGE
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The college program at FPC Yankton has been on ongoing partnership since 1989. Since 1991, when the first graduates earned their Associate of Arts degree, more than 360 degrees and numerous Undergraduate Certificates have been conferred. At FPC Yankton, the students have the opportunity to participate provided they have enough time to complete a degree program. They have the ability to earn Associate of Arts degrees in Accounting, Business Administration, and Horticulture. Undergraduate Certificates in Business Management and Fundamental Horticulture are obtainable for those students not here long enough for the full degree program. This yearâ€™s graduates, pictured above, include one Bachelor Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and eleven Accounting and Business Administration majors.
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2017 NEA WRITING AND PUBLISHING CLASS
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4 P.M. Count is an annual publication from the Federal Bureau of Prisons featuring the work of Federal Prison Camp Yankton creative writing...
Published on Jan 10, 2018
4 P.M. Count is an annual publication from the Federal Bureau of Prisons featuring the work of Federal Prison Camp Yankton creative writing...