Note #1: This is a highly personal diary but it touches on some important issues like education, prison reform, the drug war, the death penalty, war and peace, and man’s inhumanity to man. To the extent that it is self-indulgent, I beg your forgiveness.
Note #2: I’ve been reluctant to post this for both personal and political reasons. The personal will become obvious as you read, the political being all that’s going on right now such as the police state bullshit in MN, the repub convention and their ‘oh we’re so serious about governance’ choice of Palin for VeePee. But it occurs to me that there’s always going to be a lot going on, so I probably should just post it now that it’s not quite ready.
Part I – Words Are Like Poison
I believe that we all have a story to tell...here’s mine.
I wrote about growing up as an Army brat in An American Tale.
Life as a military dependent was a fascinating way to grow up and contributed much to the formation of my personal point of view. I would take nothing for the value I have derived from my interactions with other cultures. It taught me that deep connections are often made between profoundly different people, suggesting what has become a theme in my life – that we are all more alike than we are different.
My father retired from the Army in 1964 and we moved from Paris, France to Huntsville, Alabama – which gave me a severe case of culture shock.
My school in Huntsville didn’t compare well to the schools I had attended for military dependents. Most of the teachers, with some few exceptions, tended to be plodding and pedantic, predictable and boring, taking tedium to whole new levels. I chafed under the repressive monotony and eventually began to mess with my teachers (the uninteresting ones at least) to amuse myself and others, developing a rep for trouble (but good-natured trouble generally).
At some point, as I gradually awakened to the fact that the lunatics were in charge of the asylum, I began to take responsibility for my own education. I read widely and enthusiastically from Twain to Rimbaud, from Buckminster Fuller to Dee Brown. I would sometimes skip classes to hang out in the library and read something that had caught my attention. I indulged my curiosity in every possible way, paying less and less attention to what the adults in my life wanted or expected of me. I watched all the news I could find (remember journalism?) and stayed up late to watch Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett to see what the smart people were saying.
A large part of what fueled my rebellion was the war in Vietnam. Having lived right next door in Laos, I paid a lot of attention to what was going on in that part of the world. I read enough about it to know that, even early on, there were sound reasons for grave reservations.
Over a period of a few years, I came to view anyone who enthusiastically supported the war (most of the adults I knew) as certified idiots, and considered that to be giving them the benefit of the doubt. So when Jerry Rubin said, "Don't trust anyone over thirty," I was right there with him.
It’s funny to me now but I remember very vividly singing along to the Who’s My Generation. I would always belt it out when it got to the part that goes, "The things they do seem awful c-c-cold, I hope I die before I get old."
It’s funny how your perspective changes with time.
One day I happened to pick up a book at a 7-11 (of all places) called The Dharma Bums by a guy named Jack Kerouac. I had never heard of him, the book just sounded interesting. I was a heavy reader at the time, but this book was different – and profoundly so. I knew nothing about Kerouac, but I knew this book had a power and a spirit all its own. It spoke to my deepest self and changed my life. I’ve often wondered if it was for the better or for the worse – it could be argued either way. The book was about how bumming around could be a spiritual journey and that life involved risk, so you might as well take a few. I was 14 at the time, with what was sometimes termed an over-active imagination, and took it all to heart.
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
The man’s writing was poetry to my soul.
I had toyed with the idea of writing as a profession for some time because I loved Mark Twain so much, but after completing The Dharma Bums I knew that I would one day be a writer. And as Kerouac made clear, being a writer would require experience in the world - so I set out to get some.
"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion."
I ran away from home and hitchhiked to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I was back home after a couple of months of extraordinary adventures both good and bad, and stayed put for a time, but over the next few years it would become a pattern. My issues at home were many: my father was a tough guy soldier, a real disciplinarian, and the counter culture was building steam, exerting a pull on me that was irresistible. Rock ‘n Roll was driving the old folks crazy, and I was becoming a hippie right before my father’s eyes. It was all too much for him to bear. I was also turning against the war in Vietnam, and like a good soldier Pop was all for it. The arguments in our home were horrendous, not unlike the arguments going on in households across the nation. Something was happening, there was strangeness in the air. The kid’s were rebelling, the world was changing, and nobody seemed to know what to do.
"I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life."
When I finally got to high school I found it to be even worse than my junior high. I eventually dropped out and hitchhiked to California to get a real education on the highways and byways of America. I wasn’t disappointed but it was a school of harder knocks than I had bargained for. Once in California I survived by selling dope on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (kept thinking I’d make it to Frisco but never did) and was eventually busted for possession of LSD, jailed briefly, and then kicked out of California and told not to come back. At 17, I was a minor and not a native, their juvenile system was already jammed, and they just wanted to be rid of me...and that was ok by me so I promised not to come back and didn’t break that promise until I was a Systems Engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope project quite a few years later.
Soon after being invited out of California, I sparked a police riot in Atlanta in 1969 some months before attending the great Woodstock rock festival in Whitelake, New York that August.
Woodstock was the experience of a lifetime and a very good one at that, except for one ironic twist – I traded an ounce of pot (there was a dry spell in the NE at that time) to a guy from NYC for a quarter ounce of heroin, which I’d never tried before and to which I rapidly and foolishly became addicted. There is no excuse for this of course, it was simply a failure of judgment. They had lied to me about pot and LSD I figured so they’d likely lied to me about smack too. Nope. They were right on about smack. Nasty shit. Pure poison...but seductive beyond belief.
I have written about my unfortunate period of incarceration here and here, but I have not told the whole story. It is, after all, a difficult story to tell. Perhaps after you read this you’ll understand why. I have written about my four drug convictions. I will now tell you about the conviction I haven’t mentioned.
For the next two years following Woodstock, I was a heroin-addicted hippie in a downward spiral. I went from happy-go-lucky peace and love to help me brother I need a fix. One morning I woke up utterly bewildered to find myself in jail charged with first-degree murder. My world had come to a sudden, complete and very jarring halt. I was on the front pages of newspapers all across the state. The stories did not differentiate between the actual killer and me. The subtle detail that I had killed no one was lost on everyone but me. It was my first taste of notoriety, and it was the very worst kind. How could I ever explain to all the people who read the newspaper reports that I never did any such thing? The shock, humiliation, and powerlessness I felt was profound and overwhelming. It all seemed like a terrible dream.
I’ve never been able to explain why this happened because I’m still not sure I understand it entirely, even after contemplating it for nearly 40 years – and believe me, when something like this happens to you, you never stop thinking about it...not for long any way.
The thing I need for you to understand is that those were hazy days for me. When you are addicted to smack your whole life becomes about getting high, and you live your life in a drug-induced haze as if in a dream. The only thing I can say with any certainty about that night is that I didn’t kill anyone.
What happened was that one of my junkie friends killed another of my junkie friends in an apartment where we all were while I was in the in the bathroom being sick (a common side-effect of shooting heroin). I emerged from the bathroom to discover one friend breathing his last breath and the other waving a knife and dripping blood. At that point I fully expected that he was going to kill me too. But instead he demanded that I help him load the body into the trunk of his car, which I apparently did - though I was so freaked out that I still don’t remember doing it. I went home, shot some heroin and passed out.
When I woke up I didn’t remember a thing about the night before...and did not remember a damned thing until the cops rolled up on me and started asking questions about the guy who had been killed. Because I hadn’t called the police and reported the murder, I was arrested and charged as a principle in the murder just as if I had done the killing myself. No amount of explanation could change things.
The killer and I were tried separately. He was convicted and given the death penalty. The D.A. (who in later years apologized to me) sought the death penalty in my case too. He was young, politically ambitious and saw my case as an opportunity to advance his career. He set out to make an example of me, and some publicity for himself. This was 1971 and the public’s fear of the drug culture was at a boil, and this case had everything – hippies, heroin and murder. They sensationalized it for all they were worth. The lurid headlines went statewide. All my relatives, all my friends and everybody who had ever even heard of me, and plenty who hadn’t, read all about it. It was like a stake through the heart. I was nineteen.
So I stood trial for my life for 1st degree murder even though I was a pacifist hippie who had never committed a violent act in my life (the closest I’d ever come was waving that 2x4 at that cop in Piedmont Park). The trial took a little over a week. The jury returned a reduced conviction of 2nd degree murder and fixed my penalty at 20 years in prison. Given all of the circumstances, it would have been a miracle had I been acquitted, and there were no miracles coming my way. But it could have been worse.
In 1971, Alabama prisons were ungodly places – they still are I expect. I was sent to Draper Prison in Elmore, Alabama near Montgomery, the state capitol. Draper was built in 1939 with a design capacity of 600 men, but the population ranged from 1,000 to 1,500 while I was there. When I first laid eyes on the place my heart just sank. I could not believe that such a place existed or that society would actually put someone in such a place – for any reason. Stepping into Draper was like stepping back in time 150 years. It was a massive fortress-like dungeon, whitewashed on the outside, dark with gloom on the inside. It was ‘the wild west’ meets ‘the black hole of Calcutta’. I was appalled that we would put anyone in such a place – most of all I was appalled that we would put me there.
Draper consisted of a front office area, a long central corridor lined with six two-story dormitory-style cellblocks running off the main hallway and facing each other at intervals with a large kitchen/mess hall/gymnasium at the butt end of the main corridor. When they locked the front gates of the cellblocks at night, you were locked in with a couple of hundred other dudes some of whom were there for perfectly good reasons.
I could only find the two pics of Draper using the google. The following photo shows a wider view. The front gate is obscured by the guard tower. I’ll tell the story of the two convicts on the water tower in Part II.
The cellblocks were perpetually dark. They only turned on the lights when they were shaking us down. The warden at that time allowed the inmates to build hootches using sheets of cardboard and blankets hung off the sides of beds in order to have some measure of privacy. People rigged small individual lights and spliced into the electrical system to power them – which the warden tolerated as long as they were extremely low powered. At night these small dim lights looked like distant campfires. It always reminded me of a scene out of the civil war.
Prison was a weird mix of tension and boredom punctuated by brief but shocking spates of violence.
Life in prison was like carrying a crushing burden. As a prisoner your relationship to time is very different. It moves much more slowly. It’s purely a matter of perception but it’s real enough. Each day seemed a lifetime, each week a millennium, each month an impossible length of time...and the years dragged by.
During the time I was at Draper I helped start the first drug treatment program and the first college program in the Alabama prison system. I kicked my addiction, got a two-year degree, read tons of books and painted a lot of paintings. I studied and became proficient in Hapkido and Taekwondo, and I survived from day to day. After six years, four months, and eleven days I was paroled and was ultimately given a full pardon including restoration of civil rights. Of course that doesn’t mean what it used to.
I worked as a prison reformer and anti-death penalty activist when I first got out, did some time in several different colleges, and lived as a karate bum for a while.
Prison is an ideal learning laboratory for human behavior and human nature. I saw the very best and the very worst that we as a species have to offer. From prison, if you’re a thoughtful person, you can see certain things more clearly. I think part of it might be that you are outside of the mainstream of cultural programming. For the most part, nobody bothers to propagandize convicts because they aren’t considered worth the effort. The expectation is that convicts will behave badly no matter what you do. Heh...maybe so.
One of the ways that going to prison (unexpectedly) benefited me was that it threw me into association with quite a wide variety of individuals and types that I would never have chosen to associate with otherwise – everything from deep-woods rednecks, ku klux klanners, black Muslims, illiterates and gangbangers to known killers and career criminals. The (mixed) blessings of such enforced involuntary association were unanticipated and non-obvious but often profound. I learned that the most unlikely people sometimes harbor strange treasures, and that the least among us can have the most compelling stories.
I understand and appreciate humanity in whole new ways as a result of my incarceration. Prison is a great leveler. Once you become a convict, you suddenly have much in common with every other convict on earth. And it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from that realization to the realization that we all have much in common...all of us – more than most of us ever dare to imagine. But don’t tell the republicans - they will cry.
"All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together."
I think I will end Part I here, though there is much more to tell. I close with a video made especially for this diary.
This is my story. I hope that it finds you...for your sweet attention I cannot demand.