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The function, if any, of old men is to tell stories. At some stage it's no longer the responsibility of the story-teller to have a point. One hopes the stories suffice.

My stories today concern a summer spent in the Federal Penitentiary in Springfield, MO for nominal "evaluation" to see how much I'd have to serve of a 5-year sentence for draft card mutilation. (I was a felony mutilator!) The memories were triggered by recent encounter, and the order of presentation remains stream-of-consciousness. After forty years, some names and details are no doubt slightly scrambled.

People often ask about physical dangers in prison. I was in significant physical danger once. A friend (also named Michael) who had a slight screw loose (he said that he'd been electro-shocked too much) was stuck on a puzzle. You have three utilities (gas, electric, water) and three houses. You want to connect each utility to each house without the lines crossing. Since I had a math degree from Harvard, he asked me for help. I stupidly missed the key idea and ended up with a fairly elaborate proof that there was no solution. Michael got angry: "I asked you to solve it, not to prove it couldn't be done," and headed to get a very scary straight razor to slice me up. Fortunately, he was restrained by the other prisoners, who didn't want harm to come to any of us.  Somebody else either thought of or remembered the key idea of the puzzle (spoiler alert: a line can run through a house) , so we didn't have that issue nagging at us any more. We got along ok after that, but he perceptively criticized me for smiling a lot and talking politely, often without really being emotionally engaged. In various pre-prison discussions, no one had warned me that the most important thing was to not screw up topology proofs.

The other time I was involved with near-violence played out very differently. We had weekly (maybe twice weekly?) "group therapy" sessions, part of the evaluation process. At one, the conversation had slipped into pretty much bitching about sentences. One guy snottily scolded everyone about how each person was in control of his own life, his own destiny, blah, blah. This guy was a University of Chicago graduate, oddly enough a big fan of Nixon cabinet member George Schultz.  He had so much contempt for the rest of us that it hadn't occurred to him that we could piece together his various remarks to different people to figure out his story.  So in the meeting I kind of lost it and said "Yeah, we know what you did to control your own sentence. You turned your partner in for 35 years." He angrily stood up with a flushed face and responded with the two worst possible sentences: "You saw my records. I'm going to report you."

Later that day a guy from another cell block came by to talk. "I hear you found a snitch. Do you want me to burn him up tonight?" It was not a casual suggestion. I told him that since everybody on my cell block had an indefinite sentence, we'd be doing an awful lot of extra years if anything like that happened. Fortunately, the Schultz fan was transferred to another prison the next day, so the issue didn't come up again.

The Schultz fan had a close friend, a writer of bad checks.  The bad-check writer told me that his greatest pleasure in life was the moment when someone would ask him "Say, this check is good, isn't it?" and he would look right in their eyes and sincerely reassure them. When people say that nobody is really evil, he comes to mind as a counter example. The other things I remember about the check-writer were that he was an intense Cat Stevens fan and that he was pitching one day in softball when I hit a very hard grounder toward right field that went for a home run. That was quite out of character, since I was a pull hitter (right-handed) and more of a fly-ball type. Maybe my memory about it somehow going for a homer isn't right, or maybe the right-fielder had been playing much too far in, assuming I'd pull it.

On the other hand, my memory of the best moment (perhaps of my life) is quite clear. I've never been a good fielder, so I was playing in right field, but with a high-quality donated glove. Somebody hit a line drive to my left, about shoulder-high, and I stuck the glove out as far as I could reach. It was the third out of the inning, and when I brought the ball in my friend Willie was all over me slapping my back and laughing. Willie cracked everybody up by imitating how I'd pulled the glove in, stared at it, and how my eyes bugged out when I saw there was a ball in there.

Willie was a small good-natured black guy. It would just brighten up your day to see him. I'm not sure what he was in for but there was a rumor about something involving a fight with a girlfriend and arson.

Thinking of violence, there was another guy who tended to have a short fuse, short and round but strong. He seemed nice enough, but if somebody bugged him he'd start thumping them. Really not a bad guy though. He got transferred, to Terre Haute, where he soon thumped the wrong guy and got killed.

I remember one death from the time in Springfield. A very strange guy (rumored to be a child molester), with some history of suicide attempts  climbed up a basketball net and killed himself by falling head-first. We all knew it was suicide, and nobody really blamed the prison staff, since the alternative would have been to keep the guy under total control. Nonetheless, we heard on the local radio that a prisoner had died "in a basketball accident."  The story the officials told actually sounded more suspicious and less innocent than the truth, but they just lied by reflex.

I knew they were lying, not just confused, because I was assigned as a typist in the warden's office, and they often talked rather freely in front of me and Frank, the other prisoner typist, also in for the draft. Frank was my best friend there, but we haven't kept up. There were two female secretaries in the office also. The warden and assistant warden often came through but weren't there regularly. One of them (the warden) was a decent enough type, the other was pretty much of a redneck sadist.

The secretaries were more interesting. One had been there some time. She was tense, angular, and reminiscent of one of R. Crumb's nastier caricatures of a repressed white woman. She would accompany the assistant warden on his lunchtime target-shooting expeditions. The other secretary was new. She was a local girl, a softer person, but one of the first things I heard her say was that she really didn't like those "you know, foreign, countries". I was too shy and snobby to really talk with her as openly as I should have, but Frank was a seriously good person and truly open to everybody. They talked a lot. Shortly after my release, I'd heard that she had decided that she just didn't believe in the prison system and had resigned. She was a seriously good person too.

I've never been much of a sexist, having been raised in a family with very strongly intellectual women, but the first day in that office I did discover a sexist streak. I'd been assigned as a typist solely on the grounds of having gone to college, not because I could actually type worth a damn. Still, it was relatively easy work compared to say working in the prison laundry, where all the hospital waste had to be cleaned up. Nonetheless, after the first hour or so of typing I caught myself thinking, with frustration and no irony, "why don't they have a secretary do this?"

Frank and I were walking around the yard one day when we were accosted by a guy who looked and sounded a little like Humphrey Bogart. He was scolding us for not having any real plans for when we got out. "Now me, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to get a gun and rob..." (I've forgotten precisely what his professional specialty was.)

Frank's Spanish wasn't bad. He brought me some hot peppers grown by "Mamacita", who had the best job, gardening outdoors. He said Mamacita was interested in me. I asked him if he knew enough Spanish to tell Mamacita politely that I wasn't interested, but he said there wasn't enough Spanish to tell him that.

One of the few inmates that I talked to after getting out was Mike B. He was a big, outgoing, good-looking kid who was at least part Jewish. The gangster Mickey Cohen was in with us and took an avuncular liking to Mike, promising to pay for his college after he got out. I don't know if that happened. (Cohen was already in bad shape, with stroke-like symptoms from having been hit on the side of his head.) Mike called me up once years later wanting to know if I'd like to ride in his private plane. I wanted to see him, but since I knew his parents had died in a private plane crash, declined.

Mike had been in the army, and had been convicted of driving off with an armored vehicle or something like that. He'd first been sent to the youth prison in El Reno, OK. He described his transfer to the adult prison as the happiest day of his life. Somebody had bought tennis rackets for Reno, and Mike said they were all busted on people's heads within a day. By the time kids became eligible for grown-up prison, Mike said, the hormone levels were usually down a bit and some of the worst characters had gotten killed, so you never want to do time with a pack of young males.

I enjoyed talking with a pair of thieves on my cell block. One was small and somewhat intellectual, reading "All Quiet on the Western Front". He once said "No matter what they lock me up for, I won't feel particularly fucked over, because if they knew how I really feel about them they'd never let me out." I borrowed that line (with attribution) for a New York Times op-ed, but in those prissy days they altered the language. He had an interesting story, whose truth I can't vouch for, of having been on the run and only able to pick up one job- as a security guard at a Minuteman nuclear missile base in Missouri.

His friend was somewhat slicker, looking a bit like a movie star but missing a couple of front teeth. He had big plans for how they were going to get into some sort of real-estate scam when they got out, involving some government programs. He was convinced that I would be a valuable asset, despite my lack of interest. He said that there was a way to get to everybody, and if it wasn't money for me he bet it was girls. At one of the group sessions he went into a little talk about the evils of heroin, how it really would make you betray your friends, betray your mother, etc. Somebody (me, I think) asked "So why did you take it?" His eyes got dreamy and unfocussed and his face suffused with a beatific glow: "Because it's the best experience you'll ever have."

Although they often seemed dull, those group sessions provided more than their share of stories. One time a farmer with an intense Indiana twang was complaining about how unfair his conviction for bootlegging had been. He claimed that the only real evidence against him was his possession of a few hundred pounds of sugar. We were all sympathetic until somebody asked what he'd told the cops the sugar had been for. "Limm'nade." After a moment of silence there was a collective groan. Somebody muttered "You'll be lucky if they ever let you out."

A group of more southern, hill-country bootleggers would gather around the bocci court after dinner. They'd have philosophical arguments as to whether bootlegging was "rahtly a crime" or "tain't rahtly a crime".

Most of the guards were fairly neutral characters. One on our cell block liked to kid around. "So you're going back to St. Louis for final sentencing?" "Yeah, Judge Regan." "Not hanging Judge Regan?" This same guard explained his choice of profession: "I'm too lazy to work and too scared to steal."

Others were a little more irony-challenged. Shortly after I got there, I bought some protein powder and borrowed a spoon for stirring it. The spoon was laying on my bed (ok, not great housekeeping) when a big guard peered in and growled "What's that spoon doing there?" I started babbling about how it was just for protein powder, I wasn't going to hurt anybody, ... He wasn't interested: "That's an institutional spoon."

Maybe a third of the guards were pretty nasty. Everybody knew exactly who they were. Shortly before I was sent up, there'd been mass arrests at a demonstration in DC. People were crammed into a stadium with inadequate facilities. The Nixon administration said they had had no idea that there would be mass arrests. The bad guards were the ones who had gone to DC, along with volunteers from the entire prison system, in preparation for the "unexpected" mass arrests.

Lest I give the impression that imprisonment mainly leaves fond memories of softball games, it's best to mention three days spent in the St. Charles county jail awaiting final sentencing. The federal marshals left me there rather than in St. Louis as a courtesy, since they thought the St. Louis county jail was too rough. The marshals had a dispute with the St. Charles cops, because the marshals said I was white and the cops were dubious. (Back then I had some kinky dark hair, to the very limited extent allowed in federal prison.) The St. Charles jail was segregated! I ended up in the white section, on the second or third floor. The metal walkway up there had a trapdoor in it, which I was told had been used for hangings.

Although I had enough hair to make the St. Charles cops doubt my ancestry, it wasn't enough to reassure my new companions that I was a legitimate fellow prisoner. They were all very young local long-haired druggies, and were very distrustful of an outsider. They knew each other, their higher-up dealers, and the local police, and that was pretty much it. One claimed to have once ventured to L.A. and been a prostitute for Dean Martin. There was nothing to do and nothing to talk about. It got worse when I suggested tuning the tv to the news the first evening. That was considered beyond weird.

The food in St. Charles was as bad as the company, stereotypical thin baloney slices on white bread. The cell was chilly, and the blanket very thin. I got a nasty cold.

The next step was to be transported in handcuffs to court downtown. The logistics of that with a heavily running nose were not pleasant. Despite my slightly disgusting appearance, "hanging judge Regan" ended up putting me on probation, as he'd planned from the start.

Originally posted to docmidwest on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 08:02 AM PST.

Also republished by Personal Storytellers and Community Spotlight.

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