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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Full Circle

By Isaac Sweet

One of the most common conversation starters in this prison is, "What're ya watching tonight?" Lately, my response has been, "Nothing." Sometimes, facial expressions indicate confusion so, I'll follow up with, "I don't have enough time to watch TV." It's true, I don't. I have more productive things to do. Like right now, the newest Transformers movie is playing (on cable television), but I'm splitting time between writing an essay, proofreading an associate's manuscript, and preparing a math lesson for our wastewater treatment plant operator's course. I volunteer as a teacher's helper. Also, I dedicate a reasonable amount of time to communicate with my friends, family, and outside support team, and I stay active in the fight for criminal justice reform. I work a fulltime job in the prison's maintenance department, and I carve out just enough time for some daily physical exercise. But, the most rewarding of my pursuits is serving as a mentor in the facility's mentorship program, in which I have a full complement of official and unofficial mentees. The balance of these pursuits consumes my days. It may be an odd thing for a prisoner to say, but... I wish there were more hours in each day.

Some of the guys think I'm a little "off." They give me funny looks because I'll forfeit watching TV and playing video games to help others. Maybe they don't know I spent almost two decades frittering my life away on meaningless prison social drama and television. I don't remember most of that, but I do remember the people I interact with. The single most meaningful thing I do right now is being a mentor, a trusted advisor, to young people navigating prison and trying to improve their lives. I draw from my experience to help them prepare and proceed. Sometimes, I'm coaching a young person through a scary, and potentially hazardous situation. Other times, I'm just listening to them, or sharing some positive advice, or studying materials for classes I've already taken to help them academically. I'm internally motivated by the concept of having a purposeful life, even while incarcerated.

Navigating prison as a youngster isn't easy. I can still remember my youthful introduction to prison, but I always seemed to have someone to advise me. Nowadays, survival is generally facilitated by the sink or swim concept. I compare it to wild birds and how they teach their young to fly with a nudge out of their nest. Either the young birds learn to fly, or they don't. Much like a baby bird free falling from its nest, young prisoners rarely have anyone to coach them through their free fall. They either figure it out or they don't, but the consequences and timeline can be eerily similar. That's part of the reason our pilot mentorship program, Men Facilitating Change (MFC), originated. It began as the brainchild of seasoned prisoners who wanted to help newer ones. It grew ideologically until the administration gave it a chance. Now, it is a recognized program with seventeen inside mentors, each with at least one mentee (I currently have three), an outside sponsor, a curriculum, and some buy-in from the prison administration. We meet monthly as a large group and discuss our journeys and materials in the curriculum. Mentors and mentees meet more often. I prefer to see my mentees every other day, if not daily.

Prison is a micro community. Every person here is a neighbor you will see repetitiously, who is dealing with their own navigational issues. They have their own perception of positive social etiquette. Here, we have the full spectrum of polarizing personalities and mental illnesses. Issues we have aren't as simple as bumping into someone in the grocery store and saying, "excuse me." Every action, verbal or otherwise has social or structural consequences. Social consequences include managing one's reputation, which can be crucial to survival. Social outcasts make easy prey for bullies. Structural consequences involve administrative infractions and punitive measures. They also affect what unit and prison we will be housed in. Positive navigation through this environment can be challenging, even for me with nearly a quarter-century of experience. Being a mentor in this micro community starts with helping others navigate prison, but extends into making better, more productive life choices.

We had a rather productive mentorship meeting the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, my youngest mentee, Chris, failed to attend. He "forgot,” and It’s too bad to, because a lot of personal stories were exchanged. Chris is twenty-one and serving time for homicide. He killed somebody in my sister's neighborhood. I didn't know that before I took him on as my mentee. I only found out because I write my sister regularly and we share a passion for youth outreach. I mentioned his first name and where he was from. She responded with, "Do you mean (insert his full name here)?" She very eloquently tried to disguised her frigid tone. That's how I learned how his crime affected her and her community. Confronted with this, I had an emotional response, but not the kind you might think. I experienced a full gamut of emotions, but as the intensity waned, I realized I wasn’t angry, I was intrigued. How could this happen, and why? In some way I cannot adequately articulate, I am connected to young Chris.

I describe his progress, and the progress of our relationship to my sister in weekly messages. Chris is working towards a GED (General Equivalency Diploma), but at the time we began our relationship his progress had slowed. We spent a Saturday morning on his Social Studies study packets, and afterwards I told him he was ready for the test. The following Monday afternoon I was doing some maintenance repairs in the recreation gym when Chris came running over, whiffle-tennis paddle in hand and said, "You know how you said I was ready?" I nodded in the affirmative. "Well, I passed the pretest this morning!" he exclaimed with what would've been a fist pump were it not for the paddle in his hand. His gesture might've looked to others like he wanted to whack me with the paddle. He officially passed the Social Studies portion of the GED test the following Friday. Through my weekly updates, Chris and I have pretty much chipped away my sister's frigid veneer. Recently, she cautioned me to "keep an eye on him" following some local gang violence she thought he might be emotionally affected by. She went on to say, "I am becoming a little soft hearted for Chris. Not anything I would be able to do before talking with you. It's so easy to forget that who we have incarcerated are human." Now, she looks forward to these reports.

My last one-on-one meeting with Chris didn't quite turn out how I had anticipated. It started out slow because Chris was reluctant to tell me about standing up to a bully in the gym. He thought I would be displeased. I was, but more with the situation than by Chris's willingness to defend himself. Had he failed to do so it could have invited more problems. Once fully apprised, I congratulated him on successfully diffusing the situation without violence. Before we got much further, we were joined by Chris's friend, Jordan. Jordan was more adversely affected than Chris by the local gang violence my sister had mentioned. He needed to vent and gain some additional perspective. Without hesitation we shared our meeting with his friend. It’s an interesting thing, being in the position I am. I wish I had even more opportunity to spend time with these young people who fixate on insignificant things. To talk some sense into those who feel they've betrayed their "homies" by putting themselves and their families first. Such a silly phenomenon, yet a real dilemma for many. I'll try to connect with Jordan more in the coming days. Again, I wish there were more hours in the day to engage with these young men. It’s frustrating how many of them there are and how intensely they can benefit from positive role models.

My second mentee is Brian. When he first approached me about being his mentor, I wasn't sure if he was serious. Brian is thirty-six, and already seems to be navigating prison well. He is currently enrolled in the college prep program, and will soon begin taking courses towards an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. He's already pretty mature. Prior to his criminal justice involvement, he was a boat captain who got injured, transitioned to street drugs, then battled addiction. He had reclaimed his sobriety just before the birth of his daughter, but several months afterwards his crimes caught up with him. He releases in December. I asked him what he expected to get from this program. He said that he's a father and while he's incarcerated, he wants to learn as much as he can. If he could focus on one thing it would be accountability. He wants me to hold him accountable. Challenge accepted.

I met another young guy who seems to be gravitating towards me. He's interested in the mentorship program and is opening up a little. I walked past him in the gym, stopping briefly to say hello and shake hands, and then continued over to the place I usually put my things down. Before I got my coat off, I noticed he had followed me over and sat down against the wall. This was where we sat yesterday and had conversation. It was my cue, that it was time for more. At this point, I already had two mentees, but I won't leave anyone behind. We'll see if he continues to seek me out.

We found each other again the next night, but this time on the prison yard. It feels as if I'm already stretched a little thin, but again I'll take my cue. It looks like I've got a third mentee. His name is Justis, he's twenty-five, and has an eight-year-old son. His hang up has been meth. I spent a little time up on my soapbox. I told him a story about another young father, Josh, and his son Josh Junior... 

Josh told me about the one summer he had with his gangster dad. He idolized him. He wanted to be just like him, "only more gangster!" He said, "If he slang two keys I wanted to sling four. If he killed two fools I wanted to kill four!" He wanted to be even more gangster. That's when I told him that his son, Josh Junior, wants to be just like him, "only more gangster!" Josh was betrayed by his eyes. They welled up before he could stop it... 

At this point in the story I looked over at Justis and noticed he too was fighting off a moment of his own. Turns out the story hit close to home. He has spent much of his life glorifying the gangster's lifestyle, and ironically, his son's name is Junior as well. I told him that part of loving ourselves, and our kids is setting the right example. As parents we have a responsibility to provide our young with an example of who they should want to be like. Once we accept this reality, it is natural to reexperience the shame of the past, but my message is to "focus forward." It’s okay to use that shame to fuel positive change, but not to dwell or fixate. Justis listened and engaged.

I went to the gym the following night and continued my conversation with Justis. We tackled a few topics, but it took a while before I was connecting cohesive thoughts. My mind was foggy from the combination of a long day at work, higher than normal stress levels, and mediocre nutrition, but we ended on a good note. I spent a lot of time listening, but at one point I stopped him mid-drug story. He had kept saying, "when I do" this drug or that drug. I said, "Stop right there." I corrected him, "It’s when you DID. Because if you speak about that behavior as if you still DO, you are conditioning yourself that it’s okay to DO. No, it’s not okay. Drugs are something you DID. Period. What you DO now is live like a responsible adult, a sober one. One who provides for and loves himself and his family." It was a good moment.

Justis is going to be complicated. I had a difficult conversation with him the following night. I asked him point blank, "are you going to get high again?" After a lengthy pause he said, "I don't know. There are moments when I say 'no' and I believe it and I want sobriety, but there are moments when I question whether I can do it. My mom and my sister get high. What am I supposed to do, not see my family?" I was a little shocked by this revelation and his well thought-through response. I can't recall everything I said, but I gave him some matter-of-fact hard, concrete pearls of wisdom. I told him, "Yes, as much as l dislike encouraging you to disassociate from your people, but if they're using drugs you will have to keep your distance. No exceptions." I went on to tell him some hard truths about loving himself and his son. And some other stuff about becoming a leader and blazing his own trail rather than a follower reverting to what he knows. I mentioned that maybe his mom and sister could benefit from seeing his sobriety and success, from a distance of course, and that his example might be what they need to get their own lives right. There was so much more, but I definitely said the right things. Or, at least, some of them, and it felt good.

I did my first workout of the year with Justis. He's young and reasonably fit, so he did pretty well. I'm older and wearing a few extra holiday pounds. By about the halfway point, he was telling me to put down my purse and pick up the pace. He's got a great work ethic. Now, I'm incredibly sore, and scheduled for another round tomorrow.

One of the things I do to prepare for the future is to envision scenarios and contemplate what the proper response would be. Justis called it, "role play." I threw out a couple scenarios that would expose him to his drug of choice, meth. He described positive responses but pushed back and said he didn't want to discuss saying "no" to drugs. He felt that despite his life experiences and chronic addiction, saying "no" is simple, and he thought it was easy to say the right things, so at this point our conversation was "lip service." I told him that I viewed his addiction as the single greatest obstacle standing between him and success. I said we could work on anything he wants too, but if he gets high one time all that goes out the window. However, I heard him, and we shifted gears.

I asked him one of my favorite "go to" questions: "What core values define your life?" After a momentary pause he said, "To not be a rapist, to not be a rat, and to live honorably." The mention of rapist and rat are an indication of prison/criminal conditioning, and further indicative of his shortsighted youthfulness. It’s possible he borrowed the "honorably" part from me, from previous conversations where I described my values. At least his smile suggested it. I chose to address his initial two offerings by saying they would be automatically included in "living honorably." During this conversation, Justis decided that his primary focus should be cultivating his core values, and that his addiction and other criminal impulses would be positively affected by that steadfast focus. Though I cannot view the world through his lens, I am inclined to agree. 

Justis exhibits "mad" potential. However, his journey towards success will be more difficult without a regular positive role model to hold him accountable. His needs include opportunity, housing, and a good life plan. He's a smart youngster, and I believe in him already. He is capable of learning just about any trade skills. He just needs somebody to care about him and hold him accountable as he transitions into his dream life. He can count on me throughout the duration of his stay here, but he is scheduled for transfer to a work camp this summer, at which time, I will be prohibited from communication with him.

As far as mentees go Justis is a little more hands-on. He requires constant attention, but it’s kind of fun because I know our interaction is making a difference. He is already believing that he can be more than a drug addict and street hustler. It blows my mind how living an authentic life (career, wife, kids, homeowner, etc…) can be viewed as such a dream to so many young people. He can also be fun to hang around with sometimes because his energy is infectious. Cole, the youngster from work, tries pretty hard to resist his energy, but he's struggling with that. Yesterday, we went to play some handball with him. When we got there Justis was already frustrated with some handball bully who had been whining about him being in the way. I saw what was going on, looked at Cole, and we proceeded to beat the team led by the bully so handily that he took his whining to another handball court. Poetic justice.

Cole is not one of my official mentees in the MFC program here, but he is a young person I spend a significant amount of time with. We share a workstation in the mechanical maintenance shop, and I've spent a lot of time and energy (and practiced much patience) teaching him welding techniques. Also, we play handball competitively as teammates and opponents. I would describe him as my welding and handball protege. He is slight in stature and is a little sensitive about his size, which is ridiculous because he is one of the biggest people. His character is marked by compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. He is quick to volunteer for undesirable tasks, and selfless with his time. Nonetheless, he refuses to be viewed as a "mentee." As such, I am privileged to claim him among my friends.

At work Cole continues to prove himself a competent shop hand. He does a good job with his quick-witted sense of humor and interacts well with the guys and the supervisors. Lately, he has taken initiative. He just started in on a huge welding project that has some incredibly difficult challenges. There are a number of out of position welds that are critical to the integrity of the project, some of which have to be performed left-handed. So far, he is doing quite well. This is not typical for a novice welder. I would like to think he's got a good teacher, but I wouldn't want to detract from his natural talent.

A few weeks ago, he showed up with a pad of paper and a pen. He was on a mission to write a letter to a judge pleading for a judicial decision to honor a visitation agreement with his daughter. It was clear that we would accomplish very little until he had finished the letter. Nothing was going to separate him from that pen and paper. His determination was admirable. Ordinarily, writing a letter at work would be inappropriate, but in prison we must show up to our work detail regardless of circumstances. Failure to do so invites immediate and severe reprisal. All of the guys in the shop supported Cole in his endeavor, and would've covered for him, but our supervisors were preoccupied with an emergent mechanical repair. I was happy to serve as a sounding board for Cole as he articulated each sentence. I could hear the importance he placed on each thought. It was emotionally exhausting. He outlined that letter on a dirty old work bench and wrote the final draft at our lunch table. He wrote that letter as if he were pleading for his life. I felt, in slow motion, every syllable.

The next day, I went to the gym and played Cole one-on-one handball for an hour. He almost got a win. He was playing fairly well. Thankfully, so was I. My ball placement was pretty good, and for carrying a few additional holiday pounds, I was hustling pretty hard too. I felt a little empathy for Cole. He wanted to win so bad. He made a pretty good run at it during one game. He started out 4 to 0 and stayed ahead of me until I managed to tie the game at nines. That set the stage for me to come out on top. Poor guy, he's a competitor, but so am I. I had a lot of fun. Despite his string of losses, I'm pretty sure Cole did too.

The following workday was exhausting. It started out with a trip to go fix a doorknob. The knobs around here are industrial brass and quite heavy duty. I grabbed young Cole on the way out. Which meant a five-minute doorknob repair turned into a ten-minute learning opportunity with a few laughs, and some mild consternation for the boss (who quietly chuckled too). Then, we stopped in the main hallway and took some crude measurements to build an aluminum shroud to cover the motor and moving parts to the new electric roll up door. Cole climbed the ladder and carefully measured everything. The boss wrote his measurements down, then handed the paper to Cole. Back at the shop Cole tried to hand me the paper. I told him, "Oh, no you don't. You're building it, I'll help you." He tried to act like it was too much responsibility, but he got right on it. By the end of the day, we were twenty-five or thirty minutes away from being ready to test fit. We'll have to drill the mounting holes on site to ensure a quality installation, but I'm impressed with the kid. He did all the welding, every single tack.

Cole came into work this morning on cloud nine. He had just received word. The judge was amenable and rendered a decision in his favor. He will be visiting with his daughter in the relative near future. It may still take a few weeks or months to process the paperwork and get her approved given the State's typical lack of urgency, but visitation with his baby girl is forthcoming. Initially, I had hoped to get a visit on the same day as their first, but on second thought it'll be difficult enough keeping my eyes dry just seeing the pictures. I've a reputation to uphold, I don't want these guys finding out my secret... that I'm human.

Before long, I'll transition from a stable, knowledgeable mentor in prison to a wide-eyed mentee trying to navigate the free world and all of its technological advancements over the past three decades. Hopefully, some of the young people I've had the privilege of working with will return the favor, though that's not why I do it. I simply want to do things that are meaningful. My release date is less than five years away. 

Isaac Sweet 752399
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Cap and Gown

By Millard Baker

I really loathe the attire I wear. My attire represents the miscreant individual I was. The dark blue pants have “CDCR Prisoner” written on the front pant leg. The light blue shirt has the same words written across the back of it. The average person would immediately identify the attire as penitentiary wear, worn by convicted criminals who negatively impacted society. I am devastated over the fact my thoughts, decisions and actions led to my criminalizing society, which did not deserve any of it. At the time, my life was in turmoil. In fact, my muscle of life was in atrophy. So, in my misery, I cared less for others. That diseased way of thinking was a danger to society and better fitted for incarceration and the scraggly attire that comes with it. I deserved to wear that attire; I was a terrible guy who I now, honestly, hate. I speak about myself in such a dastardly way because it’s the truth.

I began to want different though. I was cognitive enough to understand that in order to change my attire I had to change myself. I started my journey of transformation, fully aware that there isn’t some type of panacea in terms of changing; it takes an overall lifestyle change. I courageously opened the door of my past to gain better insight. I had to find out why I was so angry, hopeless, uncaring, resentful, etc. Once I discovered these things, I worked hard on them. I forgave those who abandoned me and my twin sister at five-years-old. I came to understand that I lacked a true sense of self-esteem and people and things that made me feel better. I learned I was impulsive, never really thinking before I acted. With hard work, I began being mindful; I now “think about thinking”, instead of relying on old habits. My whole internal dialogue changed, and I became a happier person. I learned humility and how to be kind to others, things I avoided before. This old dog learned new tricks, proving it’s never too late to change.

I believe college completed my transformation, it taught me in areas I was still deficient. On May 8, 2020, I graduated from the College of the Redwoods. My scraggily attire was covered with the beautiful regalia, showing who I really am today. Fairly soon, I will give back this scraggily attire for good and in exchange I will wear something I’ve been dreaming about: a suit.


*******

“You did it. You did it, Son”. Those were the words my mother excitedly yelled while shedding tears. I just informed her I officially graduated college. We all try to make our parents proud; unfortunately, I always underachieved in doing so. All my life, education was something I failed in. I was placed in special education, which fueled my terrible behavior. From middle school through high school, I cut class and was defiant to teachers. Then, in 2000, I dropped out. Twenty years later, I have an AA Degree in Liberal Arts; Behavioral Science, a G.P.A of 3.85, with no special accommodations required. I’ll explain how education went from being my Achilles heel to my bailiwick. College is challenging at the best of times and completing it while incarcerated adds to the challenges; I’ll delve into what it takes to prosper in this condition. Lastly, some people disagree with the incarcerated receiving higher education; I’ll explain the benefits of education while incarcerated.

All my life, including throughout my incarceration, my mother has been trying to motivate me to get into education. But I lacked the desire and motivation to do so. My ignorance was a huge reason I was incarcerated in the first place. I do want to be released with hopes of remaining free, and realize education is the key to doing so. Since I had previously failed so much in education, my self-esteem was low. I had to find my internal motivation. Delving within myself, I asked, do I want to remain this way? The answer was “no”. I envisioned myself an intellectual who will empower others to become educated and impact the world as an asset opposed to the liability I had been. Simply put, the season of being a failure, criminal, follower, ignorant was over. I wanted to become the best version of myself. College allowed me to learn how I got to the point I was at. With my new self-determination, I started working hard on these momentous areas of my life. Education became fun and something I fell in love with. Heck, even this essay is done because I enjoy writing now, so good things come from education.
The incarcerated come to behave like downtrodden cenobites. Lots of hopeless, angry, pessimistic people are around, so trying to balance the challenge of college in this environment is tough. Muhammad Ali was famous for what was called the "rope-a-dope". This was when he used the ring ropes to bob and weave around the opposition. I liken this tactic to life inside; inside we bob and weave through this abnormal environment. We have to be focused and extremely resolute to reach our goals. I've literally been called a ‘nerd’ and ‘schoolboy’, but that’s ok, as it allows me the chance to preach the importance of education. Honestly, many have been receptive to the message and have joined college too. Being others’ catalyst to undertake higher education is a role I accept; I can show others what's important. Some guys are tired of being pestilent, but they get caught in the group-think mentality, thus refusing to speak up and express their desires. Education is momentous, but isn't a panacea. We have to apply what we learn and make a moral commitment to live strait-laced and motivate others to do the same.

Why do incarcerated people desire free college? We don't deserve anything. I am fully aware taxpayer’s money pays for our college. To be inside, we messed up and should change. The taxpayers are investing in prison reform, and it has benefited society. Studies have shown a recidivism rate of 70-80% for those with no education. Those with higher education, however, have only a 13% recidivism rate. Clearly, college can transform the lives of us who are incarcerated, and many of us who transform want to give back and help troubled youth avoid this demise. Moreover, many of the college-educated go on to start businesses, create jobs and inspire others. We will also pay taxes and keep the cycle of lowering recidivism going. It is often social and legal barriers that are big factors leading to recidivism. But, with education, we can jump these barriers.

Education is now my bailiwick. With a goal and motivation, we all can overcome past challenges and thrive in life. I hope to reach those who might question if they have the make-up to become educated. I want to help them overcome their self-limiting beliefs and just go for it. If a special education guy who dropped out of high school can attain a college degree, anyone can.

Millard Baker V16360
Pelican Bay State Prison
P.O. Box 7500
Crescent City, CA 95532

Thursday, September 10, 2020

My Father's Violin

By Burl N. Corbett

Every evening, my father played his violin by the upright piano in our dining room. The nightly concerts were among my first memories, but I can no longer recall if I listened from my upstairs crib, or downstairs in the old wickerwork bassinet my mother wheeled from kitchen to living room in our tiny stone farmhouse. These memories have no faces, just a soundtrack, and I had no name for that, either. I knew neither thread or needle, but it occurs to me now that he was stitching my world together note by note, his swooping bow composing my future memories in an elegant cursive, tying up my earliest impressions with elaborate ribbons of bowed glissandos and pizzicato triplets. My mother would later recall that I was a happy baby, giggling and gurgling and pumping my little arms and legs as if I were conducting Father’s performances.

Mother also recalled how I had cried and cried the day that Father traded in his worn-out ’38 Chevy for a new ’51 sedan. I had loved the older car and the cozy backseat beds Mother fixed for the long twenty-eight mile trip home after visiting her distant family every other Sunday night. In my memory, it is always winter, it seems, and I can still recall the comforting weight of the wool army blanket into which I was tucked. Enshrouded in a cocoon of warmth, I watched the blazing orbs of passing headlights wheel across the inky firmament of the headliner, lying half-asleep, counting the glowing streetlight comets zooming past the windows until the tires’ soothing purr lulled me to sleep. The next morning, I would wake in my sunny bedroom, magically transported from the ancient world of night to a freshly born universe drenched with light and the reassuring murmur of my mother softly singing to life our breakfast world.

The old car was soon forgotten, and I slept just as soundly in the new one. It had a radio, and although I drifted off amid the same lights, I did so to the sound of my father’s voice singing along with the popular songs from his adolescence, the pre-war soundtrack of his life. His strong baritone reassured me that the world was balanced just right, and that I was loved and protected as I rested groggily at its delicate center, listening to the monotonous drone of the tires only a few feet from my prone body. In those days of ineffectual heaters, sometimes a faint scrim of frost obscured the rear windows, but secure in my warm nest I imagined that Father’s singing coupled with the bravely struggling heater had repelled the cold. But all things must end, and one evening I abruptly announced that I was too big to be tucked in like a baby, and that part of my life was over.

But, some memories are as persistent as an unwisely fed stray cat, and as a friend and I drove across the country a decade later, I rested in the backseat of another old Chevy, watching a similar light show of pinwheeling headlights upon a torn headliner and thought of my father back home, dreaming perhaps of a younger me. And I thought too of my old crib and bassinet, both covered with dust, their rips reinforced with spider webs, sitting empty in the sad attic where all of our keepsakes and memories eventually go to den. 


When I was four, my one-room schoolteacher paternal grandmother taught me how to read and write. An enthusiastic student, by the time I entered grade school I had become an ardent reader, devouring books well above my grade level. When I was six, my father taught me how to play and notate chess. At the time, the algebraic method of transcription was not widely used, and I laboriously registered each move, writing KKN-B3 and KBP-4, rather than the pithier Nf3 and g4. By the end of a long game, the letters and numerals sprawled down the page like arcane hieroglyphics decipherable to only us, the elite wizards of the chessboard. For no particular reason, Father saved each score sheet in the dining room china closet, and as the years went by, the pile threatened to obscure the dishes, until for no particular reason I declined to keep score. Soon, because of either my incipient adolescence or teenage indifference, I forget which, our competition ended, too. One day, I noticed that the heap of yellowing scoresheets was gone, but attributed its disappearance to one of my mother’s occasional cleaning frenzies. We still played now and then during the ensuing decades, but neither of us bothered to keep score; our eyes were upon the future, not the past. 

My father had been a medic during World War II, a corporal in General Patton’s Third Army. Like many former soldiers, he rarely spoke of the war itself, only of the mud of France, the ruined buildings of Germany, the beauty of the Bavarian Alps. When his battalion visited Hitler’s mountain redoubt, the Berchtesgaden, he retrieved for a souvenir a small triangular stone from its ruined fireplace. As I later discovered, he had been at another of Hitler’s creations, a hellhole at which the iron heel of a lunatic doctrine had ground into bloody submission an entire race of people; a Godforsaken inferno of mass murder and torture, a place utterly devoid of hope, in which conscientious scorekeepers toted up the deadly tally with mad Teutonic precision. 

But then, I knew little of these horrors; to me and my classmates – the boys, that is – the war was just an exciting adventure in which things got blown up. We drew fantastic battle scenes replete with tanks and battleships, airplanes and submarines, all engaged in unlikely tableaus of mayhem. With just a pencil and a few crayons, on sheets of lined notebook paper, we reimaged the war as an exercise in perspective, rather than the horrendous bloodbath that drenched four continents. 

During the years of my military fixation, I assembled plastic models of warplanes and battleships, with a few jeeps and destroyers thrown in for variety, until my bedroom resembled the coast of England before the Normandy Invasion. Our home lacked a bathtub, but our small sideyard creek served quite nicely as the English Channel, a perfect spot to launch my glued-together armada. I suspended the airplanes from my bedroom ceiling, where they slowly spun in the breeze coming through the window screens, as if engaged in imaginary dogfights. But within a year or two, I put aside my substitute toys of mass destruction, my martial bellicosity tempered by smithies of a gentler persuasion, and returned to my books.

I was a curious child, a loner who explored our farm and the adjoining watershed forest until I knew every species of tree, every kind of flower, and every turn of the creek. I explored our house, too, from its dank basement to its airy attic. In the summer, I liked to sit in the sauna-hot attic until I became drenched with sweat. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I retreated to the chilly basement, marveling at the floor by floor diminishment of the temperature – a drop from attic to cellar of easily sixty degrees. I also visited the attic in more temperate seasons; a trove of my father’s childhood books was there, as well as more recent paperbacks from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I loved to browse through them on rainy days, paging through the Mickey Spillane shoot-‘em-ups for the verboten “good parts” tacitly promised by the lurid cover illustrations of trashy gun molls sporting conical breasts that threatened to pierce their sweaters. On rainy days, it was easy to fantasize that the clay panpipes of the old mud dauber wasp nests along the rafters were emitting the rain’s one-note melody. Lying in the flat, even, dim light filtering through the grimy gable windows, I lay amid the forlorn discards of my ancestors’ pasts, happily daydreaming of an unguessable future. 

During one of these visits, I discovered an album of love letters from my soldier father to my home front mother-to-be. Although his lovely handwriting was crabbed to fit on the onionskin paper, and a word or phrase had been blanked out by a  hypersensitive censor toiling ingloriously amid the groaning gears of the vast wartime bureaucracy, his dislike of the war and his passionate desire to return home to the woman he loved was evident. Reading his letters was like reading his mind, and when he asked my mother if “she had ever been raped with her clothes on?,” I cringed with embarrassment, ashamed of my snooping.

The album wasn’t filled with just ancient billets-doux, however. There were black and white photos of my uniformed father and dressed-to-kill mother outside her sister’s house, juxtaposed beside scenic snapshots of undamaged French chateaus, German castles, and transcendent images of the Alps. To look at them, one would never guess of the horrors that had occurred in their shadows. As if to illustrate that very anomaly, there was also a series of photographs taken during the liberation of Dachau prison camp, where he had witnessed the ultimate human to human barbarity among countless day to day lesser ones. As I examined them, I felt with a shiver of revulsion as if the Angel of Death had lifted his dark robe to mock me, exposing himself in all of his hideous grandeur.

I had been raised on a sheep farm, and the death of a poisoned-by-nightshade ewe was fairly common. I had even watched with a queasy stomach the veterinarian digging through the ewe’s intestines, searching like a latter-day haruspex for a clue to its demise. And I had often held the heads of non-laying hens upon the chopping block while my uncle beheaded them with a hatchet. Death was no stranger, he just hadn’t yet stopped for a human client.

I had never attended a funeral, and on the rare times I had accompanied my parents to a cemetery, I wandered off while they were visiting their friends and relatives to read the epitaphs and examine the carven symbology on the older headstones. Even there, surrounded by its victims, Death seemed as remote as the hidden daytime stars: for why would I ever die?

But the people in the photographs, the corpses and the living skeletons whose burning eyes haunted one’s soul, had once thought the same, yet here they were, stacked in cords like Satan’s own firewood, or staring forever out of Hell itself. No amount of flowers or well-meant prayers would appease their tortured souls, and for their murderers there won’t be time enough in eternity to earn their redemption.

I never told my father that I had seen the photographs – I felt guilty, vaguely immoral, like I had when I looked at the salacious crime novel covers. It was difficult to reconcile the man who read Plato and Schopenhauer with the man who had also read such sleazy trash. Nor could I picture him recording those horrid events through a steady viewfinder, then returning to his tent to compose love letters to his wife. From that day on, I regarded my father in a new light, as an unknowable entity, a possessor of great secrets, a contradiction, even.


Although in his later years, my father would play his violin less and less, as if his artistic sensibilities had been retempered upon the anvil of a prosaic smithy to better withstand the vexations of a coarser era, I still liked to listen from the living room sofa as he valiantly stormed Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” stumbling at a difficult passage, cursing aloud, and then renewing his assault at the beginning. After getting a bar or two further in the trying composition, he would misfinger or misbow. “Son of a bitch!” he’d exclaim, then labor on, his curses replacing the libretto. Through much practice, though, he had managed to master a few slow pieces by his favorite violinist, Fritz Kreisler, lovely works that he played with eyes closed. Sometimes during an evening concert, I stood outside in the dewy summer grass, listening through the screened window amid the drifting pointillistic dots of lightning bugs, the hollow basso grunts of the bullfrogs in our creekside marsh accompanying my father’s ethereal serenade. Swooping bats basted the velvet heavens to the darkening hem of the earth, as they and the melody soared and plunged in ragged accord. The Milky Way spread above me from horizon to horizon, each star glittering in mute fury, and I craned my neck stiff watching it watching me. Eventually, the recital ended, and I went back inside, blinking in the light. Father never asked where I had been, and I in turn never asked where he went when he closed his eyes, suspecting that we had each been briefly transported into a private-but-somehow-mutual realm of ecstasy.


In every life there are moments so intense that they forever exist in some sort of quantum perpetuity, moments destined to endlessly recur in a Nietzschean wheel of eternal recurrence. If that is the case, then my father is diving to the ground this very moment, face down in the grass next to our backyard burn pit after mistaking the explosion of a carelessly discarded aerosol can for a mortar round. After standing up in obvious embarrassment, he explained to the picnic guests that his reaction was a survival reflex from the war, when he had carefully shepherded his fragile existence through a maelstrom of steel and fire. Although he tried to laugh the incident away with a sheepish smile, I could see that he had been wounded deep inside, and that the unexpected blast had probed that festering sore. 

Later on, after he had downed several beers, I overheard him tell his brother how a horribly wounded soldier – his face and manhood shot away, blinded and legless – begged him for a lethal injection of morphine, pleading and bawling until my father quietly filled a syringe and placed it in the man’s hand. The next morning, the man was gone, a new patient in his stead. No questions were asked, no answers volunteered, and the war went on.

When Father noticed me listening, he changed the subject. Once again, I had caught an unsettling glimpse of my father’s secret history, leaving me with the unsettling suspicion that he had deliberately abetted a suicide. But, I reasoned, compared to the forests of corpses felled at Hitler’s death camps, his “crime” was inconsequential indeed, and I soon relegated its memory to the attic of my mind.


In 1963, the bland but cozy post-war society that my father’s generation considered their reward for saving civilization, was assaulted by a cultural revolution led by The Beatles. As though electing to rub salt in his “wounds,” I decided to learn the guitar, the better to emulate Bob Dylan, an artist whose music was a combination of my two favorite genres, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. Ever the good sport, my father not only bought me a nylon-string Martin, but paid for my weekly lessons, no small expenditure given his modest salary. Now it was my turn to sit at the piano cursing over mangled chords and sour notes. One evening, as I was fingering the tricky chords to The Beatles’ “Michelle,” my father began to play the melody on his violin. 

“That’s a pretty song,” he commented. “Who wrote it?”

“The Beatles!” I proudly informed him, glad that he had finally acknowledged, accidently or not, an accomplishment of my generation’s favorite band. 

“Hah!” he snorted derisively. “Someday you’ll find out that they paid someone to write their music.”

Nevertheless, he played the song to its end.

Now that I was a musician, too, we talked of our relative instruments. It turned out that his violin and another in the attic were spoils of war, taken from a bombed-out estate in Germany. Inside the piano bench was another, a leather-bound volume of classical favorites, entitled Sturm und Drang, mute evidence of the cultural refinement of the same nation that had perpetuated some of the worst crimes in the long and sordid history of the world. The troubling dichotomy didn’t escape me, nor deter me from trying to play the pieces. As I struggled through the copses of difficult keys choked with a plethora of sharps and flats, I mused over the paradox that if musical notation – like that of chess – is a universal language, then how could those fluent in both systems have committed crimes so utterly antithetical to the serenity and joy that they transcribe?

Finally, unable to resolve this enigma to my satisfaction, I put aside the irksome philosophical posers that had stumped finer minds than mine, and simply played the music. 


As he aged, Father slowly retreated into himself. Never an outgoing man, he became a semi-recluse. Once he retired, he divided his waking hours between his downstairs reading chair before the unwatched television, his upstairs bedroom desk, where he typed letters to the pen pals he would never meet, and the front porch swing, where he thought his old man thoughts. He no longer played his violin; arthritis, not Dvorak, had finally defeated him. Turning to chess as a solace, he practiced against a chess computer until, on the rare occasions that we played, I struggled to prevail. But when senility established its first beachhead, he reluctantly gave up the game he loved, although for some reason, he kept a set-up chessboard in his bedroom. One day, it struck me that I was now older than he had been the evening that we had played “Michelle” together, and I felt a frisson of unease over my own mortality. Inside my being, there was still a recalcitrant child who resented being sent to eternity against his will.

My father may have thought differently, however, as he gradually sank into the quagmire of senility, wherein dwelt an ogre eager to steal not only his life, but his memories, too. It occurred to me that perhaps our memories are only on loan, are periodically recalled and redistributed, that maybe our lives are a series of recycled events endlessly reshuffled by karma. By that reckoning, perhaps someday in another world the Jews will slaughter the Germans, the chickens will hold the hatchets, and my head will rest upon the chopping block.

After much consideration, I rejected the premise. In such speculation lies madness: Lear raging on the heath, Nietzsche crying before a mistreated horse, Hitler ranting in his bunker.

As Father’s illness progressed his days sorted themselves into the “good” ones and the “bad.” Between these polar extremes lay the latitudes of “worse” and “better,” the longitudes of “normal” and “abnormal,” the degree of each a matter of debate.

A month before his death, I discovered him in his bedroom, eyes shut, big band music playing on his radio, his face without expression. For a second, I thought he had died, but then I noticed his right index finger keeping time on the arm of his rocker. Before he became aware of my presence, I quietly backed away, leaving him dancing with my mother under a glittering mirror ball in a pre-war ballroom, a begowned chanteuse crooning “Embraceable You.”


The last time I saw my father alive, he sat before the television he could no longer see, hands folded on his lap, his face a stony mask. When I asked if he was all right, he responded with a gruff “No!” I looked at my mother; she merely shrugged: What could she do? For that matter, what could I do or say that could ease his distress? Without a word, I simply left the room, leaving him to the fate that had been forged before either of us were born. He died in his sleep two days later. 

My mother’s phone call awoke me at midnight; her voice frantic. “I can’t wake your father,” she cried, “come up here now!” Immediately I knew that Death’s carriage had kindly stopped at last. I raced up the hill in my truck, ran past my distraught mother into his bedroom, where he lay upon his back in bed, eyes open, his right hand dangling above the floor, a large bubble balanced upon his lips, glistening in the muted light of a bedside lamp. As I searched for a pulse I knew I wouldn’t find, I glimpsed my distorted reflection in the gossamer sphere. After closing his eyelids, I shattered my image with a fingernail, releasing my father’s last breath back into the world he had just quit. Now, his travails were over, his soul unburdened once more.

As I folded his cold arms across his chest, I thought, So, this is how it ends; this is my father in death. Now there’s nothing more to hurt you, Father, no more horrors to witness, no mirror to remind you of your lost youth. I pulled the sheet over his face and looked around the room, fixing forever the tableau of his passing.

Wracked with grief, I looked about the room, grasping for a peg on which to hang my sorrow. Then I noticed his chessboard on a small table, a game in progress. Next to it, lay a yellowed transcription of a game I had recorded nearly a half-century before. With a guilty sob, I turned to my father – my still, lifeless father – and wept for us both, regretting bitterly the inexplicable shadow that had fallen between our lives all those years before. 


At his funeral, seven uniformed veterans fired three volleys from their rifles; the reports faded echoless in the vast, sun-washed cemetery. My father’s life would be condensed to a mere two dates – eighty-six years apart – embossed upon a simple bronze plaque imbedded in the earth; as a modest tribute to his traumatic service to his nation, every Memorial and Veteran’s day a tiny flag would flutter above his grave. As a bugler played taps, I thought of my father bowing his violin, eyes closed, transported to a temporary utopia wherein beauty trumped ugliness, and affronts to man and God such as Dachau did not exist. As a pastor who knew nothing about the deceased droned on and on, I scanned the sky for a fortuitous omen, perhaps a circling hawk or an auspicious crow, but there were only fleecy herds of grazing clouds, hazed before a gentle wind.

With solemn respect, the sergeant of the guard presented the coffin flag to my sobbing mother, then handed me twenty-one expended brass shells. Then my father, my poor dead father, was lowered into the ground, his duty over.


A few days later, as my mother was going through his things, she discovered a Bronze Star Medal, an honor that my father had never mentioned. What other secrets had he borne away?, I wondered. I recalled the hideously crippled casualty who had begged for release, and I knew beyond doubt that he hadn’t used the syringe that my father had “put in his hand,” nor had he died from his wounds. No, my father granted his petition, and administered the overdose. Perhaps for the rest of his life, my father saw the man’s ruined face every time he played his violin, the only good thing he had brought back from the war. Maybe his attempts to play the divine music of Bach and Shubert and Beethoven was his petition to them to intercede with God, to request Him to suture and heal the grievous lacerations upon humanity that had been inflicted by their countrymen.

Although I inherited Father’s violin, I never learned to play it. It rests on my bookshelf, next to an empty cartridge mounted on a walnut plaque. The brittle notations of our long ago games are in a trunk, waiting to be replayed with a future grandchild.

Sometimes on summer evenings, I sit at night on my father’s wooden porch swing, remembering my six-year-old self nestled on the backseat of the old ’51 Chevy, listening sleepily to his father singing along with Sarah Vaughan’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” while outside the half-frosted windows a galaxy of passing headlights and glowing streetlights wheel past in mute splendor. Then I look across the road at the moonlit meadow alive with fireflies, and I know with that child’s unshakeable conviction that neither me or my father will ever, ever die.


SMART Communications
PA DOC # HZ6518
Burl N. Corbett 
SCI Albion
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won six PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and four honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at Xlibris.com or Amazon.com.