Wednesday, January 21, 2015

21 Years of Living Dyingly

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Death has two faces: one's own 
Death, and the death of those we
Love.  Wisdom looks into the eyes of
Each face and sees what it must.
A.C. Grayling

It's around 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve.  I am supposed to be writing an entry to be mailed out on the 2nd.  It says so right on my calendar: “Send out AP article today, NO EXCEPTIONS.”  I'm not generally in the habit of procrastinating like this, especially when I talk to myself in all caps.  Actually, I've been attempting to pick the lock on the gates of inspiration for over a week now, to no avail.  I've never wanted to write something less, never felt so inadequate to the task.  If you are reading this, they are in the process of killing my best friend, Arnold Prieto.  I'm supposed to eulogize him, and I can't seem to find my words.

I've never been very good at this sort of thing.  My habit is to disappear and distract as much as possible when my emotional state is unsettled.  My modus operandi is to over-intellectualize matters;  I locate a literary reference or quote that seems pithy, something I can throw up in neon so that your attention is diverted, and then dive out the escape hatch and hope you didn´t notice.  In fact, that was my plan, to talk about The Plague, Camus' allegory of what happens when you exist in a society where death stalks you at every corner, not as an event but rather as a state of existence which persists beyond the ability of man to alter or end it.  I could have written at least four or five pages on this novel, tied it all up with a bow, showed how in Oran there are only “the townspeople” and “the volunteers,” and how Arnold was one of the latter.  It would have been decent, but it wouldn´t have had anything to do with my friend, only with my inability to somehow summarize his worth.  It would have been a betrayal.  Arnold wasn't a “volunteer”; I am.  And he thought such attempts at courage-in-adversity silly and pointless.

It's just not good enough to say that Arnold was good enough, to say that he was an honest man in a den of thieves.  Explaining what I mean by this requires you to understand our context, which you cannot do, and the content of a shared history, which would take me years to describe.  Eight, in fact.  And I just have no idea how to distill all of that down to a form that someone from your world would understand.  I'm used to much of what I say and write being lost in translation.  When it comes to the few friends I have back here and how we have attempted to survive and thrive in this hell, I don't even know how to use the transmitter.

The truth is, we probably shouldn't have been friends in the first place.  We have almost nothing in common.  He's not political.  He couldn't be persuaded to learn what it meant to be right or left wing.  If one were to plot out what he believes on a map, he'd be pretty firmly in GOP territory.  To rile me up (and, oh, does he ever know how to press my buttons), he talks about how Edward Snowden should be executed and how the NSA is nothing to worry about if you aren't breaking any laws; I won't even go into his views on Authority, save to say that they spiked the hell out of my blood pressure.  About the only thing we do agree on is religion, though he came to this position in a way that vexes me and I came to mine using methods he thinks are unnecessarily complicated.  We had great arguments, but somehow none of them were ever fatal to our friendship.  It's weird.  I can't explain it.  It's never happened to me before.

Years ago, Kevin Varga came to our dayroom and asked several people to participate in a little thought-experiment he'd come up with.  Imagine, he asked the guys, that a prison transport aircraft crash-landed on an island somewhere.  How would we live?  What would we do?  All kinds of solutions were offered, most of them representative of the sort of posturing that convicts engage in when in large groups;  it would have been a bad day for purported snitches, suffice it to say.  Neither Arnold or I said much, but I later asked him what he would do.  All he wanted for himself was to get away from everyone else, build a cabin with good sight lines, and live his life in a manner which fit him.  He said he didn't need to ask me, that he already knew that I would build a raft and take my chances on the high seas.

He was right, and I've thought about this island often over the years.  I take risks.  I am never satisfied, more often than not, bored out of my mind.  I have a very north German way of taking the good things for granted and focusing on the things that went wrong.  This all makes me annoying as hell.  Arnold was way more Zen than I am, without even knowing what Zen was about (which to my way of thinking is the only true Zen).  He wanted so little, expected almost nothing from the world save occasional small victories and disappointments.  For those of us that loved him, it was hard to see him exist in a world with such minimal horizons.  Still, it was impossible not to admire his way at times.  His ups and downs were manageable.  Nothing really shocked him; he'd seen it all in 21 years behind bars, and he fully recognized that the spinning bottle of misfortune will always eventually point at you.  He just took the downtimes squarely on the chin, picked himself up, and moved forward. Zen.

This is probably why my weirdness didn't annoy him as much as they do with nearly everyone else.  He just accepted me as I am.  He was remarkably loyal to me, a quality which is in short supply around this joint.  He is one of the only two or three guys I know back here that are universally liked.  Seriously: you couldn't find anyone around here that hated the man.  You probably don't understand how rare that is, because you don't live in a place that is constantly divided by cliques and the ever-evolving games they play against each other for power.  The rest of us creep around, trying not to step on any landmines, all the while laying our own.  Arnold just stayed the hell out of the fields.  He taught me much in this respect, and most of the antibodies I've developed over the years against infections of drama were originally grown in his petri dish.

The man could draw.  He was one of the best artists back here, and one of the most sought after because he wouldn't charge you an arm and a leg.  Same with his speakers – he had some of the best sounding units around, and he charged half of what I do, annoyingly.  He just valued his time less than most.  He was always honest in his dealings, also annoying at times because this extended to the officers.  When I'd get on him for messing up one of my intensely intricate plays, he'd just shrug and say that officer so-and-so was someone's mother or sister, and I'd slink away feeling like so much pond scum.  For people who claim that prison never makes anyone better, all I would have to do to prove them wrong is to point to Arnold.  He was just that noble.

Years ago, Arnold and I spent about a year working out like maniacs.  We did all manner of body weight exercises, push-ups, burpies, twenty different exercises involving the chin-up bar.  We also ran, sometimes for 90 to 120 minutes at a stretch.  When I run, I zone out, just trying to live in the moment and not pay attention to anything or anyone else.  One day, eight or nine months into our program, for reasons I don't recall, I suddenly noticed that for every lap Arnold was running, I was doing nearly two.  I spouted off in what I believed to be a righteous indignation.  You know, “you are cheating me and yourself” and similar windy militant trash.  He thought it was hilarious, and it was, though I couldn't see it at the time.  What I also couldn't see – what I didn't understand until much later – was that Arnold didn't give a crap about running, his waistline, his cardiovascular system.  He was just doing what he had to do to spend some time with me.  You can count on the fingers of a blind butcher's hand the number of people in my life who went so far out of their way to be my friend.  Convicts don't talk about love.  There's just too much testosterone in the air for that, too many jackasses that would misconstrue such things for their own twisted purposes.  We talk instead about respect, which can mean both love and fear, sometimes at the same time.  I'm too close to his death right now to see the full extent of his loss.  I'm sure I will write more about Arnold once I have gained some distance.  All I can say now is that there hasn't been a man I've met in m ten years that I respected more than Arnold.  And I know that if somehow these walls fell and you had to deal with him, you would have respected him too, though you wouldn't understand what he had to go through to become the man he was.  I will miss you, brother.

A Challenge To The Dark

shot in the eye 
shot in the brain 
shot in the ass 
shot like a flower in the dance 

amazing how death wins hands down 
amazing how much credence is given to idiot forms of life 

amazing how laughter has been drowned out 
amazing how viciousness is such a constant 

I must soon declare my own war on their war 
I must hold to my last piece of ground 
I must protect the small space I have made that has allowed me life 

my life not their death 
my death not their death…

Charles Bukowski

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


julieta said...


Bonnie said...

Thomas, this is the most beautiful tribute to your friend. Arnold would have been honored and humbled by your words.

kmoehaynes said...

Rip Prieto.. So glad i was able to speak encouraging words to u last saturday at visit. Thomas this is amazing and may God bless u..

RainingBliss said...

Well done, Thomas. Well done.

Nicole Van Drei said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
urban ranger said...

Your tribute to your friend Arnold is very moving. Condolences to you, Thomas.

D Ruelas said...

My dear friend, Thomas. The way you express yourself about our dear friend Arnold, is truly beautiful and describes him so well. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten by those of us who loved him. The great news is, my friend Arnold is 100% FREE and this is not an "adiós" but an "hasta luego". I will see you again some day, my dear friend, Arnold.

ATalamantez said...

Your tribute made me smile. Thank you for honoring him in such a kind manner and showing a glimpse of his good heart. I remember my cousin as big brother, mentor and Co conspirators as will be missed....

Linda Fuentes said...

I have no words to say but thank you

Melinka Drummond said...

So sad. I wish we could go back in time and fix our mistakes and change things. You had a very emotional job to do. Keep your head up and may your friend RIP.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful eulogy, Thomas. Makes me wish I could have known him too. RIP Arnold.

Nicole said...

Beautifully written....

Diane Peppers said...

Hmmmm very interesting...such eloquent words for a friend....

Anonymous said...

Sometimes good people make really bad mistakes which they pay dearly for. People change, they grow, they become humble when once they were not. Time can be a friend or enemy depending on the place you experience it. For your friend, time was the enemy and he went to a much better place. A place of love. God forgives He is happy now and his soul is free. Reading your tribute to him touched my heart. I think he would have appreciated your kind words.