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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bruiser

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By Timothy Pauley

My first trip to McNeil Island ended far too quickly. The second time around I was determined to see if I couldn't make it last a little longer than two years. In fact, my intention was to finish out my sentence there.

The only reason I was able to get this transfer was because of my mother. Her cancer had returned. The prognosis was that she only had a short time left. The Department of Corrections had a policy that permitted a person to transfer closer to a dying relative and, even though it took the better part of two years to actually get them to apply this policy to me, I was eventually on a bus headed in the right direction.

The day the bus pulled onto the barge to ferry us across the mile and a half of water that separated the prison from the mainland, it was a typical January day in Western Washington, gray and rainy. The scenery was still beautiful, particularly to someone who'd been in prison for nearly thirty years, but the low visibility did not do it justice. Over the course of the next few weeks, I was able to absorb the full impact of the visual palette unique to this prison. From the yard Puget Sound glistened in the rays of sunlight that began to poke through the clouds. Elk could be seen ambling past the exercise yard a mere twenty feet on the other side of the dual security fences that surrounded the facility. A dozen or so bald eagles perched in a tree up on the hill that overlooked the prison, periodically soaring high above us as they looked to locate their next meal.

As we progressed into spring, the sky became clearer and the full majesty could be seen. On a trip to the yard the first sunny day, I walked to the fence that was a mere thirty yards from the water. As the smell of the sea filled my nostrils, I looked up and the view nearly took my breath away. There before me, rising above the waters of Puget Sound and the tree line on the opposite shore was Mount Rainier in all its glory. The mountain was actually about seventy or eighty miles away, but it is so large that at that distance it looms over the water in an awe-inspiring way that a prisoner would never have opportunity to see in any other place.

As I stood there absorbed in the moment, a sight appeared that completed the picture perfectly. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement just on the other side of the fence. When I looked down, a raccoon turned his head and met my gaze as he ambled by. The other animals I’d seen always gave me the feeling they were wary of people. Not this guy. He was Bruiser, king of the raccoons. No matter how much the warden liked to think he was the ruler of this fiefdom, it was Bruiser's island and he don't give a crap what any of us thought about that.

His surly demeanour aside, Bruiser could easily be identified at a great distance. While there were dozens of raccoons who frequently visited the prison, Bruiser stood out amongst them. For starters, he was a good forty pounds. For a raccoon that is huge. Then there were his ears. Much like a fighter of other species, Bruiser showed the marks of his conquests. His left ear was halfway bitten off, with an edge that still showed a clear line of teeth marks. His right ear was also half missing and it was also split down the middle all the way to his skull, giving the appearance of two.

The ears were just the start. Bruiser was missing big tufts of fur from various places around his body and his tail was a two inch stub instead of the eighteen inches of striped fur that most raccoons sported.

Bruiser walked exactly like one would expect an animal of his appearance to. His front shoulders remained hunched and he had a slow deliberate gait that gave the appearance he was on his way to step into the ring for a title fight. Shortly after my return to McNeil, I had an opportunity to see confirmation that Bruiser was indeed all he presented himself to be. 

One day during the spring rainy season, I was lifting weights in the yard. Directly adjacent to the weight pit was a large industrial building with an angled roof. I just happened to glance up and there was Bruiser on top of another raccoon, pounding away, creating the next limbs of his family tree. When I looked up, he appeared to meet my gaze and I could swear the hint of a grin curled at the corners of his mouth.

In prison modesty and shame are seen as signs of weakness. Being fearless is looked upon with great respect. As Bruiser continued to pound away for nearly an hour, he easily established he was indeed fearless. In the middle of his tryst, another raccoon approached and challenged him. Bruiser stepped off his ride and proceeded to maul his rival to within an inch of his life. He was already back to business as the other raccoon dragged himself away, but Cruiser paid him no mind at all.

Whenever anyone or anything dared to stare, Bruiser wasn't shy about turning his head in their direction, cocking his chin a little, and meeting their gaze in what could only be characterized as a challenge. This behavior directed at other raccoons would not be particularly surprising, but Bruiser did it with people, too. So what if you outweighed him by two hundred pounds, Bruiser wasn't about to take any shit from anyone.

Most people love fuzzy cute little animals. The baby raccoons that frequently slipped over the fences to beg for food were the stars. Everyone loved these little guys and pampered them as much as possible. I can't argue about these cute, cuddly little creatures because I too found them delightful to watch. But I'm a prison guy. I'd been kicking around these places for my entire adult life and if I had a kindred animal spirit, it was Bruiser. From the instant he shot me the first "What are you lookin at?" stare, he was my guy. Bruiser was a survivor and so was I.

Being close to home was wonderful. I'd been away from western Washington and my family for nearly twenty years and it didn't take long to fully appreciate my transfer. I was able to see my family, and particularly my mother, on a regular basis. They even had a private family visiting program where I could spend a full 23 hours alone with my mother in one of the two small apartments they'd constructed on the prison grounds. I cherished being able to have this quality time with my mother before I lost her.

The family visiting units were situated by the rear gate of the prison. Once business hours were over, that area of the prison was deserted but for the two families in the visiting units. Families were able to look out the rear sliding glass door of these units and see a large expanse of evergreen trees stretching to the sky. Were it not for the double fences topped with barbed wire and razor ribbons, one could easily forget they were actually inside of a prison facility. Even sitting outside on the patio was more like home than prison. 

Visitors were permitted to bring a large cooler of food for these visits. The prison would not supply anything, but none of us wanted to eat prison food there anyway. Not only was there the issue of being able to eat something different ourselves, but who would want to subject their loved ones to the disgusting food of a prison diet?

My final visit with my mother came in late May of the year I arrived back at McNeil. After enjoying a meal together and catching me up on what the rest of the family had been up to, we retired to the living room to relax and simply enjoy what we both feared could be our last hours together. Mom was my oldest living relative so I was eager to have her fill me in on family history that would be lost with her passing. 

We talked for several hours, looking out at the woods, until the sun disappeared over the horizon. No sooner had the perimeter lights of the prison snapped on when I noticed a ball of fur scurrying onto the patio in front of the sliding glass door. Moments later another followed, then another. Then the show started.

Prison raccoons learn at an early age where to go for a first class free meal. The visiting units were at the top of that list, and thus the first place they normally stopped the moment the sun went down. Just the act of showing up would probably have been enough, but these three had developed a strategy. 

Moments after they appeared, the boldest of the three approached the glass door. He looked in then sat on his hind legs and put his front paws on the glass. Once properly situated, this little guy craned his head from side to side as if he was scanning the room for potential rewards. It didn't take long for his two sisters to follow suit.

It was almost like my mother could read my mind. With the three raccoons striking their cutest poses, I went to the kitchen to find something to give them. As I approached the door my mother said, "Don’t you dare let them inside." While I hadn't consciously planned to do this, there was no question than if I had opened the door to feed them and they'd have tried to walk in, I'd have welcomed them. As always, mom was much wiser than I.

So I bent down and opened the door just a few inches. Sure enough, all three raccoons approached. It was then that I looked out and saw four larger raccoons waiting in the wings. I was deeply impressed by how clever this strategy was.  Send the cute little youngsters to beg for the family. And, of course, it worked great.

I started by handing them pieces of bread. I'd hold out a slice and a raccoon would approach the door, sit back on their hind legs, and extend their front paws forward to receive their prize. As soon as they'd grabbed the bread, they'd walk backwards to a safe distance and began to eat. This process repeated until they'd eaten nearly an entire loaf of bread

When they tired of bread I found other treats to bring them. A raw egg or two, a pile of chicken skin, even a couple brownies. After the entire family had their fill, they even put on a show for us. Mon and I sat and watched as the youngsters played and wrestled in the grass for about five minutes before moving on to the next stop on their circuit.

It was about two hours before I caught another movement out on the patio. I looked up to see Bruiser staring back at me. He was in his usual pose: which might not have worked on some people, but for me it was guaranteed success. As I approached the door with the bread that was left, Bruiser ambled up to the opening and acted as if he was preparing to open the door himself. I paused for a second, thinking that if he decided to push his way in, it could be ugly. While I was sure I could keep him out. I was equally sure that I would collect a few permanent scars doing so. But he was my guy. No way I was not feeding him.

When the door slid open, Bruiser was already on his hind legs with his hands out. Instead of taking a slice, stepping back and eating it, Bruiser would take a slice, throw it down and immediately reach for more. But that is probably how I'd have played it, were I in his shoes, so I kept handing him bread until the bag was empty.

Bruiser polished off the bread quickly. He returned to the door and sat up waiting for round two. A couple of eggs and a couple of brownies later and he was starting to get full. We sat back and watched as his vigorous chewing slowed to a lethargic pace.  Bruiser was stuffed and there was only one thing left for him to do.

Much to my surprise, instead of strutting off to his next nightly haunt, Bruiser cruised up to the glass door, turned his back to us and sat back against it as if it were a lawn chair, and then spread his legs out to the sides. At first I thought he was kicking back for a short nap, but I wasn't even in the ballpark on that one. Moments later I noticed a kind of rhythmic movement in Bruisers upper body. My first thought was that the poor guy had fleas and was scratching. He had to sympathy for a moment. Even as jaded as I am it took a moment to me to realize exactly what he was doing.

Mom seemed confused too and we both looked on at this unusual sight. Then it became apparent to me what we were seeing—Bruiser had filled his belly and now proceeded to lay back against the door to pleasure himself! I had no idea animals even did such a thing, but by now it was obvious that is exactly what he was doing.

Being a prison guy, I like to think there isn't anything that embarrasses me anymore. But I was wrong. Sitting in a room with my mother watching a forty pound raccoon masturbate was enough to embarrass even me. The moment I realized what he was doing, I got up and drew the curtain. "That's enough of that," I said, as I sat back down.

Looking over at Mom I could not tell if she realized what we had just witnessed but she seemed happy enough to be done with the raccoons for the night, so I didn't try and find out. She retired to her bedroom a short time later.

After about half an hour, I opened the drapes again only to find Bruiser still going at it. In fact, he was much more animated at this point and a few minutes later seemed to finish his business. No sooner was he done and Bruiser rolled back onto his feet, turned toward me, and stared me down as if he was expecting some kind of reward for his effort. We locked eyes for a moment before he lumbered off.

After that, whenever I'd see Bruiser walking by on the other side of the fence, I'd share the story of his shameless display with whomever I might be talking with. Each time this happened, it was almost like he knew I was talking about him. He'd stop, stand there until I was done, and could swear he'd give me the exact same look he did that night when he walked away from the door.

Sadly that visit was the last time I ever saw my mother. She passed away a few months later and for a while every time I thought of that visit tears would well up in my eyes and I'd feel the pain of missing her as if she had just died yesterday. But the more I'd see of Bruiser, and the more I shared his story, the more I came to remember that time as a humorous event, the likes of which most people will never witness. Bruiser truly was a prison raccoon and, much like some of my convict brothers, was there to help me through a rough time. Thanks brother….

Timothy Pauley 273053
WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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1 comment:

Ken said...

I lost my own mother about 9 years ago this month so your story really hits home with me. That racoon seems pretty balsy. Thanks for sharing, I am glad you got to have some special time with mom before she passed. Keep the good memories close and I don't think I can see a racoon without thinking about this. Be well, Ken