By John Falk
It’s minutes before six and we’re all waiting for the Execution Watch radio show to come on the air so that us guys on Texas Death Row can sort of share Thomas Whitaker’s final moments with him as the State takes another life from us.
“What about you, Johnny Ray?” a voice hollers from a few cell doors down.
There are seven cells next to each other here on the bottom floor, which is so-called “one-row”. The voice coming from one of these cells is another person who will eventually take the same last walk that Thomas is taking right at this moment.
Facing our own date is so much easier than having to watch somebody else who we’ve come to love and respect as a brother here in the row. Some push people away after losing too many friends to those final minutes of “Execution Day,” as some people call it – as if it were some kind of bank holiday conveniently left off the calendar.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, trying to rein in my wandering thoughts.
“Reincarnation, dude!” the voice comes back. “Joe is coming back as a hawk. Micah as a lone wolf. And I’m coming back as an eagle. So, what animal are you coming back as?”
I think: You’ve got to be kidding me. These people are about to kill Thomas, and this is what we’re talking about? Really?!
The guys around me are veterans when it comes to watching their friends take that final walk. So, being one of the new guys over here, it’s only right for me to follow their lead. After all, maybe it’ll help absorb some of the sting from this moment.
“A cat,” came the thought, pouring from my mouth before there was any time to filter it through the turbulent emotions swimming in my head.
“What kind of cat?” asks the voice from one-row.
“A cat, man. You know, one of those domestic cats. Maybe a grey and white one, or something,” I say.
As only other guys on the row would probably understand – though God knows I can’t right now – an eruption of laughter follows my words, along with several humorous comments. But, for the life of me, nothing seems funny; certainly nothing that should cause such an outburst. Even during more normal times, it would be kind of strange, and today wasn’t a normal day.
Thomas was certainly involved in a horrible crime, but how could anyone see this man as Texas’s “worst of the worst?” I’ve been in this living hell that is the Texas prison system more than 32 years, and the “worst of the worst” don’t reside on death row, least of all Thomas.
As the laughter subsided, back comes the voice. “Dude, that is stupid. For real. Why would anyone want to come back as a stupid domestic cat when you could be anything in the world?”
In this moment, my thoughts lead me towards Shasta. But knowing how image is everything to us men, I respond, “Look at it this way, Bubba. I’ve spent decades around all you idiot hard-heads, and when you are all out there roaming in the wild, all alone and fighting to stay alive, I’ll be cuddled up next to some beautiful woman who loves her cat.”
As might be imagined, this creates an uproar of good-hearted laughter with calls of, “You tell ‘em, Johnny Ray!”
I walk away from my cell door wondering what Thomas’s last moments might be feeling like, and I start to think about the final seconds of another friend…
Shasta the cat was nothing close to acting like a normal feline. After catching her, along with her four sisters, it took weeks to train them all enough so that they became tame.
At the Wynne Unit of Hunstsville, Texas, there are many wild cats that roam all over the prison grounds, breeding almost as quick as the thousands of rats. Every so often the guards would have to kill lots of the cats with poisons and traps, as well as through the cruelty of one mean-bastard-of-a-guard known as Mr Keelings.
“Keelings is my name and killing is my game” was his favorite line.
It was Keelings’s job to help kill as many cats as possible at the Wynne Unit. He was known for luring them to him with food, only to cripple them with a devastating blow of his nightstick. Once he had maimed the harmless animals, he would then slowly step on them, crushing their small frames with his three hundred pounds of weight. It was terribly cruel, but he seemed to find some sort of sadistic pleasure watching the felines with broken spines squirm and scream in their final moments of pain and suffering.
Shasta had the prettiest blue eyes. They contrasted with her grey and white coat, which also had touches of black mixed in. Having tamed Shasta, it became my responsibility to protect this beautiful and loving animal from the horrifying terror of Mr Keelings and his cat hunting proclivities.
On the maintenance yard, where I was assigned to work as the equipment mechanic, Shasta would always follow me around, just as if she were a dog. She was an immediate rock star with the guards and prisoners alike. She remained at the prison with us, while her sisters went on to live in the homes of a few different guards.
In the evenings, just before it was time to leave the maintenance yard and head back to my housing area, Shasta would always be left inside the little shack, otherwise known as my “workshop.” She always seemed to know when it was time to return to the workshop. She would obediently run in there and play on the carpeted climbing station that some of us guys had made for her, figuring this would keep her occupied during the long hours through the night. She really loved the hanging tennis ball we installed on it for her too.
Nobody was happier to see me in the morning than Shasta was. Every day I would bring her a packet of mackerel, so she would have something more than just the dry cat food one of the guards had smuggled in to feed her. She was as jittery with joy as any frisky pup would be; meowing and purring with happiness pouring through her sweet, little heart.
One day, while I was on the maintenance yard, the voice of one of the security guards instructed me: “Falk! Get your things, you’re being reassigned to another job.”
Being reassigned meant I would no longer be working as the equipment mechanic there. It also meant that I could no longer protect this precious, loving animal who wouldn’t even bother the pigeons when they walked in the gravel yard, pecking amongst the small patches of grass under the bird house that had been built by some men in the carpenter’s shop.
“Take care of Shasta, and make sure you guys lock her in the workshop every night before you head out. You know Mr Keelings won’t spare her if he finds her,” I told the guys gathering around Shasta and me, as she rested in my arms, purring her felicitous love.
“Don’t worry, Johnny. You know how much we all love Shasta. We’ll take care of her, you’ll see,” said the guy who would be replacing me there.
After a couple of months passed by, a bunch of us were gathered in the living area, known as the “dayroom.” It had two televisions and several four stooled stainless-steel tables, along with some metal benches stationed around the place. The noise in there is probably on par with a crowded bar, with men conversing or shouting at the T.V. during their favorite sports program.
“Hey, look! It’s Mr Keelings,” someone yelled while pointing through the window.
“Oh, no!” another voice hollered out, “It’s Shasta! Johnny, it’s Shasta!”
Muscling through the mass of men, I finally made it next to the window to see a scene that made my pounding heart stop. As if she could feel my heart stop also, Shasta paused and stood staring at Mr Keelings. He then knelt down on his haunches, which I already knew to be his strike pose just before a paralyzing attack.
Shasta stood there as if she knew something wasn’t right. Men around me were shouting at Mr Keelings and Shasta at the same time, but we all knew what was coming, and that we were powerless to stop what we knew was so wrong.
Mr Keelings had something in his left hand, lowered to the ground. We all knew sweet, loving Shasta would trust even the very worst of men. Her gentle paws faithfully moved towards him and that fatal spot where death’s brutal club would come crashing down upon her fragile frame.
Please, no! Dear God, don’t let her suffer, I silently prayed with all my heart while squeezing my eyes closed. It was beyond me to watch this happen. Fighting back tears, and clutching at the concrete window ledge to balance myself, the shouting and raging of men continued…
Suddenly, shouts of excitable men were exploding around me now too, bringing me back to the reality of my existence on the row. All the men were cheering about something, as if there were a ballgame turned on.
“What’s going on?” I ask, walking back up to my cell door.
“The Governor commuted him,” someone hollers from a few cells down. “The Governor commuted Thomas’s sentence to life without parole!”
Don’t they realize Life Without Parole is just a slower and more miserable death sentence?
Oh well, at least Thomas will live to see another day. All life really does matter. For that, I can only smile because he’s one lucky cat.
John Falk 999605
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Hello! If “Shasta The Cat” touched you and you’d like to learn more about this guy from Houston, Texas, you can write or JPay.com your every thought. Hey, mail call is coming, so where is your letter? I spend my days reading non-fiction mostly, exercising, studying to be a paralegal, writing, while telling some of the craziest stories you could imagine. Love art (yes, I draw too) music, and getting to meet people with real stories of their own. Life is too short to not explore every potential, so get at me. I’d love to read how this story made you feel. Hope to hear from you soon!