Pages

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.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Arrest

By Erin George

These are turbulent times. As the nation grapples with the murder of George Floyd, citizens of all ethnicities and ages are flooding the streets, demanding change, as a coward shivers in his government-subsidized bunker. I am not able to join the demonstrations because I'm in prison, but, at least, I thought, I could share my own story about the police. Here it is.

The day I was arrested, my two older children were at school, so I'd spent the morning running errands with my youngest, Gio. We'd just had lunch at Applebee's, and she was dozing off in her car seat in the back as we approached our home.

As we got closer to the house, I saw a cluster of people standing in my driveway: two men in suits – whom I recognized as the detectives who had been investigating the death of my husband months earlier – and a woman I'd never seen before. As my SUV pulled into the drive, they all stepped back to give me room.

The detectives watched me quietly as I unbuckled Gio from her seat, only approaching when I finally clutched her in my arms. Respectfully, even gently, they told me that I was being arrested for the murder of my husband. They asked me if I had any questions. They also asked me who they could contact to take care of my children. The woman, they explained, was a social worker who would make sure that my Gio would be safe and my other two children would be met at the school bus that afternoon.

I was numb and handed Gio to the clearly kind and concerned woman after one last, desperate embrace. I was allowed to lock my car, and, when Gio began to cry and reach for me, the detectives let me hold her again, to calm her and try to explain, as best I could to such a young child, that everything would be okay. 

After giving Gio back again, I was carefully seated in the detectives' car, brought to the police station, and booked.

I later learned that the social worker had taken Gio to a close friend's house and that all of my children were immediately surrounded by people who loved them.

There, then, is my experience with the police.

It doesn't sound familiar, does it? It's nothing like all of the other stories we've all heard, the stories of violence and heartbreak that so many have endured.

You can justifiably ask, why is my story so different? What made me so special? 

Did I have political clout or great wealth? Was I a celebrity? Or did the detectives arresting me have some doubts about my guilt? I did not and was not. And the cops most assuredly did not.

What I was was a middle class, suburban, white woman; no one special, except to my family and friends. That, it seems, was enough to ensure that I'd have no remarkable arrest experience to relate.

But when I hear other people's – black and brown people's – horrific stories of injustice and violence, I cannot use my own benign experience to dismiss those tragedies as aberrations; the acts of "a few bad apples" in the police ranks: the violence is too well-documented and widespread to dismiss. 

No, my own story is only further proof of the poisonous open secret that taints our entire society: that there exists two parallel justice systems in America – one based on the ideals that give us the moral high ground as we preach to other countries for their human rights abuses, and a second that perpetuates those very same abuses we decry elsewhere.

What other explanation is there? How else could I, a woman accused (and eventually convicted) of murder, only feel the touch of a policeman as one chivalrously guided my head to avoid an unpleasant bump while being seated in his car, while generations of black men, women, and even children have felt a knee on their neck, a taser's jolt, a bullet's deadly blaze, simply for being suspected of selling loose cigarettes, passing a phony twenty dollar bill, or playing with a toy in a park? 

My absence of such a story is not specific to me, either. White people have cell phones, too, after all, and I'm sure that if in white neighborhoods white suspects were being murdered by cops on the flimsiest of excuses, there'd be footage everywhere.

When I think about my childhood, I can't remember a single instance of seeing a police car patrolling our neighborhood. In fact, the only time I ever saw a cop was when we had an assembly at school once about avoiding drugs. Nor did local police patrol the gated community where I eventually bought my own home. When I was arrested, I didn't know of a single person among my family or friends who had also been arrested, much less incarcerated. I'd certainly never had to receive a talk from my parents instructing me on how to avoid being murdered by the police.

I know how privileged I was. But I am no more responsible for that privilege than people of color are for their own circumstances. So how, in a country that brandishes its ideals like a club, can something so random as a circumstance of birth determine whether you will walk or be carried away from an encounter with the police? And how much longer can people like me ignore it?

Erin George 1141067
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974