Thursday, December 29, 2016

World War I and Prohibition and the Birth of Jazz

By Denver 


In 1897, there was mass chaos down in New Orleans. The wild rowdy city was a melting pot of ethnicity and commerce. Frenchmen, Creoles, West Indians, Spaniards, Blacks, Mustees, legitimate businessmen, church ladies, pirates, and prostitutes, all co-existing in a relatively limited area.

An alderman by the name of Joseph Story proposed setting aside an eighteen square block district for vice. The proposal was passed and the chaos submitted to organization. The district was dubbed Storyville.

Storyville was a siren calling men from every state. There were 2000 prostitutes in its 230 brothels; as radically diverse as the city. They were catalogued annually in an official "Blue Book" which sold for a quarter on street corners. In those days the bar owners did not hire bands. They did not believe patrons who danced would drink. Brothels, however, hired parlor piano players, and that is where Jelly Roll Morton began his musical career.

Born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe in New Orleans on October 20, 1890, Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz. Of course, he also claimed to have invented the piano and anything else that came to mind. He was a colorful character, and -- veracity aside -- an accomplished pianist, composer, arranger and writer. He could put his money where his mouth was.


In another part of the country, during the same era, a baby boy was born to J. E. Ellington and Daisy Ellington. Edward Kennedy Ellington’s life could not have been any more further from conditions in Storyville. Born in the home of his maternal grandparents in a northwest corner of Washington D. C., he spent his earliest years in a big comfortable house just a few blocks from the White House.

J. E. was a man of modest means but lofty aspirations. Butler to a prominent Washington physician, he sometimes served as a caterer at the White House, and eventually became a blueprint maker at the Washington Navy Yard. His son remembered him raising his family as if he were a millionaire.

Daisy, the daughter of a police captain, was so devoutly religious that she wore no lipstick because she thought a woman should not be attracting men. Daisy had lost one child in infancy so when Edward came along he represented a second chance. Nothing was too good for him. He was pampered and spoiled rotten by all the women in his family. He once said his feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground until he was the age of six.

Daisy took Edward to church twice each Sunday, once to the Baptist Church where her family had always gone and again to the Methodist Church favored by her husband. When the boy fell ill with pneumonia she saw to it that not one, but two, doctors were in attendance.

On the piano, Daisy played classics so beautifully for Edward that sometimes he wept. She made certain that when he was old enough to reach the piano keys, he faithfully practiced after each lesson with the neighborhood teacher, Marietta Clinkscales. His mother used to tell him, "Edward, you are blessed. You can do anything anyone else can do." She believed it, and because she believed, he did too.


In 1901, in a section of Storyville so violent it was called the "Battlefield," another baby boy was born. He grew up with the nick-name Dipper. At the tender age of seven Dipper began working after school for a rag collector. He collected rags, bottles, and bones and delivered coal to the prostitutes in Storyville. He rode in a wagon while blowing a long tin horn to let clients know the rag collector was coming.

When Dipper was ten years old he spotted an old battered cornet in a pawnshop window. He borrowed $5 from his employer and purchased it. It was so dirty it had turned black. Morris, one of the ragpicker's sons, cleaned it up with brass polish and poured oil through it. Morris was quoted years later as saying Dipper played a song for him on the newly acquired horn that sounded so bad he did not have the heart to tell him.

When the Dipper was 11 he dropped out of third grade. He quit his job with the ragpicker and organized a street quartet, who sang for pennies while keeping a sharp eye out for truant officers and policemen. His eye was not sharp enough though, because on New Year's Eve he got arrested and sentenced to an indeterminate term at the Colored Waif's Home.

The cosmos aligned for the Dipper with that one unlikely event. The home was known for its marching band. The Dipper had to prove himself worthy before the band director would allow him to join, and in a short time he was made leader of the band.


Up North, fifteen year old Edward Ellington took a temporary job washing dishes at the Plaza Hotel while on vacation with his mother in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He was befriended by the headwaiter who talked him into going to hear a Philadelphia ragtime pianist during his off hours, named Harvey Brooks. It forever changed his life.
After returning from Asbury Park in 1914, Edward entered Samuel H. Armstrong Technical High School. This was during the Jim Crow era, so the high school was segregated. Young Edward was determined to become a piano player – in part because he noticed girls were attracted to piano players and he was attracted to girls — and because music would be his way to express himself.

Edward was soon playing for teen-age dances at True Reformers Hall on U Street for 75¢ a night. He began to work up his own tunes. As young Edward matured, his grades waned and his interests shifted away from school toward ragtime piano. Yet, he painted well enough to win a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York. With just four months to go until graduation, and to his mother's horror, Edward gave up the scholarship and dropped out of school. He had decided to become a full-time musician. As for jazz – the music he would one day make his own – it was unlikely that he had yet heard a single note. But within a few weeks that would change for young Edward and for the whole country.


Back in Storyville, young Dipper turned 13 years old and made it back to the streets. In the black section of the red light district, known as the "25s," Freddie Keppard was the number one horn player. Joe Oliver was number two. One night Oliver decided he was going to be number one and snatched the crown from Freddie's head.

Oliver told his piano player; "Get in B♭." Oliver walked to the door, lifted his horn to his lips and stepped outside playing beautiful, soulful blues. People started pouring out of other spots to see who was blowing all that horn. Oliver took young Dipper under his wing. He let him substitute in the band and one day passed him a battered cornet.


In 1917 members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded "Dixieland Jazz Band One-Step," and "The Livery Stable Blues." The record sold more than a million copies at 75¢ each. One moment jazz was virtually unknown . . . the next, it was a serious past-time of 100 million people. Initially people wanted only to listen to this music. Eventually the melody, the beat and the energy all culminated in the frantic form of dance called the Charleston. In retrospect, it was a natural progression.

The same day the record was made President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress asking permission to arm merchant ships against attacks by German submarines in the Atlantic. Thirty one days later America entered the World War.

On New Year's Day 1918, two thousand men of the Fifteenth New York Regiment landed at Brest on the coast of Brittany. The French soldiers, sailors and civilians who turned out to greet them had never seen or heard anything like these Americans. The officers were white, as were all the combat soldiers who had trooped ashore in France since the previous June. But these enlisted men were black. So were all the members of the regimental band.

The leader of the regimental band was Lieutenant James Reese Europe. He had joined the regiment two years earlier because he thought a National Guard unit for Harlem would bring together all classes of men who stood for something in the community.

The Army brass believed Europe's band with its brand of martial ragtime would be good for morale while winning new friends among the French. The band played French marches, American military marches, plantation melodies and ragtime pieces. The music was still orchestrated ragtime meant for marching, not jazz, but it was filled with jazz elements; breaks, riffs, trombone smears, and rhythmic excitement no other marching band could come close to matching.

A concert was given in the Tuileries Gardens in conjunction with the greatest bands in the world; the British Grenadier's Band, the Band of the Garde Republicain, the Royal Italian Band and Europe's band. Europe was quoted saying, "My band, of course, could not compare with any of these, yet the crowd, and it was such a crowd as I never saw anywhere else in the world, deserted them for us. We played to 50,000 people, at least, and had we wished it, we might be playing yet."

Making nice with the Allies, playing music and sowing seeds of jazz for future tours was not the only thing the Fifteenth New York Regiment was known for. They endured 191 unbroken days of combat, won 171 decorations for bravery (more than any other American unit) and took special pride in the name the French gave them – Hellfighters.


Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. a young Edward Ellington was making a name for himself as one of the most successful dance band leaders in town. The Duke's Serenaders played all over the city and its suburbs, but Washington had become too small.

Even though the Duke was married and had a young son to care for, he took off with two friends a drummer and a saxophone player, for Harlem. The Duke was soon getting pickup jobs. Then he was chosen to be the band leader of the Black Sox Orchestra before changing their name to the Washingtonians.

There was an exodus of musicians to Chicago and New York. The clubs were begging for jazz. King Oliver headed for Chicago in 1918, leaving Dipper to take his place in the band. Dipper, also known as Satchel-mouth, or Sachmo, was becoming known in his own right.  His given name was Louis Armstrong.

Four years later, King Oliver sent word to "Little" Louie asking him to come to Chicago, which he did. Meanwhile, the Duke made his way north to New York. Clubs were flourishing. The country was experiencing unprecedented prosperity. Post-war a decade later caricatured as the "Roaring Twenties."

This was a time unparalleled in American History. Homes were lit by electricity; and featured refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, twelve million radios, 30 million automobiles, untold tickets to theaters, luxury and glamour unimagined. But there was also prohibition.


Rural life could not have been more different than city life in the twenties. Slum conditions were so severe tmen went to saloons to escape the depressing reality of their home life. Drinking only made them quarrelsome and disorderly. Hardworking, nondrinking, churchgoing farmers and business people in the rural districts and country communities began to think of all cities as Sodom and Gomorrah, and they blamed alcohol. They launched temperance movements to counter its bad effects.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, sentiment among the majority of Americans was that temporary Prohibition would help the war effort. The war was over, however, by the time the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 15, 1919. 

When Prohibition went into effect, many people believed the public would accept it. Who would risk a $1,000 fine or six-month jail term just for a drink? Chicago's gangsters, on the other hand, saw a promising business opportunity in Prohibition. Brazenly, six masked men invaded a Chicago railway yard and took $100,000 worth of liquor from two boxcars. Bootlegging led to the division of territories between gangsters like Al Capone, Detroit's Purple Gang and others.

Gangsters owned most of the best clubs, dance palaces and cabarets. It was natural to sell alcohol in these establishments and liquor was on everyone's mind because of Prohibition. People were curious, and drinking was more attractive now that it was illegal. Speakeasies were supplied with liquor by underworld dealers and protected from arrest by corrupt police and public officials.

By the late 1920s the country had more speakeasies than it ever had saloons, and though bootleg liquor was of low quality, even dangerous, millions of people were drinking it. Women who would never have considered entering a saloon were now gleefully sitting at bars.

Meanwhile in the Windy City, Louie Armstrong was teaching the world to "scat" (singing in nonsense syllables). Legend had it beginning as an accident. Armstrong said his lyric sheet slipped on the floor as he was recording "Heebie Jeebies," and the record producer signalled him not to ruin the take by stopping. "Heebie Jeebies" was Armstrong's first hit, selling more than forty thousand copies within a few months. "Scatting" caught on and became a trademark for future jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.

Prohibition continued to negatively impact the nation. In 1929 a meeting in Atlantic City, N.J., of Capone, Detroit's Purple Gang, and other territorial czars agreed to a nationwide division of the spoils. In Cincinnati, Ohio, George Remus, an attorney-turned-bootlegger, bought nine distilleries and amassed a fortune estimated at $40 million before he was caught. Captain Bill McCoy of Jacksonville, Florida, also became a millionaire by carrying schooner-loads of liquor from the Bahamas to New York, then dropping anchor beyond the 3-mile limit, and selling to bootleggers who came out in speedboats. He founded "Rum Row," a huge fleet of vessels selling liquor outside the limit.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt, U.S. Assistant Attorney General in charge of liquor law prosecutions, sent Remus, McCoy, and many others to prison, but when she resigned in 1929, she became an attorney for the wine industry.

Some of the unfortunate results of Prohibition are still with us. The affiliation between corrupt politicians and organized crime, is still evident today. So is the disrespect for the law which became widespread during the Prohibition era.


Liquor and its impact on the nation was not the only form of corruption in America Jazz – and the dancing it inspired – was also said to be having a catastrophic impact on the national character. "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls," reported the New York American, "through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras."

Within two years in Chicago alone, the Illinois Vigilance Association reported in 1923, the downfall of one thousand girls could be traced directly to the pernicious influence of jazz music. In Cincinnati, the Salvation Army obtained a court injunction to stop construction of a theater next to a home for expectant mothers on the grounds that "the enforced proximity to a theater and jazz palace" would implant dangerous "jazz emotions" in helpless infants.

A social worker reported on the "unwholesome excitement" she encountered even at small-town dances in the Midwest. "Boy–and–girl couples leave the hall in a state of dangerous disturbance. Any worker who has gone into the night to gather the facts of activities outside the dance hall is appalled . . . by the blatant disregard of even the elementary rules of civilization. We must expect a few casualties in social intercourse, but the modern dance is producing little short of holocaust."

Ethel Waters possibly advanced the "moral disaster" view early in her career. She began as a shimmy dancer and singer. Singing lewd burlesque blues and specializing in sly insinuation with records like "Organ Grinder Blues," "Do What You Did Last Night," and "Handyman."

He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle, 
Churns my butter, strokes my fiddle, 
My man . . . such a handyman. . . .

He threads my needle, creams my wheat, 
Heats my heater, chops my meat, 
My man . . . such a handyman. . . .

Don't care if you believe or not, 
He sure is good to have around 
Why when my furnace gets too hot, 
He's right there to turn my damper down....

My ice don't get a chance to melt away, 
He sees that I get that old fresh piece every day, 
Ah that man . . . sho' is such a handyman.

Her manager insisted she try to perform for the all-white vaudeville circuit. She was certain she would fail, but white people loved it and she became the first black woman to headline at the Palace Theater, in New York. Starring at the Plantation and Cotton Clubs, she went on to Hollywood. In 1929, appearing in a film in which she introduced her best-remembered song, "Am I Blue." For a time she was the best paid woman in show business, black or white. Lena Horne once paid her the highest possible compliment saying, “Ethel Waters was the Mother of us all.”


New Yorkers could not get enough of this new music. In 1924 a jazz enthusiast visiting the West Side of Manhattan could, , without walking more than four blocks see and hear the giants of the age. Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians played at the Hollywood Club at Forty-Ninth Street and Broadway. Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines played at the Cinderella Ballroom at Forty-Eighth Street and Broadway, and Fletcher Henderson, with the brand new cornetist Louis Armstrong, played in the Roseland Ballroom on Fifty-First Street and Broadway.

Whenever Duke and his men could get away from the Hollywood club they came to the Roseland to hear Armstrong. "There weren't words coined for describing that kick," Ellington was quoted as saying, "everybody on the street was talking about the guy."

At a time when cornetists and trumpet players rarely played higher than high C, Armstrong would routinely finish choruses on F and with a big, robust tone. Other trumpet players would eventually play higher than Armstrong had, but no one since has gone so high with such a consistent blend of power and warmth.

Back in Chicago, Jelly Roll Morton was making records under contract with Victor. He handpicked his band, called them the Red Hot Peppers and paid them $5 a session for rehearsals – unheard of in that day and time. But Morton's recording sessions were strictly business.

Morton willingly listened to his musicians, recalled Johnny St. Cyr. "Jelly was a very, very agreeable man . . . He was fussy on introductions and endings and he always wanted the ensemble his way, but he never interfered with solo work . . . He'd tell us where he wanted the solo or break but the rest was up to us."

There was never any doubt about who was in charge. Once, when trombonist Zue Robertson repeatedly refused to play a melody precisely as written, Morton pulled a revolver from his jacket and placed it on top of the piano: on the next run through Robertson never missed a note. "You did what Jelly Roll wanted you to do," Baby Dodds recalled, "no more, no less."

Immediate successful, the records they produced sounded like pure New Orleans improvisation at its best. Morton's celebrity only enhanced his ego. He was in demand all over the mid-west, yet at the height of his success, he decided to pull up stakes and move to New York. He believed the success he’d enjoyed in Chicago would be even bigger in the center of the music business. It did not happen.

Jelly Roll Morton continued to tour and make memorable records for Victor but he never established himself like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Still, he did pretty good for a piano player who started his career in the House of the Rising Sun down in Storyville. Who else will go down in history as claiming to have invented the one truly American form of music embraced by the rest of the world?

Dennis Vertin #135167 
Lakeland Correctional Facility 
141 First Street
Coldwater, Michigan 49036

Dennis Vertin, pen name Denver, is 66 years old. He has served over 44 years on his life sentence. He is the only prisoner in the history of Michigan who had his conviction reversed by the federal court after serving ten years, was released on PR bond, was free nearly four years without negative contact with authorities, then the reversal was reversed.

In 2009, after a public hearing, the Parole Board recommended Denver's sentence be commuted to thirty-seven years but Governor Granholm turned the recommendation down without explanation, despite absolutely no opposition from the victim's family or friends. Denver has currently served more time than any Michigan prisoner who has been granted a commutation, with three exceptions.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Magic Lantern, Chapter One

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Anthony S. Engles

Wild Turkey and Broken Glass

July 30, 1983

The tarnished silver bell above the thick glass door heralded the arrival of Washington State Trooper Bob Wooten. His eyes burned from staring down hundreds of miles of mostly deserted black-top, and Denny's was his final stop each night before heading home. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his utility belt and surveyed the damage. He gave a low whistle. 

"Jesus Christ, Lynette, you should have gotten the bomb squad down here," he said. "What the hell happened?"

Lynette looked up from the register and offered a weary smile, her thick mane of cinnamon brown hair piled up and clipped in place with wild, loose strands escaping everywhere. She handed change to a young man with a black leather jacket and a military haircut.

"Hey, Bob," she said. "Erika was a no-show and Monique called in sick again. Help yourself to the coffee if you like, you know where it is. We're short a cook, too, so Rita‘s back helping on the line."

Wooten watched a teenage busboy with greasy blonde hair and a volcanic case of acne sweep the entire surface of a cluttered table with his forearm, dumping everything into a filthy gray plastic tub.  Platters with utensils and napkins glued on with dried egg yolk, dirty ash trays, banana split boats that swam with melted ice-cream, half-empty water glasses and coffee cups smeared with lipstick clattered angrily into the grimy receptacle. Except for a few diners enjoying coffee and languid conversation, every table in the restaurant was covered with dirty dishes or stripped of everything but a tacky film of residue - as if the only coffee shop for 40 miles had been over-run by a starved mob, ransacked, then abandoned with the same haste. The angry few that remained formed a sloppy line at the register, reluctantly paying their checks and upbraiding the only representative of the company about lousy service - Lynette, the harried swing-shift waitress.

Wooten associated the smell of Denny‘s with the end of long, lonely nights on the highways with nothing but a radio dispatcher to keep him company. The distinct blend of coffee, stale cigarette smoke and maple syrup--even Lynette‘s Avon perfume and Aqua-Net hairspray stood out as cornerstone aromas that helped him unwind. They swirled around him, loosening his neck muscles while he performed his paperwork chores before heading home. Lynette would make an extra strong pot just for him, and he would sip the potent liquid until the effects of the road began to ease their grip on him. Then he would go home to a small, empty house and keep Johnny Carson company until he drifted off in his easy chair.

He set his logbook, paperwork, and portable radio on the end of the counter. Several other seats were taken, most of them fellow bachelors like himself that had no better place to be at 11:15 on a Saturday night. Their heads swiveled towards him in the haze of cigarette smoke and watched with raised eyebrows as he boldly crossed the invisible barrier that normally kept customers out from behind the counter. Wooten grabbed a clean cup out of a rack and filled it with coffee. He sat the cup at his space and looked down the line at expectant faces that watched him where he stood-on the business side of the counter.

"You're wearing the wrong uniform, ain't you, Bob?" one of the men said. The others chuckled.

"Howdy, Earl," said Wooten. "What about it, Lynette, You want me to give this crew a refill while I've got the pot in my hand?"

"Oh, would you?" said Lynette, pinned at the register. "Those poor boys have been dry for ages."

He went down the line, refilling cups so empty the brown residue had dried on the bottom; ashtrays with cigarette butts formed into tiny mountains lay strewn along the counter. The men nodded their heads in appreciation and gave up lighthearted banter about his newly chosen profession, even speculating aloud how he would look in a brown polyester skirt. Back at the warmer, Wooten swapped the empty pot for a full one. After a moment of hesitation, he sighed and made another pot; he had seen Lynette do it at least a thousand times. He made his way to the row of booths along the wide bank of windows at the front of the restaurant that faced Melrose Street.

"Bob, you give the term Public Service a whole new meaning," hollered Lynette from the register, "When I get caught up here, I'm going to make you the best banana split you ever had."

Wooten smiled. He walked across the carpet with a limp that was hard to conceal after working a double, stuck behind the wheel of a police cruiser for sixteen hours. He had taken one in Soc Trang in October of '68, the slug shattering his hip - an injury that never did quite heal properly. The pain was especially acute during changes in the weather or after extended periods of inactivity. Wooten might not turn down a banana split-or anything else Lynette cared to offer him, but what he really needed to wash away the broken glass in his hip waited for him at home in his liquor cabinet: 101 proof whiskey. Wild Turkey was a tried-and-true choice for pain relief that provided the additional benefits of curing White Line Fever and exorcising demons that wore black pajamas and carried AK-47s.

The booths along the windows lay abandoned and cluttered except for two. Wooten approached the first table - two mildly inebriated women in their thirties, their faces still aglow from a ladies night out. While he refilled their cups, one of them leaned forward provocatively and batted thick eyelashes at him.

"Thanks, officer," she breathed lustily. Her companion giggled and the counter gang chuckled as well. Wooten was not a small man; he stood six-four at just over two hundred pounds. He wore his fine black hair long on top, parted to the side, and combed back-a style somewhat dated for a man only thirty-three. When his blood was up, his sub-zero cobalt-colored eyes were able to unnerve and subjugate even the most belligerent drunks that stood bobbing and weaving on the side of the road.

Wooten stopped at the other table although neither customer had a coffee cup. An attractive couple in their late teens leaned across the table, holding hands, oblivious to the universe around them. The girl was big-eyed with honey-wheat hair in a ponytail, wire rimmed glasses, and a willowy figure. The boy had thick brown hair, intense blue eyes, and a movie star chin. He wore a spotless dress-white Navy uniform, with his dixie cup on the table, off to the side.

"I thought that was you, Miller," said Wooten. "What brings the Navy to Vermilion? You know, the nearest port is over 400 miles away."

"I joined up, Sir. I came back to get my girl. We're going to get married."

"Don't shit me, Miller. It sounds like you swiped that line out of an old Gene Kelly movie."

"It's true. We got the date set and everything."

Wooten narrowed his eyes and looked at the girl.

"Colleen, isn't it?"

“Yes, Sir,” she said.

"Your folks know you're getting hitched to a Navy man? You know about these guys, don‘t you?"

The girl smiled. She squeezed the boy's hand harder.

"Yes, Sir. I think I've finally got him tamed."

Wooten gave a somber nod and returned his attention to the sailor. "You know, you have to be an officer to play football in the Navy. It seems like your recruiter would have let you in on that little piece of information."

"I know, Sir."

"Well, the Army's got a hell of a team, too. Maybe it's not too late to divert you to O.C.S., what do you say?"

The boy laughed.

"No thanks. I'm done with football." He straightened his back, his eyes gleaming with pride. I plan on getting into law enforcement."

Wooten raised his eyebrows.

"Well, I'll be damned," he said. "Congratulations. On all accounts, I mean. To both of you."

He turned to leave, coffee pot still in his hand, but stopped and fixed the sailor with a stern glare.

"Stay off my roads if you've been drinking, Miller. If I catch you again, I'll drag you in and book you."

The boy's face colored slightly and he dipped his head, duly penitent.

"I will, officer. Thanks for the break last time."

Wooten returned the coffee pot to the warmer and took his place at the end of the counter, his hip grinding as though it were packed with jagged pieces of gravel. He lit a Chesterfield and drew deeply. He aimed the plume of blue-white smoke upwards toward a speaker that currently provided a lively Muzak rendition of "Eleanor Rigby". Wooten secretly enjoyed Muzak and found it soothing, but he despised the Beatles. He turned up the volume on his portable radio slightly to create a distraction for himself. He adjusted the squelch. It had been a quiet night, and there was nothing more than a steady stream of distant chatter-most of it from the Whitman County Dispatcher 35 miles northwest, towards Spokane.

"How's business?" asked Earl, from his right. “Thwart any evil-doers?"

Earl was in his fifties, widowed, and owned the feed store over on Ridge Road. He wore a greasy ball cap that was as old as he was and had the checkered Purina logo on the front. 

Wooten sipped his coffee and shook his head.

"Slow, just like I like ‘em," he said. "Couple of folks who spent too much time at the beer garden and a fat doe that bought it trying to cross 469 down by the golf course. Not much else, I‘m happy to say."

"Poor thing," said Lynette. She stood just a few feet to his left and gave change to a dour, elderly woman with puckered lips and eyes that could cut stone. Apparently, her dining experience had been less than pleasurable; she snatched the change from Lynette's palm and stomped out with her rickety husband in tow.

Wooten set out to complete his paperwork, starting with the daily entry in his log. Lynette wished the final customer at the register a good night and began to restock the restaurant, wiping each surface thoroughly as she went. Wooten looked up from his work occasionally to see her walk past. He enjoyed watching her walk. A big-boned woman, her backside had an easy, gentle sway no matter how busy she was. Even in a uniform designed to conceal all traces of her femininity, Lynette carried herself with a confident, sensual elegance that kept the counter lined with lonely bachelors throughout her shift. She appeared with a pot of coffee and an appreciative smile.

"Once I take this order out, I'm going to fix you up, Bob," she said. "Do you like walnuts?"

Wooten smiled at her.

"I can't eat ice cream this close to bed time. It gives me nightmares."

"Seriously? That‘s no fun."

"Not really. But, I don‘t need it," he patted his flat stomach. "Thanks anyway."

Lynette opened her mouth to protest. Just then the sound of ceramic striking metal rang out as four steaming platters of eggs, sausage, pancakes, and French toast clattered on the pass bar behind her. 

Lynette frowned.

"I'm not finished with you yet, mister," she said.

"I hope not."

Lynette turned her back to him so she could gather warm containers of maple syrup, individual jellies, and scoops of whipped butter. 

His attention back to his paperwork, Wooten wrote for several seconds then stopped in the middle of a word and lifted the pen from his ledger. He turned and looked at Earl. Earl's leathery, gray-stubbled face was twisted up and his head was cocked; He was hearing it, too. Lynette turned her head and looked toward the east, dark brows knitted together in concentration, her hand with the butter scoop suspended above the stainless steel counter. Wooten turned his head toward the sound.

The adjacent building to the east was the new Circle K, its fluorescent lighting spilling out into the parking lot. Melrose Street continued past the Circle K, turned into
Highway 114 just beyond and disappeared into the blackness. The mill lay two miles out, but past that was nothing except hundreds of miles of cornfields and timothy.

A faint high-pitched mechanical whine was growing louder with every second, swelling from the east. Stationary silhouettes began to take form -tall black cut-outs of trees backlit with the pale glow of approaching headlights. In an explosion of light, the beams broke the plane of the dark horizon, forcing Wooten and the others to momentarily look away.

The car appeared in a flash of purple and chrome in the neon light of the Circle K, a five year-old Toyota Celica coming fast. The four-cylinder engine screamed like a jet preparing for take off. The car was either stuck in first gear, or the driver had failed to upshift. The Celica disappeared from view for a moment as it passed into a blind spot created by the foyer, then re-appeared in the far right edge of the bank of windows in the front of the building, speeding west. Wooten guessed the speed of the car at around sixty mph.

"Jiminy crickets!" said Earl.

As the Celica reached the mid-point of the restaurant, the driver stomped on the brakes. The car went into a sideways skid and all four tires screeched to a smoking halt. The engine gunned twice, then lurched forward and stalled. The driver started the Celica and gunned it. This time he successfully navigated the car into the parking lot after jumping the curb and uprooting a two-foot swath of Arbor Vitae. The car skidded into the space next to Wooten's cruiser-avoiding the rear bumper with the driver-side door by an inch.

The driver abandoned the vehicle and sprinted towards the entrance. The glass door flew open, almost tearing the bell off its tiny chain, and a young woman burst into the lobby, chest heaving. She was the archetypal student - minimal make-up and a gray sweatshirt with W.S.U. on the front. Her eyes locked with Wooten‘s. Dark irises stood out in fields of white; her mouth opened and closed as she took in great gulps of air. Cold adrenaline crept along the length of Wooten‘s spine. He and Lynette rushed to meet the girl, Lynette still holding her butter scoop.

"Now just take it easy, Miss," Wooten said, "Try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Like this, watch. One. Two. One. Two. That's it."

After a few breaths, the girl was able to manage a few words.

"I forgot - until I saw your car-I was looking-for a phone --"

"It‘s okay, it‘s okay. Just breathe."

She did. The few customers in the restaurant had gathered around, but maintained a respectful distance.

"What is it, sweetie?" asked Lynette gently. "What happened?"

The girl half-turned and pointed in the direction that she had come from. Once more, the night had swallowed everything beyond the Circle K.

"A wreck," she blurted out. The color left her face and she began to shake. She looked at something faraway that only she could see. "It's awful. There's people --"

The young woman doubled over and ejected the contents of her stomach onto the carpet, splattering several shoes, including Wooten's and Lynette's. The other patrons took a step back and covered their mouths and noses-the sour stench of vomit immediately thick and overpowering. The sick girl had turned a chalky green color, a thin sheen of perspiration coating her face. Wooten and Lynette helped her to a vacant seat at the counter. While Lynette went for a towel, Wooten placed his hand on the girl's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

"How far, Miss?" he asked.

She shook her head violently as if to drive the memory from her head.

"I don't know. Ten miles, maybe."

Lynette returned with a warm, wet towel.

"Have her leave a number where she can be reached," Wooten said. He snatched up his paperwork and radio, hailing the Columbia County Dispatcher as he rushed for the door.

"Be careful!" Lynette called after him.


The light breeze offered a weak breath of vitality and carried the aroma of the nearby Snake River. Wooten slid behind the wheel of the Plymouth Fury sedan and turned the key in the ignition. The 383 Interceptor sprang to life, its blood still warm, anxious to roam the highways once again. He activated the safety and emergency lights, backed out of the parking space, and flipped the switch for the siren. He left the lot and sped east into the night, red and blue lights flashing overhead while the shrill blare of the siren cleared his path. The radio was abuzz with local traffic, abrupt beeps and the crackle of keyed transmitters as the dispatcher relayed information to other agencies. Wooten's current position in relation to other emergency services- those of Whitman County Memorial Hospital being 14 miles north of Vermilion- increased the likelihood of his being the first official on the scene.

Wooten gripped the wheel of the cruiser. The engine thrummed and the tires whined, forced to take 35 mph corners at twice that speed. The modified rigid suspension allowed him to feel every pebble on the road through his palms on the steering wheel. This stretch of highway had been part of Wooten's route for several years -- he could drive it in his sleep, and often did while in bed at home. The 10 mile mark from Denny's would be at the middle of a long, straight section of road that ran through lush fields of timothy in the spring, or a layer of snow several feet thick in the winter. The Ricknor farm and surrounding property of ten thousand acres ran along the south edge of the highway for several miles. This area was also the favorite haunt of local hot rodders; they would flock here to measure each other's cocks and let off steam, so Wooten was surprised to see the linear strip of highway deserted with only impenetrable night on either side of his headlights. Directly ahead lay nothing but cracked asphalt and faded white lines that sped toward him.

Wooten pressed on the accelerator, the needle on the speedometer edging toward eighty. After two miles, a low rise and gradual curve to the right loomed, forcing him to reduce speed. With the skill of a stock car racer, Wooten negotiated the winding road that cut back and forth through an area wooded with thick stands of pine, dipping in and out of shallow ravines. He would break sharply going into a turn, then rowel the Fury onward when he came out the other side - the front end lifting slightly as Wooten drove the gas pedal to the floor.

At 15 miles, there was still no sign of the accident. Wooten drove another mile, then another. The night hurtled toward him as his headlights peeled back layer after layer. He feathered the brakes going into a steep curve, then applied them with force when the phosphoric pink flash of a flare winked at him from the far left of his periphery. He carefully followed the turn and suddenly the wreck was in full view, his windshield a panoramic screen swollen to the edges with macabre visions of horror in flashing red and blue. He inhaled slowly, and then exhaled with the same deliberation. Plastic and broken glass crunched under his tires as he pulled the cruiser to the side of the road.

Wooten killed the siren and stepped out onto the gravel. He stood motionless for a moment and let his senses catalogue the overwhelming amount of stimulus that bombarded him. Two cars -- a red station wagon and a late model oxidized-green Ford sedan -- had collided head-on. Pieces of wreckage both mechanical and human littered an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool and prevented traffic from moving in either direction. Besides Wooten’s, three vehicles that had been heading east stood empty, parked in the middle of the road with headlights left on, illuminating the grisly scene. Eight or nine cars sat on the other side of the crash, west-bound towards Vermilion, abandoned with their doors still open. A dozen citizens, stunned and shocked, shuffled towards Wooten, their appearance spectral and unnerving as they swirled with the ethereal fumes of spilled gasoline. Some of them were blood spattered like grossly under-dressed surgeons with haunted eyes that peered out from deep sockets. Flares lay in a circular pattern dangerously close to the fluid leaking hulks and completed the hellish vision of carnage and destruction. Bone jarring heavy-metal music continued to pound from the sedan and bore down on Wooten‘s nerves.

The first motorist to reach Wooten was a man in his fifties in a loose fitting canary-yellow tank top and a white-collar haircut. Fresh blood coated his hands up to mid-forearm. He pointed a dripping finger at the green Ford that had been picked up by a fifty-foot tall giant, twisted and crushed, then hurled back to earth. 

"The racket's coming from that one," he said in a loud voice. "I must have gotten here seconds after it happened, I could still hear the echo of the crash when I opened my door. Creepiest thing I ever heard. How the hell could the battery have survived that?"

It was a good question. The Ford lay in a crumpled "V," the front half from just below the driver's seat bent upward at a forty-five degree angle, yet the stereo was intact; a heavily distorted guitar chattered like a machine gun while the vocalist unleashed demonic howls. Wooten realized he was grinding his teeth.

"What's your name?" he asked the motorist.

"Strand. Albert Strand. I own Columbia Paint down in Bend. I was on my way back from Pomeroy. Rafting trip."

"It looks like you've rendered assistance. Where are the survivors?"

Strand pointed his chin at the gravel shoulder on the northern edge of the road.

"I tried to help that one, but he was dead when I got to him, probably before he hit the ground. You‘ve got a live one in weeds in front of the Torino, but he wouldn't let me get near him. He‘s got - well, you‘ll see. It's a mess.”

Several other motorists began to gather around like zombies in a horror film, eyes glassy and jaws slack.

"Strand, help me kick these goddamn flares away from this fuel before we all get blown to hell."

Wooten flicked on his Mag-Lite and made his way to the northern edge of the road, kicking flares back. Tiny chunks of twinkling safety glass carpeted the pavement as though it had fallen from the sky in a strange storm. The odor of burning rubber blended with the seductively sweet smell of gasoline, and Wooten felt the first wave of nausea pass through him, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. He swept the beam of his flashlight in a wide arc to the left, and an icy hand closed its fingers around his heart. He had been able to get used to all aspects of his job but this: dead children.

It was a boy, ten or eleven years old. Only the style of clothing on the small broken body allowed Wooten to determine the sex of the victim. The head and upper body was an unrecognizable mass of glistening bone and sinew with much of the skin torn away. Wooten swallowed hard. He swung the beam of his light back towards the west-bound station wagon. The boy had been jettisoned from that vehicle and thrown close to twenty feet to this spot, where he may or may not have drawn his last breath. Anger surged in Wooten’s veins, anger at the boy's parents for not strapping him in, anger at the futility of seatbelt campaigns. He acknowledged the emotion, embraced it, and then dismissed it-he was a professional and had work to do. He moved towards the wagon.

A windshield lay on the pavement, nothing more than a lump of clear plastic encrusted with chipped glass among a small sea of flotsam: A large tweed suitcase split open like an oyster, empty except for a navy blue pajama top hanging limp over one edge-men's shirts, still creased, a woman's beige skirt, a pair of Scooby-Doo underpants, a tennis racket in a black vinyl case with a neon green Spalding on the face-all scattered about like a bomb had gone off at a yard sale. Wooten reached down and picked up a Mrs. Beasley doll that had not received a scratch from the impact; her face smiled up at him, every blonde curl on her head perfectly intact. He set the doll down and closed his eyes for a moment to will away the nausea and clear his head. Where were the paramedics? The heavy metal from the Torino chipped away at his powers of concentration. He trained the beam of the flashlight on the station wagon. The front-end had been driven to the firewall, most of the engine in the front seat.

Neither of the occupants in the front seat had worn seatbelts either. The passenger, a woman, lay half out of the opening where the windshield had been. Her head, left and shoulder were unseen, crushed to the width of cardboard by a crumpled section of hood and right front quarter panel. Wooten resisted the urge to reposition the woman's blouse that had been torn back and away so that it lay in a clump of blood soaked rags bunched up around her waist. She'll be wearing a plastic sheet soon enough Wooten thought.

The driver's death was no more dignified. The explosive force of his brief forward flight had been arrested suddenly and violently by the vertical support designed to keep the windshield in place. The narrow piece of steel had cleaved the man's skull in two, lengthwise.

Wooten swept the beam of his flashlight through the passenger compartment, looking for survivors. A spatter of blood and hair the size of volleyball marked an inner side window, but there was no sign of other victims. He stepped cautiously across the white lines toward the mangled Torino, skirting a tiny human appendage that had been torn out by its roots, part of the fourth victim, no doubt. Wooten did not linger.  He pushed the image from his mind like so many others that he had during the war. He took a series of controlled breaths with the same count - in and out - then moved on.

Wooten circumvented the tail end of the Torino and identified it as an early-seventies model he had seen around town. He scanned the database in his mind, but could not place a driver behind the wheel. The ceaseless hammering of the music vibrated pea-sized pieces of safety glass on the bent trunk lid. Wooten found several crushed sixteen-ounce Budweiser cans scattered on the slick pavement. A woman's sandal lay on its side in a puddle of fluid, the strap torn away. The car was twisted at such an angle that the passenger door hung from above; Wooten was forced to duck down and bend his upper body sideways to access the interior. He squirmed his way into the dark cave of twisted metal, torn upholstery and bent plastic. The thunderous bass from the rear speakers reverberated through the frame while the overpowering smell of alcohol and gasoline threatened to send him into a swoon. Gritting his teeth, he shone the light at the dashboard while he reached behind it with the other hand and tore wires away indiscriminately. The vocalist continued to shriek, searing his venomous message into Wooten's brain:

Do you believe in God?
He's chained up like a dog
and every hour he screams
‘Satan rules supreme!'

Wooten's hand finally closed on the correct group of wires and the ear-splitting din ceased with an eerie suddenness and finality. He exhaled with relief.

"Jesus Christ," he said.

Before he left the passenger compartment, Wooten's flashlight fell upon another sight that caused icy insects to creep up the length of his spine - the shattered windshield on the passenger side had blown out and hung like a limp flag. Intricate spider web patterns twinkled against a backdrop of drying blood in the glow of his Mag-Lite.  He knew where to look for the other victims.

Wooten extricated himself from the interior of the Torino and walked east along the gravel shoulder. A soft breeze carried the smell of freshly cut timothy and the wail of emergency vehicles still a short distance away. Above the whisper of tall grass, along the side of the road, Wooten heard someone talking. The voice was male and originated from a point ahead and off the road, speaking in a relaxed, conversational tone. Wooten followed the voice into the knee-high grass. Ten feet from the road his flashlight beam fell upon the bare back of a shirtless survivor

He sat in the tall weeds, facing away towards the blackness of the timothy fields. Wooten now recognized the boy as a local teen by his thick tangled black hair that hung past his bare shoulders, his pale skin smeared and smudged with engine grease and blood. He rocked back and forth, talking quietly as though he was telling a bedtime story. Wooten came closer. 

“Son, I'm coming up behind you. My name is Bob Wooten. I'm with the State Patrol."

The teen did not respond. Along the trail of crushed grass Wooten's beam showed heavy amounts of blood, arterial splashes every foot or so; someone was losing copious amounts of the precious liquid fast. Wooten came within a few feet of the boy. The rocking seemed to quicken.


He caught a glimpse of a bare foot, then the other that wore the sandal that matched the one by the Torino. The teen had a girl in his lap. He held her and talked to her while he rocked faster and faster. His voice began to break as he lost control. The girl wore tight-fitting pants, the cotton fabric pristine white from the knees down, spattered with red drops above the knee and a deep, wet crimson from mid-thigh up. Her legs shivered violently with shock. Wooten was directly behind the pair now and he could smell stale beer and plasma. The girl made a ghastly gurgling sound, and her legs went rigid; every muscle contracted while she went into a seizure. The boy began to weep. His upper body shook and convulsed with hers as she slipped away. Wooten stepped around the two and shone the flashlight on the young woman to assess her condition.

"Good Christ," he said.

He covered his mouth with the back of his hand and stumbled back a half step. He closed his eyes to will the horrific vision from the sight of his mind, but the action only ground it into his memory - the vision that an ocean of Wild Turkey could not wash away.

To be continued...

Anthony Engles 832039
Coyote Ridge Corrections Center
P.O. Box 769
Connell, WA 99326
My name is Anthony Scott Engles, born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1965.  After a brief stint in the Navy, I pretty much roamed around the country, waiting tables and bartending.  I settled in Spokane in 1994, then got pretty heavy into survivalism and related activities.  I got in a shoot out with Stevens County Deputies in 2003 and wounded one of them.  I’m serving a 30-year sentence in Washington State, where I have done the majority of my writing.  I have one short story published and several unpublished short stories and poems.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Good Old Days

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By J. Michael Stanfield Jr.

Autumn takes me back in time. In the beginning, anyway, when the dry, lukewarm days of fall first replace the humid, sweltering ones of summer.

A mild autumn breeze can somehow remind me of the long-gone and distant past, of childhood and adolescence, of being a teenager, or those mystical, fleeting years of adulthood before prison.

There’s something about the end of summer that brings it all back, the change in temperature or barometric pressure, perhaps, or something in the wind, undetectable odours of dying foliage, maybe. Whatever its cause, the changing season sparks my nostalgia like an old, forgotten song: “Jane Says,” perhaps, or “The Final Cut.”

I’ll be walking back from the chow hall, living one more day of bleak prison life, when the fall wind finds me and carries me away. I suddenly notice the way the sunshine colors the landscape, the way the patchy clouds softly smudge the dense, blue sky, and I’m six years old again, or 12 or 15, 20.

Days with a sun like this, with the wind and temperature just right, don’t belong to the world of concrete and life sentences. These are days from the past, when, as a child, I played with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars in the dirt.

On days like these, my friends and I would construct a makeshift ramp from a board and a cinder block, and we would spend hours jumping it on our bicycles.

On days like these, I brooded in a high school classroom, foolishly dreaming of the time when school would end and adult independence would begin.

On days like these, I moved into my first apartment, worked on cars, started kindergarten, fell in love, had my heart broken, played in the woods, waded in the creek, went to rock concerts, skipped school, smoked pot, drove drunk, went on fourth grade field trips, went to job interviews, went to family picnics, mowed grass, went to the lake, laughed, cried and got pissed off.

It was on days like these that life was rich and good, and the future was as promising and hopeful as a first kiss with Daisy Pratt in her father’s driveway.

Such recollections are bittersweet, often more bitter and less sweet. In prison, reminiscing about the lost paradise of freedom is something less than pleasant. Nostalgia for the holy and sacred Good Old Days can produce in you, if you’re not careful, a debilitating kind of longing that is not unlike suffocation, a futile, head-against-the-wall, shaking-fist-at-the-sky state of helplessness that can choke the very life from you. And, so, sometimes I think it might be best to forget the past, the things once taken for granted and then lost. After all, what’s done is done, and one must come to terms with one’s reality.

Oh, but then the fall breeze blows against my face once more, and I forget the present, recall some past jewel and marvel at how good those Good Old Days were.

Under marvellous, silver-azure skies, just like the one outside my barred window, my companions and I played and danced and explored the wholesome, good earth like so many young gods. We were unconscious creators, it seems now, a lifetime later, makers of the very universe.

The world seemed to beg to please us, always revealing new magic and fresh excitement, yet we weren't always excited. We fancied ourselves unhappy. We pretended not to enjoy childhood or adolescence or teenhood. We thought we wanted to be older, to have more money and responsibility.

In spite of our unrealized, but undeniable happiness, we wanted the greener grass of something we were not yet, but would too soon be.

Older people often tried to tell us, in their well-intentioned-but-generationally-ambiguous manner that we would soon miss the days of summer and of school and of restriction that was hardly restriction. They attempted to make a gift of their experience and knowledge, but somehow they forgot that their parents or grandparents had attempted the very same thing; that is to say, they had tried to teach an unteachable language, unharkened prophets they were.

And so we never heeded the urgent utterances from someone else’s long-gone world, the wall-written warning that said: “Enjoy your youth while it lasts!”

It seemed like nonsense to us then. Somewhere inside us, maybe, we knew the old people were right, yet we played out our parts nonetheless, thinking ours was a difficult, hapless lot.

We could not be satisfied until we achieved independence and freedom, even though we had it all along.

Ah, the Good Old Days.

I always had a kind of unconscious feeling that my life wasn’t quite good enough, that it could somehow become more satisfying and fulfilling.

Little did I know that the future would bring a horror and misery that was utterly unfathomable to my hopeful, unsatisfied soul.

While I was indifferent to the sun, the autumn breeze, the puffy-cloud-filled sky, I was unaware my future would consist of concrete, steal, sickness and hunger, that my life would be spent wasting away, growing old and dying inside a cinderblock tomb.

I was so busy envying the future; I failed to realize I was happier and more fulfilled in the present than I would ever be again.

This is the curse of life. We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. We don’t treasure our youth until we’re old.

Or until we come to prison. In which case, an entire early adulthood, midlife and old age can be lost to decades of regret and torment for a life wasted.

“And so it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut so aptly wrote.

Thus I walk across the prison compound, and the autumn breeze feels good, mussing my hair and stirring my nostalgia. The colors of the distant trees are beautiful this time of year. A sea of yellow-orange and scarlet surrounds the prison grounds in a torrent of iridescent splendor.

It’s nice but poignant, in a wistful way, and I nearly yearn for winter and the mercy of its gray-brown death.

J. Michael Stanfield Jr. 209006 (with Jake)
1499 R.W. Moore Memorial Highway
Only, TN 37140-4050
I've been in prison serving a life sentence since 1993.  I worked for The Only Voice, the prison newspaper of Turney Center Prison from 1995-2015.  During that time I was a reporter, writer and editor. I currently train service dogs to assist he disabled.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Terrance Tucker

To have a bad dream is normal - to have the same bad dream constantly is scary. Well at least it scared me. Being a Muslim I believe that a good dream is from Allah and a bad dream is from Satan, and that you should seek refuge from that evil and never mention the dream unless you find someone capable of interpreting it. For years I kept this dream tucked away in that closet portion of my brain but it kept re-occurring, the menacing shadow was always peeking out the closet door like the bogeyman does to scare children. One day on a visit I opened up and told my old girlfriend. She seemed just as worried as I was. “That's crazy--who's trying to kill you?" she asked, and stared at me waiting for an answer I didn't have. I opened my palms gesturing that I didn't know before I looked away from her strong hazel eyed gaze.

The dream stayed hidden for a while after that first confession, and then one night I woke up sweating, and afraid, I sat up in bed and stared around my small dark cell - The bogeyman was back. The anxiety of not knowing who this bogeyman was turned into worry and I needed to tell someone about this nightmare and maybe get some sincere advice. I thought of who I could tell. Days passed before I told my friend, who was also my co-worker, about the nightmare. We were sitting across from each other at a small table, eating lunch in the prison's infirmary. The timing was right since the infirmary was a small quiet place with dull white paint and depressing antiquated equipment that stayed empty. I looked around as we ate, made sure the walker and bikes were empty and no patients were being chauffeured around in their wheelchairs. Once the processed food was eaten, I eased my dream into the conversation.

"It always starts and ends the same," Is how I nervously opened up beneath his piercing stare. I went on to explain the rest in detail looking away at moments to keep my composure. “I'm coming out of a small store, it kind of looks like a store in my North Philadelphia neighborhood, right off of 28th and Jefferson. The sky is gray as if it's about to rain. My right hand is full of whatever I purchased - probably sodas, and chips. As soon as my foot leaves the step, a guy approaches me, his body language and demeanour is aggressive and quick. He's wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans.  I never see his face. I watch, frozen for a second as he rushes in my direction, but he makes a mistake and gets too close to me when he draws his gun. I remember an old friend of mine that made his living going through the pockets of others told me to never walk too close to your target with your gun extended out in front of you during a robbery because the person can grab your weapon. But that's what this man did. So when he drew his gun and pointed the business end in my direction, I grabbed it. We tussled right there in front of the store. My bag drops to the ground as I struggle for my life. No one is around and no one intervenes. We are just two gladiators fighting to survive . . . And then I wake up. Never knowing who got hold of that gun.

My friend sat there staring at me, he's a serious guy who never speaks without knowledge. I knew the fact that my brother was recently killed flashed through the back of his mind when he was replaying my dream in his head as he stared at me. Maybe he thought this was the reason for my nightmares, but it wasn't. The dreams started well before Aaron's death. "Damn . . .” He shook his head, his face still held that serious stern glare, his long beard dangled as he began to speak again. "That's deep. I don't know what to tell you-- I'm not qualified to break that down for you, but what you should do is talk to the psych about it."

"The psych?" I repeated his last words of advice to make sure I heard him correctly. Being from the street, we don't volunteer to see a psych, especially in prison where some men go and see the psych, get medication and never come down off of that psychotropic high.

"Yeah, she's better qualified to explain the dream to you, because I'm sure there's a deeper meaning behind it, and talking to her is your best chance to find out what's going on.  She went to school for that stuff." Now I was staring at him, my mind on a treadmill at top speed.

The psych was a tall, slim, older white woman with gray hair. She reminded me of Diane Keaton. And even though I never actually held a conversation with her, I could tell she had a very warm personality. It was her smile, and the way she dressed. She wore nice color shirts with casual long trench coats, or rain jackets that had to be Liz Claiborne or something fancy, yet subtle and relaxed.

For a few days I walked past the psych's office, debating whether or not to step in and lay my problems on her couch. I thought of Tony Soprano, a character on HBO. He was a mob boss who suffered from anxiety who started seeing a psychiatrist. When his mafia family found out they contemplated taking his life. Now I'm no mob boss, but I would never want to display weakness in this lion's den.

One day, when I finally worked up the courage, I tapped lightly on her door. She was sitting in front of her desk, legs crossed, her glasses hanging slightly on the bridge of her nose as she read a Nora Roberts novel. She looked up and gave me that warm professional smile, her book still clutched in her hand. I smiled back. "You got a minute?" I asked while walking into her office, which was bare bones. There were no pictures of her smiling family sitting on her empty desk, which was void of papers or anything that displayed signs of work. The yellow walls were naked, and the bright fluorescent lights ricocheted off of the walls directly into my eyes, highlighting the reality and seriousness that came with visiting a head doctor.

"Sure."  She closed her book and put it down. Even though her office held no signs of comfort or warmth, her smile was strong and that made me feel as if she just invited me into her house and offered me chocolate chip cookies and strawberry milk.

"What you reading?" I asked afraid to jump into my dream.

"Nora Roberts–– I love her writing. I have all her books, and I read them over and over." Her face lit up and I could tell she was really a fan. We made small talk for a few minutes--she told me about her family and how she loved the Philadelphia Eagles football team. After that I was comfortable, and ready to lay my nightmare in her lap. The details of my dream came out with ease as she listened with no sign of emotion.

After explaining my dream I sat there fiddling with my fingers, awaiting her response.  It seemed she was in no rush to give it. She just sat there, her smile returned, her glasses pushed back up on her lean face. I waited wondering if she would pull out a big book and scroll through the pages to find the remedy for my nightmare. I was unprepared for what she would tell me when she finally began to speak:

"The guy in the dream with the gun is you." She paused as if she was waiting for me to say something, but I was too confused to say anything. She continued, "The gun represents your loss of control of your life. You fighting for the gun is you trying to regain control of your life." I sat there staring at her, probably playing with my fingers, or stroking my scraggly beard. I don't remember, but I know after those words I was floored.  Here I was in a maximum security prison for murder, having a nightmare wondering who was trying to kill me, and the whole time it had nothing to do with death, it was about regaining control. Regaining the power over my own life. It was about struggle.

Terrance Tucker EZ7394
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244