Writer's Digest: A Piece of Me

Writer's Digest: A Piece of Me

A Story by Ed Hart
"

This is the first chapter in a book I've been working on. The book is written for intelligent recidivists on how to understand themselves, and how to stay out of prison.

"



Big Stripe” is what they called the maximum security side of the new prison compound located in the middle of the 18,000 acre farm at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.


Historically, the black and white “big stripe” uniforms were worn by maximum security prisoners to distinguish them from the thin striped trustees and the khaki clad inmate guards. Most of the farm camps were abandoned following the new construction, along with the big stripes which had been traded for the denims that were in fashion in 1961 when I arrived at the jail-worn age of twenty-one.


If there had been a sign above the entrance to Angola warning that the newly arrived should give up all hope, it would have announced clearly where I'd found myself. Already the hundred mile bus ride from Orleans Parish Prison to the butt end of West Feliciana Parish where it soaked along the Mississippi River and backed up to the impassable scrub country of the Tunica hills where Louisiana died and became the state of Mississippi was preparing the bus load of us by silencing us. We were all quiet by the time we reached the gate. There was no doubt that this was the deadest of dead end roads.


For a California boy, hoeing sugar cane in Louisiana was a contradiction in realities. The difference between incipient Johnson grass and incipient cane (another kind of grass) can be divined only by lengthy southern exposure,--or fear. The "Bean" (for bean belly) who was the boss man during that era could spot a con chopping the sprouting cane from horseback fifty feet away. The first two warnings were educational; the third came in the form of a week in the hole. We got to where we could tell things that were invisible apart.


In the field we raised our hands, "Drink, boss?", "Piss, boss?" We were herded from patch to patch under the hopeful eyes of inmate guards and their pet shot guns.


Another con (call him Richard) and I decided the most likely way to escape from Angola was to get transferred to the medium security correctional facility at De Ridder in the southwestern corner of the state. Which we did.


The compound at De Ridder was surrounded by two ten foot fences topped by strands of barbed wire. Only one of the towers was manned at night and there were several blind spots where the fences couldn't be seen from that tower. Each of the dormitory quads was centered by a phone booth size guard station manned 24/7. We were counted hourly 24/7. Each dorm housed sixty men sleeping in four rows of one tier bunks. The main door opened onto the walk leading to the guard station. It locked automatically on closing.


Richard and I started running the track on the yard. No one seemed to care that two convicts were running, ten, fifteen miles a day. The library had maps. We found a compass and began collecting odd shaped bundles under our bunks.


An automatic door locks automatically because the spring loaded tongue engages the catch when the door closes. Nobody seems to have thought that the door might close and not lock if at the moment of slam someone (Richard) suddenly turned and inserted Ed's old California driver's license2 between the tongue and catch, while Ed watched out the window at the guard's receding back.


That count (9:30) was the last before lights out. Of course, by this time other eyes were beginning to add the simple numbers and come up with the correct answer. Among those eyes were certainly a few who would like to tell tale and get kudos from a grateful warden. But such tales are told in secret.


10:00, lights out. We had thirty minutes until the next count.


Our heart rates began to climb. We took our odd shaped bundles and constructed what passed for sleeping figures in our bunks. To all the watching eyes we were the best show in town. Then it was grab our little knapsacks and plunge into the abyss as the door clicked shut behind us.


At the back of our dorm was a shallow dry rain gully that ran several hundred feet to and under the inner fence at a spot that was blind to the manned guard tower. The fence was lit up at night, but most of the light shined into the compound. Once we had crawled under the first fence the terrain was more shadowy and down a few yards from the gully was a spot where the view of the fences was obstructed by a shop building. We bridged the barb wire and dropped to the ground, running.


They had procedures. As soon as an escape was discovered, all the guards were called in along with local law enforcement and the blood hounds and a perimeter was set at twelve miles and they started working their way in. Our goal was to get twelve miles out before we were missed. We did. The guard counted our dummy-bundled bunks for hours. And no one said boo.


When you're twenty-two and your body is strong and fast, you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. We ran flat out the whole night through rough country following a line of electrical towers west beneath the pale light of a watching moon. At dawn we dropped beneath some bushes and drank Cokes from our knapsacks and ate chocolate bars and fed the mosquitoes. We slept a couple of hours, then got back on our tired feet and headed for the boarder. Before noon we came to the Sabine River. Not a wide river, but one deserving respect in our exhausted condition. We broke into a hunter's cabin and ate some canned goods and took a long coil of rope. Back at the river's edge we cut the rope and bound five or six drift logs together and pushed off in our ad hoc raft which got us to mid stream before it disassembled and we lost our precious Cokes and candy bars and swam to a sand bar and dropped breathless behind an old log just as two motorized boats filled with guards and dogs came around the curve and putt-putted past not thirty feet away.


We were beyond their lines. We were in Texas.


Within a few yards of the river the terrain began to change. The map said Sabine bottom, but how could a couple of city boys know what a "bottom" was? The ground got swampy. At one point Richard and I were on two islets separated by thirty feet of waist deep swamp. A wild pig and I came upon each other and stopped in mutual surprise. Not that I had seen many pigs, but this one had big teeth that didn't stay in its mouth. And he wasn't fat. I think the thing that saved me was that we met so suddenly he "thought" I was attacking. We both turned and ran.


On we trudged, up to our knees, up to our waists, up to our chests in still dark water. The next scenic wonder was a snake of indeterminate length but a head the size of a tennis shoe who sized us up in passing. I guessed there were gators about, but we were way beyond choice.


Several weeks later, Richard was driving outside Buffalo when the flashing lights of a New York State Patrol car told us to pull over. We couldn't outrun him. We pulled over.


We could tell he was running the plates. In seconds he would discover the car was stolen in an Oklahoma City burglary. Quick conference.


I got out of the car and stood by the side of the road, there was no place to run. The show was over for me. Richard drove off and got away for a few hours while the trooper dealt with me. (It's true, I was armed, but dumb as I was, I could see that this situation had no direction to go but downhill.)


I was arrested and held in the Eire County Jail in Buffalo for eight months while the geography of my fate was measured. Finally, the New York State Criminal Court sentenced me to three to five years at Attica prison for felony possession of a gun. The first con I met there was an old time Murder, Inc. contractor who'd been there for twenty-six years. Willie “the actor” Sutton, the escape artist, was alive and well in another cell block, but he wasn't escaping.


Attica was maximum security. The walls were forty feet high. We were counted every half hour around the clock. Wherever we went, to the mess hall, to the yard, to work, it was single file, and silent. No one had ever escaped from inside the walls.


I had a plan. The powers that be might discount my plan, and they could be right. All I can do is report what I was going to attempt, and would have except for an interruption I had Richard to thank for.


I was assigned to the office at the metal fabrication plant. The plant manufactured desks and lockers and tables and cabinets for state institutions. My job was to prepare bills of lading for shipping.


The first crack in the walls came when I noticed that the freeman in charge of the plant, a civilian, was casual in reporting the half hour count of his charges to security. He was punctual, but he never actually counted us or looked out from his inner office to the outer office where his staff was typing and filing and going to and fro. He always said into the phone, “I got eight.” One of us could be in the bathroom. Another could be out on the floor of the plant. He always had eight. The man was on automatic.


When the shipping trucks arrived at the prison they were weighed. The bills of lading I prepared had the individual weight of the items for shipment and the total weight of the total freight. That figure added to the weight of the truck is exactly what the truck had to weigh in order for the drums to roll and the seas to part.


It was within my reach to get inside one of the units and have it moved onto the truck. With my doctored shipping invoice and access to the truck and what I hoped would be a couple of hours head start, I thought I had as good a chance at capturing my freedom as I was likely to get in any decade I could count to.


The guards came to my cell in the middle of the night. I was taken to an office by the front gate. The room was filled with guards and state troopers and Richard. (Richard, as it turned out, had been distributing leaflets in his quad-corner of the prison, encouraging a sit down strike. I got scooped up in the same net as he.)


Richard and I were told to strip and given white coveralls and hand cuffed and chained at the ankles and marched from the prison and stuffed into the back seat of a patrol car and cautioned not to say a word.


We drove through what was left of the night and into the next day until we arrived at the gates of a bleak Civil War structure that made Attica look like the Holiday Inn. We had arrived at Dannemora.


In the Deputy Warden's office we were surrounded by guards who fondled their clubs. The Deputy Warden announced that it was his job to get the attention of inmates who question the system. If we didn't understand him he would have us shipped down the road to the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. If we went in there, we wouldn't come out. Did we understand? We nodded yes.


He seemed satisfied and motioned for the guards to remove us. We were marched passed the banks of cell blocks until we came to an iron door that opened into a separate little prison, a house of strip cells. The cells contained a commode, a cold water basin, a small radiator, one naked convict. The floor was cement. The walls were steel. The front was a grid of bars opening onto a narrow walkway. Across the walkway on the outer wall were small transoms that opened to the elements. The rule was silence. It was winter.


Morning was a cup of weak tea and two slices of white bread. Noon was a cup of watery soup and two slices of white bread. Evening was a cup of weak tea and two slices of white bread. Monday through Saturday. Sunday morning was a cup of weak tea and two slices of white bread. Sunday noon was a regular meal including two slices of white bread. Sunday evening was empty. Week after week after week.


Once a week the guards came by with a scale and weighed us so we could see ourselves disappearing.


At night the transoms were opened and the freezing air filtered through the cells forcing us to crouch close to the radiator. There was no such thing as sleeping in the lie down and take a long nap sense. The floor was too cold to lie down on. Instead there was an unending crouched dozing next to the radiator. Every few minutes it was time to toast the other side. A moment of real sleep meant a fall onto the cement or a singey kiss from the radiator.


Weeks, then months, of hunger and cold and humiliation. During the long days I followed my spinning mind around the cell chasing scraps of insane fantasy; about food, about my future kitchen and how the shelves would be stacked and the meats and the cheeses and the pantry filled with the products of my imaginings; about the women I was going rape; about the men that would die by my hand. My thinking was compensation for my hunger and fury and weakness.


After months the larger prison was returned in small pieces, regular meals, clothes, a mattress, toilet paper, warmth.


When I was returned to the main prison I was a good convict and spent the next several years tending a machine that spun yarn into thread. One bob on, one bob off. One bob on, one bob off.


When New York had been paid their debt of days, I was extradited to Louisiana, to Angola.


The next three or four years were populated by routine days spiked by occasional events I didn't understand and a few I almost didn't survive. Like a prisoner with a life sentence, I was immune to tomorrow. The future was meaningless. When I went before the parole board, I didn't care. More Angola, or Huntsville waiting in offing3, it didn't matter. Granting me parole, a member of the board said, “If it wasn't for Texas wanting your skinny a*s, you wouldn't get paroled here. If they let you go before your parole time is up here, you report to the parole office in New Orleans. Then we'll decide what to do with you.”


After I'd been in the Jasper County Jail for about a week, the Sheriff came up the stairs and leaned on the bars of the cell and gave me his all powerful and inscrutable look and asked, “How long you been in jail, boy?”


About ten years, sir.”


He studied me a minute. “That might be enough. You make restitution for the damage you did coming through here, I'll let you go.” He looked at my stunned face. “No one wants you anymore. And Texas sure doesn't want to spend any money on you.” He let a few seconds pass. “The old man you robbed says you did about a thousand dollars damage. You get it back for him, I'll let you go,--you and the other fellow was with you. If not...” He nodded making sure I understood and walked back down the stairs.


All the money I had was forty dollars in my property envelope from selling blood plasma at Angola for five dollars a pop. The only thing I could think to do was to write to Richard.


He'd returned to Angola from New York several years after me and we went our separate ways, not unfriendly, just not friendly. The odds were against him getting the letter. I wasn't on his mailing list.


He got the letter and he wrote to his mother who was a working woman and she went to her savings and got a cashier's check for one thousand dollars and sent it to me.


I didn't know any of this was taking place until about a month after I had written to Richard when the Sheriff returned to my cell one late afternoon and had me sign the back of the check. He said, “I'll let you go tomorrow.”


It was a mid morning in October 1968. The Sheriff gave me my forty dollars and without emphasis said, “The bus station is a few blocks down the street. Get out of town.”


In those days I was so far from knowing what a genuine feeling was that wasn't colored by fury or fear that I can make only a limited report about that first hour. I remember the world seemed like a slide show, the passing scenes fixed rather than moving and that my feet had difficulty descending the steps from the county building to the street. I remember being afraid. It was like walking in a dream. Half my forty dollars bought me a shirt and a sweater at a general goods store and the rest paid for a bus ticket to New Orleans.


During the ride I was cocooned in a trance. Near the station in New Orleans I found a mission and spent my first night in a dormitory not much different from the ones I was used to. In the morning I showered and shaved and ate and prayed with the regulars.


I didn't have a clue. I was more alone in the world than in prison. At least in prison I knew what expression to wear. I knew what was expected of me. Here I was walking around in a twenty-eight year old body with the social skills of a incorrigible sixteen year old. The further and more dangerous truth was that the emotional me wandering these streets was a very angry two year old.


It took five years to reach bottom.



© 2017 Ed Hart



Author's Note

Ed Hart
i was imprisoned for 10 1/2 years between the ages of 16 and 28...3 1/2 years in California, before the adventures related here...the other seven are somewhat scrambled in my mind...now you can be as confused as i am

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Featured Review

Let me start by saying this is what 'history' should look like. This is what 'history' did look like. There is so much here that you are giving a run for the money. There are stylistic links to Americana here. The obvious Cool Hand Luke etc to the not so, the more subtle, (the anti establishment stories and movies of the sixties and yes I do see a screenplay here)Yet the whole and indeed the meat of the story is indeed a piece of you. I can visualise the scenes so vividly. I can empathise with the protagonist so fully. I can take the words and fill that world in my mind. Which is exactly what I would expect from you Ed. In this you are the writer and I can give no higher praise than that dear friend. More than a piece, much more.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

thank you for the 'dear friend'...i have felt brotherhood with you all these years now...we are both.. read more



Reviews

History and lessons... school at its finest. G'Morning Ed. Got coffee?

Posted 1 Year Ago


Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

putting a pot on right now...just folgers...gave up on the fancy stuff...Pat made cookies...seems li.. read more
Chris

1 Year Ago

"...may I have another..." echoes behind the cold eyes...
This has both the ring of truth and the acceptance of those oh so harsh lessons that focus the attention and get the old learning curve going.

Looking forward to more. boblakin

Posted 1 Year Ago


Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

for the first time in years, i'm settling in on writing 'the rest of the story'...thanks bob
Enjoyed this fascinating account, from first line to last; the detail is really well observed.

You are a convincing writer Edward. :))

Beccy

Posted 1 Year Ago


To me, you leap tall buildings in a single bound every time your pencil touches paper. Oh, the good works in this are too numerous to mention, my dearest Ed. I encourage you to write and write and write and finish this book!

Posted 1 Year Ago


Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

i never flew so high that i didn't taste the feel of fall...thank you for your kind words
~ ohhhhh... what an unforgettable journey, maestro ed... you are a sparkling solitaire... ~ thank you for re-posting this autobiographical account of a diamond... aka... human miracle...

Posted 1 Year Ago


Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

you probably stand closer to the ongoingness of ed than anyone...
. serah .

1 Year Ago

~ and what a privilege that is... overwhelming, inspiring and of course... amazing...
There's a tendency toward gaelic tones in your writing style. Kinda like James Joyce meets Bill Burroughs meets Hunter S Thompson. ☺

Posted 1 Year Ago


Ed Hart

1 Year Ago

your eurodice is always a pleasant encounter

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Added on September 9, 2016
Last Updated on March 12, 2017

Author

Ed Hart
Ed Hart

Olympia, WA



About
3/11/17, i am taking this way to notify my friends and readers that several months ago i was given my walking papers from this dimension...i have pancreatic cancer, stage 4, metastasized...so, you can.. more..

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