October 23. Saturday morning. I sit in the Beach Dog Café in Lincoln City waiting for a table. The first hard rain of fall splashes down outside. My mind drifts ahead, to noon, a couple hours from now, to Salem, where I'll join a writing group of prisoners incarcerated inside the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). Their instructor Michele, a writing teacher at Chemeketa Community College, graciously invited me to participate and I feel tremendous anticipation. This invitation culminates a year-long effort to visit the prison and observe the inmates who write on a regular basis and perhaps assist in publishing some of their work. The model for a possible book is Men in Exile, an anthology of OSP inmates' creative writing published by Oregon State University Press in 1973. I wrote about this fantastic book for the Oregonian three years ago and that piece initiated a journey that concludes today. Or at least I think it concludes today. I don't really know what I'm doing here.
Lots of pictures of dogs on the wall in the café. An old episode of Lassie plays on a TV resting on a refrigerator. Great management here. They always read my stuff and we always talk about dogs. Breakfast arrives and I'm well into my third cup of coffee. As I eat, I read through the letters of advice Michele asked the prisoners to write me. One paragraph in particular stands out: "As you walk around the main floor you may be overwhelmed by the amount of movement that you see, but behind these walls is a world within the world that just has a higher priced admittance."
Time to drive. I'll listen to some Jesus radio for levity.
Parking lot of OSP. Wow, the grounds are beautiful, really maintained well: roses, willows, oaks, and maples. Tiny yellow leaves scatter to and fro in the wind. Squirrels dart around and mingle with crows. I count at least 250 geese on a perfect lawn. Not a piece of garbage anywhere. It occurs to me that the grounds at OSP look 300 times better than Newport High School's, or any public high school in Oregon for that matter.
A hundred feet away from my truck, two large young white women wearing tank shirts and sagging jeans text message while standing next to their cars. A child runs around them.
Naturally, I've arrived early. I've arrived early to everything in my life: high school dates, flights, work, my wedding, funerals, rock shows (when I played in a band!), and… faculty meetings.
Questions bombard. What's going to happen in the workshop? Will I have any rapport with these men? Am I full of shit about writing? Am I scared?
I watch the squirrels and make a few calls. No one answers. I should call the Old Man for advice. He always knows how to calm me down and sharpen my focus for the task at hand.
He's not home.
I see Michele's car pull into the parking lot. I go up to greet her. I admit I'm pretty nervous. We walk toward the prison and I hear sounds coming from the geese that instantly remind of the wildlife refuge. It's the sound of geese on the ground talking to one another and I haven't heard it in a long time.
Michele leads me down a tree-lined path and I ask her all sorts of questions and she talks about the wonderful writing workshop she attended yesterday at OSP with Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame. I hear Michele talk but struggle to comprehend her. I listen more intently to the geese.
We come to the facade. Everything seems colored gray and white. The building exudes a sense of neglected senior citizenry. We walk up some concrete stairs and enter a dingy lobby. The visitor waiting room. I see a beautiful young woman with dark features and long black hair signing in. I see a young man, a woman, and a baby in a stroller. I see an older woman, aged between 40 and 80, sitting on a metal chair.
I've really got to piss! I ask where the men's room is and a guard points it out. On the door of the restroom hangs a sign that reads: "Visiting canceled for Monday due to weddings." I go inside the restroom and look at the mirror. I think I should have shaved.
÷ ÷ ÷
Michele gives the writing prompt: "What object, person, place, or picture could you look at for an hour? Use all your senses to describe it." She puts a mixed CD into a boom box from the break dancing era. The first couple of tracks skip and she replaces the CD with another one. The Replacements' "Achin' To Be" comes on and the group's seven members, all men, all clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, begin to write immediately.
"Achin to Be." Hearing this obscure classic reminds me of an old girlfriend from the '80s, Suzie. She consistently wore black and worshipped the Replacements. She also worshipped Dream Syndicate.
I watch for a couple of minutes and am astonished when no one strays off task. No one digs into their pockets for a phone either. If only I could get half this level of focus from my seniors!
The sound of geese breaks my concentration and I turn to look out the window. Through bars I see several small formations fly by in an atypical formation.
I join in on the prompt and open my piece with a familiar image from the singular obsession of my life: "When I walk along the beach with Sonny, I usually keep my head turned toward the ocean. I like watching the breakers to see how gray mixes with white..."
Gray mixing with white — that curious color indigenous to Oregon is what I had looked at for an hour or so that morning to prepare for meeting the members of Penned Thoughts, which is the official name of the writing group.
Ten or so minutes later, Michele asks if anyone wants to share. No one volunteers. She waits, as all good teachers wait. A small man to my right, with two cannons for arms, two cannons covered in tattoos, says, "I'll go."
He begins to read about the ocean, the surf, and the Zen moment of riding a wave. He writes crisply and beautifully from a distant memory because he hasn't surfed in 20 years — or more. He might never surf again.
The man concludes his piece. The sound of geese again enters the room, only it seems much louder than before. I look out the window again and cannot believe the numbers flying past.
Another man volunteers to read. He looks all of 21. He launches into a narrative of hanging out with a buddy, carrying his surfboard down to an isolated cove near Coos Bay. The piece takes a fascinating twist when the writer introduces the character of a surly owner of a private campground who always yells at the local surfers for their alleged trespassing on his property. The reader and his friend ignored the man. The ocean beckoned.
The inmate keeps reading. He paddles out to meet the waves. He describes a multi-colored sky. At this point, I drift away, lost in his Oregon story. He's gone too… at least for a moment.
Every inmate reads his response to the prompt. Michele glances at me and I start talking about Men in Exile and my extraordinary encounter with one of its main contributors, Smoky Epley. In early 2008 I wrote a laudatory essay about Men in Exile that appeared in the Oregonian and appealed to any contributor reading the piece to contact me. A week later I received an email from Epley.
A phone call from a friend in the pen prompted me to dig Easter Sunday's Oregonian out of the trash to read your piece about a book published thirty-some years ago. For those of us who have learned to think in terms of decades and of generations that wasn't so long ago. But a lot has happened since then.
I was paroled from the Oregon State Penitentiary January 3, 1972 and attended the University of Oregon into my senior year. I did not graduate, nor did I pursue a writing career. Instead, I chose to graduate to bank robbery and was arrested by the FBI on October 13, 1979. I was released to a Halfway House on July 17, 2007. Yes, that's twenty-seven years. (Twenty-seven years, nine months and four days, to be exact; but, who's counting.)
In your article you said you'd never know but would like to think the contributors had turned their lives around and avoided returning to prison. Now you know that I did not. Not then. The concept of rehabilitation may look good on paper and sound good coming from the mouths of men, but the criminal justice system is a liar. Corrections is one of the fastest growing industries in America and the only one in which success at its stated goals is detrimental to its very existence. And the convicts?
Here's a poem that never made it to the book:
I lie on my back on this fuckin' steel rack
And curse the screw with the keys.
But when he comes near all he can hear
Is "yessir," and "thank you," and "please."
Make no mistake, I'm a goddam fake.
My heart is a hovel of hate.
But I hide my sneer with a smile ear-to-ear,
'Cause I got my eye on the gate.
Smoky Epley, 1971
(Please excuse the profanity. The piece doesn't work without it.)
Things are different now. I'm not reformed, but I am retired. By that I mean I'm through with prison. Prison just isn't any fun anymore. There are very few real criminals in our prisons now (at least in the federal system, about which I've gained a modicum of expertise). Instead, our prisons are filled with individuals caught up in the drug world and with illegal aliens. Most of my friends and associates from the past are either dead or in prison for the rest of their lives or I've lost contact with them. I don't know where a single one of the other contributors to "Men in Exile" are today.
I live in a middle class neighborhood in McMinnville with a lady who has always had faith in me. We're both retired; each from our disparate backgrounds. I work part time in Portland soliciting donations by phone for non-profit organizations, primarily for the Oregon State Police Officers Association. Considering my background, how can I collect money for the troopers, you ask? Effectively. I hold no animosity towards the police. I did my job; they did theirs. Anyway, it's a legal job. I'm still looking for an honest job but it's hard with a record like mine.
I responded immediately and Epley and I met in a coffee shop in McMinnville. There, surrounded by high school and college students texting madly, he told me the inside story of the anthology and dazzled me by reciting line after line of classic English poetry. Later that summer, I reintroduced him to Oregon literary society at a reading where he blew away the crowd on a sizzling summer night in Portland with the most explosive performance I've ever witnessed at a literary event. We shook hands on the street afterward and I never heard from him again despite multiple emails and phone calls.
The men seem intrigued by the Epley tale and I tell them how much I love Men in Exile and want to assist Michele in publishing a sequel of some kind. I ask them, Is this something you might want to be a part of? They respond with an enthusiastic "yes!"
I finish the story and we transition into an essay by Larry D. B. Smith called "Love, Peace and Slot-machine Coffee" from Men in Exile. It's about my all-time favorite short piece of Oregon nonfiction:
Three years ago, when I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church, I was only vaguely aware of monasteries, monks, and the like. I had read stories that glamorized some of the monks of olden days, such a Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame, but the reality of actually knowing a monk in a personal way was to come later. It came to me in prison, and when I was able to appreciate it most.
I had experienced a number of misfortunes, or so I thought. Things had not gone exactly the way I felt they should have gone. In spite of having worked very hard to earn the privilege of educational release, I had been denied this privilege. I met with similar denials when asking for custody reduction, and again when asking for an early parole hearing. Reasons given by the authorities were not very well substantiated, and it seemed that the denials had been arbitrary. I was pretty bitter, and my studies were suffering from it. My visitors were too. The very person who had encouraged me to further my education now saw that there was a chance that it could boomerang and destroy everything that had been built up so carefully.
Unbeknown to me, he spoke to one of the monks at a nearby abbey about me. Brother Francis sent word: did I care to correspond with him? He would like to have a "pen-pal." Sure, why not? Letters from outside are always welcomed and Brother Francis offering to exchange letters was the beginning of a friendship. I didn't realize just how great a friendship it would become until we exchanged several letters and I naively asked when he would be coming to see me on a visiting day. I was unaware that monks never leave the monastery for friendship visits, and rarely for any other reason, medical and church business excluded, of course.
The next letter I got was one that mirrored his frustration of having to break it to me that visits between us just weren't in the cards, until I could visit him there. It is considered a distraction from the monks' purpose to fully serving and thinking of God to go into the outside world. When they go into the Brotherhood, they renounce everything worldly for the cloistered life.
I'll never forget Brother Francis' words, "The chances for my coming to see you are quite slim. However, in the unlikely event that I should obtain permission from the Abbot, perhaps you should know what you will be meeting. I'm five feet one inch small, fifty-eight years young, with a map completely hidden behind a big beard and a perpetual smile on my face, and a funny-bone that causes me to laugh almost too much." That proved to be an apt description.
The following Saturday, a friend of mine went to the Abbot and explained why he felt Brother Francis' trip here would be justified. The Abbot felt the same, apparently, for he granted the necessary dispensation that permitted my friend to bring Brother Francis here. By the time we had to say goodbye, I felt that I had known this remarkable man all my life, and it was a reluctant parting when I learned that the trip could not be repeated.
Brother Francis and I began our conversation by comparing our respective circumstances. It was amazing to me that, here, I have so many liberties which I take for granted, while at the abbey, he was restricted beyond the average person's comprehension. My few restrictions seemed to be pretty inconsequential by the time I learned that he had been in the monastery more than forty years — since he was seventeen — and had made only this one trip outside for a friendship visit in all that time. The only other trips outside had been to the optician's, and to make the trip from Massachusetts to New Mexico, where a new colony was formed, then from New Mexico to Oregon.
Until about three years ago, the Brothers were not permitted to speak to each other except in the event that their work or safety depended upon necessary conversation. They could speak to the Abbot or any of their spiritual leaders when they sought advice or had a problem, but sign language was used otherwise. Then the silent system was relaxed. Even now, I learned, there is not an excess of talking, and the little talk there is is not useless chatter that we in the outer world are accustomed to. However, we chattered like two squirrels for over an hour.
Brother Francis asked if I might not like to share some coffee with him. The visiting room has a coffee machine, from which visitors and the inmates may purchase coffee (or a passable imitation) for a dime. I said yes, that would be nice. He asked me if I would show him how to operate the machine and then it began to dawn on me just how far out of touch with the outside world this man has been for forty years. We sat and sipped coffee and I remarked that this coffee must leave a lot to be desired, compared to monastery coffee. He said yes, "slot-machine" coffee could stand some improvement.
Later, in his next letter to me, he said, "I must agree with you that your slot-machine coffee isn't the best, but I enjoyed that cup with you more than any I've had in quite some time." Since that day, I've had a couple of cups with my friend who brought Brother Francis to the prison and another friend, and it even tasted better to me.
Brother Francis explained why the abbey coffee has better flavor: "It's prepared by people, for people, not by a machine. People prepare things with love for people they love, while machines have no love for people; all they love is money." That's about as good a comparison as anyone could have given. If you don't put a dime in the machine, it won't give you a thing. The one we have occasionally has the option of taking the dime and thumbing its mechanized nose at the waiting customer. You can kick it, cuss it, or go sit down and cool off with a Coke, but it won't give up the dime, and it won't give up a cup of coffee.
In my discussion with Brother Francis, I talked about my college classes and the hobbies I like, and he told me of his woodcarvings. The proceeds from the sale of his carvings are shared with a T.V. program he likes, one of the few authorized programs they watch. I felt that he would have little trouble selling his carvings with such a noble cause profiting from it.
It was beautiful visit, and I was reluctant to end it so soon, but I knew within myself that somehow it had served a greater purpose than merely a social visit. It had brought me to a better understanding of myself. I realized that my disappointments were self-imposed, and in seeing and touching and talking with this wonderful example of selflessness, I found myself leaving the visiting room surrounded by an aura of calm that was new to me. It was not so strange, however, since it came Special Delivery, with brotherly love, from someone who cared enough to send His very best, Brother Francis.
After I read "Slot-machine" aloud I lead a discussion of it. We scrutinize some of the essay's curious jumps, visual images, memorable phrases, and the ephemeral yet also indelible nature of the encounter between the prisoner and the monk. I ask the men if the piece connects to any of their frustrations about contemporary prison life. Hands go up and they recount some of those feelings.
Time to write. I give the prompt: "Describe an ideal encounter you hope to have in the future."
They start writing. Once again, I am astonished at the concentration. Is that the sound of lint dropping to the floor? More geese fly by the window. I hear a soccer game out on the yard. I struggle with the prompt.
Fifteen minutes elapse. I ask for volunteers to share and a man reads a narrative of a potential reconnection with his daughter. The next man reads about wanting to encounter Jesus. Another man reads about wanting to encounter Jesus. They sound nothing like the charlatans on Jesus radio. One of them uses the word "grace" in the most beautiful way I've ever heard. It occurs to me that I should be taking notes, but I don't even bother.
All the men read. I go last. "I want to encounter death in the most dignified and poignant way possible. I don't want to die in an accident or in an assisted living facility watching television. I don't want to be buried in a cemetery nor have my ashes spread by a distant relative…"
Michele and I decide it's time for a break and she leaves to retrieve some treats that took weeks for authorities to approve. While we wait, I look out the window and one of the inmates points out an outdoor stage near the baseball diamond. I learn George Thorogood once played on the stage a long time ago, as did Stevie Ray Vaughn. So did a lot of other big name touring bands.
"What's the biggest name that's come through here recently?" I ask.
The inmate hesitates. "Storm Large." I think, Bless you Storm, but what ever happened to rock and roll?
More geese fly by. I ask the men about them, expecting to hear how comforting the sight and sound of something from nature must be inside a prison. It turns out the geese shit everywhere and the men can't recline on the grass to catch some sun.
Michele returns with packaged mini-cupcakes and a case of bottled water, and the men become visibly excited. They eagerly help Michele distribute the goods and one man standing next to me unscrews the top of the bottle, examines it, turns to me, and says, "This the purest thing in this prison." He takes a long drink.
I'll never look at bottled water the same way again.
They inhale the cupcakes and return to their seats. I read my piece about euthanizing my great dog Ray and we discuss my technique of opening and closing with parts from the same extended scene — in this case Ray's last visit to the beach an hour before the vet puts him down. I tell the inmates I borrowed the technique from Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time and suggest they experiment with it on their next narrative. They all take notes. Whenever I talk, I'm acutely aware that no one has ever listened to me with this amount of attention. Nothing has come remotely close. Not a student, parent, friend, or lover.
We start reminiscing about dogs and one of the men tells a story of his childhood pet, a malamute puppy. While the man served his sentence, the dog became ill and had to be euthanized. The man wasn't there for his best friend at the end, and relates the story with a deliberate and profound sense of agony. I realize that perhaps I shouldn't have read about Ray. I realize I don't know what the hell I'm doing in front of these men.
Three o'clock. Michele calls the workshop to an end. Every man comes up, shakes my hand, thanks me, and invites me back. I get a few back slaps. I barely hold back the tears. I feel I shouldn't cry in front of the group and feel stupid thinking that way.
In the parking lot, Michele and I say goodbye. I think she wants to talk a bit longer, but I can't talk at all.
Back in the truck, a kind of vertigo overtakes me. I don't check the phone for messages. The wind has picked up and I see squirrels running for cover. Leaves and rose petals get tossed around here and there. Willows and maples bend. Storm is threatening.
Time to drive home to the ocean. I must walk on the beach and sort all this out.
÷ ÷ ÷
Dear Penned Thoughts:
I can't thank you enough for welcoming me into the writing group; it was one of the more memorable teaching/writing experiences of my life. I would love to return in the near future. I found our brief time together so exhilarating and uplifting. It was the perfect antidote for a tough week of teaching where many of my students exuded indifference about their future and the future of their world. If there's anything I can't stand in youth it's the "whatever" mentality. You guys were the farthest thing from that. I was astounded at your concentration and the ability to practically finish narratives. It bodes well for the publication I hope we all put out together. If we do, we'll make nothing less than Oregon literary history and I'd be honored to be a part of that.
You guys wrote so well and with such utter lack of affectation. It was honest, moving, crisp, searing. I'm still thinking about the pieces you guys read: "smell of craftsmanship" and "birth canal" and "painted oranges" and Michele's riff about a possible future encounter.
It was a brutal drive home in gale force winds and driving rain. I turned off the radio and let my mind wander to all the indelible images I saw during my visit. I must have written 1,000 words in my mind.
Again, thanks for having me. Michele is doing great work with you guys and you are responding with prose and poetry that will one day escape the prison and find its way into the hearts and souls of many, many people.
Our journey has begun.
÷ ÷ ÷
Note to self: I've got to find Smoky.