In the United States life expectancy around 1888 was less than 50 years, and infant mortality approached 200 deaths per 1000 births. That’s 1 in 5 children being buried by Mom and Dad before the age of 5. Death among children came primarily due to various infectious diseases such as diarrhea, diphtheria, scarlet fever and tuberculosis. (statistics from the Journal of Pediatric Research)
The impact of vaccinations and modern medicine has been significant. By 1990, life expectancy in the United States had increased 50% to 75 years. Infant mortality fell an astounding 97% to less than 7 children per 1000 births.
Some folks do not develop immunity as well as others when vaccinated. However, there is a “herd effect” that confers protection because those who are unvaccinated or who have less immunity from a vaccine are surrounded by those who have vaccine acquired immunity. As more members of the “herd” forego vaccines, the herd protection declines and threatens everyone. Infectious processes again have a fertile population to run rampant within.
The human tendency is to examine one’s current circumstances and surroundings and fail to understand that it has not always been the way it is now. Look at your children’s (or grandchildren’s) classrooms, soccer teams, gymnastics classes, playgrounds… and imagine that 1 in 5 of those bright precious faces were suddenly dead. It is modern medicine that has saved us from the face of a horror once common to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Paraphrasing an old TV show, let’s decline to follow the invitation of the anti-vaccine, anti-science folks to: “Return to those thrilling days of yesteryear…
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: There is an outbreak of measles in the Kansas City area that has experts very concerned. This “childhood” disease killed over 2.5 million people worldwide in 1980. Vaccinations have reduced that number to less than 100,000 by 2014. It only takes an epidemic of blind ignorance to reverse that trend. The following obituary was found tucked within my wife’s family bible.
Spring on the prairie welcomes the return of the grasses, flowers, and crops. Their emergence is steady and persistent, flooding the landscape with verdant life that will flourish for months until ended by the first killing frosts. Upon the tundra that is found at altitude or in sub-arctic latitudes, plant life is confronted with the challenges of limited opportunity. In order to survive, plants seize the first moments of thaw to explode into life upon the ice crusted fields. The season there is short, but the plants have adapted to compress an entire life-cycle into a matter of weeks. Nature adapts to what circumstances require for life to flourish. Nature abhors a vacuum.
As with life on the prairie and life on the tundra, friendships form and flourish differently at home and “on the road”. Friendship tends to grow slowly and with care in our neighborhoods and workplaces. There is caution in what we share until trust is well established. Friendships formed “on the road” do not have the luxury of time and contemplation. I have found that we, and those who we befriend, are quick to share the details of our lives. We are heedless of the cautions that would otherwise be in place at home. An evening at the campfire, or a day walking lockstep with a stranger upon a pilgrim’s path are sufficient to cement a new friendship that is every bit as dear as those cultivated over time.
Remaining connected to others may be as necessary for one’s emotional health as food and water are for the body. Christine and I count ourselves among those who thrive on the company of others. We embrace the wonder of the new sights and experiences of travel, but without the rich reward of new friendships travel would become 2 dimensional and lose much of its luster.
We know that a friendship forged “on the road”, or on the Camino, may be like paths that are destined to intersect only once. However, we focus on the moment of the intersection and not the regret that there may never be another crossing. When we walked the Camino in 2013 we formed dozens of these sudden deep friendships. The strength of those bonds is not dependent upon what the future holds but what was cemented in the richness of the brief experiences that we shared.
The next 3 months promise a pallet of wonderful sights and extraordinary experiences. However, it is the promise of renewing old friendships, and embracing new ones that excites me the most.
On March 7th, 2017, we booked our cross-Atlantic cruise to Barcelona Spain. This past year has gone fast, and here we are with just 5 days before we fly to Puerto Rico to begin this journey.
We have talked about returning to walk the Camino since 2013. We even had tickets booked for 2014. Unfortunately, I blew out an ankle and the surgery with lengthy recovery nixed those plans.
We never doubted that we would return, it was the when and the how that were left to be decided. Over the course of 2015 and 2016 this became a frequent topic of conversation and plans began to take shape. The idea of crossing to Europe by water fascinated us. Research into “repositioning cruises” followed. There were a number of cruise lines offering the trip, but Viking became a clear choice even though they were not “cheapest”. We were attracted by the smaller ship, adult focused amenities, and the all inclusive character of the pricing. We hate being “nickeled and dimed”.
Once the cruise was secured we then began the process of constructing the journey. A flight was confirmed to Puerto Rico where we would spend 3 nights before boarding the ship.
We booked 60 day unlimited Rail-Europe passes, and secured accommodations for Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, and Porto Portugal. Flight arrangements were made to return us to Kansas City from Oslo Norway with a one week layover and rental car in Iceland. This began to look, metaphorically speaking, like a sandwich. The bun and condiments were in place, we just had not selected the meats and cheeses! In other words, once we completed the walk to Santiago the itinerary was to be determined.
Contacts by us and to us with overseas friends have further fleshed out the plan, yet much remains “open”. We know that we will head to Ireland from Spain to meet dear friends who are from Wales. We estimate spending up to 2 weeks in Ireland. From there we feel certain to ferry to Scotland where we will spend an estimated 2 weeks before heading to Amsterdam. We plan on visiting Netherlands “Camino friends” and then a young lady in Brussels Belgium. Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland are all in the “mix” with definite plans to visit former exchange students in Berlin and Bratislava. Our final Europe leg will take us to the home of a former exchange student near Oslo Norway. From there Iceland Air will carry us to it’s capitol of Reykjavik. We have reserved a rental car for our week wandering the countryside… and then back to Kansas City.
This last weekend has seen an increase in my anxiety level. I have loaded, weighed, unloaded, re-loaded and re-weighed my pack at least 4 times. It looks like I have made it to 18 pounds. We have secured currency in Euros and Pounds. I have made pdf images of all our important documents, “just in case”, and arranged for auto-pay on as many bills as possible. There is more preparation stuff that I have done, but it is pretty certain that I have forgotten something.
Enough for now, I need to figure out what is left to do this week!!
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: If you haven’t subscribed to my “Thoughts”, please consider doing so. Thanks. Pete
At about 9:45 a.m. on August 6, 2010, 25 miles north of Vicksburg Mississippi, John Bodie drove his small pickup truck south on Mississippi Highway 61. John is an older gentleman who bears a passing resemblance to the actor, Ed Asner. John is of retirement age. One of his joys in life is fishing. On this day he is pulling a trailer and his small green flat-bottomed fishing boat. The highway closely follows the course of the Mississippi River. It is a warm day, hot by usual standards, but only warm by the measure of the last few days. Highway 61 is a typical secondary highway in Mississippi, two undivided lanes of concrete and asphalt with only a narrow unpaved shoulder of gravel and debris. The speed limit is 65 miles per hour, but passenger cars, logging trucks and farm semis often push the limit a bit. As he navigates a long bend in the road, his attention is drawn to a line of similarly clad bicyclists. John’s pulse quickens as he maneuvers his truck and trailer into the oncoming lane in order to provide a margin of safety for the cyclists. He looks into his rear view mirror and is haunted by the face of the lead cyclist… it has been over 20 years. “Don’t let it happen to them.” he thinks, over and over. John begins to look for a place to pull off the road. He feels compelled to act by a ghost from his past… a painful reminder.
As I lead our line of cyclists south on Mississippi Highway 61 an older pickup truck pulling a fishing boat passed us on our left. This courteous driver had given us more room than most drivers, which was especially noteworthy on this well traveled but narrow stretch of highway. On highway 61 we are denied the refuge of even a small shoulder at the side of the road. A few minutes later I see that the truck, boat, and trailer have come to a stop on a flat area of grass far to the right of the roadway. The driver, a heavily built older man, wears loose fitting faded jeans, an equally faded western style shirt and a sweat stained wide brimmed straw farmer’s hat. He stands next to the driver’s side of his vehicle. He is flagging us down… I am the first to come to rest next to him. Is he in trouble? Is his scowl a sign that he angry with us? His face gives no clues. His wide tooled leather belt has multiple images of the Confederate “Stars and Bars” … I am apprehensive.
John addresses the cyclists. “I saw you all, and I just had to stop. You see, around 1987 I was driving my semi down this road, loaded with grain. I had a new canvas tarpaulin cover over my load. I saw a bicyclist who was dressed just like you all and as I passed him…” Here John hesitates, draws a deep breath and looks directly into my eyes. “Well, as I passed him, the cover and frame over my load tore off and struck that boy in the head… he wasn’t wearing a helmet like you all, but I doubt that it would have done him any good. He was struck in the head and he died.” Another deep breath and John’s eyes intensify their focus on me. “Please, please, please be careful.”
The driver handed me a simple white business card, “John H. Bodie, trucking”. He took my hand and held it longer than is common for most handshakes. I said that I would be careful… my words were repeated by the other cyclists. There was relief in the way that John’s brow relaxed and his hard eyes grew kinder. He got back into his truck and repeated to all of us, “Please be careful”. Another embrace of my hand through the open window of his truck, and we parted. John’s painful memory returned to his past and became a part of ours.
The old man floated in a field of stars at the boundary of his dreams. It was a wonderfully pleasant sensation that slowly dissolved with the arrival of morning and departure from night’s sleep. His eyes broke the crust that had formed upon them in the night. The stars that had surrounded him resolved into spots of light on faded wallpaper, projections of dawn through the moth holes of a tattered curtain. The serenity that had been his night gave way to the reality of a small grey one room apartment.
He lay for a moment organizing his thoughts. The tubular bed, once bright brass but now the patina of an old penny, was barely wide enough to accommodate the slow turn of his body. It creaked as he extended his hand toward the window that was the room’s only link to the sights and sounds of the street below. Sliding the curtain to the side the room exploded with Fall light that overwhelmed his senses. Sight slowly returned to eyes that drew focus upon his hand still holding the edge of the drape. The skin, once thick and full, had become paper thin and translucent. Light pierced his fingers like an x-ray, illuminating veins and bone. Beyond the hand he saw through the panes of dust etched glass to the street that ran before the storefront below. The park beyond was a network of sidewalks woven between the trees that cast their branches skyward.
Getting up in the morning, once a fluid and unconscious movement for him, had become a daily challenge that began with the act of grabbing the headrail of the bed with one hand and slowly pushing his body to vertical with the other. Legs extended over the side of the bed as knees audibly creaked the first bending that took his feet to the floor. The arches of his feet were like the rusted leaf springs under a tired old truck, function diminished by thousands of miles of road and the burdens that they had carried. His feet had tread uncounted millions of steps, carrying a body that was once large and powerful, but now shrunken and fragile. The pain of placing his feet upon the cold linoleum floor gave way to pressure as he slowly stood with the uncertainty of a man on a tightrope.
Taking a moment to steady himself he surveyed the room. Overhead was a single unshaded porcelain fixture with sockets for three lightbulbs but now holding only one. It was an accommodation to the economy that an inadequate retirement income thrust upon him. Across the room was a small painted wood table and a single bentwood chair. They were the only furniture that he owned save for the bed. The chipped surface of the off-white table revealed colored layers of paint that gave hint to its age like the rings of a tree. A counter with white sink and hotplate served as his kitchen. Separate hot and cold water spouts were pitted chrome with crazed porcelain handles that bore “H” and “C” respectively. They mocked him daily as corrosion had long made them inoperable. The drain still worked and a walk down the hallway outside his door to the communal bathroom served the sanitary needs of his body and gave him access to water for his pitcher.
He stood at the sink and faced the faded mirror above it. He plugged the drain with an old rubber stopper that was secured to the sink by a length of string. He poured tepid water from the pitcher into the sink to continue his morning routine, preferring the privacy of his room to the running water of the bath down the hall. The sink in his room served for washing his face, brushing his teeth, and the alternate day task of shaving. Today was an even numbered day. Shaving would be his purpose tomorrow.
I had just turned to the 57th page in the book of my life when my Father closed the cover on his. I was ready for his death. He had been ready for it much longer. Over the years, MS had eroded the quality of his life to the point that once when I asked, “How are you Dad?”, he merely replied, “Waiting…”.
The funeral was traditional. Mercifully the casket remained closed and I was spared the well-meaning but misplaced comments about how “peaceful” or “natural” he looked. The established formula for a funeral and burial had been followed with the gathering of family and of his friends whose numbers were reduced by the attrition of 87 years. I had not given much thought to the purposes of those rituals until a few months later when I was confronted with the task of burying him a second time.
In the middle of doing something unrelated, Dad appeared before me. He was not alone. To his right was Bill, and to his left was Dan. This was not some ghostly apparition but there he was. Reflexively I reached out to touch him, but I knew that he could not and would not answer. There was no longer any meaning attached to him being there. It was left for me to bury him again.
The contrasts between his first internment and this second unexpected one were stark. Then, I had been surrounded by those who had shared his life. Now I was alone. Before, there had been well ordered preparations. Here, I was caught unaware. The disposition of my father’s body had been accomplished by strangers who were experts of their trade. Here, I knew that I could not delegate the closing of this “casket”.
It was silly of me to hesitate, but sentiment restrained my hand. I compelled myself to touch Dad in a way that would forever take him from my eyes. A bit of ironic cruelty was inserted into the moment as I was asked whether I was sure I wanted to do this. “Yes Dad…”. I touched him a second time and he was gone. It was as if he had never been there. No monument or marker would be erected, he just ceased to be. Bill and Dan were now shoulder to shoulder as I closed the cover of my cell phone, deleting him forever from my list of contacts.
July 7, 2010: We are 12, but not Apostles, we are bicyclists. We are 4 more, but not a Mathew, Mark, Luke or a John, we are support drivers. For nearly 40 days, like apostles or disciples, all of us have been cast into a unique mobile community, a bicycling commune. We have over 60 more days ahead of us. We have sacrificed our comfort… sharing rooms with former strangers. We have sacrificed our privacy… the “ladies’/men’s room” is in the bushes on THAT side of the road. We have compromised our sleeping habits, and our eating habits. We share our physical aches, and our emotional ones. The forge of our condition has tempered us into “family”.
I have pondered the inevitable times that we would be called upon to bring “others” into our fold. Segment riders, people who wholeheartedly embrace our undertaking, but because of work, family, or other considerations, are unable to assume the obligations of our entire coast to coast journey. What a challenge to suddenly appear, bags and bicycle in hand, among 16 people who have evolved their common experiences into understandings that need no words. We read the shrug of a shoulder, the furl of a brow, the shuffle of a step, as a melody in another member’s day. Sometimes our emotions sing the same song, sometimes another, but almost always with harmony. We are a chorus. Enter the “stranger”, the unknown voice.
Tom, was a stranger. He arrived in time to join us for the long and challenging ride from Rawlins to Riverside, Wyoming. That day’s ride saw us persevere over rough and narrow roads, through thunderstorms and hail, with headwinds and crosswinds gusting to over 50 miles per hours. There was no time for small talk, and no polite social graces were exchanged. At the end of the day, no one was in the mood to “welcome” anything other than a hot shower, a cold beer, and a warm bed. That night, our accommodations consisted of rough-hewn log cabins, likely built in the early 20th century.
At 5:30 a.m. the next morning I reluctantly stuck my head out the warped doorway and through the shredded screen door. I was looking to see if there was some sign of another day of hell-weather. The sky was ambiguous, but the scent was not. My nostrils were assailed by the rich pungent aroma of fresh roasted coffee. There was real caffeine in the air. Not the thin hint of the tepid dark imitation that is served up by most drip machines, but coffee with the raven darkness of abused motor oil. Tom, like the Pied Piper, was calling all of us coffee loving “rats” out of our lairs with the melody of his brew. He stood upon the dew sodden grass, illuminated by the early hint of dawn with a large, old style pewter espresso coffee pot in hand. I and the other “customers” lined up at his bidding, cups in hand. The tribulations of the prior day were forgotten, and Tom was instantly “one of us”.
The next few days gave me pause to consider the genius of Tom’s foresight. It occurred to me that anyone entering into a social order has a limited number of options with regard to the established group. One may ignore the group, not rejected or rejecting, but never accepted either, a non-person. One may choose to identify oneself to the group by emphasizing the distinctions and differences that exist between the individual and the group. This is a recipe for non-acceptance. There is also the less malignant, but no more effective, “I am one of you, but what makes me unique from you is…”. Then there is the “coffee pot”. The foresight to think of the others, to strive to embrace what we have in common, what we share, what we understand.
In our cycling group, we are not lawyers, clergy, doctors, business persons, social workers, retirees… we are people, we are family. Among us we strive to be “we”, “us”, and “our”, never “them”, never “they”. This is how it should be in the human family. It makes it so much easier to help and be helped, to accept and be accepted. Coffee anyone?
July 12, 2010 was hot riding into Smith Center Kansas. No, not just hot, but HOT! So hot that the roll of my bicycle tires gave the continuous sound of separating Velcro on the sun-beaten asphalt. So hot that colors appeared bleached by the arc-welder brightness of the midday sun. So hot that… well, you get the point, and after 60 miles on the bicycle, so did I. Christine and I went into the old downtown to seek a diner.
Downtown Smith Center is not dead, but like many small town historic business districts, it is not well. The two and three story brick and stone buildings harken to a time when a name and year of “birth” were prominently displayed at the top and on the cornerstone. There was the Shite Building, 1888, and The First National Bank building, “Founded 1886, Erected 1930”. That was a tough year to build a bank, but The First National Bank had apparently weathered the adversities of the Great Depression. Faded paint indicated some of the long-gone businesses. Much of the former commerce has been replaced by antique and second-hand stores. The bank facade informed us that it was 2 p.m. and the temperature had fallen to 101.
We ate at the Second Cup Café, where $6 can still buy you tenderloin with all the trimmings, and a piece of homemade pie… Apple, with Maple flavored crust, fantastic! A patron asked if we were with “the cycling group”, and after a pleasant discussion with her and the café owner, she smiled and gave us a $5 donation and a “God Bless You”. We left the café and were again assaulted by the wall of heat. Across the street I saw a small faded barber’s pole mounted next to the door of a timeworn storefront, “Paul’s Barbershop”. It had been over 6 weeks since my last haircut, and curiosity got the best of me. I crossed the street to peer in the window. Over the years, the glass had lost its clarity, etched by countless dust storms. I shaded my eyes against the glass in order to see within. I beheld not just a barbershop, but a living “barbershop museum”, with one of our cyclists, Jeremy, in the barber’s chair.
We entered the shop. It was a “three chair store”, each of which was a creature of cast iron, nickel, porcelain and leather dating to the late 19th or early 20th Century. Jeremy was in the center chair, but what immediately drew my eye was that the chair to the left was a fully functional barber’s chair in miniature. It was the perfect size for a 5-year-old and elevated to the perfect height for Paul the Barber. This tonsorial “throne”, fit for any young prince, differed from its larger brothers only in the absence of the long leather razor strops which hung from the full-size chairs. “Atmosphere” in the shop was provided by a mahogany encased, single dial radio that still used vacuum tubes. The counter displayed bottles of men’s grooming products such as Vitalis, Krew-Kut, Hask Hair Tonic, and other brands that I had thought long extinct. Behind the counter was a very old ornate white and chrome cash register, the kind that shoots little metal “tombstones” up at the sound of a bell to announce the amount of the transaction. I would soon learn that the register remained in use. Then there was Paul, the shops sole proprietor.
I suspect that in Paul’s younger days he might have been 6 feet tall, but 7 decades and bending over countless heads of hair had taken their toll. As he focused his attention on cutting Jeremy’s hair I noticed a tremor in Paul’s hand that seemed to stop just at the moment the clippers reached their destination. Barbers are observant, and Paul was no exception. He seemed to read my mind and commented in a matter of fact manner that he had suffered a stroke but was able to pursue his calling after only 6 months of recovery. Paul was confident of his skills to the point that he made jokes, “If I make a mistake, the hair will just grow back” … “If you want your cut fixed you can always ride your bikes back here”. Paul and I were amused, but I sensed that Christine preferred that I leave my hair to other hands.
Paul put the finishing touches on Jeremy’s hair-cut, and with practiced mastery removed the barber’s cape, shaking the clinging hair to the floor. “That will be nine dollars”, Paul announced. Jeremy and I both must have displayed a micro reaction because Paul then followed up with, “I could do it cheaper, but only if you fellows pay my bills.” It has probably been over 30 years since I had a $9.00 haircut, and here Paul had assumed we were suffering sticker shock!
My turn in the chair. Paul went to work as a craftsman should, with calm practiced confidence. We talked as he cut. “So, you fellows are Catholic. Well, I’m Lutheran, which is kind of watered down Catholic, you know, not as complicated.” He stopped and chuckled. “Was a time there weren’t many Catholics in this area, but there are sure a lot of them now”. He was making a matter of fact observation. There was no animus meant.
I asked Paul for a recommendation for a dinner restaurant. “Well, I prefer to eat at home with Mom (his wife), but I suppose if I had to eat somewhere else it would be Duffy’s, downtown here.” Later we ate at Duffy’s, and Paul’s recommendation was spot on.
I learned that Paul and his wife had celebrated 50 years of marriage in June. They had two daughters, a son, and one grandson. This was his second barber shop and he had been cutting hair in this shop since 1962. He confirmed that the chairs, register, and fixtures predated his arrival by decades. Paul became serious. “There have been a lot of people who have offered to buy my chairs, cash register, and other things.” He continued, “Mom” and me talked about it, but it’s just not right, the shop is my business, my life.” Paul just couldn’t see parting with it piecemeal. With sadness he remarked that in front of the shop there once stood a tall barber’s pole that was as old as the shop itself. About 8 years ago some fellows passing through town wanted to buy it. Paul politely declined to sell. “I was in the shop Saturday, and by Monday the pole was gone. Someone stole my barber pole”. Paul didn’t blame “those fellows”, or anyone else. He just remarked with sadness, “Maybe someone just needed it more than me”.
“What do you think?” asked Paul. “About the barber pole?” I replied. “No, the haircut! Is it ok?” I smiled and looked in the time worn wall mirror. There was a white skinned border that now separated my bicycle tan from my shortened hairline. “Paul, it looks great!!!” Paul beamed and said, “That will be nine dollars.” I gave him a ten… “Please keep the change”. His smile broadened, broken only by the word, “Thanks!”
As I left the shop I considered that my ten dollars had purchased more than a haircut. I had enjoyed a moment in the life of a very good and extraordinary man. Smith Center had the fortune of Paul’s good will for over 50 years and “Mom” had enjoyed his love and company for over 50 years. How rich the community, and how rich was his family. My 15 minutes in his chair were priceless. I wish that I could take my grandchildren there. You know… the experience of that small tonsorial “throne” fit for a young prince or princess. I wonder if children’s haircuts are also nine dollars. Let’s see, that would be $90.00 plus the tip… What a bargain!
Some time ago I listed to a radio presentation by an economist regarding “Relativity” in spending and saving habits. It stuck with me and I frequently call it to mind in making certain money decisions.
Imagine that you have entered a store to buy a $20.00 pen as a gift for a friend. You have selected the pen and as you approach checkout you learn that a few blocks away that very same model pen is on sale for $10.00. Research suggests that the great majority of shoppers would leave the first store in favor of saving $10.00 by purchasing the pen at the sale price elsewhere.
Here’s the kicker: Imagine instead that you are at a store preparing to purchase a $1,500.00 flat screen TV. Before checkout you learn that the same model is on sale down the street for $1,490.00. Research suggests that the majority of shoppers would not leave the first store in favor of saving $10.00 by purchasing the TV at the sale price elsewhere.
Same $10.00, but opposite behavior. The economist theorized that for most people, financial decisions are made in a relativistic fashion. However, the most successful managers of money (their own and others) see the $10.00 as a stand-alone quantity without regard to the value of the underlying purchase. They would evaluate whether to buy or not at the first store solely on the basis of whether the $10.00 saving was justified by the cost and inconvenience of proceeding to the second store.
At 3 p.m. on August 9, 2010, the Cycling for Change contingent arrived for our tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. We exchanged bicycles for a school bus. Our group was augmented by representatives of Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, the bus driver (Mr. Washington), and Brad the prison chaplain.
It is 100 degrees outside. Factor in the humidity and that number exceeds 110. The sun is relentless, coating its unshaded victims like molten glass. Our bus briefly stops under a corrugated canopy, and after a guard takes a headcount and examines our picture ID’s the gate opens and the creaks of the bus undercarriage announce that we are proceeding onto the prison grounds.
Angola is unlike any other prison. It was created from 3 former antebellum plantations and encompasses 18,000 acres, roughly the size of New York’s Manhattan Island. The Mississippi River, which is nearing the end of its 2,500 mile journey, forms an imposing natural barrier on three sides of Angola. The fourth side lacks a perimeter fence as the dense mosquito infested swamp is considered an adequate deterrent to escape attempts. Brad comments that the last fellow to try his hand at “the swamp” emerged to surrender himself after 5 days, nearly eaten alive by the bugs.
There are no imposing walls, and no medieval looking stone structures. Located here and there in Angola are razor wire enclosed “camps”. These are self contained penal complexes of varying size, each one holding a portion of the total inmate population. Brad tells us that there are just under 5,000 offenders, and then corrects himself stating that with the addition of the newest camp the number has grown to nearly 5,200. Camps are designated by letter… Camp “A”, Camp “B”, and so on. We learn that Camp “J” is the discipline Camp… a jail within the Prison, housing around 600 offenders who present special problems and risks. That is really significant since 98% of the entire offender population of Angola will ultimately die in Angola.
If Louisiana’s prison needs grow, it is a simple matter to build additional camps at Angola. The spacious grounds look vacant, each camp appearing as a distant community separated by flat expanses of farmland. Angola is in fact one of only three agricultural prisons in the United States. There are miles of row crops, vegetable farms, 3,500 head of cattle, and one of the largest horse husbandry stables in the Country. This prison feeds itself and provides most of the animals used by law enforcement for mounted patrols in America. Inmates are the sole source of labor on these grounds, and with the exception of the medically, mentally, or behaviorally unfit, every inmate has a job. The grounds are impeccable. There are decorative flower gardens, neatly trimmed right-of-ways, pristine white cattle fencing. This could easily be Churchill Downs if there were only more trees and a racetrack.
Brad conducts our driving tour of Angola, directing Mr. Washington on where to turn and when to make stops. Brad is a curiosity in his own right. He is a man/boy of 27, married and father of two small children, his baby face and soft eyes seem ill-suited for a chaplain who ministers to the spiritual needs of one of the “hardest” congregations imaginable. Brad is a big man, a very big man, who turned down a major college football scholarship in favor of the seminary and God’s calling. As Brad talks about Angola and its residents, there is obvious love and respect for the population. God chose well.
Brad speaks with pride of the reforms that have occurred at Angola over the last 30 years. Gone are the days of the “hot boxes”. Inmates are provided with a well conceived system of freedoms, privileges, and incentives. He reports that prison gang activity has been largely eliminated. Serious inmate on inmate violence has been reduced from over 500 incidents per year to less than 100 annually. Offenders have opportunities to advance their education with GED classes and college courses taught by volunteers from local colleges and even Loyola University. Inmates eagerly seek to take advantage of those programs, even if they will never have the opportunity to use the knowledge in the free world.
As we proceed down one of the flat, ruler straight roads, Brad instructs Mr. Washington to stop at the small one-story concrete structure ahead on the left. This is the “Red Hat Cellblock”.
Angola’s Warden, Burl Cain, is credited with many of the reforms and improvements at Angola. Perhaps he subscribes to the notion that to forget one’s history is to risk repeating it. Red Hat was closed during the reforms implemented by a prior Warden in the 1970’s. Rather than level this structure, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places under Warden Cain’s tenure as a monument to a penal system of abuse. It is now protected from demolition. Constructed in the 1930’s, Red Hat is a long, narrow, white, single story, single hallway, standalone building surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence. It has 40 small cells, arranged 20 on each side. The corridor runs end to end. Each cell measures approximately 7 feet wide, by 9 feet deep. There was no heat or ventilation except for a small 1 foot by 2 foot barred window near the top of the 10 foot outer wall. Each cell had a single toilet to serve the needs of the occupants. Brad reported that one of the cells housed an inmate who was renowned for his repeated escape attempts. That inmate became the solitary resident of one of the Red Hat cells, his cell door being welded closed for over 7 years until near the time that he died.
The grounds surrounding Red Hat are desolate and forsaken. At the rear of the Red Hat cellblock is a large rusted electric generator. Wires still run from the generator into a side room of Red Hat, the sole purpose being the delivery of a massive surge of electrical energy into the hands and feet restraints of a wooden chair within the chamber. Within that room is the original, but now rusted, three blade switch that delivered a lethal current of electricity to end the lives of the chair’s occupants. Except for the wires and stout wooden chair, the room is more like a room in a long-abandoned farmhouse… holes in the walls and ceiling, cobwebs, mud wasps flying about. Returning to the bus we leave Red Hat, but the images of Red Hat will never leave us.
We arrive at the last stop of our tour. The bus pulls into a parking lot. In contrast with our experience at Red Hat, there is a well-maintained parking lot. The grass is trimmed with the precision of a golf course putting green. Flowering shrubs abound in front of and on the sides of a newer single story white building. There is no fence but the pastel colored exterior and interior doors all have curiously large locks, the kind that take keys which are the size of those made for a toddler’s play. We are greeted by uniformed prison staff, and Brad is addressed by name. We proceed into a larger room that has 5 or 6 round dining tables. The brightly painted cement block walls are decorated by two large oil paintings. They are well executed paintings of scenes from the Bible’s Old Testament; Daniel in the den of lions, and Elijah riding a chariot to Heaven. Brad makes a brief presentation before leading us down a corridor and through another door. We enter. On my right is an opened door and through that door I see that there are two small adjoining rooms which are separated from each other by a sliding wood paneled door. Each of these rooms has two rows of short but comfortable wood and leather chairs, the kind that might be found around an office conference table. I notice that one of these two rooms is slightly smaller and contains fewer chairs than the other. The chairs in both rooms are arranged for all to face the large picture windows that look into our “destination room”. Each room has a loudspeaker above the glass.
We enter the “destination room” in silence. The air is emotionally pulled from our lungs. In the center of the ceramic tiled floor is a single cruciform bed upon a metal pedestal. It is constructed of white enameled steel, thin black vinyl pads cover the top and the arms, which extend to the sides. Without instruction we arrange ourselves around the perimeter of this room which measures approximately 14 feet on each side. Near the head of the bed is a small window of one-way glass which conceals its interior and any occupants. The only connection between the persons or things within that room and the room in which we stand is a circular 4-inch port. On the wall near the left arm of the bed are two identical red telephones. We are given to understand that one is connected to the State Superintendant of Corrections and the other to the office of the Governor of Louisiana. At the right arm of the bed are the two picture windows. These windows are crystal clear and provide us with an unobstructed view of the unoccupied wood and leather chairs. Lighting on the white ceiling, 12 feet above the bed, is furnished by 4 fluorescent fixtures. The light is harsh even though the fixture lenses have browned with age. I imagine that for some occupants of the bed the light might have been easier to gaze into than the eyes of the observers in the adjoining rooms… or the large round clock that is above the two red telephones. I think to myself… “Let those who enter here abandon all hope.”
This is a foreign place. It is a place where few have ever been. It is a place where fewer have left alive than have entered. We have 5 senses to know our surroundings, but here our nature resists the use of our senses. The only sounds of this place are those that we make by our presence. There are no smells. There is nothing within for the preservation of life, nothing to taste, nothing to drink. None of us touch the bed even though there is nothing to prevent it. What we know is delivered in stark clarity by our eyes. What our eyes disclose is all strange, unfamiliar, and not a part of our prior experiences… except that there, lying upon the cruciform bed, I see seven common but out of place objects, and I understand a sad irony…
…About 20 years ago, somewhere in this country or another, there was a factory. Within that factory a worker stood at their duty station. It might have been a day like any other for that person. Perhaps the worker took pride in the knowledge that the simple task being performed would result in the saving of countless lives, the avoidance of serious injury, the enhancement of safety and security for thousands of people. On that day the worker carefully selected and packaged 7 seatbelts, and addressed the shipping label: Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola.