Another Midsummer Night’s Dream — Part Two
Another Midsummer Night’s Dream
PART TWO: Tapping On the Bars
“Hal,” he wrote, “I hope you’re not mad about this.”
I threw the letter down on my cot and leaped up. Two steps forward and I was at the bars, gripping them with both hands, not seeing anything beyond them.
Mad wasn’t quite the right word for what I was feeling. Betrayed was closer. Sold out.
I had spent 397 days behind bars acting out beliefs we had both been taught all our lives: “Keep clear of war and preparation for war,” that’s what it said in Faith and Practice, and Hal knew it as well as I did.
But then, when push comes to shove with the war machine, my own brother signs right up.
He didn’t file for CO. He didn’t even try to stay in school, take the student deferment route. Go to Canada? He wouldn’t know where to find it on the map.
Was I mad? Damn right. But also ashamed and humiliated. They gave the kid a crescent wrench and the promise of a few lessons, and walked away with his soul. So what if, in the process, it made his older brother in the slammer look like a fool. Gee whiz, bet he never thought of that.
I stared out at nothing for a long time, my mind seething. Didn’t he know that recruiters routinely lied about what was really going to happen once guys signed up? Hal could still end up in Vietnam; did he think there weren’t any mechanics working on the helicopters that were shooting up the whole damn country?
Finally I turned back to the bed, and picked up the letter again.
The rest of it was anti-climactic; our parents were pretty much okay with his decision, he said. He was scheduled for a physical and some placement tests in a couple weeks, and then by the end of August, he’d be shipped out for basic training. He repeated that he hoped I wasn’t mad about it.
There was a notebook and a pencil in the little amount of stuff allowed me, and a few envelopes. I couldn’t stop Hal from this foolishness, but I didn’t have to be quiet about. I flipped open the notebook and began writing in a kind of fury.
“You stupid fool,” I wrote. “Doesn’t everything you’ve been taught mean anything to you? What kind of a coward have you turned into?” And that was the friendly part.
I scribbled several pages like this, my rage building as the blue lines filled up. Finally I saw I was down to the next-to-last sheet in the notebook, so I closed by urging Art to go see a lawyer I knew, who could help him get out of his enlistment. Why I thought he’d take that advice from me after all the abuse in the rest of the letter I don’t know; but that’s a big brother for you. Carefully ripping the pages from their spiral binding, I folded them into one of the envelopes, leaving it unsealed, as prison censorship rules dictated. As soon as they let us out for exercise, I’d mail it.
It was getting dark now. They brought us supper in our cells, some greasy hamburger- macaroni concoction with instant mashed potatoes and tired looking green beans. It came on flimsy plastic trays too lightweight to be broken up and sharpened into weapons, shoved through a narrow slot in the bars. I ate without interest.
After the trays were collected, the block settled back into a near silence. Soon a guard somewhere below settled into his chair, and turned on a portable radio. It wasn’t on very loud, but the sound drifted up through the gloom. He was a country music fan, not my favorite kind of music, but a welcome relief from the enforced quiet of the lockdown. There’s a melancholy overtone to much country, especially the steel guitar riffs, that fits well inside a jail. And there used to be a lot of prison songs too, before country went slick and uptown.
The last song I remember was by Merle Haggard: “If We Make It Through December,” about a guy who’s unemployed talking to his little daughter about how maybe times will get better after Christmas. After next Chrismas I’d be close to my next chance for parole; and by the Christmas after that, I’d be out regardless. A long time, but not quite forever. Then I’d make my run to the ocean; as I drifted into sleep, I realized that it might be the dead of winter when I got there? Did I care? No.
A tapping on the bars of my cell woke me up. It was almost pitch dark, but as my eyes adjusted, I could see someone outlined by the dim glow of the security light below us.
I sat up instantly, fear sliding with the sweat down the back of my neck. Nighttime visitors to your cell were almost always trouble. That’s when guys were beaten or raped. The guards had to be in on it, for bribes or grudges or something, to let people out of their cells, and unlatch the bars to yours.
I thought fast. I wasn’t on anybody’s hit list, as far as I knew. I kept quiet, stayed out of trouble, and steered clear of the guys with the reputation for prison sex. But you don’t always know about these things. People can be watching, making you a target and biding their time, without you realizing it until the last fatal moment.
“What do you want?” I whispered at the figure, and started to get up.
NEXT: Do You Understand?