Another Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Story
A Story by Chuck Fager
Copyright (c) All rights reserved
PART ONE: Four Days Into Lockdown
It was hot. The summer of 1970 was burning scorched-looking brown spots in the green Pennsylvania hills, and made the wide cornfields around us crackle, as if their just-forming ears were going to swell up and start popping any minute now.
Inside the wall, humidity condensed and trickled down the walls of our cells, and the smells of mildew and old sweat were everywhere. It occurred to me that it must be something like this in the rice paddies of Vietnam. That was an irony for you: I had refused to join the army and go the rice paddies, so rice paddy weather had come to me.
Naturally, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons didn’t believe in air conditioning, except of course in the guards’ lounge and the warden’s office. Worse yet, the bureaucrats had been spooked by the news from Attica, three hours to the northwest of us in New York. A week earlier the men there had rebelled and taken hostages, until the state troopers blasted them out. Dozens had been
killed and wounded as law and order, as the governor liked to say, were restored.
But Attica was in a different state, and a different system –hell, a different planet almost. This was a medium security joint, and after a year here I thought I had a good ear for the tension level in our block at least, and it felt like we had about as much fight in us as a damp potato chip. The heat wrung it out of us, simmering us in the depression and despair that are more usual among caged men.
The worst of it for me was that the lockdown order had come the day before my next visit to the library. Reading was the one pleasure I could legally retain inside, and now I was caught without it. There were only two books in my cell, a Horatio Hornblower novel and the Bible the visiting committee from the Meeting brought me.
I’d read both already. The Bible hadn’t been as bad as I thought it would be; but I wasn’t ready to start on it again. The Hornblower had mostly been a bore; did I really care what happened to some British naval commander in the Napoleonic wars? Besides, there was no sex in it to speak of.
The only parts which really held me were the descriptions of the sea. They made the ocean sound cool and wet, with a breeze, and sometimes tantalizingly close.
I dreamed about the sea twice while reading Hornblower. After the second dream, I decided that as soon as I made parole, I was heading for the beach, and nobody better try to stop me.
A good many hours were passed wondering which beach was closest to here –Cape May, New Jersey? Rehoboth Beach in Delaware? Or what about Cape Cod? It was farther away, but the beaches were nicer, or so I’d been told. Maybe Nantucket; yes –Nantucket, being an island, would be surrounded on all sides by that cool dark water and its breezes.
That’s one of the ways you pass time inside, thinking pointless thoughts about pointless things. It’s a waste of your time, a waste of your life; but don’t let me get started on that.
If the Hornblower book had been a mistake, there was another war novel I was anxious to read, The Captain, by Jan de Hartog. It was about the sea too, and rescue boats in World War Two. Quaker pacifist that I was, that was a war I could relate to. The Nazis were evil, and I knew which side was supposed to win, even if I wouldn’t have joined in the fighting. Or maybe I would have; lots of Quakers did. A copy of The Captain sat in the prison library; I’d seen it there last time, looked through it, and put it next on my mental “gotta read this” list. But when would I get my hands on it?
We were four days into the lockdown when the warden decided, in a fit of charity I suppose, to let us have our mail. A guard brought it around, pushing a cart with a squeaky wheel down the outside hallway. It got quiet when the cart started its rounds. I lay on my bed, like everyone else, listening to its progress, wondering if it was going to stop by my cell.
It did. “Harrison.” The guard’s hand pushed between the bars. Two envelopes.
One was from the visiting committee. They had planned to see me the previous weekend, the clerk wrote, but the lockdown kept them out. They were sorry, they hoped I was minding the light and keeping up my spirits, they wanted me to know they were behind me a hundred percent in my conscientious resistance to the draft, they quoted George Fox, etc., etc.
It wasn’t much to lean on against the pressures of that place; but it was better than nothing, which was what most of the rest of the prisoners had.
The other letter was from Art. I opened it with interest. My younger brother didn’t write often; what did he have to say, I wondered. Did I forget his birthday or something?
It was dated almost a month earlier; it was just like Art to write a letter and forget to send it; mother probably found it and prodded him, gave him a stamp.
“Dear Hal,” he wrote, “I hope you’re doing okay there. We’re all fine here.”
After this rather stiff opening, he went on for two more labored paragraphs about stuff happening back home: Eddie Meyers had gotten engaged, Morty Haverman bought a big new Corvette, and some other people we knew were about to graduate from college. That kind of stuff.
Halfway through this catalog, I could sense that something else was really on his mind. Art wasn’t given to this kind of social chitchat; I got it from my mother. Was there something he was having trouble getting around to saying?
My hunch was right. “All that’s not the really major news,” he wrote finally. “The biggest item is from me, and I hope you’re sitting down.”
Of course I was sitting; there wasn’t enough room to do much more.
“You know how much I hate school,” he began, “but I did finish the year at community college. Just barely. I passed the math okay, but history, geography and Zoology–jeez, I could hardly ever stay awake. Two years of that is about as much as I can put up with. And Ed down at the shop said they’ll take me on fulltime, you know, as soon as I’m free.”
I turned the handwritten sheet over. There was no news here so far. Art looked studious, even nerdy, thick glasses and all; but he had never been much for schooling. Instead, he had tinkered with motorcycles since he was a kid. Ed’s shop was the Honda dealership back home, and Art had worked there on and off since high school.
“The only problem,” Art went on, “is that since I’m not in school anymore, I’m real live draft bait now. So I had to get that figured out.”
Suddenly there was an empty, ominous feeling in my stomach. I guessed what was coming.
“The Air Force recruiter,” he wrote, “told me about this program they’ve got where you learn mechanics, and it’s mostly on the job too, not that much boring classroom stuff.”
No, I thought. He didn’t do this.
Yes, he did. “So,” read the next sentence, “I signed up.”
That was it, the point of the letter.
NEXT: Tapping On the Bars