In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 15

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I lay in the dark a few feet away from a man who could, conceivably, cure any number of humanity's dreaded diseases. But he had no intention of sharing the cures with anyone. Doc was biding his time.

CHAPTER 51.

"Ella," I asked, "do you have any children?"

"They wouldn't let me have none," she said.

"Did you want kids?"



"Wanted lots of 'em," she said, her voice trailing off. She looked down at the floor. "But they wouldn't let me have none."

Ella's smile disappeared, and I wished I could take back my question. I didn't know what to say. We fell silent.

Then Jimmy Harris called out, "Hey, young fella!" Jimmy had severe curvature of the spine, and he wore bright red suspenders that accentuated his stooped posture. He waved me over to his table.

"I'm Catholic, you know," Jimmy said. "My wife and I used the rhythm method, and it isn't very reliable." Jimmy and his wife became pregnant with a son. But rather than have the Sisters of Charity take his boy and place him in an anonymous home, Jimmy arranged for his son to live with a woman in Ville Platte, Louisiana. Two years later, when they gave birth to a girl, the same woman took the child.

"My children were raised by a wonderful woman," Jimmy added. "A saint."

"Did you get to see them?" I asked.

"See 'em all the time," he said, smiling. "They're coming with the grandchildren to pick me up this weekend."

While Jimmy talked about his children, Ella left the cafeteria. I watched as she rolled out toward the corridor. It was the only time I had ever seen her look sad.

Jimmy looked over his shoulder and whispered, "Not many people will tell you this, but in the old days they encouraged us to get an operation."

"What kind?"

"Sterilization," Jimmy said in a low voice. "They didn't force it on us, but they dangled privileges out there to encourage volunteers."

I couldn't believe Ella would knowingly volunteer for an operation that would keep her from being a mother. I knew about sterilization of mental patients in the United States, and one of the reference books I'd read mentioned that leprosy patients had been sterilized in j.a.pan. "Did many get the operation?" I asked.

"I don't know about n.o.body but me," he said.

I would never know if Ella had been sterilized. I didn't want to make her sad, so I never brought up the subject again. But I felt terrible for her. She had helped me so much since I'd come to Carville. At a time when I was planning a future with my children, Ella was living out her last years. There were no children to carry on her spirit or legacy or stories. When she died, there would be no others. For Ella, it stopped here.

Just before the ten o'clock count, when I was certain Neil and Maggie would be asleep, I stood in line in the hallway and waited for a pay phone to come available. I knew Linda didn't want me to move back to Oxford. And for good reason. She wanted a fresh start and I understood. In some ways, it would have been easier for me to settle in a town without Linda, but I could not bear to be away from Neil and Maggie. As I waited and listened to an inmate yell at his wife over the phone, I felt lucky to have my children. When I was with Neil and Maggie, my troubles seemed to disappear.

If I was going to be the best father possible, I needed to live in the same town as my children. For them, and for me. But that commitment to my children came with another commitment. Since Linda would have custody, I would have to follow her wherever she moved. And I was prepared to do just that.

When the pay phone came available, I picked up the receiver and asked the operator to make a collect call to Oxford, Mississippi.

My father and me, 1972.

CHAPTER 52.

I looked forward to mail call on the first of every month. That's when my father sent me $100 for my prison commissary account. In prison, $100 went a long way. I could buy decent toothpaste and mouthwash and laundry detergent, not to mention ice cream. I could also stock up on quarters so I could buy snacks from the vending machines anytime day or night, or even loan Link money for his card games. Dad had always been generous.

When I was fourteen years old, I moved in with my father. He was different from most fathers I knew. He wasn't strict. In fact, my father was the nicest dad in the neighborhood. At times, he was the drunkest.

Late at night, when drunken fathers across the country would come home to lash out at the ones they loved, my father did the opposite. He would stagger in the front door, see me in the living room, pull me up from the couch, and hug me tight. I could smell the beer on his breath and the cigarette smoke on his golf sweater. He would shake his head, as if ashamed of himself, and tell me how much he loved me, how proud he was of all I had done, and that he was sorry he wasn't a better father.

I wished Dad hadn't been so hard on himself, but I knew without question how much he loved me. I also knew he trusted me. He would not question where I had been or what I had been doing. I was fifteen. I had a car. And all the freedom a teenager could want.

Sometimes I'd sneak into my father's bedroom after my stepmother had left for work; my father would sleep until lunch. And even then, he might head to the golf course instead of his law office.

I'd pick up the pants he had thrown on the bedside chair and reach into his pocket. Most mornings I slipped in to get some spending money. I'm sure he would have given it to me if I had asked. But this was easier. And he would never notice because he wouldn't remember if he had spent it at the bar the night before.

I loved my dad, but looking at him hungover, sleeping the day away, I knew he was no model for success. He would always choose golf or drinking or hanging out with his friends over work. My idols were successful businessmen. I admired Jack Thompson, a Gulf Coast insurance man who had made so much money he sat on a board at Lloyd's of London. I looked up to my father's oldest friend, George Schloegel, who had worked his way from the mailroom of Hanc.o.c.k Bank to become a vice president destined for the top spot. I wanted to follow the path of Roland Weeks, the publisher of our local newspaper who spent his weekends flying stunt planes and skiing from the back of a s.h.i.+ny speedboat. I wasn't certain how my life would turn out, but I did know one thing. I would not end up like my father.

At mail call, two weeks after my last phone conversation with Linda, I received a large envelope. I recognized her handwriting, as well as her new Oxford return address. Inside were drawings by Neil and Maggie, a couple of photographs, and a letter from Linda sealed in a small envelope. It was the first letter I had received from her in months, and I was nervous about opening it.

I had asked a lot of Linda. I had asked her to accept my decision to live within a few minutes of her house, in her new hometown.

I would be an ex-con burdened by insurmountable debt with a $1,000-a-month rest.i.tution payment, a $600-a-month child support order, and no job.

Linda's friends, co-workers, and attorneys were giving her advice and they pretty much shared the same opinion of me. They told her to get as far away from me as possible. Once I was out of prison, they warned her, my life would be over, and I would drag her down along with me. One of her advisers went so far as to say Neil and Maggie would suffer because they carried my last name. A lawyer said I was a sociopath who would always hurt the people around me.

With trepidation I opened Linda's letter and sat on my bunk.

In a long handwritten note, Linda outlined every reason I should not move to Oxford. But in the last paragraph, her tone s.h.i.+fted. She would not resist my decision. Acknowledging she might be making a huge mistake, she believed Neil and Maggie needed both of us. She closed her letter with a request: Please respect my s.p.a.ce and privacy Please respect my s.p.a.ce and privacy.

I folded the letter and put it in my locker.

For the sake of our children, Linda was willing to sacrifice her desire to be far from me. She wanted me to be a part of Neil's and Maggie's daily lives and, by extension, part of hers, too.

I would have some hard times after my release, especially in Oxford. But Linda's blessing gave me great hope. Linda had done something remarkable. She had given me a second chance. A second chance with my children.

I didn't know how I would ever repay her.

CHAPTER 53.

During the cold winter months, bundled in a brown, government-issued coat, I walked at night. I moved at a slow, methodical pace. Under the bare trees, the moon illuminated the ashy gra.s.s in the courtyard.

Ella had been right. Whatever zeal I had for uncovering the stories of the leprosy patients and inmates was inversely proportionate to my enthusiasm for discovering my own story.

So I began the process of asking myself the hard questions. How did I get so far off course? How could I have hurt so many people? How could I have put my family at risk? Would I be able to resist the temptations of applause? Could I avoid delusional thinking and admit my shortcomings? Could I avoid caring what people thought of me? And how could I support my family in a way that did no harm, but allowed me to help others? How did I get so far off course? How could I have hurt so many people? How could I have put my family at risk? Would I be able to resist the temptations of applause? Could I avoid delusional thinking and admit my shortcomings? Could I avoid caring what people thought of me? And how could I support my family in a way that did no harm, but allowed me to help others?

I had never set aside time to look at how I felt or where I was headed. I believed I could not afford to question my motives. I was focused on a single goal-success-and had no interest in anything that stood in its way. I had convinced myself that kiting wasn't a real crime. I didn't trespa.s.s or break into buildings. I didn't speak any lies aloud or use any threats or weapons. There was no conspiracy. I'd also convinced myself there were no real victims, as long as I covered the overdraft.

But deep down, I knew better. Over the years, to ease the shame building inside, I developed a dual existence. I made a deal with myself. If I broke a rule, I would perform a good act to offset my wrong. For every instance I cheated time, I would balance the scales with an act of kindness. I was determined to do more good than bad. In Oxford, I gave free advertising s.p.a.ce to nonprofit groups. I a.s.signed reporters to cover news in Oxford's African American community, a group that had been ignored by the Eagle Eagle for a century. I wrote profiles of men and women who had committed their lives to helping the less fortunate. I gave away money and time and talent to balance the "good" side of the scale. for a century. I wrote profiles of men and women who had committed their lives to helping the less fortunate. I gave away money and time and talent to balance the "good" side of the scale.

As the kiting became more frequent on the Mississippi coast, I again felt compelled to offer sacrifices for my deeds. I awakened early each morning to write letters of encouragement to my friends and employees. My church was without a priest, so I visited members who were hospitalized. I attended all church events. I led morning prayer when a subst.i.tute priest couldn't be found. I pledged $10,000 to the Red Cross, $5,000 to the Salvation Army, and $8,000 to the church-pledges never fulfilled.

My dual existence had worked for so long, it felt like second nature. Publicly, I was a publisher, church leader, board member, lavish boss, and budding philanthropist. Privately, I was a man who had discovered a secret technique to make money appear out of nowhere. My life became a frantic race to pile up enough good to offset my secret life.

As I walked-meddlin', as Ella would say-I found no simple answers. But I did find something else. The very act of being honest with myself, taking an objective look at my life, was freeing. I felt free of the expectations I placed on myself. Free of my drive to win at all costs. Free of the prisons I'd built for myself over the past seven years.

Now I felt genuinely grateful to be here. Doc and Link checked my delusions and kept me honest; Ella and Harry were models of simplicity and kindness.

Walking among the leprosy patients-whether in the cafeteria, the hallways, or the Catholic church-helped me see my own good fortune. Watching them made self-pity impossible.

For reasons I could not fully explain, I felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria. I still did not know exactly how to change, but I had discovered some simple truths: A good life with my children did not require wealth. It was vital to be honest, without worrying about my own image. And helping others was more n.o.ble than winning awards.

I knew my elation would not last. In a few months, I would be free to make the same mistakes again. I would not have Ella to nudge me along. I would be confronted with difficult choices. And I would have to face my victims.

But now, with the sounds of crickets echoing from beneath the raised walkways, I thought about my new friends. And I was thankful my life was so rich.

CHAPTER 54.

During a Wednesday night service at the Catholic church, I noticed a new leprosy patient. He sat in a pew to the right of Stan and Sarah. I'd never seen him before, but that wasn't unusual. Patients from around the world came to Carville for special surgeries and treatments. The man could have been Asian or Indian, or maybe from South America. I couldn't tell for sure, but he was performing a ritual I'd never seen. He put his Bible to his chin and pressed it against his mouth, like he was licking the pages.

Steve Read leaned over to me and whispered, "He must have skipped dinner."

When the man's face wasn't pressed against his Bible, he stared up and rocked back and forth. Then he would put his tongue back against the pages.

During Communion, standing at the altar, I got a closer look. He was blind. Like most of the victims of leprosy, the man's hands were anesthetized, so Braille was of no use. His fingertips could not feel the small b.u.mps on the page. But he had found a new way. He was reading Braille with his tongue.

If a blind man could learn to read Braille with his tongue, surely I could find some way to make a new start. Helping leprosy patients wasn't an option for an inmate, but I could volunteer to help my fellow prisoners.

I walked to the education department and knocked on Ms. Woodsen's door. A short, rotund guard, Ms. Woodsen was also a teacher.

"May I help you?" she said, in a tone that made it clear she didn't want to be disturbed.

"I'd like to volunteer to teach a night cla.s.s," I said.

"We ain't got no night cla.s.ses," she said.

"Well," I said, "I was hoping I might lead a couple of cla.s.ses for the other inmates."

"What you teach?"

"Speech. Debate. Public relations. Magazine publis.h.i.+ng. Current events. Resume writing."

"You went to college?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am."

Ms. Woodsen stared at me for a moment. "All these men gonna need a resume when they get out," she said. "Let me see can I get approval."

The following afternoon, Ms. Woodsen approved the night cla.s.s. I was to start with resume writing. Armed with a felt-tip pen and ruler, I stenciled a flyer advertising the cla.s.s. I made copies at the prison law library, posted them at the entrance of each inmate dorm, and distributed them to inmates in the TV rooms. I even ill.u.s.trated a banner advertis.e.m.e.nt at the bottom of the menu board in the inmate cafeteria. I was on a new mission.

More than thirty inmates showed up for the first cla.s.s at 7:00 P.M P.M. on a Tuesday. The cla.s.sroom had twenty-five chairs, so it was truly standing-room only.

During the first hour of cla.s.s, I distributed three sample resumes. We discussed the pros and cons of each. Then I reviewed the basics of resume writing. Accentuate the positive. Use short, staccato-style prose. Organize entries in reverse chronological order. Divide accomplishments into logical categories. Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.

At the end of the hour, I opened the floor for questions.

A mortgage broker from Pennsylvania held up his hand. "How do we account for our prison time?" he asked.

"Hmmm, I'm not sure," I said. I hadn't even considered that every man in the room would have a two-to three-year gap in his professional life to explain away. "Any ideas?" I asked the cla.s.s.

A New Jersey lawyer convicted of tax fraud suggested, "Just write down 'Federal Medical Center' and your job description. They'll think you worked at a hospital. Which is true."

A man convicted of insurance fraud proposed, "You could just say you worked for the Bureau of Prisons. Which is also true."

"What about this?" A counterfeiter who worked in the kitchen recommended "Chef, Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center."

All the men in the room nodded and slapped hands, impressed with their own ingenuity.

"Does anyone think we should be more forthcoming?" I asked.

No one seemed to think a truthful revelation was in order.

In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 15

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