Monday, January 16, 2012

“Ye of Little Faith:” The Lost Boys Christmas Party Follow Up

Dateline: January 10, 2012

The response to the December essay about Christmas in prison surprised me. Something about the experience touched more than a few people. I am grateful for the positive comments and encouragement, and want to follow up on how the event turned out.

One of the crucial ways of developing Christmas spirit in the negative environment of prison is through singing Christmas carols. Only a few people have radios in here, which have poor reception and limited pick up out here in the middle of nowhere, so if you want music you have to make your own. Two weeks before Christmas, I’d only enlisted two carolers, but I wasn’t worried. Getting them to sing a few Christmas carols every night as practice was the hard part. As the men heard the songs over a two week period, more and more began humming the tunes, subtly infusing them with Christmas spirit.

When I first went around the housing unit ─ we call them, “dorms,” but the term has nothing else in common with college housing ─ a number of prisoners, the “haves,” quickly signed on, agreeing to participate. A minority of scoffers and doubters ─ mostly “have-nots,” but some “haves,” said they weren’t interested. I told them they were welcome to share in the food and celebration, whether they contributed or not. Prisoners are distrustful. They’ve been conned, lied to and tricked so many times, and have conned, lied to and tricked others in turn, to the point where they look on anything that sounds good with suspicion and skepticism. That’s okay. I’ve learned how to deal with the hard cases.

Two days before Christmas, five men ─ “haves” ─ had made major commitments to purchase canteen food to feed the dorm, but it only works if more prisoners contribute, even if it is only a ramen noodle soup or some saltines. On Friday night, two major contributors and I went from bunk to bunk with a mesh bag seeking donations from the fence sitters.

“Is this thing really gonna go down?” one asked.

“I don’t think it will work, but I’ll throw in a bag of beans and rice,” another said. “Thanks.”

“Man, I ain’t got nothing to give.”

“That’s okay. It’s Christmas. We’ll have something or everyone, even if it isn’t much.”

“I don’t believe in Christmas. This is just a scam.”

“No, it’s not.”

So it went. We collected a surprising amount of food, mostly the dry ramen noodles, beans, and cheese puffs, but also tuna fish, chili and beans, and beef stew in the bag. It still wasn’t enough to feed eighty-five men on Christmas night. When one man said that, I told him they told Jesus the same thing two thousand years ago, right before He fed the multitude with a few fishes and loaves, and we would feed everybody in the building even if it was only a spoonful of tuna salad on a saltine. As it turned out, we had a lot more than that.

One man brought three bags of instant coffee and gave out spoons of coffee to all who wanted it, all Christmas day. Coffee is a big deal in prison. Most men drink it, but most don’t have any. Anyone who buys a bag quickly learns to say no, or risk finding himself bum-rushed by beggars who will drink his last cupful if he lets them. To drink several cups throughout the day without the guilt of having to ask someone if they could spare a spoon “until my money come in from home,” knowing none is coming, was truly a welcome Christmas gift to many “have-nots.”

Several men who couldn’t contribute food offered their labor in preparation. Sixty packs of the ramen noodles and other dry ingredients went into a large plastic bag. That wasn’t going to be enough. A few men got the Christmas spirit, went to the canteen, and came back with more supplies. Into the bag. Add gallons of hot water. Mix it all together. Get the choir organized and singing Christmas carols, the louder the better. All it takes is one spark to get a fire going. Men began drifting over to see how it was coming. Mattresses had been rolled back so the steel bunks could be used as prep areas. Old newspapers were laid down to contain the mess. The carolers sang on. The food was ready.

Most everyone got out their bowls and spoons and lined up. In prison we know how to line up. The chow line, the canteen line, the mail line, the laundry line, the line to go to work, to go to medical, to the chapel. Everywhere is a line. Hurry up and wait. Someone once suggested that the judge should just say, “I sentence you to life standing in line,” and get it over with.

We didn’t know how far the food would go, so the first time through, the bowls were only half filled. Then they came back through a second time. After several Christmas songs, a lively rendition of “Jingle Bells” broke through the tough guy façades, and the singing got boisterous with more people joining in. Several men stayed off to the side, trying to ignore the celebration, but the Christmas spirit was contagious, and the other men went to them.

“Don’t you want something to eat?”

“It’s really good. Where’s your bowl? Try a little.”

Some people have to be convinced it’s okay to have fun and share with others. It’s a good thing we set some aside for the singers, or there would have been little left after a couple of dozen men went through the line a fourth time. I went through twice myself and was full.

One of the scoffers came to me later and said that he’d served nine years in prison, and this was the best Christmas he’d ever had, even on the street. He thanked me for talking him into it, getting him involved, and for putting it all together. That was thanks enough for me. To see so many normally scowling, angry and unhappy men laughing and singing “Joy To The World,” eating and sharing with others, getting along, not arguing, made all the effort worthwhile. I wanted to prove a point ─ that we could rise above our circumstances if we worked together. Point proved. Let us show them what “faith-based” means.

A twenty year old prisoner approached me hesitantly. TWENTY years old! Was I ever that young? He looked fourteen. I shuddered to think of the hell he’d gone through, being sent to an adult prison as a teenager. “Tender vittles,” they call those boys. You’d better fight, and learn to “wear an  ass-
whuppin,’ ” to keep your manhood and self-respect in such an environment. I added it up ─ when he was born, I was serving my thirteenth year in prison at Polk C.I., working in the chapel, painting, writing, and growing flowers, besides my other duties. He could have been my grandson. He called me Mr. Norman.

“Mr. Norman,” he said, eyes averted. I waited him out. He looked up at me. “Could I see that picture you took again?”

The previous week, Libby and I had taken a photo in front of the Christmas tree in the visiting park. I had showed it to several fellows when I came back, so they could see how nice the Christmas tree looked, since few of them would be going for a visit.

“Sure.” I got it out and handed it to him. He looked at it for about a minute.

“That’s a good picture of you, Mr. Norman. You look happy.”

“It’s good to have someone who loves you.”

“I don’t have anybody who loves me,” he said, eyes downcast again.

“Surely someone loves you,” I said. “What about your mother?”

“You don’t know my mother. Leave her out of this,” he said. “You know, I never had a Christmas. We didn’t do that. But, today, this Christmas party and all that, the singing, it made me feel different, like someone cares.”

“I care.”


He walked away.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey... Norman, I haven't forgot. It's a battle out here too; especially when your health is failing. I can't prove it but the lack of proper health care at Polk contributed to some of my health issues.

I remember the garden, the onions, the tomatoes and Mr. Rayburn. I used to do his college papers before you joined the group. He, in turn would throw us a little feast every now and then.

I'm almost bed bound and have several other issues... but what can I do to help out?