Thursday, February 21, 2013


DAY TWENTY THREE: Prison Diary January 25, 2013 Solitary Confinement Okaloosa C.I., Crestview, FL (coming to you from a dismal prison far, far away from civilization)

Garrison Keillor, “The Writer’s Almanac,” Aid in Solitary Survival

4:13 AM – Day 23 of my sojourn in solitary, only 7 days left. I was awakened by the caustic clang of a large brass key twisting against steel. The guard opened the tray flap in the cell door, waking me up, to hand me a letter I’d hoped to get eight hours earlier, a letter from my best friend, Libby, with several pages of “The Writer’s Almanac” from a couple of weeks ago. My eyes were still partially glued shut, so I lay the letter down and fell back on my pillow for an hour, to the shouts of, “Get up, get dressed, get your beds made!” echoing through the wing. When I was seven years old my mother was never that bad. Where are we going? Nowhere. What is the urgency? None. About 90% of my fellow denizens in solitary try to sleep their time away, anyway. After the “get up, get dressed, make your bed” orders, the meager breakfast is served (it is now 5:50 AM, and Pavlov’s dogs are anxiously awaiting the clatter of trays in the food cart to start them salivating). Two hard, flat, cold biscuits, half a serving of yellow grits, some cold potatoes, a half cup of watered down artificial drink, yum, yum, chowtime!

Did I say “pillow” in that previous paragraph? A euphemistic term. If you’ve ever seen a bag of “6-6-6” lawn fertilizer, put a hard plastic cover around the bag, and you have my pillow. For the first week, I had painful neck cramps every morning that lasted for hours, but it is said that you can get used to anything, so I suppose I’ve gotten used to sleeping with a bag of fertilizer for a pillow.

Garrison Keillor presents “The Writer’s Almanac” for about five minutes every morning on National Public Radio. Before I came “back here,” I tried to listen to his little show on my little radio on mornings when I didn’t have an early “callout,” (appointment) somewhere, and Libby and I would later discuss them. Since I missed a number of sessions (no choice) each week, Libby downloaded copies, printed and mailed them to me, so we could still share our thoughts. Those printed copies have been lifesavers for me in “the hole.”

I told you that perhaps 90% of my fellow solitary confines try to sleep their time away. Some are very good at it. Wake up for three meals a day, flop back, stay horizontal, if you’re not really sleeping all that time, pretend you are. That’s another symptom of severe prison depression. I can’t do that. You see? 5:30 AM, I’m writing.

The other 10% if not reading, are yelling to each other. “Woooo…” “Hey, dog, wassup?” “Chillin.’” “Ya feel me?” “Le’s talk about dem ho’s.” “Wooo…” ad infinitum.

And since prisoners in “disciplinary confinement (DC)” can’t receive books, magazines, or newspapers in DC, it’s a lonely place. The few dog-eared, pages missing paperbacks are highly sought after. Other prisons, the chaplain comes around weekly with a cart of religious books, Bibles, and other reading materials he passes out to anyone who requests it, but in my 23 days back here, we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of the chaplain. Every few days when I get a fat envelope with several days’ worth of “The Writer’s Almanac,” it is a treat.

Each edition usually begins with an interesting poem, then an eclectic mix of fascinating facts about famous poets, authors, musicians, composers, artists, people born that day, who had some impact and influence on world culture. I was particularly interested in the little-known facts Garrison Keillor presented about Johnny Cash.

On that day, January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash recorded a live concert at Folsom Prison, California. You know the song, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” He’d written “Folsom Prison Blues” after becoming inspired by a prison documentary he saw in the 1950’s while in the Air Force. I won’t spoil it, read the story. Johnny’s career was sagging, and his album, “Live at Folsom Prison,” hit number one, reviving his career. Eight years later, I met Johnny Cash in Pontiac, Michigan.

I was warned by the Sheraton manager that next week the Billy Graham Crusade was taking over the hotel, and if I wanted to leave, fine, but if I wanted to stay, and didn’t mind the hubbub, no problem. I had a nice room, I liked their restaurant, I was gone most of the time anyway, so I stayed. The Crusade advance crew arrived that week, all the people, including public relations people, involved in setting up a week-long Christian crusade at the Pontiac Silverdome nearby.

I was an early riser as were a few of them, and soon I was having breakfast with two or three of them every morning. The first night I ran head-on into a group walking with Billy Graham down the hotel hallway – Johnny Cash and his wife, June, the actor, George Peppard, Billy’s wife, and others I didn’t recognize. Polite nods and smiles, “How ya’ll doing?” and I was gone. At the time I was most impressed to see George Peppard, who had starred in one of my favorite movies, “The Blue Max,” about World War I fighter pilots.

Early the next morning I’d just sat down at a little table with two of Billy’s p.r. people when the waters parted and several people came into the restaurant ahead of Billy’s group, pushing two big tables together to make room. They all came in and began sitting down. We were staring, of course. Even though they worked for him, the two young people I was with couldn’t get enough of the great man. It must have been like that when John the Baptist parted the crowds and stepped into the river.

Billy Graham is a gracious man. He walked over to our little group, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Why don’t you join us at our little prayer breakfast?” He knew those two – they worked for him, but he had no idea who I was except perhaps a new employee. I was hesitant, but one friend grabbed my arm, so I went.

I sat next to George Peppard and someone I don’t remember, across from Johnny Cash and his wife, June. Billy was at the head, of course. They poured coffee and exchanged pleasantries.

When Billy Graham says, “prayer breakfast,” that is exactly what he means. He looked at Johnny Cash, and said, “Johnny, would you start us off?” That was a thrill. You’ve probably heard Johnny Cash sing, but you should have heard him pray. That deep Johnny Cash voice of his rumbled a combination “thank you, Jesus, for our many blessings,” with a short “grace,” thanks for the meal and the company. When June Carter Cash said a short prayer and a blessing, it scared the hell out of me –they were going around the table, and in a few moments it would be my turn! I wasn’t prepared for that.

I couldn’t lie to these good people, who I was and what I was doing in a hotel in Pontiac, Michigan, packed full of fervent Christians either working for or attending the Billy Graham Crusade. (I was actually ducking two F.B.I. agents in Florida I didn’t want to talk to). The goodness and love just radiated off those people so strongly that I couldn’t bear to lie to them, to utter my “cover story,” so I just kept my mouth shut, smiled a lot, and kept it in neutral.

When it came my turn, I was almost paralyzed. No way could I ad lib a prayer with any degree of sincerity. Then my dying grandfather, Bebaw, rescued me. I recited the “grace” he said before every meal his entire life, the only grace I know: “Righteous Heavenly Father, look down on us with tender mercy, God; direct these blessings and sanctify these table offerings for the nourishment of our bodies. We ask these things in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.” And they all said, “Amen.” Man!

I looked to my right at Billy, he was looking at me with an approving smile, and gave me a little wink, like he saw right through me, but was pleased with the old time gospel grace. Thanks, Bebaw!

The prayers ended with Billy’s Baptist preacher prayer, which might have gone on for a lot longer, with him having a very heavy one-on-one conversation with God, with Billy talking and God undoubtedly listening, but the waitress began clattering plates and rolling in little carts of food, and Billy cut it short after about ten minutes. We ate a lively breakfast, and God went back to running the universe.

Afterwards I got to shake hands with Johnny Cash and talk to him for a few minutes. I was shocked at how tired and worn he seemed, his face exhibiting a hard life. He was a very nice person, and I felt uplifted in his presence.

No one can see the future. Perhaps I should have asked for a job and gone on the road with them, doing something. It never occurred to me. My mind was focused on more worldly things. Less than two years later, April 5, 1978, I was arrested for murder, and have spent the rest of my life in prison. It’s not Folsom, but it is close enough.

Johnny Cash said, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistake, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” I’m still working on that.

In December I wrote a “prison song,” a light-weight, more humorous poem than “Folsom Prison Blues,” as follows. Hope you like it:


By Charles Patrick Norman

Hear those hound dogs howling,
Running through the night,
If they catch me they’ll be growling,
And I might die of fright.
I’ve gotta keep on running,
They’re about a mile around the bend,
If these rednecks spot me, they’ll be gunning,
And for me it will be the end.

I’ve got the howling hound dog blues,
It’s not a path you want to choose,
Some men win but most will lose,
They’ll die singing the howling hound dog blues.

A bloodhound’s got a special nose,
They can smell you far miles away,
And about now they’ve found the treats I dosed
With the special meds my cellmate shared today.
You see, he’s just a little crazy,
Sometimes he gets wild and violent,
Those pills he takes make him lazy,
He’ll sleep all day, and suffer bewilderment.

I’ve got the howling hound dog blues,
It’s not a path you want to choose,
Some men win but most will lose,
They’ll die singing the howling hound dog blues.

The howling’s not as loud as it was awhile ago,
It seems like the sounds have changed
From a baritone bass to a confused soprano
Those rednecks must think it strange.
Those good old dogs who chase men and ‘coon,
Don’t want to run no more,
They won’t even howl at the harvest moon,
Or chase me like they did before.

They just want to curl up and go to sleep,
While I keep running till it’s awful late,
Then I see my sweetie smiling there in her Jeep,
When those dogs wake up we’ll be in another state.
I’ve got the howling hound dog blues,
It’s not a path you want to choose,
Some men win but most will lose,
They’ll die singing the howling hound dog blues.


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