June 28, 2014
I met Carl while standing in a long prison canteen line last summer. At least thirty prisoners waited ahead of me, only one canteen window was open, it was hot, and dark storm clouds to the south moved our way. One lightning bolt and the accompanying thunderclap would be all it took for the disagreeable guard to clear the yard and send us back to our buildings.
“No talking! I catch you talking, you go to the back of the line.” The guard walked along the queue, ears tuned for any conversation. One prisoner toward the front grumbled, wondering why we couldn’t even speak, outside, in line.
“You, back of the line!” He would never make it.
Behind me an old man groused and cursed guttural German swear words. I didn’t understand the words, despite a couple of years of German language study. Charles Berlitz didn’t teach such phrases. You would have to visit a sailors’ bar in Hamburg or a prison in North Florida to hear such angry vehemence. I smiled. Despite my own frustration, I had learned to remain silent, rather than attract the unwanted attention of an overbearing prison guard. Carl exercised no such restraint. Amazingly, the guard ignored him.
The canteen line guard hurried across the yard to intercept some miscreant who had tried to take a shortcut across the grass.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing walking on my grass?”
Out came the handcuffs. The guard manhandled the prisoner toward the captain’s office. The canteen line was forgotten. A couple of disrespectful men strode to the front of the line, evoking curses from the ones they’d cut in front of. Men have been killed for less in prison.
Conversations erupted, like the talk button had been turned on. I looked back at the man behind me, now cursing the line jumpers. With anger like that, he was a candidate for a stroke, I thought. Being polite, I said something to him about rarely meeting Germans in prison. He introduced himself, Carl, suddenly friendly, proud to be recognized as German. I told him that some of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Germany in 1733. Suddenly, we were homeboys.
There was a time in my life when I expected to die young. My life had gone to hell, FBI agents told me that a cadre of cops were plotting to kill me, would I cooperate with them? No! Then I was charged with a murder someone else had committed three years before, and shortly found myself in jail, a lawyer telling me if I didn’t plead guilty to a lesser charge, the state would seek the death penalty.
When someone threatens to strap you down in a wooden chair and electrocute you, you tend to take such threats seriously. When their efforts to execute you fail, but you still face life in a grim prison more dangerous than the worst city in America, where you see men die as a part of daily life, your thoughts focus more on surviving the nights and days rather than long-term retirement plans. After having survived over three decades in such prisons, having gone from being a young man in his twenties with his life ahead of him to an old man in his sixties who had outlived most of his family and friends, you take notice of men who are even older than you are.
I looked at Carl’s ID card clipped to his shirt. Not only was he older than I, but I could tell from his D.C. number that he’d been in prison years longer than I had.
People who have served decades of imprisonment are members of an exclusive fraternity, “The Survivors,” men who have refused to die, against the odds. Old “convicts,” as opposed to young “inmates,” grant a grudging respect toward each other. Each of us had survived what few could have.
Today’s prisons are divided and subdivided into separate units by “the system,” to maintain its obsession with “control,” so I rarely saw Carl, except in the occasional canteen or chow line. That prison obsession with control meant that men could rarely converse in long waiting lines, even outside, but during our infrequent conversations, I realized that “Mr. Carl,” as some called him, or “Old Man Carl,” as did others, was an unhappy person, always irritated and complaining, causing some to refer to him as “that old crab.”
We were opposites in that regard, despite similarities in age and length of imprisonment. Apparently Carl had strangled his wife and hid her body in his septic tank in Miami forty years before, and his life had gone downhill from there. He was perpetually angry.
On the other hand, despite having served all these years in prison, I maintained a positive attitude and outlook which I can only explain and attribute to my faith in God and hope for eventual redemption, exoneration and freedom. Early in my imprisonment a Christian minister had told me that I had been spared for a reason, and God had a plan for my life. It seemed that guardian angels in the forms of decent men and women continually entered my life, encouraging, uplifting, and helping me travel a little further on this difficult path. I had been blessed with the love of a wonderful woman for the past dozen or so years, and enjoyed a level of happiness that escaped miserable Carl. But this isn’t about my spiritual journey. It is about the unlikely circumstances that led up to Carl’s painful and lingering death from kidney cancer in a prison infirmary, and the unlikely prisoner who comforted and accompanied him to the end.
I spent twenty-nine days in solitary for a trumped-up charge by a disgruntled guard that was eventually overturned on appeal to the warden. I live in an “open” dorm, which is a sparse building the size of a convenience store packed with stacks of bunks filled by seventy-five or so prisoners. Close quarters. No privacy. At this moment, sitting on my bunk writing, I could reach out and touch eight bunks that surround mine. I put on my radio headphones and crank up the volume to try to block out some of the endless, inane chatter. Upon my return to B-dorm, as it is called, the Re-entry dorm for men preparing for release, I noticed that my friend, Jesse, had not been in the dorm all that day. You have to be on your bunk during the infinite body counts. He wasn’t there.
“He’s in the infirmary,” a neighbor said.
“What happened? Is he sick?”
“No, he’s helping some old guy who’s dying.”
“Oh, yeah? That was unusual.
The next day, Jesse returned to the dorm to pick up clean clothes. We talked.
“Mr. Carl” had terminal cancer, and only a short time to live. He was in the infirmary, a small glassed-in room in the medical building with two rows of bunks for sick prisoners. Other prisoners are assigned as orderlies, with no special training, only mopping floors, cleaning up, and serving meal trays. Carl was dying, he needed someone to attend him, but he had cussed out and yelled at every prisoner the nurses or guards had sent in to tend him. Even dying, he was angry and intimidating. No one wanted anything to do with him.
Carl told a classification officer who came to check on him that he wanted to talk to someone about God. The woman called in Jesse and explained the problem. The fact that she thought of Jesse in the first place is the result of another unlikely story. Having served over twenty years in prison, and in his forties, Jesse had spent most of those twenty years raising hell and getting in trouble, until about three years before, when he experienced a religious conversion, becoming a dedicated Christian who unabashedly shared his newfound faith with others, both prisoners and staff. Volunteering to assist a dying man like Carl, staying with him in the infirmary twenty-four hours a day, helping him use the bathroom and bathe, feeding him, listening to and talking with him, was a challenge no one else was willing to undertake.
“I hate God,” Carl told Jesse. Jesse returned to B-dorm each morning for a little while and kept me posted on Carl’s quickly worsening health. In response to Carl’s rants against a God he claimed to hate, Jesse read passages from his Bible, reciting verses about the love and life of Jesus.
“How much time does he have left?” Jesse asked the doctor.
“Not much,” the doctor said. “He should have died already.”
Still, Carl held on, ranting, angry, but his attitude was softening.
“Tell me more about this man, Jesus,” he said.
Jesse felt that God had put him in that place as a test of his faith, a chance to be an instrument of God’s will. He had badly screwed up his own life, and faced with this old man dying, fading before his eyes, he was determined not to let Carl die without hearing the words that had provoked a spiritual awakening in his own life. The more Jesse read the Bible to Carl, the more Carl listened, and the less he ranted.
Before he died, Carl told Jesse that he no longer hated God, but loved Jesus, had made his peace, and was ready to meet his Maker. He’d confessed his long-standing sins to God, and been forgiven. He was, at last, at peace.
“Stay with me,” Carl said, in his last hours. He had been alone for forty years, but in his last moments of life, he had two companions, Jesse and Jesus.
Two hours later, Jesse was back in his bunk in B-dorm. Physically, he was wiped out, but spiritually, he was elated. He had helped a lost soul find his way, and in doing so, his own life had been changed almost as much as Carl’s. How could it not have been?
Editor’s Note: Carl Eierle, DC #038075, born February 22, 1936, died of cancer, June 16, 2014, at Okaloosa C.I. He had been imprisoned since 1977. Few mourned his passing, besides Jesse and Charlie. May he finally rest in peace and not be alone.