Wednesday, February 17, 2021





Thursday, February 11, 2021, at two a.m., the guard rudely awakened me to tell me I was going on a medical day trip to the Lake Butler prison hospital at five o'clock. Five o'clock? How long did he think it would take me to brush my teeth and get dressed? About five minutes. Going back to sleep was impossible.

In 2019 I was diagnosed with ''myasthenia gravis,'' a rare, incurable neurological disorder that can be somewhat controlled by medication. The neurologist at Lake Butler, a doctor with a private practice who comes into the prison as a contractor, Dr. Gama, ordered an MRI and other tests before prescribing prednisone, a steroid, that would hopefully alleviate the blurred, double vision, fatigue, and the difficulty swallowing accompanying the M. Gravis diagnosis. Dr. Gama explained that ''myasthenia'' means ''weakness,'' and ''gravis'' means ''grave.'' Grave weakness. One's immune system attacks the muscles, an ironic disease for someone who has always had to be so strong.

They never called me for the tests while at Tomoka C. I. I never got the prescriptions. I asked medical. They knew nothing. They lied.

December 10, 2020, still at Tomoka in Daytona Beach, I went to see the oncologist, Dr. Montoya, at Lake Butler for a skin cancer follow-up. He was the original specialist who referred me to the gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy and the neurologist for further testing. Dr. Montoya was upset to discover that the now-retired quack doctor at Tomoka had cancelled the consultations for some unknown reason. He rewrote the orders. The February 11th trip resulted.

After strip searching and encumbering me with handcuffs, waist chains and leg irons, assisting me in boarding the van through the side door, we pulled out of Lake C. I., my new home since January 12, 2021, at 5:46 a.m., headed north. I had never been this way. The only passenger in the fifteen-seat van, I strained to see the sights through the steel grill separating me from the driver and his sidekick in front.

Eventually we exited the Florida Turnpike at Gainesville, one of my favorite places, that I hadn't seen since 1978. I didn't get to see much of it this day besides cars and traffic at seven-thirty in the morning. The driver quickly turned into a two-lane drive-thru that wrapped around a large one-story fast food restaurant, the cars backed up down the street. I figured we'd be lined up for an hour, but the service went surprisingly fast. I thought to myself that the government should enlist the fast food restaurants to dispense the Covid-19 vaccinations. Everyone would be protected in a week.

I strained to find a sign identifying the restaurant with such a booming business so early in the morning. I knew it wasn't McDonalds — no golden arches. The only logo appeared to be several large red dots on a white background that resembled a rooster's head and comb. I was baffled. Had some new chain popped up while I was serving this life sentence?

I asked the guard. ''What restaurant is this?''


''Chick-fil-a? Why don't they have a sign saying that?''

''They don't need it.''

I guess not.

I know how Rip Van Winkle felt when he woke up from his twenty-year sleep, only my sleep has endured forty-two years, forty-three in April. The world keeps spinning, and I can't keep up, no matter how many newspapers I read or news broadcasts I watch. Chick-Fil-A. Huh!

And for the record, no, they didn't buy me a sandwich. I didn't ask. I knew better. Prison isn't like it used to be. The prison kitchen provides a bag lunch — turkey bologna sandwich, dry peanut butter sandwich, and a cookie. They'd laugh hysterically if I dared ask them for a piece of their chicken, or save me some of those French fries.

Dr. Gama, the neurologist, was his same competent self. He pushed and pulled my arms and legs, hit my knees and elbows with his little rubber mallet, and shined a light in my eyes. He wasn't happy to hear why I hadn't had an appointment for the tests in seventeen months, while the M. Gravis symptoms worsened. He told me he would see me in a month, after an MRI of my brain and a CT scan of my chest. I assume that means more medical trips soon.

We got out of Lake Butler early. There was no rush to get back to the prison. On the way they stopped at Popeye's for lunch. I thought they were closed, but no, they were open, there were just no cars in the drive-thru. Everyone was at Chick-Fil-A.

Instead of returning to Lake C.I. the way we came, the driver left Lake Butler behind, heading east on Highway 100. Miles later he turned south, the only road signs visible advising that we would come to Salt Springs next. Salt Springs?

We drove straight through the Ocala National Forest, where I'd spent many a weekend as a teenager camping out. Memories. Saturday nights dancing with pretty Ocala girls at the Lake Weir pavilion, listening to the hometown band, The Royal Guardsmen, who became famous with their “Snoopy and the Red Baron” hits in the 1960's. Alexander Springs, turn left. Oh, my.

We approached civilization. Umatilla. Eustis. Miles of lake to our right, heading west, Lake Eustis. Beautiful. Lakeview mansions. Rich people. Tavares city limits. Eventually we encountered U. S. Highway 27, driving south, and the sign, Correctional Institution, with an arrow pointing right. Lake C. I. Home.

As the guard removed the handcuffs, leg irons and chains, he said, ''I hope you don't mind, we took the scenic route. There was no rush going back.''

I didn't mind. I got an escorted three-hour tour of Central Florida, out of prison for a day. Where would I have been otherwise? Sitting in the dorm watching junkies act up?

I put some mayonnaise on the turkey bologna sandwich and enjoyed my lunch, dreaming of freedom.

Charles Patrick Norman