June 20th, 2019

“Remember when you were young
How the hero was never hung
Always got away
Remember, how the man
Used to leave you empty handed
Always, always let you down
If you ever change your mind
About leaving it all behind
Remember, remember, today

Don’t feel sorry
‘Bout the way it’s gone
Don’t you worry
‘Bout what you’ve done

Just remember when you were small
How people seemed so tall
Always had their way
Do you remember, your ma and pa
Just wishing for movie stardom
Always, always playing a part
If you ever feel so sad
And the whole world is driving you mad
Remember, remember today

Don’t feel sorry
‘Bout the way it’s gone
Don’t you worry
‘Bout what you’ve done.”

“Remember” from John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band

Memory is a tricky thing. It is never objective (if there even can be a thing that is “objective”). It isn’t like a simple recording of events. Memory might be that at first, but eventually that initial recording gets edited in order to fit a particular narrative, or at least to make some kind of sense. My life has never made sense, certainly not while I am actually living it. Sometimes, later on, after I have reviewed what occurred, it seems a bit rational. However, in order for that to happen, I have to cut and snip the recording in my own mind. I have to take the raw material that my senses provided for me, and turn it into a story. I do that all the time. I am doing it now.

My wife and I visited the Taycheedah Correctional Institution on Monday. We visited a young woman that we love. We sat and spoke with the woman for about an hour. The girl seemed edgy. She was nervous, and she was hesitant to do anything at all around the guards. She was always watching, always alert in the way that animals are alert when they know the predators are near. I don’t think she relaxed at all during our visit.

I remember how it felt forty-two years ago. The situation then was somewhat different. I wasn’t in an actual prison, like this young woman is now.  I was at United States Military Academy at West Point in my plebe (freshman) year. I could have quit. I could have left that place. This young woman cannot do that. Thinking back, maybe I didn’t really have the option to leave West Point. This young woman is stuck in Taycheedah because of the power of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. I was stuck at USMA because I knew that, if I left, my father would have branded me as a failure and a weakling for the rest of my life. I was in another sort of prison.

There are some eerie similarities between my experience at West Point and this woman’s current situation in Taycheedah. In both places, a person’s time and movement are rigidly controlled. In both places, there are no choices concerning clothing or food or activities. In both places, a person learns (if they are wise) to shut up and do whatever they are told to do. In both places, somebody else has complete control over a person’s life. In both places, the goal of the institution is to break down a individual completely and then make that person into something unrecognizable.

As an aside, I have also been in jail. That felt just like West Point.

I remember during my first year at West Point that I was only allowed four possible answers to any question from a superior: “Yes Sir! No Sir! No excuse, Sir! Sir, I do not know!” That was it. That’s all I could say.

What can this young woman say to those who currently run her life? Probably not much more than I could, maybe even less. It is a terrible thing to have no voice.

This young woman has a roommate (i.e. cellmate). They do not get along. This young woman did not choose her roommate. At West Point, at least at first, I could not choose mine. I did not get along with my cellmate either. In fact, I remember sleeping one night with a bayonet on my hand, just in case violence occurred in the room. I wonder if this girl wishes she had a knife with her.

Prison changes a person. It changes the person in a fundamental way. The effect is like a brand or a scar on the soul. West Point changed me in a similar way. A person who serves time in prison is in many ways the same as a person who serves time in the military. The experience is intense and unforgettable and totally alien to everyone else. An ex-prisoner cannot explain what the experience was like. A veteran cannot explain what it was like. Only those who are also initiated can know. We don’t need to join a secret society. Like it or not, we already belong to one.





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