The 4th of July

July 4th, 2019

“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
Born in the U.S.A
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”

 

 

from “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

 

Nothing has changed.

 

Thirty-five years ago, Springsteen was singing about a Vietnam vet struggling to deal with his past and his present. Nowhere in the song are there words about any kind of a future. The song was a big hit back then, because it rocked so hard, but I really wonder how many people actually paid attention to the lyrics.

 

Somebody could easily remake the song by tweaking a few of the words. Instead of talking about fighting the “yellow man” or the “Viet Cong”, just say “terrorists” or “the Hajjis”. My son, Hans, could tell all sorts of stories about how they “put a rifle in my hand” and “sent me off to a foreign land”. Hans went to Iraq. He got shot. He killed people. He has never really came back from there. Nobody comes back. Ever.

 

I went to the psych ward at the VA hospital on Tuesday night. I go there almost every Tuesday, and I hang out with the vets who are patients. Most of the folks in the ward were not in combat, but they are still veterans. Somehow, the military shattered their minds, and now the VA is trying to put the pieces back together. I feel close to them. They are my brothers and sisters.

 

Today there are American flags waving all along my street, but not at my house. I will never hang a flag here. As long as we keep sending our kids to kill and die in other countries for no good reason, I will not fly a flag.

 

Not even on the 4th of July.

 

 

 

Deportation

June 29th, 2019

This article from me was printed/posted in the Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin) today.

Maybe it’s worthwhile.

“President Trump has recently pledged to deport “millions of illegal aliens.” He plans on beginning this process within the next few days. Trump loves to use hyperbole, and he loves to make exaggerated promises to motivate his political base. He has often backpedaled on statements when reality has raised its ugly head. However, the president has consistently followed through on threats made to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. His animosity toward these people is palpable. His actions concerning immigration have usually matched his words.

So, perhaps we should take Trump at his word. Maybe he really does plan on deporting millions of immigrants. The effects of his actions would be catastrophic, and not just in a humanitarian sense. Deporting that many workers and consumers would be devastating to American industry and agriculture. It would cause immense chaos. It could very easily throw this country into a recession. Has he actually thought any of this through?

Let’s say that Trump is just talking nonsense, and he does not plan on deporting that many people. The damage is done. He has already terrified millions of people. Perhaps that has been his intention all along.”

 

أب من سوريا

June 27th, 2019

Turki is a father from Syria. I don’t know his exact age. I would guess that he is in his mid-forties. He and his wife, A’isha, have eleven children. Turki was a farmer when he lived in Syria. The civil war there forced him and his family to move, first to Turkey, and then to the United States. They arrived in Milwaukee, of all places, two and a half years ago. Turki and his family have had a long and eventful journey. They are now living in a strange land, among people whom they do not understand, and who do not often understand them.

It was in 1976, almost forty-three years ago, that I was a plebe at West Point, beginning my studies to become a U.S. Army officer. West Point required every cadet to learn a foreign language for at least two years. I had to choose a language. At that time, USMA offered seven languages: French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. The school taught Arabic for the first time that year. I signed up for it, and I studied Arabic and Arab culture for four years. I don’t know why I did that. I never used the language while I was in the military. It seemed like a waste of time.

Until now.

I don’t remember much Arabic. I cannot hold a conversation in the language. However, my studies from decades ago have brought me to Turki and his family. My path to find them has been as twisted as their path to meet me.

I have known them all for about two years. I have been visiting them in their home, sometimes tutoring the kids, sometimes just hanging out. I am not sure that I met them with any specific goal in mind, except to help in some way. I just showed up at their house one day, and then things took their course. I didn’t see Turki very often. He was always busy at work. I have spent almost all of my time with the children, helping them with homework, or just reading stories to them. A’isha always brought me a pot of hot, sweet tea when I came to visit. It was kind of a ritual. It still is.

A couple weeks ago, while I was at their home, Turki asked me to help him to find a new job. He has been working for the last two years as a janitor at a local Muslim school. It’s not a bad job, but it isn’t going to be good enough for him in the long term. He needs more money, and his boss isn’t willing to give it to him. That, of itself, is not an unusual situation.

However, Turki has other challenges that are not so common. He is an immigrant, and that often makes things harder. He is here legally, which is helpful, but he is still a foreigner in the United States. Turki struggles with the English language. He struggles with American society. If he could have his way, I think that Turki would stay among Arabs, and remain in a sort of a cultural cocoon. That’s normal and understandable. It is also a dead end.

Many years ago, I lived in West Germany, courtesy of the U.S. Army. When I arrived there, I knew nothing of the German language. I remember, quite clearly, how hard it was for me to function among the locals. I remember how difficult it was for me to do simple things, like buy groceries, or ride the train. I remember distinctly feeling isolated and alone. It wasn’t until I started dating my wife, Karin, that I started to feel comfortable living in Germany. Even then, it took a long time to understand other people. Karin’s family and friends spoke no English, so I was forced to learn German. It was confusing and frustrating at times. I remember that. I remember it very well.

I understand, at least somewhat, Turki’s current struggle. It’s hard for him to reach out. It’s hard for him to look for work. I get that. I want to help him find a new job, but I can’t do everything for him. I couldn’t do that, even if I wanted to do so.

I asked Turki,

“What kind of work can you do?”

He replied, “It is no problem. I can do any work. I do anything for my family.”

I asked him, “Can you drive a forklift?”

He looked at me quizzically, “Forklift?”

“Yeah, you know, a machine to pick up things?” I made the sounds of a forklift and pretended to have move a pallet with the blades.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t drive forklift. You teach?”

I sighed. “No, so what can you do?”

Turki smiled and said, “I can do all work. Anything.”

I looked at him and thought, “No you can’t.”

The fact is that Turki’s skill set is limited, really limited. I know that he is smart, and I know that he works his ass off, but that may not help him much. He needs to be able to sell himself, and he has no idea how to do that.

Turki and I worked on an application for Milaeger’s Nursery and Landscaping. Turki was a farmer and he knows how to grow plants. It seemed like a good fit. Turki gave me the necessary information for the application, and I filled it out. When we got done, he asked me,

“So, I just mail it in?”

I knew he was going to ask that.

I replied, “Well, we can mail it in, but we won’t. You and I are going to Milaeger’s and turn it in ourselves.”

He looked at me, and then he said, “Oh.”

A couple days later, I drove Turki to the nursery, and we went into the office. I told Turki to talk to the people there, and give them his application. He tried to do that, but he got stalled. I explained things to the employees there, and asked a few questions. Turki listened and watched.

I am convinced that Turki had never filled out a job application before in his entire life. I am sure that he never went out to look for a job before. This was all new to him, and I am sure that it was a little scary. Well, you have to start somewhere. Maybe he won’t get hired by Milaeger’s. That’s okay. That wasn’t really the point of the exercise. I needed to nudge Turki out of his comfort zone to briefly explore the frightening world of work.

We are going to try other places. My son, Stefan, suggested that Turki try to get into the Laborers Union, and then get an unskilled construction job. We will work on that. Shovels are the same here as they are in Syria. Maybe we can apply at other landscapers. I don’t know. It’s going to be a long process. I know that, and I think that Turki knows it now too.

This father from Syria and I will learn together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Want Something with Caramel and Chocolate

June 25th, 2019

“When I’m no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.” –  Snoop Dogg

 

“Bread pudding makes me weak. I have been known to be moved to tears by cookies and ice cream, and ribs are a spiritual experience for me.” –  Bill Rancic

 

The girl finally sat down across from us. She was wearing her standard, bluish-green, prison garb. Her hair was wet and unbrushed (she doesn’t currently own a hair brush, but we’re working on that). Karin and sat on the other side of a low coffee table that was clearly marked with the number 11.

The girl had previously told us over the phone that she wanted us to get her some snacks from the vending machines in the visitor center. Only visitors can use the vending machines, which makes it slightly awkward for both the prisoners and their guests.  After we had all hugged, I asked the young woman,

“What kind of ice cream do you want?”

She thought for a moment and smiled. Then she said, “I want something with caramel and chocolate, if they have it.”

I walked over to the ice cream machine, carrying a plastic baggie full of small change. Every visitor in that room was carrying a bag of quarters. A person was allowed to have up to $20 worth of change on them. That would seem to be like a lot of money, but it isn’t. It was pretty easy to run through that much cash.

Karin and I had spent almost half an hour getting through security prior to arriving at the visitor center. There were several people waiting there before we showed up, and the process was more than a little tedious. The guard was friendly enough, but he had to go through a long series of instructions with each visitor:

“Fill out and sign this form.”

“Let me see you ID.”

“Put everything in your locker.”

“Remove your shoes and belt.”

“Pull out your front pockets. Do you have anything in your back pockets? Are you sure?” 

My unspoken response: “Yeah, I’m fucking sure.”

Then he said, “Go through the metal detector.”

I am always surprised that I don’t set off metal detectors. I had my right foot and ankle crushed at work ten years ago. Since the surgery to rebuild the leg, I have been carrying around six titanium screws and an titanium plate. Nothing ever happens.

By the time Karin and I finished running the gauntlet, I had absolutely nothing on me but the key to the locker, and a bag of change. Karin didn’t even have that.

But I was talking about ice cream.

The vending machine had a limited selection of ice cream treats. I finally settled on a Klondike Choco Taco. It cost $2.50. I don’t know if that is expensive or not. It’s kind of irrelevant. There was only one ice cream machine available to me in Taycheeedah, and I could use it or leave it. I used it.

I brought the Choco Taco to the girl. She devoured it in a state of ecstasy. Simple pleasures become important when everything else is stripped away. The girl told us between bites,

“We only get ice cream twice a month, and it’s in one of those little paper cups. Wow, this is good.”

I had also bought her a Mountain Dew. Another simple pleasure.

She took a slug off of the soda. Then she asked me,

“Do you know how to hot wire a car?”

“Uh, no.”

She went on, “I think the only way to get out is to crash a vehicle through the fence. The fences have that wire on top, and I think they are electrified.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. There are these yellow signs on the fences. I think they say that the fences are electrified.”

This made me remember something from thirty-five years ago. When I was stationed with the Army in West Germany during the Cold War, there were free tours of the East German border for all GI’s. I went on one of them. A border guard from the Bundesgrenzschutz (West German Border Police) explained in detail about the barriers that the East Germans had set up to keep their citizens inside the country. The East Germans had electrified fences with razor wire on top, just like the prison at Taycheedah. Some things don’t change.

I asked the girl if she wanted another ice cream. She nodded. Then she asked me,

“Do they have Dove Bars?”

“Yeah. What do you want? Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?”

“Milk chocolate.”

I went back to the vending machine.

Once again, she savored every bite of the ice cream.

Another prisoner was walking around with a camera. Apparently, she was assigned by the guards to take pictures of inmates and their guests, if those people wanted photos to remember these special moments. Our young woman told us that it cost the visitors money to get a picture taken. This came as no surprise at all. All the photos were taken in front of a back drop that looked just like a brick wall. How appropriate.

We talked a little about what will happen to her after her time in prison. She said that she will be on probation for a while. I asked her about how it would be if things did not go well while she was on probation.

She laughed and said, “Don’t report your car as stolen until I am across the border.”

She was making a joke. As Stalin once said, “Dark humor is like food. Some people don’t get it.”

The girl was still hungry. We had been talking for almost two hours. I bought her a gyro. It was very hot when it came out of the microwave, so she had to let it sit for a while.

It was pouring rain outside. The girl told us that she had to walk outside to get from the visitors center to her cell block. We decided to talk some more and wait for the weather to clear.

She asked us to put some more money the prepaid phone account so that she could call her boyfriend. I told her that I would take care of it. It seems to help her a lot when she can call her beau. He is one of her lifelines. Karin and I are her other connection to the outside. It is hard to overstate how important it is for a prisoner to have contact with people in the real world. I really believe that those contacts keep an person sane.

It was almost six o’clock when Karin and I left the young woman. We had to drive an hour and a half back home. We told her that we would come back next week at the same time. We plan to come back to see her every week. We all need that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the Sun

June 22nd, 2019

“I read the news today, oh boy…” – The Beatles

I got up at 4:30. I wake up predawn every day. I don’t know why. It have something to do with the fact that I worked third shift for over twenty years. I suspect that my sleep cycle is permanently trashed.

After I get up, I am in the habit of switching on the computer. and then reading the headlines on NPR or the BBC. That’s almost always a bad move. The heavy dose of negativity is enough to make me want to crawl back into bed.

However, when I get up, Shocky gets up. Shocky is a border collie/lab mix. Karin and I are caring for the dog while somebody we love is incarcerated. Shocky drinks some water out of her bowl, and then she expects me to take her for a walk. We do that.

Shocky and I usually go for about two miles. We wander west on Oakwood Road to the railroad tracks, and then we turn around. At this hour there is a minimal amount of traffic on the street. We go past farm fields, small wooded areas, wetlands, and expensive subdivisions. Objects are indistinct in the twilight when we begin our walk. Sometimes a mist rises that obscures the houses in the distance. Animals cross our path. We see deer, or an occasional raccoon. The sandhill cranes stand silent and still in the empty fields.

This morning the waning moon was still high up in the sky, looking cold and white. We walked toward the east on our way back to our house. The sun was still below the horizon, but its light painted the bands of alto stratus clouds. They were initially a bright pink that slowly changed to orange and gold. The colors of the sky were reflected in a pool of standing water. It was like a multicolored mirror.

Timing is everything. Shocky and I were nearly home when the sun peaked over the edge of the woods. It was just bright enough to light up the highest of the tree branches. The sunlight sparkled in the leaves that moved restlessly in the wind.

Shocky and I stopped for a moment.

I looked at the sun and said, “Thank you.”

 

 

Remember

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.

 

 

 

 

Taycheedah

June 18th, 2019

Taycheedah has a nice campus, if you can ignore the razor wire on top of the high chain link fences. The prison is located amid woods and farm fields near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It’s a beautiful setting, but most of the people staying at Taycheedah don’t get to see it very often. The inmates get maybe an hour a day to go outside. They spend the vast majority of their time in their cells.

Karin and I went to Taycheedah yesterday to visit a girl that we love. We parked our car in the lot, and went to the visitors entrance. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the entrance facility as being welcoming, but the guards there were friendly. One guard greeted us and had us fill out a visitors form. Then she checked our ID’s. Then she had us put all of our possessions into a tiny locker. Then we went through the metal detector. Then Karin and I each received a stamp on the back of our right hand, a stamp that only showed up under ultraviolet light. Finally, we went out of a door, through a briefly unlocked gate, and walked down a stretch of sidewalk to the visitor center.

We will get to go through this entire process again the next time we visit this young woman.

At the visitor center, there was a guard sitting at a desk. She eyed us warily. She asked us for our visitors form, and she checked our glow-in-dark hand stamps. She looked at the name and number of the young woman. Then she said brusquely,

“Sit at Table 7.”

We did.

The table was about the size and height of a coffee table. There were two chairs on one side of the table, and a single chair on the side. The only things on the table were two laminated sheets of paper. Each sheet was filled with rules for the visit. I glanced through them:

“The inmate shall sit facing the guard (in the single chair).”

“Then inmate shall not go to the vending machines. Only visitors may approach the machines.”

“The inmate will have nothing covering their lap.”

The list went on and on and on.

Karin and I had to wait for the girl to brought into the visitors room. That gave us time to look around. Karin and I were facing a mural on one of the walls. The mural contained a series of supposedly inspiring and uplifting messages. One of them said, “You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.” A second message said, “Be patient and trust your journey.”

After I finished reading all of them, another slogan suddenly popped into my head.

“Arbeit macht frei.” (Work sets you free.)

I’m aware that the comparison is over the top. The young woman is in a prison, not a Nazi death camp. On the other hand, a tiny bit of her life is trickling away every day she is inside of Taycheedah. A person’s spirit can be killed a little piece at a time.

Other women were already visiting with friends or family.  Most of the prisoners were young and white. Some of them were snacking on food that the visitors had purchased for them from the vending machines. A few people were outside, sitting at picnic tables.

I saw another mural on the wall behind us. Part of it displayed a sunny, daytime scene with flowers and green trees. Part of it showed the stumps of dead trees in a swamp, under a moonlit sky. It was pretty twisted.

The girl arrived.

She sat in the required chair facing us. The young woman was nervous. She kept working her hands. Her left hand was still red from when she burned it a few months ago. It was hard to converse with her, because the ceiling fan was very loud.

We could have stayed for three hours. I don’t know what we would have talked about for that long. The girl told us that she spends most of her time in her cell with a woman she can’t stand. She reads, writes, and stays in her bunk. She told us about her activities, or lack of activities. We had ordered a number of things to be sent to her through an approved vendor. The stuff is all at Taycheedah now, but the girl hasn’t seen much of it yet. It apparently takes weeks for the staff there to sort through property sent to the prisoners. She uses her limited free time to call her boyfriend, or to call us.

We stayed with her for about an hour. She wanted to cut the visit off early, because she was worried about missing supper. That is a legitimate concern. We were running out of things to say anyway.

We said goodbye, and gave her a quick hug.

We can try this again next week.