|The Senate Watergate hearings chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin were riveting viewing for a con.|
Note—This is the ninth installment in my memoir series about my experiences with the Draft and Justice System during the Vietnam War era. The first six previously appeared in The Third City blog and were re-posted here. This is an entirely new post continuing the saga.
As the weeks and months dragged on to summer at Sandstone, I settled into a dreary but not unbearable daily routine—sleep, eat, welding shop, free time, repeat. Weekend with no shop were filled with more hours. Way up in northern Minnesota I was too far away from Chicago to expect visitors and phone calls were few and far between.
Luckily I had received the books I had arranged for from my anarchist friends at Solidarity Book Store back home. Prison officials had cleared them despite their radical content, to my amazement. First off was a big, thick hardback Bakunin on Anarchism edited with an introduction by Sam Dolgoff, a veteran New York Wobbly and anarchist house painter, with selections by the 19th Century Russian. There were books on the Spanish Civil War by veterans of the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist union based in Barcelona that helped set up worker’s cooperatives in Catalonia while successfully fighting the Fascists until their erstwhile Republican allies the Communists turned on them. Also George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had gone to Spain to fight with the Trotskyist POUM militias, which were also turned on by the Communists and barely escaped the country with his life. He wrote that if he knew what he learned in Spain, “I probably should have joined the anarchists.” Finally there was a collection of shorter books documenting the contemporary Worker’s Self Control movements in Europe from Yugoslavia, to Sweden, to factory seizures in France.
It was heavy, demanding reading, but I had lots of time on my hands and was determined to educate myself in the tradition of a long line of radicals and revolutionaries while in prison. Being young and full of myself I imagined how it would all play out in some kind of future biography. I began to fantasize about doing something heroic after I was sprung from the joint. I toyed with the idea of going to Chile where the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende was under heavy pressure from local oligarchs and the military who were backed by the CIA.
It was a good thing for me that I never got a chance to play out that little fantasy. On September 11, 1973 the military staged a coup d’état against the government killing the President in the national palace. In the repression of government supporters and radicals that followed in which tens of thousands were arrested and thousands disappeared, Frank Terrugi a young former member of the IWW Chicago Branch with whom I was acquainted, was arrested in Santiago, taken to detention with thousands of others at a soccer stadium, and was released only to disappear—presumed executed by the military. When I got out of prison and returned to my duties at the Industrial Worker, a series of stories about his disappearance were among the first things I worked on. His story latter was one of the inspirations of the Jack Lemon film Missing.
Funny how history swirling around far from Sandstone walls intersected with my life. Ground action in the Vietnam War was winding down as U.S. Troops began to withdraw from the countryside to big bases and major cities and stopping large scale offensive operations on their own. It was the era of President Nixon’s Vietnamization, and Americans on the ground were supposed to advise and support the South Vietnamese. Naturally this began to reduce US casualties which the President hoped would ease domestic anit-war activity. And, in point of fact it did. But he was also stepping up the air war with extensive bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Min Trail as well as the not-so-secret bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia that were extensively documented in the underground press including the Chicago SEED but ignored by the mainstream media. The waning American ground war was thought by some to possibly favor the appeal for a reduction of my draft resistance sentence.
Meanwhile Nixon himself was in trouble. The two-bit scandal set off by the Watergate break-in the summer before during the 1972 Presidential campaign had snowballed, much to the President’s astonishment, into a huge crisis for him. Shortly after my arrival at Sandstone the Senate Watergate Committee under the Chairmanship of courtly North Carolina Senator Sam Irving opened on May 17.
My fellow cons were not much on news, but since we only got local network stations from Duluth I was able to watch the bizarre proceeding many afternoons instead to taking outdoor exercise. Those who watched with me often hooted and cat called the black and white screen. It rapidly became apparent that in addition to threatening the Presidency any number of witnesses including high powered White House aides and officials of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) and the Republican Party were destined for Federal Indictment. Nothing delights cons more than seeing the mighty laid low and there was much speculation on when we might see the like of John Dean in our midst.
The committee issued its devastating report on June 27. Sure enough scores of figures major and minor involved in the scandal were indicted. Alexander Butterworth’s disclosure of a White House taping system led to the discovery of an incriminating 17 minute gap in a crucial recording of a conversation between Nixon and his top henchmen Haldeman and Ehrlichman during a critical discussion of how to contain damage caused by the scandal. A Bill of Impeachment was introduced in the House. Day by day I watched Nixon and his Presidency unravel until on August 8 he popped up on national television reading a by turns defiant and pathetic announcement of his intention to resign. The next day he climbed on a Marine helicopter and bugged out of the White House. Extraordinary. All of it. Particularly from my unusual perch.
No one yet knew how actions by his successor, un-elected Vice President Gerald R, Ford, would impact thousands of draft offenders.
My strategy for doing time was simple—keep a low profile, head down, not stay out of trouble. Not for me any heroic resistance to authority or a chip-on-my-shoulder attitude to claim a high spot in the prisoner pecking order. It was working out. I hadn’t been written up for any of scores of major or minor rules violations and had not even come close to spending time in segregation—the Hole. I largely kept to myself and neither challenged con kingpins or got in their way. Not too hard as the population at Sandstone did not include many hardened yard birds.
Inevitably, that couldn’t last.
One day at mail call I got an envelope with The Ohio Prisoners Union emblazoned boldly on the return address. Like all letters it had been opened and examined for contraband and inspected by prison official. The whole top third of the enclosed stationary was taken up the same identification in huge, bold letters so that no one could miss the point.
It took me a while to figure out that the sender was a girl named Dee. Back in 1969 she had shown up at the SEED office very pregnant and in need of a place to flop. She was then about 16 years old, an Appalachian white girl who had become one of the very few working class kids ever recruited by the Weathermen, who had just concluded their dreamed of white riot known as the Days of Rage. It was late that night and I couldn’t contact the usual crash pads where we referred runaways and other strays. Reluctantly because of her age and status as jail bait, I agreed to let her come home with me. I expected her to sleep on the couch of my tiny apartment down the street a couple of blocks on Wrightwood.
I was wrong. The first night she boldly took over half my bed, while making it clear that there was to be no hanky-panky. That was a relief, but still there was a naked pregnant chick lying beside me. Hard to sleep. And she wouldn’t move out, no matter how many times I tried to arrange other accommodations for her.
One weekend she disappeared and I thought she was gone. But she tuned back up. Turned out she had attended a secret Weatherman national War Council in Flint, Michigan where the former SDSers had committed to a strategy of armed struggle and underground cells. Dee gleefully recounted speeches and tirades, including a debate initiated by Bernadine Dorn on the ethics of killing white babies. It turned out that they thought it was just fine.
I, however, was freaked out. I was not an admirer of the Weathermen whose leaders were mostly very spoiled and very rich kids who I thought were acting out major daddy issues. They had nothing but contempt for white working class and identified only with the most militant of Black Nationalists and armed minority groups. I had criticized them in both the SEED and Industrial Workers and now they seemed to have gone completely out of their minds. And here I was harboring one of their would-be soldiers and in danger of being swept up with them by the Feds or local cops.
I was frantic to get rid of her. But then her boyfriend showed up and took my side of my own bed relegating me to the couch. And I expected her water to break at any moment. Finally, just after New Years Day 1970 both of them disappeared liberating my typewriter, camera, and stereo system as the left. I never heard from or of her again.
Until I got this damn letter. In it Dee said she had heard of my incarceration and in her capacity as an organizer for the Ohio Prisoner’s Union offered to assist me in my own efforts to organize cons at Sandstone. I had barely finished reading the letter when I got the call to report to the Assistant Warden. I wasn’t surprised.
In the office the AW slammed a photo copy of the letter down on his desk and demanded an explanation. I tried to explain that it came from an old acquaintance I had not seen in years and was completely uninvited. I denied any plans to organize prisoners here. Didn’t the IWW used to organize prisoners, he asked. I was stunned that he knew anything about IWW history, but had to admit that yes, over the decades there had been a few attempts at IWW prisoner unions, but that nothing much had come of any of them. Interrogation continued for a while with me continuing to deny plans to organize. Finally he advised me to cut off any contact with Dee or face time in the Hole. I told him I would ask her to stop contacting me, but that I couldn’t stop her if she tried to keep sending me letters. Then he said he knew that my appeal for reduction of sentence was coming up soon. Even if the court ruled in my favor, he said, it would be easy for him to charge me with some offense that would keep me behind bars. I groveled. It was not a pretty of heroic sight. But I escaped without any punishment.
I had also avoided incidents with inmates until one evening in August in the Day Room. Several of us were watching TV. I was sitting in one of the Naugahyde covered arm chair. We were watching some meaningless sit-com. A muscle bound con with the sleeves cut out of t-shirt revealing bulging biceps—one of the usual suspects at the weight lifting station in the exercise yard—strode over to the set and abruptly changed the channel. Almost every night he commandeered the set. A guy up in the front row plaintively protested the he was watching the other program. There were mummers of agreement.
Up to now, I had no problems with the weight lifter or he with me. In fact just a couple of days before were shared our mutual admiration for young Dolly Parsons’s personal architecture and singing voice on the Porter Wagoner Show. So maybe I thought I would get a pass when I piped up “Jeeze! Why don’t you let the guy at least finish his program.” I was wrong about the pass. I had challenged the Day Room boss and challenges could not be ignored. Before I knew what had happened he was on top of me screaming “Shut the fuck up!” He grabbed my shirt front and pounded me with one, two, three well aimed and powerful fists to the face. I was stunned and bleeding from the mouth and nose. My wire rimmed glasses had flown across the room and were badly bent.
Guards rushed into the room and hauled the guy away struggling and screaming. The only reason I wasn’t taken too was because I had obviously been sitting when I was assaulted. Usually both parties to any altercation were busted together and shared the same punishment regardless of who was the aggressor. I never saw the muscle man again. I assume he was in the Hole or may even have earned a ticket to a higher security joint. I suffered no lasting ill effects just a swollen lip, some bruising, and crooked glasses.
In all of the time I had been at Sandstone, I had never had a visitor. At such a distance from Chicago, I didn’t expect one. But one Sunday in August I got the surprise call to report to the visiting area. After being subjected to the usual strip search I was let into the visitor’s room. It was a large, open room with tables and chairs. This being a weekend it was crowded with visiting wives, parents, and not a few children. Visitors, who had been subjected to their own close search and inspection, were allowed to touch their loved ones.
My girlfriend Cecelia greeted me nervously with a quick embrace and a kiss significantly on the cheek and not the mouth. She had unexpectedly driven up all the way from Chicago in her black VW Bug. We had exchanged regular letters but only spoken on the phone a handful of times in awkward conversations. Despite her obvious discomfort I was ecstatic to see her. As always she was a stunningly beautiful young woman with a mass of black hair and an exceptional figure even as she stood there biting her lip, and shuffling her feet nervously. She was dressed in a lime green tank top and jeans, toes sticking out of sandals. I drank in the vision. She was always, as I have said, several degrees above me in hotness and it was a mystery to me and everyone else how we had gotten together at all.
We sat down on opposite sides of a table, holding hand on its top. Conversation was hard. Mutual how-are-yous and accounts of our routine lives. Inquiries about friends and upcoming IWW activities. We even turned to current events. There were long, uncomfortable silences. Neither of us knew what to say. Other inmates and visitors around us seemed to be having no problem. There were four hours of visiting time on a Sunday. We barely lasted an hour.
Just before Cecelia left a guard snapped a Polaroid Photo of us together. We embraced clumsily one last time and she was gone. After another strip search I returned to the unit in a kind of daze. The photo was lost long ago along with an old scrap book in a rooming house fire.
Not long after I got word that the court had indeed reduced my sentence to six months with the balance of the original three years on probation. My exact release date would depend on the calculation of my earned good time.
At the welding shop I mentioned to my instructor that I hoped I could be released in time to attend the IWW General Convention in Chicago in early September. He said he would put in a very good report on my time in the training program for me. It must have worked. I got an early September spring date.
Surprisingly, I don’t remember the exact date. I do remember that early one morning I was taken for exit processing. One last strip search. I was allowed to select clothing from a limited selection. I got polyester brown slacks, a rayon print shirt, and an un-match sky-blue jacket from a leisure suit. Slim pickings indeed. I asked to keep my heavy black lace-up boots, which I told them I could use as a factory hand. Turns out those were government issue and destined for other feet. The only footwear that nearly fit my short by wide feet was a pair of two-tone brown and black shoes with high stacked disco heels. They were absolutely devoid of any actual leather, stiff, and pinched from the first moment I put them on.
I was given a small canvas bag with my underwear and socks—they let me keep those, my personal hygiene stuff, my books, and writing tablets and supplies. The manila envelope containing my personal possessions that had followed me from Cook County Jail was returned to me and I was re-united with my watch, wallet, keys, loose change, pocket address and note book and my Schaefer Cartridge fountain pen, the ink long dried up. The balance of money in my commissary account was returned to me—not much money—plus $20 of walking money from the Feds. I had already arranged air fare to Chicago from Duluth.
A little bit before 10 am I stepped through the front portal into the dazzling sunlight and on to a broad green lawn. I was headed home. Between Cook County and Sandstone I had been away just a little over four and a half months.
Next—Coming Home and After.