|A young Steve Goodman just as he looked on his visit to Sandstone.|
Note—This is the eighth 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.
After about a month in the processing unit at Sandstone Federal Correctional Facility as the unit orderly, officials suddenly discovered that I had somehow been lost in the shuffle. Hard to believe that the guards on the unit hadn’t noticed my continued presence as waves of new prisoners came and went, but who was I to argue. After being called to the assistant warden’s office—the guy who seemed to do all of the work as we seldom ever glimpsed the Warden himself—I was greeted with a modicum of irritation as if I had cause the problem and burdened them with unnecessary paper work. But at last I was given my permanent assignments.
I didn’t have to go far for my new quarters. They were in the unit right next door. This time I was on the second floor. The large barracks room there was divided into two bunk cubicles which were open on top and did not have doors. There were bunk beds, a straight back chair, and a small table in each cubical. Mine was in a corner and since the bottom bunk was occupied, drew the top. This was supposed to be an upgrade from the stark barracks next door. But in some ways it was less comfortable. As Spring gave way to Summer that top bunk on a second floor got uncomfortably warm, especially as the cubical walls cut off any cross ventilation from the open—but barred—windows. Luckily for me this was northern Minnesota so really hot nights were uncommon.
Oddly, I have no memory what-so-ever of my bunk mate. That’s probably because I did nothing but sleep in the cubicle. I spent almost all of my time on the unit in the day room reading, watching TV, or writing at one of the tables. A lot of other guys spent almost all of their time in the semi-privacy of the cubicles.
As for my duty assignment, I lucked out. I got my request—job training in the welding shop. I actually hoped to learn something that would make me a more employable factory hand. The next morning after my usual hearty breakfast, I reported at the shop, a large industrial style space with open garage style doors facing the Quad. Various machines, apparatus, and work stations filled the main floor. Cons were already at work, sparks were flying from arc welders, blue flames shot from gas wands, grinding wheels screeched. On one side was a small glassed in office for the instructor and a little class room with desk/chairs just like high school and a screen for films and film strips.
At first I spent my mornings in the classroom watching films about welding safety, equipment, techniques, and procedures. I was given handouts to read, listened to lectures and demonstrations by our instructor, an earnest middle aged man, and took periodic quizzes. The class room stuff was easy. I could wrap my head around the idea of welding.
But after we returned from lunch, I went in to the shop for practical application. I did all right with simple soldering using old fashion heated irons and then with modern soldering guns once I got the hang of feeding the solder wire with my left hand. I only suffered minor burns and eventually got most of the solder on the target. But things went downhill with the introduction of the acetylene torch. I was pretty good at using it as a cutting tool—almost any idiot could use it to melt through metal even if my lines never stayed straight. But laying down a consistent bead when I tried actual welding proved almost impossible despite laying down line after line on scraps of waste plate. It was even worse when I tried arc welding in the cumbersome gauntlets, heavy leather apron, and flip-down welding mask. Or when I tried to work on something other than a flat surface like a pipe or at an odd angle. I quickly reached the limits of my extremely poor eye/hand coordination.
The instructor saw that I was trying, but struggling and spent time with me. He kept telling me that if I could just learn to lay a good bead on a pipe joint that could pass an x-ray test, I could go up to Alaska and make $25 an hour—a fortune in those days—working on the oil pipe line. Alas, no x-ray machine would ever be fooled by my clumsy efforts. I appreciated his earnest attempts to aid a lost cause.
We sometimes had conversations in his office overlooking the shop floor. One day I noticed his certificates for welding training which were framed like diplomas on the wall were all from Colorado Fuel and Iron—a company of great significance in American Labor History. Dominated by Rockefeller and Gould interests it was at the heart of the bloody coal field wars with the United Mine Workers—the ones in which Mother Jones became famous—in 1903 and ’04 and the 1913-’14 strikes that culminated in the bloody atrocity known as the Ludlow Massacre. And the same company was still at it, unleashing gun thugs and special deputies on the IWW led strikes in 1924. I told him those stories, none of which he had ever heard. He seemed genuinely interested and more than a little surprised to find a former General Secretary Treasurer of the IWW sitting in his office. Later, the instructor was very helpful in my attempts to secure an early release.
I could not go on to training on some of the advance equipment—the kind that would be most useful to me in an industrial rather than field or repair situation, until I passed my proficiency tests with gas and arc welding. And that was not likely to happen. I did turn out to be good at one thing—using the sandblasting booth to clean up parts for welding—stripping paint and oil—and after to knock off scorching and rough surfaces after. It was one of these deals where you put your arms in gloves extending into a glass compartment and manipulated the parts and the blasting wand by hand. Since the shop did a lot of maintenance and repair work for the prison and there was plenty of work produced by the other trainees, I spent most of my time after a while doing that.
Meanwhile, I needed to find a jail house lawyer as recommended by my councilors from the American Friends Field Services to help me file a motion in the Circuit Court for a reduction in sentence. As they had suggested these guys were not hard to find. But one guy had a real reputation. A long time con finishing up his stretch at Sandstone, he was famous for peppering the courts with all kinds of motions and appeals on his own behalf. They gave prosecutors and judges fits with their frequency and he had been sanctioned for filing too many frivolous complaints. But everyone said that despite his inability to be more than an irritant in his own behalf, he had mastered all of the language and forms needed for routine motions and appeals. Several guys had used his services with success.
So for the price of a carton of smokes bought with my commissary account, he drew up my motion for a reduction in sentencing. He wrote it all out neatly on a yellow legal tablet, then I copied it onto another one in as good a hand as I could master—not really very good at all, but a step up from my usual nearly illegible, cramped, printing. I got it notarized in the Library, and sent it off Registered Mail with fingers crossed. Now that the Vietnam War was nearly over as far as American troops on the ground went, some thought/hoped that the Court would be in a more forgiving mood.
To break up the monotony of evenings spent in the Day Room, I signed up for Toastmasters Club, which met every Thursday evening. It was one of two or three service clubs operating in the joint and was assumed to be rehabilitative. It was a natural for me since I had competed in Forensics back in high school and had been soap boxing for the IWW. The idea was to proceed through different kinds of public speaking, one each week, and get feedback from fellow members. As I recall the categories were things like after dinner speaking, informative or instructional talk, motivational talk, newscast, simple debate and such. You got credit for every speech successfully completed leading to wining your official Toastmaters’s Pin or some such trifle. Most of the guys were very serious about improving themselves. I was just about killing time—and occasionally showing off just a little.
Most weeks there was a movie on Friday night. Most of them were unexceptional—a Doris Day comedy or a forgettable Western. But on a couple of occasions I wondered how the hell the films were allowed to be shown. One was Cisco Pike, an early Kris Kristofferson film in which he plays a former rock star trying to come back from addiction only to be blackmailed into dealing a brick of weed for a crooked cop. Of course the con audience whooped and hollered and rooted for Cisco. Odder yet was a more famous picture, another one about a dope deal, The French Connection. What made it even odder was that one of the best known inmates on campus was a former famous French-Canadian TV personality, who was one of those swept up in the real case that the film was based on. He was practically called up on the stage to take a bow.
The same former celebrity figured into another evening’s amusement. He was the emcee of an inmate talent show one night. It was a mixed bag. A rock band doing so-so covers of the Stones, some singers, a piano player, a dude on blues harp, some very lame sketch comedy, and, inevitably, some drag act. About what you would expect. The best bit of the evening was a running gag—a little guy with a bushy moustache came out and vigorously swept the stage with a push broom after each act. It was a take-off on bit from the Bullwinkle Show. It got funnier each time he appeared.
By chance the little guy was, like the emcee, a French Canadian. But somehow he had been caught south of the border and was swept up, like a lot of non-citizens, in the Draft. I don’t know if he was nabbed for failure to report or if he refused induction like I did, but where ever he came to trial, they had a hard on for Draft cases. He had gotten the maximum sentence—five years. He had already served three years behind bars in a higher security joint before being transferred to Sandstone to finish out his sentence. That would be just three or four month more with time off for good behavior. And trust me, no one was better behaved than this little guy. Like the cons said, you could do that “standing on your head.”
But one sunny afternoon during exercise period he just started walking casually out to the distant high chain link fence topped by triple strands of barbed wire. He was all the way there before anyone noticed. He clamored up the fence, over or around the barbed wire, and dropped to the other side where a car was waiting on the highway. As sirens started to scream, he jumped in the car and sped away.
The entire prison was locked down for two days after the escape. Anyone who knew him was interrogated closely. Because he was in another unit, I barely knew him. But they thought there might be a conspiracy among the draft prisoners, so I got the grilling, too. At first guys who had access to a radio said news reports said he had not been found despite an intense search. A few weeks later the word on the grapevine was that he had gotten away. We were close to the Canadian border and there were many remote and unguarded crossing points linking local communities on each side. Once across, I doubt if the Canadians were too interested in finding him for Uncle Sam. Naturally he became kind of a folk hero to us.
Why did he take such a risk with freedom just weeks away in any event? If caught he could have had years tacked on to his sentence to be served in maximum security. I can’t say for sure. But I did know that little dudes like him—he stood barely 5 foot 4—were at the mercy of predators. I suspect he was subjected to regular and on-going abuse.
But it was another little guy who turned out to be the highlight of my stay at Sandstone.
One evening came an unexpected announcement—there would be a special show in the auditorium. Attendance was not required and the room could not have accommodated everyone anyway. No mention was made of who was performing or what kind of show it would be. But plenty of us decided to amble over to check it out. We had nothing better to do.
The Warden made one of his rare personal appearances. He got up on stage, warned us all to be on good behavior for our special guest and introduced Steve Goodman. Chicago Shorty shuffled on stage and plunked himself down on a stool in front of a microphone, his grin wider than any Cheshire Cat, hair in casual disarray, dark eyes shining. His big guitar almost dwarfed him. He made a joke about this being his Johnny Cash moment and launched into a flawless version of Folsom Prison Blues.
Most of the cons probably had no idea who he was. In 1973 Goodman was an established Chicago folk scene legend but was not yet well known to national audiences. A lot of the guys had probably heard Arlo Guthrie’s cover of The City of New Orleans but assumed, like most of the country, that Arlo wrote it.
But I knew who Steve was. Hell, I knew Steve. Not well mind you. I saw him perform many times at the Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else’s Troubles—the Lincoln Avenue saloon he co-owned with Earl Pionke and Ed Holstein which was named for one of his songs—and innumerable benefits for every good cause that need a hand up. Troubles was just up the street from the IWW headquarters when it was on Lincoln Avenue across from the Biograph. I hung out there regularly and sometimes shared a drink with Steve and my good buddy and Fellow Worker Fred Holstein.
Evidently Steve knew someone else on mandatory vacation at Sandstone and had arranged the visit to perform rather casually. I was so glad he came. I could close my eyes and for a moment be transported to a smoky, crowed saloon back home. But I didn’t keep my eyes closed long because in addition to being a great singer and a fabulous guitar picker, Goodman was one of the most antic and entertaining solo performers who ever took a stage.
A few minutes into the set, Steve began some lovely ballad—maybe The Dutchman by Michael Smith, when someone from the back of the audience called out “Blues me or lose Me!” Without missing a beat, Steve shifted gears and launched into a flawless set of driving, down and dirty Southside blue channeling Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon, and Buddy Guy. When he wound up his set with The City of New Orleans to a man we were on our feet cheering.
When the show ended as some shuffled out of the auditorium back to their units, Steve came down from the stage and mingled with those of us who wanted to greet him. It was a bit of a mob and Steve was dwarfed by some of the cons, but game and charming as always. It took a while but I finally made my way up. I stuck out my hand and said something like “It’s great to see you again” and made some reference that made clear that I expected him to remember me. A moment of puzzlement flickered over his face, then he pretended that he had. But I am sure that without my orange goatee, long hair, and cowboy hat, he had no idea who the lummox was furiously pumping his hand.
No matter. I stumbled out into the quad and made my way back to the unit with my batteries recharged. I had forgotten what it felt like to feel, even for a moment, happy.
Next—Sandstone Seeing Day Light.
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