Prologue – The American Thing to Do
Jail wasn’t so bad. They’d taken a gas station abandoned after the Interstate system paved over the future of rural America and set it up as a holding pen for up to a dozen men, ancient army cots spaced every few feet where the bays once held up the manifestations of local pride, the desk sergeant on the other side of the counter where they used to ring you up and dispense road maps, gumballs and cigarette packs. Each of us was provided with a drawer, not ensconced in a dresser, mind you, one that that fit under our cots and held our clothes and those few bathroom accoutrements we were allowed to have, such as a toothbrush, paste, comb, brush, some hair cream, a bar of soap but no razor, so I watched each day as the faces of my cellmates disappeared, which allowed me to determine the amount of time someone had been there, a method as accurate as those who study tree rings.
We were lucky that the southern and western sides of the building were shaded by large Chisos Red Oaks, planted as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps program in the thirties that included tables and chairs hewn from white fir tucked underneath, offered as enticements for travelers to rest after gassing up before continuing on in search of work. It made our lives tolerable, as we had only two small barred-over windows and a slowly rotating ceiling fan, the roll-up garage doors that faced east having been nailed shut, effectively preventing breezes from reaching us.
Everyone on the inside spoke Spanish, so they accepted me readily, although they snickered over my accent or when I searched for a word, a simple every day one, that just wasn’t included in my vocabulary. Within a few minutes of my incarceration they started calling someone else an imbecile. “Burro”, they said and when they realized I had no clue as to what it meant (I had recently learned moron, but was not yet familiar with cretin or dolt, either), they got on all fours and brayed, which caused me to shout out “azno,” my word for donkey, sending them into a frenzy of laughter, the kind that you don’t know if it’s meant to ridicule or be good-natured, the line of demarcation between the two oftentimes being difficult to decipher. I didn’t mind being the butt of the joke, I was new and there wasn’t any aggression. It ended quickly when someone, trying to be helpful, yelled out “estúpido!” Ah, “estupidad!” I replied to a synchronized chorus of “si,” which was accompanied by the rhythmic slapping of thighs and shoulders, teeth bared, fingers pointing to me, exposed as the native whose language skills didn’t comport with my presence, especially since I was in for a crime that none of them could fathom. At that time, I was still more comfortable in what my family described as Our Spanish rather than Their Spanish—or English for that matter, which is what the guards spoke for the most part.
The food was actually good; the vegetables, fruits and grains there in the central part of the state were indistinguishable from what I grew up a hundred miles to the southwest, despite the three-thousand-foot greater elevation of my community in the arroyo.
At first, neither the small transistor radio I’d tucked into my underwear nor the deep bruise that was covered by my long hair was noticed by anyone else. Late on the night I was arrested, when everyone else was asleep, I snuck my hand down, retrieved the small radio, turned it on very softly and placed it under my right ear. I caught what I thought was a news story that startled me, but the static was so heavy that I wasn’t sure what to think. I moved the tuner slowly up and down the dial, hoping to latch on to a station with a better signal that would repeat the report that I thought I heard. About a half hour later, I listened to an announcer¾who I imagined was speaking directly to me¾with the words that allowed me to ignore the pain from the bruise on my head and enabled me to drift to sleep, my anxiety and anger having been replaced with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I could rest peacefully and awake to begin to write again.
I was allowed to use an ancient typewriter, given to me because the desk sergeant found it very frustrating to constantly rethread a ribbon that didn’t feed smoothly, since the spool wasn’t secured. He clearly preferred writing out reports in longhand and made a big show of handing the typewriter over to me, disparagingly calling out to a mythic audience that he was being generous to the college boy. He may have said “college spic,” at least that’s what the other inmates said, but I focused on the word college instead and strutted back to the small community table lugging my prized relic like a boxing champ caressing a title belt, feeling proud that I had attended the University, even if for only a year and a half.
My cellmates ranged in age from late teens to mid-forties
Within a minute, all my cellmates were in rhythm, most with their necks craned up, some jumping on the cots, others looking out the windows to greet the glow of the new moon in the dusk, long bays interspersed with shorter yelps, the cacophony similar to the sounds of the red wolves my cousins and I would hear late at night when we slept outdoors for a week underneath a makeshift thatch-roofed hut in the fall.
After a bit, my recognition smile drew in the man closest to me, who arched his hand to the back of my head, ruffled my hair and said, “Lobo rojo, lobo rojo.”
Red wolf, red wolf. From then on, I was addressed as either loboor rojo—new inmates never knew me as Jacobo.
were in for disturbing the peace, loitering, driving without a license, public intoxication, not understanding the arresting officer. Nothing really untoward, and their time inside was usually short before being brought in front of the judge in the small town down the road. They were customarily sentenced to time already served and warned about their behavior, the young public defender translating in the Castilian Spanish she learned in school, which had the same effect on them as when I spoke Our Spanish. Only in court, there was no braying or other demonstrations of mockery, which I found out over the course of a few weeks when a former inmate would trudge through the door again, sheepishly acknowledge my presence with a shy wave and smile, then tell me what went on in court and why he was back. Invariably, a returnee would ask, eyes widened, if I were writing about him or life in jail, eager to play even a small role in a play he’d never get to see. I’d placate him. “Perhaps,” I’d say, pursing my lips, clenching my jaw and making the slightly repeated vertical nod, which allowed him to infer that yes, he might live on in another world beyond the barrio. Only later, many years later, did I recognize that this glimmer of hope revealed the futility of his life and I wished that I had, indeed, written a piece about this one or that one or all of them, but that was something that didn’t occur to me then, fixated as I was on telling mystory.
None of the folks I was locked up with could figure out why I was there.
“You in for notgiving something that was yoursto someone whoaskedfor it?” would be repeated in similar fashion by each new inmate, which was usually followed by a declarative sentence in which my name and ‘demente’or ‘loca’both appeared. “This is America,” someone would invariably blurt out, barely suppressing the guffaw at the absurdity of my situation, then pretending to ask for something someone else was holding, having that other person refuse and then hearing shouts of, “Sergeant! Lock him up more! He won’t give me what’s his!” the prelude to uproarious, infectious hilarity, in which I willingly joined.
Unlike the others incarcerated with me, I had an out similar to the Monopoly game card the desk sergeant waved at me one morning that depicted the prisoner in horizontal stripes getting the boot from the not-to-be-seen judge. All I had to do was accede to the DA’s request and I could walk out. A free man. If I didn’t, well, I had two choices: stand trial for a crime I didn’t commit but where a group of 12 people could be persuaded otherwise by a zealous prosecutor in cahoots with the local press, this being the era when violent student protests and other acts of civil disobedience colored the minds of the people in the jury pools, culled from the lists of those most anxious about the fraying of the social fabric. Or, instead, agree to be escorted from the jail to the U.S. Army induction center in downtown Albuquerque, where I would raise my right hand and “…solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
I didn’t have a third option of returning to the University. They’d suspended me for a period of two years, conveniently consistent with a term of military service. I’d pretty much decided to hook up with Uncle Sam, my public defender having told me that the odds weren’t good for an acquittal for someone like me, so you might be wondering why I chose to stay in jail for six weeks and then join the army when I could’ve been out in a day and off on my own. Well, it had a lot to do with what you’re reading now.
I’d made a midnight escape from the University with my best friend, bringing with me a treasure of no monetary value—of which there was no doubt as to my rightful ownership—but in the absence of my giving it to the authorities, they would inflict a punishment on me that they assumed I would avoid at all costs, thereby delivering to them what they wanted, what they needed. I could honestly say that I didn’t have it, the ‘it’ being the notebook in which I’d written down what I’d seen and heard that took place at the University during those tumultuous days during the fall of 1964 and winter of 1965, when it appeared that the old order, like Humpty Dumpty’s wall, was being torn down. Although I’d taken the notebook with me when I escaped and intended to give it to the man my younger sister called The Bishop when I was on the run, I lost it, plain and simple, and although I’d expressed this to all those in authority, no one believed me, and I became their favorite bête noire, hence their ‘either/or’ deal that they assumed I’d turn down and ultimately give them what they demanded.
I wanted to recreate the notebook, yet it would be a fruitless exercise unless I had a way to decide how to smuggle the new version out. Hiding it in my underwear wasn’t going to work, giving it to one of my cellmates wouldn’t guarantee I’d get it back and I knew the public defenders who visited with us had an obligation to turn evidence over to the other side, so even proposing giving it to one of them would result in them confiscating it and delivering it to the authorities.
Suddenly it hit me what to do. I asked the desk sergeant to come see me.
“I’d like to play this Monopoly game you’re so fond of,” I said.
“Ah, my young friend, you want the card, is it?” he asked, referring to the get out of jail free card, in the manner that an adult deceives a child with an affectionate voice into believing that a reward is on the way.
“No sir, the game itself, I’d like to learn and so would the other guys,” I said respectfully, which would have morphed into unctuousness if necessary to get what I wanted.
He handed over the box cheerfully, mentioned that it was in English and I told him I’d translate for the others. More than that, I told him, “I’ll write down in Spanish all the instructions that are printed on the inside cover of the top and will also create a booklet with drawings of all of the cards and explanations as to what they mean.”
“That’s great, Jake,” he said, addressing me by using a nickname, which strangers have a penchant for doing, an offhand gesture intended to create a brief, false moment of intimacy. “Once you decide to leave, your friends will be able to learn how to get rich,” he chortled, having accented friendsin a disparaging way to distinguish me from my cellmates.
They pronounced Jacobo with the J as H sound, Hacobo, the typical way, so I learned, as distinguished from the custom of my community where the J was hard.
I tackled what I told the desk sergeant I’d do, creating a multi-page document that went into great detail, much more than what was necessary, it looked like a term paper for school that included footnotes as well. To master the Monopoly game, translate the rules, provide examples of strategy and spell out circumstances that would be so explicit it would avoid disputes, all the while writing in Their Spanish, took longer than I’d originally anticipated, made more difficult by the constant re-threading of the ribbon and letter degradation due to overuse. But to be honest, I enjoyed the project, as it kept me busy, and I was sure I was doing something that would be of benefit to these and other inmates in the future. When I finished this part of my plan, I then began work on recreating my notebook under the guise of now re-doing the set of Monopoly rules in Our Spanish.
I worked feverishly, straight-backed, fingers pressing keys, hitting the carriage return, feeding paper, correcting for typos, writing down everything that’d happened, recalling images of whole pages of the notebook that recorded the jumble of characters, conversations, observations, places and events that’d converged with a cataclysmic force over such a short period of time that I was sure a diamond would emerge from the effects of the compression. All of this was written in Our Spanish.
This took me a couple of weeks because I had so much to remember and it needed to be set down in the order in which the events happened. I had to be sure that I wasn’t missing details that were critical to understanding the context of what happened, who was responsible, who was involved, what their motivations were and who’d planned to do what to aggravate or settle the conflict. With the exception of one page that I rewrote in my handwriting, all the rest of the text was completed using the old typewriter. What vexed me more than the reportage was the re-creation of the sketches of the people and the scenes that originally had included balloon-like call outs as if it were a comic book. I must confess that with the addition of time, my sketches were more sophisticated and nuanced, and although I took a few liberties with some of the quotes, in no case did I change the substance.
When I was finished, I could honestly say that my handiwork was not a fake. It was, for all intents and purposes, a recreation of the original, by the same witness, the same hand and in the same time-period, so as not to be jaded by distant memories or an attempt to portray what had occurred in a more favorable light to the writer.
I put the real version of the Monopoly rules I created in Their Spanish together with my new notebook and on the top of the first page, in all capital letters, I wrote MONOPOLY: JUEGO, Their Spanish for game. The whole thing was, I knew, wretched excess but it was a critical part of my plan, as I then created a second cover page on which I wrote MONOPOLY: DJUGOS, Our Spanish for game and put it in front of the pages I’d written that were a replica of my notebook. When I was finished with all of this, I called out to the desk sergeant that I was ready to speak to the DA, and he made the call that arranged for the meeting that ended up with me leaving the jail and being escorted to a waiting car, ready to take me to the army recruiting station in Albuquerque.
I went back to say goodbye to my cellmates, hearing the sound of the dice, expecting them to be arguing about hotels on Park Place or houses on Tennessee Avenue, instead finding them crowded into the corner, playing street craps, the Monopoly game resting on the table, my instruction book in Their Spanish tucked inside the top cover. A few turned, smiled and waved, but I was never sure if this reflected good wishes for me getting out or for them having a winning roll. I showed the first page of my supposed rules for Monopoly in my native language, to the desk sergeant, telling him that it would be useful for a friend of mine who spoke like me and asked him for an envelope, on which I wrote to a Mr. Jaffa along with his address in Albuquerque. Inside the envelope to him, I wrote a note in Our Spanish asking him to get in touch with my parents, my best friend and a girl, to let them know what was going on. The desk sergeant told me he’d make sure it was mailed. “It’s on me,” he said warmly, shook my hand then gave me a salute, mentioned that he’d been a member of the 41stArmored Infantry Regiment, 2ndArmored Division during the Second World War, and noted with a chuckle that where I was going there wouldn’t be any room for tanks.
The two cops who drove me were surprised that I’d opted for the army as opposed to staying in jail. “I thought guys like you,” by that he meant young, with long hair who’d been arrested for activities associated with a headline-grabbing student takeover of the University administrative building “were against, you know, the government.”
“Yeah, like all of you were protesting ROTC and the war,” said by the other one as a declaratory statement, but it really was in the guise of a question, hoping for an answer in the form of an explanation.
“It’s the American thing to do,” I responded nonchalantly, apparently satisfying them, assuming I was referring to the patriotic duty to undertake national service, as they then animatedly joined the conversation to tell me about their own experiences, one in the Marines and the other in the Air Force. Not wanting to disturb the peace, I let them banter, occasionally adding an uh-huh, or oh, that’s interesting, refraining from telling them the interpretation of my rejoinder to them, that Americans have rights of privacy, property and speech, that to retain those rights was as American as apple pie, something I’d always enjoyed while living within the United States of America, where unbeknownst to me, I’d been a citizen by birth, having never even heard of the name of my country until two years earlier.
© 2017 by David Hirshberg