(How I Became a Prison Guard)
By Tim Trask
Here’s how it started.
I’m on an overnight flight from San Francisco to Boston on January 10-11, 1969, after spending a year in the Republic of Viet Nam. There aren’t many people on the flight, but even the few who are here glance in my direction and turn away. They won’t look me in the eye or acknowledge me in any way. I’m taboo. That’s okay. I don’t feel much like talking anyway. No one at home knows I’m coming. I haven’t written. I haven’t called. That may be because I want to surprise my family. I’m thinking it’s more because I can’t believe it myself and want to be sure it’s happening before I tell anyone else. The only reason I’m wearing my uniform is that I got half-fare if I wore it and would’ve had to pay full if I didn’t. I hate the uniform. Any uniform. Especially this one they gave me a few hours ago with the Viet Nam Service Ribbon and the Bronze Star.
Probably just as well that people are staying away, from what I’ve been hearing. Don’t mean nuthin’.
On one hand, I feel that nothing can hurt me now that I’ve escaped the war unharmed. On the other, I’m uncertain about every little thing. I have no idea who I am, who I can become, or even who I want to be. I’m wandering into unknown territory that at times I thought I’d never see―the future. One thing is certain, though. As soon as I get some civvies, I’m taking this uniform off and never putting on another stinking uniform again. No matter what. Unfortunately, it’s the only certain thing in my mind right now.
The plane lands at Logan at 6:00 AM on Saturday, January 11. Since I left Portland, Maine, for Fort Dix at 6:00 AM on Tuesday, May 31, 1966, I’ve been in the Army for exactly two years, seven months, and twelve days. I’ve got to do something if I don’t want to hang around the airport the rest of my life, so I call my sister Rebecca in Lowell, my nearest relative. She’s excited to hear from me, which makes me feel good.
“Where are you?” “Logan.”
“Timmy’s at Logan, Dick! Are you home for good?” “Yup.”
“You don’t have to go back?” “No.”
She says they’ll be there in an hour to pick me up. I ask her to call Dad and Mom, and she says she’s going to call everybody.
Right now, I don’t even really want to see anyone. While I was in Viet Nam, I read Thoreau, and I just want to go live in a cabin by myself in the woods somewhere, preferably in Maine, since that’s the only place where I know anything about the woods. I’m in Boston now with an hour to kill and nothing to kill it with. I can’t drink, and I can’t smoke. Both of these habits are forbidden in my family. My father’s a minister in the Church of the Nazarene, and he’s devoted his life to not smoking and not drinking, so I’ve got to pretend I haven’t acquired either practice, at least for the time being.
Either revelation probably would be more of a shock than if I’d been killed by the Viet Cong, which, I’m thinking, might have been the better option, now that I’ve got to face all of the people who don’t have any notion of how much I’ve changed since last they saw me.
The hour goes by as I’m thinking about how weird life is and ponder Thoreau’s question about whether you can kill time without injuring eternity. Time. I remember studying time in my college physics classes. The space-time continuum. I’ve been doing time. Wasting my life. For nothing. I’ve looked to this day as a great day of happiness, but now that it’s here, I’m thinking I was better off over there. If I’d stayed, at least I wouldn’t feel this emptiness about leaving friends there to deal with all the crap I left.
Becky and Dick arrive, and as we hug, I can’t help the tears in my eyes. It pisses me off. We drive to their house in Lowell, and I’m still in dress greens feeling like a circus clown, and my brother-in-law, thinking he’s being helpful, is trying to talk me into a tour of the prison where he works as a correction officer.
Now I remember. I remember getting a letter from my sister that says he’s got a good job as a correction officer in a prison. I remember thinking if that’s a good job, the whole world sucks. I’m thinking of a guy who sits outside a bunch of cells with a gun on his hip watching prisoners trying to amuse themselves but they can’t find anything to do. There’s no way I would work as a prison guard. I’d rather be a prisoner, I think. With all that time, I’d be able to read and write. Now he wants me to go see the place. It’ll be hours before my parents get here, so I say okay, and we get into the car and he starts with the job right away.
“I think I can get you a job there. You’re a veteran, and they like veterans. Most of the guys there have been in the service.”
There’s no way I’m gonna work there. For one thing, he has to wear a uniform.
For another, I don’t like the idea of being the guy who locks people up and works to keep them there. I don’t say anything, though, because he’s really excited about showing me where he works, and there’s no point in telling him that the job he’s so proud of sucks, so he probably thinks this is a real option for me.
We arrive at the place, and he takes me through the “trap,” an isolation room to trap people trying to escape, and into the interior of what appears to be like a small city. Everyone knows my brother-in-law. He introduces me and tells them I just got back from Viet Nam today. Walking through the place, I discover it’s nothing like what I imagined. It’s a real place. The inmates are all out roaming around―not locked in their cells. The guards don’t have any weapons at all. Not even nightsticks. Even the prisoners respect my Army uniform. They look at the medals and nod. One of them says, “Bronze Star, huh?”
I nod and tell him it’s not for valor―just for working hard. He grins. He already knows.
I hear one inmate say, “War hero” in a sarcastic tone. Other people―inmates and guards―look him down and he shuts up and walks away.
But there’s no way I would ever work here. It’s a bullshit job, keeping people from their freedom. I want the woods, and this is steel and bricks. It’s a city. It’s Saigon without the heat and with a different kind of stench, like they took a sewer and poured not quite enough disinfectant on it.
We finish the tour, and Mom and Dad are waiting when we get back to my sister’s house. My other sister and my brother are there, too. The whole family’s together for the first time in over a year. It feels good and sad at the same time. It’s also stifling. I want a cigarette. They think I’m the same guy I was when I left for the Army, and there’s no easy way to tell them the truth.
Then we all get into my father’s car and drive “home” to Dixfield, Maine. I stay there a few weeks, and mostly I lie on the couch for hours at a time with my eyes closed listening to Roy Orbison wailing his lonely tunes, the Platters harmonizing about “Twilight Time,” the Four Seasons wondering where all the flowers have gone, and Mahalia Jackson belting out spirituals that touch a chord in my soul. My whole family’s worried, I can tell.
“You could get your old job back,” my father says.
In the short time between getting kicked out of college and being drafted, I earned $1.60 an hour working on a team that made flat toothpicks for Diamond National. The law says they have to give me my old job, he reminds me.
“I don’t want to work there,” I say as the screaming wood lathes and choppers flood my memory and mingle with the sounds of war. In the back of my mind, I hear the inviting sound of my older sister telling me I can live with them for a while . . . until I get a job and place to live.
“I think I’ll go back to Massachusetts and try to get a job there,” I say. The prospects are pretty bleak in Dixfield, Maine, and I don’t want to get stuck here. I just want to get out of this house that’s not really our house because it belongs to the church and the church people think it’s their house and everyone expects me to go to church, which I haven’t done at all since I left for the Army except when I was home on leave. I don’t want any part of it. I want to be alone. This isn’t home. I don’t have a home.
Nothing in America makes sense.
This is going to be hard.
The next week, I’m living in my sister’s spare bedroom and looking in The Lowell Sun for a job. Nothing looks good. My brother-in-law keeps pestering me about working in the prison.
“They’ve got an opening, and I talked to the superintendent. He said to come down and fill out an application.”
I still don’t say anything, but I’m sticking with the uniform vow. I want a clean job, like T. S. Eliot in a bank or something. I want to save money and maybe get back to school, eventually.
I walk the streets of Lowell looking for a job. There’s an opening for a bank teller, and I look at it carefully. The job pays about half what I could make in the prison.
“You could get a job on late nights and go to school and do your homework while you’re getting paid,” my brother-in-law says.
That has my attention. That idea I like. Working full time but studying while I work. Getting paid for studying. Maybe I could even write and get material for a novel or two. I reconsider my vow not to wear a uniform. I figure working with him is one way to get to know my brother-in-law and decide it’s worth looking into. I go with him on a Monday morning and fill out an application. After I hand it in, they interview me immediately. Later in the week, I get a call and am told to report for work the next Monday at 7:00 AM.
That’s how I became a prison guard. It’s because bank tellers are paid poorly and can’t read and write on the job. It’s because I have a brother-in-law I don’t know very well. It’s because I really do want to know how a prison works. What goes on there? Are the things people say about prisons true? What the Hell is a prison? What are we doing when we send men there? Who are these people? How are they related to me? I want to know. But mostly it’s because I don’t really have any better idea of what to do.
The next Monday, as I take my oath to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I silently tell myself that even though I’m wearing the uniform of the state, I’m going to reserve a critical part and not do anything to violate my own integrity. If it comes to that, I’ll quit. Sure, I’ll be a whore for the government one more time, but I’ll set the limits this time.
But I already have an idea of how these things work, and I know that in taking this job, even more than when I went to Viet Nam, I’m risking my soul.
As I walk through the clanging steel doors of the trap on my first day, uncertain in the khaki uniform and hat with the badge they issued me, I think, grimly, Now I know who I am.
I’m a prison guard.
NOTE: “Odysseus Wandering” is part of West of Concord: Reflections of a Former Prison Guard. Tim left MCI Concord in 1973, married Janet Heyl, moved to New York City, and entered a graduate program in English and Comparative Literature. He retired after forty-five years of discussing literature and writing with college students. Tim is the author of Frags, a novel based in Viet Nam and New York City.