The Tipping Point by Tim Trask (Part 1)

MCI Concord

In 1969, Tim Trask returned from the Vietnam War and took a job as a guard at Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Concord. The following post, and part 2 which follows tomorrow, are taken from his memoir about that experience. The first chapter of that work, Odysseus Wandering, appeared on this site last fall. 

The Tipping Point

By Tim Trask

Part 1 of 2

Perhaps no single event is more representative of the sixties than Woodstock. For many of us that single rock concert in upstate New York in August of 1969 was a culmination of hope and promise in the younger generation, an event that seemed to thumb a nose at fears of the older generation. In early March of that landmark year, I was just finishing up my third week as a correction officer at MCI Concord when a much smaller concert came to the prison, a concert that still has for me the kind of symbolic power that Woodstock has for my peers.

During my first two weeks as a prison guard, I’d shadowed various officials on the day shift to get acquainted with the different areas of the prison. Prisons are not like what I’d thought or like what most people think. More than a mere collection of cells, they are large arrays of intricate units working together to comprise a functioning organism of considerable complexity, like a small city. The third week was my first on the evening shift, my first week on the job. On Friday of that week, they announced a possible problem when we gathered for the 3 pm roll call. For the first time in its nearly 100-year history, a live outside band was going to be allowed into the prison that evening, and we were shorthanded. Moreover, the band included women singers. The auditorium would be filled with more than 200 male inmates who were sex-starved and excitement-deprived, so no one knew what would happen. We all had imaginations, though, and we saw trouble.

I’d just returned from Viet Nam a few weeks before, and I thought about the USO shows there, where sexy celebrities strutted their stuff on the stage in front of fields filled with screaming, lonely GIs. I figured it would be much worse with prisoners. Most GIs, after all, are not criminals, even when they’re drunk.

During my orientation, Joseph Higgins, then an Assistant Deputy Superintendent and later Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, told me in an offhand way one day, “It takes five years to make a good guard.” I didn’t say anything, but having recently turned twenty-two, I thought there wasn’t any job in the world that would take me five years to learn. Every job I’d had up to that time I’d learned in a few weeks. Or thought I had. What could be so hard about being a guard?

But that Friday evening of my third week, when I found out that I was to be one of only two guards escorting two-hundred inmates to a concert in the auditorium, a show that included female performers, the job began to look impossible in the way that the job of infantrymen in the trenches of WWI looked impossible when they were ordered out of trenches to charge a withering hail of German machine-gun fire.

Maybe it showed on my face. After our assignments for the evening had been announced, Tiresias, the guard in charge of the detail, came over and introduced himself.

By 1969, Tiresias had worked as a guard at MCI Concord for five years following a stint in the Navy. I don’t know how he wound up with the prison job. He wasn’t like Tom or Ed, both of whose fathers and grandfathers had worked there as guards. Ed’s father was still there as an Assistant Deputy Superintendent. No, Tiresias, like me, had heard about the job from a friend or relative, probably. He didn’t inherit the job. It wasn’t like it was in his genes, and he hadn’t grown up with stories of prison tactics. He learned the job through OJT, just like me, except that what I learned from him that night was a big part of my OJT.

He seemed more worried about me than about the inmates, which made me wonder.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t know you. I don’t know how you’ll do if trouble starts, but I just want to make sure you aren’t the one who starts the trouble. Understand?”

I nodded, but to tell the truth, I was surprised. I thought he was worrying about the wrong thing. He had two-hundred convicted felons planning to attend, and he was suggesting that I was the potential problem. Me! Two-hundred convicted felons, and I am suddenly the factor of uncertainty?

Then he got serious. “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to be sitting on the right side of the auditorium, and you’ll be sitting on the left. While they’re filing in, you just stand up and watch to make sure they get to their seats. Once they sit down, you sit down. Okay?”

I nodded. I was annoyed, but I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen, so I paid attention.

“Then,” he said, “I want you to watch me the rest of the night. I don’t care what you see or what you think is happening. I just want you to watch me. If I don’t do anything, you don’t do anything. If I don’t get up, you don’t get up. If I don’t see something, you don’t see it. No matter what happens. Just watch me.”

“Okay.”

“Then,” he continued, “if I do get up, you get up. If I just stand there, you just stand there. If I walk down to the front, you walk down to the front. If I stop, you stop. Got it?”

“I got it,” I said.

“Whatever I do,” Tiresias repeated, “you do. But especially, if I don’t do anything, you don’t do anything. I want to see your eyes on me the whole time. I’m going to be watching you, and I want you to watch me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I’d just been hired off the street on the recommendation of my brother-in-law. Massachusetts had a Correction Officer Training Academy by that time, but there was a waiting list to get the training, and they were short of guards, since it wasn’t obvious that being a prison guard was a good job to most of the public, particularly during the latter part of the sixties. Many of the guards were veterans, but as far as I know, I was the first Vietnam veteran hired at Concord. I’d survived the Tet Offensive of 1968, so I thought I knew how to confront my fears about the dangers of working in a prison. I didn’t like the idea of being the guy responsible for keeping people locked up, but the more I thought about it, the more I became curious about prisons. I knew I had to experience things that other people would avoid just so I could get an education about the mysteries of the human soul and will. The war had been part of my education, and this was another part. Viet Nam and the prison were to be my Harvard and my Yale, just as the whaling ship had been Melville’s. I had a notion of turning all my failures into successes by being an explorer—a guy who looks deliberately at what other people avoid and makes his own way in the world. I would not be content to learn from books and movies but would be satisfied only by a confrontation with the thing itself. I was determined to be more afraid of not knowing than anything else. That’s what I told myself.

I knew right from the start that this concert could be real trouble. I still couldn’t imagine what the two of us could do if 200 guys started rioting. If it got bad enough, I knew they’d call in the State Police from the barracks down Route 2, but I also knew that to do that would mean admission of a prior failure on our part within the prison. If I’d been in charge, I might have canceled the concert. After all, we’d never done anything like this before, and we were short-handed. Normally, five or six or maybe even more guards would have been assigned to this large a detail, but there were just the two of us available. The deputies had discussed canceling the concert, but they were concerned about how that would look to the group that had arranged it. It was an outside group that was trying to reach prisoners to offer them opportunities to get an education, to mingle more with the outside world. It was part of a then new theory of correction: rehabilitation by steps into the outside world. Word was that ninety-seven percent of the inmates would eventually get out, so why not help prepare them for what they’d encounter when the time came? Finally, the deputies decided. The guards would be blamed for being uncooperative if the concert were canceled, and they could not let that happen, so the concert was on.

After dinner, when all the inmates had returned from the mess hall, we did a count, just like every night. After it tallied up, Tiresias came over. “Ready?”

I nodded and walked with him to the auditorium. We unlocked the doors and walked up and down the side aisles and checked under the seats to make sure that there were no weapons or other contraband or anything out of place. The sound system and drums were all set up, and there were a couple of guitars on the stage. The band was backstage, behind a door off to the side of the stage. There was no proscenium or curtain of any kind. This auditorium was used primarily for showing movies and for chapel services. The guards called it “The Chapel,” in fact, but it didn’t look like any chapel I’d ever seen except that the seats were pew-like rather than individual seats. Tiresias went out to talk to the band briefly, and then he came back and we waited.

After a while, we heard the noise, a deafening roar, really, of the inmates as they approached the auditorium.

“Okay,” Tiresias yelled across the room, pointing to my bench. “Just stand there until they sit down; then sit down and watch me. Remember?”

“I remember,” I said and took my place in front of the guard’s bench.

To be continued in part two

One Response to The Tipping Point by Tim Trask (Part 1)

  1. David Daniel says:

    Trask’s prose is simple, unadorned, and as potent as dynamite.

    “I was determined to be more afraid of not knowing than anything else.”

    A wise notion–one our 21st century world would do well to adopt.

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