In 1969, Tim Trask returned from the Vietnam War and took a job as a guard at Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Concord. The following is taken from his memoir about that experience. Other parts of that work, West of Walden, appeared on this site as Odysseus Wandering (on Oct. 4, 2021), and The Tipping Point, Part 1 and Part 2 (April 11 & 12, 2022).
The Paper Chase
By Tim Trask
Nearly thirty years ago, a teaching colleague of mine was leading a course called “Introduction to Fiction” at the Bay State Correctional Institution in Norfolk, MA. He asked if it would be okay to include a short story of mine in the class and asked if I’d attend the class when they discussed it so that they could ask questions about how and why I’d written the story. I told him I’d like to do that and thanked him for thinking of it. The class, a small one, went very well. The inmates seemed to like my story, and I got a glimpse of a group of people doing time wisely, earning college credit.
The next semester, this same friend was teaching the same course at MCI Norfolk and asked me to once again be a guest in his class. It had been twenty-three years since I’d first toured that prison. On the appointed evening, we drove together to Norfolk and entered. I signed in as all visitors have always had to do in prisons, and we were directed once again to the trap, where we had to remove our jackets and shoes and empty our pockets before being checked with a metal detector. Our books, papers, and shoes were checked, also. We then surrendered our driver’s licenses, were given visitor IDs, and were escorted to the classroom.
We had a few minutes to spare before the students arrived, and my friend continued to fill me in on the class as we waited. The students, about eighteen in number, ranged in age from early twenties to late forties. There were black students and white students, and neither group seemed to have much to do with the other. There was tension in the classroom, but it was mild.
My story was scheduled for the second half of the class. We discussed another story in the first half, a story by Tim O’Brien from The Things They Carried. There were two Vietnam veterans in the class. One of them had seen combat. The other, as I recall, had been in the Navy and had spent most of his time just offshore, making occasional visits to Saigon and other ports.
The class was lively. Not everyone participated, but most did. All of them had read the stories under discussion. My story, “Wake of a Whale,” is about a storm that overtakes a father and son fishing on a lake in Maine just after the son has returned from Viet Nam and is trying to figure what he’s going to do with his life. The father’s response to the storm leads to an epiphany for the son in which he acknowledges the completeness of his life and accepts his own death.
A few of the students in the class didn’t like the story very much, but most of them did. The most interesting discussion followed a statement by one who said that the problems the son in the story faced were just like those that he would face on getting out of prison. They all could relate to that predicament. The son in this vaguely autobiographical story has had failures. These failures and his war experiences have become baggage he’ll always have with him. He sees the world through a lens clouded by death, misery, and despair.
It’s when he sees his father enjoying the spectacle of the storm that threatens to kill him that the son relaxes and accepts the storm as part of the terrible majesty of life and nature.
One of the oldest students in the class, who revealed himself to be a grandfather, who seemed as full of life as any human being I’ve ever met, had eyes that startled me. They were ice blue and striking on their own, but it was what they revealed about his person that was startling. He had a look of childish wonder and delight that was unforgettable. I’d seen those eyes before, and I was pretty sure I knew whose they were, though I didn’t want to say; I didn’t think it could be possible.
Before going to the class, my friend and I had discussed whether or not we should tell this class that, years ago, I’d worked for the department as a Correction Officer. He thought it might distract attention from the story, and neither of us knew how, to be honest, it would affect the discussion, so we decided not to. I wish we hadn’t made that decision.
After class, I asked what he knew about that particular student.
“Oh, Rocky,” he said with a smile. “He’s been there forever. He was a bank robber or something and knew some real celebrities in Vegas and other places.”
I wasn’t sure of the name, but I was pretty sure I’d first seen him and his eyes just before leaving Concord. I knew him as Apollo’s friend. I’d seen him only a couple of times, so I’m sure he wouldn’t have remembered me. It was my last summer there, and I didn’t often work in the East Wing during that time, but I’d been assigned there a few times, and that’s where I’d encountered Rocky, who probably had arrived at Concord during the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973, while I’d been on leave to finish college. Even then, he’d been a source of curiosity to me. Although the other guards called him Apollo’s kid, since he was so much younger than Apollo and was always with him, it seemed clear to me that this was no ordinary “kid.” He, like Apollo, was a highly skilled safe man. Despite his youth, he was even then treated by other inmates as a biggie. Within the prison, he had status, he had confidence, and he did his time as if he were in a nightclub with all his friends. At least that was the feeling I got from him. I don’t remember ever having talked to him, but there are some people who carry high levels of the life force with grace. He was one of them, and you don’t put such people easily out of your mind.
Now it was twenty-one years later, and he was at long last nearing release. I can’t believe but that he’d been out at least once during the intervening period. If he hadn’t, it would have been highly unusual. Everything about him had changed except for his eyes and expression. It was the kind of look that you don’t expect to find on the face of an inmate doing time in a prison.
Seeing Rocky made me believe that even though Thoreau spent only one night in jail, he had it right in this: the state cannot imprison the spirit. It can’t, in other words, without your own complicity. Your attitude has everything to do with your contentedness, wherever you are. Once you know that, a prison is just another place, and when you come right down to it, as a creation of our society made up of its own parts, a prison in Massachusetts is not really different from anywhere else in Massachusetts except in a few important details and, as you can see from what I’ve written, in the intensity of the presentation. That is not to say, however, that this intensification is not significant. A prison is not a good place to live. It does, however, offer a particularly good glimpse into the ways in which we Americans manage to control our own excesses of spirit.
When Tocqueville came to study our democracy in the 1830s, he had already glimpsed the radical nature of a society that without external force (a king) nevertheless did not devolve into chaos. He was coming from a culture which, fueled more directly than ours was by the enlightenment thinkers, had, despite successive empires of force, descended into bloodshed and anarchy on more than one occasion. The enlightenment had culminated in the execution of some of its prominent leaders. Yet here, in America, without being led by an aristocracy, was a people who without an omnipresent military or police force were functioning in relative harmony. His two-volume study of this phenomenon is still one of the best descriptions of how our society works.
Moreover, Tocqueville’s study holds the key to how our prisons work as well, not that Tocqueville would have known it at the time. He visited the Auburn facility, a prison where control and silence were the principles of operation. But on entering a prison like Concord, whether in 1969 or today, one feels something akin to what Tocqueville must have felt. Unarmed guards, few in number, watch inmates going about their business during most of the day. At any moment, inmates could take over. They have the numbers, they have the force, and no weapons are arrayed against them, at least not inside the walls. Prisons, in other words, have evolved during the intervening years, to be more and more like the outside society. Constant pressure from concerned citizens and political action groups has left its mark along with an evolution of understanding both from inmates and correction officials that people, even when confined against their will, behave rationally when treated with fairness and human consideration.
That evening in MCI, Norfolk, where my colleague and I discussed my work and the work of Tim O’Brien with a group of inmates, I was accepted as a visiting professor, one who also shared with the prisoners a bit of personal history in fictional form and participated in a discussion that reminded me once again that most of us are not much different from the others, that we all have deep personal struggles with life’s obstacles. It was the kind of discussion that I never had with a group of inmates when I was a guard. Being a professor, one who had published a story in a small literary journal, admitted me to their world in a wholly refreshing way, and I believe it introduced my world to them in a similar way. I will always be grateful to my colleague for making that meeting possible.