Sunbeams escaped from the free world and drifted into my cell through the bars and laid beside me sharing my bunk in the summer of 1989. It was a depressing time. The Circuit Court had sentenced me to three life sentences plus 34 years without parole, for four bank robberies while displaying a plastic toy gun. No one was hurt in the robberies so what did I expect, a slap on the wrist?
I had no hope of getting out and the end of the tunnel held no light. But the sun added coruscation to the day in the most dismal time of my life.
I pushed on with my life and my sentence and tried to adjust in prison, finding a new person walking in my shoes. I had not been in a fight since grade school. I soon learned I was not a good fighter but I did not want to be perceived as “chicken.” I was 45 years old and my reflexes were a bit slow but that didn’t stop me from going up against anyone who got out of line with me. I fought men twice my size and weight lifters with their chest poked out and biceps big as melons. When I was knocked down I got back up again and kept fighting. I wouldn’t admit defeat and wouldn’t give up. One burly man beat me fiercely then he felt sorry for me and told me to stay down. I was bloody from brow to chin with two black eyes and exhausted. I staggered to my feet and raised my fists once more. Disdained, the burly man threw his hands in the air and yelled, “Aw, man, don’t you ever quit! Okay, okay, you win!” He turned and walked away shaking his head. I was glad he did.
The younger men I fought were extremely fast with their fists. At times I got hit in the face three or four times before I got started. I actually wore a guy out from hitting me. He lowered his arms to rest and I nailed him with a right-cross and sent him packin’. I won a few fights but lost more than I won. I always bounced back and it became a joke among the inmates. They would say, “You better bring your lunch and supper if you fight George, because it’s going to take you all day to whoop him.”
A hard three years went by before I had to make a shank (prison-made knife). I was getting too old to fight with my fist and I picked up the steps to the prison waltz-slash-and-stab. It instantly was the cure for black eye and bloody face. I was fortunate in those days not to be killed. I stabbed a few men in knife fights but the most glorious (in my world) of them all was my last one, and that brought me a newfound respect among the men and a reputation that followed me wherever I went.
I had been drinking most of the day and was half drunk. I made prison hooch like rocket fuel and sold it for three packs of cigarettes for a quart. I had rows of Newports stacked clear to the ceiling on my wall light. Like I said I was pretty loaded that day and I had my shanks close at hand.
Rookie guards who were in the control booth were not familiar with inmates’ faces in our pod. They didn’t know who lived in what cell or who was or was not allowed in the pod. A young prison gang who had been sneaking into pods, intimidating men, beating them up and robbing their cells, were on the move and they all carried weapons. A black friend of mine, Elmo, came by my cell and said, “They’re coming for you, eight deep.” That meant a showdown was the evening event.
Someone may have told them I had a bunch of cigarettes. News like that travels faster than a speeding bullet. Cigarettes are like money in prison. If you have enough cigarettes you can buy anything, including a man’s life. I pulled my shanks from under the blanket. I had skillfully made two. One for slashing and one to run you through. I chose the latter. It was a fan shaft ground down to an ice pick point. Around the handle was wrapped 2” rippings of sheet with black tape around it covering it for a nice handgrip. A rawhide shoestring was tied to the end of the loop. I could put my hand through the loop and around my wrist and I would not drop it or lose it in a fight.
One thing you must know about me. I was not afraid. Even with the realization that I could die when I fought, I had no fear. Why? I was not getting out of prison and going to die an old man behind bars. I had nothing to lose and if I got killed in a fight the one who did it would be doing me a favor. That way I would beat the prison system out of this time and not have to grow into a sickly old man. That attitude got me through scores of fights and was going to get me through a showdown.
It was 8:00 p.m. The cell doors stood open and I was leaning against the steel doorjamb looking into the pod. It was crowded with men doing different things to entertain themselves through a fog of cigarette and cigar smoke. I saw the outer door open, and eight gang members trickled in and gathered around the steel table at the far end of the pod. Some of them pulled out shanks from under their jackets and others had them stuck down in their pants where everyone could see the handles sticking out from their waistline. That was one of their intimidation moves to scare anyone who was watching. Their message was received and most of the men walked back to their cells in a hurry anticipating trouble and not wanting to be involved.
I had a six ounce Bugler Tobacco can filled with hooch in my left hand and my “run-you-through” in my right behind my back. I had a poker face and an eagle eye on the gang. They started walking in my direction and I finished off the can of hooch and backed up to the center of my cell with my shank at my side. There was an unwritten rule for all of us that no one enters another man’s cell unless he’s invited. I was positive they wouldn’t ask for an invitation. The biggest man stepped into my cell first with the others behind. I ran towards him, and he saw it coming and wore the face of shock and tried to deflect my blade with his arm. I ran him through. Through his arm into his fleshy belly. He did not scream but gave up a prolonged moan and fell hard to the concrete floor pulling himself free of the long blade, as I held fast to the handle. I didn’t feel a thing. Not sorrow, not pity and not remorse. Prison had made me dead inside. His arm bled freely but there was only a small circle of blood on his T-shirt around the hole in his flesh. The other gang members turned and ran and I chased after them and cornered them under the stairs. All seen had no place to run, trapped like spineless rats. I was ready for battle and motioned for them to advance holding my bloody shank at the ready. “Come on!” I yelled. They dared not move and I saw fear in their eyes. Now that was pitiful! A so-called tough gang in a group now coward before me. Dammit! I needed a fight and took two steps toward them. Their shanks clanged at my feet as if their hands had been seared from holding them. I disliked these kind of men. They acted dangerous and talked mean but when it came down to it they didn’t have any fight in them. I turned my back on them hoping one would scrap up some nerve, or all of them. I was psyched up for a fight, and nothing happened. I walked back to my cell. The other inmates heckled the gang and they must have felt about one inch tall with shame after revealing their true colors, yellow.
The first man who entered my cell was on his knees at my cell door trying to get out. I helped him to one of the steel tables, sat him down with a few words of comfort. “You sit right here. I don’t want you dying in my cell.” Maybe not too comforting but I got a little satisfaction out of it. I walked back to my cell and filled my Bugler can with hooch. I needed a drink after that, and it tasted like nectar from the wine gods. The guards would be coming soon to drag me off to the hole and I wanted to be good and drunk in case they pounded my head. That way I wouldn’t feel it as much until the next day. I felt good about what happened. I stood my ground and lived to tell the tale. The guards came, they pounded, I did ninety days in the hole and enjoyed the rest. The man I stabbed had a single hole in his belly and the hospital cut him open — Exploratory Surgery — to see if there was internal bleeding or other damage. He brought back a long incision from breast bone to pubic hair with a lot of staples holding him together.
When I came out of the hole I tried to escape a half dozen times, but this story isn’t about that. I had some good plans though. I continued to drink. In fact, I drank so much the guards got tired of taking me to the hole and locked me in my cell until I sobered up. It was a free ticket to drink, and I was becoming Otis from the Andy Griffin show. That lifestyle got old fast and I wanted to change my lifestyle. At 53 years old I reasoned it was time to have a female in my life.
I asked men who got visits if their wife or girlfriend had a friend I could write and possibly get visits from. I quickly got three addresses. I wrote all three, not at the same time. The first one was a twenty-year old woman wanting to bring drugs to me to sell in prison. She needed to support her drug “Rabbit Habit,” plus two kids. She was a crackhead and chased it like a rabbit. I’m not a drug person so I dumped her. The second woman was thirty-five and didn’t have any conversation. I tried to converse with her and carry lengthy conversations, and her response consisted of only three or four words. Short and to the point. She liked me to feel on her as well as any other guy who came near her in the visiting room. I passed her off to a fellow feeler. Most inmates would do anything for a couple of women like those gals. But I need more in a woman. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was searching for. I just knew I hadn’t found it.
They say the third is a charm and she was indeed. Her name’s Louise and she was ten years younger than me. She was a beautiful blond with long hair down her back and the prettiest blue eyes God ever gave a woman. She was a little overweight but not much. I like a woman with some meat on her bones. Her breasts — not to get carried away — were large and fantastic! We had exchanged pictures and wrote wonderful letters before our visit. Some letters were erotic but most were about our past lives and our hopes and dreams and of the future.
It was a cloudy Saturday in March of 1996 when Louise arrived for our first visit. I walked into the visiting room filled with dozens of card tables surrounded by metal fold-up chairs and I spotted her midway of the visiting area through a haze of visitors. She sat at a table and stood up when she saw me. I gave my name to the guard behind the desk and couldn’t take my eyes off of Louise. I was excited inside like a kid with a new slingshot. I had a strong urge to run to her arms but I walked rapidly instead and placed my index finger across her lips. I didn’t want a word from either of us to change the moment. I took her in my arms and kissed her perfect warm lips. Never before experiencing such an erotic moment from only one lingering kiss. She fit perfectly in my arms. Being six foot tall, the top of her head was even with my shoulder and when our lips parted she sighed and laid her head on my chest. With her voice like a melody she asked, “Do you greet all your visitors like this?” I laughed and held her close, knowing she too felt the eroticism.
We sat at the table and laughed and talked as if we knew each other for years and had to hurry and catch up to the moment. We both had so much to share. Her baby blue eyes glistened with life when she spoke and her words made me feel important and young inside. I actually felt like someone worthy of living. I had not felt that way in years. Clearly magic was happening between us.
Louise and I were satisfied with each other’s appearance and we had a lot in common. We liked the same old rock and country songs. In unison, quietly, we sang the lyrics gazing into each others’ eyes to our favorite love songs. They had to be our favorites because we knew the words by heart, it sounded like poetry.
I discovered Louise was a great cook, and she unearthed the fact that I couldn’t fry an egg without burning it. Without a man around the house, Louise was a bit down-hearted with things at home that needed to be repaired, which she could not do. The screen door had to be rescreened, a light switch had a short in it, a couple of windows stuck and were hard to open, the dryer needed a new belt, a water pipe dripped and the clothesline sagged. She was a businesswoman with book sense and not so much hammer, saw, pliers and wrench sense.
I could fix all those things being a skilled carpenter and at one time had my own business for home improvement and dabbled in all the trades. “I can fix all those things when I get out,” I told her. Our smiles faded, silence hung over the table. I had been honest with Louise in my letters, and we both knew I was not getting out. “I could actually see myself repairing those things for a moment,” I said sheepishly.
“And you just might,” she encouraged. “I read the newspapers, and laws are changing everyday and I have faith it will change for you so you will get out. No matter what, have faith and hope for the best.” Louise had a way of finding the smallest bit of light in the darkest situation.
We had talked our throats dry and Louise got up from her seat to buy some Cokes from the vending machine and my eyes followed her. She sauntered through a mix of visitors graceful as a swaying flower in a gentle breeze. She was beautiful from head to toe. Her cute tiny feet were slid into Italian open-toe sandals exposing soft pink polished toenails. She wore ebony slacks and a white blouse with miniature red roses on it. Her skin was tanned a silky brown, her smile like an angel’s and her slender fingers were elegant with long, pink fingernails. Her body tempted my every desire.
We drank Cokes and had a few pictures taken, held hands and talked the day away until our time was up. She told me she would come next weekend for another visit. I could have done cartwheels I was so happy. We kissed fair well and promised never to say goodbye and kissed again. I watched her walk down the hallway through the thick glass door and she turned and looked back and saw me watching her. She smiled and threw me a kiss. I reached up and caught it. She turned the corner and disappeared carrying my heart with her. I could still feel the ghost of her lips on mine.
That night I could think of nothing else but Louise. She was something good happening to me and I didn’t expect anything decent to happen to me in prison, but it had and it was happening with every passing tick of the clock. If I wanted to hold on to this woman I had to change my ways. As time went by I changed my ways, changed my way of thinking and that was most important. You might say I brainwashed myself. Veered away from thoughts of trouble and fighting even when the situation presented itself. I stopped drinking and that was tough also. I changed my attitude and became a different person, a nicer one. I didn’t hang with my trouble-making pals anymore. Some said I was chicken and lost my heart (but not to my face). The fact was I found it.
Louise didn’t miss a visiting day or holiday visit. She was more dependable than the mailman. I fell in love with her head over heels, and she felt the same way about me. It felt wonderful to love and be loved. She was the breath of my life and my every thought and dream. I painted an assortment of landscape pictures and made frames for each one for her. I made a beautiful sailboat for her bric-a-brac shelves and ordered jewelry and gifts and had them mailed to her, plus every gadget they advertised on TNT and the Fox Channel for $19.95. Louise enjoyed receiving my letters, but the things I sent her enhanced the excitement when the UPS truck showed up at her door. I sent her flowers on her birthday and told her I loved her often. I felt that it was important to show my affection in every form.
I gave Louise moral support and helped her build her confidence. We fixed all the repairs she worried about at home. I told her what supplies and which tools to buy and talked her through each one over her speaker phone. It was a lot of fun and laughs doing it together like that. She actually did it herself and shined with pride. I was proud of her too.
On our visits I hurried to our table to get that first kiss and embrace of the day. I always pulled the chair out for her and tried to be a gentleman. I quit swearing and had worked extra hard to get the “F” word out of my language, which is commonly used in prison. I don’t use words like that in the presence of a lady.
An entire year had passed with Louise and I visiting weekends and holidays, talking on the phone three days a week and faithfully writing each day and not one moment tired of each other. It seemed fate had brought us together by some higher power. The last of March I asked Louise to marry me and she eagerly accepted and said I had made her the happiest woman in the world. I’m sure I was the happiest man. On May 15, 1997, we were married by the prison chaplain — we had the marriage license and blood test — and the warden allowed us to have the entire visiting room for the ceremony. We had a handful of friends from the free world attend, who were dressed very nice. The chaplain was dressed in a grey suit and I wore a charcoal suit, white shirt and black tie. Louise was dressed beautifully in a long white gown, white heels and the length of her blond hair hung over her left shoulder like threads of gold and all was well.
The wedding was fantastic, and we had a reception with food and drinks from the ol’ vending machine. Everyone seemed to be having fun and Louise and I were elated. We were allowed two hours after the wedding but the guards squeezed in an extra hour for hugging and kissing for a couple steak subs and Cokes.
For nine years after the wedding, our love flourished enormously. I had no idea a heart could hold so much passion. We were living a story-book romance. Louise and I were not perfect, I doubt anyone is, but together we were perfect. Our relationship as husband and wife radiated with every feeling Romeo and Juliet must have felt. The worst part was me not being home with her. We were good for each other, and Louise never gave up hope that the law would change and send me home to her. My prison life had changed for the better. For nine years I had not received an institutional charge for doing anything wrong. I was respectful to guards, staff and inmates and I obeyed all the rules and regulations. Louise was proud of me and I was pretty proud of myself for staying on the straight for so many years, and it was a good feeling. One I would not have known had it not been for Louise. Having her love made me want to be a better person. We often talked about the day I would come home. But on the back roads of my mind I had doubts that I would.
Louise’s faith that the law would change was a tool to keep hope alive, of which she did not waver. I thought it was only for my sake, but it was for hers as well. She needed a buoy to hold onto to stay afloat with me, and as miracles happen and faith moves mountains it did happen.
The General Assembly passed a new law, Virginia Code 53.1-40.01, Conditional Release for Geriatric Prisoners (geriatric parole for old prisoners with health problems considered). Inmates who have reached the age of sixty or older who have served at least ten years or more on the sentence imposed may petition the parole board for conditional release. The code applies to all inmates except for death row. And it overrides no parole. Hallelujah! Louise was right, the law did change and it was the miracle we were praying for.
It was an opportunity for me to go home to my wife and make all our dreams come true. I waited until Saturday to tell Louise the news, face to face. She burst into tears of joy and leaped into my arms. I held her a long time and we shared tears of happiness. She was so ecstatic with the news she glowed all over and I was glowing too. Everything was coming up roses.
I applied for geriatric conditional release when I turned sixty and was denied. I applied again at sixty-one, denied. Sixty-two, denied. This time Louise went all-out and bought a home in a new area so I would get a new start in a new community. She typed up a petition for community support, explaining the details of the crime I committed and the amount of years I had been incarcerated and asked if they had no objection to me living in their community please sign. She had over three hundred signatures!
I met the criteria for geriatric release. I was 63 years old, served 17.5 years, had heart trouble, high blood pressure and I was hearing impaired. I had a loving wife to go home to in a respectful neighborhood. It was a great parole plan and it looked extremely hopeful for November’s 2006 application. This was going to be the year I go home. I could feel it.
This story has the makings for a great ending, but life is not fair. At times you get bittersweet sorrow like a slap in the face. On March 27th, 2006, at age fifty-two Louise had a heart attack and died at home. I was totally crushed and cried for weeks. She never had heart problems in the past. Her death left a void inside me that cannot be filled except with sadness.
I will go home one day I guess but it doesn’t seem as important or exciting as it once did. Louise gave me nine wonderful years of marriage and was a devoted wife and made me happy in so many ways. I will love her forever and keep her close at heart. For Louise as well as myself, I will continue to do positive things with my life because she showed me the path to travel. She changed my life and made me a better man by helping me see the light when I lived in darkness. She gave me incentive to be good when bad was the norm in my world. She gave me faith and hope for the future and allowed me into her heart and her dreams. She gave me so much, one thing is certain. I will not go back to who I used to be before I met her. I’m not that person anymore. That person felt nothing and was dead inside. I don’t understand life. It’s like Louise brought me back from the dead, then she joined them. Perhaps her purpose in life was to save me from mine. A task well done. I will miss you, Louise. Fair well.