Learning to Swim
Powhatan Correctional Center, D7
State Farm, VA 23160
I am sinking. Just like a stone, I am sinking. Coils from the black icy depths pulling me under. My scream is silent as the light above the surface fades. Something down there pulling me.
I jerk awake, sweating. The dank darkness of San Quentin greets me, rocks me, embracing me in arms of steel. It must be about 4 a.m. I sit up in bed and listen to the peaceful quiet that only descends upon this place in these wee hours. I listen for a moment to a strange light sh-ing sound, till I realize it’s the tide in the bay splashing over the rocks some 200 yards beyond the cell block. I quietly swing out of my bunk, depress the hot water button and spoon a couple of spoons of instant coffee into my cup. Nightmare echoes of drowning wash over me as flashes of my dreams memory flit about in my head, but gradually flee as I come awake. I splash my face, dry off sit and drink my coffee. I usually sleep about four hours before the nightmare takes over, this happens two or three times a week.
I am swimming for San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. I can see Fisherman’s Grotto, Aquatic Park, even Ghiradelli’s, just ¼ of a mile farther. I can see the people. They are looking beyond me. I keep swimming, but I’m getting tired—my arms are getting heavy. And then I’m only treading water. It’s all I can do to stay afloat—getting cold, beginning to feel numb. I frantically look to see if I’m still paddling with my hands—to visually confirm, when I notice I am looking down at me—watching myself fight the water as I sink into the unforgiving depths of the bay. I disconnectedly watch as tendrils of darkness seize my struggling self from below. I wake. I always, upon reflection, have the notion I’ve missed something.
I was 15 months old when I first learned to swim. My Grandmother Arlene turned loose when we returned from the market. While setting the bags of groceries on the kitchen counter she sees through the window I am in the pool swimming, or “bobbing,” I believe is the word she used. She dashes through the family room, and the open sliding glass door (the portal by which I made my escape). Jumping in she lifts me out. She says when she was getting out of the pool, she struck her head on the diving board, “almost drowned myself,” she laughs. The swimming instructor the next day pronounced I already knew how to swim, that I was a “natural” largely because I was so young I’d not yet learned to fear the water. Because he had been paid for the day, Arlene gathered all the neighborhood kids, and he taught them to swim. Something moving around beneath the surface of these memories.
I get out a pencil and paper, a piece of cardboard to write on, and throw the words in the air, to see how they land.
I have seen a Frank and terrible thing
of a nightmarish dream worlds away
I watched as I sank far beneath the bay
But awoke mid cream in coldness writhing
In currents under knowing self loathing
To choke mid scheme of a modern decay
To torrents frothing a vision filled gray
It seems grieves something that leaves free nothing
More than a thing, I am; therefore I think
I gather, command, I’m more than I eat
Walking on a string, balanced on the brink
One in a thousand, but a shaft of wheat
A daily awakening, a breath, a blink
A building, a breaking, a heart’s lonely beat
I heard waking noises throughout the cell block (250 two-man cells) disjointed conversations. Morning persons speaking cell to cell. An announcement over the P/A system: “15 San Quentin minutes to chow, get up get ready, 15 minutes to chow.” The creature stirs, looks through the bars at its captor, black obsidian eyes portray cool regard.
“Busy” was the kid who lived up the street. Busy liked to play dirty tricks—many of which he had learned from his older brothers. Busy being 12 and I, six. He once loosened the nuts on my front wheel and while we were barreling along on our bikes, yelled “Pop a wheelie, Frank, pop a wheelie!” On more than one occasion I awoke in bed wondering what happened. One day when Busy’s mom was supposed to be watching us, we sneaked down the street to my house (my grandparents, elsewhere), climbed up on the roof to jump into the pool (Busy’s idea). As I was climbing out of the pool; Busy yells, “Frank, throw in the inner tube, I wanna dive through it!” I throw it in to the middle of the pool (about four and a half feet deep). “It’s too shallow there,” said Busy, “I’ll hit bottom.” I ran and jumped from the roof diving into the three feet and flipping over so my butt only tapped bottom. I was moving over to push the tube into deeper water, when Busy dove through it. He was right it was too shallow, and he did indeed hit bottom. As he floated I rolled him over face up and carry/floated him to the steps. He was bleeding. I kep saying: “Busy, wake up, wake up!” Finally he sat up and crawled from the pool. He wouldn’t answer but was talking not making any sense. I went into the house, the operator asked the address, I said, “Colonial Court.” She said, “What’s the number honey?” “Hold on, I’ll go look.”
The bar is pulled the doors are racked and just like the gates that pop open at the horse track; we 50 prisoners suddenly spring from the 25 cells opened. It’s breakfast time here at San Quentin. Replete in state-issue garb, denim jackets and pants with chambray shirts, we are one big state blue zig zagging serpent, winding out of south block, snaking through the Rotunda, to bunch up in the Chow Hall, as if coiled to strike upon each tray as it appears through the serving slots. All the while we are observed by statuesque like correctional officers whose eyes harbor suspicion.
It is then the noise hits me. 400 plus inmates vibrating with vocal exuberance after being confined in their cells since last night’s dinner. Our Chow Hall is comprised of four sections seperated by concrete walls (about 25 feet tall) which are all richly decorated with murals of various scenes. Dining Hall #3’s walls depict the Barbary Coast—many famous persons. On the opposing wall are all scenes related to our nation’s war effort immediately after Pearl Harbor. These tall concrete walls serve (acoustically) to contain and reverberate our voices producing an oppressive turbulent roar which weighs heavily and can be felt. Upon entering the serving area one is encapsulated by this rushing, roaring-type sound. It is a very odd sensation when you can’t see the hundreds of people in the next room, whose sound spills over the top of the dividing wall(s). I grab my coffee (a brutal brew said by many to save the state money on several counts) and tray and head for the tables.
It’s Thursday morning and for those of you not in “the know” that means biscuits and gravy here at the “Q”. With quiet courage and my tray, I approach the tables where I am directed by the mechanical arm of the law where to sit. We are seated in mechanical fashion one by one to concentric wood-topped tables, arrayed like an orchard of trees; only these trees are held fast by steel trunks sprouting from a field of red terracotta tile. I drift into the seating sequence, fill my specific space, and sink into my seat fighting for inner purchase beneath the air displacing noise. I tuck in.
Upon closing negotiations with my fare, I raise my head and cast about to see what can be seen. Nothing new here. Just we blues fixed in stasis like blue numbered blips in an arcade game, awaiting the command that will return us to our cells. I look to the officer who filed us in, for some visual clue as to when we will leave. I can discern nothing, his face portrays nothing, he’s even wearing sunglasses so we can’t tell where he’s watching. We wait.
Then something extraordinary happens. But first I must try to describe a bit of Dining Hall #4’s mural scene. Imagine if you will sienna oil: mountains, bridges, dams, mining, assembly lines, trucking, trains, panoramic fields of agriculture, loggers logging (one with hand to mouth calling: “Timber!”), slaughtered pigs dressed out, hanging from the Bay Bridge. And over in the corner where I’m sitting, is a big earth (that is, soil) colored hand holding/suspending by strings a basket full of vegetables. Further up the wall is another hand gripping a tree trunk’s root, upon which a man wearing an eye patch is carving a massive bear (3 Railroad lines of cars are traveling through this hollowed trunk). All of this taking place in the foreground of the capital amid far-ranging lawns, with sheep peacefully grazing.
So there I am disembodied, struggling for consciousness within this auditory flood, when the giant hand (I mentioned) reaches over and taps me. I look up. I discover this hand is attached to an arm. I observe: forearm, biceps, shoulder, a right arm. Rather subtle, I think—at least to the untrained eye, such as mine. By reason of reference I then understand, part of what I thought was the shore or waterline is in fact a left arm. I take note with a shiver, the spouting oil derrick positioned on the inside of the arm opposite the elbow (the heroin addict’s sweet spot), and also the poppies displayed above (a special message to me?), giving voice to the bloody exchange of my struggles and failures to be free of drug addiction. I see the head next, secretly enframed in a gateway looking out to sea (into which seven ships are rushing), and this I find disturbing, for we the prisoners are placed behind the eyes of this sprawling being, who beholds the night. In this grip, held oh so fast, I wondered with a morbid fascination to envision the rest of his unseen body, stretched out (sinking?) beneath the water. Or was he clawing his way out? Perhaps to tell me something? To explain…to me?
I am at a loss to realize, to comprehend all that is entailed in my now beginning a 26 year sentence; it’s as if I’m in shock. Just last year I went on a cruise. I was on vacation. Kate and I. I had been clean of drugs for almost two years. Had a good job. In the union. And sitting on our room’s balcony, looking out over the sea. I wondered: what does it all mean? Is this a moment, in which the sum of my efforts are realized?
Seizure Today (A Rondel)
The moments unwind, the clocks sound
Each day advancing, another day rent
Futures divined, precious light spent
Features entrancing, delusions crowned
Weighed, designed, sold pound for pound
Treasures romancing, works denouement
The moments unwind, the clocks sound
Each day advancing, another day rent
Pay the bill, purchase the ground
Lease the youth, dream retirement
Know the drill, obey the government
Appease the truth, that’s come and went
The moments unwind, the clocks sound
Somewhere out on the Caribbean, on the balcony of Carnival Destiny, I watched the fluorescent orange sun sink beneath the horizon. I wondered at the vastness of the sea I travelled, but feared to ponder its depths.
I am jolted from these thoughts by the officer signaling us with his flashlight that we, the next row, are to now depart. We spring into flight from our tables, sweeping from the Chow Hall, swirling through the Rotunda, where I gently alight in my cell. I have taken something with me, something not issued, yet secreted to me from a most ironic place. A wall.
I have previously always viewed the murals adorning our Dining Room walls with grave suspicion and distrust. I questioned the artist’s agenda, for his work depicted scenes so very contrary to the setting here and the people in their themes displayed a unity that felt alien to me. I could only wonder at the unifying force, that rallied these people after that terrible infamous day at Pearl Harbor (one wall’s themes). I have always found myself feeling hopelessly estranged to the greatness of that generation. I wonder if things would have turned out different if I’d been born 40 years earlier (than my 1964) and 17 when when the Japanese bombers sneaked across the ocean to attack and destroy, bombing Pearl Harbor. Would I have been filled with anger, at such an impressionable time in my life? Would I have been galvanized with the people of my country through the justness of our cause? Would I have enlisted to be transported across seas to fight in strange lands? Surely the first sound of enemy gunfire would have stirred in me the fires of my fathers, and the memories of war in my blood would have leapt forward, enamored of duty, in the uniform of honor. But no, I am only here, and I’ve been sleeping, though the creature time, has not. I am older now. The days of my youth? Squandered. After 18 intermittent years of history with these walls, I must now view them late in the day, in the chill winter wind blowing through this place. These walls, they haunt me. Is there no one for me? Have I no people? The waves crash. The walls murmur. I have failed to change, though this world has changed and moved on. The sun shining days of yesterday, of my innocence in youth, simply are no more. The surf pounds. The walls whisper. Dare I trace out the spectral shape of that long fabled question? Dare I, low criminal I am, entertain the high minded thinking of Prince Hamlet? Of Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock? Their question dogs my every step. And—where to go from here? Have I provision? Why? For what? And ultimately…for who? The sea swamps. I am silently alone. I hear distantly, something calling me. Summoning me, out beyond the breakers, to the deep water. Am I going crazy? I am hearing pronounced what I most fear. I begin to feel a floating sensation as if I am drifting on water. With strange eyes I look upon my body; but I feel nothing. I am numb, and have somehow separated. Is my spirit leaving my body? In the inner sanctum of my council, the professor speaks: “Hold it right there! That’s quite far enough! We’re just gonna have to take a careful look at things and figure out a way out, right? There’s always a way. We believe everything has meaning. We know,” the professor continues, but then another voice intervenes: “The child is father of the man,” comes the whisper and, “the mind that has made itself, cannot repair itself,” and ever so faintly, “death is necessary.” Then the pirate: “The mood of the sea is treacherous, and so are we, if we can’t ride this storm out, we must take the enemy with us. We must use the energy of the storm to our advantage, to make things right, to win, to attack!” Again comes the soft sure melodious voice: “We know what this must mean.” “We do?” Parrot the professor and pirate. “To gain what?” asks the professor. “Yes, to gain what?” I hear myself say. Again the whisper: “To gain victory.” “It is a play,” says the pirate grinning, removing his dragoon from the front of his waistband to behind. “We attack by surprise!” “No,” moderates the voice. “We die for the greater truth…to live.” I suddenly see the truth in it. The beautiful, majestic necessary truth. The end to my suffering, the death to so much wrongfulness. It is both poetic and powerful. I am both frightened and justified in it. I must obey.
I look for the origin of the voice, and I see his form, he is between the wings, and the lines, the words, the rhymes, in the fires of my faith, my need and belief. He is not standing; no, but moving in the fluidity of my consciousness—swimming, never quite attaching. Of light and dark. The other behind me now, I face this, this spirit? “Will we survive?” I ask tremulously. It is his turn to smile. “You do not understand,” he said, as he swirled about me, “but yes, we will survive.”
The walls gently telling me, here is a place for you. A place hidden in the corridors upon the seas of art; you can take your stand and fight the enemy. For out beyond the breakers is peace of another kind. Baptism.
I have since sought solace among my people, in the midst of our captive culture, but also beyond the breakers taking note of the currents in an effort to find my voice upon seas of meaning and purpose. I can no longer afford to view life through the haste of impatience. Despite the ready made view that presents itself, I must create the circumstance in which I’m to live—to thrive. I must somehow grasp that time honored baton passed through the previous works of others, seeking redemption, and breathe life into their message.
I have committed the words to paper. I am exposed within them. They touch intimately all my parts. I, through grace and need, give and take, finesse myself above them, because I am: learning to swim.