Walls (an excerpt)
On the other side of the world, thirty years after Billy died in Vietnam, Brophy lay face down the grass of another valley as bullets hit the ground nearby. Looking up beyond twenty foot walls, he could see the lush, green hills above Salinas Valley. The shots, coming from six gun towers surrounding a prison yard, were meant to stop almost one hundred rioting inmates.
Two black gangs were fighting between the bullets, probably about dope. A few would be shot. Lying on the ground near Brophy was Dawud, a black man, but no prison gang banger.
Despite Brophy’s non-blackness, Dawud was a friend. (Their alliance was unusual for California prison, where racial division is used as an official management tool.) Dawud was another Vietnam veteran (combat rifleman, two tours). They’d been playing chess just before the riot began. Brophy pointed with his chin at the pretty hills and sky above the concertina wire topping the stone walls.
“Nice day, eh, Dawud?”
“Oh, damn fine day, Brophy,” Dawud said. “”Cept for the bullets and tear gas. These dumb ass youngsters scuffling and stabbing each other’ve messed up our game. We”ll probably all be on one long ass lockdown now too. This ain’t acceptable behavior Broph”, ya ask me.”
“C’mon, Dawud they saved your butt. You were only maybe three moves away from checkmate.”
“Yeah, I believe that as much as I believe your half Latino hide had any game at all on this board. I had a bishop waiting deep in-country with your queen”s name in his pocket, next move. But you good at one thing, Brophy, that’s helping me win by losing.”
Brophy called out, “Sir, I do my best, sir.”
Dawud replied, “Carry on, soldier.”
A white guy sat coolly between them in a wheelchair. When the alarm sounded all convicts had to “prone-out” on their bellies except for the wheelchair bound. Sean Huzar (long range reconnaissance patrolman, Vietnam 1969-71) saddled with a progressive, incurable, degenerative neurological disease, service related, carefully studied the yard.
“They stopped firing,” Sean said softly. “For now. Whole yard”s down. Punks got scared after a few got shot, they’ve all hit the dirt. Guards” goon squad will come out soon, start whacking ’em a little. It’ll work maybe a week, a month, max. Then somebody will start another bloody ruckus. About dope, gambling or just because. But, yeah, Broph”, indeed it is a real pretty day.”
Sean looked at the sky, smiled, then reached down and gently knuckled Brophy’s noggin, then Dawud”s, in a gesture mocking and affectionate. “Dawud’s bishop had your queen in his gun sight, Brophy. Mate in five or six moves, I figure.” Sean drenched three rags in coffee from a cup on his lap and gave one each to the others. Then he handed Dawud a plastic pill container with Vaseline inside. Dawud smeared some around his nose and eyes and gave it to Brophy. Two tear gas canisters had gone off already, but the wind blew most of it away from where they were. The wet rags could filter some of the poisoned air and the grease slowed the absorption through the skin.
Dawud said, “Tower guards are lousy shots. Surrounding a yard no bigger’n a football field it should be a turkey shoot. Stray bullets landing real near us even though the damn battle is over on the other side of the yard. Now, the North Vietnamese regulars, they were motivated bastards, they could clean a yard like this right up. After that us old dogs could play chess in peace.”
Sean said, “Bigger ordinance though. AK’s, M-60’s, mortars. The cops here got well paid gigs, hate us, don’t mind body bagging some of us, but don’t get to often enough to get real good at it. Too much paperwork shooting prisoners these days.”
They were silent, then Brophy said, ‘You could land a helicopter on this yard.”
Dawud asked, “One of those Bell crop dusters we keep seeing fly over? Hell, even these guys could blast a crapper like that apart, this close. You’d need a ‘Nam-era Huey. Those bastards could take direct hits, still land and takeoff again. It could fit in here too, right size.”
“My brother-in-law flew helo’s in ‘Nam,” said Dawud. “But, he wouldn’t do it. He’s pretty much law and order these days.”
“He know you’re a California 3-Strike-Lifer?”
“Yeah. He says I got screwed alright, 30 years to life for a $10.00 coke possession. My prior strikes are serious—burglaries—but not violent. No violence at all on my record, ‘cept for what I did for my country. My brother-in-law sends me money on my birthday, but he sure ain’t flying in on no damn chopper to get my ass out of here. You know somebody, Sean?”
“Risk their ass to get mine free? Nope. Eight years down, nobody’s left in the real world for me.” Sean turned to Dawud. “So when Brophy gets a Huey in here to get us out, will you roll me over there in this damn chair, taking heavy fire from the towers?”
Dawud looked up at Sean, “Seriously? I’d throw you over my shoulder and carry you to it, okay? I swear to that.” He saluted and extended his hand.
Sean took the hand, held it and the gaze for five seconds, released Dawud’s hand, saluted and smiled. “It’s settled then. Brophy bring the bird, ASAP.”
With a sigh Brophy said, “Will do. Just gotta right a snafu or two. Like what, who, how, when. The why we know at least. This joint is a bad end for all of us. We’ve got amends to make.”
The thumping of heavy boots on asphalt marching in sloppy unison came from a gate at the far end of the yard as the “special” squad came in double-time, in formation three across, six dozen or so. They wore SWAT drag: thick bullet proof vests, combat boots with jumpsuit cuffs bloused into them airborne style, huge helmets with visors, gas masks, long pummeling batons to beat the crap out of so-called “combatants.”
Brophy remembered when a lot of guards were Vietnam vets. Now few of them had been in the military. Some guards were okay, some not. A few did a tough job with their humanity fully intact. A few were sadistic monsters. Yet Brophy couldn’t see harming them. He’d left most of the violence in him back in Indochina, and the rest had been lost watching senseless blood shed on prison yards.
Mercy, pity, compassion, though considered handicaps by most guards and prisoners, were the most precious human attributes precisely because in war, or prison or any other man-made hell they were the hardest to sustain.
If the miraculous Huey ever came it would first have to drop fog grenades to obfuscate the towers’ lines of fire, confuse the gunmen’s sight. Maybe shoot concussion and foam grenades to scare ’em a little.
Yells tore the air as the gang bangers lying on the ground suddenly rose and began fighting the goon squad. As more tear gas exploded, the three veterans wrapped the wet rags around their mouths and noses; they bowed their heads as if in prayer when smoky toxic clouds neared. The last thing they saw was the guards’ retreat as the gun towers began to fire into the yard again. Brophy felt pain.
Brophy closed his eyes as they burned from the gas now drifting their way. Coincidentally, he heard a chopper sound overhead, probably a crop duster, but maybe a news copter lingering for a few good visuals after coming from a “real” story about a traffic accident. Truth is no one outside cared much what the hell cons or guards did to each other. Crime was down and it seemed the harsh new laws were effective, invisible, unless you flew over in a news helicopter.
Brophy imagined it was a battered old battle Huey coming into the hot zone on an extraction mission just for the three of them, the only true Vietnam veterans left on this particular yard. Dawud and he would grab Sean and run for the chopper. Billy Matisse would be at the controls laughing his butt off like some monkey-saint having fun while throwing bananas at mere humans, with a gentle, joyful mug radiating love and mischief. Billy would have surely long ago forgiven Brophy, the way Jesus had taught us to do when he forgave Peter for having abandoned him in Gethsemane.
Billy’s flying skills would be ridiculously raw and shaky, of course. Even so, they’d all manage to get aboard and take off under fire, flying fast far over the huge slammer walls, through the lush valleys, across borders, free again, stopping only to eat their fill of fragrant shrimp on sunny outdoor café patios, and joking, laughing, flirting, dancing, with magnificent, smart, sassy, beautiful Asian, Latin, African, Scandinavian women, everybody drinking bottles of that great nutty-sweet Chinese “Eternal Happiness” beer. Then they’d continue their redemptive journey, finding the desperate, the helpless, the ill, the strung out ones and worse, those in dire need of assistance, of protection, of rescue, they’d become selfless, vital, good. So maybe some angels would see to it that Brophy Magdalane’s name would magically appear on those black marble walls where Billy’s name was carved, and Brophy would be there for anyone who’d ever need him and he’d never let them down again forever.