A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 15

by Jake Rohrer, August 11, 2011

Again to immeasurable delight, baseball was a serious undertaking at Camp Fed. Slow-pitch softball rather than the purist form of hardball, but there was an adequate field with a backstop, a moderate bleacher section and lots of high spirited competition between the teams. And leave us not forget: we're supposed to be in prison here. Having an organized baseball league made it seem more like high school, or maybe similar to the military which I always figured was a form of penology anyway. During the three years I was at Camp Fed, the league constantly refined itself and we ended up with a commissioner, rules committee, player statistics keeping and season's-end trophies for batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and of course the championship team. Statistics were posted weekly for the top players in each category. Robbin and I were usually up there in the top ten. In addition to the intra-mural league, there was also a camp team made up of the best players. There was a supervisor-coach in charge, one of the dairy supervisors, a nice man who knew the game. We even had uniforms. We didn't get to travel, though; all of our games were at home against teams mostly from nearby Vandenberg. In my final season I captured the “Top RBI” trophy, engraved with my name and “FPC Lompoc Intra-mural League.”

Baseball games were a fertile ground for heckling, teasing, challenging and generally insulting the other players, either on the field or from the stands. Robbin elevated harassment to an art form. He was probably the league's best pitcher, a position that allowed him plenty of opportunity to rain down his verbal torment on other players. “Let that be a lesson, chump!” might be directed at someone who just hit into a double play. “Take that, you cheese-eating lop!” might follow a strike-out. A “cheese-eater” was camp slang for an informant, a natural morph from “rat.” A “lop,” if you don't know, is a cross between a nerd and a dork, with an underlying foundation of wimp. Lance would often chime in from first base, aiming at the batter, “…this lop probably eats five blocks of cheese every hour.” Other times, following a weak or lucky base hit, “…hey, you dropped your purse!” amongst other challenges of one's masculinity. And of course there was always the threat to “bitch-slap” someone. As insulting as it might seem, it was mostly harmless fun in the macho sense of the environment; there weren't any females around to be insulted by the overt masculinity. At bat I was heckled from the stands for my age, “…that guy's older than Pop-eye!” I never knew whether the heckler was referring to the cartoon Popeye or another middle-aged inmate who was so called. “…fuck you, Jack. Watch your mouth or I'll open a can of spinach.” If someone was found out to be an informant, they would likely be hounded off a team as well as suffering social deprivation in general. A homosexual might suffer similar mean-spirited harassment, camp society sub-par when it came to human dignity. For the most part, known informants and homosexuals didn't take part in the ball league.

I started as a utility player, filling in wherever needed, and later replaced Lance at first base after he was released. We were the “Lodestars,” a team made up of friends and close acquaintances, all of us one-time drug merchants and smugglers. Named for a notorious pot-smuggling airplane, we weren't the best team in the league, but we probably had the most fun. One friend was a gifted graphic artist and he made us a banner from a bed-sheet, showing bales of marijuana falling from a Lodestar in flight, one of the bales crushing a cartoon rat on the ground, his block of cheese nearby. The team slogan was “Go up in 'em — Deep!”

My rookie season came to a close with a playoff game against the Master Batters, a team made up of mostly black inmates. We were short two of our best players on the DL and they beat us by six runs. “At least they don't have any cheese-eaters on their team,” said Artie. That set up a consolation game with the Barons. After three innings of play they had a four run lead on us and betting in the stands favored the Barons. The Baron first baseman had been the subject of camp rumors concerning possible homosexual behavior, and when he came to bat Lance was merciless:

“Here comes the switch-hitter, boys. Look how he holds the bat — he thinks it's a dick!” He never did get a hit.

A Japanese player from the Barons was angry at our shortstop, claiming he blocked the base path:

“Fuck you, Tojo. Didn't you get boned-down enough at Hiroshima? Want some more?”

Both benches emptied momentarily, but order was restored. Then we had a seven-run inning and went on to win, 15 to 10. Our win over the Barons set up yet another play-off game with the Master Batters. You'd think that we'd had enough, but we returned for one more spanking. The only memorable event was a home run by Robbin who rounded the bases then, coming home, leaped into the air and did a one-eighty while pulling his pants down to land on home plate, presenting a smile to the Master Batter cheering section.

When the new season arrived, we became the Cowboys, the team made up of cattle crew members and a few ringers like myself. The old Lodestars were disbanded after several key players went home. I moved over to third base, thinking a left-handed third baseman a novel idea. In one game I missed a searing one-hopper that came off the turf faster than I could follow, slamming me a crushing blow square to the Adam's apple and cutting off my wind pipe for a few scary moments. This was the hard way to learn why they call this position the “hotbox.” It was three days before I could talk again.

We're in our fifth game of the season against last season's champions, the Master Batters. After four innings of play we were behind 6 to 12 and things were looking bleak for the Cowboys. Though a good ball team, the Master Batters were a mouthy bunch, always eager to laud their prowess at the expense of their opponents. The game was peppered with sporadic outbursts. Robbin was never of a mind to let anyone climb a rung higher from where he stood on the insult ladder, and he threw it back at them at every opportunity. One of our guys smacked a double by the outstretched glove of the their shortstop and Robbin's immediately on his feet:

“…you dropped your purse on that one, you lop. Pick up your skirts next time! Let that be a lesson to you chumps!”

The shortstop glared at Robbin, shouting back, “…the scoreboard shows who the chumps are!”

“Yeah? Well here's your scoreboard, whiner-baby!” said Robbin, presenting his middle finger.

But they held us to just two runs in the inning, making some awesome shoestring catches in the outfield and scoring three more runs their next time at bat. Then we cut loose in the bottom of the sixth, scoring nine runs. Our hitting was terrific, the stands along with our bench erupting in cheers and applause. We were up 17 to 15 with one inning left to play and betting in the stands reached a fever-pitch. With no outs and runners on first and third, a Master Batter hit a towering fly ball over the head of our right fielder, but our center fielder, the “Marquis,” playing the left handed batter to go to right, made a spectacular running back-up catch, and threw to first to double off the runner. But “Big Mike” at first base was out of position to receive the throw and all looked lost until Robbin came from his backup position to make the catch and double off the runner by half a step. The runner on third tagged up and scored, making the score 16 to 17. The next batter walked and the following batter grounded to our shortstop who went to second for the force, but it was a virtual tie and the runner was ruled safe. Our second baseman, Milton, heard someone in the stands call “out!” and he started to jump around and celebrate victory, ignoring our shouts as the runner went to third. Great suffering piles, guys, let's not blow this one! The next batter grounded to me at third and I cut him down like a weed before the scythe. Victory over the Master Batters! How sweet the sound!

* * *

Lance has been released and is replaced in our room by Bernie, who describes himself as a “California” jew. High strung, bright, and a smooth operator, Bernie is the camp “Yossarian,” an ace businessman, smuggler and wheeler dealer whose nickname is “Be Havin' Things.” Having things is Bernie's specialty. Just 24 years old, I have no problem imaging him with six-figure bank accounts and a stable of fancy cars. His vice was not alcohol or drugs, rather, Bernie expended great amounts of energy and money acquiring food. Good food. And he didn't mind sharing it with his room-mates. He also had a knack for smuggling comforts, too, getting us all fitted bed sheets, custom floor wax for inspections, vitamins, even a can of natural ingredients labeled, “colon cleanser.” But mostly Bernie is interested in acquiring good, healthy food and comes up with things like fresh ground coffees and macadamia nuts, as well as a stream of fresh fruits and vegetables and cases of tuna fish. He has thieves on his payroll in the kitchen and he works on the Vandenburg Crew, a gang of inmates similar to the Cattle Crew who travel daily to the Air Force base to work on maintenance and landscape. There are some advantages to this, like stores and restaurants, but perhaps the biggest was Bernie's boss, an Air Force sergeant who is gay and has taken a shine to Bernie. He was not at all interested in policing what Bernie did.

“Maybe I'll let him give me some head,” says Bernie. “That'd get us a case of wine for sure.” I was all for it, but Artie had some objections.

“Just a goddam minute!” interrupted Artie. “You pitch, you catch…that's the way I see it and I ain't livin' with no goddam faggot!” Artie is one of those obviously threatened by a sexual orientation other than his own.

“Okay, Artie,” says Robbin. “You're outta the car. I'll take your wine issue.” “Out of the car” means that you don't get to participate in whatever it is the car delivers. In this case we were talking about a wine car.

“Relax, Art,” I said. “Bernie's only suggesting that he indulge the whims of his supervisor for everyone's benefit. For Queen and country, you know?”

“Yeah,” says Artie, relenting, “I guess so. As long as he doesn't bone him down.”

“Don't worry, Artie,” says Bernie. “He's not all that good looking.”

* * *

With razor blades Art and Bernie dice carrots, celery, bell pepper, lettuce, cucumber, avocado and summer squash on the cutting board. Bernie's kitchen thief comes through with an onion, hard boiled eggs and a bottle of vinegar. Robbin has brought in a one-pound can of tuna from some hidden stash. Mayonnaise, spices, and Italian dressing magically appear from Bernie's down-the-hall clavo. Dennis walks in and hands us four filets appropriated from the slaughter-house, already cooked. We warm them up on the underside of a clothes iron that serves as our stove. The only thing missing is the wine, but Bernie's still working on that.

It's food-car night once again in B-3, room 8. They're serving “liver fiesta” down at the chow hall and food cars are happening all over the camp. Early on I ignored the warnings and braved the dinning hall, set on trying a little “liver fiesta.” When I found the hall two-thirds empty it should have reinforced the warnings, but I am a brave soul when it comes to food. I got my plate and took a seat at a table with a dozen or so others. A fellow just down the table from me screws up his face into a bitter grimace, “…Jesus!” he says. “What makes this stuff taste so awful? It has the flavor of rusty iron that's been rubbed in dirt!” I take a small bite and find myself in agreement with this assessment. Then the fellow across from me who works in the slaughter-house runs it down for us:

“Way-ell, ya see, it's like this. When the steers get kilt, they open 'em up and hang 'em on a conveyor, ya know, an' the piss-bag hangs right over the liver, ya see, an' these guys at the slaughter-house don't give a shit 'bout doing anythin' right, an' most of 'em puncture the piss bag with their dressin' knives, an' the piss runs down all over the liver an' makes it taste like that.”

Okay. I'm a vegetarian. At least on Thursdays.

Back in our room, we finish off the meal with some figs and pears from Bernie's dried-fruit stash. It feels like we should have Cognac, but some fresh-brewed mocha-java will have to do. Artie, shirtless, lies back on his bunk for an after-dinner cigarette that explodes in a shower of sparks when lighted and ignites the abundant hair on his chest, whoosh!

“Goddammit, Robbin, you trick-bag sonofabitch!” cries Art, beating out the sparks on his chest. “When are you gonna run out of those goddam things?” The room smells like burnt hair.

“That was the last one, Artie. Honest,” says Robbin, a saint in disguise with a devilish grin.

Art laughs along with everyone else. Our bellies are full and the mood is jubilant. We clean up the dinner mess and head down to the GAC to take in a night of the summer Olympics. Tent Man is there, two rows in front of us, stuffing popcorn, candy and soft drinks into his over-burdened, 500-pound sack of a body. He is known to have a sharp temper and is said to be here for assaulting a woman on a federal reservation for giving him a hard time about his bulk. Robbin can't help himself and bounces a jellybean off Tent Man's shoulder. Tent Man turns around and confronts Devo, sort of a new wave weight lifter. The sign on his locker says, “My name is Devo — Fuck you.”

“What're you lookin' at,” says Devo.

“Somone's throwing candy at me — do you mind?”

“The only part I mind is that you picked it up and ate it!” scowled Devo, and it looked for a moment that things might overheat, but attentions were finally tuned back to the Olympics.

I suggest to Robbin that we not torment Tent Man anymore, and he agrees. It must be torment enough for a man that size just getting out of bed. Artie finds himself wondering how Tent Man goes to the toilet.

“Hush-up, Art. Watch the wrestling.”

“How would you like to wrestle Tent Man?” says Artie.

“Be quiet, Artie. Gymnastics are coming up.”

“Can you picture Tent Man doing a floor exercise or working out on the pommel horse?”

“C'mon Art. Give us a break.”

“Wonder how he'd do in the pole vault…”

“One more word, Artie, and we throw you at him.”

“Okay. I'll be quiet…think he could anchor the relay team?”

“Grrrrr…”

On the way back to the room for the 8:00 PM count, we pause briefly in the hallway while Artie chats with Palmquist, the on-duty hack. Palmquist can't take his eyes off the message on Robbin's T-shirt. It reads: “What are YOU looking at DICKNOSE?” He loses track of the conversation with Artie and walks off to resume his duties, shaking his head. Twenty-five minutes before the 10:00 PM count we open a bear and have a nightcap before hitting our bunks for the evening.

* * *

A few days later, I answered the count bell and was a little late because I had to come from the GAC. There was Artie, standing stark naked in front of our door, drenched from his shower and locked out of the room:

“C'mon, Robbin. Lemme in…”

“No way, Art. This is your payback.”

“But I didn't lock you out of the room!”

“Paybacks always bite harder, Art. You know that.”

“C'mon, Rob…I'll never take your towel again. I promise.”

“Suffer, chump!” Robbin cups his hands at his mouth and yells through the door, “Hey everybody — look at Artie!” Indeed, he was hard to miss.

Artie gives me a look of suffering indignation, oblivious to his nakedness and the passing crowds of inmates returning to their places for the count. Robbin finally slides the key under the door and I let us in, another trick-bag answered with a payback.

Art and Bernie have been fasting for two days, drinking only water, herbal teas and chicken broth. One of Bernie's connections brings him pure spring water, the only water he'll drink here. Just before bed they cap their fast with some of Bernie's colon cleanser. Bernie assures Artie that this is the way to ultimate health and a sparkling clean bowel. Several times during the night Artie bursts from beneath his covers and rushes to the bathroom.

“Is your colon keeping your up, Art?”

“'Fraid so, bud.”

“It's turned renegade on you, huh?”

“Jeepers, I guess so.”

“You weren't hiding another twenty dollar bill up there, were you?”

“No, not this time.” Artie once suffered the embarrassment and financial loss of forgetting about a twenty he had sequestered in that popular place of concealment, and then relieving himself. His twenty sleeps with the fishes.

Artie is getting ready to go home, his time almost done. He's in the process of “cleaning up” in anticipation of being back on the streets. Terms like “jeepers,” “golly” and “gees” are replacing the four-letter expletives in his usual vocabulary. “Bitch” and “Holmes” get tossed as well.

“That's a bad jacket to take to the streets,” says Artie, “…might as well wear a sign that says 'convict'.”

He's also been on a rigid diet, lifting weights and sunbathing, getting his body ready for women and the beach. Bronzed, trim and taught, “buffed out” as they say here, he looks great. Artie will leave a void when he leaves, but that's prison for you. Robbin, especially, will miss him. A road-dog of Artie's caliber is hard to replace. Initially, one wishes his friends could stay, but you soon realize how flawed that thought is. The idea is to get the hell out as soon as possible so you can join them out there.

* * *

I imagine there are many Fridays throughout history christened as “black.” “Black Friday” for the cattle-crew unfolded one day when it was decided that opportunity for a party was upon them. The whole crew was toasted when they arrived back at the camp that day, the aftermath of a drunken bacchanalia out on the range. The cops were waiting for them. They had just gotten some new cop equipment, state-of-the-art breathalyzing devices that would detect the use of alcohol. It was so new, in fact, that most of them weren't yet certain how to operate it. This was to be their initial training session. The whole crew was marched into cop headquarters and told to take a seat. One by one, they were searched and then instructed to blow into a straw that inflated a small balloon; the balloon when prompted by a chemical would change color to indicate various levels of alcohol consumption. Just how they could fuck up so simple a test was unclear to most, but half the crew escaped unscathed, the other half not so lucky.

If I am a fortunate son, as my premise suggests, then so is my brother, born of the same parentage and circumstance. Robbin is my junior by exactly a year and a half. Much could be made of the fact that we are both left-handed, something that I always considered a gift even though a right-handed world, was especially useful when it came to boogie woogie piano. Robbin doesn't share my musical inclination; instead he has an instinct for making money, always has, still does. Robbin's good fortune on this Black Friday was to pull a ham-handed hack to administer his sobriety test. I was on my bunk reading a book when he burst into the room.

“Holy Jesus and the shit-house mouse, boys, we were ambushed! Here, Jake, hide these,” and he tossed me two bears from his coat pocket. “The hacks were waiting for us to come in, and we were all shit-faced. I don't know if Boomer made it or not.” Robbin is out of breath and running on adrenalin.

“Half of the cops didn't know how to work their new breathalyzers…I can't believe that I got a pass! They even pulled the bears out of my pocket, put them on the desk, then gave them back to me! Big Mike, Augie and Milton all got busted.” The fear now was that the cops would discover some of their tests were ill-administered and might call some back to be re-tested, but that didn't happen. Boomer sauntered into the room and rolled his eyes at the ceiling, unable to believe his luck. Black Friday ended without further mishap, save a hangover or two.

* * *

Robbin has a weekend furlough coming up and we're getting the room ready for inspection. The unit manager, Harrison, would perform the inspection. He is a strange case and a stickler for cleanliness. Beds were made with tight “hospital” corners, sheets turned down, blankets taut enough to bounce a dime on. Robbin is cleaning windows and Jeff mops the floor while Boomer scours the table and I dust the lockers…there's energy flowing here.

“Jesus, Rob,” I remarked, “those windows looked better before you started on them.”

“Think you can do better? Have at them…”

“Sure thing, bro…”

“See?” I said a little later. “All it takes is a little know-how.”

“The know-how, chump, comes from knowing how to recruit a new window-bitch,” says Robbin, able to turn any circumstance to his advantage. “Window-bitch” would be my inspection day designation and specialty until they sent me home.

“Heaven help us,” says Boomer, “if our ol' ladies ever find out about our domestic skills.”

The floor gets a coat of Bernie's custom floor wax, lockers are squared away, even on the inside, and a small bouquet of wild flowers is put on the table for effect. The furlough is a shoo-in.

Prisons don't have a lot to accomplish other than security, so cleanliness becomes an item of supreme importance to the prison hierarchy. Each knew they could expect a rash of shit from visiting superiors if their house wasn't shipshape. It worked that way from the top on down, ending up in the laps of the inmates who had to perform the cleaning tasks and endure the punishment if it wasn't up to snuff. Charlie once opined that if you listened carefully you could hear floor polishers starting up all over the Western States the moment a BOP official from Washington crossed the Mississippi, heading west.

To Harrison a floor polisher was a thing of beauty, a treasure like a vintage Chevy. It took months for them to arrive, but the requisition order for two top-of-the-line maxi-torque, high rpm polishers finally came through and Harrison was beside himself with pride. He gathered his orderlies around and handed out instruction for their care and use, along with a stern warning of what awaited anyone who abused or mistreated the polishers. And all was well for a while. Shinning floors and a pristine environment was the only source of pride available to his position. His was a world and mindset so far removed from those under his dominion, human interaction other than purely superficial seldom took place. He was so transparent, inept and bumbling that he often resembled a cartoon character. But he would hand out mean-spirited punishment with a certain relish for the most minor of infractions, and that made him a target for many. This was the man I worked for but I was more or less exempt from his pettiness.

Heaping torment on Harrison was for some a sport, like getting over on Cagney. Dangerous fun as long as you didn't get caught or push too far. When he was there, Lance excelled at pushing the right buttons on Harrison's psyche, driving him to the edge while staying just out of reach. Of particular anguish to Harrison was the “Phantom of the Turd” who smeared walls of the hallway near his office with human excrement. Others had gummed up the lock on his office door with superglue, but the Phantom packed the lock with shit to await the insertion of Harrison's key which would then go to his pocket with its foul coating. Then came a day when some tactless orderly started up one of the new floor polishers in the third-floor dormitory, a little too early on a Saturday morning when you could sleep in. A tough new arrival with a lot of time under his belt from higher-level institutions thought it a rude awakening and, jerking the polisher from the grasp of the hapless orderly, flung it from the third-floor balcony at the end of the dorm into the parking lot below where it shattered into pieces. Also shattered by the event was Harrison's state of well being. No one would dare rat on the perpetrator, everyone held their mud, and the lack of his identity once again pushed Harrison to the proverbial edge.

* * *

Every bit as new and eye-opening as was Terminal Island, so was Camp Fed. TI was like living in the poorer, working-class section of Fed-town, society there knowing its place, mostly accepting and respectful of one another, all but outcasts doing their time quietly. The camp was the high-rent suburbs, with an elite pecking order and country club-like social hierarchy. Skid-row was represented by the county jails, while high-level penitentiaries had to be the zoos and test laboratories where human beings were caged like animals and subjected to conditions calculated to break the human spirit. Richard Pryor once asked a lifer convicted of multiple murders in Arizona, “…why did you kill everyone in the house?” “Well,” came the response, “they was home…” Richard concluded he was damn glad we have penitentiaries, his point well made.

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