The Real Men of Fort Bragg
by Flynn Washburne, November 15, 2017
As everyone knows, the villain in any prison story is the warden. Of course, prison being what it is, a kind of central receiving for villains, it's chock-full of them, but the real bull-goose villain, the one at whom we all boo and hiss, is the warden, especially when the hero is a charming rogue a la Cool Hand Luke or Paul Crew. The warden is the sadistic, vindictive martinet who makes you spend the night in the box, who cheats at football, who deflects inquiries into your innocence, who thwarts your efforts to improve the library. That's his job, as he and the two truncheon-wielding henchmen always flanking him will tell you, to make damn sure that smartasses like you have as bad a time as possible while enjoying his “hospitality.” In extreme cases, he may even make sure you never leave at all, except in a pine box.
Would prisons actually spring for a box, even a plain pine one, though? I'm thinking something more in the way of a large plastic bag. Coffins cost money and are emblematic of the ritualistic death ceremonies to which prisoners and other paupers are not entitled, so they'd probably just be Ziploc'd, burnt, and converted to fertilizer, deserving not even of the 100 or so cubes of real estate necessary to commend a body to earth and soul to God. What the heck? — it's not like they ever had any real shot at the pearly gates, anyhow.
But if television and movies have taught us anything (and for my own part, they comprise the bulk of my education), it's that wardens are evil sons of bitches with pathological needs to punish, control, and especially to destroy the spirit of the aforementioned lovably picaresque scoundrels who dare to flout their authority.
Which makes my situation all the more puzzling, because our warden is a sweet and solicitous lady who is the very soul of concern. She is helpful, approachable, and does her best to listen to and address our concerns and grievances. She always has time to stop and say hello, and like as not will remember some personal tidbit about each inmate she talks to. "How are you, Mr. Ornelas?" she might say. "Have you passed that GED yet?" Or "Mr. Washburne, nice to see you! How's the leg?"
"Not too bad," I'd answer, "nothing a night in the box wouldn't cure." I'm forever trying to encourage her to observe the proprieties and engage in a little gratuitous cruelty, but she's not having it.
"Oh, pshaw," she says. "All you boys need is a little TLC."
TLC? Ha! Torture, Lambasting, and Cruelty, more like. Who ever heard of a warden advocating tender loving care? It's unique in the annals of correction and punishment, unfitting to a proper prison , and generally indicative of the condition of softness prevailing in the world today. I hardly need to cite examples of the pillowy nature of modem life, it being well-known and documented that the average child today receives the kind of care and attention once reserved for hemophiliac princesses, but I will.
Just try taking your little dumpling out for a Sunday drive without strapping it in like an astronaut and surrounding it with air bags — you might get arrested and you'll certainly be publicly reviled and castigated. To compare, until I was about 12 and able to comport myself maturely in enclosed spaces with adults, I and my ilk were tossed into the back of the truck like sacks of feed and expected to provide for our own safety. We rode everywhere in the back of the truck, sometimes as many as seven kids and five dogs. We sat on the wheelwells, stood behind the cab with our fingers in the gap between it and the bed, or just stood “surfing” the bed. Sometimes we even climbed out onto the rear bumper and hung onto the tailgate as we cruised along. When we reached our destination the driver would usually slow down enough that we could hit the ground running and maintain verticality. Usually. We might be expected to get out at the closest convenient stop sign or red light. For inclement weather, there was a tarp in the back. The only thing safely secured was the beer cooler, firmly lashed to the gunwales, and it was the eldest’s job to pass beers up into the cab as needed and toss the dead soldiers into the back, where they'd rattle around until we got bored and threw them at targets outside the truck. Not only was our mortality rate zero, but we learned many valuable real-world practical physical principles back there getting jounced and bounced around, and I think I'm a better man for it.
And how about the National Football League? Every time one of those overpaid prima donnas bumps his precious little noggin there's a team of medical and psychological professionals out there petting and fussing over him like a child who's skinned his knee on the playground, checking for “concussion.” Concussion? That's a fancy word for “bump on the head,” like “contusion” for bruise or “laceration” for cut or “nonresponsive” for plain ol' dead. As my father used to tell me, it's good to get your brains scrambled every once in awhile. It reorients your perspective and eradicates those pesky lingering unpleasant memories.
Time was, the NFL was populated by real men who defined toughness, men who would stop playing under exactly two circumstances: the cessation of consciousness, or life signs. Period. Not broken bones, or internal bleeding , or traumatic persistent amnesia, or anything that couldn't be pharmacologically alleviated for an hour or so. With the drugs they had at their disposal, the trainers of yore could've had a stage 4 leukemia patient out there rushing the quarterback. Not that that's permissible anymore, there being a squadron of enforcers ready to drag off in handcuffs anyone who so much as directs a sidelong glance at the passer.
The NFL has become, like everywhere else, a place where a man can feel safe and protected from such influences as may cause him harm, or stress, or inconvenience. It's a pastel-hued, candy-floss, downy-soft world, no mistake, and if it weren't for the few random pockets of rough-hewn, gravel encrusted, leather-clad sanity like Fort Bragg, California, I may just despair of humanity, or at least the American version of it.
Fort Bragg was compiled of fish and timber, and the gathering of those commodities is no beangleaning, I assure you. It takes a particular type of man to fell timber or wrest sea-chickens from their natural habitat, and there's nothing soft about him. Fish live in a cold, unbreathable environment — like space, only much closer and quite densely populated with creatures inimical to humanity. Being unable to walk on it, fishermen venture out in flimsy vessels at the mercy of waves, weather, and leviathans, depending on wit and luck to extract enough bounty from the sea to eke out a living. With a mortality rate roughly equivalent to Chicago teenagers on a Saturday night, pay ranging from zero to something, depending on the fickle whims of the sea, and incidences of alcoholism firmly at 100%, fishing for a living is not a job for the faint of heart, or sane.
Loggers may have their feet on solid ground, but those trees are big, and heavy, and pretty indiscriminate about who or what they fall on. It takes implements of considerable power and sharpness to render them horizontal, implements which can't tell a redwood trunk from a human one and wouldn't care if they could, their job being to cut through it.
As my old logger friend, the late lamented Duane Potter, told me, the loss of a finger wasn't even enough to merit the afternoon off and the redwood groves around Fort Bragg are liberally salted with metacarpals, it being pointless to even retrieve them. Accidents, he said, were most likely to occur early in the morning, when the men were hungover or still drunk from the night before, or after lunch, having augmented their chow with a little whisky, or near quitting time, when most folks would be getting a head start on the night's drinking.
At the very slightest provocation, Duane would launch into a heartfelt performance of his entire repertoire of logging songs, which was considerable. These songs each had upwards of 50 verses and told tales of enormous men wearing acres of plaid felling heroic trees, and usually ending up under them. I'm not sure who wrote these songs, if they were ever recorded, or how a dotty old souse like Duane was able to remember them, each being about the length of the Ring cycle, but I sat through them all many times, listening with genuine awe to those tales of fingerless stalwarts out there rendering arboreal giants into manageable board-feet.
The fish may be gone, and the trees all cut down, but the spirit of those intrepid watermen and timberfallers lives on in Fort Bragg, in the layabouts and ne'er-do-wells plying her foggy streets and drinking at her seedy bars. The rest of the world may have softened up enough to be gummed and digested by a toothless old vagrant, but living in Fort Bragg requires a little more mettle, and I for one am proud to call it home.