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Remember when you were a kid in school your teacher would threaten you that some minor infraction would go on your permanent record? Those teachers, they loved to bust your balls any chance they got. Well, okay maybe not yours, but mine, yeah. It was with regularity that they would threaten me likely with good reason. What seemed like a gut wrenching, going to get my ass beat by ma experience that seemed like the end of the world back then would mean nothing in the world in which I would end up. But she was right about one thing, that some things do stay on your permanent record.
We often cross, recross and crisscross our old racks during our lifetime, I know I have. It tends to happen more the older you get. I once heard somewhere though I cannot recall where that, young people see things as they hope them to one day be, old people see things as they wished they had been and how they want to remember them, it’s middle aged people that remember things as they really were, and see things as they really are. I’m kind of there now. I’ve seem a lot and learned a lot in this life. If I’ve learned anything it’s that people, anybody, even those you love the most see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe, not as things truly are but only as they want to see something. That tells you what page they’re on, what they’re all about, it tells you who they really are. I’ve never been like other people this I know. I’m not special or unique in any way that I can imagine but I’ve never been like other people. I’m not built like others I never have been. Some life’s greatest lessons I have learned from the most questionable of people. I’m not ashamed of them anymore than I am ashamed of myself. Sure, I wish some things had been different but they weren’t. Without them I likely would not be here today. They lessons they taught me helped me survive. It is what it is.
It was 1984 and we spent a lot of time walking on the yard Gene and I. On the yard was a long winding path to nowhere out in the middle of the Southern Nevada Desert, the Mojave Desert. It ended at a fence and always took us back to where it started, the cell house. Ours was one of eight, not including the honor farm that was just outside the main barb wired fence, all laid out with meticulous maximum security in mind on the compound of Southern Desert Correctional Center just outside Las Vegas. At that time SDCC housed between fifteen hundred to two-thousand with security ranging from medium to maximum, some guys walked the yard with two to five year bits others walked heavier with double life sentences. There were some honorable guys out there, in their line of work that is, probably not the kind of guys the average person had over to the house for dinner but honorable nonetheless. Then there were some real crackpots. Convictions ranged from simple theft and burglary to drug trafficking, bank robbery, professional assassin’s an sexual predators. The latter always seemed to fare the worst.
When I first met Gene he was into the thirty-eighth year of his incarceration. He was in Southern Desert as result of a bank robbery committed during a brief escape from an Illinois prison. When he was paroled from his time in Illinois he was shipped out to Nevada to do their time. I was doing time in Southern Desert as result of a mass interstate compact shipment of forty some odd inmates out of the Illinois prison system to various states. The idea was to break up the power the street gangs had in the Illinois prison system. The powers that wished to be shipped out the powers that controlled or anyone they thought associated with the street gang hierarchy to several states in exchange for their problem inmates. I arrived at Southern Desert with nineteen other inmates.
We did whatever we could to keep ourselves busy and not lose our sanity which aside from the occasional yard riot was the real battle. Physical scars heal, but psychological scars are another story. Save for an occasional game of spades or hearts walking the yard was more or less our daily routine. Gene, who was older, liked to walk to stay in shape, myself, I had always been a walker so we were suited for each other. There wasn’t a whole lot else to do out in the middle of that desert of a dusty shithole town technically referred to as Indian Springs, Nevada, about forty-five miles as a crow flies northwest of Las Vegas. The winter days were in the high sixties and the summer could reach one-hundred-twenty degrees. Not even the crows fly straight out there. I mean it’s the desert and it’s hot as shit on a mild day. We had a lot of free time and only so far to travel as our perimeter was limited to about a half mile around a dusty, rock trail that was a living room for rattlesnakes and scorpions. We walked in circles like a lot of other guys staring out through razor wire-topped fence out into the great expanse of one of the most desolate stretches of hell on earth wondering if we would make it long enough to get back out there again and see the real world. Sidewalks ended at the fence but you never walked that far unless you had a death wish. On occasion, as insane as it was, the thought would occur of walking past the fences or in this case crawling under them. But then the question became; where would you go? Even if you could get past the ‘off limits’ marker and not be cut down by a high powered rifle of some redneck hack guard sitting up in one of several towers just aching to pick someone off, there was nowhere to go. Las Vegas was forty-five miles away in one-hundred plus degree heat. Night time was even less forgiving that day time and you wouldn’t get a mile or two before being tracked by prison dogs and homicidal hacks if you didn’t first get bitten by a rattler, stung by a scorpion or shot up by some local meth-cooking maniac out in the desert. So we walked and talked and walked and talked.
Gene Lewis was an interesting fellow. Gene Lewis is my friend. The short story is, a WW II hero a sailor who fought in the Pacific Theater finished out the war in 1945 and returned home to Southern Illinois just outside a town called Murphysboro but not before taking a Filipino bride. Life for Gene was simple he told me, have a few kids a nice quiet place to call home after a long war a decent job and some peace of mind. It would be anything but peaceful. One afternoon a short few months after his return home Gene took his girl to a local tavern where he knew most who frequented it’s stools. They were locals, people he counted amongst his friends, some of whom he had known from birth. From the way Gene had explained them many were no more than hicks who never had and never would leave their home. Country bumpkins at best with a narrow view if any view of the world around them. He knew the comments being made in the inaudible whispers around him. They thought it a crime he would bring home a Japanese bride. These ignorant hicks couldn’t tell the difference between a Japanese woman and a Filipino if life depended in it, Which for Gene, it had.
As late afternoon turned into early evening Gene thought it time to take his bride and go home where he was living with his father. Exiting out a back door to his old pickup truck he found a welcoming committee waiting for him that included men he knew. As they verbally assaulted Gene and his bride he tried to leave without returning the aggression. He didn’t get far. The grouped of men grabbed Gene pinning him to the ground as they grabbed his wife and sexually assaulted her while he witnessed the horrific event as others who did not partake in the rape did nothing to stop the men. after it was over and they had beaten Gene it settled upon him that his wife was dead. Raped and murdered by very men he counted as neighbors and friends. Gene knew. What choice did they have but to kill him too, a witness to their horrific crimes. They shot Gene three times and dragged then he and his wife were dragged into the woods leaving them for dead. Gene said he knew while being dragged into the woods that he was in fact alive, but his wartime survival instincts kicked in and he played dead. These hometown locals dumped his body on top of his wife and left them in the woods.
Anyone who knows the ignorance of backwoods hicks knows that they don’t deviate from the mob mentality that exists in downtrodden urban neighborhoods. When the authorities come around it’s amazing how many people saw nothing at all of what happened right in front of them. They stood there eyes wide shut.
Gene spent the next several months in the hospital recuperating from his attempted murder. He watched on painfully the spectacle of racist men brought to trial for his wife’s rape and murder were all acquitted as no witnesses recalled exactly what happened and who started it first. Self-defense won the day. His fight for their freedoms meant nothing to the animals that murdered and hoped to murder him. As he lay in his father’s home for several months after his hospital release, he cried, he seethed, hate festered within him and by his own admission he planned.
The day came Gene felt well enough to tell his father he would be taking the truck to a neighboring town for some cigarettes and groceries. When he drove away from the his home he knew where he was headed, it would be the last time he saw his father for some ten years. Gene sat in his truck at dusk on a corner just down read from the tavern of friends he had his last drink waiting for the arrival of some. When he was satisfied with seeing who he hoped to enter the tavern he pulled his truck around to a back entrance and parked. He reached into his glove box and took a large caliber handgun that to his knowledge had never been used. He knew entering the through the darkened hallway of the back door of the tavern would make it very difficult for those in front to make him out clearly. Slowly he exited the hallway to the back end of the bar and to the bartenders disbelief ordered an shot. Gene explained he had his shot and then another one all the while the country music played and the men at the front of the tavern laughed and joked unaware of his presence. He waited in his truck just long enough to know that they would have a good buzz and slower reflexes going on. As the bartender watched in what must have seemed like slow motion Gene walked to the from of the bar and leveled his gun at the base of the back of the head of his kill. As he dropped and without a second thought he fired point blank at the next man and into the face of the one next to him. Only when he reached a fourth man and he begged for his life did Gene say he displayed a moments hesitation, not because he considered allowing him to live, no, he wanted to watch him beg for his life as he heard his wife do. He wanted to look into the eyes of the man he was about to dispatch from this life and into the darkness.
The ensuing trial was a southern style sham. I mean how could these good American God fearing hicks even entertain the thought of convicting men of rape murder of a Filipino woman, the wife of an American war veteran. For all they knew she could have been a dirty Jap. But when it came to the trial of Gene Lewis the American war veteran who’s wife was raped and murdered and he left for dead, the game changed. Forgotten was his service to country and good citizen status. Suddenly he became a ticking time bomb who laid in wait to murder these helpless men. In the end the victim became the criminal and was sentenced to fifty years with possibility of parole for the murder of the men who raped and murdered his wife. Gene said the jury felt bad for him and only gave him fifty years. He also said he laughed in their face when he was taken from the courtroom. Gene would eventually escape twice during his time, father a son on one escape and catch cases in two different states. Missouri would convict him and sentence him fifteen years to run concurrent with his Illinois sentence. Nevada would extract their pound of flesh and run his sentence consecutive to begin serving once paroled from his first in Illinois. He would simply be paroled in one state only to have to serve his time in another state.
I remember asking Gene how he felt at that moment. he answered he felt nothing. When I asked him if he would do things the same way or do them differently knowing he could have avoided all the thus far thirty-eight years he had done behind bars, he replied, “not a goddamn thing youngster”.
When you do time with guys, unless you know them from the bricks you tend to take most of what they say with a grain of salt. That’s just how it is. Everybody is trying to put up the best version of the story they must to survive the best they can if even only their their own minds. Gene’s story rung try by the many things I saw, read and heard from others behind the wall. I recall the veterans association would reach out to him periodically as would the many other veterans behind the wall with us. To them he was a hero in his time serving. Regardless of everything else he was a stand up guy on the yard, in prison almost nothing matters more.
We did a lot of walking and talking. I learned about him he learned about me. As much as I didn’t admit it I knew I was a kid learning how to be a man in a dangerous world of predator prey. I watched, I observed, I listened. Many of my most valuable lessons in life were learned from some of the most socially undesirable men. Men that, if you’re smart, should scare you. Gene used to say to me that I wasn’t done doing time yet. He wasn’t being mean just a matter of fact with hopes he could impress upon me the severity of a wasted life behind the wall if I were not careful. He saw it in me and he had seen them come and go. He knew I was a fresh nineteen year old kid who he hoped would find a way to not return behind the wall. he used to say the day I ride through the gates and not turn back to get a last look at where I was leaving from would be the day I was done. I used to laugh. Not at Gene but at the absurdity of the thought. It would take me a few more times before I could force myself to not turn back and take one last look at where I had just left. I’ve tried to put the lessons of a wasted youth to work.
I suppose this is an ode to Gene Lewis, friend and mentor of sorts. Call it whatever you like. It is what it is.