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Sometimes you find the of meaning of life in a place where life means so little. Some of my best learned lessons were taught by the worst kind of people.
Most evenings, Gene Lewis and I rounded the long perimeter of the dusty desert prison yard in Southern Desert Correctional Center 45 miles west of Las Vegas on State Highway 95 a few miles run through the rocky desert. Our walk and talks were surrounded by razor wire perimeter fences, guard towers and high-powered rifles. Even if you did circumvent security there was nothing out there but barren desert and naked mountains, not even a dead tree in sight.
The high point of my first 20 years of life on this rock, I was now riding the prison circuit. I arrived at Joliet Prison some 50 miles outside of Chicago on my 18th birthday. Having spent the previous year in Cook County Jail on trial for a variety of offenses including armed robbery and armed violence, I now hit the big time. Illinois Department of Corrections bought me a one-way ticket on an interstate-compact prisoner exchange between Illinois, Nevada and New Mexico intended to purge the Illinois prison system of assumed gang leaders in a play to weaken the stranglehold organized gangs had on the IDOC.
Did I see it coming? Not really. Sure, there had been rumors. Abruptly on a cold, dark three a.m. morning the bars of my cell door cracked. I was ordered to roll up my few belongings then shackled from waist to ankle. Under heavily armed security they loaded about 50 cons onto a bus and dropped us onto a tarmac at Chicago Midway Airport.
Soon we found ourselves aboard a federal Con Air flight. I’m pretty sure every one of us were members of various Chicago street gangs, I’m also reasonably certain none of us were gang leaders or shot callers. But it didn’t matter, we were political eye candy for the evening news that the IDOC shot callers were making a move to regain control of the prisons again.
The Mohave Desert would become my home for the remainder of my teens and dawn of my early 20’s. A pawn in a political game of perception and control. When most teenage boys were chasing skirts, going to prom and getting ready for adult life many of my friends were doing time or getting buried early.
If Joliet was rough, it was at least organized, SDCC was rough and totally unorganized. Nobody had control of his joint, not a gang, an organization, not the bulls or even the administration. This shit show was the wild west in every sense of the word. But, unlike Joliet, Southern Desert offered a lot of yard time, until 9 pm at night. I suppose they figured, even if you did get past the fence where would you run to in this desert?
In the IDOC our violence was organized chaos with a purpose, the violence in SDCC was random, senseless chaos and no rhyme or reason to anything. Still, I adjusted. I had always had a knack for acclimating well to violence and adverse situations, prison was no different. Sure, I missed home, my ma and siblings greatly, but prison, I believed at that age, for all its loneliness and madness was better than the streets.
There was something to be said for knowing what was going to happen every day. The adage ‘three hot meals and a cot’ meant more to many than they cared to admit. I was no different. Sadly, prison life suited an impressionable teenager who thought he knew it all. Never a child, far from a teen but not yet a man.
It didn’t take long for me to find my crew, or they me. A silent chow hall wrestling match with a very large con, sword fighting with our plastic cups for the last pull of kool-aid out of a jug, caused me to be noticed. Small in stature and an unassuming kid, I had long decided I wasn’t going to become anyone’s pigeon or a rat.
Although I assuredly lost the kool-aid battle, walking away with a minor abrasion on the bridge of my nose caused by his plastic cup, other cons took notice. The opposing con knew I wasn’t walking away and would go all the way if I had to, he too took notice and walked away.
Seated alone, a New York fella named Vinnie walked over and invited me to sit at his table which I accepted. Vinnie offered up a napkin to clean the bridge of my nose that I elected to leave raw and very slightly blood red as a badge of honor.
After that incident, on the yard other cons would nod their heads in acknowledgement of the fact I didn’t back down and didn’t go crying to the bulls. I was no pigeon and no rat.
Vinnies’ crew was made of mostly mob guys, hard-nosed crooks from Chicago, New York, Boston, and any city west of the Mississippi. Their unofficial shot caller was a notable Outfit guy from Chicago. With Tony, I had some immediate family connection. Fate led me to where I belonged, I fit right in with the crew. Being the youngest of the bunch I now had my respect. I wanted for nothing after that, we access to anything you could want in the joint.
Gene Lewis was my walking partner. He was outside of the crew I rolled with but on the yard a well-known lifetime con. Gene greatly resembled the cartoon character Elmer Fudd. He didn’t give the impression of someone one might view as a dangerous, hardened criminal, but he was no Elmer. Gene’s life of crime had happened to him largely to no fault of his own. It certainly was not where he had started out. But that’s another story.
At 62 years old Gene was rounding out his 38th year in the joint. A WWII Navy combat veteran, ironically originally from southern Illinois, his original sentence was for a triple murder. Three decades, two escapes and a few bank robberies later he found himself doing the last dozen years of his bid in SDCC for a bank robbery committed during one of those escapes.
Gene and I became friends after he witnessed the chow hall episode. I never viewed his buoyant demeanor in a predatory way but one of an old con teaching a young con the way. At a ripe old age of 20, I knew how to navigate jails and prisons and spot a potential predator when I saw one. I was not unfamiliar with a shank or two to convince a predator.
Our walk and talks consisted of small talk, hopes and plans based on the limited life experiences either of us had, mine limited by age and Gene’s being relegated to prisons and being on the lam. There was little or no prison gossip, an old school convict Gene frowned upon that sort wasted talk. But prison wisdom is something he offered up quite often. He schooled me in the penitentiary rules of the road.
Gene like many in those years called me youngster. An honest crook, he never minced his words, counseling me that I exhibited great potential to return once I sprung from my first bid. He saw them come and go over the decades and was fond of saying that I was “still too full of piss and vinegar.” What would determine whether I ended up back behind the wall was in what move made when I rode out of the gates to the bus station when paroled.
Gene once said to me, “when that van pulls away, and you turn back to take one last look at the gates, what you’re leaving behind, then you will know be back. One move will tell you that you just aren’t done yet youngster.” I would chuckle and chalk it up to one of prisons’ many old wives’ tales.
For better or worse those years would shape and form the man I would become. Prison was my proving ground and road map to what I thought it meant to be a man. We talked about a lot, and I learned many lessons while rounding the perimeter of that prison yard.
I eventually said goodbye to the fellas, and to Gene. One of guys in my crew had put me in a loading dock job back in Chicago. I side benefit to being in the know and in the owe.
I remember that day I loaded up into the white transpo van headed to the Las Vegas Greyhound Bus station. We pulled away down the dusty desert road. Without even so much as a thought, almost by second nature, I turned my head to look back as we drove away. When I turned forward again, I caught a glimpse the bull driving the van eyeing me in through the rear-view mirror.
I chuckled to myself. Those old convict wives’ tales. I was still too full of piss and vinegar.