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April 8, 2015

Springtime growth

Springtime growth

It was Spring, 1970, at the Naval Aviation Training Center, Millington, Tennessee. A tall skinny private had recently been sentenced to what the others called “6,6, and a kick.” He had been found guilty that he had struck his Commanding Officer in the face with his fist. The court-martial punishment was 6 months of confinement at hard labor, 6 months forfeiture of 2/3 pay, and a bad-conduct discharge. Ultimately he would spend 5 months confinement but the remainder of the sentence would have been dismissed.
Stork (everyone but his enemies called him Stork) got out of jail in September, 1970.
For some reason unknown to him he was nearly incapable of thinking, speaking or acting independently when he arrived in jail. He had overcome all of that by the time he got out. Here’s what happened.
First, daisies. One early Spring morning on the second floor of the Navy confinement barracks Stork felt this guilty sensation of niceness, as though he were 5 again. He saw little yellow daisies in his mind’s eye when the morning sun streamed in. In the Marine Corps one cannot—should not— have the sensation of niceness, he thought, so he dismissed it. The niceness. Later, he would think that his brain had been thawing out, slowly. Some might say he had been brainwashed by basic training. Stork felt strangely detached from everyone.
The United States war in Vietnam seemed distant, despite the stream of people coming back with wounds and drug addictions and attitude. Like this one black guy—a Lance Corporal—with the full leg cast. He said a guy with an M-16 had been walking behind him as they went single-file through the jungle and the guy accidentally shot him in the calf. The bullet broke the bones in his leg before making a big exit wound in front, so his cast had a window in it, a 4-inch-square cutout for tending the wound on his shin. Stork didn’t ask him why he was being confined because he didn’t think to ask, his head being filled with what felt like wool.
When he was new to the brig medium security area upstairs with its 60+ Sailor and Marine prisoners, he was shocked to see racial segregation. This wasn’t imposed by the command, but was self-imposed. He attempted to sit with a group of blacks at one of the 4 metal picnic tables but one in the group was unfriendly. Then another. He suspected they didn’t like him. They really had no reason to or not to.
In fact, neither did the other inmates. One of Stork’s problems, before he received his nickname, was that he had nothing to say to anyone. It was like his brain was full of cotton. Sometimes, when he tried to engage others in conversation, he just echoed their speech so that he could prove to them—and himself—that, yes, he could speak. His father, who had died when Stork was 4 years old, had sold a short story to Esquire titled “The Night of the Pig,” in which its main character, homeless Otis Penty, had no story at all to tell. For that he got into terrible trouble.
He learned he could move about the great room, too, ‘though frightened of the others. He learned that he didn’t need anywhere specific to go. He could relax, then rouse himself without thinking too much, then just go a bit. Turn right, go a bit. Backtrack. Sit on the floor. No thoughts. If he saw someone new to medium security confinement, he introduced himself, acted friendly. Then left them just as abruptly. He would visit them later.
Stork was beginning to gain some self confidence. The barracks upstairs consisted of a great room with about 60-70 gray Navy single beds in four rows occupying the majority. Then there was the cage, consisting of a floor-to-ceiling heavy mesh enclosure that reached about half-way across the great room with a locking mesh door. It was constructed to protect the stairwell. A desk within for the chaser (guard) had a telephone. A large whiteboard on the wall had the names of all the prisoners. Traditionally the warden, a navy lieutenant commander, had his name next to the number “1.” Stork’s number was 51.
Stork spoke briefly with several other inmates on his way to use the toilet. There was a row of five low fixtures mounted on an—oh, a painted wooden 20-inch high, perhaps 16-inch wide, and 15 feet long box—in the center of the remaining area past the cage. Three or four shower heads were on the far back wall within a tiled curbed water catchment with drain. The great room had no solid interior walls. It did have gray wall lockers on the long wall opposite the cage. Each inmate could have cigarets, deodorant, a change of clothing, a book or two, a pencil, some paper. Shoes.
Whenever the prisoners were allowed to smoke, the chaser would light one prisoner’s cigaret, who would propagate the light. The jailer also dispensed disposable razor blades, brass polish, and shoe polish. There were no news periodicals.
To get past his shyness Stork walked purposefully to a toilet, announced in a conversational tone that he needed to “drop some poop,” made loud grunting noises and contorted his face in mock agony as though constipated. He was gratified with a mild response from the others. Just some approving smiles, then no reaction at all. Stork had stumbled upon something. He was starting to feel human.

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