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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 21
A Little Misunderstanding

Thanksgiving Day. There was an institutional meal, with turkey and stuffing and mince
pie. As with every meal in the place, it was filling. Billy appreciated the three squares that
Granite City laid on like clockwork, strictly by state regulations. No one starved for lack
of food at Granite City School.
The starvation was of a different kind.
On this turkey day, inmates ate listlessly and mostly in silence. Billy tried to change the
black mood, but he could not cut through the gloom, during the meal or after. On this
family-centered holiday, only a few inmates got visits or calls from family. Billy himself
was not among the fortunate few, but he had not expected to be.
Others had clung to hopes, even through the final minutes of visiting hours. Billy went
around looking into nearly-extinguished eyes, placing a consoling hand on sagging
shoulders and paying attention to boys more used to being snarled at and beaten. To each,
he said, “How are you doing? Anything you want to talk about?”
It was a good thing there were no classes or chores on Thanksgiving, because Billy's
rounds took all day, literally. Everybody had stuff to say. Not even a call one inmate after
another said of a mother or father or uncle or aunt or girlfriend or buddy. Why? they
asked.
“Only they would know,” Billy said, adding, “but they are the losers, not you.”
Johnson Johnson talked to Billy about cream-centered chocolates. Billy Ruggieri spoke
of a toy truck he had seen advertised on TV -- and described it to Billy in detail, down to
the tiny gears inside the miniature cab. Several inmates pined to “be out in the sun, to feel
a breeze on my face.” Some used Billy's ear as a megaphone, shouting their innocence
into it.
Billy's empathy on this turkey day was a river rushing out of him. As laments piled up
around him, he reached into a deep reservoir of sorrows and dispensed homegrown
elixirs. Though not from a drugstore shelf, though free, though packaged with bubble
gum and string, they helped. And the next time an inmate felt the urge to kill somebody
or to end his own misery -- if he didn't actually do the deed -- he would know that there
was one person to whom he could unload: Billy Stone.
What Billy found everywhere on this Thanksgiving Day, then, were inmates stuporously
adrift from a slow asphyxiation of spirit. Beneath the macho armor were crushed souls
inexorably sinking deeper into hatred and violence, against themselves and others. In the
vicious undertow at Granite City School, Billy had to struggle constantly to keep himself
from being sucked under. Whenever he felt the ground giving way beneath him -- and he
felt that way every day -- he gave more of himself to those around him.
He listened. He sought to diffuse anger with soft words, a smile, a touch. Extracting black
comedy from the abyss, he did slapstick to lighten things up. “I heard they aren't going to
grind us up for dog food,” he would deadpan. “The vets said it would be bad for the dogs;
it would make them vicious and impossible to train.”
He asked for peace. To a feuder, he said, “I understand how you feel. I apologize to you
for the disrespect you have suffered. I ask you now to let this problem go away. It's not
good enough for you.” If knife-play were imminent, he said, “Why bloody your hands?
It'll solve nothing. You'll only bring more suffering down upon yourself. Listen, hold off
while I try to end this.”
Sometimes he brandished an illusory big stick, implying that he himself would visit
terrible harm upon anyone taking violent revenge. This peril grew greatly in inmate
minds from a combination of Billy's known contempt for death and the completely
unknown extent of his potential wrath. Since no one had seen him so much as raise a
finger against another inmate, rampant imaginations were left to escalate Billy's capacity
for violence to fearsome levels.
By thus applying love and fear and comedy, in various combinations, did the inmate
leader maintain delicate detentes throughout Granite City School. Naturally he watched
his own back, or rather, Johnson Johnson, Billy Ruggieri and other inmates loyal to him,
watched it. As leader, Billy Stone was a natural target for a jealous inmate, or one looking
to make a name for himself, or one of the mentally ill inmates having delusions that Billy
was trying to hurt him.
Billy may have accomplished a major pacification, but Granite City School for Boys was
still a dangerous place. For one thing, there were always new and unknown inmates to be
inoculated against big ideas -- and one miscalculation, one careless move, and Billy
would be a carcass. The danger could be read in fearful, darting eyes and in the careful
distance inmates kept from each other at all times, at least an arm's length.
On the outside, when people line up at the post office, restaurants and movies, they are
practically on top of each other, breathing down each other's neck. Here at Granite City,
the lines are carefully spread out, with inmates constantly looking around for any sudden
movement.
On the outside, things are fast; here everything is slow, and any sudden movement means
trouble. Inmates walk slowly. A few quick steps is enough to attract the attention of
guards -- or a reflex attack from a skittish inmate deciding to strike first and ask questions
later.
***
David Weatherall returned after Thanksgiving break.,

“Have a good Thanksgiving?” Billy said to him in the library before the start of the first
remedial reading class.
“Yes, thank you,” a subdued Weatherall said, still smarting from Billy's hatchet-job on his
Billy Budd paper. “You?”
“Could have been better,” Billy said matter-of-factly, “without the bars.”
Weatherall thumped his forehead hard. “Sorry, I wasn't thinking.”
“Hey, not a problem. You were being polite. I was being a smartass -- again. I'm sorry
about the last time. You didn't deserve it.”
“No, you did me a favor. If I turned that paper in, I might have flunked the course. I can't
afford that. My old man would have...” He stopped himself, realizing where he was and
to whom he was talking.
“David, I'm asking you to accept my apology ... to forget it ... and to let me show you that
I know how to conduct myself.”
“I accept. Does this mean that you can read my revised paper without mouthing off?”
“Yes.”
The next time Billy did read the revised paper. Unfortunately, he had a number of
suggestions and corrections. But this time, Billy handled Weatherall's ego as if it were a
rare flower with delicate, easily crushed petals. He softened his critical comments with
praise for several felicities that he looked for and thankfully found.
“I like it,” Billy said. “I like it a lot.”
“Thank you.”
“You know, each time I read Billy Budd, I think about it more. He was an orphan who
was actually glad to be impressed into the crew of HMS Formidable. Somebody wanted
him. He belonged somewhere. But he let himself be a victim. I think Melville was telling
us that the least powerful in society must take their destinies in their own hands, not wait
to be saved by do-gooders who may never come.”
“You relate to that.”
“Yes. You know, there is a great book that expands on that theme, Mariners, Renegades,
and Castaways by C.L.R. James. Check it out. I bet it will help you.”
“I'll do that. Thanks for the suggestion.”
Weatherall was genuinely grateful for Billy's help in its more sensitive form, not realizing
that he had just been given a reading assignment, which would lead to yet another
revision of his paper. He went happily away with the extra work.
Remove David Weatherall from the enemy column. Put him in the friend column.
This friend was made in the nick of time.
***
One morning soon after, the guards pulled a dozen inmates from classes and chores, Billy
included, lined them up, and fitted them with leg chains and cuffs. In charge were the two
most senior guards -- also the two most-despised guards at Granite City. They were
known to inmates only by their nicknames, House and Hawkeye.
House was as big as one, easily 300 pounds, with a drooping moustache and a colossal,
button-popping belly that preceded him by a foot and a half as he lumbered about like a
walrus. Hawkeye had one smudged glass eye that stared dully straight ahead like that of a
fish you would not want to buy. He was about the same height as House, but rail-thin.
With a beak-like nose, hollowed cheeks and a roost of thick tightly- curled dark hair, he
was remotely Lincolnesque.
“What is going on?” Billy asked.
“We're going for a little walk, ”House said.
“You guys want outside time, you're gonna get outside time,” Hawkeye said.
With Hawkeye leading and House taking up the rear, and with both carrying shotguns and
wearing holstered pistols, they started single-file in the direction of the contiguous
Fairfield University campus. It was a ten-minute walk away, mostly across university
athletic fields.
They crossed the football field whose bare areas reflected the after-effects of recent Little
Ivy scholar-athletes tearing up the pampered turf for good old Fairfield U. On Saturdays,
the inmates could hear the wild cheering and the marching bands and the fight songs.
They soon approached MacArthur Library, an elegant ivied red-brick structure set loftily
on a grassy hill rising up from the football field.
In his pocket Billy carried a library card from MacArthur Library. The idea that an inmate
from Granite City would want a library card so warmed the liberal hearts of university
officials that they had granted the request immediately. Billy's Fairview library card was
rich in symbolism: of the university's determination to be a good citizen in the city and of
its commitment to diversity. By diversity, the university meant trying to have Fairview
not be all about rich white students like David Weatherall.
When the library card was granted to a Granite City inmate, university officials never
seriously expected that it would be used -- but Billy had already taken out and returned
several volumes. This had caused a small sensation among the library staff.
Shuffling and clanking its way past the library, the line of prisoners in their bright orange
jumpsuits and chain belts reached the campus quadrangle, the heart of the university.
Original old brownstone buildings from the 1820's framed a vast park-like open expanse
of grass with crisscrossing fieldstone walks and patios and benches under mature shade
trees.
The quadrangle was filled with Fairview students carrying books on their way to class
and chatting about this test or that test, this course or that course, a fraternity beer blast,
and next Saturday's big game against Little Ivy rival, Amherst. Some lounged on
benches. A couple of crown princes disported themselves by lazily tossing a football.
Oh, God, Billy thought, as the line of prisoners attracted bemused looks from the
students. Face burning, he buried it in the back of the boy in front of him. He moved
along that way, looking neither right nor left, avoiding eye contact with any student.
Why were they being paraded this way before these spoiled brats? What was going on?
Where were they being taken? Was this somebody's idea of a sick joke? Apparently it
was, from the way House and Hawkeye were winking at students and waving at them
with their shotguns.
Cold fury welled up inside of Billy. “Where are we going?” he demanded.
“Shut up, you,” House said.
“Where?” Billy said, louder.
House came puffing over to Billy. Towering over him, he said loud enough for all the
prisoners to hear. “One more word out of you and ... ” He slapped his shotgun, hard. Billy
gave him a fierce look.
Hawkeye stepped in. “Okay, guys, let's keep movin'. We're almost there.”
The gang of prisoners went a little farther, then stopped. They were in the yard of a great
Georgian mansion with majestic white columns. Billy recognized the place. It was the
home of the new university President, Colin Everington who had taken office in July, and
whose wife was directing major redecoration and landscaping. Billy knew it from photos
he had seen in the Sentinel.
“We're going to have some healthy outside time doing a little landscaping,” House said.
“Be good exercise for all of you out in the fresh air. Okay, this is what we're going to do
...”
“No way,” Billy said.
“I thought I told you to shut up,” House said.
“We're not doing this. We're not slave labor.”
“What? What did you say?”
“I said we're not doing this.”
Billy sat on the ground and folded his arms.
“Get up,” House ordered. Billy didn't move. “Get up, damn you!” Billy sat unmoving,
arms crossed at his chest, face upraised, fiercely silent. House raised his arm to strike --
but Hawkeye caught it.
“We can be seen,” Hawkeye said, nodding toward students in the distance. Hawkeye
pulled House aside for a conference. While they whispered, the other prisoners sat down
one by one and crossed their arms as Billy had.
House and Hawkeye ordered the prisoners to get up. They looked at Billy. He shook his
head. No one moved. Finally, after another whispered conference, House said, “Saddle
up. We're going back.”
Triumphantly, the prisoners got to their feet -- all except one, Billy Stone. “No,” he said.
“We are not going to be paraded and gawked at like animals at the zoo. Call for the van.”
The other prisoners, confused, looked around at each other. Then, one by one, they sat
down again in the same Buddha-like positions. House and Hawkeye held another, longer
conference, after which House called for the van which arrived within minutes.
***
Back at the school, Billy was immediately thrown in “Seg,” short for segregation. A
furious Director Carson had decided that Seg would serve to remind Billy, the staff and
the inmate population just who ran the school. Seg was a windowless room the size of a
walk-in closet with four bare walls, a cot and nothing else. Billy's meals were shoved
through a slot in the gray steel door. To relieve himself, he had to beg to be taken out. The
guard got to it in his own sweet time.
He was denied anything to read. This to him was like having his sparkplugs pulled. It was
like being plunged into a black hole. Not being able to read, all he could do was exercise
and think. He did sit-ups and push-ups furiously, until he collapsed. The rest of the time,
he lay on his cot thinking.
Billy had been in Seg for a full week when David Weatherall, missing him in class,
inquired after him and learned what had happened. He set in motion a flurry of phone
calls: David Weatherall to David Weatherall Sr., a Fairfield Board member and major
donor, who called the President of the University, Colin Everington, who called the State
Director of Corrections Robert Fischer, a friend and alumnus of Fairfield. The final call
was from Fischer to Director Carson of Granite School for Boys.
As it always is when strings are pulled, the calls were largely about everything but the
purpose of the call. There was much talk about the weather and the nice Indian summer
they were having ... how the Fairfield football team was doing ... the progress of the
capital campaign ... the desire of Fairfield University to be a good citizen to the city and a
good neighbor to Granite City School.
Only incidentally, very much in passing, did the suggestion come up that maybe it was
time to discontinue the practice of using inmate labor at the university “without prejudice
to anybody who may have found it objectionable.”
Translation: We don't need this problem.
To Director Carson, it was as direct an order as any he had ever received in the Marine
Corps. Being a good soldier, he obeyed and personally removed Billy from Seg. He said
that House and Hawkeye had been reprimanded and that he was sorry for the “little
misunderstanding.”
Billy came out of Seg stiff in the joints, blinking in the light, logy from sensory
deprivation and starving for print -- but triumphant.