Over These Prison Walls – Connecting with a Friend

“You still on TV?” asked the Pelican Bay State Prison guard at the front gate.  It’s been a while since I anchored the news, but where better to lose track of time than a place where it stands still?

Many times I had been through the front gate, most as a Eureka TV reporter.  And years ago when my brother was there, Nina and I would drive up early Saturday mornings.  We made our mark—the tall awkward anchorman and his stunningly beautiful bride.

This time, I came neither as a reporter nor as a brother.  I came as a friend to meet a man I had never seen, but a man as close as a brother can be.

They love their television at Pelican Bay.  And sooner or later, an on-air reporter gets an inmate letter.  I’m not sure what one particular inmate saw in me, but he sure liked my female co-anchor, Pamela Wu.  So his letters were addressed to the two of us—words for me, romantic drawings for her.

For years, I never replied.  But that changed when I realized that I could write to him in Spanish, my way of learning the language.  And he could almost understand me.

So for years I corresponded, writing about sports, prison life and family.  I learned the Spanish words for football, attorneys and family dysfunction.  He came to know more about me than anyone, even Nina.

Sadly, my family did not understand my bond with him.  “Watch out for him,” Nina’s son would say.  They thought I was sharing too much family information.  God forbid I should ever do that.   They also said I was too trusting.   Guilty as charged.  Much to their distress, I continued writing.  I love distressing them.

Through my letters, Spanish became more than a word game.  It became a second language.  Even on the face of it, he and the language have changed my life.  I owed him a visit to thank him.

So, on that crisp October morning, I walked across the courtyard.  Beside me walked a Manila man, a retired teacher, who also visits an inmate.  I’m sure Nina would have been with me.  For all her worry about things I said and did, she would always stand by me, approvingly nodding her head.  Cuba, the Vatican, Jordan—we had seen a lot.  And to me, this was every bit as meaningful.

I was late, the inmate told me as he whirled around in his chair to face me.  He smiled, amused by the irony of his own words.  In fact, I had almost been turned back at the gate.  Guards wouldn’t let me through because of my pacemaker.  It and their metal detectors don’t get along.  I don’t like it either—but at least I’m here.

By thick glass, high-security inmates are separated from their visitors.  We talked through telephone receivers, a scratchy and faint sound-quality one step advanced from tin cans and wet string.

For nearly two hours in Spanish, we talked about our friendship and our families.  We talked about our strong mothers whose spirits still guide us.  And we talked about our common love for the tiny Korean woman, Nina, with whom I shared 20 years.  He had known me almost all that time.

Of course I’ll visit him again.  Friendship like that is uncommon.  It is also emblematic of love we all have for the taking—love strong and omnipresent, love stronger than prison walls and as deep as eternity.

Brotherly Love

“You’re looking dapper these days,” I say to my younger brother.

“You, too.  Lost some weight, I see.   Gosh, I’ve missed you,” he replies.

Our conversation is imaginary, of course, since we have not shared loving words in years—15 years by his count.  And he does count.  He is a feisty, stubborn guy with an encyclopedic mind for negativity.

Once on a cross-country visit from Maine, I spent more time with my father than with my brother.  My brother fumed over that for ten years, half the life of a hairy-nosed wombat.

The current conflict comes from a dispute over details of our mother’s burial.  It happens a lot and some wounds never heal.   Still, I thought – given our own mortality and all—it might be good to bury the past.

I told him that my wife died in May.  I had not heard from him since.  Maybe he was the only family member who had not gotten the news.  I said I was living alone in a big house and wondered how he was doing.  Part of me imagined sharing a morning cup of coffee with him.

He responded by e-mail that he was sorry for my “loss.”  He also said he was not interested in knowing me because of our long-standing differences.  Case closed.

I cannot say I am surprised.  He has a hard time letting go of the negative.  In fact, for years, he has read from the same script.  I’m a “garden variety over-stuffed egotist,” goes his mixed metaphor.   It is so easy to take it personally and even wonder if he is correct.

That’s when I seized control of the runaway train.  I flipped the script on him, changing the role of what he expected me to be.

It’s been done before.  Antonia Brenner of Beverly Hills mother twice-divorced became a nun to live in a Tijuana prison to care for murders and thieves.  She said it was where she belonged.  She died last week at 86.  Talk about flipping the script.

So I told Richard I would write his epitaph.  We’ll all need one and that was my way of saying that at 65, he is sitting near the exit.  I would say he was a principled man, loving father of two boys and a good provider.  Period.

His reaction was immediate.  He gave me something I haven’t had for years, his home telephone number and wants mine.  Talking beats e-mail every time.  I discussed my mistakes.  We talked about my late wife Nina and the sadness we have both felt.  We talked about families who would wish us away.  We agreed to stand by each other no matter what.

And in almost the same breath, we talked about our pets, my cat with whom I sleep and his dog for whom he cooks meals.  I’ll call him again soon.

A word of warning.  Such conversation can disorient you, especially if you are accustomed to yelling.

No, I do not expect a Christmas card, let alone a shared pot of coffee.  Relationships do not change over-night.  Still, each day provides us a chance to copy-edit our lives.

In play I once wrote in which I performed, my co-star fumed because I could not remember my lines.  I would ad-lib—make things up as I went along.

“You can’t say that.  It wasn’t in the script,” he would bark.

“Sure I can,” I replied.  “I wrote the darned thing.  I can say anything I want.”

And so it is with your play too.

Over These Prison Walls

“You still on TV?” asked the Pelican Bay State Prison guard at the front gate.  It’s been a while since I anchored the news, but where better to lose track of time than a place where it stands still?

Many times I had been through the front gate, most as a Eureka TV reporter.  And years ago when my brother was there, Nina and I would drive up early Saturday mornings.  We made our mark—the tall awkward anchorman and his stunningly beautiful bride.

This time, I came neither as a reporter nor as a brother.  I came as a friend to meet a man I had never seen, but a man as close as a brother can be.

They love their television at Pelican Bay.  And sooner or later, an on-air reporter gets an inmate letter.  I’m not sure what one particular inmate saw in me, but he sure liked my female co-anchor, Pamela Wu.  So his letters were addressed to the two of us—words for me, romantic drawings for her.

For years, I never replied.  But that changed when I realized that I could write to him in Spanish, my way of learning the language.  And he could almost understand me.

So for years I corresponded, writing about sports, prison life and family.  I learned the Spanish words for football, attorneys and family dysfunction.  He came to know more about me than anyone, even Nina.

Sadly, my family did not understand my bond with him.  “Watch out for him,” Nina’s son would say.  They thought I was sharing too much family information.  God forbid I should ever do that.   They also said I was too trusting.   Guilty as charged.  Much to their distress, I continued writing.  I love distressing them.

Through my letters, Spanish became more than a word game.  It became a second language.  Even on the face of it, he and the language have changed my life.  I owed him a visit to thank him.

So, on that crisp October morning, I walked across the courtyard.  Beside me walked a Manila man, a retired teacher, who also visits an inmate.  I’m sure Nina would have been with me.  For all her worry about things I said and did, she would always stand by me, approvingly nodding her head.  Cuba, the Vatican, Jordan—we had seen a lot.  And to me, this was every bit as meaningful.

I was late, the inmate told me as he whirled around in his chair to face me.  He smiled, amused by the irony of his own words.  In fact, I had almost been turned back at the gate.  Guards wouldn’t let me through because of my pacemaker.  It and their metal detectors don’t get along.  I don’t like it either—but at least I’m here.

By thick glass, high-security inmates are separated from their visitors.  We talked through telephone receivers, a scratchy and faint sound-quality one step advanced from tin cans and wet string.

For nearly two hours in Spanish, we talked about our friendship and our families.  We talked about our strong mothers whose spirits still guide us.  And we talked about our common love for the tiny Korean woman, Nina, with whom I shared 20 years.  He had known me almost all that time.

Of course I’ll visit him again.  Friendship like that is uncommon.  It is also emblematic of love we all have for the taking—love strong and omnipresent, love stronger than prison walls and as deep as eternity.

When You Don’t Need a Wheelchair

I couldn’t help myself.  There was the wheelchair, soft and inviting.  Just for a moment, I thought, the airline would let me use it.  Nobody else was.

I had been flying all day, landing in Santiago, the Dominican Republic in the night—a night heavy with Caribbean heat.  For just a moment, I thought, I could catch my breath before heading through customs to meet my local friends.  Be careful what you ask for.

A burly Dominican grabbed me by the chair and began pushing me down the long corridor.  At first, I liked the idea.  How often I had envied those kids in the Costco shopping carts, young, innocent and entitled.  Just once, I’d wished to ride in a cart from one food-sample table to another, chicken-wing in one hand, ravioli in the other.

Then my airport ride got old.  I asked the man to stop.  I could walk the rest of the way.  He would not, and my run-away wheelchair careened through passport control, the immigration checkpoint and finally through the open airport.  People sympathetically watched as I cried, “I got it, amigo.”  Such empty words– the ones I would speak just before dropping an in-field pop-up in grade school softball.  “I got it, amigo.”

I was afraid that Yahindi, the woman with whom I had been corresponding for years, would see me as “damaged goods,” infirmed as well as old.

Yahindi in sight in sight, I jumped to my feet and ran toward her, a virtual Miracle of Lourdes.  The airport guy followed me.  To him, a good tip is a miracle too.  Healing is heavenly and priceless—or, in the Caribbean world, five bucks in the off-season.

In the Dominican Republic I have found love deeper than I have ever known.  It is more than love for one person, Yahindi.  It is love of God and life itself.  Sometimes one needs to be open to life’s possibilities, open to the beautiful face that meets you at a strange airport in the middle of the night.

Funny as it is, that story is a perfect metaphor for what has been happening to me these days.  Tired and needing rest, I stopped.  But someone or something pushed me forward, past the barriers that had defined me.  And finally I stood to walk on my own.

Watching old videos of my late wife Nina this summer, I have been reminded of that metaphor.  When I came here 20 years ago, I was tired and sought rest.  She proudly pushed me forward, past barriers and through gates, sustaining me while I couldn’t yet stand on my own.  Maybe she was controlling me.  But maybe she didn’t want to see me get hurt.  And maybe she didn’t want to lose me.

When my boss 20 years ago demoted me, I thought of quitting my job to live with my mother.  Nina taught me I was better than that.  And besides, she knew, my mother didn’t deserve it.

True enough.  I kept working and added to it teaching at College of the Redwoods.  If nothing else, I taught my students that they could be better too.  And for that lesson, they could thank Nina, a size-four Korean woman with a thundering voice and a big heart.

I thought of all that watching those home-videos this summer, Nina scouring Manhattan gift- shops to buy a tee-shirt for her dog Fiona.   “Tee-shirt for a dog?” asked the shopkeepers.

“She’s not a dog!” Nina would insist.  And once again, Nina was right.

I was sure that video would be forever lost in memory.  The family had clearly forgotten it.  Still, in faith, I assembled it.  That’s when the boss, my boss at CBS 17 said it needed to be on the air.  And so, KVIQ presents “Remembering Nina,” a half-hour commercial-free tribute to our spiritual journey with her.  Watch for it.

Sure, I have once in a while needed a push through life’s corridors.  As my dear friends, you helped me push myself through this one.  I’ll always be here just as Nina would have wanted.  But now I can stand—and walk, thanks to Yahindi.  Thanks forever.

Somebody Stole My Tommy-gun

They were daring all right—the thieves who stole my guns.  That’s right, I had firepower—until somebody who knew what he was looking for made his getaway.

First was a wooden-stock AK-47.  Brand-new, I had it in case Al Qaeda came knocking.  The other was a replica Thompson Sub-machine gun firing 45 caliber bullets.  Bonnie and Clyde had used one just like it as an automatic teller machine.

My peeps told me I might have been looted by the dreaded gang Satan’s Skittles.  Yup, they’d gotten the drop on my homeys, the Buhne Street Co-dependants.

Of course I’ll never see the guns again—or so I assumed.  They’d probably already been fenced to the even deadlier Hilfiker Group.

So I called the cops.  They had never seen anything like this in a city known for its pristine innocence.  In fact, they had thought of renaming its airport “Eden International,” where dreams take flight and always land on time.

I filed a missing gun report and then waited for the perp to confess.  Then I checked the pawnshops, Eureka’s own lost and found system.  Nothing.

For a day, I fumed about my loss.  How had my guard-dog Fiona allowed crime in my own home, where nothing unusual ever happens?   But then my Sherlock Holmes instincts kicked in.  I had read all his stories including my favorite, “The Case of the Speckled Band.”  In it, a poisonous snake is attracted to his victim by a saucer of milk.  I thought they were lactose intolerant.

I listed the stolen guns on Craigslist under “Lost and Found, Collectors’ Firearms.”  In just over an hour, I had a tip.  Time: 12:30 am., lunchtime for Eureka’s bakers and cookers.   It told me to look on a certain inner-city address where I would find two “thieves.”  What are the odds?

I drove by and thought of stopping—but then thought better of it.  They might be entertaining guests from out of town.  But when we meet, I will embrace them, and thank them for their brightness in my otherwise ordinary life.  Thoughts of brotherly love will help me through the night, filling theirs with giddy merriment.

Then, at dawn, a man arrived at my house, gun wrapped in a blanket, its innocence protected from the harsh light of day.  That’s right, I have contacts in the underworld.  They’re like family to me.   My baby was home.  It was the AK-47, its wood stock rich with layers of life, its barrel glistening like the moon on a mountain lake, its bullet-clip thirsting for the milk of human aggression.

I’m told that my firearm would be worth two ounces of crystal meth.  I would have accepted nothing less.

The other gun is still out there, the Thompson Sub-machine gun, no doubt in the arms of a nurturing mother, “Ma Barker.”  So I went back to that house in question, a cute little place if their guard-dog had not eaten the front yard.  Maybe they know somebody who knows somebody.  There can’t be that many Tommy Guns in town.  I left a note and sooner or later I will meet them.  I mean no harm.  I just want my “piece” back.

I have learned something from my loss.  Cherish and protect the ones you love, especially if they are of high caliber.

 

What I Learned from Leave it to Beaver

“Hey, Wally,” Beaver Cleaver would ask his brother, “Is it okay to loan a bicycle that doesn’t belong to you?”

“Heck, no, Beav,” his other brother would say.  “If it’s that neighbor kid Eddy Haskell, you’ll never see it again.”

I loved “Leave it to Beaver,” the TV series about the tousle-headed kid and his story-book family.  Whatever bad happened, they solved it in a half-hour.  “Now Beaver, what did you learn?” his father Ward would ask when they found the missing bike.

“Gee Dad, honesty is the best policy,” Beaver would say.

When I was a kid, I loved that show, its innocence, simplicity and moral values.  It’s funny how now, 50 years later, that moral keeps popping up.

I was reminded of it the other day when I loaned a bicycle to a neighbor kid to run errands.  Actually, he’s not a kid– he’s nearly 40 and unemployed.  How common is that?

He said he needed the bike to run errands.  And unless it’s “Bike to Work Day,” that’s not a good sign either.  Still, as I watched him ride off, I began to think I had seen the last of him and a shiny new Schwinn, property of my family.  I was right—no “kid,” no bike.  Two days later, I was sure I would never see it again.

If my 14-year-old granddaughter Alyssa were here, she would have helped.  She once offered to right a wrong by saying, “I know some people who can ‘take care of him.’”  And I am sure she did.

Honesty and credibility are two qualities that define us as human beings.  Yet easily both are compromised.  In grade school, I learned that the hard way.

The teacher assigned a big term paper.  I did what lots of kids do, waited until the last minute and then found an encyclopedia to copy word for word.  When I flunked the paper, I rationalized.  Sure the ideas came from somebody else but the penmanship was mine alone.  But my mother, bless her heart, would not listen.  She said I had been dishonest with my teacher as well as myself.  I never did it again.

Instead, I made my own way with original ideas.  My favorite was a map of the dark side of the moon.  I won a junior high science fair with that.  A kid asked me, “Why did you make a map of the dark side?  No one has made it before.”

“That’s why,” I replied.   Even as a youngster I knew that originality was everything.  I’ve never won an Emmy.  But then, I’ve never copied someone else’s work.  I sleep well at night.

That is the very reason I knew I had to get that bike back.  It was the moral thing to do.  How could I champion the value of honesty and private property unless I would pay the price to protect it?

So to find the bike, I harnessed my years of investigative experience.   I knew my way around the underworld.  I even owned a Tommy Gun once but somebody borrowed it and didn’t return it.

I called the mother of the kid who borrowed the bicycle.  “That bad boy!  I told him to behave,” she said.

Long story short, I traced the bike to a second-hand shop and bought it back.  My credibility is intact.  And the bike thief has been punished.  His mother told him to go away.

I love it when justice works.

Welcome to my site — All the Dave’s People Columns You’ve Missed

When You Need a Push

I couldn’t help myself.  There was the wheelchair, soft and inviting.  Just for a moment, I thought, the airline would let me use it.  Nobody else was.

I had been flying all day, landing in Santiago, the Dominican Republic in the night—a night heavy with Caribbean heat.  For just a moment, I thought, I could catch my breath before heading through customs to meet my local friends.  Be careful what you ask for.

A burly Dominican grabbed me by the chair and began pushing me down the long corridor.  At first, I liked the idea.  How often I had envied those kids in the Costco shopping carts, young, innocent and entitled.  Just once, I’d wished to ride in a cart from one food-sample table to another, chicken-wing in one hand, ravioli in the other.

Then my airport ride got old.  I asked the man to stop.  I could walk the rest of the way.  He would not, and my run-away wheelchair careened through passport control, the immigration checkpoint and finally through the open airport.  People sympathetically watched as I cried, “I got it, amigo.”  Such empty words– the ones I would speak just before dropping an in-field pop-up in grade school softball.  “I got it, amigo.”

I was afraid that Yahindi, the woman with whom I had been corresponding for years, would see me as “damaged goods,” infirmed as well as old.

Yahindi in sight in sight, I jumped to my feet and ran toward her, a virtual Miracle of Lourdes.  The airport guy followed me.  To him, a good tip is a miracle too.  Healing is heavenly and priceless—or, in the Caribbean world, five bucks in the off-season.

In the Dominican Republic I have found love deeper than I have ever known.  It is more than love for one person, Yahindi.  It is love of God and life itself.  Sometimes one needs to be open to life’s possibilities, open to the beautiful face that meets you at a strange airport in the middle of the night.

Funny as it is, that story is a perfect metaphor for what has been happening to me these days.  Tired and needing rest, I stopped.  But someone or something pushed me forward, past the barriers that had defined me.  And finally I stood to walk on my own.

Watching old videos of my late wife Nina this summer, I have been reminded of that metaphor.  When I came here 20 years ago, I was tired and sought rest.  She proudly pushed me forward, past barriers and through gates, sustaining me while I couldn’t yet stand on my own.  Maybe she was controlling me.  But maybe she didn’t want to see me get hurt.  And maybe she didn’t want to lose me.

When my boss 20 years ago demoted me, I thought of quitting my job to live with my mother.  Nina taught me I was better than that.  And besides, she knew, my mother didn’t deserve it.

True enough.  I kept working and added to it teaching at College of the Redwoods.  If nothing else, I taught my students that they could be better too.  And for that lesson, they could thank Nina, a size-four Korean woman with a thundering voice and a big heart.

I thought of all that watching those home-videos this summer, Nina scouring Manhattan gift- shops to buy a tee-shirt for her dog Fiona.   “Tee-shirt for a dog?” asked the shopkeepers.

“She’s not a dog!” Nina would insist.  And once again, Nina was right.

I was sure that video would be forever lost in memory.  The family had clearly forgotten it.  Still, in faith, I assembled it.  That’s when the boss, my boss at CBS 17 said it needed to be on the air.  And so, KVIQ presents “Remembering Nina,” a half-hour commercial-free tribute to our spiritual journey with her.  Watch for it.

Sure, I have once in a while needed a push through life’s corridors.  As my dear friends, you helped me push myself through this one.  I’ll always be here just as Nina would have wanted.  But now I can stand—and walk, thanks to Yahindi.  Thanks forever.