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Featured Article

The Last Day
by Robert McCandless

Featured Article

    Six years. One accumulates a lot of things in six years. Sure, I was limited in what I could accumulate, but still. There were my art supplies. Having behaved well in a system that rewarded that attribute, I was allowed to have art supplies and with my mail, more is better mentality, the amount grew. It was dreaded in parts of the Walls Unit that you would be moved into a cell with McCandless. He had too much stuff. He was always painting or drawing. There was never room in the cell for anything but his capitalist ventures.

    Most anyone who leaves the confines of prison leaves all they have accumulated to those either less fortunate or too lazy to gather things for themselves. Not only was I an artist but also a craftsman who piddled in plastics at the prison craft shop. I had lots and lots of stuff. I, amidst the disappointment of many, told those who expected my stuff to be divided up, that I was going to be an artist on the streets and that I would be taking my supplies with me. Some were angry and wrote me off while others said "Artist, sure." Greedy and inhumane as it may seem, I gave up nothing but my illegal immersion heater, coffee cup, a pair of new running shoes and a few other personal items I planned to upgrade when I got out. Most of my really good friends had already left. And I guess, knowing I was leaving soon, I began to distance myself from those around me so my leaving would not be a disappointment to them.

    The last day started early. It began at four a.m. as I was taken to the piddling shop to clean out my locker. After the first trip, a guard decided a dolly would be necessary to keep him from walking with me for each load. They found an old flat cart on four wheels with a bed three feet wide by four foot in length and a handle to push it with. I began to fill it. By the time my cell and piddling supplies were gathered, I had it stacked about three feet high to the chagrin of some of the new guards. After it was all loaded and I had gone to breakfast, I was put in the huge holding pen, with brass bars that glowed from constant polishing by those who couldn't seem to get it right, along with my belongings. Long tables ran the distance of this roughly twenty by thirty-foot space where prisoners had entered and left the Texas prison since the eighteen hundreds. I felt sadness when I left the Army. I didn't recognize it as that at the time because I was so young. I wanted out so bad that I just counted days and bragged about being short. I remember waiting for the bus that cool morning in Baumholder Germany, wondering what the emptiness was that I felt now that I had my wish to be out. That same feeling came upon me this morning surrounded by the almost transparent brass web. This time the emptiness was recognized for what it really was. I was leaving the familiar, my friends, and the discipline that had created a healthy person from a rag tag drug addict. I was further reminded of my connection when regular chow time was called, and my cellblock filed out and across the yard to the mess hall. As they passed the brass cage that housed me, I saw every face for the last time. Some glanced, some nodded, none waved as it was against the rules to do so. I had said my goodbyes the night before. 

    Sitting alone in the large echoing pen was interrupted when seven more inmates were led into the space. They were from other units and would be leaving also. Each had a brown paper bag of varying size that held their toothbrush, razor, and any other stuff they may have accumulated. They sat away from me, not only out of necessity of being surrounded by so many boxes, but due to the fear of who I might be with all the stuff. People tend to shy away from anyone too different, and I was.

    I knew and expected it. The shakedown. A new boss or two is always assigned to this duty unless one of the higher-ranking ones just wants to give someone a hard time. Sure enough, the inmate turnkey lets in two officers who head over toward the corner where we sat. "Alright everyone, put your stuff on the table in front of you," was the young guards call to action. It was well that no one sat close as I began to fill the long table in front of me with box after box. The look on the guard's faces was one mixed with surprise and resentment. It takes a real special type of person to enjoy going through another's personal effects. I'm sure that airport security is one of the most demanding jobs around for a person who is psychologically healthy. The look on these guard's faces led me to believe that they had no perverse desire to go through my stuff, but I also realized that the task before them could easily push one over the edge.

 

     The seven other inmates were critiqued first. A quick glace into the brown bags with an occasional shake told them all was okay. One guard, in his early twenties and the other in his forties, put me edge wise between them. The older fellow sighed as the younger one began to finger his way through my boxes of stuff. It was evident too that they had their jobs cut out for them. The young one was beginning to get a little testy on the first box when their knight on a white horse came riding up. It could be said he was my knight also. It was eight a.m. now and the next shift was coming on. Through the transparent hallway between the brass cages came Lieutenant Willett. His glance into the bullpen brought a smile to his face. Stopping at the front desk he obtained the key to the huge brass cage and let himself in with us. He walked over to the guards who had just gotten halfway through the first box and were moving slow trying to figure out what was contraband and what wasn't, having never seen many of these items I was bringing out. Lieutenant Willett walked up behind the guards who were aware of his presence and had begun to look even more professional in their search of my belongings. "This is McCandless, you don't have to go through his stuff," I heard him say to them. It was true that I had no contraband. I had a couple of x-acto knives that would have raised question, and I was dreading showing all the property slips and invoices of these things that were questionable. The look on the guard's faces was one of confusion. Of anyone who may be stealing something, I had the best opportunity. I could have had a typewriter or God only knows what else hidden in one of the large boxes. Their confused look became one of relief when it dawned on them that it was a Lieutenant telling them to stop the search. They turned to walk away and for a fleeting moment I caught the Lieutenant's eyes and said, "Thank you, Sir." He said, "Good Luck." It occurred to me that other inmates were not the only people with whom I had made friends and gained respect. 

    Pushing the cart out of the bullpen and into a hallway, I confronted new guards, whose initial response was one of "What do I do here." Each in his own right saw a possible security violation, which caused uneasiness. In the non-secure waiting room were windows looking onto the public streets I had not seen in over five years. They suspected me of being a penitentiary politician or worse, a snitch. After receiving our fifty-dollar checks to start a new life, one by one we filed out onto the elevated stoop of the old penitentiary designed by the beloved Texas architect Abner Cook. Some had people waiting on them and others caught a shuttle to the bus station where they would spend most of their start-up money trying to get home. 

    My newly found friend Frank, a professor from UT, was waiting in a Volkswagen Rabbit with a camera, taking pictures of me pushing the dolly out onto the stoop. I am sure he began to feel like many of the cell partners I had moved in with as it became questionable whether we were going to fit my stuff in or not. It was a job, but we accomplished it. 

    Leaving town, we stopped for a real breakfast at the local cafe where many guards and officials were eating, giving me an even greater sense of freedom, before closing out saving accounts at two banks in town that I had filled with the proceeds from my craft and artwork over the years. I was headed to a new city, to meet new friends and start a new life. 

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