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Saturday Night Lights
by Robert McCandless

Featured Article

   The old East and South buildings of the Walls Unit were built long before electricity, and the attempt at adding it later would often be put to the test on many summer nights. Not only did the ambient heat of July and August put stress on the breakers in some remote location unknown to us, but multiple acts of illegal activity finished it off. Illegal, I say, because immersion heaters were not sold at the commissary or allowed at the unit, due to the old wiring. When transferred to the Walls, your belongings were searched for the small electrical devices.

   Well, it became one of the things you had to overcome in adverse situations if you wanted a hot cup of coffee or boiling water for Ramen. "It just didn't seem to be safe. It even looked dangerous," I told myself when I saw the device. I had been to electronics school in the Army, and I knew what I was looking at was a "short circuit." Short circuits are the things which burn things down. It was no more than a piece of coiled wire someone had taken from a spiral notebook and somehow found a way to solder a piece of 18 gage electrical cord with a plug attached at each end. It must have come from the lower yard, probably the mechanical department or the piddling shop, as no one had soldering irons in their cells. 

   I don't know how many amps it drew, only that the cell light bulb dimmed as it did its job. Put the coil into a cup of water and plug it in. Immersion heaters usually take a full minute to reach the desirable temperature...this thing would boil a cup in less than 10 seconds. Problem was, everyone had one. There was no way to coordinate the desire for a cup of Joe, so there were nights when too many wanted one at the same time. "Boom."

   We would find ourselves in the dark. Policy had it that when the lights went out, the building tender (inmate guard) was to open everyone's door. Most came out as it was even more pitch black in the cells. The glow of cigarettes made with Bugler, Top and Our Advertiser lent just enough light to visit with one another and maybe open a can or two of tuna to share with your buddies. Some sat on the television benches in front of a dark screen anticipating the continuation of some program they were in the middle of watching. Others just stood in front of their open doors waiting to go back in and read or listen to music. The strange part was that, with all the doors open and many cells empty, there were never any burglaries. One would think, in a place full of criminals, something would disappear from its legal owner, or as so many television shows would suggest, someone would get "shanked." Not so. It was quieter time before gangs began to take over the system, leaving it a dangerous place to be.

   The worst threat, missing an episode of "Dallas or some other favorite show you would not see till the reruns. 

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