COLUMN FIFTY-SEVEN, MARCH 1, 2001
STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT
TO GET OFF
WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
PART 9: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PENAL DIGEST INTERNATIONAL
Copyright © 1991 by Joseph W. Grant
[Grant is an artist, writer, and graphic designer living with his best friend and their daughter in the Midwest. His documentaries on El Salvador ("Prisons and Prisons: El Salvador") and author Meridel LeSueur ("Women in the Breadlines" and "The Iowa Tour") have been shown on the Time/Life and other cable networks. He believes that never before in our history has there been a greater need for the PDI to be publishing and providing a means for prisoners and people in the free world to communicate. He is open to suggestions.
Prisons and Prisons, My Daughters and Sons
Penal Digest International. The PDI. A newspaper with two purposes: to provide prisoners with a voice that prison authorities could not silence and to establish lines of communication between prisoners and people in the free world.
Over twenty years have passed since the idea
for Penal Digest International began to take shape. I was a prisoner in the
federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, at the time. You've heard of
Leavenworth one of the end-of-the-line prisons where feds, and even the state
prisons, send their "bad boys." At that time the federal prison at
Marion, Illinois, was being used as a youth joint while the feds perfected what
was to become the most repressive monument to absolute security that the U.S.
government could design. Back then, they used Leavenworth for the truly
incorrigible. Leaven-worth was where they sent the prisoners when they closed
Stepping into that prison was reminiscent of
the opening paragraph of Tale of Two Cities. It was the best and the worst place
to do time. The best place to be if you wanted to serve your prison sentence and
not be bothered by anyone prisoner or guard. The worst place to be if you were
hoping to make parole. The best place for quiet in the cell blocks. The worst
place for informers. The best place for food. The worst place for library books.
The best place if you could learn by observing and be silent until spoken to.
The worst place if you had a big mouth.
I was a first-timer, a fast learner, and, in
many respects, I was lucky.
So what was a first-timer a non-violent first-timer doing behind the walls at Leavenworth with guys who had averaged five previous incarcerations for very violent crimes? It's a long story. I've never told it before. But the memories of that period are clear. My thoughts frequently turn to the injustices that surrounded me then. I internalize them. Sometimes, when I am alone, maybe sitting on the patio late at night, I doze off. I awake sudden-ly, look up, and everything seems new. Fresh. The shadows on the trees are a deeper, richer, more visible green. The air is clear. The sound of the insects is sharper, crisper, vibrating. The sound waves can be felt almost seen. In the slam, one afternoon. Very hot, the last week of July. I'm in the shade, in a slight breeze. Half asleep, I find my eyes skimming along the ground, moving fast, observing, soaring over the factories, cell houses, walls. Constantly turning back in. Lightning-like through clouds and around corners. Observing. Even the shades of gray are a miracle. Dark shadows turned into a phosphorescent green. Black prisoners, working with weights in the blinding Kansas sun, become a deep, rich blue. Blood splatters black across bleached concrete as a face is smashed and a sandfilled sock disap-pears. I wondered when the war would ever end. I still do.
Godless Country not the Worst Country
Today, when conversations turn to prisons and
prisoners I listen. I learned long ago that the moment the conversation turns
serious, eyes (and minds) begin to glaze over in less time than it takes a Texas
Ranger to kidney punch a homeless drunk. When the conversation gets around to
Cuba and Castro, I remind people of writer Dorothy Day's trip to Cuba after the
Cuban revolution. She had gone down to see for herself if life was as oppressive
for churchgoing Catholics in Cuba as the U.S. government was reporting. In one
of the columns she wrote for the Catholic Worker she said, "Better a
Godless country that takes care of its poor than a Christian country that
Believe me, talking to the average citizen
about injustice is like walking into a white Southern Baptist church in
Danville, Virginia the last headquarters of the Confederacy and asking for
donations to the Black Panther Legal Defense Fund or the American Civil
Liberties Union. Anyone present who knew what you were talking about would think
you were completely mad. Those who didn't would think you were anaffront to
their very selective, lily white God and attempt to do to you what the Romans
did to the good carpenter. Not pretty.
When I began getting phone messages in the
summer of 1989 that someone interested in Penal Digest International was
trying to contact me I was only mildly interested. Over the years I have been
contacted by an occasional law student or theology student who was doing
research on or volunteer work with prisoners. Invariably they had gotten a taste
of prison life, and had heard about the rise and fall of the PDI and/or the
Church of the New Song, a prisoner religion whose philosophy had been spread by
These links to my PDI past show themselves
unexpectedly. I'll notice someone staring at me. Usually I walk over and
introduce myself. Not infrequently the person turns out to be a former PDI
subscriber or a librarian. Occasionally, after I am steered away from the crowd
and into a private space, the person confesses that he or she was once a
prisoner. That confession is followed by a narrative of memorable moments.
"Acid flashbacks," as the person says. "I remember the Sunday
church service in Atlanta," or "The Terre Haute tour was a gas
whatever happened to John?" or "I was at Oklahoma Women's
Penitentiary." Sometimes it's a writer, someone with a clear enough
understanding of what gets into print in these United States to know that to be
well informed a person has to set aside $250 a year to subscribe to In These
Times, The Progressive, The Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine, Utne Reader,
Catholic Worker, Washington Monthly, Workers World, Dollars and Cents, and EXTRA
and be a member of The DataCenter,1 publications and organizations with staff
who understand the insidious Rain Barrel Theory of Politics, the theory that
best describes politics in the United States the scum rises to the top.2 People
whose names are anathema to the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, Nixon,
Kissinger, Reagan, Bush organizations and individuals whose existence is proof
of the rain barrel theory's validity.
This most recent contact was different. Ken
Wachsberger not only knew about the PDI, he had been part of the day-to-day
insanity we had all learned to love in a sado-masochistic way. Ken had been
hitching west on I-80 and was picked up by some PDI staff members who were on
their way home. Like so many road weary wanderers, he accepted an invitation to
join us for dinner and a night's rest. While waiting for dinner he wandered into
the PDI offices where the lights burned 24 hours a day and went to work.
Now, 20 years later, he asked if I'd like to
look back at those PDI years and share some thoughts. Thoughts on the PDI, the
times, and the people. I had doubts about whether or not I was the best person
to do so. For many years, friends who were witness to those three traumatic
years have urged me to tell the story. I always assumed that someone else would.
The PDI had staff members who were far better writers than I. But Ken wanted me
to write the history because I was the founder. I agreed.
So what about the PDI years? I should include
a few stories about prison experiences and observations that convinced me that
the PDI was desperately needed; I should also include information on why I
thought it would succeed and how, with the help of an unusually diverse group of
people, we forced it to succeed.
The PDI came into existence in 1970 during
politically painful times. We had caught the tail end of the Vietnam War both in
and out of the can. Our detractors called us radical. We probably initiated as
many lawsuits against agencies of the federal and state governments as any
newspaper in history. The list of our reporters, sales agents, and prison
representatives read like a Who's Who of jailhouse lawyers. Many were serving
life terms with no hope for parole for committing acts that ranged from
political crimes against the state to crimes for profit, revenge, you name it.
In prison, they had turned to education and law as a means of self-fulfillment.
They were our newspaper's strongest supporters and most committed advocates.
They never gave up. They had nothing to lose. They were afraid of no one. They
could be threatened, but they remained uncowed.
For over three years, with a staff that
started with two and grew to 25, the PDI operated out of a three-story house at
505 South Lucas in Iowa City, Iowa. 505 became synonymous with PDI. I bought the
house at 505 with the help of sympathetic realtors and a no-down-payment GI loan
so the PDI and the staff would have a place to live. For three years, using a
variety of means, I fed, clothed, and sheltered the staff, their friends,
drifters, runaways, wanted men, women, and children, and paid the bills.
Well...most of the bills.
A little over four years and a couple hundred
thousand dollars later, I walked away from the PDI with exactly what I'd walked
away from the slam with. Nothing. I wasn't totally without resources, however. I
owned a home in Georgeville, Minnesota, in the west central part of the state
that had been home to Hundred Flowers, the underground newspaper edited by Eddie
Felien, the Marxist scholar from the University of Minnesota who ended up on the
Minneapolis city council. My home there didn't have running water or
electricity, but what do you expect for $400? I also had a 1963 one-ton
International pickup that looked like it had been abandoned in Watts during the
riots. The pickup had been part of the junk pile out back of the $400 house. It
needed tires, a battery, and six weeks worth of hard work to get it running.
Along witheverything else, I considered it a gift. Hell, the PDI was a gift that
for a long time nourished prisoners and their families. And why not? It was
their newspaper. They wrote for it, produced it, paid for it pennies at a time.
We never refused a prisoner a subscription. We accepted whatever they could
afford. Most could afford nothing. How they got it and why they got it is part
of the story I will get to.
Those years were lean, hungry years. Tough
years. In many respects they were violent years. By that I mean we were
witnesses to violence. Violence against men, women, and children who were
prisoners. Violence against the families of prisoners. And finally, violence
against the primary staff members of the PDI by the federal, state, and local
police that culminated in murder a murder that was committed by a man who was
pushed over the "edge" by an undercover cop who sealed all of our
futures by giving the man a gun and urging him to use it. Staff members were
arrested for possessing drugs that were stashed by ex-prisoners who had been
released from prison for the express purpose of destroying the PDI and the
Church of the New Song. The seemingly unlimited power and resources of those
three levels of government were more than a handful of unpaid, hungry men,
women, and children could live with. Most took off trying to find a place to
rest and restore themselves. Consequently, the PDI and a number of staff members
With the PDI's voice stilled, the prisoners
lost their voice. Today the conditions in prisons are more repressive. Extreme
overcrowding exists mainly because of the longer prison sentences that are
handed out today, so frequently for victimless crimes. Increas-ing numbers of
prisoners are being locked up for minor drug offenses many are denied the
opportunity to earn a parole. With more of the poor, uneducated members of
society ending up in prison, the need for educational and vocational programs is
greater than it has ever been. Yet, cutbacks in correctional department budgets
mean that fewer of these programs are available.
And the PDI? Today it is a mass of notes,
letters, papers, and subscription lists that are safely stashed in boxes in the
State Historical Society of Iowa.3 And, of course, there are memories.
I look back, see the victories, and I'm
reminded of a line Barry Hannah wrote, "Not only does absence make the
heart grow fonder, it makes history your own beautiful lie."
It's not going to be easy making sure that
this doesn't become my beautiful lie, but I'll try.
How brief can I be? Just the experiences
inside the walls that generated the energy for the PDI deserve much more than I
can give them here. The people, the prisoners, living and dead, deserve more.
We'll just have to see where this leads us.
The foundation for the government's intense
rancor against me goes back to an incident that happened in Cuba in 1952. There,
I had knowledge of an exchange of some Springfield rifles from our Destroyer
Squadron--old rifles that were being replaced by the new M1s--to a group of
remarkable people who showed me first-hand what Fulgencia Batista, the
U.S.-supported military dictator, was doing to the Cuban people. It was my first
My activities in Cuba would never have
surfaced if I hadn't "lost it" one night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That
night, 12 or 13 years after Cuba, I had too much to drink at a SERTOMA Club
meeting. "SERTOMA" was an acronym for "SERvice TO MAnkind."
One day a former resident of Cuba visited our local branch to speak about the
Cuba he had fled when Fidel Castro led the people's army into Havana. He was a
gusano, Spanish for "worm," one of the haves who skipped to the United
States with enough gold and connections to "make a new begin in the land of
the free." He managed to leave with enough to steer clear of the fast money
from criminal activity in Miami and had opted for banking. Another form of
criminal activity. His new life began as a vice president in the bank that
served eastern Iowa. Why settle in Miami and take chances being illegal when you
could be a bank executive and steal with the blessing of the FDIC?
He talked about how he had fled the horrible
Communists who nationalized industry, closed down the nightclubs, took over the
hotels, and forced the doctors to practice the oath they took when graduating
from medical school; that is, to provide medical care to people regardless of
their ability to pay. His speech was gut wrenching. I could smell gun grease.
The crowd was hanging on his every word. Applause interrupted him every few
sentences. He was living proof to these people that Castro was a Communist who
had to be eliminated; clearly living justification for programs of assassination
by U.S. agents, programs that would work better during the sixties when J. Edgar
Hoover infiltrated antiwar groups through his COINTELPRO activities.
Listening to him whine his way through a
litany of greed was intolerable. I turned to my bottle of Old Style and was soon
retreating into my memories. My soul warmed as I left the dry, bone chilling
cold of Iowa and returned to the 98 percent humidity and nighttime temperatures
of 110+ that I had found in revolutionary Cuba previous to the people's victory.
When I arrived in Cuba in the early fifties, I
was fresh out of high school and sincerely believed that the United States of
America was the greatest country in the world. The land of opportunity. Anyone
and everyone could make it. "We hold these truths to be
I was in the navy to protect the world from
dictators most of whom happened to be Commies at that point in history. The
generation immediately before mine had taken care of the Nazis, Il Duce's Brown
Shirts, and the Japanese. Frank Sinatra was singing "I am an American, and
proud of my liberty and my freedom to make derogatory remarks about Dorothy
Kilgallen's chin." I was one of many young, tough Americans. I had my share
of faults: no ambition, couldn't deal with routine, I bored easily, carried a
book with me at all times to read as soon as the boss turned his back. On the
plus side, I didn't abuse people, was generous with what little money I had, and
was loyal to my friends.
Korea was starting to cook and I was ready.
Truman was paying big bucks to anyone who would extend his hitch for two years.
The combination of patriotism and pay was all I needed. After my experiences in
Cuba those additional two years would become intolerable. But the bad times were
yet to come. At this point, the navy was a perfect fit.
My passion during this period in my life was
the Sixth Naval District boxing team. I relished it not just the easy life and
the lack of supervision but the work-outs, the sparring, and the actual
fighting. At 165 pounds, I was a lanky middleweight, but I fought as a light
heavyweight and occasionally as a heavyweight because the spot was empty and my
coach, a redheaded chief petty officer who had once been a featherweight
contender, convinced me that I was faster and better than anyone bigger than me
with the exception of my shipmate Freddie Krueger, who, using an alias, was
prowling around South and North Carolina picking up pro fights and winning them.
Staying in shape was simple. Freddie would
shake me awake at 4:30 A.M. and we would jog the five or six miles to the main
gate of the base, make disparaging remarks to the Marine guards, and jog back to
the ship in time for steak and eggs. The boxing team had no work detail
assignments. As long as we worked out and won, every day was a vacation from the
drudge work. Fighting wasn't work as long as you could avoid getting kicked
around in the ring. Plus, being able to take off for town every night was sweet.
Red's orders were simple: "Stay in shape
and stay on the team. Get lazy and start working."
Not smoking was easy, and the second drink
never tasted as good as the first so I rarely consumed enough to adversely
affect my timing. I was hell in a barroom fight simply because I was usually the
sober fighter. I had an extraordinary appetite for anything that moderately
altered my conscious state if it enhanced the party, the love making, or the
fighting. But as the man in the toga once said, "Moderation in all
things." The enhancers I used in moderation; but as a middle-weight in the
ring with fighters who frequently out-weighed me by 40 pounds,
"moderation" was not a word I used or heard. It certainly wasn't part
of Red's vocabulary.
If I had a reputation back then it was that I
had to be pushed long and hard before I could be provoked into a fight. My best
friends required less pushing. One night, Nelson King, Jim Oler, Dean Bohy,
Buck, and I went over to the canteen on the base in Guantanamo, Cuba. We sat and
talked and drank beer until the place closed. As we were walking back to the
pier to catch the launch, Buck walked over to one of the marine barracks and
ripped the thin wooden slats out of two windows. Then he leaned inside and asked
if there were any marines who wanted to get their asses kicked by a sailor from
the coal mines of West Virginia. We grabbed Buck and started running. By the
time 30 or 40 marines came piling out of the barracks, we were about a block and
a half ahead of them.
Sand burrs stopped the ones with no shoes.
Three caught up with Nelson, which was like catching up with a tiger. Jim had
turned around and those two were like nitro and glycerine. Buck and I stopped
and watched. Nelson and Jim were two shy young men, but in a fight they were
The next morning, with all the men lined up
for muster, the captain demanded to know which men had attacked the marine
barracks the night before. Fortunately, when Nelson's shirt was torn off the
marines didn't get the piece with his name stencilled on it.
Back in the present, the Cuban banker droned
on and on. It was easy to shut myself off from the words of this fat, soft,
gusano and remain lost in memories. I could almost smell the island and feel the
heavy, humid heat that made our white uniforms sag and our shoes squish with
I wondered what Bobby, Julio, and Gaby would
think about this banker. I recalled the night in Cuba when I met them. Buck and
I were on shore leave in Guantanamo. We had been ashore for almost 24 hours and
had 24 more ahead of us thanks to his shifts in the galley and mine as a
coxswain running liberty launches. It was midweek, the best time to be ashore.
No military personnel were around, the shore patrol units were few and far
between, and the prices were fair. Even the general pace of the people slowed
down during the week, as if they were storing up energy for the make-or-break
hustle of the weekend.
We had closed a couple of small clubs and were
walking around trying to decide where to sleep. The heat was oppressive. The
humidity steamed our glasses and seemed to softened the landscape. You had to
wade through it.
As we crossed a park I saw a hose connected to
a sprinkler. The thought of cool water was irresistible. I hung my wallet on the
branch of a bush, took my shoes off, aimed the sprinkler at a nearby bench, and
sat down. Buck was more vocal about the cool water; his whoops and hollers
attracted the attention of a young woman, who stepped out of a doorway just
across a narrow street from us. She was so close Buck recognized the profile of
the one-eyed Indian on her bottle of Hautuey Beer. Always the gentleman (and
always thirsty), Buck stood up. As he introduced himself, water in his hat
spilled down his face. She laughed so loud, I could barely hear Buck when he
asked her if she had a beer he could buy. She didn't, but she offered to get
some if he had the money. Buck turned to me and mimicked Hank Williams with a
whining, "If you've got the money, Honey, she's got the wine Hautuey that
is!" I pointed to my wallet hanging on the branch. Buck took it, tossed it
to the woman, and said, "Take what you need. Bring us as much Hautuey as
you can carry." She took a twenty, tossed the wallet back to Buck, and
She returned with a half case of beer and a
small block of ice in a burlap bag. I was surprised when she handed me change.
Then she went into her house with the beer.
The house was a typical "crib"
house. The door led into a long narrow room, where a second door led into
another narrow, but smaller room. The backyard had just enough space for a small
vegetable garden. In this part of town, and in many others, the streets were
lined with hundreds of these "crib" houses. Prostitutes, many with
small children, sat on the steps in a never-ending hustle for enough money to
live on. If she had been a hooker, twenty dollars was more than she would have
made working hard on a Saturday night. But there she was with the beer ice cold
beer. When she came out of the house for the second time she had two guys with
her. Each had one of my cold beers. Oh well....
Meet A Poet of the Revolution
The woman and one of the guys joined us in the
sprinkler and introduced themselves as Gabriela and Julio. They were both into
the humor of the situation. The other man sat on the ground. He was not amused.
Gaby and Julio were both Cuban. Although they were sister and brother they could
have come from different families. Gaby was very dark skinned; Julio was blessed
with a skin color George Hamilton would have killed for the color of copper
mixed with gold. He was also, like me, an amateur boxer. The other guy, Bobby
Vaughn, was an Anglo, a poet from Key West.
That first night we smalltalked and drank
beer. Before long, Buck and Bobby were asleep Buck from the beer and Bobby from
washing down cough medicine with wine. It was a memorable evening. I had met my
first poet and turpin hydrate addict and had become friends with the first Cuban
civilians I had met outside of a bar. Bobby also was the first American I met in
Cuba who didn't work at the navy base.
Buck and I spent that night sleeping on
pallets on the floor. After a night of listening to Bobby howling, crying, and
cursing in his sleep, I arose at dawn to the sound of barking dogs. My uniform
was wet and dirty and I had a headache. No one had any aspirins, but Bobby had
some pain killers that worked better than anything I'd ever taken for a
headache. Julio loaned Buck and me each a shirt and a pair of old pants that we
wore until our uniforms could be washed and pressed.
I offered to buy breakfast but Julio was
already making coffee. He said something about relaxing and enjoying the day.
Buck had already had a beer and was launching into a long rambling tale about
mining coal in West Virginia. His job had been to set the charges that blasted
loose the coal. With each beer, the story got longer and the fuses attached to
the charges got shorter. I'd heard the story many times, almost as many times as
Dean Bohy's stories of Olympic wrestlers from Clarion, Iowa--stories I never
Life in Cuba had a mellow, low pressured
rhythm unlike any other place I had ever been. That first day, Bobby's pain
killer had me humming songs and thinking about settling down in Guantanamo. I
had enough "down-home country" in me to appreciate the simple life.
We sat around for most of the day talking.
Later Julio and I walked to a nearby market for beans and rice, a couple of
chickens, and some vegetables. Buck almost killed himself trying to ride a bike
with a bent wheel.
That night, over beans and rice, I made an
offhand remark about how nice it would be to sit down to a first-class meal some
day. I was speaking facetiously but it didn't come across as I intended. Bobby
exploded in anger and called me an American pig. Julio told me to ignore him
because he was high. Bobby started yelling poetry and cursing a U.S. political
system that was killing people in Cuba and all over the world. I thought he was
nuts, but I was a guest and couldn't say anything. Fortunately, I kept my mouth
shut. If I had said anything, it would have been some naive comment about
loyalty and being a little more respectful about the United States of America. I
didn't want to offend anyone. Bobby was beyond me, but I was eager to continue
the friendship with Julio and Gaby.
The following Wednesday I was back. Bobby was
there but said nothing. For two days and two nights he listened to scratchy
records by Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck. He seemed
to know Chet Baker and Charlie Parker, but he wasn't in the mood to talk to me
about them. During those two days, he became increasingly abusive to every-one.
Julio, Gaby, and I rode bikes out into the
country and up the coast. We went swimming, brought fresh fish for supper, and
made plans to go fishing the following week.
It was on the third visit that I asked Julio
about the revolution that was spoken about so disparagingly by our officers. He
asked me what I knew about Castro and the revolution. Not much, I told him.
Castro was anti-American and Americans were good for the island's economy. He
was probably a Communist. The more I said, the sillier I sounded. Julio listened
calmly but Bobby turned and started yelling angrily, almost incoherently. He was
spitting and sputtering, "You're a whore! Worse than Truman! Pigs!"
Finally he lurched to his feet and left.
Room in the Revolution for Druggies
I asked Julio and Gaby if I was as ignorant of
what was going on as Bobby accused me of being.
"You have to understand that Bobby is
going through a very bad time in his life," Gaby explained. She looked at
Julio, seemingly for permission to continue. He shrugged his shoulders and she
gave me a real shock.
"Try to understand Bobby. He has been
rejected by people he admires very much. Don't take what he says personally. He
was with the revolutionaries for a few months. He has been with Fidel and Che."
I couldn't believe it. Vaughn was the last
person in the world I would picture as a revolutionary. He was small and skinny
and as physically weak as any person I had ever known. I didn't know much about
what was happening in Cuba but I knew that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were
heading a small army that was involved in what officers said was a hopeless
attempt to take over the island and they weren't going to get much done with an
army of Bobby Vaughns. "You mean he's been fighting with the people who are
trying to overthrow the government that we support?"
"Yes and no. Bobby is a poet. He's in
love with the idea of the revolution. He has a strong mind for words. The
problem is that he's a drug user an addict and nobody trusts an addict."
It seems he had been given a choice drugs or
revolution choose one or the other; the two didn't mix.
As she continued, I learned that they were all
involved with the revolution.
They didn't deny it.
"Tell me more," I asked.
And they damn sure did.
Owned by the U.S.
They fed me statistics on how the Cuban people
lived under Fulgencia Batista. They had no medical care, no schools, no wages,
no futures to look forward to. The United States controlled 75 percent of the
agriculture, all of the tourist trade, and all the gambling. Pay in the
factories and on the plantations was so low people died of malnutrition.
"You see hundreds and hundreds of women
lining the streets selling themselves," Julio said. "You can buy any
perversion you can imagine for a dollar or less. Do you think they enjoy being
"If you go down the street and buy a
woman, do you think she likes you because you are clean and pay cash?"
"Do you think you are special because you
have money and they do not? Can you even imagine what it is like to have no
money, no resources of any kind, and need a doctor for a sick baby and know that
the doctor will not treat the baby unless you have cash?"
Some questions have no answers.
"Can you imagine a doctor who will let
babies die because the mother has no money?"
Julio was talking softly, but his hands were
trembling. Gaby got up and left the room.
Bobby returned. He had calmed down and now
added bits of information that must have been poetry because I understood little
of what he said. I did understand, though, that he idolized Che and called both
Castro and Che fearless: "Castro the fearless warrior/Scholar" and
"Che the fearless warrior/poet."
Bobby would look you in the eye and start with
simple thoughts and ideas, then slowly lead you down an increasingly complex
path of words and phrases and ideas. Just about the time you thought he was
trying to make a fool of you he would stop. Then he'd sit there looking through
you, his mouth half open. After a long pause, he would recite a poem. A sonnet.
He would recite it once, twice. Play with a word. Discuss a rhyme. Go over it.
Explain a sestet. Finish a sonnet with (according to Julio) a perfect sestina.
Most of the time I was completely lost, but he was a hard person to dislike.
Bobby had a very serious attachment to two
writers, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. I'd read all of Hemingway and nothing
by Pound. Bobby shared with me his Pound books but Pound was beyond me. Gaby
once asked him how he could admire Hemingway, who only wrote about fighting,
fucking, and fishing. Bobby answered, "It's not what he writes about but
the way he writes what he writes about." When it came to discussing
literature or poetry with Bobby Vaughn, I kept my mouth shut.
(Fifteen years later, Bobby, John Eastman, and
I spent many days and nights together near Marion, Iowa. John was working on
film scripts and Bobby was working on getting high. By that time, Bobby had a
patch covering the hole in his head where someone had beaten out one of his eyes
late one night in Kansas City. He had been looking for Charlie Parker's mother.)
Prostitutes in your Family?
Julio never spoke about himself. Once when we
were discussing how a poor woman survived in Cuba with only four square yards of
garden to feed her family, he told me that their mother his and Gaby's had been
a prostitute on this very street. The two of them had grown up here. He would
use the word "prostitute," but he never used the word
"whore." "You must be careful about the words you use," he
told me seriously. "Be careful how you categorize people. A woman sells her
body. Batista sells our country."
Then, "Think about who the prostitutes
are. Maybe you have a prostitute in your own family. Tell me, Joe, who in your
family are selling themselves and what price are they being paid?"
I didn't like talk about having whores in my
family, but I understood the point he was making.
"Which is worst, Joe, a rapist or a
"The rapist, of course."
"Which is worst, Joe, a pimp or a
"The pimp, of course."
"Don't you understand that Cuba is a
woman who is being abused by your country. Cuba is being used like a prostitute.
Small countries all over the world are the prostitutes and the United States is
a rapist and a pimp."
Why Do Poets Have to Carry Guns?
One night Bobby announced that he was leaving
and returning to Key West, or maybe New York City. He was sad that there was no
place for him in Cuba sadder still over his own drug habit. "Why does a
poet have to carry a gun and be prepared to kill?" he asked.
"Because a poet of this revolution must
be pre-pared to kill for this revolution, not just write poems about it,"
For some reason Bobby turned to me and asked,
"Who broke your nose, Joe?"
"A person who suffered far more pain
doing it than I suffered having it done," I answered.
Bobby was grinning, and he didn't grin much.
"A poet with a broken nose?"
Julio asked me if I would fight for the
revolution. "If this was my country I would be in the mountains. But it's
not my country," I answered. Then I added, "I think that I would fight
for the three of you. I love you all. I even love your revolution, but I don't
even know the language of your revolution at least not yet."
Julio looked at me. "Do you know any more
or any less about the Cuban people than you know about the Korean people?"
The question jolted me. I had come to know
these people. I knew they were right in what they were doing that it was the
only way their lives would ever have any meaning. I was in the U.S. military,
but I could never take action against them. Now Julio had made me realize that
people just like Gaby and him were sitting in houses just like this one half way
around the world in small towns in Korea. And I was soon to be heading over
there. If we were wrong in Cuba, were we wrong in Korea also?
I didn't even have to ask.
As for Cuba's revolution, I knew at least
enough of the language to understand what was happening. I learned that many
other military personnel also understood. Julio worked hard at smuggling. He
made regular trips into the Sierra Maestras with weapons and spare parts that
came from the naval base.
The talks always went on late into the night.
Bobby would be high on turpin hydrate or thorazine or heroin. He slept in the
corner while I listened and learned about pain and how to kill and why they
believed such actions were necessary. Bobby didn't hear many of those
conversations; he'd heard them all before and may have written some of them.
Occasionally he would wake with a start, grab a pencil, and start writing. Then
he would look over at us like we were strangers and go back to sleep.
He awoke one night and scribbled a poem about
an Anglo named Toth who would go to prison because there was a doubt and because
Fidel did not have time to sort through a person's politics.
The conversations went on, broken only by the
time I spent on the ship. I'd return weekly. We would ride bicycles up the
coast, sometimes sleeping on the beach. We'd go fishing. Occasionally we'd buy
fruit from people who were on their way to the markets. Once we were stopped by
some police. While Julio talked to them, Gaby stood close to me and began acting
like she was turning a trick smiling, teasing, being irritated with the delay,
asking for money to buy beer for everyone, which I gave her but which the police
declined. It was a strange, yet arousing, incident. I was responding to her
differently than I ever had. When the police finally left, Julio said,
"More names for the list."
Gaby told me I was not a very good actor. I
could have told her that.
Julio always referred to his "list"
whenever he had a run-in with anyone who worked for the Batista regime. Whether
he had an actual list I never knew. Years later, when the revolutionaries had
successfully defeated the military dictatorship, it was said that Castro had a
list of the names of people who had caused the people great suffering. It is
said further that these people were arrested and executed no questions, no
trials. They were, it was said, given exactly what they had given to the Cuban
people. Whether it's true or not I do not know. I do not approve of summary
executions, but I can damn sure understand why it happens.
Case of the Missing Springfield Rifles
Around this time, the navy replaced the old
Springfield rifles, bolt action 30-06s if I remember correctly, with the new
M1s. The Springfield was becoming obsolete, we were told a good rifle, but the
M1s were superior. With the help of a chief gunner's mate, who was gay and whose
passion for a beautiful man with a golden tan was greater than his fear of
losing his retirement, Julio ended up with most of the old Springfield rifles
from our COM DES DIV 302 destroyer group, which was made up of the USS Bronson
(DD668), USS Smalley (DD565), USS Cotten (DD669), and USS Daly (DD519). "Oh
yes," Julio would say, "I sure do love your old chief gunner's mate.
Too bad he isn't in charge of the armory on the base."
During this particular period, Julio was
always on the move. He had little to say and when I visited he was often not
there. When he returned he would be relaxed, ready for bike rides,
conversations, and cooking. One day, soon after returning from a trip to the
Sierra Maestra Mountains, he was sitting with Gaby and me in the same park where
we first had met. We were eating rice and beans and drinking Hautuey beer.
Julio asked me if I'd tell the chief gunner's
mate that he wanted to see him early Sunday morning. "He knows where to
meet me. Tell him it is important that he is there."
Before I could answer him, Gaby reached over
and put one hand on her brother's arm and the other on mine. With a confidential
tone to her voice and a smile on her face, she said, "Now I think Julio is
a prostitute, just like our mother was a prostitute. I wonder if I will be
Gaby laughed. Julio laughed. I laughed. I
laughed out loud!
My laughter interrupted the gusano. People at
the SERTOMA Club turned and looked at me, whispered to each other, and shook
out of Sertoma
The speaker was going on and on about
"Castro and his thugs" and how they had created a grim military
dictatorship on his island paradise. When he finished he asked if anyone had any
I said I had a few. By then I had had a few
too many Old Styles. First I asked him if he was opposed to Castro closing down
the thousands of whorehouses that were run by U.S. organized crime who split the
profits with Batista's military police and probably the bankers.
The room became suddenly quiet.
While he was thinking about the first question
I asked him why he hadn't described how 90 percent of the Cuban people lived in
abject poverty with no access to education or medical care until the Cuban
people's revolution removed the U.S.-supported military dictator and the
I asked him why he hadn't informed the SERTOMA
Club of how the revolutionaries had received more help from navy personnel than
from any Communist countries. And why he hadn't mentioned that U.S. corporations
owned 75 percent of the farm-land and paid Cuban laborers pennies a day to
insure that stockholders got rich while babies died of malnutrition.
I asked him to please describe the slums, the
sweat shops, and the exploitation of child labor that personified U.S. corporate
involvement in Cuba.
Looking around, I could see that everyone
thought I was the outrage. I'd had too much to drink and I was angry. This Cuban
banker's rap had brought back too many memories, too much rage. Anger and too
much beer had brought me to my feet to spill my rage. I had a problem all right:
I was unable to turn my anger into the kind of poetry my partner Tom Kuncl would
spew forth when he was still sober enough to get to his feet in front of whoever
As a result of my outburst, I was kicked out
of SERTOMA and labeled a crazy recalcitrant which I was and probably am, but why
You can't be too careful. Not a good idea to
mix politics, tootsie pops, and too much Old Style beer.
So the SERTOMA Club suffered an uncomfortable
few minutes. They'll never know that they suffered far less listening to me than
I did listening to the Cuban banker. I'm sure the banker had never been asked
such questions--questions I'm sure they had all put out of their minds by
In looking back over my life, I believe that
this outburst was one more element in the government figuring out that I was
speaking about my own personal involvement with assisting Cuban revolutionaries.
During the period I am talking about, the navy was lecturing personnel about the
revolutionaries. They were quick to use the term "Commies." We were
constantly being reminded that we had to be careful about who we associated with
on the island. Bobby Vaughn's presence on the island, the fact that he had spent
time with the revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, my association
with him then and later in Iowa, the possibility of the government investigating
and finding out that all of the Springfield rifles from our Destroyer Squadron
were never turned in when they were exchanged for M1s, all of the above may have
led investigators to identify me as a subversive who may have provided Castro
with weapons from our squadron's arsenals.
Little did they know.
Looking back, the one thing that I found
incredibly humorous is that the chief petty officer who everyone thought was gay
was straight, and the toughest old chief on the ship was gay. He had been having
an affair with one of the young seamen on the ship and then had fallen hard for
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