April 1st, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Six
King and “Sea Biscuit” were transferred to the State Penitentiary the same day Rodriguez was. In fact, all three handcuffed and closely guarded young felons were driven to the penitentiary in the same station wagon. Ernesto admits to having had feelings of apprehension about the new environment he was entering.
“I guess I was a little frightened when I got to the pen. I had been used to people my own age in the reformatory and here I was with a bunch of men and older guys, lifers, murderers, and stuff like that. They weren’t a bunch of kids, they were real cons, up there for every god dam thing, y’know.
“The pen was run by a guy named Herbert Hann, who was a world-class pecker. He was the warden and a crooked son-of-a-bitch. I’ll explain that later. He claimed to have been a championship boxer when he was in high school so there was a lot of boxing in his place. No kicking, just straight boxing, fair and square. A couple of days after we got there King and I put on the gloves together–like we had promised to do–and had it out. I beat the living shit out of him and never had any more trouble with him. Not after that. No more of that cheap “tamale” crap.
“They put me in a cell with three other guys and one of them was absolutely fucking crazy, insane. I couldn’t sleep, y’know, because he was always waking us up early in the morning doing weird things. His name was Gallegos and he was in there for cutting his wife up in little bitty pieces. He had buried her head in one place, feet in another, legs and other parts of her he buried all around the farm. Gallegos was a migrant worker in Nebraska when he killed her. After the murder he had left the state and went to Texas where he was working in the fields with his brother and sister when he ran into trouble. He saw some Immigration Service officials come up and start questioning the workers, probably wanting to know whether they were ‘illegal‘.
“When Gallegos saw one of them talking to his brother, he must have panicked. “‘My brother didn’t have anything to do with it,’ he screamed. ‘I did it. My brother and sister didn’t know anything about it. I killed her!’
“Things clicked with the Immigration guy and he figured Gallegos had committed murder. So he told him to show them where he’d hidden the body. They took him back to Nebraska and Gallegos showed them where the parts were. He got fifteen years with deportation following his jail time.
“There was Gallegos, another Mexican named Ortiz, and an American Indian in the cell with me. Three Mexicans and an Indian. Gallegos would get up an hour or two before the rest of us. He’s splash water on his face and go ‘Brrr! Brrr! Brrr!’ real loud and wake us all up. He’d take a shit and then clomp around the cell so loud nobody could sleep. I finally got pissed and asked him why he couldn’t stay in bed and be quiet until the bell rang. When I asked him that he was sitting on the edge of his bunk looking at a picture in a magazine.
“’What do they call this in English? He asked me, pointing to the picture. “I’d about had it with him, so I just said, “That’s what they call a son- of-a-bitch.’
“He rolled up the magazine, slammed it down, and said, ‘You’re the son-of-a-bitch!’
“I walked over and said, Yeah?, and smacked him a good one. He was over two hundred pounds and I was down to one fifty after my time in the hole at the reformatory. We went round and round and he got me down. I ended up with part of my head under the bunk. He couldn’t hit my head, but I could get at his. I gave him a damn good shot on the nose and made it bleed. Just then the cell doors were unlocked and we could hear the guard’s call, ‘Everybody out for breakfast!’ The other guys yelled at us to stop fighting, to get our asses out, that it was breakfast time. I washed up real fast – Gallegos went to eat with his nose still leaking blood.
“I’d been assigned to work in the kitchen and I didn’t get to the cell until about eleven that morning. Gallegos was waiting for me when I came in and looked at me real mean.
“ ‘I’m going to make cracklings outta you.’ he announced in Spanish. ‘First I’ gonna beat you up and then I’m gonna cut you up in little pieces.’
“Fuck you!” I told him, “You jump me and I’ll whip your ass. Now leave me alone and let me get some sleep.
“Later that day the other Mexican and the Indian came up to me and told me, ‘You better watch him. He’s got a knife, a pocket knife, he just paid a guy five bucks for it. He’s armed and waiting on you.’
“So before I went back to the cell I got the cell block runner to give me some sand soap. Sand soap is like a small brick. I took two of them and tied them up real tight in a sock before I went upstairs. Nothing happened. I laid there the next day and nothing happened. The third day I had taken a jar of peanut butter back to the cell. We were allowed to do that–take bread and stuff–if we worked in the kitchen. I was making myself a sandwich when I took a hell of a blow to the temple. I remember the piece of bread I was spreading shot up in the air and stuck on the ceiling for a second. I was dazed pretty good but then I realized the son- of-a-bitch had hit me with the wooden ashtray we’d made from a piece of two-by-four. Just took it in the palm of his hand and slapped the holy hell out of me. I was seeing stars.
“I made a dive for my bunk because I had those two sand soap bricks under my pillow. He was coming at me and I hit him on the face with that my blackjack. That stopped him for a second, made him shake his head, but he kept on coming. I ran over to the end of the cell and Fired at him a really hard shot to the head, cut him over the eye. It seemed like every time I hit him I drew blood. But he just kept coming.
“The guy went absolutely crazy berserk y’know. He wanted my life so bad he was willing to get killed trying to take it. The other dumb Mexican bastard was in the upper bunk but he just watched. Didn’t want nothing to do with us–nothing. I remember him because when we Were fighting the cocksucker stole the real pretty, twenty dollar Ronson lighter my brother-in-law, Jose Enriquez, had given me for a present. That was a damn good lighter in those days.
“Finally Gallegos got me down. He had me down between the toilet and the sink and he had his knees on both my arms so that I couldn’t move. I was pinned. From where he was he could reach up to the small table in the middle of the cell. where I figured he’d put his knife. But it wasn’t a knife, it was a god dam single edge razor blade!
“‘You son-of-a-bitch,’ he said, lowering it down towards my face, ‘I told you I was gonna make cracklins outta you and I meant it!’
“I saw that razor coming and I panicked, I mean I fucking panicked. Went hay wire, lost control. Somehow I found the strength to get my arms free and I remember grabbing his hand, but the razor kept coming closer and closer. With the other arm I was swinging at him with the sand soap, hitting him behind the head. Hard as I could. And all of a sudden he just went limp, rolled over to the side, and landed between the shit bowl and the sink.
“The cell block runner who gave me the sand soap started yelling, ‘The screws are coming! The screws are coming! Give me that blackjack! Don’t get caught with that!’
“I threw it at him and continued to beat Gallegos with my fist, afraid he would come to, until the guards pulled me off him”
Gallegos remained unconscious for two weeks in the prison hospital and Ernesto was placed in the penitentiary’s hole. Although he was only sentenced to three days on bread and water, a short sentence because he had not begun the fight and he had no weapon But he was told that if Gallegos died he would be charged with murder.
Rodriguez took the position that he should never have been put in the same cell with Gallegos in the first place, because Gallegos was insane and a threat to everyone. Ernesto, for his part, had never carved up anyone into itty bitty pieces and could get along with any cell mate who didn’t wake him up two hours before the bell, by splashing his face with cold water and going “Brrr, brrr, brrr, and stomping his feet like a crazy man.
In late May of 1952 Guadalupe gave birth to their second child, a little girl they named Ernestine for her absent daddy. But even if he’d sired quintuplets, the State Penitentiary, unlike Gatesville, would not have given thought to releasing Rodriguez for a family visit. Ernesto was notified promptly and there it ended.
He had recently received a check for one hundred and fifty dollars owed him by the Sioux Ordnance Depot, one hundred of which he sent to Guadalupe. Prisoners were paid four cents a day when they worked but received nothing for time spent in the hole or in the Segregation Building because there they performed no work. With the fifty dollars he kept for himself Ernesto thought he could make a few bucks playing poker, dominos, and doing a little friendly cigarette loan sharking. At Lincoln, cigarettes were the equivalent of cash. Considering his street smarts, Ernesto thought it wouldn’t be long before he would be sending money home in answer to Guadalupe’s frequent and pitiful letters begging for money.
Every afternoon between two and four o’clock the prisoners were allowed to relax in the yard, where they would usually cluster with their friends or toss horse shoes. One of the young men who hung around on the fringes of Ernesto’s group was a faggot, but this was unknown to him at the time. The kid, Ernesto remembers, had repulsive looking teeth and he hung around listening to the guitar playing by one of the Mexicans in the group. Ernesto assumed he was okay, okay enough anyway to trust with the loan of one carton of cigarettes.
After a reasonable length of time, several weeks, Ernesto approached the young man and asked to be repaid in kind, no interest, only repayment. When the borrower said he couldn’t repay him but offered instead to give him oral sex, Rodriguez hit the roof and gave him a serious warning. There would be none of that stuff and he expected repayment soon. A few days later, Ernesto received a note from the man stating that he wasn’t ever going to repay him and that if Rodriguez bothered him anymore, he’d cut up Rodriguez. The kid had more trouble inside his lead than he did inside his pants. Ernesto was warned by friends that they guy carried a small X-Acto knife concealed in a fountain pen, a contraption which to a knife artist of Ernesto’s caliber was the rough equivalent of a piece of wet spaghetti. Really now! Certainly Rodriguez wasn’t going to sully a perfectly good prison reputation by fighting a punk.
(In prison jargon the submissive homosexual is known as the guy “doing the catching”. To his face he is called a “Punk”, and to his more aggressive partner he’s referred to as you “Sissie”, or “Kid”. The aggressive member of the homosexual dynamic duo is known as the “Jocker” or the “daddy”.)
When Ernesto spotted the punk on the prison yard near the boxing area, he walked up to him, plucked the knife–fountain pen from his shirt pocket, broke it in half, and handed it back to him.
“Was this,” he asked politely, “what you were going to cut me with?” Not wishing to become known as a patsy by people he loaned to, Ernesto believed he had to take some simple action, nothing bad, but something. A carton of cigarettes wasn’t chicken feed. So on the following day he decided to visit the punk’s cell. He found himself a five gallon plastic bucket, filled it up with steaming hot water and lugged it down to the punk’ s cell, where he found the punk and his cell mates crocheting dollies for the prison’s art and crafts display cases.
Ernesto sloshed half the contents on the punk and when the man tried to escape by clawing his way through the cell’s concrete wall he hit him with the remainder of the scalding water. Howls of pain brought the guards running and Ernesto was dragged to the hole a second time. He had written off the loan, but made his point.
For avenging himself, Rodriguez was given nine days in the hole, long enough to make him envy the other prisoners. Those men could enjoy the mild, sunny weather and a companionship absent in solitary confinement, a place, it seemed, reserved for angry men and misfits. And thus it was that when he again returned to the prison’s general population he watched his conduct very carefully.
Ernesto’s next contretemps began innocently enough in the mess hall’s food line where, lined up single file, one arm’s length separating the prisoners, the inmates were expected to maintain silence, or at least be quiet. “sea Biscuit” was in front of Rodriguez and when “Sea Biscuit” reached over and took a whole loaf of bread slices, Rodriguez teased him about it, teased him because of his size and because he had a tiny mouth, yet he could put away a whole loaf of bread at any mealtime. And into that small mouth he could put away up to thirty pancakes at one sitting. Rodriguez must have made too much noise joking with Sea Biscuit and was told to be quiet by one of the guards. Forgetting he wasn’t at Gatesville, where much more familiarity was permitted, Ernesto responded to the guard very impolitely. At Gatesville if one told a guard to fuck off, the guard could always ask the prisoner to step back of the barn and duke it out. But at the Lincoln State Penitentiary, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, who hadn’t been there long enough to learn the nuances of acceptable discourse, one received a conduct report.
The next morning much to Ernesto’s surprise a guard approached at his cell door and announced, “Come on Rodriguez., we are going to see the warden. You have gotten yourself a conduct report .”
Rodriguez was led to the administration office, through the large display room where visitors could see the prisoners’ handicrafts, and into the warden’s sanctum sanctorum. Herbert H. Hann, backed up by two guards, was meting out punishment that morning. One of the guards was a short stocky man named Snyder and the other was Deputy Warden Greenholtz, a large man who had the proportions of a professional football player gone to suet. Hann was sitting in a straight backed chair at the side of his desk, from which he exuded authority.
“Rodriguez,” Hann said, frowning, “this report says yesterday you were making noises in the food line and that you spoke disrespectfully to one of the guards. That’s a violation of the rules and I’m going to send you to the hole for nine days. I want–”
“For what? “Ernesto objected. “I didn’t hit a guard or anything. He was joking with me and I was joking with him. You shouldn’t punish me for joking with a guard.”
“Get out!” barked Hann, through with Rodriguez.
“The next time,” Rodriguez announced, making no move to leave, “a guard jokes with me I’m not going to the hole–not without a fight. If a guard jokes with me, fine. It’s going to stay a joke, but you are not going to send me to the hole for joking. I’m not going, not without kicking somebody’s ass first. I’m not going down for nothing!”
The cruel memory of the cockroach infested hole, the hard cement bunk, and the body and mental isolation, the dry bread heels for food, of the hole had begun to take hold of Ernesto’s brain without him realizing it. It was too late, his anger had taken over his control or lack of control.
“Give him ten more days,” Hann ordered without realizing that Ernesto was a man of his word.
“Ten more days? For what?” Ernesto exploded, thinking he had a right to speak.
“You want another ten days?” Hann growled.
Ernesto, surprised and angry at the swift punishment, stepped in front of the seated warden. “What’s the most time in the hole you can give me?”
But the fired up Ernesto didn’t want to wait for an answer. Instead, he drew upon Skinny Albert’s advice that if it looked like trouble was coming, the wisest course of action was to strike first and discuss things later.
Rodriguez’ right fist shot out, as he yelled, “I’ll take the limit!”, and landed flush in the warden’s face. Following the sucker punch with two more rapid blows, he jumped on top of Hann when the warden and the chair he was sitting in toppled over backwards, and continued punching. From the floor the warden screamed, ”Get the sap! Get the sap!” (Saps are similar to blackjacks except the lead covered by the leather is flat, doesn’t cut the victim like blackjacks do, but does leave one hell of lump.)
Frantically trying to find the saps in the warden’s lower desk drawer, both Greenholtz and Snyder were forced to abandon their search until They could subdue Rodriguez or try to. Snyder, the guard captain, and Rodriguez exchanged blows without result and Greenholtz, the huge, overweight man, bore down upon the prisoner from the other side, with his arms outstretched and his feet wide apart. If he was trying to sack the little Mexican gadfly, he was in the wrong league. For Ernesto, the deputy warden was a piece of cake, as the saying goes. Rodriguez’ foot shot out faster than a snake’s tongue or a speeding bullet and put the big man’s testicles out of action for weeks to come. Snyder, seeing Greenholtz clutching his groin and gasping for air, decided discretion was the better part of valor and ran to the outer office, or display room, yelling for help. Ernesto followed Snyder because he thought it unwise to be trapped by others in an office as small as the warden’s. While he was in the display room, he thought, he might just as well trash the glass display cases the prison visitors were inspecting.
The visitors scattered like chickens when the yelling Snyder and the Rodriguez burst into the room. But before Ernest could smash the display cases with the chair he had grabbed, a guard named Graham, whose own son was in the Lincoln Penitentiary, managed to get his arms around Ernesto’s waist. Ernesto, who liked Graham best of all the guards, was forced to choke him to break the hold on him.
As might be expected, pandemonium reigned. Visitors were screaming, “My God! My God!” and guards–by now seven of them–materialized from nowhere. These were odds even the Big E couldn’t overcome. One of the guards swung at the rampaging prisoner with a sap, but Ernesto ducked and a guard on the other side of him took the full force of the blow that knocked out several of his teeth. Grabbing for his arms and legs in their attempts to take him down, they each paid a price for their troubles by the time they finally succeeded in forcing the prisoner’s back onto the large rectangular table in the outer office. Although it was made from oak, the table wasn’t strong enough to carry the struggling, pounding action and it crashed to the floor with Ernesto and his captors.
Despite his now fogged and dazed vision, Ernesto saw Herbert Hann’s face materialize near his legs. Miraculously, one of his feet became free for a moment, long enough for him to catch the warden a hard shot above the right eye with the heel of his shoe. The next thing Rodriguez knew he was spread-eagled on the floor with a guard sitting on each of his limbs. Straddling him, with a knee on each side of his chest, was a berserk Hann who was, bleeding profusely from his eye cut, flailing away at his face with a with a sap. The crumbling, cracking sounds of the bones in his nose echoed in his pain filled head, but he managed to regain consciousness and see the oldest guard in the prison pull Hann by the shoulder.
“Goddamn it Warden, that’s enough–Get off of him or you’ll kill him. That’s enough I said! Stop it.!” He yelled as he pulled the enraged Hann away from Ernesto.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, left of Ernesto’s nose. Only the cartilage at the tip of the nose remained intact. The warden, his own face dripping blood from the wide gash flapping down above his eye, was pulled off the prisoner, who was then handcuffed and dragged to his feet. The visitors had shrunken in horror against the wall of the visitors’ area at the sight of the violent spectacle they had just witnessed. It only added to their horror when Ernesto passed them and they saw him snort out a huge gob of blood from the two holes which had been his nose before the fight began.
“Take the son-of-a-bitch to the hole!”, the warden ordered, but three of the guards demurred, each claiming that he first had to go to the hospital to be taken care of.
Ernesto was taken to the hole, where his clothes were cut off of him. He was pushed into the cell naked by shaking guards who feared he would began fighting again if they removed the cuffs, bleeding, with multiple egg size lumps on his face and head, busied, and hand cuffed. The cuffs were not removed for ten days. He was sentenced to sixty days on bread and water with two slop meals every third day.
The warden had to have sixteen stitches taken in his eyebrow. Graham’s neck and throat required treatment, another guard needed major dental surgery, and Greenholtz was barely able to walk. To this day, Ernesto regrets being forced to choke Graham. He was a good guy and well liked by all the inmates. In the fifteen years he had worked at the penitentiary Graham had never filled out a (bad) conduct report on a prisoners.
Ernesto was incarcerated in the Segregation Building for twenty three consecutive months. As usual he found out what the limited time was the warden would give the hard way. And not once, despite entreaties by the prison doctor, did the warden permit any corrective surgery on Rodriguez’ nose. Seeing the mess he had made of the prisoner’s nose must have made hann feel better.
Whenever he saw Ernesto he never failed to ask, “How’s your goddamn nose?” And in politeness, Ernesto always asked in return, “How’s you goddamn eye?”
Life for the other members of the Rodriguez family rocked along in its usual chaotic fashion. Once, several months after little Ernestine’s birth, Guadalupe, Jesusa, Jose and Carmen Enriquez, and the two little girls drove across the state to visit Ernesto, who was released from the hole a short time to visit them. One can only imagine the shock they experienced when they saw his new face.
Jesusa, true to her promise to leave Lencho when the children were grown, left Lencho shortly after they returned from their trip to Lincoln. All the older children were married, Ernesto was in jail, and only Angelita was left at home. With Jose and Carmen living in Bayard, Jesusa was sure Angelita could stay with them until she found a husband. No one knew yet that she was pregnant. When Jesusa did leave it was not a peaceful departure, thanks to her involvement with a man named Melquiades Torres, whose presence led to her flight. She spoke no English and Torres did. If she was going to get out of Bayard, she needed a man who could speak English.
Torres rented a room in the Rodriguez house eventually left for Crystal City, Texas alone with Jesusa. Lencho, finding himself alone, pulled up stakes and traveled to Mason, Michigan, to join his oldest son, Paco, who was doing a very good job for a pickle station owned by the H. W. Madison Growers Association, later bought by Aunt Janes’ and again by Smuckers. Jesusa and Melquiades picked onions in Crystal City and cabbages at other farms in the Rio Grande Valley before settling down in Pasadena Texas on the outskirts of Houston. Shortly after Jesusa’ departure, Guadalupe gathered up both of her little girls and returned to her family in Fort Worth Texas. There was certainly no sense in her staying in Nebraska, she thought, because it sure as hell didn’t look like her husband was going to get out early for good behavior.
But the Nebraska drama hadn’t played itself out, because Angelita’s baby was due any day and Carmen, with whom she was living, was completely unaware of the forthcoming event. Amazing as it may seem, no one had an inkling of her pregnancy.
Then it happened. Carmen had fed her own little girl, Yolanda, during the night and the child had drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep. So when Carmen heard a baby’s cries half an hour or so later she couldn’t believe her ears and crawled out of bed to investigate. The cries were coming from the bathroom. There on the floor kneeling next to the bath tub was Angelita washing off a little baby in the tub. The mother and baby were still attached by the umbilical cord, and Angelita didn’t have the foggiest idea about what to do about it. Carmen, who knew a little more about the birthing process than her sixteen year old sister, cut the cord, but cut it too close to the baby. Jose drove them all over to Doctor Spradling’s house for further care.
For his part, Doctor Spradling did what was necessary to repair the botched job, but wouldn’t undertake care of the mother and baby because the mother was a minor and without written parental consent he couldn’t afford the risk. Presumably there were liability lawyers in the area. Because written consent was impossible to obtain after Jesusa and Lencho had flown the coop, the good doctor Spradling suggested that Angelita return to the house and sit on the toilet until the afterbirth passed. She and the baby would probably be all right. And they were.
(Angelita found a job as a waitress at the Greyhound Bus Station in Sidney Nebraska and paid a baby sitter almost exactly as much as she herself made in tips and wages. Tired of that, she and the baby moved to Michigan, where in 1953 she had the good fortune to marry a fine young man in Lansing Michigan, named Richard Mitchell. They met at the Senate Grill, on Washington Avenue, where Angelita worked as a waitress, like Carmen and Jose, they remain happily married and have raised three other good children.)
Ernesto’s arrival in the hole was intensely painful, thanks, to the severe beating he had taken during the fight. “My hair felt like it was full of hard boiled eggs,” he remembers. “because every time the sap landed on It, it made a lump the size of an egg. My ass, my ribs, even the bottom of my feet were too sore to touch. I don’t think there was any part of me the bastards missed. And my eyes were swollen damn near shut.
“When I got to the hole they didn’t bother to take my handcuffs off first. They made me stand up outside the cell and with a knife they cut off every stitch of clothing I was wearing. Then they threw me into the cell. I was buck naked, hurting bad all over, and all there was in there was a concrete bunk, no mattress, not one fucking thing, not even a blanket. Hell, even the toilet bowl was encased in concrete, so the prisoner couldn’t trash it.
The Segregation Building, as it was known then, was a three story structure and the lowest story, was known as the hole because it was partially below ground. Nowadays, segregation buildings are known euphemistically as behavior modification or adjustment centers, but the purpose for them remains the same, punishment for incorrigibles, Isolation, and mental deprivation. There were six cells in the hole, eight on the second floor and six on the third. There were only six cells on the top floor because two of them had been enlarged for the comfort and convenience of the prisoners condemned to death. In those two death cells on the third floor there was enough room for the condemned men to do their daily exercises, to stay in shape for the day they met their maker. Both the second and third floors boasted the comfort of mattresses on the bunks, but in the hole the bunks consisted of poured concrete benches elevated two feet off the floor. Sometimes the prisoners slept on the concrete floor under the bunk to escape from the probing of the guard’s flashlight when he made their rounds. It was one of the little ways in which the guards enjoyed teasing the prisoners when the prisoners were trying to sleep their hole sentences away.
Ten days after Ernesto was thrown naked into his cell he was unhand cuffed and issued clothing. His cell at the end of the building was known as the “Sweatbox” because it was the smallest one in the hole and located next to the hot air blower, the blasts from which heated the entire building. It was stifling in the sweat box and certainly a marked contrast to the cell he had last occupied in the Reformatory.
Unlike the prisoners in the two main cell blocks who were fed three meals a day, inmates in the Segregation Building were fed only two. But the prisoners in the hole, not the upper two floors, were fed only bread, two small stale dried bread heels, and water for two days and then on the third they received cereal with bread and milk slopped together in a aluminum bread pan in the morning and a “meal”, such as it was in the afternoon. On the bread and water days the bread served was always Heels of the loaf and these heels were dispensed by a guard carrying a tray suspended by a strap over his lshoulder. If the guard didn’t like the prisoner–and the guards didn’t like Ernesto–rather than place the heel in the food slot built into the cell’s bars, they flipped or sailed the bread onto the cell’s floor, from where the prisoner was expected to retrive it. Two heels in the morning and two heels in the afternoon, and all the water they wanted was the diet for prisoners on the bread and water days, the diet they lived on forty out of sixty days.
The prisoners in the hole were allowed four squares of toilet paper each day. When the prisoners complained about it a gruff old guard asked. “What the hell do you need all that paper for? You ain’t eating enough to take a good shit.”
Then he would fold a square of paper, tear a small hole in the center of it, unfold it, and then put his finger through the hole. “Here ,” he demonstrated, “you put your middle finger through like this, wipe your ass with it, and then you wipe your finger with the paper. Easy. You don’t need no more.”
The afternoon meal when it came every three days was served in an aluminum bread pan with all the contents sloshed together. Peaches were covered with thick, lumpy gravy, prunes were floating with pieces of wieners, and mashed potatoes mingled with jello and canned peas. Such items as hamburgers or good beef were unknown. Most of lthe gourmet assemblies were topped with a slice of bread which soaked up the least viscous fluid du jour. But even if the food had been better served, it wouldn’t have made much difference because after two days of bread and water may of the holes unfortunates weren’t able to eat all the food served them. Their stomachs had shrunken enough to preven them from doing so. However, no food was over wasted, because the prisoner who couldn’t cope with his always asked the guard to pass his food along to a prisoner who could In this matter, many of the guards cooperated.
The water with which Ernesto washed his food down came from a sturdy spigot above the concrete encased toilet bowl. Serving a dual purpose, the spigot was also the only means available for washing away the human excrement deposited in the bowl. Even Sir Thomas Crap, the Englishman who invented the flush toilet, would have disapproved. And, thanks to the crude plumbing, none of the cells in the hole smelled like the northern pine woods.
The hole was not be used on any convict for more than thirty days, probably because the Nebraska wardens thought that if a prisoner’s behavior hadn’t adjusted for the better within that time he was incorrigible. Ernesto, never a man with ordinary aspirations, set a prison record by being kept in the hole for sixty consecutive days. As he learned the hard way. Hell hath no fury like a warden clobbered.
To enable the guards to quickly spot a prisoner whose behavior had recently been modified or adjusted for the better, any man serving more than nine days in the hole was treated to a complete head shave. This practice was referred to by its victims as, branding. Naturally it took several screws to remove the hair because many of the men sentenced to the hole managed to retain their vanity under very trying conditions.
There were advantages for a Mexican to be in the hole if he also happened to be an entomophile, an insect lover, and especially so if he was interested in the habits and activities of cucarachas, cockroaches. The hole was an ideal place to study them, make friends with them, and to see them play and make love. In fact, judged by Ernesto’s standards, the activities and personalities of the cucarachas were substantially more attractive than those of a great many guards the tough Mexican had occasioned to meet.
There were no lights in the hole except for what filtered in from a few ground level, small, barred windows. But Ernesto’s eyes readily adjusted to the dark and, lying on his belly on the concrete floor, he had no difficulty studying the cucarachas when they came out to feed and play. There were hundreds of them although he was no Karl Lorenz, he soon became interested in things they did. For Ernesto, there wasn’t, after all, much else to do. Most of the cockroaches were an inch to inch and a half long, but often bigger ones, cucarachas over two inches long joined the rank and file forl the levening’s Olympics. Racing was one of their favorite activities, or so it appeared to Ernesto, and he’d watch a group of them dash pell mell from one place to another. Rather than hug the ground as they do when they crawl around scavenging for food, when racing they straightened out their legs, elevated themselves from the floor and tore off to whatever finish line they had in their cucarachas’ minds.
The toilet bowl was their favorite watering spot and when Ernesto himself used the facility his arrival was always preceded by a violent whirring and plotching noise as they jumped clear of their spa. One of the biggest of Ernesto’s critters became his pet once he succeeded in tying a string around its middle. Tied to a leash, the big fellow lived on one of the cross bars, where Ernesto fed it part of his own bread and water, a diet that increased its size from a Mark III to a Mark IV. Among the things he learned about the playful little fellows was that they were perfectly at home on a human’s clothing but disliked contact with, crawling on, human skin. The guards who brought the bread around were astonished to see the monster hanging out with Ernesto and repelled by its waving antennae, but the prisoner warned them not to squash it, explaining that it was his pet.
When Rodriguez was released from the hole he was assigned to a cell on the second tier, where he was served two meals a day, both slopped into a bread pan, but better by far than four bread heels a day. In his new quarters he was permitted to read two publications, one the Bible, and the other The War Cry, a religious periodical.
Ernesto had thought of himself as a religious person when he entered the Nebraska prison system, or at least religious in the sense that he prayed every day. He had rarely ever attended church but his mother’s devotions at her little shrine had had their effect on him. He did believe in the Trinity.
Now, placed in a cell with barely enough light to read by, he dug into the Bible for the purpose of confirming his faith. He had read through the Bible three times, the first time to built his faith and the last two times to tear it apart. Sixty days in the hole had destroyed what slender vestiges of faith he had had when he entered it. Even reading the Bible the fourth time in a Spanish translation did little to restore his faith in God. Nothing he read reconciled his experiences in prison and the cruelties he had suffered with what the Good Book said. It’s certainly possible that if Ernesto had learned early on to turn the other cheek he would not have been in prison in the first place. He had, I believe, compassion but when Christian precepts were juxtaposed with his Mexican macho, the macho won every time.
When it pleased him to do so, Rodriguez did what he could to ingratiate himself with his keepers. Ever since his early youth he had enjoyed drawing pictures and he continued to develop his artistic skills in solitary confinement. There, he succeeded in getting the guards to give him roll-your-own cigarette papers for making raunchy comic books of the old “Jiggs and Maggie” genre. After soaking the cigarette papers in water he dried them on a flat surface until they were ready for use. The screws–who admired his art work enormously–supplied him with colored pencils and in return for other special favors the produced little booklets depicting very, very explicit sex. Boy meets girl, they got into his car, drive out into the woods, and so forth. These “fuck books”, as the screws called them were extremely popular with the prison officials and were widely passed around by them for study, comment, and later fantasizing. The little books were in great demand.
Graham, the guard Ernesto had choked, and whose own son was in the penitentiary, forgave Ernesto for the attack on him and was afterwards friendly with the young Mexican. Even when Herbert H. Hann was inspecting the Segregation building Graham, walking behind Hann, succeeded in surreptitiously slipping Ernesto a couple packs of cigarettes, and matches. In return for Graham’s kindness, Ernesto passed the word out among the general prison population that anyone who laid a finger on Graham’s son would sooner or later be taken care ofl by Ernesto himself. The threat had substance and no one dared mess around with young Graham. Isolated as he was, Rodriguez’ reputation carried weight, for which the father was grateful. It was a fine example of Mex-gringo symbiosis and Graham was a kind man in a place where kindness was seldom the order of the day.