April 17th, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Eight
When Ernesto walked out of the prison gates he had with him two hundred dollars Carmen had sent, and the fifty dollars given every prisoner when they were set free. Joe Beads, who as the warden’s chauffeur was sometimes allowed special privileges, had traded–virtually given–Ernesto an almost new pair of fancy Crosby Squares shoes, which he had spit-shined, for Ernesto’s prison-issue ones. Because his new footwear, underwear, and white shirt were the only part of his attire that pleased him, Rodriguez decided to head straight to the Salvation Army Thrift Store where he had been told they often had good suits. There, if they could fit you, the price was right.
Ernesto found what he wanted at the store at a price he could afford to pay. He picked out a tan, double breasted suit for only four dollars, found a stylish tie, and when he inspected himself in the mirror he was more than pleased with the figure he cut. Now all he had to do was find the barbershop he’d been told about that was operated by a former convict, a Black man, and he’d be ready for the civilian world. He wanted to make a neat appearance when he called on doctor Bernard Finkel, the prison doctor who had invited Ernesto to visit him in this Lincoln office when Ernesto was released. Finkel was a kind man, who had tried unsuccessfully to gain permission from the warden to have Rodriguez’ nose rebuilt.
For all his combativeness and fighting skills, Ernesto felt fear and unease walking on the streets of Lincoln. Strange people walking about in every direction, horns honking, stores, taverns, kids playing on the sidewalks and yelling at each other, all these wonderfully mundane phenomena engulfed him. Even the smells were strange to his nostrils. In three years he’d lost touch with normal living, and seeing so much of it now, all at once, made him nervous. With all the people walking about loose on the streets it was hard to tell who might he following him.
Feeling vulnerable as hell, Ernesto spotted a Kress store across the street and decided to buy a knife there. Without one he always felt naked, had for a long time. When he was leaving the store he literally bumped into the guard who had said he would wait outside the prison gate for Ernesto, the guard whose wife Ernesto had claimed to have known socially.
When the guard recognized Rodriguez his face registered five different emotions in ten nanoseconds. “Oh hi Ernie,” he smiled sickly, taking a step back and making a gesture to indicate he didn’t want to make any trouble.
“No,” Ernesto corrected him, “It wasn’t Ernie when I was in the penitentiary. It was son-of-a-bitch and motherfucker.”
“I hauled off and smacked him once. He spun around and took off running across the street. I was right behind him. He was a coward like most of the sadistic guards I have known. Real tough until the tables get turned. This gutless wonder just turned tail and ran.
“Because we were making a lot of noise–I was using a lot of real dirty words people started to stare at us and it was getting dangerous–I realized I could end up in jail, so I ducked into a store. I just let the bastard go.
“When I felt safer, I slipped out and went looking for the barbershop.”
Ernesto joked with the barber and they exchanged prison stories. The Black ex-con was a cheerful guy and promised Ernesto that he’d fix him up with a date that evening after he’d closed the shop. They’d double date. After living in a homosexual heaven for three years the idea of a date sounded very, very exciting and Ernesto thought it was damn nice of the barber to offer help. Like the song said, there was no substitute for a dame. But before he visited doctor Finkel he’d check into a hotel room, in case he would need it later. Best to be prepared because he was horny as hell.
When he arrived at Doctor Finkel’s office he was greeted by the doctor who was sitting behind his desk.
“Congratulation,” Doctor Finkel beamed, rising from behind his desk and holding out his hand, “I’m glad you made it. Had my doubts sometimes. Have a seat, please.”
The two men exchanged pleasantries for a minute or two and then the doctor pulled a check book out of his desk drawer. Signing and dating a check made out to “Cash”, he passed it over to a very surprised young Mexican.
“Here Ernesto,” he smiled, “you fill in any amount of money it will take to get you back to your family. How much doesn’t make any difference. Just fill in what you need and take the check down to the bank and cash it. Please, I have plenty of money. I want you to use this.”
Ernesto was almost struck dumb by the kind doctor’s offer of assistance, his generosity, and it was only with great difficultly that he was able to explain that he had enough money with him to get home. Thirty years later that gesture of the doctor’s remains a fresh, vivid memory. He remembers thinking to himself what a contrast there was between that short, pleasant man and the others at that “fucking place,” the prison.
On the way back to his hotel Ernesto remembered with a start that he had forgotten to do something, forgotten to forward prisoners’ messages he had smuggled out of the penitentiary. To do so he had removed the eraser from a lead pencil and hollowed out a three inch cavity in which messages written on cigarette papers could be concealed. Prisoners with time left to serve often arraigned for prisoners being released to smuggle out messages for them. All incoming and outgoing mail was first read by the authorities and there were times when the convicts didn’t care to share information with their keepers. For example, if two men pulled off a robbery and only one got caught, the man picked up might want to pass along instructions about what to do with his share of the boodle without implicating the man who hadn’t been caught.
Using stationery he had picked up at the Kress store, Ernesto wrote to the seven people for whom he had addresses and messages. When he was dressing after an ice cold bath–there was no hot water in the bathroom–he glanced at his watch and noticed that it was almost one o’clock in the afternoon, the time he had been told officer Wright, the guard, could be found at a pool hall named the Green Parrot.
Wright was a little man for whom Ernesto had a special antipathy, ever since Wright had called him a punk and a sissy. And he was a mean man who took pleasure in the power he had over inmates, especially if he could sneak in a quick shot with his blackjack he always carried. On several occasions Ernesto had watched the goon squad lug some man away and then seen Wright step up from behind and get in a totally unnecessary blow with his blackjack. He was a toothy little rat, Ernesto thought, who would probably shit in his pants if someone said “boo” to him. Graham, the best guard in the institution, didn’t like Wright either and he had told Ernesto that Wright and a few other guards always shot a few games of pool before they went on duty.
When Ernesto entered the pool hall, the admonitions of Doctor Finkel came back to him. “Don’t” the doctor had warned, “try to get even with with anyone when you leave here, I don’t want to see you back in prison. Get out of Lincoln as soon as you can.”
Wright wasn’t in the big room. When he’d washed up and combed his hair he stepped back out into the room and there, with his back to Ernesto was Wright, standing next to the closest pool table. The balls had been racked, someone had broken, and Wright was leaning over to shoot. Rodriguez walked over and tapped him authoritatively on the back.
“He straightened up,” Ernesto remembers, “and turned with sort of a surprised look on his face, like he was about to say, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ , I can still see his face when he saw me. He dropped his pool cue on the floor and stood stiff as the cue a few feet from the table, his arms stiff at his sides.
“Don’t think for one minute I was not afraid of getting into trouble with the law, I was but this was something I had to do–not just for me but for the men in prison,” Ernesto said.
“I didn’t know who the guys were who were playing with him, but I kept them in sight and in front of me. I assume they worked in the prison somewhere.
“Wright, he was frozen to the floor. I remember lotsa white in his eyes and he was quaking and shaking so hard you’d think somebody had plugged an electric plug up his ass.
“I poked him on the chest with my fingers and said, You remember I told you I was going to look you up when I got out? Remember that?
“I turned to the other men and said, You guys maybe don’t know what’s going on here and, if you don’t, I want to explain. I got out of prison today. This ass hole is one of the meanest, most sadistic little sons-of-bitches in the prison, the kind of ass hole who can’t take a piss without a blackjack or a knife in his hand. Make’s him feel real strong, y’know. He goes around calling the prisoners fags and bastards. He likes to hit prisoners when there’s no way they can defend themselves, but watch him, he’s a fucking coward!
“I turned back to Wright. I was working up a big anger and I wanted to beat the shit out of him, but I remembered doctor Finkel’s words.
“Consider yourself lucky,” I told him, “I don’t want to get in trouble. I want to go home. But one of these days some real psycho’s going to get out of prison and he’s going to look you up just as I am standing here. We always know where you’ll be. The next guy is going to grab you by the hair and cut your fucking head off, just like they did John Clausen. That’s the kind of thing you want to keep in mind when you are acting like a tough guy instead of the little piss ant ass hole you really are!
“I continued, telling him that if he said one fucking word to me, that I would cut his guts out and chock him to death with them–just say one Fucking word–just one you fucking asshole!.” Wright, according to Ernesto said not one word
“I turned around and walked out. Nobody moved. I figured chewing him out in public was better than an ass kicking for a guy like him.”
Rodriguez claims that the inmates later wrote to him and said that Wright requested to work in one of the towers and was not heard from again.
Ernesto met his barber friend, whom he believes was named Harris, at the appointed time and place. Harris, a Black man himself, had with him two Black girls, one with a very dark skin and one with very light skin for Ernesto. The four young people sought out a tavern Harris favored because of its large comfortable booths, and there they settled down to enjoy the night. Even watching a re-run of the Ezzard Charles-Rocky Marciano fight didn’t do much to divert the thoughts and plans of the horny young Mexican who was having a great time with the young date and looking forward to scoring.
When he was quite sure what the answer would be he suggested to her that both of them might have more fun if they found some place where they could be alone. Sure, she told him, why not?
Just as Ernesto was about to rise to his feet and lead her to his hotel room, a Black man stepped up to their booth and pointed at the girl. “Damn you,” he scolded her, “how many times do I have to tell you I don’t want you coming in this bar?”
“I was getting ready to check this guy,” Ernesto remembers.
“‘It’s okay,’ the girl said, calming me down. ‘He’s my cousin.’
“’Now get your ass home.’ the cousin ordered. ‘and don’t let me catch you in here again!’
“Whoever he was hung around until she left and then took a seat at the bar to make sure she didn’t sneak back in or nothing. Maybe she was too young or something, under eighteen, y’know.
Frustrated at his near miss, Ernesto picked up his things at the hotel and wandered through the deserted streets to the Greyhound Bus Station. He decided he would go to Michigan. It was past midnight and he bought a ticket on a bus leaving a few minutes later for Chicago, via Peoria Illinois. On the big silver Greyhound he met a young woman returning to Peoria from a visit to her husband, who was still in Lincoln’s penitentiary. Because Ernesto had spent so much time in solitary he didn’t know her husband, but the fact that he himself had spent time in prison gave them every excuse to get to know each other better.
To add further to his enjoyment of the long trip over the rolling prairies Ernesto spotted a beautiful young woman of Latin descent who was sitting in the front of the bus. She was wearing a becoming black dress adorned with lace, and soon she was exchanging glances with the handsome ex-con. Exchanging them, that is, when Rodriguez wasn’t otherwise occupied with petting and kissing the wife of the man still in prison.
When the Peoria bound wife disappeared, the French-Spanish beauty replaced her in the seat next to Ernesto. She was bound for Chicago where, after a night’s layover, she would catch an early morning bus for the ultimate destination. Her husband was of German origin, quite a bit older than she, and very tolerant of her not infrequent peccadilloes. Between Peoria and Chicago the two travelers agreed that they would share a hotel room when they arrived in the Windy city. The next morning they would continue on their separate ways, he to Lansing Michigan, where most of his family were, and she to wherever her older husband was stationed.
When they arrived at the bus terminal in Chicago the ravishing Latina temptress checked at the ticket counter for the departure time of her bus the next morning and, to her horror, learned that there was a bus scheduled to leave for her destination in ten minutes, a bus she felt obliged to take because, as she giggled to Ernesto, she was already two days late. The great lover in Ernesto almost cried when he saw those lindas nalgas mount the bus’ steps. Shit, he thought, this just wasn’t his day. He was batting 0 for 3.
Rather than linger in Chicago, Ernesto, who always had a special affection for his Aunt Simona, decided to stop off in Gary Indiana to visit her. It was right on the way to Michigan, he knew the town, he thought, and maybe he could hustle up some fun. But when he arrived at Gary’s bus station he found it “crawling with faggots”. The place was alive with them and he was quickly approached by one when he stepped outside.
“Would you like to come up to my apartment for a drink? We could talk and do such nice things,” one of the fags asked Ernesto demurely.
“Get away you faggot!” Ernesto hissed. “What the hell do I need with a goddamn fag?
Ernesto laughs at the memory. “The little fag got himself all indignant and moved around like he wanted to box with me. ‘Look, Miss Shit Head,’ I told him, ‘Do yourself a favor. Unless you want to get hurt real bad, get out of my sight – Now!’
“I stopped by the men’s toilet and, Christ!, they were there too. One outside and several inside, like a bunch of flies. I was taking a leak and this guy peeked over the partition and says, ‘What d’ya got there? Need some help?’
“That damn near did it. I finally got out of there and started walking down the street towards 27th and Jefferson. I thought I knew my way around but I didn’t and soon found myself in a real tough part of town. I mean real tough. I noticed after a while that two young Blacks about my age were tailing me. I felt kind of naked because I didn’t have the knife with me that I had purchased in Lincoln. I was pretty sure those guys was carrying something and I didn’t want to be easy pickings for those dumb son-of-a-bitches, y’know.
“I was passing a shoe repair shop so I ducked in there and asked the owner for a favor. “I think I’m being followed,” I said, pointing to the two guys lounging around outside, staring at me. “Do you have a good knife I could borrow for just a few minutes?
“‘No son, you don’t want to do that. Let me call you a cab and you take it to wherever you’re going. I don’t know what you are doing walking these street all by yourself–it’s so dangerous…’
“I was looking for an aunt of mine who lives in Gary,
“‘Where does she live?’
“I told him and he said, ‘You’ll never make it there on foot.’
“I will if you let me use a knife for two minutes. Then you can call a cab.
“‘No no, son. Don’t worry about those ass holes out there.’
“When the cab arrived I thanked the man and decided to hell with Gary, I’d go back to the bus station and buy a ticket for Lansing.”
Arriving in Michigan, Ernesto went straight to a large old house Carmen and Jose had purchased. Converted to a multiple family dwelling, the building now housed Carmen and Jose in an upstairs apartment, and the two first floor apartments were occupied by Angelita and Richard, and Sulema and Rudy. In the back of the house was a spare bedroom and that, Carmen decided was perfect for Ernesto.
The next day Carmen took her brother shopping and they picked out slacks, a sport jacket, and other things she thought he would need. She told him to pay her back when he got a job. Then, as now, Lencho and Jesusa’s children got along very well, even if the parents couldn’t abide one another. Paco, the oldest child, was for all intents and purposes the head of the family, a role which included looking out for Lencho who was living in Eagle Pass, Texas in a house owned by Paco.
But Ernesto was restless and it wasn’t long after his arrival in Lansing that Paco called from Houston, where he worked for the United States Steel Cooperation in the non-growing season. Paco assured Ernesto that there were jobs for the asking in south Texas and that Jose, who was down in Galveston at the moment, would certainly like to see him too.
Jesusa was living in Houston at the time. She had broken up with Melquiades Torres when his presence and English speaking skills were no longer necessary and after he was found badly beaten in a Houston alley. A number of people wondered whether Paco hadn’t, perhaps, done it himself or at least arranged for it to happen.
Ernesto and his mother talked to each other on the telephone when he was in Houston, but never saw each other. He told her that he was very deeply shocked that she would run away with a man his father had taken into his home and fed. He thought she had gone against all the religious principles she had tried to teach him and the others in the family. He didn’t want to see her at that time and Jesusa didn’t press him.
In Houston Ernesto succeeded in finding a job that paid $1.25 an hour with a small construction firm. It was heavy, pick and shovel work done in hot, humid weather made almost unbearable by Houston’s huge mosquito population. One especially hot afternoon a few days after he took the job his crew was digging along a suburban street when a local housewife spotted the handsome, muscular young Mexican and offered him a glass of cold lemonade. Ernesto gratefully accepted her kind offer and was sipping the cool drink when the crew boss spotted him sitting on the steps of the kind lady’s front porch.
“What the hell are you doing, Rodriguez? We’re not paying you to sit on your ass. Get to work or go ask for your time.”
Ernesto, who has always been insulted very easily, took umbrage with the man’s tone and because he has also never enjoyed being ordered about, told the boss to go fuck himself, a suggestion which abruptly terminated he employment.
Leaving Houston, the young Rodriguez decided to try his luck in Galveston and not long after his arrival at his childhood stomping grounds he found a job. He had answered a help-wanted ad in a local newspaper placed by the National Literary Association, a high faulting name for a team of door-to-door magazine salesmen. The National Literary Association was owned and operated by a man named Larry Gumble and a twitchy, provocative woman who might have been but probably wasn’t Gumble’s wife. When “Mrs. Gumble” first glimpsed Ernesto she announced to Mr. Gumble that Rodriguez was ”a real cutie pie”, and endorsement which led to his being hired on a draw and commission basis.
The National Literary Association announced in its newspaper ad that its employees traveled and saw the world, a perfectly true statement if by “world” it meant every flea bag hotel on a meandering line between Galveston and Omaha. Gumble would book his crew of a dozen young people–all but two of them males–into a town and, depending upon its size, stay there for several days or a week or two. To save money, the men were expected to share a room, and sometimes even a bed.
“When we were in Wichita Falls” Ernesto remembers, “I met a lady working as manager in a restaurant and we began to joke and tease each other. She was married and her husband worked in a steel mill. They lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of town and I guess her husband worked nights, because when I was through work he was never around.
“The first time we did it we went out in her car. I screwed her three times and that must have impressed her because she said that was more than her husband did in a month. We went out every night our crew was in Wichita Falls and she didn’t want me to leave, even offered to pay for a motel room for me to live in. After each date she always gave me a twenty dollar bill and I remember I earned more from her than I did in commissions. But I had to leave her when the crew pulled up stakes. I told her I had to because I sure as hell had to work for a living.
“I guess it was a couple of months later, that I got a letter from her. She said she had just missed her period and that she hadn’t had sex with her husband since I’d left. She seemed to think she was pregnant, but I didn’t answer her letter. I didn’t want to get mixed up with anybody and I wasn’t divorced from Lupe yet. Already had two kids I wasn’t supporting y’know.
“When I used to knock on doors and an older woman answered they’d always fuss over me, saying stuff like, ‘Oh you little darling, I don’t want any magazines but you take this money and they’d give me a twenty dollar bill sometimes. In the rich neighborhoods the women always wanted me to come around to the back door, but I wasn’t about to go into anybody’s house through the goddamn back door, y’know. They wanted me to fuck ’em, but they wanted me to sneak in. sometimes they’d say, ‘I’m busy cooking’ now, but here’s a twenty so you grab a cab and come back tonight around eight, okay? I’ll be waiting for you.’ I would always take the money, but never went back as I wasn’t interested in old women or any women over twenty. The older broads financed a lot of good times I had with the younger ones, yes sir!”
About five and one half weeks after he’d been released from the penitentiary in Lincoln Rodriguez found himself back in Nebraska, this time in Omaha. On April 15th, 1955, Ernesto was walking along a street in downtown Omaha not far from their hotel when he happened to pass a television repair shop. The store’s display window held several televisions sets and had a loud speaking system which piped the sound out on to the street. It was there on the sidewalks of Omaha that Ernesto learned that Herbert H. Hann, his former nemesis, had “resigned” or been fired from his warden’s job at the penitentiary. Harry Dunn’s campaign had finally born fruit.
On March 27th, a few weeks earlier, Joe Beads, Joe Rogue, and seven other inmates of the hole had succeeded in overpowering two guards and holding them hostage. As the prisoners had expected, Nebraska’s new governor, Victor Anderson, and several other honchos were soon on the scene. The prisoners issued a list of nine demands, all of which even the Governor, and the two guards held hostages, admitted were “reasonable”. Among the demands made by the prisoners in the hole were: three hot meals daily, adequate medical care, no assignment of mental patients to the hole, and dismissal of guards proven to be sadists or head beaters. After three days the hostages were released unharmed and promised for better treatment and no reprisals were made. But the episode spelled the end of Hann’s career as a warden. It was a case of one black eye too many.
Ernesto was fast becoming disenchanted with door-to-door selling. He wasn’t good at it, and he didn’t like the men on the crew, several of whom were homosexuals. The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred in a bed Rodriguez was forced to share with one of the other men. When “that little ol’ darling, slavering with manly passion”, made a pass at Ernesto, that did it. He’d had enough. He warned Gumble to never again put him in a room with a faggot, and decided to quit as soon as they reached St. Louis Missouri.
In the process of quitting, Ernesto lost half of his clothes, the half that was at the cleaners when he told Gumble of his decision to leave. Gumble promised to forward them but never did. At the time of his departure the young Mexican’s assets consisted of one dollar and seventy-five cents, and a gold wedding band of substantially more monetary than sentimental value to him.
Crossing the Mississippi on one of the bridges, Ernesto walked to Collinsville, Illinois about thirty miles east of St. Louis. When he dragged into town his feet were aching, his stomach empty, and there wasn’t an available bed in town. None was to be had anywhere in the area because he had chosen to arrive on “race week”, a time when visitors from all over the country descended on southern Illinois to watch the trotting races. He had bought two ten-cent bags of Planter’s Peanuts and chewed them carefully one by one to hold back his hunger. By morning he’d have to eat. He’d call Carmen tomorrow and ask her to wire him money for travel expenses to Lansing.
But the immediate problem was finding a bed and a place to get out of the coming rain. At one of the many places stopped, the proprietor suggested to Ernesto that he try the jail, that it might be the only place in town where he could find a bed. And it was in jail that he spent the night. By placing two large stripes of cardboard on top of the metal bunk and by using a roll of toilet paper for a pillow Ernesto made it through until daybreak, shortly after which he was rousted out and told to be on his way. The jailers were not amused when Rodriguez suggested that a mug of hot coffee would hit the spot. Get out, he was told. Ernesto Remembers laughing as he was leaving the jail and thinking that he had been kicked out of better places.
The day started well for the young man, dressed in a suit and tie, with an overcoat, pleased with himself, he ordered a mug of coffee and a roll in the first restaurant he came across. After paying for his order, by accident, the waiter gave him one dollar and fifty cents change. Dunking the roll in the hot coffee and bolting it down as fast as he could, Ernesto quickly left before the waiter discovered his error. Refinanced, he decided to call Carmen and then go across the street and have a real breakfast.
The next place he entered was called Ester’s Grill, Ester herself was on duty. She took a great fancy to Ernesto when he borrowed a pen and paper from her and did a small sketch of Roses, and some wording which read: “Free Gum at Ester’s Grill“ and in small words–“under seats and counter.” Ester had a good laugh and fell in love with the sketch of roses. She thought it was beautiful and put it above the counter.
“She was a healthy looking person,” Ernesto recalls. “But she wasn’t a young girl. She had a daughter who was about fifteen and so I guess she was about thirty-five. She was nice looking, nice hips on her, thin waist, y’know.
“‘You did that for me–didn’t you?’ the lady asked. ‘I like it, so whatever you eat is on me.’I told her, “In that case I’d like two breakfasts. She just fed me and fed me and when I couldn’t eat no more. We all took photos and joked–she bought me several beers and after her daughter left, Ester came over real close and started rubbing on my leg, trying to talk me out of taking the bus out of town that afternoon. ‘We can spend the night at my place, there’s won’t be anyone there–husband’s out of town.’
“Does your husband own a gun” I asked her.
‘Yes, but he’s—’
“I’d love too but I don’t want to take that kind of a chance,” I told her.
“‘Oh forget about him, I know what I’m doing.’ she begged me.
“Well as much as I’d like to,” I told her, “I really don’t like facing guns. You better let me catch that bus.”
The following day, Ernesto found himself back in Lansing living in Carmen’s house and occupying the same back bedroom he had vacated earlier. It didn’t take him long to land a job as chief dishwasher for Archie’s Steak and Cocktail Lounge. Strategically located next door to one of Lansing’s hotels, Archie’s catered to the tastes of Michigan’s politicians. The steaks were one and a quarter inches thick and the oversexed state senators or budget directors had only to talk to a man named Nick to make the necessary arrangements.
The young Ernesto was highly praised by Archie for his workmanship, the spotless floors, and clean grills, but fifty dollars a week wasn’t enough money for him to live on. So, when Paco, who served as a major contractor, or supplier of migrant farm labor in Michigan offered Ernesto a job as interpreter for the cherry picking crews in the orchards around Traverse City he took it. And once again he was back with the orchard-man named Robinson, for whom the whole Rodriguez family had worked several years earlier.
About the only noteworthy event of the cherry picking season was a short romance between Ernesto and the daughter of one of Traverse City’s most prominent families, Her name was Karen Kropa, and she wanted Ernesto to marry her, but of course he couldn’t because he was still married to Lupe. Ernesto did not think it would be fair to Karen. Instead of telling her the truth, he told her, “I’m not a country boy. I need to be in a city that never sleeps–in the bright lights.”
Ernesto was as broken hearted as Karen who was shedding big tears when he kissed her and hugged her good bye.
Ernesto later learned that Karen had married an abusive husband and often wanted to visit her, but he decided it would be best if he did not interfere with their marriage. He did drive up to her driveway once and saw Karen come to the doorway, they both looked at each other for a few moments, then Ernesto drove off, knowing he would never see her again.
Washed out of town by Karen’s tears, He pointed his red, second hand, Buick convertible for Mason, Michigan where Paco wanted his help at the pickle station. There, he busied himself by checking the brine levels in the vats and doing whatever other jobs that needed to be done. To augment his income he shot craps and played cards with the Mexican braceros, migrants, living around the station.
It never occurred to him to send any money to his wife, Guadalupe, who by then had two other children, another man, and who was pretty much on her own.
I never made much money. I was being paid one hundred and a quarter a week, but I had to pay for my own food, gasoline and stuff like that.”
Paco Rodriguez, who ran the show at the pickle station tried his best to make the lives of the migrants in his care as pleasant as possible. Thousands of them turned up at Mason Michigan, where they were soon dispatched to farms around the state. The pickle station was a busy place with migrants constantly coming and going. And because Paco understood his charges well, he was very considerate when two ladies of the night approached him.
Paco had allowed the two prostitutes to work the migrants in the pickle station. They were assigned to one of the cabins, where one of the male migrant, Picked by Paco, watched over them and make sure they were properly paid.
Ernesto happened by as one of the girls was standing in the doorway of the cabin, clothed in a slip and panties trying to entice the four or five men milling around outside her door. They were the last four or five left from a large group which had already come and gone.
“Well what’s going one here?” Ernesto wanted to know.
“Get in line Sonny–get in line,” the girl announced. “It’s only five dollars a trick.”
“I don’t pay for pussy,” he told her. “If I can’t get it free, I don’t want it. I’m young enough so that I don’t have to pay for nothing.”
“Okay Sonny, then get the hell out of the way and let the others buy their way in…know what I mean?” she said to Ernesto, smiling warmly.
“What are these guy doing just looking at you,” Ernesto asked her, “why don’t you show them what they need to see?”
“I’m in no hurry–they’ll make up their–”
“Hell that’s no way to do it. Here, let me show you.” Ernesto told her, as he stepped into the cabin and pulled off her slip–she stood in the doorway naked as the day she was born.
“Oh no! I gotta have my clothes–”
Before she could say anything else the Mexicans were climbing over each other trying to get in the door way with the five one dollar bills in their hands.
“She came out after a little while, kicked one man out and allowed Another one in .” Ernesto remembers, “then she told me to meet her and Leona, the other whore, in a little tavern down the road from the pickle station. Said she buy me a few drinks.”
“Loraine Smith, was her name, and “Red”, the red haired one was named Leona. They said they were both from Battle Creek Michigan. They were both older women, around thirty or so, but not bad looking.” Ernesto recalls.
“When I joined them at the bar, Leona, was seated next to a Mexican migrant worker by the name of Prosetto. He must have been about thirty years old and already pretty drunk.”
“Shortly before the bar closed, Loraine suggested that we all go over to their motel room which was across the street from the tavern.”
Ernesto and Loraine took one of the two beds in the motel room. Leona and Prosetto wasted no time getting undressed and getting it on.
“After my third time,” Ernesto recalls, “I felt like I really needed a bath–I hit the shower and scrubbed myself real good. As I was coming out of the toilet, Leona, completely naked, was sitting next to her sleeping boyfriend and looking at me.”
“‘Honey, you can have all this,’ she said holding up a big wad of bills, big enough to chock an elephant. ‘You can have it all if you will just come over here and fuck me.’”
“‘Hell no! Oh no you don’t–don’t pull that shit on me! Here, Baby, this is all yours–get back in the bed with me.’ Loraine screamed, holding up a wad of bills just as big as Leona’s.’”
“Had I been a real pimp, I would have taken both rolls and screwed them both at the same time,” Ernesto said, “but I didn’t want the Mexican waking up wanting to kick my ass, and I didn’t want Loraine and Leona fighting. I went back to bed where Loraine was, took the money, and screwed her three more times that night.
The following morning Ernesto missed several hours of work and when he finally did show up his supervisor chewed him out so hard Ernesto quit his job. Paco tried to get him to change his mind about quitting and even warned him to stay away from the whores, but Ernesto wouldn’t take his brother’s good advice. Instead, he decided to go into the pimping business, a business in which he would transport the two girls from one migrant camp to another. After three years without women he was only too glad to become Loraine’s “man”–indeed he had a lot to catch up on.
By pimping the two girls he decided he could make pretty good money. Each girl was expected to earn at least one hundred dollars a day, and they both had promised him they would give him all their money but he had to “take care of them.” Meaning that Ernesto would have to pay the living and traveling expenses. And with prices as low as they were during those days, none of them would have to skimp.
It was after they left Mason that Ernesto learned his brother Paco had been paying the girls’ motel bill and that that had been the reason he had warned him to stay away from them. Paco had been really mad when they all left.
Red stayed with Ernesto for about two months but once she realized that he was not about to give her sex, which she desperately wanted from him, she decided to she wanted a pimp of her own. At her age, perhaps she felt she didn’t want to be left out–she’d find her own Ernesto.
“I hated to see the money go,” Ernesto moaned, “but Loraine and I worked together–going everywhere the money was–where single migrant workers were in large groups. I would drive into farms and tell the farmers that I was an inspector for the Madison’s Growers Association, checking on the conditions and treatment of worker. They were more than happy to show me around, and of-course, they knew who John Rodriguez was. And once I located a group, I would tell them I would bring the girl later on in the night. That sort of stuff, and we both did well. I would even introduce Loraine as my wife.
Loraine had no problem turning twenty or thirty tricks a day. When things were slow with the migrant workers, Ernesto would drop Loraine off in a busy bar to turn tricks, while he visited a nice lake, got some sunshine , some good food, and sometimes fished a while. About supper time he would pick up Loraine, count the money, take her out to eat, sometimes he would buy her a nice dress, then make love to her all night long. She liked her personal and private time with Ernesto.
“We stopped at a town called Nottawa near Sand Lake, in Michigan. A really beautiful small lake I use to swim in when I was a kid, picking pickles in that area–about the time that Charlie and ran I ran away to Gary Indiana. I paid seven dollars a week for the room we rented at a big old house. We’d spend the whole day in the water or on the beach sometimes when tricks were slow. At nights we would hit the migrant camps around the area. And every week Loraine would have a hospital check up to make sure she had not caught anything. We were living very nicely indeed.
“I remember one time when Loraine told me she wanted to lay a particular guy. We were in a bar and she said she wanted to turn a trick with him, no money involved. So I said, fine, that I had my eye on a little Mexican girl, that there’d be no mney involved with her either. From that we reached an understanding that I could go out with someone else and she could do the same thing. You might say that after that we went on kind of a fucking spree. That is what it amounted to.
“The girl I was telling Loraine about, I had already had sex with her in the lake, Sand Lake. I had met her when Loraine was at a bar turning tricks. I had even taken the girl to a wooded area and screwed her several times. So when Loraine asked for the deal, I was very happy to say yes. The young Mexican girl was not only beautiful, but very young like seventeen and hot as hell fire. I will never forget her! She had the most wonderful bush you would ever want to see. It was thick, curley, and jet black. So sexy.
“She was with her family picking pickles, in Nottawa, when I met her. She also said there was a young man in their camp who was chasing after her and that we had to hide from him. It was okay with me.
“When this beautiful hot pepper moved to Ohio to pick tomatoes, I got a terrible urge to follow her. Beside seeing her, there were other workers in the area that Loraine could turn tricks with. So off to Ohio we went–we rented a small shack and worker out of that–not too far from the Mexican girl.”
One afternoon about two in the afternoon, Ernesto drove his convertible to the field where the Mexican girl was picking tomatoes. When she spotted his car, She took of on a dead run, her parents yelling at her to come back, and jumped into his car. They sped off like two young love birds.
“We drove around until I spotted an old abandoned church. The weeds around the church were so tall that no one could see our parked car. Before long we were completely naked. Our love making was so wild,like we had never done it before. Our love making lasted several hours, we were wet, the seats were wet, everything was wet. We made love seven times, before deciding it was time to go home. We both knew she would get a beating from her parents, but at the moment it just didn’t matter–nothing else mattered.
“‘When I arrived at the shack we had rented, Loraine was in bed naked waiting for me–wanting sex. I explained where I had been and what I had been doing–we had an agreement, at least I thought so.”
“‘Listen motherfucker,’ she jumped out of bed screaming. ‘If I fuck someone, I can still take care of you. If you fuck someone, you better not tell me you can’t take care of me! Do you understand that?’”
Ernesto not being a real pimp, didn’t know how to treat Loraine. And at the moment, surely he had no energy to deal with Lorine’s madness. Loraine was insane, not because Ernesto could not have sex with her, but because she saw that Ernesto was in love with her competition.
While Loraine was screaming, Ernesto had undressed, placed his nice clothes on a chair near the bed. Hoping she would be a good girl and hang his clothes in the closet as she generally did. Loraine kicked the chair scattering his clothes on the floor, and yelled: “Hang up your own fucking clothes!”
Loraine did not really know the young Mexican’s true personality and made the mistake of yelling at him: “What the fuck do you think I am paying you for! Do you honestly believe I need you to count my money–motherfucker!”
Ernesto kindly informed her that he had warned her that he would allow her to make two mistakes but not three. He told that yelling at him was one, and kicking his clothes to the floor was two. And that she had nothing else coming. He informed her he was leaving and that she could not go with him.
“I packed my stuff and tossed it in the car.” Ernesto said.
“‘You’re not leaving me here all by myself, are you?’ Loraine asked me, pleading with me to take her with me. Oh yes I am I told her, bitch you ain’t yelling at me all the way back to Lansing. No mam!–fuck you!’”
According to Ernesto, Loraine followed him to the car with a dress in her hand and naked. She told Ernesto he was not leaving her there, her stuff could stay but not her, she was going with, clothes or no clothes and jumped into the car naked.
Ernesto let her get a few things together and drove to Lansing. He pulled into to the Greyhound Bus Station on Washington Avenue, where he told her to step out of the car.
“Please Baby don’t do this,” Loraine begged Ernesto.
As the young Mexican started to drive away, Loraine again begged him not to leave her there. “At least give me some money–at least bus fare.”
Ernesto flipped her a two-bit piece, and waited.
Loraine could not scream any more. In a quiet voice she asked, “What is this–this is not enough–what do you think I am?”
Ernesto turned up the radio in his car and drove away, never to see Loraine or Leona again.
Ernesto soon landed a job with the Lindell’s Drop Forge Company and stayed there for several months, quitting it only when he tired of the intense heat, the noise, and burning of his clothes. It just wasn’t work of the sort he himself enjoyed, but he was successful in getting his brother Jose a job with Lindell’s, a company from which Jose only recently retired.
The two brothers searched around town for a new place they could all rent, finally picking a big multiple family building owned and operated by a divorced woman who lived on the premises. She was in her forties and the former wife of the Chief of Police in Lansing Michigan. When she met Ernesto her experienced eyes examined him from head to foot and her breathing increased perceptibly. Oh Lord, Rodriguez thought, here we go again.
Jose and his family moved into the building and Ernesto moved in with the landlady. She was certainly the oldest woman who had taken him to bed but as he soon learned, there was spring in her heart and there was little correlation between her age and her sexual appetite. Once again he became a kept man, a squaw man, in at least one sense of the word. Mrs. X enjoyed writing him checks for fifty dollars, sending him out to buy some small items, and the telling him to keep the change. Ernesto didn’t mind doing it at all.
When he quit the drop forge company he found a job more to his liking with the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors where he spent the whole day, appropriately enough, screwing door hinges on to doors and hoisting the assembled doors on to an overhead conveyor. It was cleaner, cooler, and quieter work than he had had at Lindell’s. He liked the company, the pay was good, and soon he was transferred to the punch press department, where he helped form automobile bumpers.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. X, always mindful of her age, became suspicious about how Ernesto spent his free time, suspecting, not without reason, that her boarder might be diddling young girls his own age. Whenever he came home later than she had expected she always wanted to know what he’d been doing. He usually told her he’d gone out with some guys, had had a few beers, and shot some pool. Sometimes it was the truth.
Whether he worked the day shift orl the night shift, she always knew what time he had to be at work. It was her custom to wait on him hand and foot in return for his services, even to the point of cooking his breakfasts–often steak flavored with orange peels, and eggs–and serving it to him in bed. It was his daily routine to eat the hearty breakfast she prepared, make love to her, and then go to work. She was not a person who preferred cuddling to friendly intercourse.
The relationship between Mrs. X, the landlady, and her inamorate foundered on the rocks of sexual preference. He did not share her enjoyment of oral sex and the disparity between their respective tastes led to a scuffle memorable for its hair grabbing, accusations, and earthy invectives. When the sounds reverberated throughout the building a neighboring tenant overheard the quarrel and attempted to mediate. Finding both contestants on that day’s card naked, the well meaning neighbor made a few quick comparisons of her own, offered a few well intended suggestions, and reluctantly departed the scene, harboring, heaven knows, what thoughts.
Ernesto moved in with his sister Sulema and her family and it was there that Sulema and Rudy Aranda persuaded Ernesto to send for Lupe and his two little girls, Patricia and Ernestine. After all, his sister pointed out, he did have a steady job now and surely he could support them with his income, low as it may have seemed to him. Sure as hell, other people did. Ernesto, for his part, not only worried about money but he also worried about what his long absence might have developed between them.
Nonetheless, it was agreed that when Sulema and Rudy went down to Houston a few days later for one of their periodic inspections of a house they owned there they would pick up Lupe and the two little girls in Fort Worth on the way back. But it was not to be because when Rudy and Sulema stopped at the address where Lupe was living a neighbor woman told them Lupe wasn’t there, that she was attending a funeral up in Oklahoma somewhere. The funeral she was attending was little Ernestine’s.
As Ernesto later learned, Lupe had farmed out the two little girls with their grandmother in Monday Texas. The grandmother had been given or had purchased cans of food damaged in packing, several of them containing deviled ham. Little Patricia.hadn’t wanted any, but Ernestine was hungry and ate a piece of bread covered with meat that turned out to be spoiled. She died that afternoon having seen her father only once for a few minutes.
Had this tragedy not occurred and had Lupe joined her husband in Lansing I think there is little doubt that Ernesto’s subsequent life would have been vastly different. If only Lupe had come north with the children. Ernesto wouldn’t have been sitting in a Lansing café named El Tango on November 18th, 1955. But then his life is filled with “If onlys”.
El Tango was open twenty-four hours a day and was flanked on either side by a parking lot. No alcoholic beverages were served in the restaurant, but the management never objected if the patrons brought a pint or a half pint into the place and chose to lace their coffee or soft drinks. In the two parking lots outside there were usually several vans parked with girls and/or bottle goods for sale. It was a tough place and at el tango anything went.
Quite by accident Ernesto had become the joint’s unofficial bouncer when he prevented the owner, a man name Ygnacio Manuelle, from being jumped by two blacks. Ernesto had been sitting at the counter sipping coffee. He had just come off the night shift at the Oldsmobile plant and he happened to hear the black men make plans to jump Ygnacio and grab the money from the till. Without saying a word, Ernesto had slipped into the kitchen, picked up a large carving knife and started pointedly at the two would-be thieves.
“Hey man,” one of them said, “what’s going on here?”
“Just waiting to see what you’re going to do next.” Ernesto replied.
The two men slammed some change on the counter and left hurriedly. When they had gone Manuelle approached Ernesto and thanked him.
“You didn’t have to do that, risk nothing,” he said. “I was waiting for them with this,” he explained, pulling out a short barreled, silver plated, .38 caliber revolver. “I could have shot them both, no sweat. But thanks anyway.”
On that fateful night of November 18th, Ernesto was tired, bone tired. He had just gotten off the night shift and he planned to have a second cup of coffee and then go back to Sulema’s and fall in bed. Nodding over his coffee, he was brought back to his senses by a loud greeting.
“Hey Ernesto!” a man about his age yelled, “What the hell are you doing here?”
It was a guy named Stanley Paszkowski, someone he had worked with at the drop forge company. No one could spell or even pronounce his name so he was know to most of his acquaintances as Stanley Driver. With Stanley, or stash, was another drop forge company friend of their named Harold Hardin, who palled around with Paszkowski. Rodriguez knew that when the two men drank they usually got really wound up and could raise a lot of hell. He wasn’t against a little friendly hell raising but he didn’t feel like it that night.
He remembers that evening very clearly, “Me and those guys got along pretty good, but I was too tired to go out and have any fun as they called it.”
“‘Come on, Rodriguez, you ain’t doing any good sitting here, just getting older, Paszkowski laughed, slapping me on the shoulder, ‘Come on with me and Harold. Let’s have a drink or two and see the sights. Got a couple of other guys in the car who want to join us.’
“Nah,” I told Standley. “If I go out with you guys I won’t get home until five or six in the morning. Too fucking late–I’m beat.”
“‘Ah, come on. Don’t be a jerk. You ain’t ready for the sack yet. Night cap or one for the road won’t do you no harm. Get off your ass.’”
“I knew that when Stanley and Harold got themselves drunk they liked to gun their car right down the main street, make the tires squeal, and that shit, but I got tired of arguing with them and told them I’d come along for just one drink and no more. When we got out to their car there was two guys in the back seat I’d never seen before. One was name Carl Shank and he was damn near passed out. He’d wake up, shake his head a few times, and then pass out again. The guy next to Shank was named Bauer. Bob Bauer.
“We set in the car for a little while, not long, past the bottle around. I learned that Stanley and Harold–I don’t know how Carl Shank got there–came across Bauer hitch hiking from Mason to Lansing and gave him a lift. Before I could say anything, Harold gunned the car out of its parking place, and gunned it down Grand River, saying we needed to get another bottle. I had no idea where we were going or where we were as I was new in town, it was winter and very cold.
“Harold stopped somewhere, got gas and a bottle of liquor, we all pitched in what we could, Bauer pitched in his only two dollars and fifty cents. Then Harold sped off down the road to Potter Park. I had never been there before– didn’t know anything about the park.
“We parked the car and had a few drinks–we were just shooting the shit. Just talking about ourselves nothing important, y’know. And that’s when Bauer started telling us how he’d been an M.P. in the Marines, and how tough he was, that sort of crap. He went on to tell us how he used his billy club, how he made the sailors do what he wanted them to do by putting the billy club between their legs and lifting it up against their nuts and march them off nice and easy.
“That cruelty to the sailors who were fighting for us overseas sounded out of place and it made us mad. Harold was the first one to speak up, “‘Oh I don’t think you’re that fucking touch,’ he told Bauer. ‘Let’s go outside and see what you can do, motherfucker.’ I knew Harold was feeling his liquor like the rest of us.
“I started to laugh because I was the only guy in the car who was not out of control and still somewhat sober. Here was three drunks going to get it on. Bauer didn’t want to get out and I was sitting next to the door so I had to get out to let Harold out. Stanley was driving so he could get out on his own side. I think it was Harold who pulled Bauer out of the car. There was quite a bit of snow and ice on the ground and it was slippery as hell. Harold was swinging at Bauer from about three feet away and missing most of the time. Bauer wasn’t swinging back, just covering his head.
“I was watching these two clowns and I told them neither one of them was worth a shit, that they ought to give it up. Harold was getting mad and he tried to grab Bauer but Bauer took off running across the snow. Harold tackled him and they was both rolling around on the ground. That’s when Stanley ran over and started kicking Bauer all over. I mean those guys went nuts, crazy or something.
“Hey!” I yelled , going over there, “You’re going to get us in trouble–you’re going too far here!”
“I pushed Paszkowski back and in the meantime Harold and Bauer got back on their feet. Paszkowski wanted to get in another shot at Bauer, but when I raised my arm to shove him back my hand got his nose, giving him a nose bleed. I didn’t mean to touch him or nothing, he just ran into my out-stretched hand when I tried to stop him.
“‘Oh goddamn’ Stanley screamed, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s my nose.’”
“I had noticed there was blood coming out of one of Bauer’s ears. ‘Look,’ I told the guys, ‘this can get real serious’ And I pulled Harold away from Bauer. ‘I don’t know what this man’s bleeding from, a punch or a kick. But we can all go to jail for this. Let’s stop this shit, put the man back in the car, and take him home.’
“Everybody started apologizing to everybody all over the place, and things were real friendly for a moment. Everybody in that car was crazy, goddamn crazy. Shank never did sober up and I never saw him get out of that car. He was still passing out and waking up. Bauer was telling us it was his fault to telling us how tough he was. But then when we tried to leave the spot we were parked in, we found out we were stuck in a snow drift. A couple of us had to get out and push. I was wearing a tee-shirt–my winter jacket was locked in my car back at the El Tango–so Bauer offered me his jacket.
“When we got back to the El Tango, I didn’t wait for them to stop the car, I just bailed out the door when they slowed down and yelled good bye. They drove off and after they’d gone I noticed I was still wearing Bauer’s jacket. I guess from what they told me later, Harold took Bauer back to his own place, fixed him a good breakfast, and then drove him to wherever Bauer was living.
“The next day they came out to the factory and arrested me for beating up, kidnapping, and robbing Bauer. Hardin, Shank, and Paszkowski were picked up too. For the same thing.”
The four men were taken to the county jail in Mason, Michigan, where they learned that Bauer was a pathological liar and what motivated his charges.
On the morning of the fight in the park Bauer had been scheduled for sentencing on a negligent homicide charge brought against him when, under the influence of alcohol, he had run over an elderly woman and fled the scene of her death. Instead of going to court, Bauer had gone to his lawyer’s office where the two of them concocted the story of his kidnapping, beating, and robbery. If Bauer would bring charges against the four men, his lawyer was sure that Judge Marvin J. salmon would dismiss the negligent homicide charges against him.
“The D.A.,” Ernesto recalls, “was a crooked son-of-a-bitch!. He came up and called me the instigator, because I was the one who talked the others into pleading not guilty to something we hadn’t done–like strong armed robbery.
“‘You want a jury trial do you Mr. Rodriguez, trying to make my job hard for me, is that it? You think you’re a tough guy, and wanta play ball, you know you can’t win, I can convict you of anything I want to charge you with–do you know that?-the jury will believe me not you…’
“‘Well, you want me to plead guilty to armed robbery and get fifteen years just to make your job easy, you lazy bastard. Do what you gotta do motherfucker! Lie if it will make you feel better, and if that’s the only way you can win this case, but I am not pleading guilty to something I have not done. All this was was a drunk fight between three men, and you want to charge me with robbery and kidnapping, fuck you.’
“You’re a tough son-of-bitch, that’s what you think you are,’ he told me. “Tell you what I’m gonna do, if you don’t do as I tell you–plead guilty to strong armed robbery–I’m gonna charge you with kidnapping which carries a life sentence–and I will convict you–and put you in prison for the rest of your life.’
Needless to say that Ernesto did not plead guilty. He refused the D.A.’s illegal plea bargaining, and to this day harbors a strong hatred for this man even though he has long forgotten his face or name.
Ernesto, being the experienced convict by now, had developed a strong antipathy for guards, whether they were in the Nebraska penal system or a Michigan county jail. Most of them to him were stupid and cruel, sadistic, troglodytes.
Strange as it may seem, the guards sensed a lack of respect for them on Ernesto’s part and it was only a matter of days before he was introduced to the county jail’s hole.
The hole in Mason was a cell about seven feet square, had no bunk or bed, one overhead light, and a hole about the size of a quarter in the floor which served as a urinal. To defecate, the prisoners had to ask permission of the guards to use the toilet in an adjacent cell. The door had a small observation window and a slot for a food tray.
When Ernesto was released from solitary the guards decided they had a perfect cell mate for him a prisoner named Carl Hedin, a well built six footer given to bullying and terrorizing his cell mates. Hedin was also hated by the Lansing Police Department, as he had more than once given them a good fight when they had tried to arrest him on a couple of occasions. The guards thought Ernie and Carl might enjoy each other’s company, and it made no difference to them who won or who lost, no sweat off their asses, they thought.
Hedin was considered a psychopath who came from a family of them. One of his brothers, who is now serving life in Jackson prison, had thrown gasoline on and then ignited the baby of the woman he was living with, after which he had beaten her with a baseball bat. At about one hundred and ninety pounds, Carl Hedin was hard headed and brutal. Before Rodriguez had joined the group in Hedin’s cell, Hedin had established physical dominance over the others and, with that established, helped himself to any food he wanted that appeared on the trays of the other prisoners. If each person was served one wiener and Hedin wanted more, he took them.
The cell Hedin and Rodriguez shared held eight men, four on a side, their bunks suspended from the walls in two tiers. Immediately outside the cell was a recreation area which held a picnic type table where the men ate.
Ernesto still remembers their fights. He didn’t like men who bullied others and he sure as hell didn’t have much use for people who tried to mistreat him. “One day when the other guys were let out into the recreation area, I decided to stay in the cell. Hedin stayed there too.
“‘Me and you,’ he tells me, ‘have to get it on.’
“‘Look Hedin,’ I warned him, ‘I got nothing against you, and this is just what the guards want and I don’t want to play into their hands, they want us to fight. And furthermore, I have been fighting all my life, one way or another, and I know how to use my dukes. I don’t want to hurt you.’
“We didn’t get into it that day. I guess he didn’t want to. The guy was nuts, not all there. He sure as shit wasn’t playing with a full deck. But two days later–in the evening it was after he’d just popped another guy in the eye Hedin came up to me and said, ‘Okay, Rodriguez, it’s time to get it on!’
“Don’t be dumb,” I told him. “You want to go around hitting on people, that’s your business. Why just look at what you did to Warren Harris’ face over there.”
“When Hedin turned to look at Harris–the guy he’d been beating on–I unloaded a left and a right on him. Sucker punches, yes-sir. Closed one eye for starters.”
“He went over backwards and I stayed with him. We fought back on to our feet and I did everything imaginable to that guy. I kicked him in the nuts. I ran both my thumbs clean up into his eye sockets. I mean I raised hell with him. But I couldn’t take him out. A tough son-of-a-bitch. Finally we fell backwards on to one of the bunks, he was choking me with his left arm and hitting me with his right fist. He wrapped his legs around my hips putting me in a scissor lock. I smashed the back of my head against his mouth and nose several times, and beat into his ribs with my elbows until he screamed.”
“‘I give up–let’s quit,’ he gasped, shaking his head. ‘I don’t want to fight no more.’
“It was music to my ears,” Ernesto admitted, “But I wanted a confession out of the son-of-bitch, for the whole jail to hear.”
“I just got up, grabbed him by the collar and banged his forehead against the bars. ‘You want to call it quits,’ I told him. ‘If you do, you tell everyone, now, that you will not bully anyone in this jail again, tell them now and out loud where they can hear you.’
“He did, and for a few days afterwards he acted okay. But then I saw him making a shank, a knife, from the handle of one of those large jailhouse aluminum drinking cup. I knew damn well he was making it for me, so I made myself a shank from an angle iron I unscrewed from a window frame. I took a shorter piece of angle iron from the same frame and gave it to Harris so he could make one too. Mine was about fifteen inches long and Harris’ about six. We made rag handles for them and sharpened both of them on the floor until they were sharp as hell, like needle points.
“One of the guys in our cell was a homosexual, a really harmless guy but looney tune for sure. We all knew he was one and left him pretty much alone. One of the guys who’d seen him in action said every time he blew some one off he’d try to blow taps or reveille with the guys penis. Probably reminded him of his Boy Scout days. Like real weird he was.
“Well, one afternoon Hedin decided he wanted the fag to suck him off. The fag was in the bunk above Harris, and Hedin with his pecker in his hand, was standing next to where Harris was lying. Harris took one look at that thing near his face and jumped out of that bunk.
“‘Get your goddamn dick out of my face, you sick son-of-a-bitch,’ Harris growled at Hedin, ‘or I’ll kill you.’
“They got into an argument, Harris and Hedin, and that’s when I jumped in. Harris was no match for him. ‘Look,’ I reminded Hedin, ‘you promised you weren’t going to pull this bullshit anymore, that you were not going to fight with anyone no more. What’s the matter with you?’
“‘This is it,’ Hedin answered, pulled out his shank, and came at me in a rush.
“I threw my arm up, bought a little time, and was able to pull his Tee Shirt over his head. Gave me time to get my own shank out. I stuck him real good, about four inches deep, on the left side of his stomach.’
“‘Goddamn’ Hedin yelled, grabbing his side, and then I kicked him and he went flying backwards. But that son-of-bitch was like a cat. He was right up on his feet again. He nicked me on the chest above the heart, and I got him a deeper one across the eye and across his cheek. He charged again and we hit so hard I was slammed against the wall and dropped my shank. I got it before he did and we fought all over that fucking cell, rolling over and over, both of us trying to get the other guy down. He succeeded in getting me on my back but I had a pretty good grip on the arm of his that was holding the shank. He had a hold on my right hand in which I had my shank.
“When I felt his shank cutting into my neck behind my ear and across my face, and hearing him screaming that he was going to cut my fucking head off, I panicked. I twisted my wrist away from his grip and buried my shank into his back and ribcage, burying it as deep as it would go again and again until he rolled off me exhausted, bleeding profusely and dying.
“I put the bloody shank to his throat and pushed it in to his skin until I saw blood. One move or one more word out of your fucking mouth, and I’ll bury this motherfucking through your throat. It’s self defense. Tell me, you motherfucker do you want to die!”
“Hedin’s mouth was full of dripping blood. He was unable to speak, shook his head no, and his pleading eyes seemed to be begging for mercy. I felt no remorse–I felt the pain of several cuts one on my face, chest and shoulder. But I knew if I didn’t stop I could be charged with first degree murder.”
Harris, according to Ernesto was screaming for him to kill Hedin, “Kill him! Kill him!”
When Ernest told me he had made a deal with Hedin, I immediately asked him if there was indeed any honor amongst thieves. He laughed and said that as always he had to learn the hard way that, no, there is no honor amongst criminals–none whatsoever.
The deal Ernesto claims he made with Hedin was that if Hedin would keep his mouth shut about who cut him, that he Ernesto would keep his mouth shut about Hedin cutting him. Ernesto further agreed to call the jailers for help to take Hedin to the hospital. Hedin who was bleeding from his wounds, from his nose and mouth quickly agreed by shaking his head yes.
Ernesto and the others in the jail cell made loud noises to attract the jailers who came and removed Hedin to the local a hospital where he was treated for superficial cuts rather than stab wounds, cleaned up and returned to the same jail cell.
Ernesto realizing what had happened, immediately called for help again and informed the jailers that Hedin had been stabbed and was bleeding internally, and Hedin was again removed from the cell and hospitalized for surgery.
It was later learned that Carl Hedin had lost one half of a lung, and when it became infected they took out the whole lung. Hedin had lost over one hundred pounds–when he was returned to jail–he only weighed eighty-five pounds.
“So much for honor amongst thieves,” Ernesto said, “Hedin was in jail charged with car theft, resisting arrest, and with assaulting two Lansing police officers. But his lawyer Steward Dunnings, who was also my lawyer, threaten to sue the county if the charges were not dropped against Hedin. They seemed to have lost me in the wheelings and dealings–lost in the shuffle.
“I was put in the hole after the knives were found and everybody snitched me off, even the assholes I was protecting had to snitch to get themselves off. I was in the hole for better than six months.
“Hedin and been returned to the jail and placed in a hospital ward directly in front of my cell, where we could see and hear each other through the barred cell doors. He told me he had not wanted to snitch on me but that his attorney had advised him to do.
“When one of Hedin’s brothers came to visit him, he came to my cell and threatened to kill me if I ever got out,” Ernesto said. “I told him he had better start practicing and polishing up his skills because he was going to need them, if he wanted to do better than his brother. I further explained that I had no intentions of staying in prison any longer than my sentences, and that he could look forward to seeing me then.”
Ernesto stayed behind bars for a long time. In April of 1956 he, Hardin, Paszkowski, and Shank were tried for kidnapping, as the District Attorney had promised. On the same day of the trial the newspapers published lurid accounts of the fight in the county jail. Pictures of Ernesto’s long knife and the one used by Hedin were shown. It also contained the “kidnapping and robbery chages” alleged by Bauer. None of this was, of course, especially helpful to Ernesto.
Once during the trial, Bauer testified that Rodriguez had robbed him of two dollars and fify cents. “Tell the goddamn truth!” Ernesto exploded. Jumping to his feet, and on the witness stand at the time Bauer suddenly remembered how he had voluntarily contributed to the purchase of a bottle of liquor. Unfortunately, the trumped up, specious charges brought against the four men were believed by judge and jury.
Carl Shank, who had been semi-comatose most of the evening, was sentenced to three years to fifteen years for kidnapping. Harold Hardin and Stanley Paszkowski, both of whom may have deserved punishment for assault and battery, were sentenced to five years to fifteen years for kidnapping. And Ernesto, thanks to his previous time in prison and the guards’ deliberate decision to punish him by putting him in the same cell with Hedin, was sentenced to seven and one half years to fifteen years at Jackson prison.
Ernesto’s treatment at the hands of our court system to date had been less than fair or reassuring. The first time he’d been arrested–when he’d been fourteen years old–he had been booked for vagrancy, a preposterous charge for a boy living with his parents in his own home town. His second offense, this time as a fifteen year old, was for defending himself with a knife against the attact of a twenty-three year old man. In that instance a parole officer lied to a judge before sentence was passed. His third and perhaps most serious offense when, using a butcher knife, he attacked an older migrant worker for injuring his mother, Ernesto missed a chance for clemency because he didn’t know the meaning of the word “violate“, when the judge asked him whether he had violated his parole Ernesto said yes, when in fact, he hadn’t. But even worse, in that case Ernesto was never given the opportunity to face his accuser. A deposition had been taken but depositions can’t be cross examined. The Michigan case was a travesty, the case of an overzealous prosecutor and an under perceptive judge and jury. The story occurred as it has been related and Ernesto, for all his shortcomings and rebelliousness, had no damn business being put in jail, certainly not, at least, on the word of a plea bargaining, pathological liar.
Several months later, after Ernesto had been remanded to the tender loving care of the State Penitentiary at Jackson, Michigan, Robert Bauer, appeared for the second time and third time before judge Marvin J. Salmon, who must have recovered his Solomonic sense of justice. On these two occasions Bauer was tried, convicted, and sentenced for the brutal beating of seventy-six year old man and for the armed robbery of a grocery store. After his third brush with Bauer, Salmon reportedly , in a Lansing news article, admitted that he had sent four men to prison on Bauer’s word and that he regretted having done so.