dranthonysblog

March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.

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Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

October 28, 2012

Charcoal (my dog’s true tale)

During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast.  It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves.  We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited.  Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.

While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways.  Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me.  I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home.  When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.

Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10.  Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping.  They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries.  I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself!  I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me.  I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick!  He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail.  From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind.  The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?”  Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.

Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up.  After that, he slept at the foot of my bed.  We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly.  Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight.  As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.

I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much.  We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach.  When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.

I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often.  One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too!  After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees.  Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.

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Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game.  He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house.  This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night.  It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him.  I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!

When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos.  The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase!  This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.

The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home.  One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows.  The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it.  I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home.  At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out.  By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!

The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal.  One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games).  Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store.  I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine.  When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around.  I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck.  I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up.  Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up.  If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive.  He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!

When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water.  I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore.  He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again.  Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.

Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade.  I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then.  Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside.  One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long.  I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called.  I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog.  I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before.  He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine.  I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks.  I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him.  He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.

In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him.  I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…

July 9, 2011

The last Space Shuttle launch; before, during, and after!

I had seen it live before, but this was the last one, and so we had to see it again – one more time!

Then we waited…

And took in a few sites…


And this…

And, unfortunately, also this.

We had a brief scare that was caused, or so I was told, by someone’s lunch left unattended!

We also entertained ourselves…

Then we watched as it started!

And we were rewarded with this!

Then this…

And this too!

Then fairly quickly it was out of sight!

But definitely not out of mind…

Then or ever!

We soon left as we came, people from all over.

Leaving all at once!

It was quite a morning and quite a crowd too!

It took a while, and we were a little sad, but still excited, though a lot tired, much in awe, but happy to be back home!

March 30, 2011

Waking up…

I was sleeping soundly like many of us do during the work week.  I was young and living far from home when I awoke to the sounds of a siren and a voice from a loudspeaker.  As my consciousness returned, I quickly recalled that I was not in southern California living in the college dorms at UCSB anymore.  No, I slowly remembered that I had taken a break from college to learn more about the real world and travel.  I had joined the Army, attended training in Texas and Indiana, and was now living in Germany.

The voice and sirens that I heard were coming from a military police vehicle and I was being told to report to work.  The voice also said that it was not known if this was a training exercise or a real world alert.  That is how I found out that the United States had retaliated on Libya in 1986 for, among other things, the bombing of a disco in Berlin that was a favorite hang out for soldiers like me.

This time around, my military service days are memories, which have been replaced by parenthood, teaching, and working on the east coast.  Though I found out about our latest engagement with Libya in a more mundane way, via the Internet, it reminded me of the very real threats that exist outside of our work-a-day lives.  Threats that many of us, even in a post 9/11 world, still appear to take for granted.

How this is going to end is anyone’s guess, though many, as always, are making predictions, but the truth is they do not know.  Meanwhile, most of us wake up to alarm clocks and start our days and only think about these things when we hear about them on the news or when someone brings it up in conversation.

As for me, well I am at a point in life when I am just content to be waking up to a new day, though with far less a sense of certainty about what the future will bring than I had 25 years ago…

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