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He put the pen in penitentiary

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“Roger. Roger Caron,” a disembodied voice called out from the next cell.

I returned the courtesy, adding that I was from the west coast.

“Long way from home.”

“Not really,” I replied. For more than a decade, home had been an almost unbroken series of six-by-ten cages with vertical-bar views. That this one was in the Ottawa Carlton Detention Center made it no less familiar. “Home is wherever they have room service,” I added.

“Yeah, I know a little something about that,” said the voice called Roger Caron.

We babbled on a bit through the waist high six-by-twelve feeding slots in our steel-plated doors, lighting on hollow topics like stink flies dimpling a summer calmed lake, never once seeing the face of the other. That’s a good snapshot of prison; high security row-housing and faceless voices. But there was something about this voice… something.

“Roger? Did you ever write a book?”

“Yup.” Long silence. “A few actually.”

“Yeah, I — I think I might a read it.” The words stumbled out all crippled and embarrassed, as awkward as an adolescent lie. I didn’t think I had read Caron’s stuff, I knew I had. I even remembered the lion print bedspread I had laid on while reading.

Looking back, the last years under my father’s roof were really just spring training for the decades of prison ahead. And whenever the warden forced me to be there, I would barricade myself in my room and read. Betty and Veronica, Black Beauty, Alex Hailey’s Roots, Sports Illustrated, music lyrics on album sleeves — I would even study the Eaton’s Catalogue, back in those days when the postman brought it. So when a compassionate grandmother took note, and a gift subscription to the Reader’s Digest started sliding under the door, it felt like a birthday cake with a file in it. That’s where I first met Roger Caron.

Back in 1978 Caron had poured onto paper his life experiences in reforrmatories, prisons, and mental institutions. The result — Go Boy!  — was that year’s recipient of the Governor General’s Award for English non-fiction. Then, in the early ‘80’s, the Digest unleashed its trademark mojo on the award-winning novel, shrinking it to a five-thousand-word condensed book feature. It was just the right size for a pre-pubic felon in training. Caron’s tails of escape from thirteen prisons and jails — more than any other Canadian prisoner — took my locked-down teenage heart over the fences with him. It also left me with a two-word title that would soon become my mantra.

“I haven’t written for a long time,” Caron said, breaking the silence.  “I have Parkinson’s now, and it makes it hard to… focus.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I lied. We may have shared the same taste in books but the fact was that I didn’t know the man in the next cell from a postage stamp. I had never even seen his face. I owed him nothing — certainly not empathy. For all I knew, he could be some pathological fibber — or worse, an RCMP plant, working me for information. And before Michael J. Fox made it popular, who ever heard of Parkinson’s?

“Well Roger, nice talking to you, but I have to water the lilies. I’ll catch up with you later.” That’s what passes as a polite disconnect on the cell-ephone; I have to piss. It was another lie of course, but if the man one cell over was who he claimed to be, he would have known that — and been happy that I did so first. Twenty minutes later the guard came by and locked our food slots. Life moved on.

Roger Caron finally finished his time this month — dying in the same sort of place he had lived the majority of his life — an institution. That it was a nursing home in Cornwall, Ontario and not a penitentiary in Kingston meant little I’m sure. By his own admission, Caron was born to run and even if the death certificate said “natural causes,” I’m sure that the last thing he heard was the rush of the wind in his ears, and the sound of the chase from behind.

Prime Minister Trudeau once referred to Caron as a great Canadian. Not bad for a guy that the newspapers once dubbed “Mad Dog.” I wonder what it would take today for a sitting Prime Minister to acknowledge a former career criminal as a great citizen. I don’t imagine that a cold beer and a handful of Oxycontins would hurt. But since the chances of that are about as good as an effective climate change policy, I won’t start bugging my warden for a pass to the Governor General’s residence. Besides, not even perfect prose could give us another Roger Caron. The Canada he belonged to has been filed away forever — along with all those other books whose first line is, “Once upon a time…

 

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