I hate prison guards. I don’t know why it feels so bad to say that. If ever there was a cats vs. dogs rivalry that has stood the test of time, it would be the one between keeper and kept. Just think of the Egyptian whip-master that Moses left bottoms up in the sand. Or the nasty-ass Byron Hadley from Shawshank Redemption. In my own private Idaho, some of the worst tattoos I’ve ever gotten came off the tip of a screw’s boot.
So then why I can’t detest my captors with a clean conscience? When I dig around in the soil of my soul, the reason becomes as evident as it is inconvenient. The naked fact of the matter is that not all those who lock me in my cage at night are ogres. Under a different sky, some of them would probably be a friend…
The first time I met Merv, I thought he was an escaped mental patient. Bald as the surface of the sun and twice as cheery, he looked as out of place in a guard’s uniform as a seal hunter at a Greenpeace fundraiser.
“Hello there. You’re here to see the doctor?” Merv might have been a Walmart greeter in his past life – or a sunny subordinate in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. He’s the kind of guy whose words pop into the world like on-line male-enhancement ads. BIGGER! FASTER! HAPPIER! That’s probably what brought him to the broom closet sized guard post in the hospital. Usually it served as the time-out room, housing some unruly bull who had recently peed in the Warden’s parking spot. Until then, every guard I’d ever seen working there looked like they were doing time in the Gulag. Apparently Officer Merv missed that memo.
Mercifully, just as the turnkey hit second gear in his unsolicited monologue, the loudspeaker in the corner crackled to life. “All inmates return to your cells. Emergency lock down.” Usually that broadcast means a week of brown-bagged meals and days without a shower – a real punch in the kidney. But that day it felt more like a lifesaver.
“Can you sign my pass?” I asked, looking at my watch. “And make sure you put the time down. I don’t want them docking me a day’s pay for unauthorized absence. It’s 8:15.”
Merv glanced at his wrist. “Really? Mine says 8:30. Stupid thing. It’s always screwing up on me. I’d get a new one except this was a Christmas present. If my kid ever saw me without…”
“I really got to go, guy. If I’m not in my cell in five minutes, I’m in big trouble.”
“Right. 8:15 a.m. and … there’s a signature. I’ll put it in the logbook too – that way you can get another appointment with the doctor right away. I mean, it’s not your fault, right? Crazy lock downs. You know it seems like they’re always…”
“Thanks guy.” I grabbed my pass and breezed out the door into the great unknown. Lock downs are funny that way. You never know how the day will end. But the signed piece of paper I now clutched like a rosary meant that I may not have seen the last of the sociable sentry from sickbay.
Six weeks later, I was sitting in a boardroom filled with administrators, and chained between two dancing deepfreezes in uniform. Warden’s court. I had been in the hole since the day of the lock down, charged with breaking into a restricted area. Evidently, someone had been picking the lock to the deputy warden’s office and using his phone. On the morning in question, a staff member had positively seen me leaving the area. He even noted the time. 8:10 a.m. – sharp. Whether I spent the next year in maximum security or not depended very much on the testimony of the next – and final – witness.
“You’re sure?” the court chairperson asked Officer Merv.
“Absolutely. His appointment was at 7:55 and he left at 8:15. It’s all right here.” The guard pushed his open logbook across the table for inspection. The administrator gave it a quick glance. Then he picked up the pass I had offered as evidence, inspecting it closely. It matched the logbook exactly. Finally he held my eyes with a hard and piercing stare.
“Well sir,” he finally said to me, “it seems that there’s been a mistake. A person can’t be in two places at one time now, can he? I’m dismissing the charge. But I will say that you’re very lucky that this officer keeps such good records. Very lucky, indeed.”
Outside the courtroom I asked my escorts for a private moment with Officer Merv.
“Thanks for coming today. I’m sure it won’t win you any brownie points with your boss.’
Merv’s smile filled the room. “Just doing my job. Besides, the warden is the one who posted me in the hospital. Said I needed to improve on my paperwork, “ he said with a wind. “Which reminds me – I finally got a new watch. And you should see the manual for it. It has a calculator, an address book, a voice recorder, and it even…”
Fourteen years later, when Merv was diagnosed with glandular cancer, I was the first person in the prison – staff or inmate – to give him a hug. We were right in front of the cell block, with all the world watching. I sure hope he doesn’t hate me for that.