Chopper Cal and the campers who couldn’t get away

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Prison is a place of paint. Not layers. Inches. Every joint I’ve ever been in has the same circadian rhythm – once a year, the place gets a new coat of grey. Sometimes grey is blue, sometimes it’s yellow. But always grey. Prisoners knew about this long before salacious soccer moms did.

Prison is also a place of stories. And if you think they lay the paint thick on the walls, you should see what they do with a narrative. Every junkie who ever passed a pleading note to a bank teller suddenly becomes John Dillinger. The twenty-year-old who bruised the heels of the goon-squad’s boots with his face? Say hello to the new Jet Li. But even in the house of happily never afters, there are some legends that just can’t get any greyer, no matter how hard you wash them. Like the tale of Chopper Cal.

Back in the early 90’s, when North America was still basking in the powdered sunshine of Pablo Escobar, and the worst problem at the Whitehouse was which humidor the cigars went into, the world seemed like a place pregnant with possibilities. Not even a gloomy little jail on Vancouver Island was immune to the pixie dust of hope. Cal had been bunked there for almost two years, accused of a death he swore he had no hand in.  So when his day in court finally arrived, anticipation filled the cellblock like the scent of fresh-scratched lottery tickets.

It was the shortest murder trial most prisoners will ever see. From his cell to the courthouse, and back again, Cal didn’t even miss lunch. After a year of blustering sound bites on the evening news, the Crown prosecutor had stayed the charges; it was over. Cal was going home – to his parent, his fiancée, and life put on pause for the previous twenty months. But he wouldn’t be going alone.

It doesn’t take much more than a night in the drunk-tank to know that prison changes you. Mostly it leaves a greasy residue of fear, hate, and anger – with a heavy dusting of cynicism. But prison – much like the military Cal had served in during his late teens and early twenties – also has a bizarre way of turning the most casual acquaintances into friendships you’d die for. And in Cal’s case, those acquaintances knew exactly which heartstrings to tug.

“They told me they were innocent – you know – same as me,” Cal mumbled one day over a bowl of tomato soup. He and I had been dining alone at the same chow-hall table for a couple of months, and though never asked, I knew why he was there. We all did. Every bull in the place hated his guts, and rumour was that the stone-faced con even had a bounty on his head. Not hard to imagine, considering his beef.

After Cal was released from the Vancouver Island jail, he had tried to find his way back into life. Monthly bills, weekend dinners at Mom and Pop’s, and Tuesday nights with a new release from Blockbuster video. The problem was the phone calls. First they were weekly. Then they came more often, more urgent. “Remember your work,” they said, “remember your promise.” How could he forget? When he was staring down the barrel of a life sentence, who had stood beside him? Who had helped him survive those first weeks behind bars – weeks that turned into months – when everyone but his parents had already judged him? These guys were his real friends. No matter what, he wouldn’t let them down.

Having military training and contacts helped. A friend fro the local base got the guns and radios for a decent price. The motorbikes were a little trickier. If ever found, they could never come back to Cal – or his hometown. Luckily, a crack head in Victoria knew a crack head in Nanaimo, who knew a crack head somewhere else. It’s no longer amazing what a hundred bucks will get you on East Hastings. The only thing left was the transportation.

According to those in the yard that day at Kent maximum-security institution in Agassiz, B.C., the helicopter came in low, from the west. The Forces had trained Cal well. First he shot up the towers, then the prowler truck. From touchdown to take off, they were back in the air in less than ninety seconds – two convicts heavier. Nobody dead, no fingerprints – event he poor high jacked pilot would later fail to pick Cal’s mug from an RCMP catalogue of rogues. A promise paid, in the perfect shade of grey.

“They caught the boneheads that same night, on an island in the Fraser River,” said Cal. “They lit a fire. Can you believe it? We were on BBC news in Europe, and these guys are having a weenie roast.” Then Cal got real quiet, and a lemon look crept south across his face.

“Somebody talked,” he finally said. “A week later I was at Thanksgiving dinner with my parents. My girl was there, even Grandma. The phone rang, and it was the SWAT team. At least they let me come outside instead of destroying my folks’ place. After the pilot identified me in court, I was cooked. They gave me nine years and sent me here.”

Here. Kent Institution. And his new case management officer? It was the same guard who was in the prowler truck the first time Cal visited Kent. The poor sod still had a limp from the stray bullet that punched through his kneecap that day. He never, ever let Cal forget it. Sometimes in La maison grise, it’s not just the stripes that come in black and white.


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