177 | Birthday Road Trip

June 8, 2011
Wednesday, 7:00 p.m.
Letter #177: Birthday Road Trip


Dear Family,

Birthdays. My mom knows how to throw the absolute best themed birthday parties ever: Sailboat, Noah’s Ark, Circus, Camping, Water, etc. Last year, I created a big party for myself right in my own housing unit. Out of our 40-man pod, I got a full 12 to play Simon Says in our dayroom. I’d been missing that game, remembering when I would lead 300, 500, 600, and even 1200 children as “Simon” years ago. I was good. Frankly, I’m the best at Simon Says of anyone (other than possibly the original Simon, who, I am assuming, is probably “out” by now, himself).

Several guys didn’t want to play last year—only two were willing—until they found out I was giving microwave popcorn, sodas, and candy bars away to the top two winners and mini candy bars to each participant. For months afterward, the staff were constantly referring to me as “Simon.” (the whole thing was observed on camera, and those not present were filled in.) I guess it was a prison “first.” Yeah, I’m not trying exactly to “fit in” with my surroundings.

For this year—though several guys requested a re-match with Simon—I figured it would have to be different. Many guys have already transferred to facilities in Michigan, California, and Arizona, and I knew my time at Florence was drawing to a close. I discovered that I’d be transferred on my birthday. That meant no belongings. No party. But, when you are locked up behind walls and fences, a road trip is the best birthday celebration.

The last Sunday we would be able to have chapel services, I was in the chapel, setting up all the sound equipment my brother Brian donated, which enabled our whole worship team to have microphones, plus tons of cables—I was using two keyboards, plus drums and guitars. Just before the chapel service started, the chaplain told me I had a visitor! My mom surprised me. 🙂 After leading worship, I had a special two days of visit. Tuesday morning, all my stuff got packed up—letters, music, college work, clothes. Four boxes seems miniscule, but is more than most guys have. (One 20″x20″x20″ box was filled with letters!)

Saturday arrived. Normally, a birthday that includes you, naked in front of someone (if you’re married!) would be considered awesome. Make that someone an officer, and suddenly, being in your birthday suit is not so awesome … and that was before 6:00 a.m.! Gratefully, he gave me clothes to wear. Not so gratefully, the elastic-waistband pants were size 4X. To make the experience much more interesting, I was not allowed to wear undergarments. Or a belt. (Everybody sing the viral hit: “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground. Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground.”)

To add to the birthday festivities, handcuffs (fun if married! Not fun with an officer!) with a lockbox in between them was secured by a chain around my midsection. To simulate this, you at home, take your left arm and hold it, like in a sling, at your belly, palm up. Now, just above it, place your right arm (in another sling) with the palm facing down. You won’t be moving those for several hours. Meanwhile, just picture you’re holding a baby kitten and keep quiet. Leg shackles are prison’s way of training you to walk like a bridesmaid, with all the excitement of A Christmas Carol’s Jacob Marley’s chains, plus the challenge of standing for long periods in formation like a precision marching band in flip-flops, struggling with their pants to keep it a family show.

Because God has a sense of humor and I have a sense of smell, I was placed directly next to my old cellie, Andrew. (I’d only moved one cell over, with a Christian guy, after my unit manager had pity on me.) We made a splendid parade, clinking and clanking our way onto the bus for our 30-minute ride through the desert to La Palma (it sounds like a resort!) Correctional Center (it isn’t a resort!). Andrew does not look out windows or generally act normal, so I craned my neck to see around him all the wildlife we passed by.

Then, it was off the bus (YAY! Stairs in leg irons!) while guards with pepper spray canisters and pepper spray-filled paintball guns observed us (now, that’s a party!). It would have been fun to run, were it not for my bridesmaid training gear. Since everyone constantly verifies who you are when transferring, with full name and birthdate, I had several staff wish me a happy birthday.

The facility is nice. For my birthday dinner, we were served a whole orange each!—it had been three years—and as my special gift, I got Andrew as a cellie again. Simon says: plug your nose.