November 12, 2017
Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Letter #473: Prisoners of War
Not much stays secret at any prison, and I’ve found that the smaller the institution, the quicker the rumors and information flies around. With movement restricted from dorm to dorm, the latest gossip can either be had in the chow hall during mealtimes or in the classrooms during school hours. Within hours—and usually minutes—of anything happening or any “news” being received, nearly everyone at the prison knows about it.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when not one person, staff, or inmate could tell me what manner of secret event the warden was planning for Thursday afternoon this week. As a Music Event Coordinator, I was told to have the band ready to perform, but nothing else. Normally, I’d be told if she was planning to host a special guest or if a certain class’ graduation necessitated the performing of a custom song on the topic of say, drug addiction or making positive changes. Not this time. No one had any idea what the special event was all about, and those who knew weren’t saying a word.
Thursday morning dawned, and still no one had a clue about the event until special priority ducats were delivered to only a few select inmates in each dorm. Since ducats operate as either a ticket for admission (for example, to a church service) or as a summons (for example, to the doctor), we could easily figure out the intent of the event by who was invited. It seemed that every guy who had been in the United States Military at some point had received a ducat. “This must be an event to honor veterans,” I thought.
My buddy, Daniel, and I discussed our suspicions, but there were two glaring flaws in our theory: One, a close friend and fellow choir member who lives in our dorm, Scott, had not received a ducat to the event, and he is a military veteran. Two, a nearly-crazy career criminal in our dorm, Richie, received a ducat. He is the opposite of a military veteran, if there ever was one. We were stuck.
The visiting room tables quickly filled with guys from every dorm, an eclectic group, for sure. Guys in their twenties to early sixties were represented, and it soon became clear that besides us musicians, every other attendee was in the United States Military at some point in his life. Well, every other attendee but Richie, that is.
At the last moment, Scott showed up and was ushered to a seat near Richie. The warden herself had noticed he was missing and sent officers out to go look for him, then personally welcomed him to his reserved seat at a table.
The festivities began with a speech from the warden welcoming everyone and thanking the gathered veterans in attendance for their courageous service.
As if it weren’t enough, she then called up each one by name and gave them a laminated certificate with their name surrounded by the emblems of each branch of our military. She and other high-ranking prison officials shook their hands, saying to each one in turn, “Thank you for your service.” It was a powerful display of humility and gratitude, for sure. I haven’t seen anything like it in all my years of incarceration, and neither had any of the other men present.
Next, the band played, entertaining the honored guests while the prison staff served them hot dogs and chili with all the toppings you could imagine and individual chip bags and lemonade. The kitchen made the best cake I’ve ever had here, thick with gooey frosting. Those of us “entertaining the troops” as it were got ours last, but there was so much food, that everyone was encouraged to go back for more. And more. And more. And still there was food left over.
You know the parable Jesus tells in Luke 14 of the guy who hosts a feast, but the guests never show up, so he invites everyone from off the street to enjoy the feast? It was like that, as key workers were invited, like the maintenance crew and the staff clerks.
I helped serve them, but I did my part trying to kill as much food as possible. I ate six hot dogs, two bags of chips, two bowls of chili, and an undisclosed amount of cake, and by the end of it, there was still some of everything left over, lots of it. This “please have more, if you’d like” never happens in prison, either.
And whatever happened to ol’ Richie, you ask? Well, we know that Scott got the Luke 15 “Parable of the Lost Sheep” treatment, with the Good Warden/Shepherd leaving the 46 or so others and finding him, so then Richie must’ve received the Matthew 7 treatment, where you’re known by your fruits, and “in that day, they’ll say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and I’ll say, ‘I never knew you,’” right? Nope. Not even close.
Richie got seated with all the veterans, a clear fish-out-of-water, but he’d decided to keep his mouth shut so as not to embarrass the warden for incorrectly inviting him. Besides, with nearly twenty years of prison under his belt, he’d never seen anything like this, and he was hungry. He accepted a beautiful certificate with his name on it, then sat and enjoyed the music while helping himself to just five hot dogs, eight bags of chips, and lots of chili and cake. He wasn’t kicked out, because prison isn’t Heaven, but it turns out he is a veteran, after all: a veteran of Veteran’s Day Banquets.