by G. Wilford Hathorn
© 2002. All Rights Reserved

 Recently I had occasion to rage, to shake my fist at the forces that govern the destinies of men. It wasn’t the first time I’d thrown such a tantrum, for the death row existence, with its oppression and endless cycles of aggravations large and small, compels the growth of disenchantment. When one walks into the building that houses the condemned a wave of visual, olfactory, and aural ugliness strikes him with such force that his instinct is to flee this atmosphere wherein one’s soul is drained of its zest. The reason I was mad on this particular day was that my best friend, who lived five cells away, had learned he’d been given an execution date. Because his appeals were exhausted some weeks ago he had expected it, and while he waited was permeated by a constricting anxiety, the undertow of an inconsolable futility, and, in the mystic way of people who have witnessed senseless death after senseless death, his feelings became my own. I felt the dread, the coldness in my bones as the time nears for one to change from a living, breathing being to an inanimate, decaying thing. But there was nothing I could do, no comfort I could offer as a friend and fellow human being, so I silently but forcefully raged in my cell, and felt no shame at the tears gouging their horrible, hot trails down the contours of my face.

 My friend is gone now, moved to the death watch wing to wonder about things that might have been and deal with his fate, and I hope, if only so he may find joy by forgetting the future, that included in his cinematic musings are a few memories of when he and I managed to share a laugh. I will miss him. Meanwhile I continue to look into the tunnel I encountered when I came to the row, an infinity that demands analysis of the outermost limits of man’s finite existence, its uncertainty, its mystery. And only by eschewing the safety of the daylight and navigating the tunnel’s midnight entrapments may the answers I seek be found. I know this tunnel intimately, for the voices of 250 of my past acquaintances resound from its walls, and, while it is not my, nor anyone’s, friend, I have forged with it an uneasy truce. In return it forgives the bastard ghost of my pride. This symbiosis allows me to walk its length and breadth unencumbered, and it has no objection when from its breath I glean the tales and observations that beg to be shared with you.

 One such story is about two of my oldest and dearest friends, both victims a few days ago of the Texas Death Machine. One was killed on a Wednesday night, the other on Thursday. The first to go was Windell, an easygoing African-American whose ever-present smile was infectious and who, whether he liked them or not, always had a kind word for people. His approach to life was humility and respect, though not obsequiousness, and his demeanor made him one of the few prisoners I’ve known who was liked by most of the death row population. There was nothing threatening about Windell, for pride, as it is for many of our brethren, wasn’t the impetus behind his existence, and whenever one approached him that person felt he was in the presence of a long lost friend. I remember when Windell came to the row 10 or so years ago, as I was two cells down, and he, like all of us upon our arrival, was scared, angry, and suspicious, for what one knows of Death Row if he’s never been here is what he’s read, heard, or seen on TV, and more often than not that is false. At first when I or the other prisoners spoke he would respond with yes, no, or uh-huh, but when he realized that no one other than the State of Texas meant him harm he let his feelings flow. He had scads of questions about the Row, the appeal process, and what the guards expected of us, but his main concern was for the family he left behind. Knowing that family and friends rarely stick around once one comes to the Row, the more experienced prisoners, rather than falsely elevate his hopes, deftly avoided the topic, or at the very least addressed it generically.

 It turned out that on the day of his date I was in the visiting room, and sadly there sat Windell, eyes twinkling and smile gleaming, as his relatives, saying tearful goodbyes, struggled with the reality that life is brittle and crumbles while the Earth’s minions continue their business. I’ve never become accustomed to watching this tableau of pain, and would question my humanity if I ever did. Fortunately– this time– there were no child relatives present, but sorrow is universal and Windell’s loved ones were drowning in it. It happened that our visits ended simultaneously and as I was being escorted back to my cell I glanced in the cage where Windell waited for the death squad to shackle him for the trip to The Walls, and, my voice aquiver, said, “All right, Windell,” “all right” being a common convict greeting. He turned on the steel stool, flashed me a luminous grin, and said, "Hey, Big Geno! You take care now!". By this time I was past him and into the adjoining hall, and the hurt I felt, along with strychnine helplessness, made me want to scream until my throat shredded and bled. Down the concrete pathway we went, to the portico I mentioned in the previous story, and beyond the sliding gate on its opposite side, like a huge white beetle with brown eyes, sat the van which would transport Windell to that modern-day equivalent of a Nazi laboratory, the Texas Death Chamber. Several ranking officers stood around drinking sodas and eating candy bars (No apprehension over the role they were about to play in killing a man), and when I passed they glared at me, then looked at the van, their expressions saying, “See what lies in store for you, big boy?”

 Before another 10 minutes passed Windell would be on that van to Huntsville, the last ride he would ever take. I hoped that he would enjoy the view of Lake Livingston when they crossed over it on the way.

 In the spring of 2001, in response to the media outcry over the unfairness of the Texas capital punishment scheme (I refer to it as such because the death proponents certainly “scheme” to kill as many people as possible, regardless of innocence, mental illness, or trial counsel’s deficient performance), the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing any prisoner whose guilt was in question access to DNA testing, and the governor signed it into law. Shortly thereafter Windell’s attorneys, saying the results may prove him innocent (He’d always maintained his innocence), petitioned the court for permission to have certain crime-scene material tested, but were summarily rebuffed. The prosecutor’s arguments against allowing the testing was that there was sufficient evidence other than the DNA material to prove Windell’s guilt, said evidence consisting of the testimony of an 8-year-old girl who was present as the crime was committed. The courts bought the prosecutor’s contention and ruled against Windell, but one wonders what would have happened to the little girl’s testimony had the tests been allowed and showed that Windell was not at the scene? The prosecutor knew what would happen, hence his diligence in attempting to have the tests denied, and Windell’s execution proves that the law allowing prisoners access to DNA-testing is as much a fallacy as most other laws designed to “protect” the rights of capital defendants.

 Blue (Real name Randal) was a friend for a long, long time, much longer than Windell, and I recall when he came to the row, too, a tall, sullen biker with arms and torso covered in tattoos depicting scenes from Norse mythology. Blue did not talk often but when he did his voice was a charismatic rumble, and, truth to tell, we didn’t get along at first. One day we were at rec –this was when we were both fairly new to the row, and much younger– and had a disagreement, about what I can’t remember, and voices were raised, insults hurled, and body language heralded combat. Like two roosters Blue and I were nose to nose, each waiting for the other to make a move, and neither one blinked. Suddenly Blue burst out laughing, and, because he’d realized that I wasn’t afraid and respected that, slapped me on the back. We shook hands and remained friends until his death. We ran in different circles, as I am rather introverted and avoid crowds when I can, whereas Blue, having been involved with the biker culture since he was a teenager, enjoyed fraternal camaraderie, but we were always available to each other for talks and the occasional “spread”, which is what prisoners call it when they mix food together with peppers and cheese to be eaten on bread or flour tortillas. Sometimes we lived on different cell blocks and were separated for months, but when circumstances brought us together again the friendship would pick up where it left off.

 The last time we were on the same cell block, before Death Row was moved to the Polunsky Unit, I noticed that Blue was thinner than usual, even a bit frail, and when I asked about it he confided that a few months earlier he had noticed a knot in his throat. He requested to see a doctor and a week later was escorted to the office of a Chinese guy whom everyone knew was a quack – I don’t say this because of his nationality, but because he had previously erred in the treatment of so many prisoners’ illnesses. The quack gave the knot a cursory examination, pressing it with his fingers and grunting like he knew what he was doing, and without ordering a single test pronounced it a benign cyst. He told Blue there was nothing to worry about. Having no other option, as prisoners must be abide by what they are told by the medical staff, even those whose knowledge of medicine would not fill a teaspoon, Blue accepted the diagnosis and returned to his cell. As time passed the knot grew and became painful, and Blue had someone from the free world order a diagnostic medical book and mail it to him. He compared his symptoms to those listed in the book and every reading led to the same conclusion: Cancer. At his first opportunity he spoke to a nurse passing out medicine on the block and explained his suspicion, showing her the knot, which was now as large as a plum and hindered his ability to swallow and talk. Thankfully  the nurse, who shook her head in disbelief upon learning how Blue had been treated by the quack, was a true professional; She arranged for him to see a different doctor that afternoon, which was unusual because one generally can’t see a doctor until several days after making the request. The new doctor took one look at Blue’s knot and ordered him sent to John Sealy, the prison hospital in Galveston, where a battery of tests concluded that he suffered from malignant cancer.

 Blue, because of his self-diagnosis with the help of the medical tome, was not surprised, but understandably angry, plus concerned about a potentially fatal disease. The doctors informed him that had the tumor been diagnosed when it first appeared, when the quack said it was a cyst, it could have been removed with little damage to the surrounding tissue. It could still be taken out, they said, and its removal would save Blue’s life, but they would have to remove half of his throat, most of his tongue, and a significant portion of his jaw to get all the areas to where the cancer had metastasized.

 Then came Blue’s response, which was so classically him, “Look,” he told the chief doctor. “I’m still fairly young and have hopes of my conviction being overturned and returning to the free world someday. When I get out I’d like to be able to eat two things, cheeseburgers and my ol’ lady, so if you can’t cure me without butchering me, just let the tumor be. I’d rather be dead.”

 Blued yearned for the life he’d known, the touch and words of people he’d loved. It did not occur to him then that what he considered unreal, his undeserved death sentence, was in fact real, whereas the memories of  biker goddesses and the wind in his hair were theater of the cruelest kind.

 The doctors tried to persuade him to reconsider the surgery but when Blue made up his mind one couldn’t change it with a jackhammer and a stick of dynamite. In deference to his wish not to be mutilated the tumor was blasted with radiation, a dose twice as high as normal for such a procedure, but Blue didn’t care. The radiation cost him the ability to taste certain foods and killed the whiskers in the area where the tumor had been, so he would never be able to grow a full beard, but he was cured. Blue’s wish that his conviction be reversed of course never came true, and hopefully he is now dancing with the Valkyries in biker Valhalla. I am told that he went courageously, his fearlessness befitting the Viking warrior he considered himself to be, and because he was a man who once tested my heart and found it worthy I will remember him with the fondness of friends who have been tempered by the fire of destiny.

 I go now into the tunnel, for his and Windell’s voices have joined the others and shall impart to me their own special wisdom. In the background I hear the clank of battle axes and swords, the boisterous laughter of Norsemen, and the slosh of mead in metal cups. As I stroll amid the babel I think of the ancient civilizations that were destroyed by earthquakes or volcanos, and wonder if by executing their undesirables those people glorified killing? I wonder, too, if the universe hears voices in a tunnel of its own and unleashed those disasters to cancel generations of accumulated debt?

T H E   E N D