by G. Wilford Hathorn
© 2002. All Rights Reserved
Easter Season, 2002. All over the world people commemorate the resurrection, 2000 years ago, of a man reputed to have the power to forgive our sins, to expunge forever the taint chiseled by our vices into our hearts. The prayers and hymns offered him number in the millions, yet here on Texas Death Row the administrators didn't deign to provide a clergyman to toss the men a rote blessing or join them in supplicating before Christ, for that would smack of humanity, and humanity, despite the teachings of he to whom the paeans are offered, is antithetical to the rigidity attending the State's quest to take our lives.
There were no services on Death Row today or any other day, but beyond the point of observation this affected me little, as my avenue of worship is not dictated nor constrained by my overseersí desire to squelch my individuality. Indeed, the spirit they wish to crush soars when the sword of destruction glints in the light of my oppressors' advance, embodying a unique, irreplaceable force for which one would fight, or even die. Accompanying this ascension is the emancipation of personal history and its memoranda of distant, though not less troubling, times, when worship was ad libbed in purity, when beauty was real rather than an illusion whose deceptions laid for me a trap.
My teenage years, when due to the tug of an inexplicable need to know I would depart from domesticity and repair to the backyard to lie beneath the clear East Texas skies. Preferring the nippiness of the winter months, for it drove the mosquito hordes into concealed warmth, I would plug my five-dollar radio into an extension cord connected to the house, unroll my sleeping bag on an aluminum cot, and snuggle into it, the chill air making my nose tingle and run. Serenaded by the tunes of Bill Mack's Road Show, my eyes and mind would open to the pleasantry of the heavens, bespeckled by the diamond-chip stars and the pearlescence of the arcing moon, and invite brotherhood with understanding, camaraderie with wisdom. While I awaited this alchemy I daydreamed about some of the more mundane aspects of my life, like fishing, the girl on whom I had a crush, or whether I would perform well in my school's next basketball game. Or, as was my tendency, would I play like a buffoon? No matter how hard I tried to match the talents of my best friend Craig, the coach's nephew, I knew I never would. He had an ease and intelligence on the court that upon reflection reminds me of a young Larry Bird, whereas I lacked his confidence and played to keep from making mistakes rather than to dazzle and impress; many a time Craig pulled us out of a hole with his laser-accurate shooting, and there were no dissenters when we elected him our team captain. I hear he is now the principal of the matchbox school we attended over two decades ago, and I hope his life has unfolded in an abundance of fulfillment.
Then there was Brenda, an enchantress with pine green eyes whom, albeit from afar, I adored. I never found the courage to tell her how cute she was when, to hide the new braces on her teeth, she would endeavor not to smile, the angst her embarrassment caused me, and my elation when she gave up and smiled anyway. It's funny how teenagers sense things in the midst of establishing their pecking orders, or perhaps it's self-fulfilling prophecy, for, as with my limitations in becoming good at basketball, I knew Brenda and I would never be an item. Of course it was for the best, I'd rationalize, as the thought of bringing her home to meet my parents, because her perceptions would oblige her to ask questions I was too ashamed to answer, made me shudder. It was easier to mentally put myself in the stead of her boyfriend, Tony, and, being the gent I was, think I could treat her better than he, an erroneous fantasy, as Tony knew what he had and therefore treated her well. She would not appreciate riding in my pickup, anyway, I'd continue, a beat-up old Dodge with bad brakes, no heater, and a shortage in the electrical system, which my Dad had bought for $200 from a man selling it for scrap. He tossed the keys one day as if presenting me with a new Corvette, and said, "Here. Now me and your Mother won't have to haul your ass around anymore." His duty done, he went back to watching the news while sipping from his glass of Canadian Club and Coke. I could imagine picking Brenda up in that rust bucket, whose perforated exhaust system would choke anyone within a ten-yard radius and whose backfires could be heard a half-mile away, and the truck coughing and dying at the busiest intersection in Lufkin, the nearest town of any size. Who could blame the girl for preferring the comfort and reliability of Tony's family car, a mechanically sound and highly polished Cutlass Supreme? Rather than risk the humiliation of stranding the girl I loved in Lufkin, perhaps forestalling by hours her return home where her parents envisioned all manner of tragedy that could steal their daughter away, I opted for the cot under the sky, because self-inquiry and stargazing were the safer bets by far. Alone, the separation from my peers was absolute and I wanted to weep, but understood that to succumb to sorrow would slash the remainder of my innocence to shreds.
And so on nights when my friends were doing teenager things, I would croon along to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, a half-hearted commiseration to be sure, but a combat between hope and defeat that was better than nothing. When I tired of the country lamentations I would turn the radio down and listen to the sonnets of the night, uttered by insular hearts who, like me, felt most comfortable beyond the gaze of men. There was my friend the owl, its lonesome hoot suggestive of the Dr. Seuss story I read as a child, "Horton Hears A Who". The rustle of leaves and twigs might announce the presence of an armadillo, blindly and deafly foraging for worms and doodle bugs, and the wind may bring the low of a cow from a neighbor's pasture, while through the woods I heard the yip and howl of coyotes. Overhead a night bird, its wings fluttering, may pass and remind me that in the morning I'd have to feed the chickens, their greedy heads darting here and there to nail the choicest bits of maize. I could almost taste the eggs, accompanied by Jimmy Dean sausage and Hungry Jack biscuits with homemade muscadine jelly, that I would eat for breakfast. There's a secret to improving the flavor of eggs, and that is to let the chickens run free during the day. Not only do they keep the bug population thinned out but the added protein makes the eggs richer, the yolks being a vibrant yellow-orange as opposed to the pale yellow of chickens that eat only commercial feed. And is it ever funny to watch a hen chase a tree frog that had the misfortune to fall to the ground! These frogs can cover 10 or 12 feet per hop, but when running a hen's legs churn like pistons, so more often than not she would win the race, only to be subjected to a chase herself as the other chickens tried to steal the prize whose legs flopped from her beak.
Occasionally the sky was alight with blue-silver streaks, meteors with razor-sharp tails, and at these I would marvel, for I had learned in science class that they were old, maybe as old as the universe itself. I wondered what secrets they carried in what passed for their minds. Had they witnessed civilizations in different quarters of the cosmos and experienced the resplendence of advanced architecture, or the impregnability of perfect thought? Had their view been limited to swampy spheres of dirt and rock whose sustainable life was primitive and single-celled? Or had they discovered that Earth was an anomaly where billions of years ago the ideal conditions for the emergence of life happened to coalesce as the planet's liquid surface cooled? I so wanted to communicate with those specks of dust, but they were not talking. Nor was the satellite, resembling a star but gliding along at its pre-programmed speed, circling at the apogee of the Earth's atmosphere, gathering information about who knows what. Given that it was the height of the cold war, it was probably spying on the Russians, though I imagined it was a chariot that could take me to a place where turmoil in the minds of adolescents did not exist.
So much space and so many galaxies, stars, and planets out there, most unexplored and enigmatic, tangling the curiosity of man, thwarting his insatiable need to know. I would wonder aloud what it all meant and hear nothing by way of response, though the bullfrog in the slough two-hundred yards away did his best to croak me an answer, as did Ring, the family dog who would sense my inquisitive moments and lubricate my hand with his emery-board tongue. Ring was a brown mutt with a collar of white around his neck who once enjoyed sniffing through the woods in search of the perfect tree on which to pee, his bass, clipped bark the bane of rabbits and squirrels, but he was destined for misfortune. One day my old man happened to walk around the corner of the house at the moment Ring began humping my stepmother's leg, and flew into a rage. The flush of Mother's face and the beads of sweat on her lip were interpreted by Dad as body-freezing embarrassment, but I knew something of her passions and can say with all candor that his assessment was wrong. In response to Ring's effrontery Dad whipped out his Shrade Walden, placed his knee on the howling dog's neck, and castrated him on the spot. So now Ring shunned exploring the woods and menacing the animals in favor of eating, sleeping, and nudging my hand to cadge pats on the head or scratches on the belly, his dispirited eyes reflecting the winter moon as he thought of better days.
For my part, I wanted to know something of God, about whom friends and relatives in my quadrant of the Bible-Belt had declaimed with fiery eyes, but had not revealed a scintilla of evidence to aid one in determining the deity's existence, or, once proof of existence was substantiated, which of His incarnations were deserving of obeisance. My observations of the firmament led to the conclusion that it was created by something, if not a God made in man's image then at least a Consciousness intelligent enough to create from nothing a universe full of something. I applauded the scientists who empirically established the origins of creation and conceded that they were far more intelligent than I, but had trouble wrapping my mind around the suggestion that all the galaxies, with their stars and planets weighing untold trillions of tons, had blasted forth from a dense agglomeration of matter and energy no bigger than a pea. I wanted to believe that God exists and had blueprinted the equilibrium we see in the nighttime vistas, but hasten to add that if He does He possesses the most perverted sense of humor imaginable. When I recall my old man's fist hitting my jaw or, as precursor to the practice of her perversions, the foul kiss of my stepmother, I wonder where the hell was God? Why didn't He condescend to acknowledge my stress and make the perpetrators of it pay? Understand that I wasn't so solipsistic as to think only of my pain, as I knew that throughout the world multitudes of children were sick, starving, or dying, and masses of people were in the furtherance of governmental subterfuge crushed and slaughtered, yet I could divine no intervention by their pantheons into the drudgery and social divisions of these putatively favored beings.
Nor, as I lay not on a cot in the East Texas winter, but on a lumpy mattress in my cell, can I detect God now. My bed, three-inches thick and its fireproof covering cracked and peeling, lies atop a metal frame welded to steel plates prefabricated into the floor. Attached to the frame underneath are steel boxes in which to store the small amount of property I am allowed to own. There are no stars within my vision, just the amber-peach glow of the perimeter lights and the stabbing eye of a spotlight as every two hours the tower guard sweeps the building. And no benevolent force to whom one can turn as the State leaders, with the cooperation of the prison overseers, evade their ethical obligations and gainsay the legacy of their desire to kill. Via information distortions, they convince themselves and others that their archaic methods jibe with the wishes of society. There is a wealth of evidence showing that due to the overwhelming influence of family structure the children of alcoholics often grow up to become alcoholic themselves, yet despite this the parents continue to drink. Correspondingly, our leaders, to whom we impute the omniscience of parents, though knowing with moral certitude that killing is wrong, accede to the supposition that executions, because they are performed under the rubric of State wisdom rather than the emotions of a citizen on the street, are not. Hence, like the alcoholic who doesn't have to dig too deep to find justification for drinking in front of the children, the guilt our leaders should feel after taking a life is replaced by the conviction, grotesquely misleading, that they have done the right thing.
God's indifference trickles down to those who wield the needle, for there is no one on the row, no matter how deserving of clemency, that the State of Texas will not kill. Articulate implorations for mercy on behalf of the innocent, retarded, insane, and rehabilitated fall on ears made deaf by arrogance, and the light of cerebral analysis erases all pretense of belonging to a compassionate tribe. In the early nineties a man I knew, Jerry, was scheduled for execution, but suffered a massive stroke a week prior to his date. The prison authorities rushed him to the hospital, and when he was stabilized three days later returned him to the deathwatch cell. Where once Jerry had been jovial and expressed his sense of humor in a voice heard throughout the cellblock, he now, because the left side of his body was paralyzed, mumbled and slurred when he spoke. Maybe with extensive rehabilitation he would have regained some of his motor skills, but not all, and this only in the unlikely event that the prison provided him the rehab, but at that time he was enslaved by brain damage and the prognosis for any recovery was dim. Further, when asked by the press if the prosecutors and other law enforcement representatives would, for humanitarian reasons, consider commuting Jerry's sentence to life in prison, the agency spokespeople stated that the execution would proceed as planned. On the day Jerry was transported to The Walls he, because he couldn't walk, had to be conveyed to the van we call "The Death Coach" in a wheelchair, and when he made his final statement that night his relatives could not understand a word he said.
More recently a man we called Rudy, who had lost half of his leg to the complications of diabetes, was scheduled to die and, so he could "walk like a man" to his death, requested a prosthetic limb. A reasonable request one would think, and indeed a Houston doctor offered Rudy a prosthesis free of charge. The prison authorities, in an unconscionable display of callousness, refused to let him have the limb, then chillingly told the press that at the hour of his execution he would have the option of being pushed to the death chamber in a wheelchair, walking on crutches, or being carried by the execution team. It is a pathetic state of affairs when officials refuse mercy to someone who is, because of a stroke, a quasi-vegetable, or, by refusing a man a donated prosthesis, deny him the dignity of walking under his own power to his end, but these and other occurrences just as barbarous are the Scylla and Charybdis of the Death Row existence.
A few miles away the prison graveyard, or "Peckerwood Hill", is populated by rows of white crosses like those in Arlington National Cemetery. In the latter honor thrives, but the former is a sepulcher of shame, the archetype of anonymity, and not even a bird dare chirp amid such desolation, notwithstanding that no graveyard distinguishes between those who died in valor and those in ignominy. So when our detractors, relying on the sympathetic voices and pens of the media, the collusive oratory of politicos, and the silence of the masses launch into their paroxysms of hate against us, they have no inkling of the fact that their own unhallowed attitudes are revealed. Severed from the fabric of sodality, they, pumped on power and its chimera, slither across the surface of acceptability and cloak the damned in an aura of anxiety and fear.
These days, to see into the sky of my youth, I must climb the stairway of imagination, but recollection is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it cuts the bindings from the phantasms I seek and allows them ingress to my mind, but on the other, because the oneness and simplicity to which I was once so attached have been exiled into the ethers of freedom, it cleaves my heart in two. In the world of dreams I hear the call of a maelstrom yearning to be stilled and, seeking safety in understanding, take wing on the clouds of pursuit. With lips cracked and muscles weary I find my harbor, but to my sadness discover that in anticipation of my arrival all the ships have sailed. The unfairness of life's detours is legendary, eloquently attested to by the victims of death dealers everywhere, and I have learned that in the process of introspection, to preserve his sanity, one must muzzle the part of his soul that feels, while giving voice to that which observes. In this alternate universe, wherein our keepers exude a sinister fascination with brutality and death, it is advisable for one to grow a carapace of detachment, for horror must be denied lodging in the contours of the mind. If not a torpor that asphyxiates the goodness which counters villainy will descend and airbrush from the canvas of the universe every vestige of hope, creating a smokescreen behind which the empires of the cowardly can poison the world with their murky rain.
T H E E N D