The 21st Century Squad
It started out as a fireteam. In a Marine Corps unit, a Fireteam is made up of four men. A squad is 13: four men to each fireteam, three fireteams to a squad, plus, of course, the squad leader, making a total of thirteen men (and now, women).
I began with a fireteam, and I am now working on a full squad of people who are ready to go on any peacetime patrol that it might take to achieve an objective. In this case, the objective is my freedom.
To fully describe men at war in a Marine Corps squad is a daunting task, to say the very least. Each man is a novel in and of his or her self. For brevity's sake, and so that I can try my best to include important qualities of my squad, I am certainly going to make mistakes, leaving things out that (in my mind so full of love) I will forget in the moment of writing. So I will violate a cardinal rule of writing and apologize in advance for such indiscretions and omissions.
It all began with Misha. I met her at Norfolk prison sometime in the late 90s. She would come into the prison to participate in the Vietnam Veterans discussion group we held there among the prisoners once a week. She told stories of growing up during war-time Belgium and Germany. As a little girl she crossed a continent and a trail of terror, somehow surviving a series of incredible events and tortures along the way.
When I got transferred to Walpole prison for an infraction which I term "giving a bowl of spaghetti to another prisoner" — giving anything of value to another inmate (a word I never use) is a serious disciplinary infraction — my cellie was a prisoner named Donny LaDow. He was also my barber. Donny and I ate together every night to avoid the prison fare, which to say the very least was not palatable. I would have my wife mail Donny money so that he could go to the prison canteen and purchase food, which, with the food I bought, we would pool and make a decent meal. For that infraction — which we could prove was not a nefarious drug or other contraband action simply by producing all of Donny's canteen receipts — we were both shipped to higher security. I went to Walpole prison and Donny ended up in Gardner or SBCC (I cannot recall exactly).
Walpole was the only prison wherein visits were held behind a thick pane of security glass, and we had to talk over telephones to one another. Misha and her husband, Maurice, continued to visit me weekly, as did my beautiful wife, Lynnette Kathleen (whom I called "Lynnkat" and had it tattooed on my arm). I also called Lynnkat "The Major," since during the years I made her an honorary Marine. She worked her way up through the ranks, as periodically I would promote her for acts of valor. One of those acts occurred when her brother died in her arms on Christmas day: she calmly applied CPR while talking on the phone to 911 to get an ambulance to the house. Despite her heroic attempt to save him, her brother died. She held him in her arms until the EMTs finally pried his body from her. She saved countless lives while working as a nurse in a hospital with children who suffered from multiple life-threatening diseases. Many times she had to take extraordinary measures to save them.
Another time, while I was at Old Colony CC in Bridgewater, I had a severe Myocardial Infarction. Along with the guards who escorted me to the hospital, Lynn was told that I probably would not make it through the night. They allowed her to come in to say goodbye to me. As I opened my eyes and saw her sitting on the side of my hospital bed, I smiled and grabbed her breast. She laughed and cried at the same time, and later she told me that this single gesture told her more than any words I could ever summon to relieve her angst at that moment. According to her: "What man on his death bed would cop a cheap feel?" She knew from that one gesture that I was going to make it.
In 2000 while I was in Walpole, she was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. I watched through the glass as she melted away from me through a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. As she and I talked on those phones, there was a small metal tray on either side of the glass where we could lean our elbows — during our allotted, one hour, by appointment, weekly visit. Near the end of her struggle, we stood for several minutes (hell, maybe it was the entire hour?). We pressed our faces and hands together on the glass. I could feel the heat of her hands on mine even through that thick glass. Our noses were "touching." I refused to blink because all I wanted to do was stare directly into those big green eyes of hers and not miss even the brie: time a blink would take away from this wonder. While staring so open eyed, I heard this strange noise. It was a sort of plinking noise that began slowly and eventually sounded like a louder and louder pounding. It was distracting as all hell, as I stood there staring at this woman who was my partner for over 30 years. Finally it was revealed to me that this distracting and irritating noise was my tears falling on that metal shelf that we leaned our elbows on. Strange how one can cry so hard and not blink. We stood this way until the guard said visits were over. When she left I knew that it would be the last time I would ever see her alive. It was a torturous truth. She died two days later, at home with her cat resting on her chest, as the home-care nurse stood by and watched her last breath.
Not long after that, Misha came to visit. I did not want to see Misha or anyone else for that matter. I just wanted to sit in my dark cell and will myself to die; to use my mind to make my heart stop beating. It had no right to beat now that Lynnkat was gone.
On one of the visits, Misha brought a friend, Karen, with her. This was the woman whose generosity to this very day still gives me cause to stop and be amazed. She took Misha into her home without even knowing Misha at the time. Misha and Maurice moved in with Karen, bringing 24 cats and 2 dogs along with a house-full of furniture that would not fit in their storage bin. I tried so hard not to take to Karen. I did not want to like anyone else. I just wanted to die and not have my life given any sort of new meanings.
Karen continued to visit regularly, and I continued to go out to sit there in that place where I so recently created this large puddle of tears. It took all I had just to get my brain to make my legs obey my commands and walk from my cell on the other end of the prison to the place where they held these non-contact visits.
Slowly I began to see what kind of person Karen was, and my legs began to obey me without effort. It was Albert Schweitzer who is credited with these words: "Sometimes our fire goes out and another person will come along and rekindle that spark." Karen became that spark he spoke of. I remember the day that I decided that I would live and I again placed my hand on that hurt-full glass. Karen pressed her hand to mine, and I asked her: "Promise me, Karen, that you will always be my friend."
That was the beginning of the squad. Jim Lapierre was already there. I met Jim in 1977, and he was the truest and most loyal friend any man could ever dare to hope for. He was best man at the wedding of the Major and I. One time (though I know this will embarrass him) when I was appealing my criminal case, I had the opportunity to retain the legal services of Wendy Sibbison, at the cut-rate price for the appeal of $12,500. I did not know where in the hell I would get such an incredible sum of money. It may as well have been a million dollars, because I could not afford that either. I casually mentioned to Lynnkat and to my dearest male friend, Jim, what it would cost and how it could be just like throwing money out the window of a speeding car, for the low chance I had of succeeding in court on the issues. Jim contacted Wendy and paid the entire amount of $12,500. I did in fact lose the appeal, too. Money out the window of a speeding car.
Jim never blinked an eye. To him it was well worth the try. Jim, too, would have done anything he could to see me a free man. He read my transcripts several times and knew in his heart that I was an innocent man. He would not stop, and to this day he is still by my side and going strong. His picture can be seen on my web site, which, incidentally, he maintains, even though he is a workaholic and has a zillion other things he could be doing. To say I love Jim would be a gross understatement. He is truly my brother in all respects but biological.
Through Karen I met her friend, Barbara Beattie. After her first visit, at Souza/Baranowski Correctional Center, the only Level 6 prison (the highest level) in the state, Barbara became a member of the squad to free me. She worked tirelessly, and to this day, well over three years, still goes strong in anything she can contribute. She finds ideas and pursues them to the fullest without even asking. She gets a thought in her head and turns it into an action. This is what a squad member is supposed to do. Barbara became such a true and loving friend, too. Like the others I have met since I decided to surrender to life after the Major died, Barbara has given me more reasons for going on than I can count.
Even though she moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, Barbara still continues to work for my freedom with the other members of the squad, including one that she introduced me to, by the name of Bob Kerr. Bob is a writer for the Providence Journal who wrote an article about a sergeant he had in boot camp at the Officers Candidate School at Quantico who was later killed in Vietnam. In the article, Bob wondered if he ever could have made this sergeant proud of him. After Barbara sent me the article, I wrote to Bob and told him who I was and how I was a sergeant in Vietnam. I told him that even though I did not know him, I was proud of him for what he did. He could have gotten out of the Marine Corps when he flunked out of OCS, but instead he went to Vietnam as a journalist. There he did what he does best: write about the things he saw and the people he met. He put his ass on the line like the rest of the Marines there. How could I not be proud of such a man? I met Bob after writing that letter to him. We found a kindred spirit in one another the likes of which most people could not begin to understand, except for those who shared the horror of war together. Men like us found a special bond, a special love the depth of which even our own families could never imagine. It was said best in "Henry V" by William Shakespeare, in the band of brothers speech: "For he who sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother, and be he ne'r so vile, this day shall gentle his condition." Bob and I do love one another more than I could say or he could say, but a love nonetheless that any who fought in war will easily understand and recognize as something they too feel. Why do you think that to this very day WWII veterans cry when they talk about the war?
Bob visits at least once every three or four weeks. In that short two-hour visiting period, time passes so quickly that it feels more like two minutes than two hours. There is always more we want to say to one another. We are able to find the meaning of things we have had stored inside us for all too many years without being able to figure them out by ourselves — together, easily, without filtering a single word spoken to one another. And that marks a true friend and brother: "someone you can think out loud in front of." We share the greatest laughter, and unashamedly at times, we allow a tear or two to leak from our eyes when we recall those we left behind in the mud of an unnamed rice paddy or patch of jungle. Bob is also an integral member of the squad.
During our first years together, Karen displayed her eye for publishing. Among other things, she published a poster entitled "Redemption," which turned out so very beautifully, with the incredible help and abetment of another long standing friend, Jack Rogers, from Maine (without whom this poster would not be). Jack helped with the words and the inspiration to carry the poster into fruition. Then later, on a visit one day, Karen said: "Why don't we publish a book of your poetry?"
I thought this would be a great idea. I had done this in the past at the cost of one dollar per book (Just poetry, with a thicker paper for a cover that had a design drawn by a prisoner who had the ability to do so. A few staples in the middle, and there you have it: A book of poetry.).
Karen took off! I would come out to the visiting room once a week on her day (which was Thursday; Barbara had Tuesdays). Walking through the visiting room door, I would see Karen standing there, beaming (if it is humanly possible for a person to beam) like a human torch. She could not wait to tell me about the progress of the book: the kind of special paper she was going to use, the graphic designer to do the cover, the special print and other features. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that this one-dollar book was not what I had envisioned. I did the math, and, realizing that this was getting more and more expensive by the day, I protested to her about the cost, and she kept assuring me it was not all that much. I have never seen a human being so excited. I would walk over to where our seats in the visiting room were, and she would already be standing, with eyes like saucers, and saying: "Oh my God, Joe, wait till you see such and such." At this point, my guilt over the cost of this damn book that I had envisioned being so cheap was quelled, because how in the world was I going to have the heart to tell her to stop being so excited about life?
Karen kept saying how her husband, Ron, used to be a printer and how he kept complimenting her on the incredible job she was doing. Eventually I got to meet Ron in the visiting room. Prior to meeting me, he reportedly was a bit nervous and asked Karen how he should greet me? Just shake hands? Say hello and then sit down? He did not have to worry about it — I walked over to Ron and told him that nobody that comes to meet me gets away without a big hug. Ron and I hit it off big. We became just the very best of friends. He and his son-in law, Leo, would come together to visit. Leo was another great guy whom I immediately came to appreciate, and yes, to love as well.
I used to phone Ron almost every day and would talk with him for an hour or as long as I could for the time we had out of our cells. Sometimes I'd call two or three times a day. Ron was fun to talk to. He had the dumbest jokes that were only funny because of the way he laughed at them, which caused me to laugh along with him as it was so damn contagious.
One day I called, and Ron told me he had stage-4 cancer. I did not know what stage-4 meant until he explained it to me. I asked him where the cancer was located in his body, and he told me the doctors did not know, but that they gave him less than three months to live. I was positively devastated! Man, I stood stoic on the phone with him, but when I went back to my cell and the doors closed, I cried like a baby. How could someone have a cancer and not know where in the body it was located? Then I found this was not as uncommon as I thought.
So the calls to Ron got even more frequent. He told me he was afraid to die. I spent every moment trying to alleviate his fears of death. I told him what I thought death was and how it was talked about in "The Apology" by Plato, who was a student of Socrates. For teaching the youth of Athens, Socrates was sentenced to death by being forced to drink hemlock, a deadly poison. I read portions of "The Apology" to Ron over the phone, and I told him my theories about death being part of life, that despite whatever we did on earth, nothing would ever stop death from happening to us all. I spent countless hours talking with Ron about it. I am not sure exactly what it was of all the things I said, but one day he told me that thanks to me he was no longer afraid to die. He was worried about his children as any man would be, even though Michael, Joelle, and Lori were grown and had their own children.
When he got worse, and before it kept him in bed till the end, he struggled to come to visit one last time, because, as he put it, he needed "one more hug" from me. During the visit, Karen got up to get a drink of water. As soon as she was out of earshot, Ron grabbed my hand and looked me in the eyes. With a voice as weak as the rest of his body, he said he wanted me to promise that no matter what, after he was gone, I would take care of Karen for him. I gave him my solemn oath that of course I would. Man, talk about not letting tears fall so that Karen would see them! When Ron died soon after I felt both incredible relief (because according to all accounts he did not suffer at all) and profound sadness (from yet one more love in my life taken away).
Leo, who is married to Joelle, and Lori, who is Ron's other daughter, as well as his son, Michael, and all the extended grandchildren are truly my family. I am by far the most blessed man on earth: to not only have this extended squad of people whose sole mission it is to get me out of prison, but to have the beauty of watching all of Ron's children continue to thrive, as he would have wished for them. So Ron, wherever you are, that promise I made you is the easiest promise I have ever had to keep, and I will continue to do as you asked me for as long as there is a breath in my body.
For all who read these simple words, please know that I could not possibly describe with any eloquence the character of those who are in this squad of mine, nor even begin to say how full of love I am for each and all.
My heart has reason to beat, my legs to move, and my breath to continue each and every day, whether the mission of my freedom is complete or not. It is all about this brief period of time, and I have learned through the strength of those who believe in me to treasure each and every moment.
This is after all the true meaning of my simple life.
July 3, 2007