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THE AMERICANS

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By David Levy

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The Montréal Review, November 2012

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Robert Frank (b. 1924)
Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey , 1955
Private Collection, San Francisco

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GLENN Miller is probably the University of Colorado's most famous alumnus. Up on a wall in the Glenn Miller Ballroom, scene of square dances sexier than all the tangos of Argentina, hangs a huge likeness of the man.

The university is located in Boulder, a college town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains thirty-five miles northwest of Denver.

At an army surplus outlet in Boulder the t-shirts said Special Forces Never Die They Just Go to Hell to Regroup. A couple of army-age young men were inquiring about the special salve Hunter S. Thompson applied to his sore muscles.

Chicken-fried Steak, a popular item with some of the characters in the old TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was a featured item on the menu of a restaurant in town.

It was, as someone described it, a simpler time "when Coke hadn't changed its formula and all the terrorists were Libyans."

Among the attractions of Boulder is the Naropa Institute, home of the Jack Kerouac School of Spontaneous Bop Prose. Now a full-fledged university it was founded by the monk Chogyam Trungpa, a chunky Tibetan who moved to the USA from Scotland. Devoted to heavy tobacco consumption, serious drinking and sleeping with female devotees Chogyam died in 1987 from heavy drinking or diabetes.

Mornings I had breakfast in the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill, a student cafeteria in the University Memorial Center where hulking American college men sat hunched over enormous plates of eggs and bacon and home fries and toast and mugs of coffee.

Until 1968 the cafeteria was called the Roaring Fork Grill. Some of the university's law school students organized a campaign to change the name.

In the fall of 1873 Alferd Packer, who claimed to be an experienced mountain guide, led a group of 21 men on a gold prospecting expedition from Bingham Canyon near Provo, Utah east into the mountains of Colorado.

A decade after the 1849 gold rush in California, the prospector community heard there was gold in Colorado. The discoveries began in the Denver area. There were gold strikes in the mountains. The towns of Victor and Cripple Creek were found to have the highest concentrations of gold ever discovered outside the Kimberley fields in South Africa.

A penniless thirty-one year old, Packer persuaded the men to grubstake him in exchange for his mountain wisdom.

The party set out in November 1873. Packer in fact knew next to nothing about the trails and conditions in those mountains. In January the bonanza dream was halted by bad weather, a band of Ute Indians came to the party's rescue. In early February gold fever persuaded five restless men led by Packer to abandon Ute hospitality. Three months later, 16 April 1874, Packer alone stumbled into the Los Pinos Indian Agency in southwestern Colorado. He confessed to having been driven by starvation to cannibalism in the Slumgullion Pass and to a killing in self defense. There was little to question his slick account of how he alone had survived.

Packer subsequently lived a carefree and open existence under an alias - until he was identified by a member of the original prospecting expedition.

In 1883, he was arrested and brought to trial in Lake City. Said the judge, Judge Melville Gerry: "There was only seven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County and you, you voracious man-eatin' son-of-a-bitch, you et five of 'em! I sentence you to hang!"

Legal complications required the punishment to be set aside. In a second trial in 1886, Packer was convicted of manslaugher and sentenced to forty years in the state penitentiary.

It may have been some combination of Packer's notoriety as an eater of human flesh and the legal wrangle of his first trial that attracted the university's law students.

Alferd Packer's reputation as a sociopathic reprobate may obscure the moral of his story. Packer excelled at smooth talk. Knowing nothing about the mountains of Colorado, he persuaded those twenty-one men to spring for his end of a prospecting expedition. After things went terribly wrong, he was ready with a persuasive account of how it was that he'd survived while the others had not. At his second trial in Gunnison, Colorado, before sentence was pronounced, he rose in the courtroom to try and talk the judge into pronouncing a light sentence. I wish you to understand, he said, "that I have had a fair and impartial trial, and that the jury couldn't help bring in the verdict that they did. If I had been on the jury and such evidence had been produced, I think I would have convicted myself..I hold no malice towards the jury, and I am going to my long home. I expect to get forty years and I don't want to live to see the end of it." Packer heaped praise on his counsel and the prosecutor both and was taken aback by the sentence, eight years for each of the five whose deaths he'd been involved in.

Odd perhaps to say that Packer didn't seem like such a bad guy. A model prisoner, he was paroled in 1901. He settled in a Denver suburb where he died six years later, having acquired a reputation as a likeable fellow, friendly to children. A hardy individual, Packer possessed the con man's ability to persuade folks to act against their own best interests. It was a talent he'd hoped would enable him to cash in on Colorado gold madness. For better or worse, he never did see how to turn that talent into frontier success.

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THE business card said "Former Alcatraz Inmate, Author of Last Train to Alcatraz, Leon (Whitey) Thompson". Leon was sitting at a table signing copies of his book. Nothing more. Regulations forbade autographs. Years before Leon had been transferred to Alcatraz from the McNeil Island prison on Puget Sound. Alcatraz was where the U S federal prison system warehoused their hard cases.

Alcatraz is Spanish for pelican. La Isla de los Alcatraces, pelican island. America's Devil's Island out in the Bay. It had been an American military prison, then the famous civilian maximum security institution 1934 to 1963 before being converted into a federal park site under the authority of the

National Park Service, U S Department of Interior. The boat taking visitors to the island departs from Fisherman's Wharf.

A friend asked me to find out if anyone had ever been fried at Alcatraz. One of the park rangers, Wayne Holms from Wyoming, explained that murder was a state not a federal offense. Federal felonies that earned one the death penalty were espionage and treason. Two inmates who murdered an Alcatraz guard were executed at San Quentin. Murder at Alcatraz was in fact more common than Wayne Holms would let on.

On the island site, the ex-prison's corridors were painted Public Area Green - the name on the paint can - high school hallway green. It was the first American prison to install sliding cell doors, origin of the term the slammer.

The cells are five feet by nine feet, the men locked in 16 to 23 hours each day. I entered an open cell door and lay down on the cot, my hands tucked behind my head in what I imagined was the posture of an inmate in repose. Horrified, Jeannie fled.

A sign indicated the psychiatric area where Al Capone had been confined. The notice was still up in what had been the dining hall; Take as much as you like, I think were the words, but make sure you eat everything you take. Some say the food was good, the best in the federal prison system. Morton Sobell, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg affair, inside from 1953 to 1958, complained about the turkey served at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Sobell and Leon both ran into the Birdman, Robert Stroud. The recollections differ; Leon remembered Stroud as a creepy character, gay, psychotic, looking to bring trouble on his fellow inmates, housed for his own protection in the hospital facility.

Sobell in his book, On Doing Time, tells how he became pals with Stroud after surreptitiously getting a story on Stroud he found in a December 1957 issue of Scientific American to the Birdman in the prison's hospital isolation unit.

Inmates had access to movies, magazines, and books. No TV. Controlling TV content by taping and editing the programming was probably ruled out as impractical. The Ampex Corporation in California developed a videotape recorder in 1951. The first generation commercial machine sold for $50,000, a cost likely judged prohibitive by federal prison system accountants.

In the yard, men played bridge with domino pieces; playing cards were disallowed because the celluloid content of the cards could be ground up and used as explosive.

The hot water showers were intended to prevent inmates from becoming acclimatized to cold water in the event they managed to get into the icy waters of the Bay and attempt a swim to freedom.

One of the prison regulations was that the "Institution Rules & Regulations" booklet had to be kept in one's cell at all times.

Page 16 of the 1956 edition spells out the dos and don'ts for musical inmates: "Guitars and other stringed instruments may be played in the cellhouse in a QUIET manner only between the hours of 5:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. No singing or whistling accompanyments(sic) will be tolerated. Any instruments which is played in an unauthorized place, manner or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report..Wind instruments, drums and pianos will be played in the band or Orchestra Rooms on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. At no time will you play any wind instrument in the cellhouse..A limited number of inmates may be allowed to take musical instruments to and from the recreation yard. Permission must first be obtained from the Associate Warden..Institutional instruments shall be listed as "On Loan" from the institution, together with the date of the loan and the identification number of the instrument. Surplus parts for musical instruments together with and including extra sets of guitar strings shall be kept in "A" Block. Guitar strings shall be purchased in the regular manner and stored in "A" Block until needed. An old set of strings must be turned in to the cellhouse Officer to draw a new set."

Born in Connecticut in 1923, Leon served in the U S Navy in Europe and the Pacific during World War II. His four battle stars and five campaign ribbons didn't spare him a court-martial and a bad-conduct discharge for a minor incident in the Canal Zone.

Convicted of failing to register a sawed-off shotgun, Leon was sentenced to fifteen years at McNeil Island. After he had served 14, twelve there and two on the Rock, the conviction was overturned, judged to have violated Leon's fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.

Records show that Leon arrived on the Rock the summer of 1960 and was released in 1962. He was convicted in 1965 on a false charge of second degree robbery and sent to serve out the sentence at San Quentin. The Rock had been shut down in 1963.

Out in 1975, four days after his release Leon married Helen Thompson, a woman he'd been corresponding with. It was Helen who got him to focus on the task of telling his story.

I noticed a break in Leon's book singing duties and went over to the table to say hello. Our conversation soon turned to music. Leon recalled on occasion hearing the sounds of guitars and a harmonica. Just about the only music one heard on the Rock, Leon told me, was country and western, prison bands played it all the time. Leon said he was turned off it forever, "I can't stand it." Leon said that he enjoyed all kinds of music - pop, jazz, opera, except country and western.

According to Sobell, during the five-hour yard periods Saturday and Sunday, the loudspeaker blared country music: "I supposed that the men liked it, but I found it hard to take since there was never a moment of silence in the yard."

Radio was piped into the cells by headset, the material edited. Leon remembered there were two stations, "one for sports, one for music; no news reports." Sobell said the music choices were country music and popular music, both equally "obnoxious" to him. One depressing Christmas eve from out of the cell house speakers came the voice of Bing Crosby crooning O Holy Night and White Christmas.

A prison band played religious music with a choir on special occasions. Did the country and western sound mean that most of the hombres in the joint with Leon were from the southwest? The people Leon had known inside were white men AWOL from the rat race, some Mexicans, a man named Tennessee who played a soulful harmonica. A buddy, Johnny House, was from Texas. Mafia man Mickey Cohen and Frankie Carbo, mob fight fixer who tinkered with the career of Sonny Liston, were among the incarcerated. Leon, who'd begun to paint, had extended conversations with Cohen about art, something the mobman apparently knew a great deal about. Carbo and Cohen avoided each other.

John Cantwell, a park ranger who had known Leon, said he'd heard there was a country band that performed on the Rock, that there was a peddle guitar on the site: "A lot of these guys were from down south, the Anglin brothers were from Florida. That might have been one of the reasons. Leon himself was a rock-and roller." A few months before Leon was released, the Anglin brothers, Clarence and John, were involved in the sensational escape attempt described in Leon's book. To this day no one knows for sure whether they drowned in the Bay or made it to freedom.

Was it at all likely that some of the Rock's incorrigibles were army men who'd served in the Pacific, Europe, Korea, and were suffering from PSTD, post-traumatic stress disorder? Apparently reports of battle-associated stress have appeared in the literature of war as early as the sixth century BC and in stories of the veterans of military conflict ever since. In our time the syndrome went unrecognized till the mid-1970s and problems experienced by Vietnam vets.

Cantwell said that after Leon came out of the navy he got a Harley and drove across the USA: "They say that's where the Hells Angels came out of, WW2 veterans who were stressed from that whole experience and just wanted to be free spirits. Leon called himself a scooter tramp, riding around the country with the bikers."

Joe Sanchez, a specialist with the National Archives and Records Administration, told me there was no reliable way to identify all the men with military records who'd done time in the joint apart from those men who were inside for offenses committed while in the military, that PTSD was not something very much was known about fifty years ago. As for incorrigibility, it is clear from the Alcatraz files that many of the men were inclined to violence when they were younger, unsociable was the word Joe used. Black inmates were housed in a separate tier. Sobell claimed the overseers of Alcatraz and its abusive management practices were southerners responsible not just for the segregation policy, but also for the mediocre food, and perhaps the Cool Hand Luke chain gang soundtrack. There were four wardens at Alcatraz: James Aloysius Johnston from Brooklyn, N.Y., January 1934 - April 1948; Edwin Burnham Swope, from Sante Fe, New Mexico, May 1948 - February 1955; Paul Joseph Madigan from Maple Lake, Minnesota, March 1955 - mid-October 1961, Olin Guy Blackwell from Evant, Texas mid-October 1961- May 1963, though the prison transferred its last inmate on 21 March 1963. Only Blackwell could be called a southerner. There was segregation in the U S army; racism held no special claim to any piece of American geography. A search of the Alcatraz database found that of 382 men inside with Leon, there was a place of birth for 179. Of that number, 80 or 45% were southerners, from Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina. One-quarter were black and in segregation.

In the last years of operation, men would be incarcerated in Alcatraz for narcotics offenses along with the discipline cases.

Leon's autobiography, Last Train to Alcatraz, re-issued in 1988 in a revised edition titled Rock Hard, was written in the third person, like a novel about a fictional character named Whitey whose story resembled Leon's. Last Train apparently contains numerous factual modifications. That Leon chose to tell his story in a way that avoided the self-absorption of first person narrative may have been intended to foreground the contrast between his past and later selves. A born-again sinner's tale in an America that holds fate in contempt, where the old can be young, men women, women men, America standing ever tall against personal destiny. In the words of Ronald Reagan: "We can start the world all over again!"

Someone said it was Fydor Dostoevsky who invented the penetrating third-person narrative, a literary reality constructed out of clusters of subjective experience.

Leon's book is dedicated to Helen, to other Alcatraz convicts and guards, to special friends inside, to the memory of his beloved wolf dogs. An ex-girlfriend said a lot of what Leon wrote was invented, that he was a much nastier person than he admitted in the books, that inside the prisons he cultivated the hatred of his fellow inmates, that it was his discovery of painting that turned his life around. A point Leon does make in the Train re-write.

I didn't know any of this when I spoke to Leon. From our conversation I judged him to be a music lover so when I got home I sent him an audio cassette - Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Lennie Tristano. About a month later a note arrived: "I want to thank you very much for taking the trouble to send me the tape. It certainly brought back many memories."

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David Levy is an editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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