“Dying ain’t hard for men like you and me; it’s living that’s the hard part…”, from the film “The Outlaw Jose Whales”.
A group of us had been sitting in the shade, after a hard day’s work on various projects at Moorunde Wildlife Reserve during one of our volunteer weekend campouts. Mostly we had been discussing what each of us had done that day and plans for the next. Then I asked Glen, the Editor of the Natural History Journal, if he had read the last article I submitted to him and if he thought it suitable for publication. We were discussing that and a few other articles still awaiting publication, when somebody asked why did I write them, what was I hoping to achieve by writing them and then wanted to know why I was so keen to have them published?
You can’t give a definitive answer to questions such as that in the environment of a group discussion, when others are waiting to say something themselves. The best I could manage at the time was an answer to the second part of this three-tiered question, which was that I hoped it gave people more value for their membership money, through the journal, and that perhaps it took them one step further in what they thought about in life, nature and its conservation, or that it broadened their outlook and concepts in Natural History.
I have always written with the view that each article could be my last, or that the one you are reading now may be your last. With that stated, here is the rest of the answer to the questions. I spent eleven years working in South Australia’s prisons and gaols and have therefore experienced things most people may never imagine. Unlike what is depicted in many American television programs and films, South Australian prison officers walk amongst and talk with prisoners while un-armed. So one becomes acquainted with a range of lives from the tragic to the totally evil, while your only defence is the capacity to communicate; and the prison’s best security lies in developing a rapport with the inmates.
James was serving a life sentence for a particularly cruel and hideous crime, but I had always got on well with him; and it’s an officer’s duty to not concern himself with the crime itself, but with the man who committed it. It was a Sunday, and he was looking quite distressed after a visit from his sister, so I asked him why he was looking so ‘down’? The visit was part of the reason. His sister had been a very obese woman, and the emphasis here is on the ‘had been’, because when I saw her that Sunday, she was extremely and unhealthily emaciated. The flesh of her skin hung like empty, water-soaked bags from the bones of her arms; her ankles were covered, down to her feet with great rolls and folds of the drooping skin from her legs. She was dying from anorexia and James knew it and was afraid for her.
‘I’m the only one she has that loves her’ he told me. ‘And she is the only person that loves me. I’m all she has and she is all I have to love and she is going to die soon; you can see that for yourself’. And I could! ‘I have to keep living until my parole comes, for her sake, not mine. She has nobody else. Just look at her, nobody wants to be near somebody looking like that; except me! I have to live for her sake’.
His sister certainly looked grotesque and repulsive, although I tried not to think that way, but what could I say? What is there to say to a man serving a life sentence for his crime? Once committed and sentenced there is no turning back; it’s unrelenting from there on. I tried to say something, but knew I was drowning before even getting started. I knew though, that while not being religious myself, some prisoners drew comfort from it and, like a fool, mentioned something from the New Testament. I cannot remember what it was and now I know better.
James exploded! With a verbal outburst of extreme outrage and venom. ‘Don’t talk religion to me’, he shouted. My father was a fucking minister of religion, and almost every day he would bash me and my sister, and when I tried to stop him from hurting her, he would bash me some more and rape me. Every week after church he would rape us both; and my righteous Godfearing mother just looked on and stood on his side when he thrashed us. Then thrashed us some more if we cried out to her for help’. ‘DON’T EVER talk about religion or that “honour your father and mother” shit to me again. I wish my loving fucking parents were dead and their bloody fucking religion dead with them’.
I could barely croak out a ‘sorry’, given the volume and venom and content of his eruption; but oddly enough, for some reason, he didn’t stomp off and leave me. I tried again to talk, but he could see I couldn’t; and so he talked some more, now in a defeated tone, more about his concern for his sister’s health and how much she had meant to him ‘back then’. Of the extra bashings and the raping he got from his father whenever he tried to protect her. About how he refused to stop trying regardless, knowing each time he would fail anyway – until he grew bigger. About the grief she had for him in getting locked away, and his own shame, not for his crime, but for not being out of prison to protect her now and save her, which, if he was out, he was sure he could do! How afraid he was for her life and his fear in living without her. That he was afraid he wouldn’t be released on parole in time. And then about how they had comforted each other when they had been children together.
The next day he was dead! The prison officer who unlocked his cell door saw the vomit on his face, caused by a heart attack and knew his body was already going cold; but he tried to save his life regardless of that by breathing air through his vomit covered mouth and pumping his already cold and unresponding chest. Then he was assisted by some prisoners who had attended St. Johns First Aid courses while in prison. But it was hopeless! Yet my friend and fellow officer was never quite the same again, because of his failure to save a life. I don’t think he failed!
James had committed a very barbaric crime, but I’ll not tell you what it was, because although the crime was amongst the worst one can commit, he wasn’t a bad man. And you may wonder about that! But you see, there is a difference between the man and the crime. There are some men who are purely evil, (regardless of their crime), and if you ever look into their eyes, you will be afraid! With other men, you can see bitterness or anger or nothing but the absence of hope. Some, like James on that Sunday, what you see is grief, for a tragedy partly of their own making. These men can haunt you, when it would be better, far better, to just be afraid!
And that’s just it, you see! My mind is still infiltrated with events that are, or were frightening, or worse still, mostly sickening, repulsive or sad; and too, it’s invaded with the faces of those that are evil and cruel, hopeless or grieving. However, when I write, particularly when I write about Natural History, I can block them out and it all goes away – I am insulated from it for the duration of time in penning the articles. All of the incidents, a hundred and more, can be blocked by the concentration required to write. Except this one and a few others too, but mainly this one. The ghost of that man comes to visit me, day or night, asleep or awake, and I know of nothing to stop it, which is a paradox, because I chose his story to tell you why I write!
As for why do I want what I write to be published? Well, if it wasn’t, that would be like cooking a meal with nobody to eat it and there is no sense in that. Also, it’s so that although ‘dying ain’t hard for men like me…’, I can hope it won’t be the last article I write – or the last one you read.