By Grid Margraf
The place reeked of cigarettes; everyone smoked. There was no ventilation, not even windows in the concrete walls. This was Nevada County Jail, 1984, and windows like doors were a way out.
My name is Grid Margraf. I was a murder suspect, sitting on the foot of Charlie Rand’s bed playing rummy one night. I had never liked anything that required me to sit perfectly still, including reading, writing or arithmetic. Playing cards was not included on that list because I could tap a foot as I played. It helped. The irony was that I could sit and concentrate as long as my body was doing something else.
First grade was tough. A rural five-year-old placed in civilization and expected to know how to act. Please don’t misunderstand me; I could sort of sit quietly through church services at the time, but then I knew that I could run around like a wild ass for the rest of the day. School, not the same.
I found that if I balanced my chair on the back two legs I was more focused on the lesson. I wasn’t very good at it and tipped over, disrupting the class several times a day. One day, my teacher, Mrs. Gilmore, got exasperated and told me, “The next time that chair tips over you’ll be standing.”
What I heard was, “You have to do better, quit losing your balance.”
No worries, I got this, and bang, I was standing until recess. Other than the embarrassment, standing served the same purpose as balancing the chair. My body was busy so my mind could focus.
Today, they would have had me on pills for hyperactivity or some other such thing that says I’m not normal. F*** them. I was normal then and I’m normal now. I quietly tapped my foot.
Charlie struck up a conversation. “Do you realize when we got into Vietnam we were following in on the heels of the French?” Before I could answer he continued, “The French lost basically. They bailed out. They had had enough and I don’t know the exact history, but Vietnam had been at war with someone or other for a very long time.”
I tapped my stocking heel on the smooth floor as I exhaled a full lung of Bugler smoke. The floor had once been painted battleship grey but the paint had long since worn through where the prisoners walked, the fine grit of socks slowly grinding away the concrete.
Each block was given a copy of the local paper each day. Most of us knew why everyone was in jail. Charlie was one of those guys you knew you could count on to initiate something unexpected. Charlie had opened fire inside the sheriff’s office during a flashback to Vietnam. Since coming here, Charlie had never discussed the war, or why he was in here, and I wasn’t going to ask. I’d been a small child when the Vietnam War ended.
Charlie continued, “The Vietnamese had dug themselves in so well that there were layers and layers of maze-like tunnels. Our guys would find a tunnel and call for a person to go in; they called ’em ‘tunnel rats.’ At five-four and 150 pounds, I was a little large when compared to the size of an average Vietnamese, but for tunnel-rat duty, I was just the right size.”
Charlie drew a card and laid down the four of hearts. He seemed focused, but somehow different. “The tunnels were booby trapped and guarded. I had no idea what the layout was, and I didn’t take a light. My job was to go down and clear the tunnels.”
“What? Sweep up? Clean the cobwebs out of the corners?”
Charlie flashed me an evil look as I tossed my smoke in the toilet, picked up a four of hearts and discarded the king of spades. “F*** you Margraf,” Charlie said as he picked up the king of spades.
I wish I was half as grown up as I thought I was. Several months hanging out with Charlie every day had caused me to adopt a lot of his speaking mannerisms. We spoke the same language through familiarity.
“So how did you not get your nuts shot off?”
“What makes you think I didn’t?”
“Seen you in the shower Bro.”
“Shoppin’ were ya?”
“No, just checking the competition.”
Charlie discarded a nine of diamonds. I drew a card.
Charlie got a funny, scary glint in his eyes. “When a patrol found a tunnel they would sit on it until a couple of us ‘tunnel rats’ got there. We usually went in one at a time. If the first didn’t come back, the second went in. Being the second was a good news/bad news sort of thing. The good news was that you might not go in the tunnel. The bad news was if you did go in they knew you were coming. I went in with a Colt .45 automatic loaded with ball ammo and a grenade.
(Editor’s note: Part 2 of “Charlie’s Story” will appear in the July issue of the Community Alliance.)
Grid Margraf is a writer currently incarcerated at the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad. Contact him at Grid Margraf D-13272, P.O. Box 689 B-322, Soledad, CA 93960-0689.