By Grid Margraf
Charlie picked up the 10 of spades.
I bounced a rolled smoke off his chest, rolled one for myself and lit them both.
I got comfortable again sitting at the end of the bed leaning against the cell bars, one leg crossed in front of me and the other foot tapping the smooth floor.
Charlie took a deep drag of his smoke, “Rummy.”
He laid down the king through the 10 of spades, three sixes and discarded the ace of diamonds.
We play seven cards. Minus 50 points for me, plus 55 for Charlie.
“So they sent you in the tunnel with a .45 and a grenade. Did they also supply the tampons to stuff up your butt so you didn’t crap yourself?”
“The trick to that is to keep your butt cheeks clinched.” Charlie took three deep drags off his smoke, hot boxing it, the cherry almost an inch long. “The tunnel entrances were 14 inches across or less. I would strip down to my t-shirt and pants, no boots or socks. Then I would crawl into the tunnel, pistol in one hand, grenade in the other.”
“My eyes were so good I could see around corners.”
“So you have been cheating at cards.”
“If you ever learn to play I may have to.”
I finished my smoke and tossed it the four feet to the toilet.
“No light. The V.C. would have seen it long before I could see them. The tunnels were dark and booby trapped. It took some skill to move through them without blowing myself up or making noise.
“I sat a grenade under my chin so I had a free hand to slowly move back and forth in front of me feeling for trip wires. I moved my arm out further and further with each sweep of my hand until my arm was fully stretched in front of me, then I’d pause for a moment. Breathe my relief at being alive, and listen for any sound. Take the grenade from under my chin and move it far ahead of me.
“Then, without making a sound, plank my body up on my toes and elbows and move ahead a couple inches at a time until the grenade was under my chin again. Repeat the whole process over and over and over feeling for trip wires and traps knowing that each slight movement through to the end of the tunnel could be my last.”
Charlie tried to take a drag off his smoke. It was out. He looked at it in disgust, dropped it in the toilet beside him and hit the button. The noise of the flushing toilet reverberated around the concrete walls of the cell, making conversation impossible for at least five seconds.
“I would stare into the darkness so hard that I’d see spots of light floating around in front of me. My hand would touch a root, think it was a trip wire, and spend five minutes feeling it up before realizing it was just a root. Adrenaline would flood my body as I lay listening for the slightest sound to emanate from that pre-dug grave. I was so f***ing scared, I was so f***ing alive.”
Thirty seconds passed, then Charlie said, “Roll me a smoke.”
“Didn’t you just put one out?”
“Who are you, my mother?”
“Do I look like I’m wearing combat boots?”
“Combat boots, really?”
“Thought I’d give you something you could relate to. Deal the cards and I’ll roll you a smoke.”
I rolled and lit it, took a few hits, passed it to Charlie, then picked up my cards.
Charlie sat and smoked quietly. Then suddenly, he handed me the cigarette and got up to urinate.
I smoked while he finished. He rolled off a foot of toilet paper, wiped off the toilet seat, then flushed. Before the noise had died down, Charlie walked past me signaling for the cigarette. He left the cell puffing like a locomotive. Twelve feet to the front grill gate, 24 feet to the back grill gate, 12 feet back to the cell. He stopped in front of the toilet looking into the water for almost a minute, dropped the smoldering cigarette butt in, hit the button, whoosh, sat down on his bed, picked up his cards and leaned back against the concrete wall.
Charlie flipped over the top card on the deck. It was a two of clubs, “I hated to use the grenade in a tunnel. The tunnels were closed in. It was hard to throw. It was more like sidearm bowling. And when it went off, God—the concussion was terrible. My ears would ring, snot would run from my nose, my eyes couldn’t focus. I knew I was still alive because I was choking on the smoke and dust from the explosion.
“I’d lob the grenade and pray that the tunnel didn’t collapse. I had one tunnel collapse on me. About six inches of the roof dropped on me. It scared the piss out of me and got me really dirty. Actually muddy, dirt mixed with sweat and piss.”
I drew a two of hearts and discarded a five of diamonds. “Are you housebroken now or do you still pee yourself?”
“If I pee anywhere you can be sure that it will be in corner of your cell, so yeah I’m housebroken.”
Charlie drew a card and lay down the seven of spades. “I had a flashback. That’s why I shot up the sheriff’s office with a .22 rifle.”
“Yeah, read about it, but if you’re going to have a flashback you could at least flashback on how to shoot. Those bullets would still be flying if those walls hadn’t been heroes and jumped in front of them.”
“What makes you think I wasn’t aiming at the walls?”
“Because no one mentioned the broadside of a barn.”
(Editor’s note: Part 3 of “Charlie’s Story” will appear in the August 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.