Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ex-Convict Bill Sands and Me

Picture a young soldier: clean-cut, wholesome and harmless looking; short, slim and no tattoos. That was me in my early twenties. One day, accompanied by a younger taller man, the general’s driver, I went to the city’s worst skid row bar… because the beer was cheap. The driver was a smooth faced bright guy. How bright? I was the only one on the base to discern that he had once attended—and failed—officer candidate school. His secret was safe with me; when he later shipped out to Germany I told him precisely how many NATO fall maneuver seasons he would finish before either reapplying to be an officer... or leaving the service.

We entered the bar and there I spotted a soldier, in civilian clothes like us, whom I will call Charlie. Charlie was a highly respected guy, big and broad shouldered, who was often alone. We joined him.

We talked. I happily announced that in a few months I would be going off to the community college to study rehabilitation. The conversation flowed for a couple minutes before the penny dropped. “Oops! Oh yeah, I should say I’ll be studying rehab for people with disabilities, not people in the prisons. I’m well aware that guards and cons have no use for social workers.” Charlie slowly grew a huge grin. “This is true.” And sometime during the evening he told us of being molested in prison. It was bad. …This isn’t something young heroes ever talk about. Guys have a blind spot for male rape, even today when they are serving in Gomorrah: the Arab world…. He told us of how he got his revenge, final and permanent. After Charlie left the driver was bug eyed. “How do you know him?” Charlie and I had come to solidly respect each other in another place and time—but that story is for another essay. My point is that a drab guy like me could hang around with a colorful guy like him. This I owe to an ex-convict, Bill Sands.

I’ve been thinking lately about how Bill Sands had such a big influence on my life. Bill was incarcerated in the infamous San Quentin prison in California. While doing his time Bill lived up to the harsh code of the convicts: He had a good reputation as a solid con.

I attended an unhappy junior high school. Later I went on to attend the senior secondary in which, despite having two feeder junior schools, the population was no greater than in my junior high. In other words, my junior high had included a lot of frustrated future dropouts. How bad was it? When some of us went to a rock concert in the big city, some city teens were seated nearby. Then, upon hearing what school we were from, they got up and sat somewhere else… At our school the girls were as bad as the boys: in the girl’s main central washroom every single stall door—made of steel—had been ripped off its hinges. The central boys washroom, doors intact, was the only boys washroom where the mirrors were not totally smashed. Here the bad boys with their jean jackets (none of us could afford leather) could comb their long hair and smoke. The room was always crowded.

Half of the students at school were on the “academic program,” which meant taking French and algebra for college. Of those smart kids, there was only one boy who would venture into that central washroom. As I emerged other shorter-haired academics passing by would whisper to me, “What were you doing in there?” Being a boy of solid principles I wasn’t about to go out of my way just to use the can. Besides, I was too stubborn to be afraid. So there I’d be, with short hair and no jean jacket, elbowing my way past other guys in the washroom. Always someone would challenge me. “What are you doing here?” But I never had to fight. Always some one else would reply, “He’s OK, Sean’s cool.”

My memory has blurred, but I guess I would have got to know various “bad boys” in various non-academic classes such as shop. Perhaps the boys were touched that a smart student like me had no arrogance. You may ask: Why would I bother to get to know them? Easy: I like people, and I had Bill’s example, friendly and unafraid, to follow.

Bill Sands, being a solid con, was able to befriend a lot of scarred up older wiser cons. This despite Bill having attended a ritzy high school with a swimming pool, and despite having the second highest I.Q. among the inmates. Bill’s father was a rich judge, his mother a socialite. Unfortunately his mamma used to beat him until her arms were too tired. This may explain, but not excuse, his being a criminal. (I was scathed too.) Bill became a very twisted-up violent guy. Yet, in his life among cons and others, he set me an example not merely in friendly behavior but in philosophy: He knew that most cons, and most people, have some good somewhere inside. When I meet people I don’t focus on the bad.

One of my fellow writers, Louis L’amour, must have had a similar philosophy. As a young merchant mariner Louis had knocked around rough Asian seaports, including the port that has given us the verb "Shanghaied." As an old writer of westerns he displayed a keen sympathy for the not-so-bad outlaws. And only contempt for the ones who were “poison.”

One of his westerns, Kid Rodelo, has an illustrative scene. Three ex-cons are crossing the desert, weak from lack of food and water. They are hoping to come across a rumored natural water tank in the rocks. They find it. Water! They drink it all. Then they look up and see how the tank will never be refilled, not the next time it rains, because a rock slab has fallen across the inlet channel. So Kid Rodelo, despite his weakness, struggles and strains and at last succeeds in shifting the slab. The other two just watch the hero, passively, without lifting a finger. The hero goes on to “get a life,” while the others die by the gun. I think Louis would have liked Bill.

Bill proclaimed, “Consideration for others!” That’s what he said to parents at a Boys’nGirls club dinner. He said something like, “If your boy has consideration for others, what law can he break? What crime can he commit?” That makes sense to me as none of my brothers, despite their associates, are criminals. None of us would speak of any crimes openly at the family supper table. As for showing consideration, I grew up on a country road. Occasionally a big grader would come by to smooth out the gravel and reduce the potholes. Meanwhile, our parents would set us an example on that road by picking up nails and by moving rocks. And of course they would encourage consideration by saying, “How would you like it if you—“

Between his prison years and giving that talk to the parents Bill had a “real life,” a life that included going off to the merchant marine and being a coach in Asia. Back here in America he became a successful capitalist. He married a good lady. She had a past too, being a former alcoholic. I am sure Bill needed a wife who would know that a man could be both very bad and very good in one lifetime.

Bill was an excellent Master of Ceremonies, or MC. …I can’t resist saying that last Christmas, at a huge  company party one evening, I thought of Bill as everyone said I was a “real good” MC. I had never been one before.

 One day, to Bill’s surprise, he set aside his prepared MC act. Instead, a burning message just poured out of him and he “came out of the closet,” as we would say today, revealing he was an ex-con. It was quite an experience.

Later that night, sitting in their luxurious house, he and his wife agreed that helping others would be, for Bill, the real meaning of life. (Me too.) Back in prison Bill had succeeded in doing something as difficult as giving one’s self a haircut: he had rehabilitated himself. (Without help from any stupid social workers.) Now, emotionally supported by his wife, with the help of straight Johns and convicts and ex-cons, he set up a system of seven steps whereby cons could rehabilitate each other. (Alcoholics Anonymous uses 12 steps) The system is far, far harsher than AA, but it has to be.

I once interviewed the North American head of the Seventh Step Society. He lent me a tape of a talk of Bill speaking at a Boys’nGirls club dinner. Hearing his voice is the closest I’ve come to Bill. My buddy Charlie, though, once got to see Bill Sands in person, "at an AA thing." I’m jealous. A few years after our night in the bar Charlie’s life took a turn and he had to leave the army. I have hope that Charlie’s life turned out OK because he once told me how his father, despite painful arthritis, arthritis so bad he would be laid up all the next day, would sometimes walk Charlie’s trap line with him. I sometimes think of how a tiny memory like that, tucked away, can help a man get up when he stumbles.

Today I have respectable work, life is good.

Earlier I noted I was short, and I mentioned the school workshop. I have a few memories of tough boys helping me there… for I was about as unconfident with my hands as any typical bookworm. And I’ve one illustrative memory: One day a very foolish academic kid must have thought he had found someone smaller to vent his frustrations on. He grabbed me. I just happened to know to how to break that particular hold. So zip-zip I was free and not backing down at all. So he backed off…  I say “very foolish” because of what would have inevitably happened if we had fought. Win, lose or draw—the tough boys would have “cleaned his clock” (taken him apart). They liked me and they had a high regard for my solid credibility. Everyone knew I would never fight for any selfish reason. I went on to lead the same charmed life among big soldiers all through my army years.

Thank you, Bill, wherever you are.

Sean Crawford,
City of Calgary, on the prairie,
August, 2013

~Bill wrote two books, My Shadow Ran Fast and After the Seventh Step
~I brushed off this essay, never before posted, because my niece, a 2013 university graduate, has a job, working not with cons but with ex-cons: The difference is critical, as the latter are volunteers—the light bulb "wants" to change.
~In my current administrator's page of 25 titles, I guess the most related essays are Real Men and Me and Learning to Be Nice, both archived in May of 2013. 

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