A Broken Promise
Prison; the best way to describe it, would be to state it’s an oasis or boredom in a desert of horror’s. However with no apparent horror’s to contend with, I often appreciate the boredom.
Our afternoon recreation period is simply a much needed break from the long days of nothingness. It’s during these times, human beings (even some convicted ones) become social creatures and congregate to tell tales.
The winters here are brutally cold but today it was hot enough for skin to burn, yet not quite hot enough to be unbearable to skin the complexion of my own. I began my short walk across the dirt covered yard desperately trying to spot any form of intelligent life. The stagnant air smelled of cheap cigars and roll your own tobacco. In the distance I could hear an assortment of strained grunts attached to a barrage of clanging weights.
I pass by several simpleton’s having a boring conversation while leaning against the cement wall, then a few idiot’s that were lucky enough to sit comfortably at a table. It’s times like this when I peruse groups of people like many of you might do to shelves of books in a library. I only stop when something interests me, as like the countless printed work’s in existence, prison topics are also infinite.
Many of these jailhouse conversations are run of the mill, others entertaining, and the majority are pure unadulterated bullshit. Then whether you’re incarcerated or not, there is always that one person who seems to know everything. Another issue is since we’re all in prison, nothing ever changes and the repeat stories happen often. I have to laugh when someone changes an ending or character from the prior time their tale was told. Yet I firmly believe this is why many older convicts are cautious, yet curious about our new additions, as there is a chance of hearing a new set of fables. However, in the midst of the new, old, or repeated tales every so often someone can convey an experience that will stop a group of chatty convicts cold.
I found a table full of those I often associate with already seated, and a conversation was already in progress about of all things: the current Popes visit to the United States. Pope Francis was going to lead an interfaith prayer at the 911 memorial, and afterwards he was scheduled to conduct a mass in a Philadelphia prison. Unlike the former Popes, Francis has made a point in including convicts into his itinerary. Most of us, myself included can’t even get a piece of mail from the outside, let alone a visit, so I can only assume Pope Francis took “I was in prison and you visited me” quite literally. Yet visits aside, I was never one to follow nor discuss religious policies let alone a Popes agenda’s. However Pope Francis is proving to be far different than any religious leader in recent memory. To be perfectly honest, there is just something about him that truly intrigues me.
As the conversation began switching gears from The Holy Fathers prison visits, to his trip to the 911 memorial, a new associate of mine seemed to wince. I can’t say I knew much about him, however I knew prior to receiving an inmate identification number, he once had a badge number attached to his chest. This alone meant he could have stories for days. He was also up front about his past profession, and even though you would think mixing cops with convicts was like mixing cats and dogs, under the present circumstances he was a welcome addition to my circle of friends.
My new associate began sharing his positive feelings regarding the Pope, before focusing the conversation on the memorial service. It was then I found out he had been at the World Trade Center as this tragedy occurred. I had never spoken to anyone directly involved with the falling towers prior. The closet I got to it was watching this saga unfold while secured in my cage at Attica. From that day on I could only imagine the nightmares it had brought out for many.
He narrated as the first plane tore through the side of the north tower, he was driving into lower Manhattan via the Belt Parkway. For those of you not familiar with it, one side of the Parkway is only feet from the Atlantic ocean with a partial view of the Manhattan skyline and Lady Liberty. His voice began to speed up as he described the ominous cloud of billowing smoke which appeared on the clear blue horizon. To make the situation even more intense, as he drove there was a brutally descriptive narrative of the attack being broadcast on the radio.
In the time it took for him to enter lower Manhattan, the second plane was piercing the south tower. I sat speechless as he described watching the fire ball and ensuing shower of once carefully drafted documents now ablaze and dispersing themselves across battery park. A horror story in the making was unfolding right before him, yet his adrenaline fueled instincts forced him to race to the buildings entrance. He paused to explain pinning his I.D. to his shirt. Then let out a nervous laugh and told us he didn’t know why it was so important. No one running out of the building was going to notice.
He only had to walk a few feet into the lobby before spotting three injured women now tattered, battered, and filthy huddled next to the bank of dead escalators. Two, still in their heels, managed to carry the third this far, yet they could go no further unaided. Their friend had a tremendous head wound and crushed legs. At the very least she would need a stretcher to prevent further injury. He managed to raise the two almost mobile women to their feet, and both of them grasped onto him for dear life. Yet instead of immediately leaving he tool precious time to kneel down and patiently explain his plan to the third.
He would bring out the two clutching him first, then return to carry out their badly injured comrade alone. There was no time to waste, and each of them realized it was the only possible way; he simply could not help all three at once. However, the last women still begged not to be left behind. In the best monotone voice he could muster up, he assured the injured women he would be back for her in moments.
Over her sobbing protests, he followed through with his plan, and quickly began walking out of the building with his two charges clinging onto him. He was instantly washed into a riptide of those fleeing almost like cattle being funneled into trucks. Taking slow careful steps made his short journey feel as though it was taking forever, when it was probably only mere minutes.
After placing both women in a spot he deemed safe, he proceed to return and fulfill his promise, but was stopped by a fireman. By this times they had arrival in force to help the thousands evacuate. The fire fighter assured him that rescuers from his and many other companies were tending to the injured, and would stabilize the women by the escalators. The fireman asked that he move back to a safer area as not to impede with the first responders efforts, nor the flow of those fleeing under their own power.
The wave of uniformed police, fireman and the sea of those fleeing created a ceaseless tide. He was steadily forced far back enough to see the flames licking the top of the ominous structure. Yet, as far back as he was, he kept his eyes peeled opened for the third women to be brought out on a bright yellow stretcher. As he intently watched the front door he had already planned on riding the ambulance with her. They could exchange information and after her recovery and a hearty embrace recite the day for both sets of their children. I could only assume without even knowing her name, they were creating a lifelong bond.
There was a long uncomfortable pause in his story as he valiantly tried to suppress a gamut of emotions. And he somehow found the courage to not only complete his story, but describe the deafening sounds as the building began collapsing. It all appeared to be happen in slow motion, as one floor after another pancaked into a vertical heap of twisted steel and concrete. His quivering voice barely narrated how the dust cloud hit him as though a train was passing through a narrow tunnel; and he was precariously perched upon the edge of a short platform.
This story was unexpected, and difficult to hear. And I had assumed the worst part had passed just as his voice briefly cracked, as he recited the final part. Now he was just barely holding back an ocean of tears before stating… now he can’t forgive himself for breaking his promise.
For reason’s far beyond his control, this particular promise was in the hands of someone else. However, as we approach a season of thanks, self resolutions and wishes, along with pondering this more thoroughly. I began thinking of all the broken promises made to me. Or far worse, the ones I had intentionally made knowing all too well they could never be fulfilled.