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Pulling Chains

May 7, 2012

Pulling Chains

By Davin Douma

           In a prisoner’s life there are a number of moments that always stand out in memory.  Every prisoner’s experience is unique, but the generalities remain the same.  For example, the first fight you have in jail or prison will remain in your mind forever.  Your heart races, your palms sweat, and you have no idea how it is going to turn out.  When you’re locked in a cage with other men there is no backing out of a physical confrontation.  There is no walking away.  No turning the other cheek.  And no forgiveness.  What is truly frightening about the fight isn’t the punches and the kicks and the choking.  It’s the anticipation of the punches and the kicks and the choking.

            For me, the first real stand-out moment as a prisoner was pulling chains.  The term pulling chains is a euphemism for that moment you leave jail and go to prison.  The term comes from the experience itself.  In my day, we (the prisoners being transported) were pulled out of our cells early in the morning, chained hand and foot, and shackled together in a long line.  The sun wasn’t up yet, the guards were gruff, and breakfast was a bologna sandwich.  We were then marched down to a waiting county van.  As the line moved you were pulled forward and backward constantly by the men in front and behind you.  Hence the term pulling chains.  The shuffling of the feet and bobbing of the bodies was caused by the restraints, and made us all move like penguins.  The sound of the event stands out in my mind distinctly.  Ten men in shackles all jingling and jangling at the same time.  It was a chorus of metal rattling against metal and scraping on the concrete beneath our feet.  The experience is unforgettable, but not for the reason you may think.

            Those of us who have had surgery are members of a common club.  We know what it means to walk into the hospital with doubt in our minds.  We know what it means to lay on that cold table with the lights above and the busyness of people in masks all around us.  We know the trepidation that comes from the intra-venous needle they stick in our arm and the fear of not waking up.  We think all kinds of horrible thoughts and have visions of the morons who attend our funerals.

            Later, when we wake up in the coolness of the recovery room, with the blurry vision and the bad taste in our mouths, we feel a massive weight lift from our shoulders.  We are alive and stirring and suddenly things are not so bad.  The reality of the situation turned out to be small, almost disappointing, compared to the scenario we had envisioned.  Such is the way of anticipation and dread.  Luckily, most people don’t have to deal with this kind of situation very often.  Not unless you are chronically ill, or a soldier, or a prisoner.

            I got to thinking about pulling chains after having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a vet.  Although he is serving a very long sentence, he once served his country in Vietnam.  We were talking about that feeling shared by all combat vets who have been in a fire-fight.  The worst part is the thinking about it before it happens.  It is the feeling in the pit of the stomach, the shaking of the legs, the shallowness of breath.  Sometimes soldiers sweat so badly they blind their own eyes with salt.  Sometimes just the opposite happens and they get so thirsty they empty a canteen in a few gulps.  The reality, once the shooting starts, is not nearly as bad.  Things happen quickly and there is little time to think.  There is the popping of firecrackers and the buzz of bullets in the air.  Then you are moving and shooting and yelling and your senses are alive and rushing.  Before you know it the shooting has stopped and the mop up begins.  You stand up, you look around, and you vomit the anxiety out of your body.  Pulling chains is a lot like that.

            When I was in the old county jail in Tulsa I was kept in the juvenile tanks because of my age.  The juvy tanks were a world unto themselves.  We fought over food, we fought over the bunks, and we fought out of boredom.  There is no prison in the world as dangerous as a juvy tank.  We never knew from one day to the next what was going to happen.  It was the anticipation of combat all the time and we were wired maniacs because of it.  As bad as it was the life I knew was preferable to the one I didn’t.  Pulling chains was the debarkation point.  It was the end of the devil I knew and the beginning of the devil I didn’t.  What you don’t know is the seed of fear that grows into the tree of anguish.

            I remember eating breakfast one morning when a trustee popped his face in the bean hole and looked at me long and hard.  He was an experienced con with a time-dot on his cheek and the grunge-mouth of a meth addiction.  I was sixteen and scrawny and had learned to be mean.  The trustee smiled at me and said, “They’re gonna love you where you’re going, boy.”

            I gave him the bird and went right on eating.  What he said was not a new thing to me.  I had been thinking about prison constantly since I was convicted and waiting on pulling chains.  For the previous year I had listened to the horror stories of what happened to kids in prison.  I knew I was in for a rough time.  Knew I’d have to get a shank as soon as I landed.  Knew I might have to stab a few people to get the message across.  But the roughest time was already happening to me.  It was in my mind and in the shaking of my hands.  My imagination was running wild and nothing good was coming out of it.

            Everyone who pulls chains, even experienced cons, feel fear and trepidation.  But the experienced con has an idea of what is coming.  He worries about debts he still owes and old arguments unsettled.  These are minor things compared to what a kid thinks.  It is the hospital experience times ten.  It is the feeling of combat that goes on for hours instead of minutes.  It is the serious contemplation of death, both of others and your own.  When the van pulled into the razor-wire covered fences of the prison, I was ready.  I was prepared to kill anyone who looked at me sideways.  I was ready to die, and I expected it.Anticipation and dread.  Nothing in life or death is as bad.  Some things you never forget.

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