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Big Fish in Little Ponds

May 7, 2012

Big Fish In Little Ponds

By Davin Douma

             Not long ago I was enjoying a little road time.  It was early September and the sky was gray and the day was that pleasant cool we all notice after the heat of summer has run its course.  In Oklahoma we call it Indian Summer, but everywhere you go they have a name for it.  Road time to a prisoner means you are being transported someplace.  Sometimes a prisoner is going for a day and sometimes for a lifetime.  In this instance I was manacled and shackled and boxed.  Boxed means I had a black box on my cuffs that was attached to a chain around my waist that prevents the picking of locks and keeps the hands in a relatively fixed position.  If you wear the box for an hour it is merely uncomfortable.  That day I would were it for twelve hours, and feel the pain of it for days.  Papillon is never far from my thoughts.

            The purpose of the trip for me and the other three guys in the white corrections van was a hospital run.  I was getting an ultrasound of my abdominal organs to help determine if I had cancer.  Two of the guys with me were going for chemo treatments and the other was getting a check up after his disease had gone into remission.  We were all sick or post sick, and all enjoyed the ride and the chance to see the outside world again.  For me, the drive through Oklahoma City was the first time I had been outside the prison fences in five years.  Five years might not sound like a long time to most people, but it was longer than world war two and I felt every day of it.

            Because so much time passes between trips for a lifer, the changes in the outside world are hugely noticeable.  All the cars had changed, the speeds were faster, and everywhere I looked there was a driver with a cell-phone stuck to their ear.  Many of the business had changed and most of the big billboards on the side of the road had new advertisements.  Off all the differences the one I noticed the most was the addition of Indian Casinos.  Five years earlier there wasn’t a one, now there were dozens with neon lights, packed parking lots, and posters of curvy women in evening gowns with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  The signs were a stark contrast to the blue-haired women and retired men who made up the bulk of the casino’s clientele.  Knowing that and understanding the deception just made me want to go there even more.

            The drive to the hospital was made in the early morning hours while the sky was still dark and the pull of sleep still strong.  It was the ride back after a full day in restraints that showed me the world through the barred windows of the van.  Seeing the outside world was like the experience of a five year old in a confectionary store.  Everything looked so good and yet you knew you couldn’t get a taste of any of it.  There was the hope tinged with desire, but also the loneliness of memory.  I thought about what it would be like to walk through the parking lot of the mall we just passed.  I thought about what it would be like to be sitting in the car next to the van.  The one with the pretty girl on the phone and the yellow skirt that showed me some thigh.  The things I missed weighed heavily upon me.  The trip was turning out to be an experience of minor torture.  There I was stuck behind a glass window and forced to watch a world go by that I could only gaze upon.  A world so vast it was beyond my ability to comprehend.  In such moments I often think of how much I gave away in that instant of violence over twenty-five years earlier.  I thought of what I had given up and what it would have meant to me.

            Prison is such a different kind of place and small in comparison.  A place where lots of men with no skills or ambitions can rise to the top of the heap through vulgar behavior.  A place where the lowest common denominator is the greatest.  A place were one is limited in almost every way.  But is it really all those things or is that our perception.

It is true that in prison the worst behavior is regarded as the best.  It is true that men with no education or training usually end up running the place.  It is true that the distance between the fences is tiny compared to the distance between horizons.  But do people on the streets really live in all that space?  Do men in prison really live between the fences?

            As we drove down I-35 and passed the stores and restaurants and casinos I thought about the scale of the world I lived in compared to the free world.  The place I live is not actually inside the fences.  The place you live is not actually between the horizons.  We live in our heads and in our hearts.  We live in our memories and in our contrived histories.  We live in that place we create for ourselves, be it big or small, gutter or mansion.  The outside world, the one beyond the confines of our minds, plays only a small role in the lives we actually live on the inside.

            How many people know a successful man or woman who lives in misery?  How many lonely couples are there driving on the highway in separate cars?  How many poor people do you know that have great sex lives?  Since when is the world beyond ourselves the creator of success and happiness?  Those things are mined and forged within the cauldron of our consciousness.  Who says a man in prison can not find contentment?  Who says a woman in jail can not find peace within herself?  When we stop allowing the outside world to be a dictator, we find the freedom of choice within.

            In prison there is a saying used by those people who are successful in prison and failures on the streets.  These are the people who come back, time and again, to the only place they know and understand.  “It is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”  The reality is that we are all small fish living in small ponds.

Copyright 2010. Davin Douma

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