Letters from Charlie – December 24, 2000 through January 3, 2001

Dec. 24, 2000
Christmas Eve

Finally, I'm writing again. I have too many letters that need to be answered to count. Will spend much of this holiday season, Dec. 23rd through Jan. 3, answering letters.

Living in the present has become much easier for me as of two weeks ago when I was given a new job as orderly for the chapel and Sweat Lodge. The former holder of the position had and enjoyed it for two years. He was part Sioux Native American and the principal leader of Native American Sweat Lodge religious ceremonies.

About six weeks ago he invited me to lead sweats. I tried to politely decline, but he was insistent. I relented. So far I've had two sweat sessions. I've not yet mastered the art of pouring water over hot stones in the dark. I either miss altogether or find a hot rock immediately beneath my hand. Hard on the hand.

In conjunction with this leadership role, I'm reading all I can about Native American, or First People, religious customs, especially sweat lodge ceremonies.

Sweat Lodge orderly duties involve maintaining and improving an already beautiful garden surrounding the lodge. Lots of gardening, another area of ongoing study. A good man generously shares his knowledge with me. So from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week, I'm alone in a Lompoc Garden of Eden overlooking fields of freshly planted barley and local flowers soon to bloom. The job is without doubt the best pre-Christmas gift I could have received. I work in uninterrupted silence most of the day, just far enough away from the center of camp to enjoy the feeling of being in a world apart. No one visits me except the camp warden who drops in to see what he can see and say as little as possible.

What has come to be of paramount importance to me is the path I feel led to walk, God's way for me. I've come to recognize it as the best way for me, not necessarily the way I want to or aspire to walk. I want to do the modest thing, the heroic most sacrificial act.

Christmas Day
10:17 a.m.

Just after the morning count and just before the mid-morning meal.

Concerning (Father) Mickey (McCormick): yes, he did influence my life, but I don't feel it was over the Central American issue. My first real, impressive introduction to what was going on in C.A. was via two teenage Salvadorans at Bill Milestone's house. And it was Judy who invited me to go with her and listen to Bill's guests. Next I remember Eileen Purcell and a diminutive Asian girl, Terry Chin, sponsoring house meetings under the auspices of Catholic (Charities). It was the series of house meetings that finally moved me to go and see for myself. I remember Mickey being very supportive but non-directive, as was his style.

(Another fond) memory of him was at the Capitol steps. Never a discouraging negative word. In fact, when a priest friend tried to encourage Mickey to dissuade me (from an open-ended, water-only fast in protest of U.S. policy in Central America), Mickey turned a deaf ear. It was my choice and he honored it, even though he may not have condoned what some regarded as suicide. In my book he is among the best, a good man and a fine pastor.

Christmas Day
8:30 p.m.

Took some time out for gardening at the Sweat Lodge, Mass, meals and an evening movie about car thievery in L.A.

(I have received) a great book by one of my favorite historical writers, Howard Zinn, called The Zinn Reader. It's a collection of his essays and newspaper articles dating back to Vietnam and the civil rights era! He has good essays on the relationship between law and justice. It affirms my conviction about the carving behind the bench in the Columbus, Ga., federal court. It reads, "Lex et justicia." The second word should be changed to "ordo."

What's around the corner (after my release) is up to the Great Spirit. I've given up trying to figure out what's best for me to do and when I do it, given my conclusions about our self-oriented culture and the immoral means the wealthy and powerful choose to use against the poor and vulnerable.

If there is a hell or place where the unjust receive true justice, I wonder if we will know about it and, if so, will the satisfaction I long for be granted. One could spend a lot of one's afterlife attending murder and rape trials in courts conducted by the victims.

6:33 p.m.
Back on the bunk for the evening

I usually poop out around 9 or 9:30 p.m. Hope to finish this tonight.

Thanks for the Ledger/Enquirer Columbus, Ga., clippings and reflections from (various protesters concerning the November demonstrations at Ft. Benning). I felt that the Ledger's coverage was good and fair. This was the first year the editorial board endorsed the school. I responded with a short letter to the editor, Mike Burbac, whom I know from my Columbus days. To my good pleasure he printed my untimely response and sent me a copy. He deleted my last line which read, "Keep your eyes on Colombia," and another related to democracy that went something like, "Democracy is for those who want to share, rather than take, power." I intend to ask him for an explanation of the deletion.

Racial tension is just beneath the surface of highly controlled behavior (here at the prison). Fear of immediate removal prevents us from physically responding to insults and acts of disrespect. I'm not afraid of removal. In fact, I'd welcome it, but I do fear messing up an appeal that my legal team claims will have good effects on future misdemeanor sentences. Incidentally, the appeal may be heard in January.

I still feel like an observer of rather than a participant in prison camp life. My new work position at the Sweat Lodge affords me privacy, silence and time to think and pray as I unearth weeds, fill and empty wheelbarrows of trash, water plants, rake leaves and wonder how I can contribute beyond maintenance.

It is said that "every best gift comes from above," which I believe, so I am duly grateful and amazed over God's blessings for me. The work days of my first four months with inmates mired in the flesh were difficult to handle. So I'm extra grateful for my new daily work life among the plants, flowers, cow manure, bugs, worms and, best of all, the birds who join me for lunch.

One particular blue jay (blue-, faded brown-, grey- and white-breasted) leaves a nearby tree and deftly swoops down for a landing on my picnic table only 18 inches from where I sit motionless, while he/she dines on the bread crumbs pinched from the edges of my sandwich.

Sometimes a couple of flies arrive after the blue jay leaves. I was somewhat amazed at, but pleased with myself, for studying the anatomy of a fly, marveling at the efficient combination of thread-like legs, onion-skin wings and compact bodies. But, I still occasionally administer capital punishment to an adult fly for alighting on my bare arms when I'm not in the mood for company, Albert Schweitzer to the contrary notwithstanding.

I'll try to (continue) journaling as soon as I answer some letters from friends. Support in the form of cards and letters has been overwhelming.

Much love and peace.


Jan. 1, 2001
Monday, 9:44 a.m.
Half seated atop my upper bunk,
ears plugged in anticipation of the morning chatter

This is a holiday for us campers. We won't be going into town, but the Bureau of Prisons is giving us a New Year's Day barbecue. It's not the steak and chicken that gets to me, it's the thought that puzzles me. Why are they being nice to us when they are not bound by law to be anymore than warehousemen, caretakers, guardians for our safety; restricted mobility and observers of our behavior? I suppose it's a cultural kind of romantic tradition, like granting a death row person the meal of his choice before killing him, a kind of human concession to an inhuman act.

I recently read that the executioners in Texas are growing weary of their work. Some are even questioning the morality of intentionally killing someone in the name of the state, even though the Bible says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Strange how we don't feel free to question the morality of Caesar's needs or demands.

I did not last more than a few days as a vegetarian. It required too much work, energy and focus on food. It also required that I go to the mess hall three times a day, which I hate to do, given the vibes I pick up in that crowded environment. The vegetarian way will have to wait, once again, for a better day. I skip every mess hall meal I can by squirreling away tomorrow's lunch from part of the evening meal. There are also the commissary meals of canned tuna and instant ramen soup.

I've decided not to visit prison again unless I'm sure God wants me here. He/She may not, because I've enjoyed it too much, especially since the day I was given my new job by none other than the warden himself.

I was given the job of caretaker or orderly for the chapel (interdenominational), the Sweat Lodge (Native American sacred place) and, about three weeks ago, the park grounds adjacent to the lodge. It's more than enough ground to cover in a six-hour work day. It keeps me busy weeding, planting, fertilizing, water, cleaning, etc. It also tires this old body out. The upside is the opportunity to enjoy one of the most desirable pleasures rarely found in prison life: silence and privacy. As if that were not enough, I work on the most beautiful site on the prison campgrounds, a bluff overlooking a valley, green with freshly planted barley and winter flowers, a view which leads one visually to the divine artistry of a mountain range running east and west; one of the few, I'm told. The ocean is nearby, but not close enough to see or hear.

1/1/01 (continued)
1:58 p.m.

About six weeks ago two black men, gentlemen to the core, my immediate bunk neighbors were "disappeared." The overhead lights went on around 1:30 a.m. I thought it was morning, but it was a special emergency count conducted by one of the guards who sensed that something was amiss. The next thing I knew, the lockers of my friends were being emptied into a large plastic garbage bag and taken away. At least an hour passed before I learned that my neighbors were caught returning from an out-of-bounds trip to someplace. I don't want to make assumptions about what they were doing out of bounds.

One of the persons involved was my lower-bunkmate to whom I'll give the name "Generous." I'll never forget Generous for his kindness to me the first afternoon I arrived at the prison camp. Not only did he welcome me to Lompoc and a dormitory crammed with 150 men, he asked if I had eaten. My negative response motivated Generous to reach into his locker and withdraw a chicken patty sandwich ready for the microwave. I welcomed the surprise of him so graciously welcoming me.

The other man I'll call "The Strongman." He was the biggest, strongest, gentlest man in the camp. I was told he could bench press 480 pounds (I do 80 pounds these days), a weight well beyond what he would need to carry me out of here had I fallen from this upper bunk for one reason or another. One day I mentioned the possibility of a need for assistance and Strongman smiled and said, "No problem." I'm so glad Strongman is not a mean man.

Both men were sent to the hole in FCI (Federal Correctional Institute); simply disappeared. For a few days their empty bunks spoke to me how it must feel for third-country families whose loved ones are disappeared by paramilitary and military death squads.

I felt sorry for the remaining black man who was very close to Generous and Strongman. I 'll refer to him as the "Quiet One." He, too, is a big person: wide, square-shouldered, thick-chested, about six feet tall, very serious, almost mysterious, clear and steady eyes. I had revolutionary conversations with the Quiet Man. I mentioned Martin Luther King. He spoke of Malcolm X and loaned me Malcolm's autobiography as told to Alex Haley. I recommend the book for anyone interested in understanding the African American's resentment of the white man and his history of domination over people of color.

Last, but by no means least, is my new Bunkie, the man who took the place and space of Generous. He is a Mexican American. Size-wise he runs about 300 pounds, six feet, two inches. He is a considerate, uncomplicated man, a father and grandfather at forty. Speaks fondly of his family. When he sits and rises from the bed below me everything shakes and jerks. And when he stands in the three-foot aisle between our bunk and lockers, there is no room for through traffic. I'm not complaining, just stating the facts. He has no voluntary vices that I'm aware of. Again, thank God, a person of his size does not have a me-oriented, aggressive attitude. For some reason it's hard for me to name him. He's easy-going so I'll refer to him as Big Easy.

I'm attending the two religious services a week now: a native American Sweat Lodge on Saturday and a Catholic service on Sunday. Every third week I lead the sweat, of which 12 to 14 of us sit around a pit of red-hot rocks in total darkness while the leader offers prayers to the Great Spirit, the Creator of all things, Mother Earth, the four directions and the four winds. The prayers are for health, guidance, forgiveness, praise, gratitude and courage to walk the "Red Path," which I take to be Christ's Way of the Cross. Enclosing a copy of Native American Ethics.

Hope to be a bit more regular with the journaling practice this year than last. I went through a two-month period of some confusion about what I was feeling and why I was not feeling like writing.

Wished an inmate Happy New Year this evening on my way back to my bunk. We both followed our greeting with "as happy as it can be under these circumstances." The greeting led into a conversation about what we could expect in the way of happiness this year. I mentioned release in no more than seven months. He told me sadly he had seven years to serve on a 10-year sentence.

People are forever sharing things with me: an orange here, an apple there, a radio, basketball shoes, a sweat shirt, a pair of gloves, lined paper that comes from God-knows-where. It isn't sold in the commissary, but the best of all is the sharing of oneself, that we all seem to guard against abuse.

Playing basketball again after a month layoff. Been nursing a broken middle finger, left hand and a left hip that may one day need replacing. I know of a few people who have had successful replacements, inclusive of my father. I hope it doesn't come to that. One thing for sure, I won't let BOP-sponsored medical care touch me with a surgeon's blade.

The holidays have been good here, a pleasant break in the daily schedule. I'm ready to return to the workday schedule; to the weeds, flowers and the sounds of silence surrounding the Sweat Lodge.

Another thing to look forward to this month is the possible hearing of the appeal and the result thereof. I'm not anxious to leave to or stay. Just trying to live life as it is today with its joys and sorrows.

Time to read for a bit, The Phoenix Project, and let this first day of the New Year slip into the history of my life. Who knows? Perhaps at some point out of time we will be able to review our entire lives like a documentary and understand how we came to be who and what we are.

1. Each morning when you wake up and each evening before sleeping, give thanks for the life, for the good things the Creator has given you and others, and the opportunity to grow a little more each day. Give thanks for yesterday's thoughts and actions and for the courage and strength to be a better person.

2. Respect! Respect means "to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well-being of, or to treat someone or something with deference or courtesy." Showing respect is a basic law of life.

* Treat every person from the tiniest child to the oldest elder with respect at all times.
* Special respect should be given elders, parents, teachers and community leaders.
* Don't make anyone feel "put down" by you, avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.
* Don't touch anything that belongs to someone else (especially sacred objects) without permission or an understanding between you.
* Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are with elders, strangers, or others who should be especially respected.
* Never walk between people who are having a conversation.
* Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the Mineral World, the Animal World and the Plant World. Do not pollute the air or the soil. If others want to destroy our mother, rise up with wisdom to defend her.
* Show deep respect for the beliefs and religions of others.
* Listen with courtesy to what others say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless.
* Listen with your heart.

3. Respect the wisdom of the people in the Council. Once you give an idea to the Council or a meeting, it no longer belongs to you.

4. Be truthful at all times and under all conditions.

5. Always treat your guests with honor and consideration. Give your best food, your best blankets, the best part of your house and your best service to your guests.

6. The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.

7. Receive strangers and outsiders with a loving heart and as members of the human family.

8. All the races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the Creator they must all be respected.

9. To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation or the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created.

10. Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms; in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet aloneness and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.

Jan. 2, 2001
7:12 a.m.
The Chapel

I've been looking for an early-morning place to write and this may be it, especially since I'm the chapel orderly responsible for the order and cleanliness of this place. No heat, but the environment and view of the fields and mountains through the southern window is ideal. There is even a gentle light to read and write by. And I have this new pen I found that rolls rather than scratches along. All I need now is something to write about as I begin this second day of the new year.

The chapel is clean and orderly this morning. No need for the orderly to do anything. So I can move on to the Sweat Lodge and begin the work that never ends there.

Received a nice letter last week from the latest protester of the School of Americas, Josh Cohn, a 23-year-old graduate of Oberlin College. Skilled in the art of rappelling, Josh and his girl friend entered the military post of Ft. Benning, Ga., and climbed the 300-foot post water tower, carrying a 40-foot by 50-foot banner which read, "Close the School of the Americas." The banner itself is a good piece of art.

Time to go to work (7:33 a.m.).

11:37 a.m.
The Sweat Lodge

This is the second half of my lunch hour. I'm sitting at a makeshift desk located on the inner circle of the Sweat Lodge where there grow plants and flowers, bushes and small trees, some of which I've never seen or noticed outside of these campgrounds. A few moments ago a yellow-backed hummingbird hovered within three feet of where I was standing. She was having her lunch on the sweet nectar of small orange, yellow and brown-flecked flowers. I've never been so close to a hummingbird. Usually, they take off when you as much as look at them.

A young Filipino guard came by just after the 10 o'clock inmate count. He is new to the camp and fairly new to the system. Spent his first six months at the Big House, where they house the heavy-duty lawbreakers. Ordinarily you have to do something violent, like blowing up the School of Americas, to merit residence in the Big House. Chances are I'll never get there as long as my commitment to nonviolence holds out.

Honeybees are busy at work on the purple-flowered bush immediately in front of me. Each bee extracting what it can carry back to its queen and brothers and sisters. If I follow their bee line I may be able to share some of the honey they have taken from the Lodge flowers. I think the caretaker of the bush they dine on us entitled to some compensation.

Time to return to work already (12:01 p.m.)

1:07 p.m.
Desk at the Lodge

While watering and raking the inner Lodge grounds, I heard my name loud and clear over the camp intercom: "Charles Liteky, #83276-020. Report to Admin." This is the main office for the prison camp.

"Well now, what could this be?" I said to myself. "A presidential pardon?" (Clinton is pardoning the little people, I hear.) "Or maybe my appeal has come through and I'm to be released immediately. Won't Judy be surprised. Or maybe they found drugs in my locker and I'm being sent to the hole." Someone planted the drugs, of course. I haven't smoked in years. And, yes, I did inhale.

I removed my sailor's stocking cap, brushed my wild, thinning hair and walked briskly from the lodge to the Admin office, mentally running over my prison number - 83276-020 - as I walked. Passing by a few inmates at work on a job I left before assignment to the Lodge, I asked them if they had heard the cops call my name. They confirmed what I thought I had heard. "No doubt a presidential pardon," I shouted to them just before knocking on the Admin door, as one must do before entering.

A man in a white shirt, black trousers with tie to match motioned me in. Said he is the exec of the camp. I did not know such an office existed. Never did get his name, even though I saw his signature on the paper I signed.

He told me that a member of a Sacramento editorial board wanted to do a personal interview with me, a woman named Melinda Welsh. He said he would give her an hour with me. He wanted to know if I would consent to the interview.

"Hmmm," I thought to myself, "why not? A break in the schedule. Maybe she will spring for a vending machine Pepsi and candy bar the way Judy does when she comes for a visit. Besides, it's an hour with feminine company and I've had my fill of callous, vulgar men (inmates and staff)."

So, I consented, then asked about a live KPFA interview.

"No way," he said, "but you may be able to make a tape. We will have to clear it with Washington."

"You see," he continued, "you represent a national cause. People don't know about you, but they know about the cause. Your face and voice could go out over the whole nation. There was a demonstration right here at the entrance to the prison. Half the people there did not know who you were, but they know about the cause."

"Damn," I said to myself. "What an ego-buster. Is this guy putting me on. Here I thought everybody knew my name. I guess I was just a legend in my own mind. Lord help me to be humble; this sits heavily on my pride."

So Mr. Exec continues, "We are going to let you have the interview, but it won't be until February 27th, that week or weekend."

"Hmmm again," I said to myself, "by that time my appeal will have been heard and I'll be out of this place." Of course, no one believes this but me, (my lawyer and his son). Well, I might as well go along with this in case there is a slip up. After all, they stole the election from Gore, they can certainly deal with a no-name like me. (There goes the hurt pride - crushed is a better word - again.)

As I was leaving the room I said to Mr. Exec, "I'm disappointed. I thought I was being called here to be informed that I had received a presidential pardon."

"We're lucky we have a president. He's not much, but he's better than the alternative."

I replied, "He's not my president. I would have voted for Nader."

No reply from the Exec.

We didn't even shake hands. He was not impressed with me. I gotta get out of this place. I want to go back to where everybody knows my name. Oh well. It was a nice break from my routine, even if I do enjoy my routine.

Guess I better get back to work. The flowers are waiting for water; not me, just water.

End: 2:01 p.m.

Wednesday evening
7:01 p.m.
The Bunk

Rose too late this morning to journal.

This was a good workday. Received help from a dorm neighbor who was passing by the Lodge en route to returning a back hoe and front loader. Within a few moments the man and his wonderful machine moved logs and dug holes impossible for me to do by hand. So far, the power-that-be have not seen fit to license me for the heavy equipment used around the camps. I don't know if it's my age or my profile.

Spiritual work for the day revolved around covetousness. I realize that I covet my free time. After work and evenings (I have) around four hours a day to read or write. I plug my ears and step into the world provided by a book or motivated by a letter than needs answering. I do not interact with neighbors. They barely crash my solitary party. Now, I'm feeling a little guilty (but I think I can handle the guilt) over my self-imposed isolation within a crowd. Usually, I'm not lonely in a crowd even though I'm the only voluntary protester here, but sometimes I long for conversation with someone of similar values. We all hate the government here, most for what it is doing to them, I for what it has done and is doing to poor people here (in the U.S.) and the world over.

Tomorrow, I'm going to give the camp choir a try. Don't care for one of the men I'll be singing with. There's just something about the guy that irritates me. He's the same man I unsuccessfully tried to pray with. I'm sure some wise spiritual adviser would say the problem is within you. Oh, for the love that surpasses understanding, that unconditional love spiritual people talk about. It's amazing how many emotions a person can pass through in the course of a day in this cramped environment of men, too many of whom don't give a damn about the space, place or feelings of others.

Around some I feel compassion, others friendliness and others (I feel) uptight, clenched-jawed, guarded and sometimes, like a snake, coiled and ready to strike should I be stepped on.

I sure hope I graduate from the school of patience and nonviolence a better person. Right now I'm on the community college level working on an A.A. degree.

On to some coveted reading in preparation for post-prison activities.

End - 8 p.m.

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