By John Thomas Tuft
Some people say, to this day, that it never happened. Some people say, to this day, that it never could happen. Still others say, to this day, that it never, ever should happen. Some people insist, to this day, that it actually did occur. And then there are those of us who fervently believe with every fiber of our being that of course, it could happen. And, by God, if it could happen, who’s to say it didn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t? Isn’t faith acting like we believe a lot of things that did, could, would, or should happen? Or, is it; is that what is faith? “Aye, there’s the rub,” to quote Willie, whose fondness for strong Iron City ale and bawdy jokes earned him the nickname, ‘Shakes Beer’, otherwise known as inmate #798334 in the Western Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, later transformed into the West Penn State Correctional Institute or, as it’s known to everyone who’s been inside, The Wall.
If you dip your left foot into the waters of the Monongahela River and your right foot into the waters of the Allegheny River and walk north, you’re walking on the Ohio River, a feat in and of itself. And yes, the Ohio runs north by northwest through Allegheny and Beaver Counties before it makes a lazy turn where Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio hold hands, just to show there are no hard feelings as it leaves the homeland of its headwaters. A few miles above the point (yes, I’m going full Pittsburgh on you) along the Good River, The Wall sits encamped. It is the product of that most human of all inventions, civilized society. A forty-foot high fieldstone wall encloses some twenty acres, built in the years following the Civil War to house up to 1100 of those who committed serious crimes so they could become penitent, or corrected. The Wall hovers above the tows and barges and party line cruises on the river below, and looms over the souls encased within its confines.
Jonesy entered the penitentiary as a young man, just a few years removed from adolescence, that time of wanting all of the freedoms, none of the responsibilities. Jonesy had gone for a ride with a friend who held up a gas station. Two years into his stretch Jonesy, whose father worked in the J & L mill on Second Avenue and his mother at Kaufmanns downtown, was put in ‘the hole’, or solitary confinement, or Restricted Housing Unit; take your pick. Seems that at one point, while going through the North Block, Jonesy came upon a guard beating a young inmate named Willie, who had said the wrong thing. Jonesy stepped in and pushed the guard who fell, hit his head, and was injured. Jonesy was locked away. The key was thrown away. No appeals. No contact. Three ten minute showers a week. Locked up 23/7/365. Five times a week an hour of exercise, alone. Strip searched. Lights on 24/7/365. Eating alone. For weeks. Then months. Then years. Then decades.
It changes a man. Of course it does. What saved Jonesy from this expression of civilized society was being allowed to write letters. To one person and one person only. So, he chose Willie Shakes Beer. After his parents died, Jonesy sent letters to Willie for other prisoners who needed encouragement. To those feeling despair, to those needing hope or strength. He even wrote to the guards. Oh, he made his legal appeals, had his benefactors and detractors. To no avail. As the years went by the steel mills disappeared, Kaufmanns disappeared, but the Ohio flowed and The Wall remained. And Jonesy eventually needed glasses, then bifocals. His hair turned gray, then white. Nobody could explain why he needed to remain in The Hole, but regulations stipulated it. The color of his skin helped many to overlook it. Letters from Jonesy became coveted currency within The Wall. People memorized them, shared his words, cherished them.
When word came down that the prison was to close in 2005, Jonesy decided to write one last letter to each and every inmate before he was shipped across the state to another hole. He wrote to Willie, “Whether it’s to be or not to be, I hope that they take me at night so that I can see the stars one more time. I hope it is raining so that I can feel like I’m in the river one more time. I’m out of fight. I don’t know if it’s better to suffer the slings and arrows of this misfortune or fall asleep and find out it’s all been a dream…to just shuffle off…” Willie busied himself with the authorities, begging and pleading for leniency. Compassion. Humility. And that most fragile: hope.
The night Jonesy was to be moved, everything was arranged. He was brought out to the middle of the yard. Then, mysteriously, the guards left him alone. He looked up. The floodlights went off. Stars. Welcoming him. The silence was deafening. The stillness complete. He looked around. In every window, along every tier, each walkway, lining every stair, from the office windows of the administrators, the chapel, gymnasium, clinic — all were lined with people. Prisoners holding his letters. His words. His thoughts. His imagination. A door opened and a child stepped out, coming across the yard, hand outstretched. As she approached, an Ohio River Valley fog rolled in without warning. Thick, billowing, it blanketed The Wall. Shouts went up. Alarms sounded. People yelled. As quickly as it came, the fog lifted. The lights came on.
The Yard was empty. Some claim they heard a splash down at the river, but Jonesy was never seen again.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.