A heavy steel door slammed behind me, causing me to flinch as I stood obediently before a gate, waiting for it to open. I stared through the heavy gauge chain link as a dozen or so men dressed in white occupied themselves with a game of basketball on a concrete slab some fifty yards away. I glanced over my shoulder at a woman behind bulletproof glass and concrete nonchalantly taking a bite of a breakfast burrito before stretching a finger toward a button on a control panel in front of her. The gate made a loud buzz and a uniformed officer standing beside me gave it a push. I stepped through and paused as my eyes surveyed unfamiliar surroundings. Stark metal buildings framed a compound contained within boundaries outlined by more chain link fence reaching ten or twelve feet high. Atop the forboding fence ran a menacing ribbon of razor wire.
The officer beside me grinned, "Welcome to prison."
In all my thirty-seven years on earth, this was the last place I ever thought I'd find myself. As I stood there on that bleak day in March of 1995, had someone told me that I would spend the next twenty-three years behind that fence, I'd have never believed them.
I had worked for a supermarket chain for fifteen years, working my way up to store manager, a lucrative position for a small town boy with a limited college education. The company had given me the daunting challenge of managing a store in the community where it all began. The founder of the organization had opened his first store there and over the decades the company had expanded throughout west Texas. The corporate office had been relocated to a city three hours away long ago, but the widow of the owner had firmly refused to leave the town she had always called home. So, I was under the gun. She shopped there. Her friends shopped there. The women in her Sunday School class shopped there. There was no room for error on my part.
The pay was exceptional but it came with a price. I lived at the store almost day and night, not because I wanted to but that's what it took to cling to that coveted position. My wife and children were strangers. David Letterman was my only friend as I slumped into a recliner in a darkened living room late at night with a supper that had been left in the oven for me. The money and eventually the job itself meant little to me. I had no time to spend the money and the job had become a life I detested. Divorce loomed before me and I realized there was only one way to save it. Even as I began making preparations to try to salvage my personal life, I knew it was already too late.
The store was located in a community whose primary employer was an agency of the State of Texas. As I contemplated my next move, I began to observe the people who worked for the state. Both my mom and dad had retired from state employment. They had a motor home and took several vacations a year. They seemed to want for nothing. Same held true for my neighbor who had his own camping trailer and seemingly plenty of time off to take it to Colorado numerous times a year. Other folks around town who were employed by the state seemed to be doing just fine financially. I pondered the possibility.
It was about this time that the State of Texas found itself in hot water with a federal judge over overcrowding and other violations within its prison system. With Governor Ann Richards at the helm, the state set out to build more prisons...lots of them in what seemed every little podunk town in Texas. During a conversation with a close friend where I divulged my fear that the time had come for me to change careers, he suggested that perhaps I should look into job positions with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I scoffed at the thought, yet stored it away for future reference.
It was just a few weeks later that my life became completely unraveled. One night I loaded up very few of my personal belongings into my pickup and set out in search of a new life, leaving behind a six-figure income and a wife who had grown accustomed to spending every penny of it. I took a job with the State of Texas, making a third of the salary I had been earning. I was terrified.
I set here tonight reflecting.
With that piddly state job, I was able to by a spot of land with a pecan orchard on it. Throughout the years I sold pecans all over the world. I got into the goat business at the height of the South African Boer goat boom, breeding some of the finest registered Boer goats in Texas. When a three-year drought hit, I set all that aside and picked up a laptop and wrote a book, and another, and a few more. I paid off my house and two vehicles. My daughter's down the road at college and I'm not losing sleep wondering how I'm going to pay for it. And I've retired from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at the age of sixty. Yes, after twenty-three years I made parole! Looking back...I wouldn't change a thing. I am a blessed man.
Did I like working in a prison? Ah, hell no! But it was an adventure and good or bad, I thrive on adventure. Now that I've retired I might share some prison stories with you. Like that inmate who called himself Punkin. I do believe the best set of boobs I ever saw were on a man. I can't believe I told you that...