Thursday, October 15, 2009

...and gone!

It took me a little while to convince Larry that I had no intention of putting him back into his former cell. He was definitely terrified. Once satisfied I was not there to send him into the swirling vortex of terror, he calmed again and shook his head hard, like a possessed bobble-head doll. “It was real crazy, I tell you! You can ask anybody that was back there-they all seen somethin’ at least once! Or heard somethin’, or somethin’!”

I decided it was time to cease my inquiry. I had heard enough “somethin’s” and I was fearful Larry’s head might begin to spin around and spew pea soup. The only thing left for me was to investigate our Ghost on my own, in person, mano a mano, so to speak. I took it upon myself to begin doing the nighttime security walks in Dorm One myself.

Walking about in a dark jail, with nothing but a flashlight for company, has a spook-value of about 85 to begin with. When you add the tale of a wandering ghost, plus all the unusual sounds that drift out from the cells (don’t ask) it can be a pretty intimidating thing for anyone to do. I don’t know of any officer who enjoys doing nighttime walkabouts, but they are necessary to try and keep safety and security in the jail situation.

They can be dangerous, too, but not from the inmates point of view. I was on a late night walk-about one night when one of our rather “playful” deputies decided to sneak up behind me and give me a good, old-fashioned scare. I do not recommend this, if anyone out there has ever had such an inclination. This playful deputy crept up behind me in a dark corridor behind the cells and blew on the back of my neck. I suppose he forgot that I had had self-defense training, just like everyone else. The large, black metal flashlight in my hand became an instantaneous weapon and without giving a thought to anything but my own safety, I cold-cocked our playful deputy.

I did not, for one moment, believe that a metal flashlight would be of much use against a ghost, however. I thought about carrying a wooden stake or a clump of garlic, but it occurred to me that those were for protection against of vampires. The metal cross around my neck was always a handy weapon, as well, but only if your attacker was a werewolf. Try as I might, I could not recall any method of protection from ghosts. Maybe a few Hail Mary’s? Nope, I was not Catholic. It seemed I was on my own.

For the first few nights, in fact the first week of my self-imposed nighttime walk-abouts, I really didn’t see or hear (or smell) anything out of the ordinary. Inmates snored and mumbled and thrashed in their sleep, not to mention the occasional dispelling of noxious gasses from the evening’s fare of beans and franks. I wondered why any ghost would want to wander around in such an atmosphere? Why not the lovely, old hotel across the street? Or one of the beautiful, old renovated homes that served as Funeral parlors on the next block? No accounting for taste, I suppose.

It was while I was wondering this and turning the corner in the far back section of the corridor that I felt the cold. I can best describe it as the first gush of cold air one feels when you pull open a refrigerator door. It was a dry, sharp, odorless chill that sort of swept around me and then dissipated, all in the period of approximately ten seconds. Like a window coming open on a February night, except that none of the small, barred window along the top of the corridor walls could be physically opened.

I stopped and waved my flashlight. Nothing. No sound at all, in fact I could not even hear the inmates snoring and flatulating, but that may have been due to the loud hammering of my heartbeat in my ears.

I finally began to walk again, taking baby steps so as not to stir up the chill factor again, but I did not hear or see or feel anything else until I rounded the end of the back corridor and started along the western wall. As I walked, flashlight shaking, I began to be attacked. It wasn’t really much of an onslaught, but it scared the bejeezus out of me! Every time I passed a cell window, whatever was on that sill flew off and hit the cement floor with a crash! Feet, don’t fail me now!

It is about fifty feet from where I stood to the exit out of that cellblock and I made it in record time, all the while being followed by the sound of various articles flying off the cell windowsills to the floor.

I burst out of the heavy cellblock door into the light of the main floor area with my hair standing on end, or so it seemed to me. The three other people on duty that night must have thought I was being chased by tigers, or worse, and since they are blessed with warped senses of humor, I was met with a barrage of snide remarks and quips that suggested I was losing my mind.

“Maybe so,” I recall saying in between my gasps for breath, “But something in there has a bad case of icy breath and chased me all the way out and knocked all the crap off the inmate’s cell windows!”

I must admit, they did end up giving me a chance to explain but the looks they shared with one another told me they were ready to call for a straightjacket. Still, the sergeant on duty decided it was only fair to give me the benefit of the doubt and go see what I was talking about.

We crept back into the cellblock-well, I crept, and he just walked quietly. Inside, it was dimly lit, as always, and the sounds, smells, and air temperature was nothing out of the ordinary. Well, okay, my ghost had decided to stop the refrigerator routine, but I had the strewn articles from the cell windowsills as proof.

Except that when I took the sergeant around to the western corridor to show him the remnants of my ghostly attack, there was nothing to show. All the pencils, soap boxes, drinking cups, photographs and the rest of the inmate treasures were sitting neatly in place on their windowsills, right where they had been before Casper decided to play a game of Scare The Deputy. Nothing scattered on the cement floors, nothing out of place, nothing to prove my sanity at all, and the whole dorm full of inmates continued to sleep, snore, mumble and fart without the slightest notion of what had just occurred.

Detention Officers are a polite bunch, all in all. No one ever mentioned that little episode to me again. Oh, I’m very sure they all talked about it among themselves and had a few wonderful chuckles, but they were tactful enough not to call our local mental health center or to alert the media. After a while the pitiful stares eased up, too, especially when several other inmates, over time, spoke in whispered tones about the Ghost.

I’m pretty sure William stuck up for me. He had witnessed Casper, after all, and he assured me that other officers had had connections with our friend, also. They were probably just too wise, or embarrassed, to admit to it. No problem. I know what I saw and felt that night and no one will ever convince me otherwise. I think my only regret is that Casper is still there in the jail, as far as I know. The elevator still rises and opens every night and the inmates in Dorm One still occasionally report strange happenings. I doubt our Ghost is dangerous. On the contrary, I think he is very sad and frustrated. I wish there was a way to help him out, to allow him to move on and locate someplace more pleasant to spend his time. I know I would not want to spend my eternity in the Yavapai County Jail.

...and goes....

Let me preface this with a little explanation about William. He was initially from England and had several first names to go with his illustrious sir-name, but he was simply “William” to all of us. He had been in the States since he was quite young but never lost his British accent, and as far as I could gather he had worked for the Yavapai County jail for almost ever. He was one of those unforgettable folks who fall into the “Character” category.

William was pompous, temperamental, stubborn, opinionated and completely loveable. He had fire engine red hair, right down to his walrus moustache and freckles. He loved jokes about the Queen Mum and had a wicked sense of British humor. I recall one night quite well when the newly elected Governor of our state came to the door of the jail looking to speak with our Sheriff and William happened to be the one in the control cage, and thus in charge of who came in and went out.

Ordinarily the Governor would not be entering the building by way of the jail but it was after hours and the rest of the building was locked up. There was no way to reach the inner sanctum of the Sheriff’s Office but through locked doors. So when William heard the buzz he answered the intercom in his usual, properly British way:

“May I help you?”

The woman’s voice replied, “I’m here to see the Sheriff.”

“And who are you, Madam?”

“This is the Governor.”

William should have recognized her voice, perhaps, but through a speaker that’s very difficult. Plus, who knew what our new Governor sounded like? And there were no cameras at the rear door back then. William remained polite and calm, “Is the Sheriff expecting you, Madam?”

“I have an appointment.”

“And you are...?”

A quick sigh, “This is Governor Miller! The Sheriff is expecting me!”

“I’ll have to check with him, Madam. Do you have any identification?”

Apparently Governor Miller was not used to being told she must identify herself, especially at night, in back of a jail, by some English voice over an intercom. “I told you, I am Governor Miller! Now will you please let me in?”

“I’m sorry, madam, but I cannot allow you in without proper identification. If you’ll just be seated on the bench there, I’ll have a deputy come out and check your identification.”

Things went downhill fast at that point and our esteemed Governor began to let William know just how she felt about her situation and our lack if response to her authority. It was at that point that William, in his calm, lilting, British accent said to her: “Now, now, Ducks, don’t get your knickers in a twist!”

The Governor was instantly quiet. I suppose she had no clue what to say. Certainly she had never been told to keep her knickers untwisted before and it is doubtful she ever was told again. You had to know William to appreciate the scenario.

And thus, when I went to William to inquire about the Ghost, I expected a droll barrage of British sarcasm or humor. I was fairly sure I was being duped and that William would jovially tell me just that. Instead, I got a wide-eyed, completely serious expression of sincerity.
“Oh, yes! He’s been carousing about the jail for some time now. Ever since that boy hung himself in the holding cell.”

I kept waiting for the twinkle in William’s eye to appear, letting me know he was in on the joke, but twinkle it did not. I probably offered him a frown, I sure felt like frowning, “So, you’re telling me that you’ve seen him?”

“I have, indeed,” William nodded. “Twice, actually!”


“Back in Dorm One.”

My apprehension was dwindling a bit, “Does he moan or drag chains or what?”

William chuckled at that, in only the way William is able; sort of a pompous, British chuckle that makes everyone else want to chuckle along with him. “No, no. He just sort of floats along, looking into the cells, you know. He’s a curious sort, I suppose.”

Casper the Curious Ghost.

It’s hard to keep William on any one subject for very long because he always has a plethora of things to tell you, and it was no different with the subject of our resident ghost. I wanted more information but William had much more important things on his mind, all of which escape me at this point. I went no further with the paranormal investigation that night.
It was about a week, maybe two weeks later that I experienced “Casper” myself. I had casually interrogated a couple of the inmates in Dorm One just to see if any of them would squeal about their privacy being invaded by a ghost, but no one did. They did tell me they had heard about him and then one of the guys mentioned that his pal Larry could fill me in. Larry had seen the ghost (and Larry had been moved out of Dorm One into a different area at his own request.)

I found the enigmatic Larry in Dorm Three and after we chit-chatted a while about the quality of jail food and the available TV programming, I brought up the subject of Casper the Curious Ghost. That was when Larry’s face went kind of ashen.

“Yeah, I seen it!” Larry replied with a stiffness that suggested he was either suddenly frightened or had to use the bathroom. “It was like this fog, y’know? I seen it twice, it kinda come glidin’ along the back by my cell, and it got real cold when it went by.”
Very Gothic, I thought to myself.

“Was it an actual figure? I mean, a boy or a girl or something like that?”

“It was a guy.”

“How did you tell?”

Larry shrugged, “I dunno. It just seemed like a guy. It was a blue, foggy-like blob thing and it moved by and it stopped and sorta looked into my cell. Gave me the creeps, y’know? And I ain’t a scared of anythin’!”

“Did it make any sound?”

“Naah.” Larry shook his head and then hesitated as his brows knitted in thought, “But it knocked the stuff off my cell window.”

There is a walkway around each cellblock dorm and each cell has a barred window through which officers can look in and keep track of the inhabitant’s activities. The inmates often store little things along these cell windowsills, such as toothpaste or combs or the little soapboxes they use to keep their pencils and other small tidbits. It would not be difficult to knock something from that sill but it would have to be done purposefully. There is not enough air movement back in the dorms to cause anything to fall without human assistance.

“And you’re pretty sure it was the ghost, huh?” I inquired with suspicion.

Larry gave me a wide-eyed stare, “I damn-well know it was him! I don’t care what anybody else says, I seen it and I felt it get cold, and I ain’t goin’ back in there either! No sir, ma’am! You ain’t gettin’ me back in that damned place!”

...and the story goes...

The story I heard was that a young Native American boy (he had to have been at least 18 to be in the jail) had hung himself from the light fixture in the holding cell by the booking desk. Some of the officers later said he had been Hispanic, others said it was a female, so the facts around who this ghost had been were somewhat iffy. Most stayed with the Native American theory so I have always leaned towards that myself.

I never saw The Ghost. I will put that on the table right away. But I did see some very strange things occur during graveyard shifts and there were several inmates and one officer who claimed they had seen him, cruising around in Dorm One, which at the time held our more dangerous offenders.

My first inkling that someone or something of a paranormal type was malingering in the jail was the elevator. It was a common, run-of-the-mill elevator that led from the booking entry area to the second floor jail. It went nowhere else, not down into any sort of basement and not up to the third floor offices. It was a two-floor elevator, up and down, main floor to second floor, period. The only thing slightly exceptional about it was the constant lingering aroma of, well, it’s hard to say. Just jail.

It took me about three weeks before I realized something rather unusual about the way the elevator performed, or acted, or worked. I’m a little slow sometimes, I suppose, when it comes to catching extraordinary events. Every night, somewhere between two and two fifteen a.m., the elevator would lift up to the jail floor and the door would open, but there was never anyone inside.

It did not strike me as odd until I began working in the Central Control cage. This area is a small, caged rectangle of telephones, TV monitors, buttons and switches where the officer assigned spends his or her shift watching TV monitors to keep an eye on inmates and letting people in and out of the jail through security-locked doors. If one is claustrophobic, it’s not the most pleasant place to be. It is also right in sight of the elevator door. Anyone going down from the jail via the elevator has to pass right by the control cage, and in order for someone to get into the elevator downstairs they would have to come through the locked booking door which can only be opened by the officer in Central Control (yours truly). Plus there are cameras everywhere; it’s a security thing. No one enters or exits the jail without the officer in Central Control letting them.

The night I first noticed the odd elevator behavior I was in Central Control by myself and was puzzled by the elevator door opening when I had not allowed anyone in through the booking door. Nor had anyone gone out of the booking door, at least not in the previous ten minutes. I thought about it briefly but when no one else commented and nothing else extraordinary happened, I filed it under “forget-about-it” and went on with my duties.

It took about four nights of the same empty-elevator activity before it struck me that something odd was at hand. I told you, I am slow at some things. When I finally got the courage to ask one of the other officers, he just shrugged and said, “Ah, that’s just The Ghost.”

Ghost? Really? Now my interest was immediately peaked. “What ghost?”

The officer, named Gary, explained to me that the jail ghost was that of a “kid” who hung himself in the holding cell one night and that Gary, himself, has been the one to find the body and cut it down.

“It happened so damned fast!” Gary explained, shaking his head, “He was pretty drunk and upset,you know how they get sometimes. We were watching him but it was busy that night and we can’t keep an eye on everybody for twenty-four hours a day, y’know?”

I did know. But only someone who spent any time actually working in a jail could really comprehend just how busy and stressful the job of a detention or corrections officer truly is. In 99 percent of all cases, inmates in jails and prisons are treated well, their needs are met and their problems are handled, but it’s a world of over-crowding, deceit and manipulation and sometimes things just happen. Like a drunken Native-American boy hanging himself in the five minutes the officers were not looking. Gary was a good officer. He was known for avoiding work at times by being constantly “on a mission”, but when he was there he was responsible. I knew if anyone had been keeping an eye on the young man in the holding cell, it would have been Gary.

Suicides are not taken lightly in the Yavapai County Jails. Whenever an inmate states that he or she is suicidal they are instantly put on a suicide watch. In fact, if an inmate even breaths a word that might suggest suicidal ideations are present, precautions are taken. Only a qualified psychiatrist can take an inmate off a suicide watch, no matter how much they beg and plead and tell the officers that they were “just kidding”.

According to Gary, the young inmate was not on a suicide watch at all. He had given no sign of being suicidal, he was simply very drunk and very angry and very embarrassed at being in jail. None of those things are unusual or indicative of someone who is planning to kill himself. Unfortunately, in this case, the young inmate must have acted on impulse.

“So,why do you think he’s the ghost?” was my next question.

Gary shrugged, “Well, he died somewhere between two and two fifteen in the morning, and the strange stuff started happening the next night.”

“Strange stuff?”

“Yeah, like the elevator coming up and the door opening, and the stuff they see in Dorm One.”

I had not heard about any “stuff” in Dorm One, but I hadn’t been there too long and there was a lot of “stuff” I had not yet heard about. Still, that was not what I asked about. Instead, I asked, “Why would he haunt Dorn One if he died in the holding cell”

Gary shrugged again, “I don’t know. We figure it’s because it’s the closest cell block and it’s also kinda separated from the others, y’know? Spooky.”

Yes, that was a fact. Dorm One could be very spooky at two in the morning. Most of the jail was. “So,what kinds of things happen back there?”

“Mostly the vision.”


By then, Gary was getting impatient as he had reports to run as part of his shift duties. “You oughta go ask William,” he said. “He’s seen it,The Ghost, I mean.”

Gary then left me there as he went off to complete his mission, and I found myself anxiously waiting to speak with William about our ghost....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Ghost & I

I love anything paranormal. That is not to say I believe in everything reported as being paranormal but I would like to. I’ve had a few experiences of my own which some might chalk up to coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences and never have. There are just some things that happen which have no explanations, such as the banana that fell from the sky on my windshield one morning.

I never should have spoken of it at work. I had so many people laughing, I thought the building might collapse, but the truth is, I really did have a banana fall from the sky and splat on the windshield of my car. I was driving along, early in the morning, minding my own business on my way to work, there was no one on the road either ahead of or behind me, my radio was playing something country-western, and just like that - splat! A banana landed in front of my face and exploded across the windshield like some alien goop. Actually that could very well be the answer: aliens. It could have been litter from some high-flying spacecraft. There is no reason to think aliens wouldn’t enjoy an occasional banana.

I have read every Stephen King and Dean Koontz novel to date and I am a great fan of certain psychics and most things dealing with the afterlife. I also suppose that somewhere, way out in that infinite void of outer space there are most certainly other forms of life. It would be terribly vain of us to believe we are the only thinking beings in that vast, endless whatever-it-is. I can only hope that wherever and whoever they are, they have more common sense than those of us on planet Earth. So, if I were put to the point I would have to say that I do, sort of, believe in aliens.

I draw the line at UFO’s, however. Here is my theory: wouldn’t you think that if a life form that was smart enough to span eons of time and space to cruise around over our earth, spying on us or gathering information by sucking us up into their spaceships and giving us rectal probes, they would have the brains to leave the lights off on their space ships? Come on now. If I were sneaking around in someone else’s neighborhood, I would not be dumb enough to leave all my cars lights on! It just doesn’t make sense. So if any extraterrestrials are reading this, tell your next group of space traveling aliens to turn off the lights on their ships so as not to get our UFO watchers all riled up again!

With this in mind, I must comment on the night my son and daughter announced to me that they had seen a UFO floating over Big Bear Valley. This was something my tarantula-loving son, Kris, might dream up to catch my attention, but for my sensible, grounded daughter, Wendy, it seemed a bit out of character.

And yet there they were, standing side by side at the top of the living room stairs telling me about the UFO they witnessed just a little while before. Colored lights, they said, moving around some big, dark thing that was floating over the mountains and then it just lifted up and sort of vanished.

I kept waiting for one of them to crack and start laughing, but neither did. They kept staring at me with their big, blue, innocent eyes as wide and honest as could be imagined.

“Really, Mom!” Kris insisted, while Wendy kept nodding frantically.

“A UFO,” I stated, not wanting to urge them on.

“Well, it was something!” Kris protested. He always got extremely frustrated when he was telling me the truth and I was not buying it. The problem was, Kris was so good at fabricating life in general that I was always in a state of suspicion. Wendy, however, was a different story.

Not that she never fibbed, because she did, but she was just not very good at it. I could spot her in a lie from a mile away. Her forehead would crinkle and her eyes would dart around the room in every direction but at me. I would almost feel sorry for her - but not quite. Which was why I found myself teetering on the brink of belief in the UFO that night. Wendy was not exhibiting the Fib-Posture, which meant she had certainly witnessed something, or honestly believed she had. It was a puzzlement.

I went out onto our porch and scanned the dark sky but saw nothing except for stars and an occasional high-flying airplane light. Kris was too exasperated to be patient with me,
“Geeeze, Mom, we told you it vanished! It’s not still up there, for cripe sake!”

Wendy pointed to the northeast, “It went that way, Mom,” she assured me. There was a note of nervousness in her voice, another sure sign of honesty. But a UFO? Over Big Bear?

I did my best to be patient without humoring them too much. Obviously my two children had been smoking their dirty socks again. I didn’t want to intensify their hallucination by offering them any suggestions or answers so I let it drop, hoping that by morning their excitement, and the story that went with it, would fade.

As things sometimes go, my hopes were realized and both Wendy and Kristopher went off to school the following morning with no further mention of the UFO. As far as I could ascertain, neither of them had been taken up into a spaceship during the night, there were no signs of probes or biopsies, and they were acting relatively normal. I use the term “normal” with caution because two pre-teens are rarely normal. They fight, squabble, argue, fuss and fume, and that is all very normal, so I guess the following morning was as normal as ever.

When I got to work, however, I had about a dozen people ask me if I had seen “The Lights” last night? The Lights?

At this point in my life I was working at the local newspaper and aside from the reporters, who are prone to fantasy in any news-media setting, the people I work with there were very stable, intelligent folk. If they were mentioning The Lights, I began to think maybe my two offspring had not been hallucinating after all. It gave me a glimmer of hope.

“Lights? Really?” I asked naively.

Janie was one of the advertising folks at the newspaper. She gave me a wink and rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Don’t get hooked!” but Janie was hard to convince of anything so I shifted my attention to one of the long-time office people, Stan. He was quick to oblige.

“Yeah,lights over the lake. They disappeared over Sugarloaf. Some people are saying it was a UFO.”

I asked Stan if he had seen them?

“Yup, sure did. Looked like a big cigar with Christmas lights hangin’ on the sides.” Stan replied as he lit the bowl of one of his pipes. (He spent 90 percent of his time lighting his pipes and only about 10 percent actually smoking them.)

“Do you think it was a UFO?” I asked.

Stan laughed out loud at that, “What the Hell would a UFO be doing over Big Bear Lake? No aliens could ever be that bored!”

From there on out the conversation turned into a smuddle of voices sharing their opinions on the subject, but I was lost in my own thoughts. Stan had a point. Why would someone who had just traveled a gazillion light years to check out Earth spend any of their time cruising over Big Bear Lake? There was nothing of any interest to be found there, no secret military bases or weapons of mass destruction and no one in Big Bear had ever done anything worth alien inspection, except maybe Hawaiian Frank. And then we get back to my previous point of thought on the subject of UFO’s. What’s with the shining, colored lights? Colored lights and stealth do not go together

The mystery was never solved but it did catch my attention and I was willing to accept the possibility. That’s me: open-minded to the end! And so, years later when I was working in the jail and someone told me about the jail Ghost, I was willing to learn all about it...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

phlegm and coffee do not mix...

To put it simply, Ruby was a “true character”. I have not seen her in twelve years but I cannot walk into the jail kitchen even today without a brief, fleeting thought of her flitting through my head. She was a cartoon character unto herself, from head to toe and everywhere in between.

To begin with, I never knew what the true color of Ruby’s hair was but I assume, by her age, it was probably gray. She dyed it brown, however. I cannot say exactly was shade of brown it was because it changed weekly, but it was somewhere in the vicinity between raven and southwestern red dirt. The problem was that she had very little of it and so she wore a hair-like creation on top of her head to give added height and volume where Nature failed. I know no better term that “creation”. It was not what one would call a chignon, although it may have started out that way in the beginning, nor was it a wig nor a toupee nor a “fall” as we referred to them in the Sixties. Actually, it was more like a dead cat.

Somewhere along the line, Ruby had begun ratting and styling this glob of hair herself. Notice I did not say she began washing it, because I doubt the thing had ever seen shampoo or water in its entire life. It was roughly the size and shape of a five-pound coffee can and the color had once been a rather attractive chestnut hue. By the time I met Ruby, however, years of dirt and hairspray had taken its toll and the radiant chestnut was now more of a dead grasshopper tan. It in no way and at no time ever matched the ever-changing color of her natural hair. Neither did the enormous hairpins she used to fasten it to her skull. When Ruby got to walking in her slightly lopsided gate, that glob of hair would begin to bobble and sway in rhythm and everyone in her path would watch in horror as they waited for it to catapult from her head and bounce off the jail walls like a berserk bowling ball. Amazingly, it never quite did that.

Ruby’s face reminded me of pieces of putty that had been arbitrarily assembled at the whim of some pranksters. Nothing really matched and yet everything went together, from her squinty eyes with their heavy, overhung lids, past her replica of WC Fields’ nose and on down to her malleable, bee-stung-red lips that were always wrapped around the soggy end of an unfiltered cigarette. I could not carry on a conversation with Ruby without watching her lips move around that cigarette. They adjusted and readjusted like two slugs doing a sort of primitive dance as they did their best to form words without losing the grip on her smoke.
Not long after I came to work in the jail, the County passed a rule that there would be no smoking in the jail at all: not the inmates and not the staff. This was actually a blessing, coming from someone who has never smoked, because there is almost no ventilation in the enclosed world of a jail and at times the secondhand smoke got really unbearable. This is another digression on my part, however.

Ruby smoked like a tenement chimney and before the rule banning cigarettes in the jail was initiated, she used to hang out in the break room with the officers for a smoke whenever she could venture away from the kitchen. I have often wondered if Ruby was finally pressed into retirement by the loss of her smoking privileges. I have no proof of this but I have always been suspicious.

At any rate, the break room was the place where the blue-gray haze hung thickest and where Ruby would sit and exhale her smoke. Along with that she exhibited the typical hacking cough of any long time smoker. When Ruby got to coughing it sounded like the floodgates of Hoover Dam were about to burst. She would inhale in a long, slow, quaking gasp, hold it for a second, and then exhale in a nerve-shattering explosion, which sent everyone in the vicinity diving for cover. One never knew what would accompany that cough from the depths of Ruby’s lungs. It had once resulted in her false teeth rocketing across the kitchen landing in the pancake batter that was subsequently served for the jail breakfast.

Then came the evening shift when several of us were sitting in the break room after dinner and Ruby wandered in to join us. I was not a smoker but if I wanted any company at meals I had to sit with the rest of the officers in the break room. That evening I was there with one of the nurses, two floor officers and Sarge. Ruby took a seat in a chair across the table from Sarge and let out a sigh that suggested she had been working for seventy-two hours straight.
I don’t know what started her hacking, there was never any warning when Ruby was seized with a coughing fit, they just erupted. That evening the five of us had been involved in a very nice conversation, as I recall, enjoying some after-dinner coffee, when the first stage hit: the rolling, gasping inhalation:
Dive! Dive!

But it was too late. All eyes turned towards Ruby as her hair glob started bobbing back and forth while the gurgling cough erupted its way up and out into the open. We gripped the edge of the table and set our jaws, our toes curling in our shoes while we waited for the inevitable. Everyone wondered who would be the brave person who might come to Ruby’s rescue if she ever stopped breathing from her agonized horking, and that evening it appeared that just might be necessary. Ruby’s face turned purple, her eyes watered, the cigarette slipped from her red, puffy lips, and with one final, liquid burst of air, she spewed a missile of phlegm across the table and directly into Sarge’s coffee.

I have known Sarge for nearly fifteen years and this was the one and only time I ever saw him struck mute. It was as if he could not believe what he had seen. Five pairs of eyes stared at the ripples in his mug as the glob sunk briefly to the bottom and then drifted back to the surface of the coffee, bobbing there like a small, greenish-gray log-jam.

The nurse and one of the officers, who were near the doorway, fled the room, gagging. The other officer and I both scrambled backwards to the end of the table, trying to contain our own dinners. Sarge, who was a Vietnam veteran and had seen just about everything there is to see, just sat and stared, speechless, at his desecrated coffee. What could he say, after all?
Ruby picked up her cigarette and stuck it back between her rubbery lips, totally unaware of what had just occurred. “Somebody fart?” she asked nonchalantly.

Sarge blinked and frowned, “What?”

Ruby shrugged, “Ever’body just jumped like a pack of rabbits. I figured somebody musta farted to clear a room like that.”

Sarge gave me one of his don’t say a word! looks, so I didn’t. Ruby finished her cigarette, coughed and horked a few more times and then made her way back into the kitchen to finish whatever she was involved in before she had decided to take a smoke break.

Ruby’s title of true “character” was not limited to her lungs and hairstyle, however. Somewhere along the line she had developed a real problem with her bathroom abilities, or I should say, lack of them.

There are certain things a mother teaches her daughter when it comes to using a public, or semiprivate bathroom. Among them is to always use a seat protector (when available) or at least to cover the seat with bits of toilet paper to avoid contact, and if neither of these is a viable option, one should bend at the knees and sort of hover over the seat - again in the attempt to stop contact contamination. In retrospect, this had to have been what Ruby attempted to do. There could be no other explanation as to why she had so much trouble hitting the target, which is normally not that difficult for a female to accomplish. It’s not like we stand in front of the bowl and aim like a man. For a woman to miss her target takes a good deal of effort, but Ruby was the Queen of Bathroom Disasters.

No one would even follow her into the ladies room if she were seen exiting. You never knew what you would find, but you always knew it would be unpleasant. And it didn’t stop when she exited the room, either. More than once Ruby made her way back to the kitchen with her smock top tucked into her pantyhose or a streamer of toilet paper trailing along from her pant leg. We won’t even get into the supposed “coffee stains” on the back of her pants.

I find myself, even now, wondering if Ruby knew how her fellow employees, and even the inmate workers, made fun of her. I was guilty myself, at times, because every so often, such as in the case of Sarge’s coffee, the event was so funny even in spite of the gross-out issues that surrounded it, you could not help but laugh hysterically. It was not Ruby we laughed at, it was the Character within her. Beneath her bumbling and often disgusting ways dwelt a very good heart. The hard shell of red lipstick and cigarette stains disguised a kind soul who had raised her abandoned grandchildren and cared for her disabled husband with never a complaint. She grouched and grumbled about the jail in her coarse, nicotine-ravaged voice, but I never heard her say a bad word about any person. She was so unassuming and unobtrusive that I sometimes believe if she had not been such a Character, Ruby might have been almost invisible.

That might be said of all the Characters in the world. We all need to be remembered by someone for something, and if we don’t have the physical appearance or the Wall Street ingenuity to make ourselves memorable, we might just have to invent our own personal Character

"Ruby" (Or the dangers of eating in a jail kicthens and other misadventures of a jail cook)

It is the people who are often referred to as “characters” that seem to be the ones we remember most in our lives. It isn’t the most beautiful or handsome ones. It isn’t the cleverest or the most intelligent or the wealthiest. No, it doesn’t seem to matter what other traits a person may have, if he or she is a real “character” they seem to end up being remembered by those people who have the fortune or misfortune to cross their lives’ path.

I had a neighbor once, some years ago, who happened to be the owner of the local radio station. In most ways he was a fairly normal, middle-aged man who enjoyed playing elevator-type music and a bit of country out over the airwaves of Big Bear Valley, where I called home. For purposes of this writing, we’ll call him Frank.

Frank loved Hawaiian music, Hawaiian food, Hawaiian shirts, just about anything Hawaiian, and so, once a day, every day, for one hour in the afternoon, Frank would play Hawaiian music over his radio station’s airwaves. He owned the station, he was the boss, so who was there to stop him? Don Ho, Hula Hattie, the Kamioke Brothers, the list of singers was long and distinguished. Most people enjoy a bit of Hawaiian music now and then and the choices Frank made to air on his radio station were excellent selections. That was not the problem. The problem came in because Frank always sang along.

There is a time and a place for singing duets with the radio. I’m famous for doing just that. Over the years I have sung some really fine harmony with John Denver, Neil Diamond and even the Kingston Trio while buzzing along in my car. I’ve never received a penny in wages for this, even though my rendition of Rocky Mountain High exceeds that of any highway singer known today. I am even very good at humming in the places where the words escape me, or taking the plunge and making up lyrics of my own. But this was where Frank ran into trouble.
Had he confined his vocalizations to times when he was alone in his car, no one would have cared. He could have sung in any key and made up all the Hawaiian words he wanted and it would have gone unnoticed. But Frank did not do that. Frank sang right along with the music from his little studio office, live, over the airwaves, at the very top of his lungs. Whether or not he knew the words did not matter to Frank. Who understood Hawaiian anyway? And the fact that he could not carry a tune in a bucket was no deterrent to Frank either.

It got so that people in the Valley would tune into the little radio station at three o’clock every afternoon just to hear Frank singing along with his Hawaiian talent line-up. It soon became not so much an annoyance as it did a comical interlude to the day. Frank was a “character”: one of those people that other people laugh at and chuckle about but inevitably remember just about forever. I have not heard Frank sing along with Don Ho for almost 20 years now but I cannot hear an Hawaiian song without thinking briefly about Frank’s off-key baritone coming across my car radio in sync with the song he was playing. That’s what “Characters” do. They stick in your memory, good or bad, and turn up throughout your life at the oddest places.

Our resident Character, Ruby, the jail cook, had come with the building, or so it was said. Initially the Federal Government had constructed the building that now is home to the Yavapai County jail in Prescott, and when they no longer needed the use of the facility they turned it over to the county for a jail. Ruby had been hired by the Feds to run their jail kitchen and so when the county inherited the building, they also inherited Ruby...

Friday, October 9, 2009

The moral of this tale is to present some insight into my love of and for animals and just how forgiving I can be, even when the critter is creepy, fuzzy, has eight legs and hates me. With this in resume, it is no wonder I stopped on my way into work one Valentine’s Day eve to investigate the squeaking and whimpering sounds I heard in the night.

I was pulling a graveyard shift that night and arrived at the jail at about eleven p.m. It had started to snow that afternoon and by the time I got to work it was blowing a pretty fair-sized blizzard for this part of the state. Still, it was very quiet and peaceful as I trudged through the yet un-plowed snow towards the rear of the jail to let myself in, and in the silence I could hear the distinct sounds of something small making pitiful sounds in the cold night.

I traced the sounds to a patrol car, which had been parked in its current spot for some time, considering the buildup of snow on it, and I got down on all fours to venture a look underneath. What I found there was a pile of assorted colors of fur, not really distinguishable in the dark. I managed to pull the lump of fur out into the light of the parking area and found a small, white, female poodle and five brownish colored pups.

The mother was a mat of mud, grease and tangles beyond recognition. She was also dead, either from having had the litter, from the cold or from starvation. Most likely it was a combination of the three causes. Two of her pups were also frozen and lifeless, but three of them seemed to be hanging onto life, like tiny, fuzzy balls of snow packed fluff. They must have had an incredible will to live as they could not have been more than an hour or so old.
The mother dog was wearing a frayed, filthy red collar but there were no identifying tags. I had one of the trusties come down with a plastic bag and wrap up mama dog and her two lifeless pups for a later burial while I carried the three remaining puppies inside and up to the jail.

I have no idea what the precise policy is for having puppies in the jail. At that time, some years ago, the only animals you might find there, besides the inmates and a few of the officers, were the drug and patrol dogs that were brought in to visit when their services were needed, or when their officer wanted to take a break and made a late night visit to the jail for a cup of hot, strong, jailhouse coffee. Otherwise, I do not believe animals were allowed. I’m not sure why.

So, officer Quayle to the rescue. I had three tiny, half frozen puppies in my jacket and the utter determination to make sure someone, somehow, helped keep them alive. The shift sergeant made it clear to me she wanted nothing to do with any of it, but if they happened to disappear into the depths of the Trusty dorm and were too quiet to be heard, what could she do about it?

For the following five weeks, those three puppies were hand fed and cared for by a dorm full of inmates. It would have made an incredible human interest story for any publication: a dozen big, tattooed, inmates caring for pups that weighed about as much as half a stick of butter, or less, bottle feeding them formula, first with eyedroppers and then with rubber kitchen gloves for nipples. The duties were shared equally, with each inmate taking his turn to miss sleep and feed his puppy. They were kept spotlessly clean and amazingly quiet and every one of the three, two males and one female, survived. There is possibly no image more heartwarming than seeing big, burly, tattooed men holding tiny balls of fluff in their hands and feeding them drop by drop.

But the media, and more importantly the Sheriff, never knew. Or, if the Sheriff did know he turned his head the other way and no mention was ever made of it. When the puppies were five weeks old they were put up for adoption to the officers. Well, the two males were. I took the female.

She became “The Mighty Face”; “Face” for short, and as I began to write this she was nearly fifteen years old and still going strong. Her fluffy, brown fur mutated to a rather mouse-color over the years, probably because her daddy was a wanderer of dubious breeding and Face’s genetic background is iffy, at best. Over time her tiny body widened so that she somewhat resembled a furry football, but she was still “Face”, the Jailhouse Dog.

Face and I went through a lot of times together, good and bad, including the death of my son, Kris, but she never left my side. I tried to always be there for her, as well. She had an incredible will to live that snowy night many years ago and it seemed the least I could do was to honor her love of life with a loving home, a full bowl of food and a warm spot on my bed at night. So I did that until a time nearing her 17th birthday when she slipped away in my arms. Face is buried under a boulder in my front yard where hollyhocks and morning glories bloom all summer long. I’m pretty sure she likes that.