This is an excerpt from Einstein’s Intuition, Chapter 17, by Thad Roberts.
To request a full pre-print pdf send an email to qst@EinsteinsIntuition.com
Winter, Federal Prison Camp, Florence, Colorado.
Things had gotten pretty bad. I had become convinced that I was remembered only as a great disappointment to everyone in the outside world, assuming any of them remembered me at all. Although it had been years since I’d heard a word from the shadowed personas of my past – including the woman that I gave the moon – every waking moment of my life continued to be powerfully defined by an aching desire to be forgiven, to be accepted by the people I missed so badly, to somehow be a part of their world. Heartbroken and depressed I walked among the living dead, blending in among the forgotten, being talked down to by uneducated, power hungry “correctional” officers who seemed to get a kick out of making up random rules and then changing them the next minute just to make a show of their power.
A constant drizzle of snow fell from the dark gray sky. The richest color on the compound, the grass on the baseball field, was buried beneath a blanket of three inches of wet cold white. The snow used to be a thing of beauty. Rosy cheeks, laughter, last minute drives up the canyon in search of a great hill to tube down, fireplaces, snowmen – they had all been good memories facilitated by this soft white powder. But here the snow was never played with. Not a single snowball had been created in the three winters I had seen here, and the sole impressions in the snow covered field were the footprints left by ravens – the only creatures that could find their laughter in this place.
Wearing prison issued greens, David Cantu and I circled the dirt and asphalt track getting colder with each lap.
“Have you ever read the prison handbook,” I asked.
“I’ve read parts of it. Why?”
“Do you remember reading anything about not being allowed to build a snowman?”
“No, not specifically, but that doesn’t really mean anything because there’s the rules, then there’s the rules,” Dave replied as he gestered with his hands.
I knew what he meant. If anything counted as a trustworthy rule in this puritanical place it was that if you’re having fun, you’re probably breaking a rule. Childhood prepared me well for that rule – obey, follow, don’t question, and for God’s sake don’t think for a moment that anyone is important enough to deserve a dream. Walking the track I remembered back to the day that I first defied those rules, the day that I first felt like a real person. I missed feeling that way.
“Let’s ask Cordova if he’s heard of any rule,” I said.
Cordova was referred to as ‘number one on the compound,’ because no one had been here longer than him. It didn’t take long to find him.
“Cordova, have you ever heard of someone making a snowman on the compound?”
“No, I’m pretty sure you’d go to the hole for that,” Cordova said.
“But do you know of any rule against it?”
“I remember hearing something about a rule against throwing snowballs, but rule or no rule, you’d still go to the hole. Tarnaski is on tonight.”
Out of all the correctional officers Tarnaski had the biggest reputation for being trigger-happy. Because of his seniority, this chain-smoking alcoholic got away with just about anything. Beyond being a scrawny cowboy with something to prove, he was a very mean drunk – the kind that regularly gave out shots for things like not having your shirt tucked in properly (whatever that means) and sending people to the hole for having the wrong look on their face.
“Thanks for your advice Cordova.”
Dave and I walked slowly toward our cells. After a few minutes of silence I asked, “would you rather go through another winter without Christmas, or have Christmas in the hole?”
Dave knew what I meant, so instead of answering my question he replied, “let’s go spread our stuff around.”
Whenever anyone went to the hole the cops thought of it as their job to ransack their locker and randomly throw away some of their books, letters, magazines, or anything else that might have sentimental value. The only action we could take to reasonably protect ourselves from this assault was to loan our books and magazines out to other inmates in the wing ahead of time.
After relocating our books, it was time for us to find out whether or not snowmen were really forbidden in a Federal prison. Without gloves, snow pants, or snow boots, we headed out to the baseball field. Kneeling down at the edge, we smashed clumps of snow into the shape of rolling pins and got to work. Slowly we lost feeling in our fingers, but we didn’t stop working. We were on a mission. After two hours our faces were bright red from the chilled wind, our hands could barely move, yet we had managed to put together a fairly impressive, six-foot snowman. Although this monument didn’t have a scarf, hat, or even carrot for a nose, its classic snowman shape was unmistakable. It was strange to have done something public and meaningful without even being reprimanded. The only thing left to do was wait for our punishment.
At 3:50 all inmates were recalled to their cells for the four o’clock count. On a normal day count took about thirty minutes, at which point we were released, one building at a time, to the chow hall for dinner. Today things were different. Fifteen minutes into the lockdown period, those of us in Summit Unit (the unit furthest from the baseball field) began to hear a faint roar coming from the other building (Teller Unit). Creative speculations quickly spread around in an attempt to figure out what was going on. Around five o’clock Tarnaski finally walked down our wing with his sycophant in tow, mumbling something about how the snowman screwed up his count, and how inmates aren’t allowed to have Christmas spirit.
When we were released to the chow hall, the story of what had happened spread like wildfire. Everyone from Teller Unit, whose cell window faced the baseball field, told the tale of how Tarnaski went out to the field with a baseball bat and approached the snowman with an angry look on his face. The inmates watching this spectacle began booing and hissing from inside their cells as Tarnaski attacked Frosty with an incredible fury. (By universal agreement the snowman had already acquired a name.) Swinging the bat again and again, he finally managed to topple it. Not content with bringing it down, he began to stomp on its remains with his heavy winter boots. When he finished, he admired his work for a moment, then strutted away, proud as a cowboy.
Hearing this retelling of events, Dave looked at me and sighed.
“Oh well, at least we didn’t go to the hole,” he said.
The next day was Wednesday, which meant two things: the big wigs would be on the compound for a few hours, and the quality of lunch would noticeably improve in order to give an impression that things were different from how they really were. This meant that I had access to the warden. At lunch I went up to the warden and asked, “Is there a rule against making snowmen?”
“As long as you don’t take it off my compound, I don’t care,” he said.
Satisfied with this answer I sat down and ate my lunch with a smile. Immediately after lunch Dave and I went to the weight pile and recruited half a dozen inmates to help us resurrect Frosty. Most of these recruits had witnessed Tarnaski’s murderous rage firsthand. Working together, we rolled large snowballs, broke them into pieces and carried them to our rising pillar of snow. We threw our frozen treasures up to Joey, who, standing on top of our project, caught the pieces and then thoroughly stomped them into place. We rolled every last inch of snow on the field. When we were done, Frosty was twelve feet tall and six feet wide.
As the four o’clock count approached we all began to be curious about what would happen. Dave and I were still half-expecting Tarnaski to discover our role in the Frosty project, handcuff us and drag us off to the hole. We didn’t care. For some reason this was worth getting locked up in solitary for the rest of our bits.
Predictably, Tarnaski showed up for his shift, saw the massive snowman in the middle of the baseball field – and threw an absolute fit. Shouting drunken obscenities toward the prisoners that were watching him from their cell windows, he grabbed his baseball bat and began to wail on Frosty. After ten minutes of huffing and puffing Tarnaski looked at the minimal damage he had caused, dropped the baseball bat, and walked off. A few minutes later he came back with a shovel. Swinging the shovel as hard as he could, he attacked Frosty again. Eventually, he managed to topple Frosty over. Proudly, he glared at the prison windows, then sauntered off.
At dinner, eyewitnesses to Frosty’s second murder recounted the story again and again. Somehow the chow hall began to feel different. The tension on the compound was transforming into something I’d never felt before. And something that had once been alive in me was resurrecting.
That night something very special happened. It snowed. This snow wasn’t special just because it provided us with more material to resurrect Frosty. This snow was special because for the first time in years I, and over five hundred others, cared about whether or not it snowed. It was eight inches of glorious, beautiful snowflakes of freedom falling straight from the heavens.
The next day Bob Gilstrap (an educated UFC fighter serving time for kayaking from Canada to the US in the middle of the night with several kilos of cocaine) joined us at the edge of the baseball field. He said he was tired of seeing this dipsomaniac cop bully us around. Then Mike Ritter (an x-pirate from the Thailand marijuana business) joined us. Soon a dozen accomplices, from a wide variety of backgrounds, were all working together to accomplish one goal.
The next few hours transformed Frosty into more of a pillar than anything humanoid in shape. It must have looked like we were constructing a big middle finger in the center of the field. After our tower was over sixteen feet tall and ten feet wide Joey put together a small 3-foot snowman and placed in on top, where it would be safe from Tarnaski’s reach.
Our next project was to carry buckets of water across the compound in order to slick down the sides of our pillar and smooth out the steep slope that surrounded it creating a hard-packed, icy arena. We slipped and fell several times during its construction. Eventually we were convinced that it was nearly impossible to reach the central pillar on stable footing. Our project was complete.
The next two nights were special for two reasons. They were Tarnaski’s days off and they were very very cold. As the temperature dropped Frosty froze to the core – transforming into a solid block of smooth ice. This project became a reflection of our newfound sense of unity, the purity of having purpose, and a reminder of what it was like to be a part of something you are proud of.
Two days later, Tarnaski came back to work just in time for the four o’clock count. The wait from Summit Unit was unbearable. For nearly an hour we could hear a faint roar of emotion coming from the other building, but we couldn’t make out what was happening. After two hours had passed we were finally released to the chow hall – before Teller Unit. When the Teller inmates were finally allowed to join us, word of the events filled the room.
According to eyewitnesses, Tarnaski approached the monstrosity with his trusty shovel, but the icy incline caused him to fall flat on his face. The Teller inmates burst out into laughter behind their windows, infuriating Tarnaski further. Swinging his shovel from a distance, he wasn’t able to leave so much as a distinguishable mark on the pillar. For several minutes they watched him huff and puff in frustration, falling all over himself as he tried to get close to the pillar to destroy it. Finally he went to work on cutting some footholds in the ice beneath him. This took several minutes and tired him out substantially. Then, when he secured his footing, he swung his shovel with all his might. It simply bounced off.
For another ten minutes Tarnaski’s rage fueled his wild fit. Then he apparently gave up. Twenty minutes later he returned with a bag of salt. He tore open the bag, dumped its contents around the base of the snowman, but it didn’t make any difference. Salt was not going to bring down Frosty. Tarnaski kept at it – huffing and puffing, taking breaks, slipping around, and the occasional face plant. Eventually he became exhausted. Standing in the long shadow of this giant, icy middle finger, Tarnaski shook both of his fists in the air as he screamed at the top of his lungs. Then he returned to his counting task.
Although Tarnaski’s next shift was during the day, it was a Saturday, which meant that he could get away with even more than usual because there was no chance that any suits were going to be dropping in. At about two o’clock in the afternoon Tarnaski left the compound and then returned with a maintenance truck. To make a great show of his intentions, he revved his engine at the edge of the baseball field, full in the knowledge that most of the prison population was watching, spurred by alcohol and frustration and pure, vicious anger. This was his prison. No inmate had the right to have Christmas spirit or build a snowman without his permission.
Standing shoulder to shoulder on the weight pile, nearly every inmate on the compound silently watched as Tarnaski finally put the truck into gear. Speeding up to about thirty miles per hour, Tarnaski ran straight into the solid block of ice, but it didn’t budge an inch. The entire front hood of the prison truck crumpled in on itself, the bumper snapped loose, the windshield spider-webbed, and the horn went off, braying like a wounded moose through the moonlit night. Little Frosty watched the whole thing from his safe perch.
As Tarnaski staggered out of the mangled truck with a bewildered look on his face, a victorious roar erupted on the weight pile. Tarnaski stared us down, gestering for us to move out, but we continued delighting in our symbol of freedom – tasting the little bit of humanity that had seeped into this place.
The truck had to be towed away, and Tarnaski was officially reprimanded for ruining the work truck. Frosty ended up being a part of the compound until late June. When baseball season started, the inmates added a new rule to the game. ‘Hit frosty with the ball and it counts as a home run.’ We had found a window of hope and possibility. We had begun to weave the fabric of our futures in a place that was designed to take futures away.