by Lyle Roebuck
There was a time when having a flat tire was the prologue to adventure. You walked when you’d planned on doing no walking. You engaged people you otherwise would have avoided. You assessed what you might have preferred to take for granted. Two things motivate us, in my opinion: convenience and fear. And I’m as entitled to my opinion as the next guy, although I doubt the next guy (in this case inmate No. 86296) thinks about such things. I suppose I should never sell the next guy short, either. There’s no telling what flash of genius can come to a person doing our kind of time.
For what we call progress—consider radial tires, for example, which don’t go flat so much as they rely on a cataclysm to fail—there’s always a temptation to look back with romantic detachment on simpler days. Nostalgia is the biggest charlatan there is.
The governor of our state, Busey “Bus” Odums, was so affected when he ran for office on a platform recommitting Georgia to that venerable and dusty tradition of the chain gang. He would have brought back the electric chair, too, if the legislature had allowed it. During his most recent campaign, he posed with an ax and was quoted in the Journal Constitution as saying he was ready to cut down the tree, and to build and wire the device himself.
Bus first won election as governor in the mid-seventies as a Democrat, when the South was still barely the South, and again just two years ago as a Republican, having sat on the sidelines for a generation and been witness to the undoing of the mythic world of his boyhood. The rest of the country had stolen everything freaky from the homeland and tried to make it fashionable; they imposed a standard of correct behavior on its shortcomings and continued to mock whatever was left over. Along the way, they changed the flags. When the idea to revive the chain gang occurred to Bus, he must have reckoned it better to sin by executive order than ask permission and risk being told no.
On June 1st he was present as they separated forty-eight of us into groups of six, shackled at the waist, in a clearing behind the Sumter County jail. The Honorable Mr. Odums wore a seersucker blazer and toquilla straw hat, which he must have thought fit the occasion. The man was on the verge of becoming legendary. In the sixties, Bus had been a football hero at the University of Georgia. After a career in real estate and a stint in the legislature, he became the governor best remembered for paving twenty-five hundred miles of rural highway and putting up-to-date textbooks into the hands of Georgia’s school children. Bus called it his black-and-white initiative, which was something of a play on words. He went to considerable effort to make it known that primarily black districts would get the same new books as primarily white ones, not just the latter’s hand-me-downs. A decade after his first stay in the executive mansion, Bus was the man credited with securing the 1996 Olympics for Atlanta, and the only person in America, it seemed, who wasn’t surprised when a redneck set off a bomb.
Standing in the shade between a pair of grizzled oaks (us prisoners lined up in the sun), Bus Odums seemed to have gotten shorter over the years but had grown in girth to match his wife, Carrie, who had always been large. Carrie, also present, was a relentless campaigner, and Bus couldn’t get too much of her support. “Women like Carrie,” he used to boast privately, “and women vote. A big woman don’t threaten nobody,” he would say. “She makes the thin ones feel thinner and the big ones feel better about themselves.”
In addition to those of us who had come from Dooly State Prison in Unadilla, they had imported offenders from Lee, Crisp, and Schley Counties just to have enough men to make for a respectable photo-op or to get any kind of work done. In place of our customary orange jumpers, we had been dressed in black-and-white striped work suits for the occasion. The suits were bright and new and well starched, yet somehow they seemed baggy even on the largest members of our detail. Inmates from the neighboring counties had not changed before arriving, which presented a problem only until a man named Lawton Coles stepped forward to open his hardware store so that they could change, two at a time, in the men’s room while a pair of armed deputies waited outside. For as long as I stood there, Mr. Coles would not stop yammering about how happy he was to be of service.
“I want to thank y’all for coming,” the governor began his remarks. He took a few steps forward. Although he was only yards away from the prisoners, Bus was clearly talking to everyone but us. “Today we reclaim a tradition as time-honored and sacred as justice herself. For just as these men have torn down society, so then, as part of their penance, shall they build up society.” I had heard as recently as that morning the part of society we would be building up was a stretch of Highway 30 between Route 45 and Friendship, Georgia, north and west of the county seat, Americus. It was a reboot of the roads program first undertaken by the same Busey Odums thirty years earlier and a length of pavement that had not been repaired since.
The governor approached the first row of prisoners. He examined us without looking. “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty, and so I charge these men to work for their own gain, for their own betterment, and at the same time, to serve as an example to others that the State of Georgia will not stuffer intransigence.” The bystanders clapped while photographers moved in, positioning for a good shot.
Other than the journalists, there was a handful of politicians and some local folks present—an oddball caucus of men and women, a few of whom looked like they had been stitched together from humankind’s mismatched.
When Governor Odums finished his speech, a tumbledown bus groaned up the hill from behind Coles’ Hardware. Crisp County Department of Corrections was stenciled in black on its side. It was the largest of the vehicles on hand and the one designated to transport us to the worksite. The governor and his wife posed for pictures with the county dignitaries before taking questions from the media. One of the younger reporters, seizing on a different angle, positioned himself near the door of the bus where two deputies were stationed, one on each side. The officer on the left looked like a boy scout and the one on the right looked as heavy as three men. Both clutched rifles.
“What’s your name?” the reporter asked. He was talking to the young one, whose wan face was largely hidden by a pair of dollar-store aviators. An inch-wide gap hung open between his neck and the collar of a pressed blue shirt.
“Deputy Giles,” the boy said. I could tell he was nervous, unsure if he should be talking to the media or doing anything but counting prisoners. The first two rows of six had boarded to the steady percussion of chains on chains. My group was next.
“I need your first name,” the reporter said, “for the paper.”
“Dillon,” he said. The other deputy glanced over.
“You done this kind of work long?”
“Naw, sur,” Dillon said. “Chain gang’s new.”
“There’s nothin’ new about it,” the reporter said. “I mean how long have you done law enforcement.”
“What do think about all this?” he asked.
“Not my place to say,” Deputy Giles answered.
“These are dangerous criminals, son,” the reporter said. “Have you thought about what you’ll do if one of these men tries to escape?”
“Naw, sur,” Dillon said with the confidence of one whose orders had been made clear. “No need to think. If somebody tries to escape, I’ll shoot 'um.”
I don’t consider myself a dangerous criminal. A criminal, yes, having stood before a judge for sentencing just as Bus Odums had twice stood before one for swearing in. I’m guilty, and I’ll admit it, which is more than my colleagues in chains would do. But not dangerous. I had, however, given some thought to trying to escape, so I suppose it was to my advantage that I heard the reporter’s question asked and answered. I wondered if the boy had it in him to shoot a man, or if he had volunteered for the detail because he was looking for the chance to.
When the last row of prisoners was seated, eight deputies boarded—four in back and four in front, backward facing, their rifles cradled over their hearts. I had thought about trying to escape. I was still thinking about it, but how lucky can a man get in a day? It was an accident of fate that Bus Odums had not recognized me. There were only four other white men on the detail, four among those who had jumped at the chance to get day-for-day credit, time outside, and a look at making a break for it should the opportunity present itself. There was not a man among us who wasn’t thinking the same thing, but not one who would have said as much. We may all have been criminals, but I doubt any of us was that stupid.
Nine miles outside of Americus the bus began to shimmy over potholes in the road. When the vehicle stopped, we were discharged alongside mile marker 70. Whether it was seventy miles to or from civilization’s next outpost hardly seemed to matter since under the blaze of an early summer sun our dystopia was complete.
“Farmland north: Peanuts. Beans,” said the boy deputy, who on the ride seemed to have matured into someone in charge. “Wasteland east and west. Swampland south.” Gripping his rifle by its stock, he used the barrel to point out distant and unseen topographies. “Gators,” he added. “Snakes.” With the reporters and the dignitaries and the onlookers gone, our circumstance felt newly grave. Now, with no one watching, instead of posing with these officers, we were entrusted to them. The deputy’s meaning was clear—there would be no escape since there was no place to escape to.
They separated each group of six by two hundred yards and into rows across the highway. From front to back the entire detail spanned less than a mile. The first of each two lines used sledgehammers to even out potholes, passing slabs of broken pavement hand over hand to the shoulder. The next row was fed a steady soup of molten asphalt via conveyors from the backs of dirty, orange trucks: bitumen heated to 300°. I was on the fourth row back, third from the left, so in the middle of the highway. Like the others in my line I was given a rake for spreading asphalt. Plumes of heat rose in columns that seared my eyes, hotter than the sun on my neck or the ooze of pitch burning through my boots. The heady smell of oil and gas came in waves. Worst of all, there was no way to track the time. At least two men had fainted before they pulled us to the side of the road for lunch. My work suit had doubled in weight, soaked top to tail in sweat.
There was no shade along the clay embankment, no relief of any kind on either side of Highway 30. No. 86296 ate his bologna sandwich in two bites. When he lay back against the earthwork, one of the deputies lumbered by and pressed a foot into his stomach. The bologna came back up intact.
“You couldn’t treat no dog like this,” said the man on my other side, looking at me as if I had been the one made to disgorge his lunch. Or perhaps—because I was white—he wondered if the deputy would have done the same to me. In prison, where nothing escapes notice, race escapes it least of all.
“Arcturus,” he introduced himself, meeting me eye-to-eye. The two of us made up the middle in our row of six. Equal, yet opposite.
“Lawrence,” I said, “and at least a dog would get some water with his bologna.” As I pondered the meat, gravel-dusted on the ground, I imagined Bus Odums and whatever toothsome delights he might be enjoying, and where: at the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s quarterly meeting at the Peachtree Hilton, linen napkins ablaze with silver flatware, a menu of iced oysters in cucumber mignonette, rock shrimp salad, sweet tea, and air so intolerably cold it stiffened joints; or at a State Republican Party fundraiser, perhaps, alfresco, at a downstate Rotary Club, where the governor would make a few indiscrete remarks to rile up a redneck base before sitting down to freshwater catfish, hushpuppies, coleslaw, and cold beer.
Arcturus brought me back to reality. “Is you all right?” He was careful not to ask like he cared too much, but when a man is chained to you there is that implication that your fate is also his own. If I were about to die, for example, I expect Arcturus would want to know. But I had only drifted off and was heartbroken to find myself in the same dusty hole, a deputy from Sumter County kicking the lead man in each line until we were all back on our feet. Back on our feet and back to work.
Plenty of daylight remained by the time they called us off again. That was the first curiosity. The second was that while forty-eight of us had gone out, only forty-five were on the bus when it headed back. We had not left the work zone before I understood why: two ambulances, newly arrived, one on either side of the highway.
The plan was to keep the entire detail together at the Sumter County jail. After orchestrated showers and a change of clothes, they locked us up by pairs in the same order in which we worked the chain gang. Arcturus and I spent an hour together in our cell before the boy-deputy arrived to take twenty of us to the cafeteria.
“Ya’ll is B group,” he said. “A group’s already eaten.”
“You think they’s dead?” Arcturus asked me that night. I don’t know how he knew I wasn’t asleep, but it was like we were still bound together, bunk-to-bunk by a chain of consciousness. The cornbread we’d been given at supper sat like a brick in my stomach, and I lay awake studying the moon as it passed between the bars of our cell’s one window.
“We’ll know if they don’t send us out tomorrow,” I said.
“The chain gang’s supposed to be hard time—not a death sentence.”
“So, you don’t think they’s dead?”
“If they chain us together in the morning,” I said, “you’ll know nobody’s dead.”
“What’s you in fo’?” Arcturus asked.
I had learned to expect this question and knew, when another prisoner asks, it means one of two things: If he’s bigger than you, he’s sizing you up. If he’s smaller, he’s hoping you’ll ask him the same to give him a chance to brag. Given that, there are three reasons I never tell the truth: first, it’s nobody’s business; second, I never feel like explaining what securities fraud is, and third, even with an explanation, it sounds weak—white-collar and assailable. While I doubted that anyone would believe they’d put a man convicted of murder on an outdoor work detail, I was willing to take the chance. “I killed a man,” I said.
“Damn.” Arcturus kicked my bunk. “Remind me not to fuck with you. Drugs,” he said, without being asked. It’s what I would have guessed. It was almost always drugs.
“So, you don’t think they’s dead?”
“I said I don’t know.” It was the end of the conversation, but that would have been a damn good maneuver if someone were trying to escape, I thought, falling asleep. Easy enough to feign exhaustion and get unchained before being carted off to a country hospital that wasn’t prepared for prisoners. I cursed myself for not having thought of it ahead of time. The poor bastards probably had heatstroke after all, and here I was, fitter than most, yet losing my edge. The deputies would not have seen it coming, but I was sure they would make whatever adjustments were needed before taking us out again.
Sure enough the next morning’s detail started early to avoid the worst of the day’s heat. We were given biscuits and coffee before dawn and all forty-five of us were back on-site by six a.m. Two ambulances, like sentinels, were there when we arrived.
Progress on the road was slow but not imperceptible. There was a sign several miles ahead, which, when I closed one eye, came into better focus. With forward motion it became more distinct—square with white letters on a green field. Other than the mile markers, it was the only sign we had seen on Highway 30, and it became my goal to get close enough to read it before the day’s work was finished.
They fed us early. It must have been around ten. Not long after we got back to work, the sky grayed and let loose a steady shower. It was not one of those squalls that blasts its way through, but a cool, even rain. Steam meandered above the new asphalt, and dust rose from endless tracts of land on both sides of the highway. The work continued, and to look at Arcturus’s face I could not have distinguished rain from sweat from tears. The humidity would be a curse if the sun came out, I thought, and by noon that’s exactly what happened.
They called us off a second time, now to banks of mud. Some of the men grumbled that they wanted more bologna sandwiches, but the congress of deputies had huddled to discuss, I’m sure, other things.
The sun beat down. They gave us water, but by the time we got back to the road the heft of air made it feel like we were supporting all heaven on our backs. The six of us in my line should have made a run for it when the deputies’ backs were turned. What would they have done? Shoot us? Of course they would have. All six: me, Arcturus No. 86296, and the others. And so what? We’d be dead now, as dead to the past as to this foolish experiment, as to the fantasy that things were going to get better.
Several hours later, when one of the ambulances crept along the shoulder to a line ahead of us, I wondered who had collapsed and if that had become the acknowledged standard for a full day’s work. Several minutes later and as slowly as it had come, the ambulance was in retreat. One of the deputies followed behind at a walking pace, hoisting his rifle to call us in. As we shuffled off the road, I looked up. To my left was the sign, near enough I almost could have touched it. How we had gotten so close so fast seemed like a mystery of lost time. But there it was. A sign, a prophecy that would have done Ozymandias proud: Georgia’s High Tech Corridor. With fields beyond and a vault of sky above, I wondered if progress here was forthcoming, or if we had missed it, or if this was a reverse mirage where instead of seeing things that weren’t there we were missing things that were. My head swooned to bridge a physical nothing with a philosophical nothing. What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.
When the last man from B group was seated for supper, Deputy Giles pulled out a chair and stood on it. He was poised to make a production of news we had already gotten from A group: the chain gang was finished. When attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center had gotten wind of what was happening in Sumter County, the legal motions began flying. Less than twenty-four hours after the first newspaper account was published a federal judge in Atlanta issued an injunction, and when the press learned that a handful of inmates had been hospitalized there were rumblings of civil litigation aimed at officials, up to and including the governor. None of that was explained to us, of course, but information gets spread around a jail faster than cigarettes.
Those bound for Dooly State Prison, including Arcturus and me, would leave the next day, earlier than the rest. We would be back in the yard before lunch, while the county inmates would be made to wait for their respective busses and so would “get there when they get there.” This much we were told before Deputy Giles got down off the chair.
“If we’d been organized,” Arcturus said that night, “we could’ve ran for it.”
“Today. When them officers’ backs was turned.”
“You think so?” I said.
“What about the other four?”
"That’s why I say if we’d been organized.”
“We’d be dead,” I said, “instead of going back to prison.”
I had never seen Arcturus at the penitentiary, and I probably wouldn’t, once we returned. He must have known it, and it was either this or excitement over an early end to Bus Odums’ dalliance that had him ginned up and speaking so freely.
“What about our day-for-day credit?” he asked. Arcturus wasn’t the brightest man I had met in prison, but he wasn’t the dullest by far.
“What about it?” I said. Through the window, the sky was wide with stars.
“Tell me somethin’,” Arcturus said.
“You ain’t kill nobody,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I know,” he said.
Overnight, a short bus arrived from Dooly State Prison. It was still predawn when we were up and dressed. Someone from the Sumter County jail decided that those bound for the penitentiary did not need breakfast. The faster they could get rid of us, it seemed, the better.
“I’ma call my lawya,” Arcturus murmured while we were being ushered single file into the fusty blue air. “No breakfast.”
We were still made to wear the black-and-white striped uniforms but were now shackled in front by leg irons and handcuffs, with no chains between us. We weren’t on the road long before the sun came up. It was like we were bound for it, traveling due east on Highway 27. We’d been seated in cellblock order, which put Arcturus and me together, directly behind the driver.
The only two guards on the bus grazed on donuts from a box they passed between them, but offering none to the driver, who protested this as well as the fact he had not gotten enough sleep the night before.
“I can eat an' drive,” he said. He was a thin old man, frail, with white hair and a constellation of liver spots running up his arms. Neither of the guards had been part of the original detail. By what I gleaned from their conversation, they had been sent to relieve two others, but their job now was to be as easy as fetching us from Americus and bringing us back to Unadilla.
“I can eat an’ drive,” the old man swore again. The bus rocketed down the highway, violating the centerline.
“Reg-you-lations,” objected the lead officer, his mouth full. “Outta my hands, boss.” He was standing ahead of the standee line. His partner, seated across the aisle from us, laughed.
When there were no more donuts, there came a debate about whether at Drayton they should stay on 27 to Vienna and then take 41 through Pinehurst or head north to 329 via Byromville. All three agreed to avoid Interstate 75.
“Unless we wanna be back in twenty minutes,” the driver said, “so ’en they can find more work for us to do.”
“A-men,” said the guard who stood, jockeying around the front of the bus.
“That’s right,” the other said. “Take 41.”
Prior to sentencing I was made to sit in court where impact statements were read by my victims, those I had swindled. After the first few, they began to sound the same. After a dozen, the judge called it quits, I think because he realized they were. I wasn’t sure if this was done to punish me or to allow the victims some relief. I think it was a bit of both.
They had trusted me then, which made it easy. ‘Yes’ to the prospect of double-digit returns. ‘Yes’ to my outperforming sectors, markets, and money managers they had worked with for years.
No one of repute showed up for my sentencing. There were news trucks, cameras and reporters, but Busey Odums—the once and future governor—most notable among my victims, didn’t show. Rather, the tight shots were of some women’s gnarled hands, which shook as they clutched notes. And they were women, mostly. The husbands of those not widowed stood diffidently behind, as wrecked as their legacies. It was the women who were the strong ones, steeled to confront me with the hardship I had brought upon them. People who once had been on the verge of a comfortable retirement were now coping with the shame of having to move in with their children. “I’m too old to work,” one woman said. “I don’t have time. I’m too old.” “I’m on food stamps now,” another said, until overcome with rage she could not go on.
I felt bad for them but managed well enough by reminding myself that their own greed had made it possible. Not one didn’t think I was cheating; they just didn’t think I was cheating them. This was enough of a consolation until an 8’x10’ cell at ‘Villa Unadilla’ replaced my 6,500 square foot condo in downtown Atlanta.
We read newspapers in prison (nobody’s ever hanged himself with a newspaper) and magazines, once the staples are removed. After sentencing, my name faded from the headlines. Three years later I was so forgotten that I hardly recognized myself, until one afternoon I came across an article about a man in his sixties, Mr. Jay Stoops, who had shot his wife and then killed himself. I was mentioned briefly. The couple had been nearly wiped out. Mrs. Stoops had gotten sick and then, having lost everything, they became homeless. According to the article, the gun Mr. Stoops had used was stolen.
The bus jerked violently like an amusement ride, bouncing us in our seats. “Tell me somethin’,” Arcturus said.
“What?” I said.
“You ain’t kill nobody.”
North of Pinehurst the driver had become downright cross. The lead man, still standing, refused to allow a stop for a bathroom break. “Reg-you-lations,” he kept saying.
“It ain’t regulations to stand up at the front of the bus!” He gunned the engine. “It ain’t regulations to take any ol’ road y’all want back t’ Unadilla!”
“Easy there, feller,” the second officer said. “You’ll enervate yerself.”
Suddenly there was a low bang and the vehicle shimmied right. The driver lurched forward to steady the wheel. He hit the brakes. The front right tire pitched off the road, hurling the lead officer into the door. The second guard braced himself, his right hand groping for his gun.
The bus came to rest upright but at a hard lean off the highway. Several prisoners had been deposited in the aisle, where they lay on their sides.
“You all right?” The second guard was addressing the lead man, sprawled in the door well. But it was the driver who answered.
“I—I think so,” he said, draped over the column. “We blew a tire!”
“Jim, you all right?” the second guard said, drawing his weapon.
“Get ’em out the back,” Jim hollered from below. “Face down…in a line!”
The driver began fidgeting with the radio. At first, on both sides of the highway, all I saw were trees—pitch pine and long leaf. A tractor-trailer blew by, laying on its horn.
The second guard held his gun above his head where it could be seen, then ordered every prisoner into a seat. He maneuvered to the rear, opened the emergency door, and jumped out. The bus began to empty of men broad-striped and shackled at the ankles, their hands bound together in front in the manner of those who pray. From where Arcturus and I sat, they looked like paratroopers crouching then disappearing one after the other from the back of a plane. I was by the window, directly behind the driver, and through the thicket I suddenly spotted a lush, open field of green, the likes of which I had not seen in years. The earth there seemed stitched in rows of emeralds.
“You go first,” Arcturus said. There was a dreadful look on his face, as real as if he were indeed readying to jump from a great height.
I angled past.
The lead man, Jim, had not moved. “I think it’s broke,” he said to the driver.
Whatever ‘it’ was didn’t much matter to me, until I was halfway down the aisle. When I turned back, Arcturus had reached over the seat and wrapped the chain between his cuffs around the driver’s neck.
“Now drive!” I heard Arcturus say. I shuffled the rest of the way to the back of the bus, pulled closed the door, and locked it. “Drive!” he said again.
“I can’t,” the old man gasped. The cuffs’ ratchets pulled the flesh from his neck up around both ears. Had he not been choking to death the driver might have said what I was thinking—that the tire was blown, and that the bus was going nowhere.
“Don’t you do it,” I warned as the officer with the broken arm grimaced to draw his weapon. Ahead of us, in the distance, came the wail of sirens. But there was still time—time to take the guns and the keys and make a run for it, through the trees to the Promised Land or in the opposite direction, where the woods went on and on.
With each moment, our prospects dimmed. The second officer, who had been preoccupied with the other prisoners, realized what was happening and began pounding on the back door. Read my mind, Arcturus, I thought, frozen in place. It’s just us, now. Read my mind while there’s still a way.
“Give me your gun,” I shouted at the lead officer, “or he’ll kill him!”
“OK,” he said, slowly raising his weapon.
“Drive!” Arcturus ordered, and he began to tighten his grip on the old man. How could he fail to understand our situation? How could anyone be so close to having his life back only to return to prison?
“Easy now,” the officer said, the gun firmly in his hand, the barrel oscillating between Arcturus and me.
“Drive!” Arcturus yelled. And that was when I realized he was a step ahead, brighter than I’d given him credit for. He had found his own path and taken it, a path to a history that does not repeat.
A plane of blue lights broke the horizon and Arcturus loosened his grip only to pull back with ferocious strength. The old man’s face was the color of a plum.
“Drive!” he screamed, turning the back of his head to the officer, giving him the clear shot and no choice but to take it. “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
[Check out Lyle's back porch wisdom here]