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A letter to my grandson, Felix

Dear Felix,

I am writing to wish you a happy birthday, and the same to Tyler and Mommy and Daddy, too.

I am being corrected here because the government says that I have been a bad boy. I have to stay in timeout, but it isn’t just for 10 minutes. It is for six months, from last May until Nov. 22, because a judge felt that I was a very bad boy for walking down a street that I wasn’t supposed to be walking on at Fort Benning, Ga. I was trying to go with 3,400 other people to the School of the Americas to talk to the teachers and students about nonviolence. It was sort of like when I went to Tyler’s school with my Peace House six years ago, when he was in kindergarten, and talked with his classmates about peacemaking and compassion for animals.

I have a nice little cubicle room here in a dormitory with 120 other men. My cellmate is a Mexican man who is in timeout for five years because he crossed the Rio Grande River, after he had already been told not to do that ever again. The people who run this place are very serious about not doing what you have been told not to do.

I sleep on the top bunk. I have to climb down and then up again whenever I have to go to the bathroom at night. We have to go to bed at 10 o’clock. The lights go out then. The lights go on at 6 a.m., and we go to the main dining room for breakfast. Everything is very regular here. If we fool around and don’t do things when we are supposed to, we will miss our meals altogether. If we don’t go where we are supposed to go, like work, or school, or appointments, we could be sent to a special time-out room, where we would be locked in all day and night for 30 days.

If I do not get papers to prove that I have been to college and graduated, I will have to go to high school classes and pass tests to show I know enough to get a high school diploma. I don’t have one because I was too smart and went to college after two years of high school without getting a diploma; but the teachers here don’t believe anything you say, unless you prove it with official papers.

All the walls are painted white here; all the furniture is tan or beige. I have a tan steel locker to keep all my letters, books and clothes in. Everything has to be put away, except when you are actually using it. All of the clothes are either white or tan, too. We have white underwear, socks and towels. Each one of us has four tan khaki shirts, four pairs of pants, one tan windbreaker jacket, and a pair of black boots. All the toads are tan, too; there are hundreds, or maybe even thousands of them, that hop around in the grass of the recreation yard, where we can go every evening, or in the daytime when we are not working. The clay dirt is tan, too. There is a half-mile walking track of packed dirt around the softball and football fields; I walk around it for three miles every night and watch the toads hopping around the shallow ditches that drain the recreation fields, and the killdeers and mockingbirds in the fields beyond the fences.

There are 1,800 men in timeout here, and probably more toads, but the toads can hop through the fence.

There are lots of recreational opportunities: In addition to football and softball fields, there are four outdoor basketball courts, four handball courts, two volleyball nets, two horseshoe beds and two bocce ball courts. Inside there are music rooms, pool tables and body building equipment. We are never at a loss for games to play.

The men are all very nice and friendly; we get along very peacefully together. It is hard to believe they have all done such bad things like me: A lot of us are here for what is called “illegal reentry,” which means coming or going to places that we were told not to go. Now, of course, we are not supposed to leave this timeout area until we are allowed to. They have two 10-foot chainlink fences around the whole place, with lots of coils of razor wire on top of them and between them, to make sure that we wouldn’t leave without cutting ourselves to shreds. If we would try to leave timeout before we are allowed to, we might be made to come back and stay for another five years, so now almost all of us are pretty good about staying where we are told. After they let me out on Nov. 22, if I try to come back in without permission, or send anything in to my friends here without permission, I might have to come in again and stay for another five years.

I know all this is confusing and doesn’t make sense; but it doesn’t need to make sense, because it teaches us all to do what we are told to do, even if it doesn’t make any sense to us at all, and, as you know, that is very important to learn.

One day I counted. There are 27 fully salaried medically benefited, pension-vested federal employees standing in the dining room watching us eat lunch, to make sure that we were eating it right. That is fine for them, and easy work, but I kept wondering: Isn’t there a classroom somewhere in an impoverished neighborhood where a poorly paid young teacher is struggling to teach 27 children to read and write, without any help at all? Isn’t there a nursing home somewhere where one nursing aid is being paid minimum wage to care for 27 feeble old people and keep them clean and fed, without any help at all?

I read a book here about a man named Nelson Mandela. He had to stay in timeout for 28 years, which is almost as long as your Uncle Eric has been alive, because he didn’t stay where he was told. After all that time they let him out and let him become president of his country, because they found out that he had been right about things all along.

Maybe sometime the people who run this place will believe your Grandpa, too, when he says that nobody should kill anybody, anytime, anywhere, ever and that people who have a whole lot of belongings should share them with other people who have little or nothing.

In the meantime, I have no complaints. Everything is very clean and neat and well-run here; I have lots of friends to talk with, as I am sure you do, too.

With love,
Grandpa Karl

Karl Meyer is serving a six-month sentence at the Federal Correction Institution in Forrest City, Ark., for trespassing at a protest at the School of the Americas, Ft. Benning, Ga. He has been an activist with the Catholic Worker movement for 44 years.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001