In jail, while awaiting transfer to the maximum security prison that was to be my home for the rest of my life, a counselor had given me some advice.
“David, I like you. You’ve been a model inmate here and for all I know you may be innocent. You’re intelligent, you’ve got social skills, and you’re a big guy, but none of that’s going to mean a damn thing when you get to prison. I’ve seen the guys there, and let me tell you, they’re all big, they all lift weights, and they’re all mean.
“And in their hierarchy someone who killed his children is way low. Maybe above child molester, but not much. And you—you’ve got another problem. Money. You’ve got it, they want it. So you want my advice? The second you come off that bus, get yourself to PC and stay there! You’ve got appeals, you’ve got a chance, but only if you’re still alive.”
That was probably good advice, but it wasn’t for me. I’d lost my family, my reputation, my dignity, most of my money, and now my freedom. But there’s prison and there’s prison. General Population is still incarceration, but at least you get to go to work, play sports in the yard, visit in the chow hall. In Protective Custody you’re locked down. Period. The idea was to guard your life. But what kind of a life? Didn’t sound like one worth guarding to me.
I’d never shied away from risk. I flew airplanes, rode motorcycles, ran my own business, and gave up the profitable prosthetic and orthotic practice I’d developed to pursue my dream of designing orthopedic braces.
And while the Bible had taught me the meek shall inherit the earth, I now had serious doubts about that. To be fair, I had doubts about everything when it came to my once unshakable faith.
And so when I stepped off the bus with chains on my ankles and manacles on my wrists, I didn’t even think of nodding when they asked if any of us wanted protection. And when the gangs came around to hook up the new fish, I told them I respected them but I didn’t want to ride with an organization. “I’m too old for that shit,” I said. And they said okay and marked me down: Hendricks – independent.
I tried to fit in. When I went to chow hall I sat on the white side. Half the chow hall was populated by blacks; the other half by whites, Latinos, and the overflow of blacks. Blacks and whites could mingle in the yard or the work assignment but not in the chow hall. It wasn’t done.
There were two white gangs,Northsiders and Bikers. Gangs sat together in the chow hall. My job was to figure out which whites were independent. There weren’t many.
Today, for the first time in my three weeks here, I’d planned my approach and plopped down at a table with what appeared to be white independents. One was a fortyish skinny guy with one front tooth, the second was a young muscle-bound man with plenty of tattoos, and the third was Henry Hillenbrand. Henry was doing most of the talking—inmates stopped by, food trays in hand, to greet him, and he had a joke or a quip for everyone.
He turned to me as I sat down.
“Hey, Big Stuff. Wasn’t none of my business what I said about the color TV, but you got to be careful around here.”
“Like I said, I’m new and I appreciate any nuggets of information I can glean.”
“I got to tell you, down home we can make two sentences out of one of your words.” He pointed at the skinny guy with one tooth. “This is Strickler.” Then he turned toward the tattooed body builder. “And this is Lefty.”
Strickler, single tooth chomping furiously, said, “You really want advice, let me tell you, if a riot jumps off, take cover fast! Bury yourself in a group of bodies or get behind that counter there if you can, or better, under a table. But whatever you do, don’t get under this table!”
“Because that’s where I’ll be,” he said as he broke into a grin.
While we were chuckling at this joke they’d all heard before, Lefty jumped up.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m not really—.”
“Come on, Road Dog, I seen you on the handball court. You hit one so hard it stayed this high”—holding his hand flat and low, parallel to the floor—“all the way from behind the court to the wall.”
“Yeah, but that’s coordination more than strength.”
“Come on, Dog. I’ll use my right arm.” From a guy called “Lefty,” I took that as an attempt at fair play.
So this was it. If I turned down the invitation to arm wrestle in a chow hall full of hardened criminals searching for a weakness, I might as well stand up and shout, “Come get me, guys, I’m a pussy!”
If I accepted the challenge, I’d probably lose. Lefty was a body builder—you didn’t have to see him lifting weights to know that. He was cut. Big shoulders. Well-defined biceps.
I figured losing had to beat refusing—at least I’d have tried—so I accepted the challenge. We sat in adjacent chairs and faced off, gripping each other’s hand, getting ourselves pumped up.
“Okay,” Lefty said. “One … two … three …”
I flexed my wrist and powered my arm forward. It was the split-second edge I needed. As Lefty said, “GO!” my arm started down and Lefty’s arm slammed onto the table.
Lefty looked surprised but immediately regained his composure and shot me a big grin.
“That won’t happen if I use my left arm.”
“I wouldn’t have a chance if you used your left arm,” I said, handing him back his pride.
I was still living in an orientation cell. I hadn’t yet been called to appear before the assignment committee to be given a job, but I’d been told they’d probably start me in the kitchen. Housing was by assignment, so for now I lived on Seven Gallery of the West House.
The West Cell House held five rows of fifty cells, called galleries, with Nine Gallery on the top and One Gallery on the bottom. One Gallery had a wide floor in front of the cells and the four galleries above it had much narrower aisles with wire mesh to keep inmates from jumping down—or being thrown—to the wider floor below.
One afternoon I was trudging up the stairs to my cell after lunch when I spotted a display of greeting cards on the wall of the first cell on Three Gallery. The cards were taped five high and three wide, cheery cartoon designs in bright colors on bold yellow card stock. The gate to Three Gallery was open, so I left the line climbing the stairs and stepped in front of the greeting card cell. A sign said, “Cards, 1 pack each.”
“Hey, Hendricks!” a voice called out, startling me. It was Henry. I hadn’t noticed him, lying on his bunk in the dark cell.
“Hi!” I said. “How’d you remember my name?”
“It’s been plastered all over the news.”
“Yeah, I forget how famous I am. Do you think I can bother you for a couple of those cards? They’re really impressive. I can come back later if you—”
But Henry was already up and heading for the bars.
“I sleep in the day when I’m not in school, ‘cause I stay awake at night to work on my cards.”
“What do you use for light?” I saw a stool and a desk, solid welded iron but not bolted in like the bunks.
“This high intensity light, see? They sell them in the commissary.”
“What I need right now is two birthday cards, one male, one female—and they’re religious, so nothing risqué,” I said. “My parents. Their birthdays are five days apart.”
“Well, pick out what you want. They’re one pack each, but that’s just for the card. You want me to pick them for you, that’s another pack.”
I carried no cigarettes—didn’t smoke—but I already knew Lifers coupons would substitute for cigarettes, 90¢ roughly equaling one pack. Later I’d learn to keep some around for trading purposes.
“In that case I’ll pick my own—and I’ll pick two for your next customers so my two cards will be free.”
That got me one of his grins and a quip.
“It didn’t say in the paper you were Jewish.”
I laughed. “How’d you get started making these cards anyway? You know, they’re really good—great designs, well rendered. Is making greeting cards a prison cottage industry?”
“Naw, it’s something I do on my own,” Henry said. “I get the yellow card stock and the colored pencils from the art supply store, and I have a bunch of patterns I trace. I drew most of the patterns, only I copied the first two. This one here was my first original.” On the front a man’s shirt was captioned “I was going to buy you a shirt for your birthday.” On the inside beneath a message that read “but I didn’t like the cuffs that came with it” was a drawing of a pair of handcuffs. “So I first made some cards to send to my boys down home.”
“Where’s down home?” I said. “Streator?”
“Oh, so you know something about me, too.”
“I don’t remember anything about the murders when they happened but I was living in Bloomington at the time you were recaptured and I remember reading about you then. You murdered your wife and her lover, right?”
Henry looked down for a moment then back up at me.
“Yeah, I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did.” He was quiet for a second or two. “She wasn’t legally my wife, but we did have a baby when we lived together in Joliet.”
“Hey, man, I’m sorry I said that so bluntly,” I said. “This place is a whole new world to me, with social rules I’ve never dealt with before.”
“I’ve heard a lot worse, Hendricks, a heck of a lot worse. Don’t worry about it. The truth is, I deserve it. I still can’t believe it was me that did that.”
That was when it hit me why I liked this guy. He was smart though probably not well educated, friendly, a joker who told good stories, but he was also honest. He said what he felt and he admitted when he was wrong—a rare quality, especially in prison.
“So you were saying you started making cards to send down home, and—”
“Yeah, except you ain’t right about down home,” he said. “I was raised in Streator, Illinois, but McDonald County in Missouri is my home. Lived there for thirteen years as Tom Elliot before I got caught. Anyway, after I started making cards for my boys, some guys here saw them and wanted some, and then after a while I made some for my friends back home to put in the Valley View truck stop, and when those sell, the money goes to my boys.”
“It seems like you have a fascinating story. And if you don’t mind another compliment, you’re a natural storyteller.”
“Well, I’m always talking and most of the time I’m telling some story. When I was in the jail in Ottawa, after I was captured—”
“Which time?” I said. “When you were captured after the murders or when you were captured after being a fugitive?”
“I wasn’t captured after the murders, I turned myself in. I’m talking about when the FBI come out to where I was logging in the woods in Missouri. After that, when I was in the Greene County jail, a writer asked if I’d be interested in telling him my story for a book, and I wasn’t sure about it at the time but then later on I thought, yeah, why not? But by then he wasn’t asking no more.”
“If a writer wanted to do a book about you now, would you be interested?”
“Now, yes. Back then it was so new, and I was still adjusting to the idea of being incarcerated—”
Just then a small guy with a big nose passed behind me.
“Hey, Al!” Henry called out. “Didn’t you say you needed a clerk for the Voc School?”
“Yeah.” He turned to me. “You don’t have a job?”
“I’m still in orientation but it’s been three weeks so they say I’m going to the assignment committee soon. I’ll probably get a kitchen assignment.”
“Man, you don’t need to work in the kitchen! You want to be a school clerk? You get a desk and a typewriter, it’s a real easy gig. It’s just that not many guys here are qualified. You got to be able to read, write, file, you know, use a calculator—shit like that.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“I’ll take care of it. You’ll have to move to Three Gallery, so find a cellmate you can live with. I’ll put the paperwork in. You’re Hendricks?”
“Yup, that’s me. Thanks!”
With my new friend gone down the gallery, I turned back to Tom Henry.
“Do you think I could give you a list of my family and in-laws who—”
“In-laws?” he said. “You mean, like, relatives of your wife?”
“Right, my in-laws.” He looked floored. I knew why, but I let him say it.
“Not my business, but … you’re still on good terms with your wife’s family?”
“The only people who think I’m guilty are the ‘people of the State of Illinois,’ whoever they are,” I said. “No one who knows me, including Susie’s family, thinks I did it. It’s just crazy, but—” I lost my train of thought, then snapped back. “Anyway, if I give you a list, can you make up the cards for me? I’ll be glad to pay ahead.”
“No, you’ll pay me when you get them, just like anyone else. But sure, bring me a list and I’ll have them cards ready for you.”
“Thanks. One more thing. That desk you have. Do you know what they’re worth in here? A guy said he’d sell me one for fifteen packs. Is that a fair price?”
“Okay, Big Stuff, listen up. Fifteen packs is way too cheap for a desk, and if anyone’s offering you a desk for that price, his name is Jackson and that makes it way too expensive.”
“I take it you’re trying to tell me this won’t be an honest transaction?”
“You catch on fast! Jackson’s selling it half off to make it irresistible. When you buy it, he’ll deliver it all right, and then you won’t see him again. Who you will see is one of his buddies. He’ll show up and say hey, you got Northsider property there. You say no, I bought and paid for this desk from a guy named Jackson. He says he doesn’t know anyone named Jackson but the desk looks like one that belongs to his organization and will you turn it over just to be sure. When you do it’ll have Northsider scratched on the bottom. He says give it up. And you will. And the next time you see Jackson he won’t know you.”
“Wow! Thanks, man. I barely know you and you’ve already helped me.”
“Well, pay me back by keeping your mouth shut about it.”
“Keep my mouth shut about what?”
“So, what do you like to be called? Henry or Tom?”
“Well, people from down home call me Tom. My family from Streator calls me Henry, so does the prison. So I guess I’m Henry but I prefer Tom, ‘cause Tom was a better guy!”
“What about Tom Henry?”
“I like that.”
“Well, all right, then. Thanks for your help and your cards, Tom Henry.”
As I turned to walk up the next two flights of stairs, a thought occurred to me. I’d been thinking of writing a book about myself but hadn’t considered writing one about another convict. What a story, though! A double murderer pleads guilty, escapes from jail, lives as a fugitive, is recaptured, and tells his story to his cellmate in prison. Tom Henry. It had a good ring to it.
Tom Henry, still at his cell bars, seemed to sense my train of thought.
“Be careful what you wish for, Hendricks.”
I stopped and turned. “What do you mean?”
“When I was a kid, I wanted bunk beds.”