August 12, 2019

‘Scared Straight’ opened your eyes back then

Some 40 years ago I came across “Scared Straight” (1978), a controversial program to steer young people away from prisons that was directed and produced by Arnold Shapiro, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1979.
        Although Shapiro, who brought his 1985 “Return to Iwo Jima” documentary to the Virginia Theater when the Fifth Marine Division Association reunion was held in Champaign (Ill.) last October, believed “the concept had a much fuller and longer run” than he ever thought it would, he continued with the concept as a CBS TV movie and several documentaries through the “Beyond Scared Straight” series on A&E (2011-2015).
        When I first came across it, the warning in an ad in the Chicago-area TV Guide said, “This program contains explicit crude language and graphic descriptions that may not be suitable for some viewers.” And that was quite accurate. I heard language on the program that I didn’t even hear in the halls of the school where I was teaching. It took me back to the days of my service in the Marine Corps, the redline brig I worked at in the Philippines, and my counseling days at Menard Penitentiary in southern Illinois.  
        At Rahway (N.J.) State Prison in 1976, inmates had established a program to show kids in trouble what it’s like to be in prison. The program was called the Juvenile Awareness Program. Juveniles from youth homes were sent to Rahway to serve “three-hour sentences.” Three hours of participating in the program was reported to have a lasting effect on a teenager’s life. It purported to show that “scaring the crime out of kids isn’t pretty … but it works.”
            After my experience in the Marine Corps brig, where the rate of recidivism was close to zero, I believed in the program.Like the brig,testing and diagnostics were not a part of the experience at Rahway Prison. That was replaced with the sounds of a Marine Corps brig. Peter Falk hosted and narrated the one-hour “Scared Straight” presentation. The youths in trouble were introduced and talked about their image of themselves, their goals, their lives. They were young tough kids, street kids, male and female. They liked their way of life, were proud of it. 
            One of them bragged that he might get stopped once in a while, but you figured he would be back again. That was the way he was. That’s the way a lot of them were. Their language was tough, but it didn’t have the bite the older inmates had. But these kids weren’t afraid of going to prison—at first. Seventeen of them, black and white, male and female, visited the prison for their three-hour sentences. It was a different world immediately. The tough kids showed none of their earlier cockiness. Nor could they use their own terror tactics to control life around them. They were no matches for the older, tougher and wiser inmates who began teaching them almost as soon as the kids stepped foot in the prison. As they toured the prison, they walked down a cellblock, inmates called after them, expressing their sexual preference—young boys sometimes. 
            The teenagers were dominated, harassed, threatened, educated, intimidated, cajoled and cursed by inmate volunteers. The only thing the inmates couldn’t do was hit the kids. That didn’t stop them from threatening. And the kids didn’t know the inmates wouldn’t hit them. The kids were scared, too. That made a difference. The inmates told what a prison is really like. 
            One by one the inmates talked about homosexual rape, prostitution among the inmates and other acts of violence. A black inmate takes a young kid by the belt and guides him to white inmate and asked him if he had a cigarette. The inmate gives him the cigarette and “buys” the kid. That’s the way it’s done. The kids were learning. They saw the raw reality. And they were stripped of their images, sitting helplessly under the wrath of the angry inmates.
            Kids were taunted until it almost seemed one of them would blow. But nobody did. They were too scared. And they stayed that way. Of the 17 kids who attended the taped session, 16 of them went straight three months after the taping. One girl was busted for a minor fraction and was given a suspended sentence. At the end of a year, none of the 17 had been in trouble again. That was how the concept worked.
            Since its inception in 1976, there have been no major incidents, and almost 10,000 kids have served the sentence. Ninety percent of them were steered into going straight, the program claimed.  After their image had been stripped and they saw life as it is, the kids said they had the insight to see they needed counseling. And the Lifers Hotline was available to them when they thought they were going off on the wrong track and needed to talk to somebody who had been where they were.
            Shapiro did a 20-year follow-up (1999) on the original 17 juveniles at Rahway State Prison with the following results: One had died of a drug overdose; one was a recovering alcoholic; one had served a prison term for bookmaking but was now straight; and one was serving a prison sentence for the very thing he said he planned to become, an armed robber. But as of 20 years ago, 14 were free and doing well, and all attributed their turning their lives around to the Rahway experience—if not in total, at least in part.
            The film was crude, explicit and graphic. The program was all of that and more. It wasn’t pretty, but it did seem to work. It might not be acceptable in today’s politically correct world—and there were plenty of complaints years ago, but as a prelude to going to prison today, it just might have an effect on today’s youth as it did 40 years ago.

May 26, 2019

May 29, 2019, Address for Veterans' Assistance Commission Memorial Day Ceremony at the Champaign County Courthouse

I have always appreciated the opportunity to remember and honor those men and women who died while serving in the militaryand fighting to protect us and preserve the freedoms we enjoy. People attend ceremonies, like the one here today, that are held throughout the country, and they visit memorials to remember those who died. Flags are placed on their graves with respect. These activities have been an American tradition since Memorial Day was first observed not long after the end of the Civil War.
        Of course, it isn’t just today that we should remember and honor their memory and their sacrifices. The families and friends of those now gone don’t just think of them on this one day each year. That loss is felt every day. It remains real. It never goes away. And that is something we all should remember and honor, as well.
        Amid the pain and the loss felt by those left behind, we want them to know that we are with them. That we acknowledge what they are missing because of the cost of freedom. They bear that burden for the rest of us every day of their lives.
        When I was growing up in southern Illinois, there were numerous veterans in the community—a few from the first world war, many from World War II, and later several Korean War veterans. So I was always aware of the significance of Memorial Day—or Decoration Day, as it was called back then. My hometown was a small village of about 75 people and the surrounding family farms. There was a two-story general store with an upstairs area for people to gather for plays, dinners and other occasions--like when the World War II veterans were home on leave or one of them was killed in action. A board on the wall listed the names of those who were serving, and a Gold Star appeared next to the names of those who were killed. There were four Gold Stars. And in later years, the father of one girl who lived nearby was killed in Korea; and two of my classmates from the one-room schoolhouse we attended were later killed in Vietnam.
        I remember them today, and I remember their families.
        Back in the Civil War, my great-grandfather received a medical discharge from the 123rd Regiment, Illinois Infantry, came home and died not long afterward from severe dysentery—as did many veterans of both the Northern and Southern Armies—before Decoration Day began in 1868. My grandfather was only a little over a year old when his father died, leaving another son and two girls to grow up without a father. My great-grandmother raised them alone and lived another 64 years.
        I remember them today, too.
        An older cousin of mine landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy in an M4 Sherman tank in A Company of the 741st Tank Battalion and was brought ashore by an LCT—a tank landing craft. B and C companies were in the amphibious Duplex Drive tanks with a “flotation screen” around them, which was supposed to enable them to float, and were launched 6,000 yards out in the rough waters of the English Channel that day. Many of them immediately sank to the bottom of it. Some of the men were rescued by nearby boats—but not all.
        My cousin made it to the beach, but his tank was soon put out of action, and he and his crew never got another one until before the Normandy breakout some time later. Then they rolled on through to Paris, were at the forefront of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, made it through Germany, until finally ending in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
        When he came home, my father hired my cousin as a truck driver, and I saw in his actions what is now called PTSD. After years of dealing with that internal pain, as well as severe pain from a permanent injury to his neck, he specifically chose D-Day, June 6, to take his own life, leaving a wife and a young daughter behind. He didn’t die in the war, but from the war.
         I remember him today, and all those men and their families.
        Each of us has someone to remember. Each of us knows family members or friends who died in the military or those who live with such losses. As someone who works with veterans’ organizations and writes military historical fiction, I spend a lot of time talking and working with other veterans and their families.
        There’s one last story I’d like to share with you today. It’s about a battalion commander from the Fifth Marine Division who died in the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. He was also a husband and a father of four at the time. I’ve known three of his children—his sons—well over 10 years now, and I’ve known that they lost their dad in the war. Two of the sons don’t remember him. One of them told me: “All I knew was that I never had a dad. His picture was on the wall.” The oldest son was 5. He remembers seeing his father off in San Diego in late 1944 when the Fifth Division headed for the Big Island of Hawai’i to train for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
        But I recently learned more about their story that makes me better understand why—to this day—they still feel his loss in their lives so profoundly.
        Before going into battle, their father wrote the letter a father never wants to write. It was a farewell letter to his wife—to be opened only if he was killed. During his time overseas, he wrote many letters to his wife, expressing his love for her and his family. But while on Iwo Jima, he only wrote two brief letters: one from “Fox Hole Villa” on February 25th—six days into the battle; and the other from “Tojo’s Cave” on March 2nd. His eldest son told me both of the letters praised the courage of his men, and that, woven throughout, was his father’s unwavering faith in God that he shared with his wife.
        Three days later, he was killed.
        Somewhere along the line previously, he had told his wife that if he were ever to be killed in battle, he wanted to be buried with his men. He was first buried in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. And when the bodies were exhumed after the war to be sent home, his wife honored his request to be buried with his men by selecting, as his final resting place, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacificin Hawaii, which is also known as the Punchbowl, rather than bringing him back to his hometown of New Orleans.
        It wasn’t until years later, in 1990, when they were able to visit the grave together as a family for the first time—a widow and her four grown children. The older sister had brought the letters their father had written—including the farewell letter—and they all sat around the gravesite and read each one.
        It was a deeply emotional experience for them. And they never shared that farewell letter outside the family until their mother gave her consent to do so after her death.
        With the family’s permission, I’d like to share some of it with you all here today on this Memorial Day.
        He wrote:
        “There is so little that can be said in this letter, my darling, when our hearts shall go on talking to each other forever no matter how silent is my voice. It would be so utterly unreasonable to believe that my departure means separation.
         “Don’t mourn, babe. I did not go into battle unprepared for death. It wasn’t going to touch me, for sure; this I was supremely confident. You cannot imagine my surprise when it finally came. I firmly believed that I was to return to you and our children. But God thought otherwise; and, darling, if I loved God less despite all His kindness to me, I would not have gone unprepared for fear that it would mean separation from you for eternity.
        “I am leaving you with four small children. Some will pity you, but I don’t because I know you loved me dearly and these children of ours are the living testimonials of our love. Mary Jo and the boys will do much to keep your heart alive. I have great faith in them, babe, because I have faith in you. It doesn’t matter so much whether they be rich, or considered brilliant, or achieve great worldly fame, but so much more important is they know, love and serve God and respect the integral dignity of all men.
        “It is goodbye for a little while only, babe. I always loved you.
        “Yours forever,
        Growing up, the kids learned much about their father from their mother and often had to take their big brother’s direction, partially motivated by the instructions given in letters his father wrote to him about his responsibility to look after his younger brothers. My friend treasures those letters. Especially the last one that was written to him on February 18th—the day before the Marines landed on Iwo Jima.
        When their mother died in 2003, the two oldest sons took her ashes to Hawaii to be reunited with her husband.
        Their father was very present in their lives, as I hope the families of all those we honor today also feel. Those servicemen and women sacrificed SO much so that you and I, and all of us, can live in freedom. Let’s not forget that their families have also sacrificed so much. And, sadly, many continue to.
        Today, tomorrow, and always—we will remember them.
        And we do so because, as President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, it is up to us “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
        Thank you for coming today. It is still up to us.

January 21, 2019

Recalling a conversation with Burl Ives

The famous singer/actor Burl Ives was from a little town of about 100-150 people called Hunt City in southeast-central Illinois, a few miles from the village of Bellair, where I was born and raised. "From Here to Eternity" author James Jones was born and raised in nearby Robinson.
          In 1982--13 years before his death in 1995--I interviewed Burl as part of a cultural journalism project called Tales from the General Store that published 27 issues in tabloid newsprint format and was distributed in several newspapers throughout east-central Illinois. Those issues are helping to preserve part of the history and culture of the area, and the entire collection is now available for free through the Digital Public Library of America at
          Burl had much to say about growing up in the area, his career, the musicals in which he performed (Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon"), movie roles (Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), songs he sang ("The Ballad of Barbara Allen," where he sees the same image saw when he first sang it early in his life), and more. Read all about him: