I had a lot of trouble with Muslims at Nash. Those stories are in the book, but one, the most explosive incident was due to my mother. On Mother’s Day!
There were about 40 Muslims at Nash, 9 in our unit where I taught GED. Several were in my class and I got along well with all the others—except Hakim (or Hakeem), the head Muslim. I do not know why he disliked me, actually, despised me; we’d never spoken and had had no encounters of any kind.
Nevertheless, he would move five feet away whenever we got close, like in the canteen line. At first, I wondered if I had B.O., but then realized it was simply disrespect, so of course I tried to move away from him first.
Hakim was tall, thin, had a beard, and a distinguished presence. He was also an arrogant sonofabitch who, in my opinion, considered himself above everyone else. He was in for murder, had a twenty year sentence, and was taking courses offered by Nash Community College.
Though his name in Arabic means wise, I didn’t think he was very smart because, while disdaining white infidels, he had them do his homework; he never would have passed the courses otherwise.
There were six metal tables, each with four attached metal chairs in the Day Room for the 75 guys in the unit to get together to talk, play cards, put puzzles together, read or write letters. One was just outside my cell, about eight feet away.
Every morning, Hakim would come down from his second floor cell and put his school materials on the table, then place books on the four chairs so no infidel could sit on the chairs. He kept his materials on the table all day when he was in class, and only used the table at night, usually when he was watching TV. It was monumental disrespect to everyone else in the unit, and I could not understand why the heathens put up with it.
It shouldn’t have bothered me—I did not use the tables—but it did; it was a thumb in the eye to the rest of us.
The insult festered in me, and like any irritant, it grew worse over time, until I couldn’t stand watching him come down every morning and seize the table.
On Mother’s Day, I decided to act.
Of all the brave and noble things I’ve witnessed in my life, the bravest was what my mother did in September 1954. It was the most traumatic incident in my youth.
My father, an Army major, was stationed in Japan on the island of Hokkaido. We—my mother, two younger brothers (6 and 3), former sister (1) and I (10)—had just arrived at Misawa Air Force Base in Northern Japan and moved into a barracks reconverted for families. Next to us was a huge water tower with an air raid siren on top. A foxhole six feet deep, large enough for several families was behind the barracks/house.
The first thing we’d been warned of was that if the siren went off at night, we were to turn off all the lights lest enemy bombers use the house as the zeroing target and take cover in the foxhole and stay until—in the best case scenario—the all clear was sounded.
September 1954 was the height of the Cold War: Russia had the atom bomb; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been executed the year before as soviet spies; the Korean War had ended in tenuous stalemate; the French had lost Vietnam three months earlier, defeated at Dien Bien Phu; Eisenhower was sending “advisors” to prevent more South Asian countries/dominoes from falling; the Army-McCarthy Red Scare hearings headlined newspapers.
The summer’s blockbuster movies were atomic sci fi horrors Godzilla and Them; school children practiced taking cover under their desks when the Russians attacked—any moment!; bomb shelters were built.
The memory of Hiroshima loomed in our minds and photos of mushroom clouds over Bikini Atoll hovered in everyone’s consciousness. It was a frightening time.
Misawa Air Force Base was the closest U.S. military installation to Russia, literally minutes away from Soviet MiGs and bombers. The enemy was Russia; my dad was stationed in Japan “just in case.”
The first night we were in the house, the air raid siren went off. It was the loudest noise I’d ever heard, louder in memory than anything I’ve heard since, including B-52 strikes in Vietnam, and I was more afraid than at any other time in my life and that includes real war.
The Russians were attacking; it was the end of the world.
My mother ran into my bedroom with my baby sister in her arms and told me to get my brothers and go outside to the foxhole. We ran downstairs as my mother turned off the lights. The siren kept wailing.
When we were all huddled in the foxhole, we saw an upstairs light on in the house—the only light in the entire base. My mother handed my bundled up sister to me and said, “Stay with your brothers and sister,” and she scrambled up the ladder to go back into the house to turn off the light.
I screamed, No, Mom, No! I knew the house would explode any moment as bombs rained down with my mother inside. I kept screaming the entire time she ran up the stairs, Mom! Mom! It probably only took her two minutes to get back, but it seemed forever as the house vaporized over and over in my mind.
We huddled together for what seemed an hour waiting for the bombs, but instead an airman appeared with a flashlight peering down on us. “What are you doing?”
It was merely a practice, he explained, something they did once a week. Everybody was used to it, so they stayed inside and just turned off their lights. No one had told us this.
The image of my mother risking her life to save us—believing, knowing she would be killed—is as indelible in my mind now as it was sixty-five years ago. I suppose that’s why I’ve never been afraid since, not even in war, because I knew nothing I did could compare to my mother’s bravery--any risk or sacrifice on my part would pale to hers.
So that Mother’s Day in prison as soon as count cleared, I walked out of my cell and put books on three seats at Hakim’s table and sat on the fourth one. My mother had not risked her life for me to be a coward. She’d taught me that if there was a problem that bothered me, confront it—don’t sit back and whine. Hakim reserving that table bothered me.
When Hakim came down, he was out of his head, but even if he swept my books off the other seats, he couldn’t sit at the table with an infidel; all he could do was pace and fume.
I almost blistered my ass sitting at the table; I didn’t move all day. No one, Muslim or otherwise, came near me. Finally, just before lock down, I collected my books and went back to my cell. Hakim immediately rushed down with a spray bottle to disinfect the table and seats.
The next morning after count cleared, I remained in my cell looking out the window as Hakim raced downstairs with all his books in such a hurry that he fell and dropped them. I didn’t go out because I’d proved my point—I could get the table anytime I wanted.
But after that, tension between Muslims and me was palpable. The final incident was a near riot. While about forty of us watched the season finale of Lost, Hakim and Jabbar, the second ranking Muslim, a student in my GED class, were called to the sergeant’s office. When they came back they pointed at me and started screaming, “That faggot motherfucker just had us shipped.”
For the next hour, Hakim and Jabbar stood on the mezzanine yelling at me. Everyone fled the TV area, leaving me to watch the show in the middle of the Day Room all by myself; I just ramped up my ear phones. The next morning they were gone.
Rae Carruth, a friend, and also a Muslim at the time (he changed religions about as often as he changed clothes, once even considering Jehovah Witness), caught up to me later in the day. “Everyone is saying you had Hakim and Jabbar shipped. I’m just giving you a heads up. Be careful.”
“You guys can’t be that stupid,” I said. “You think I control the shipping list and buses? You think the warden does what I tell him? The authorities are playing you. They wanted Hakim and Jabbar gone because there are too many Muslims here. You’re getting too powerful so they shipped your leaders after they had an incident with me to make it look like it was my doing. Now you guys aren’t mad at prison officials, you’re mad at me. You fell for their line completely. Stupid!”
As we talked, Captain Lucita, Frau Himmler!, the Security Threat Group head, walked by. We did not get along, and that is putting it very mildly.
“That was really clever,” I called to her. “All the Muslims, even Rae here, think I had Hakim and Jabbar shipped. You wanted to get rid of them—and you did in a way it wouldn’t fall back on you.”
She feigned innocence but smiled. Soon wiser Muslims realized what had happened and several apologized to me. Except for the Prayer Rugs on the Telephone Incident (in the book), I never had another problem with Muslims.