Sunday, November 17, 2019

Louisiana State Penitentiary

Why on earth would a vacation tour stop at a maximum-security prison? I suspect that the state of Louisiana encouraged Road Scholar to include a visit to Angola to burnish the state’s reputation. It worked. 
I do not believe that we were shown all aspects of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  Looking online, I saw reports and images that were more like what one would expect. Still, what we did see was encouraging, giving me a little more hope for our species.

The prison sprawls over 18,000 acres, housing some 5,000 male prisoners, most of whom are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole. At one time the prison had the reputation of being a bloody and dangerous place – the worst in the country.    
Now, not so much. The prisoners work: on the rich farmland and in cottage industries. They have their own television station, broadcasting throughout the complex. They have places of worship for most religions. They even have service clubs. And an annual rodeo. They have created a sort of alternate universe where they can have almost normal lives while incarcerated.

Our tour had come up the Mississippi from New Orleans on a paddlewheel boat. We disembarked and boarded  a bus that took us into the  vast prison complex. Our first stop was at the stables where we ‘met’ some horses. We drove through fields brimming with produce then we stopped in front of what looked like a chapel. 

Entering, sitting in the pews, we saw two men, each holding the leash for a dog. It turned out that the men, both prisoners, were training the dogs to be service dogs for veterans. Dogs are rescued from shelters and the offenders work with them over the course of a year until they are ready to help veterans restore their physical and emotional independence.


Friday, November 15, 2019

Amazing Grace

During any trip there are moments that are indelible. Something happens that is so special that you want to remember it forever.

Recently, I participated in a Road Scholar tour that included a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church outside Natchez, Mississippi.

When we entered the modest sanctuary, I was a little disappointed because there were only about a dozen congregants standing in the choir loft. Then the music began. Beautiful, rich voices, singing in terrific harmony.

Then they invited us to join them. The songs were songs like “Amazing Grace” which everyone knew. I hesitated, unsure of my ability to climb into the loft, but went as soon as I saw there was a railing I could use. I made it up and joined the performance. It filled me with joy.

Before I climbed into the loft, I saw a woman from the tour who had proceeded me and who was singing with her whole soul. She and her husband were a couple I had ‘connected’ with – often sitting with them at meals. I think her husband was a judge and she was a Chicago matron (possibly Jewish). I used my smart phone to take a rather dim photo of a stunning moment – one that I will treasure for a long time.

 ‘Amazing Grace’ indeed.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Pulley Bone

Pully Bone Natchez, Mississippi has a deep heritage. Named for the Indian nation that was defeated then expelled from the high bluffs along the river, it is said to be home to more millionaires than any other U.S. city.

The Natchez people were mound builders, reflecting a sophisticated spiritual tradition that did not survive repeated conflicts with the French (and Spanish). Many escaped into the Carolinas only to suffer the Trail of Tears. Later, cotton, harvested by slave labor, created the wealth that is still reflected in luxurious homes and plantations in the area.

I saw little of that. A medical problem prompted me to find transportation from the elegant paddle wheel boat docked at the river, to the local urgent care facility. I walked up the gangplank and into a red cab with white lettering identifying it as part of the Rock N’ Roll taxi company. It was driven by a slim older man who didn’t smile much. We ascended the bluff and drove to urgent care. The driver gave me his card (which I promptly lost) and left.

After an examination, I was told I could pick up a prescription at the Walgreen’s on the other side of a four-lane freeway. A cab was called for. The same one showed up. This time the driver pulled up to the drive-up window where we learned my prescription would be ready in about 15 minutes. So, we rode to the front of the store so I could get some necessities while waiting for the medication. With those in hand, I waited by the front door for the return of the Rock N’ Roll taxi. When it arrived, the driver, aware that I had missed the morning tour of Natchez’s mansions, drove me the long way back to the boat so I could at least get a glimpse of his city.

I wanted to pay him extra, but he refused. He only charges $10 no matter where he drives. This time, I kept his card, tucking it into my pocket as I walked down the gangplank and onto my boat. That card is now a treasured souvenir inscribed with his name “Pulley Bone”.

 I have no idea if that’s his real name … or if he was just pulling my leg.