353. Christmas in Prison


John Prine is an old favorite of mine. I bought his albums as a teenager and saw him once or twice in concert back in the day. “Angel from Montgomery”, “Illegal Smile”, and “Hello in There” are songs that have held up well over the decades. But “Christmas in Prison” has always held an ironic  place in my memory banks, especially the first four lines. What an unlikely pairing:  the season of redemption, grace and joy with the place of justice, punishment and separation.

It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols
Carved out of wood

And I dream of her always
Even when I don’t dream
Her name’s on my tongue
And her blood’s in my stream.

Our singer persona is lying in his rack dreaming about the love of his life. I imagine it is a sweet torture for him to digest his Christmas meal while longing for his fair lady with unquenchable desire. Inmates still care and long for love too. Though he never tells his crime, it’s certainly a serious felony to be in a prison that features a searchlight and gun in the big yard. The reference to eternity suggests that he’s a lifer. Perhaps he’s a killer.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

His paean to desire begins with hope, I like to think so anyway. As he  works the figurative language, we get a strange description of a smart woman who is super sweet, maybe too sweet to digest. I’ve never done a picnic in the rain after a prairie fire, but I imagine the opposing energies could be interesting if not unforgettable.

She reminds me of a chess game
With someone I admire

Or a picnic in the rain
After a prairie fire

Her heart is as big
As this whole goddamn jail

And she’s sweeter than saccharine
At a drug store sale.

Okay, not a great poet but he’s a convict, found guilty of doing something very bad. His words are consistent with his setting and character.  His sweet torture, like an addict shooting up again, hoping for the original dragon ride that hooked him, leaves only a drop of blood and an empty syringe, full of disappointment. The chorus loses hope the second time around as he calls without an echoing response from his love.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

Actually, he’s not rolling or flowing anywhere. He’s doing hard time. I remember doing prison ministry twenty five years ago. Two or three of us would go to the county jail once a month and spend 90 minutes with a dozen or so men in orange jumpsuits. All of them had release dates that were measured in weeks and months. Still, Christmas in county jail is no picnic. About half of the population is on psychotropic medications that are dispensed from a cart, like the cookie cart at nursing homes. They are anxious, depressed, and sometimes psychotic. Who wouldn’t be while in jail for the holidays?

The search light in the big yard
Swings round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes
Like the dust in the sun
It’s Christmas in prison
There’ll be music tonight
I’ll probably get homesick
I love you. Goodnight.

I recall one fellow I met with individually. He had a six month sentence for trying to buy cocaine from an undercover stinger. Jake was losing his mind as Christmas came before his release date. “I can’t do it, man. I’m paranoid that the guards will set me up or one of the other inmates will plant contraband in my bunk. They don’t want me to get out. I’m freakin’ out.”

Image result for pennies in prison pictures

The next visit I had with Jake I took 180 pennies and made a pile on the steel  table between us. “What’s that for?” he asked. “Well, it’s your sentence, 180 days. What I want you to do is count out the days you have already served.”

He complied, and as he did so a smile broke out on his somber pale face. “Man, I only have twenty six days to go. No problem. I got it.”

I was amazed at how such a simple visual could connect with someone’s hopeless restlessness. Jake actually got out a week early for good behavior merits, but the jailers didn’t let him know till the day of release.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

He was a messed up kid from a messed up family. At least he got out by New Year’s Eve. I saw him off in his civilian clothes. He seemed just as anxious about his freedom as he had been about his incarceration.

Which brings me to the birth of Jesus, the redeeming savior of mankind, who cancelled our human nature debt and set the captives free from Hell’s grip. We cannot forget that crucial fact or take it for granted unless we want to be singing the blues in a jail of our own making. Not all prisons are bricks, bar, and mortar structures. Some are edifices of anger with spires of  pride. Some are sad swamps of grief and regret. “I coulda’ been a contender”, said Brando’s  boxer character in On the Waterfront. No matter. You have been set free by grace. Enjoy the reprieve. We’re flowing by God.

 

 

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