When my grandmother found out I wanted to be a writer, she chuckled and said, “Welcome to the unemployment line.” I was stunned—not so much by the thought that most writers are unemployed, but by the sardonic humor coming from a seventy-five-year-old Unity minister in Central Point, Oregon. Alas, Nana was right.
Most of us have day jobs to help us cross that wasteland between advances and royalty checks, and we usually think of them as temporary. Thankfully, they usually are, but more often than not, those day jobs become “careers.” There are mornings after the espresso has kicked in and the laptop waits that I realize I am two people: a free-lance writer and a free-lance lighting director.
I spent seven seasons lighting Robert Stack for “Unsolved Mysteries.” We became friends and usually agreed on the state of the world, except he was no fan of Fidel Castro, and I was. So I never told him about my novel, Papa & Fidel. But he did learn of the other ones and thought it perfectly natural that a writer would be moonlighting as a regular person, though there was nothing normal about what we did.
One of “Unsolved’s” standard locations was the Wayside Honor Rancho in Castaic, California, a maximum security facility that we used for prison stories. On an icy winter morning, we were shooting deep inside a cellblock, glad not to be out in the cold wind. I was fine-tuning a lighting setup when suddenly we heard shouts and glass breaking from a nearby assembly room. Apparently, some black and Hispanic inmates had gotten into it, and now they were smashing the windows and frisbeeing jagged pieces of glass at each other. The melee spread; within minutes, a riot had started. Prison guards rushed onto our set, ordered everybody to stop what they were doing and run. In the confusion, some of us weren’t fast enough, and I found myself locked in a solitary confinement cell for my own protection along with Bob Stack and a guard named Zachary. A bunk, a metal toilet, a caged-in bare bulb in the ceiling, no windows. At first, we were silent, listening for telltale sounds through the door but heard only an occasional muffle. Obviously, the cell had been built with isolation in mind.
Grinning, Stack chuckled at the irony of being “outside on the inside” and started in with a repertoire of prison jokes that soon had Zachary and me roaring with laughter. A true renaissance man, Stack had stories and jokes for every occasion—even prison riots. And when he finally got tired of standing in the small space, he sat on the toilet as if it were a lounge chair, admired it, said it wasn’t so bad compared to places he had stayed in the former British colonies. I leaned against the wall, and Zachary took the bunk. Another silence. Then we started talking amicably, casually. You know, the usual: sports, politics, traffic on the 5, the “business.” For perhaps the first time in its history, there was no fear or anger, no tension in that cell. Small, unique experiences in my life that occur out of time I call Hemingway moments. This was one of those.
Eventually we got around to our favorite pastimes. Stack regaled us with stories of his marksmanship competitions. He was a world-class shooter who had won matches all over the world. In particular, he loved beating Russians, Brits, Bulgarians and Frenchmen, but never explained why. I suppose it had to do with being a man of the “greatest generation.” Then, Stack asked Zachary what he liked to do with his free time. “Lift weights,” the guard said shyly. Stack laughed sheepishly, for Zachary looked like an action figure in uniform, and joked, “Oh, really?! I never would’ve known!” Pushing iron is one of my regimens, too, so Zachary and I shared gym stories, exercise routines and “the burn,” Stack listening the whole time as if we were discussing the virtues of, say, an Anschutz competition rifle or an excellent meal in Paris or an unrivalled cognac anywhere.
Three hours later, the guards let us out. They had stopped the riot, and the inmates were in lockdown. The three of us didn’t say goodbye—we just went our separate ways, Zachary going off with the guards, Stack and I heading for the prison reception area under escort. After lunch, we finished the day’s work outside instead of inside, and when we were done, Stack went back inside to say goodbye to the prison staff. Twenty minutes later as I was wrapping my meters and kit, Stack came up to me, a devilish grin on his face. “Zachary wanted me to give this to you,” he said. From behind his back, he handed me a well-worn leather weight belt with “L.A. COUNTY JAIL” stenciled on the back. I was astonished. “Nice man, huh?” said Stack. “See you next time, Karl.” We shook hands. He got in his limo, and the driver took off.
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