Jim Chandler

Jailhouse Blues

Many years ago when I was a headstrong boy full
of piss and vinegar my misdeeds wound me up
on a southern road gang.

Every morning after a breakfast of fatback with
the hair still on it and a tin platter of gravy
we were loaded aboard an old schoolbus.

One deputy drove the bus and another sat on the
front seat with a Winchester pump shotgun
in the event any of us decided to get rowdy.

We were taken out to one country road right-of-way
or another where we then given tools from
the big box on the back of the bus.

Not a big selection: axes, "lively lads," and
the type of scythe called a "briar blade" in the

We were not forced to kill ourselves with this labor
and indeed the one-eyed old man who guarded us was
a kindly soul at heart.

He owned a little country store and on cold mornings
he would direct the driver by the store
where he would get us a jar of instant coffee.
Once out on the site we'd build a campfire of sorts
and hang a big cast iron kettle full of water
over it.

We'd cut some right-of-way and then have a coffee break,
the steam rising from our cups blending with
the vapor of our breaths in the crisp
morning air.

"I'd never kill a man for running," the old man said
to us one morning. "It ain't worth it."

But he knew that we weren't a violent lot
just a pack of back check artists, petty con men, 
smokehouse burglars, gasoline thieves, public drunks.

One morning this guy named Jerry told me
"I'm going today" and he did, about 30 minutes after
we unloaded by a railroad track.

Old Jerry headed for the tracks and began to beat feet
toward the west, running low because he didn't know 
if the old man would shoot him or not.
The old deputy half-heartedly cried for him to stop
but he didn't and that was that.

Jerry went to his sister's in Detroit unless he
lied to me and I don't think he did.
He knew I didn't give a damn, I wouldn't tell.

His main vice in life was hanging worthless paper anyway.

At noon we stopped for lunch and it was always the same:
a thick bologna sandwich and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 
There was also the eternal Moon Pie, symbolic of
the land I loved and hated with all my heart.

The food was wolfed down, the cigarettes were smoked and
the bullshit was bantered back and forth.
And then it was an afternoon of the same
usually a bland space of time with nothing to make
it memorable unless something out of the ordinary happened.

Once, driven mad by a sapling that refused to yield to
the bite of my blade, I went totally berserk.
I struck the sapling as hard as I could and yet it
just quivered in the muddy ground.

It mocked me with its resilience, that scrubby little
piece of flora.

Finally in a fit of madness I threw myself onto the small 
tree, screaming and flailing and fighting as though it
were a threat to my existence.

Somehow, I twisted it apart with my bare hands.
The other men were freaked out by this display of insanity
and no one made the mistake of joking about it.

They probably knew I would kill them with the briar blade
even the old deputy, I was that far over the edge.

Cold, muddy, exhausted with effort, but the victor

Back at the jail late in the afternoon we were given
a pat-down search, the barest of frisks.

This was in a kinder, gentler age, before you were asked
to bend and spread and a hand went up your ass in search
of drugs, weapons or Hogan's goat.

I once slipped a hacksaw blade in hidden inside my sock
and that night we began to work on a section of 
bars inside the cage.

The cage was erected in one of two adjacent concrete rooms
and we were locked in it only at night.

We made progress over a period of evenings, putting
shoe polish in the saw marks when we stopped until
finally one night we sawed through two bars.

I was one of the thinner and a guy from Arizona was the other.
He'd been arrested for breaking into washers at a
laundromat while hitchhiking through the area, he
and his friend both.

He was supposed to be standing watch while his buddy
popped the coin boxes but the sound got to him.
"I heard them fuckin' quarters rattlin' and I had
to get in on it" he explained.

The sheriff drove up while they were sacking up the
loot and that's the name of that tune.

We stripped off naked and greased ourselves up with Crisco
but it didn't work, the hole was too small.

I got jammed with my head and one arm through and
for a while it looked as if I'd still be there come
feeding time in the morning.

With a lot of painful tugging they finally pulled me free.

We doped up the cuts in the metal and got a few hours sleep
but we had a surprise when we came in from the road
the next day.

There was a big log chain strung through the hole and padlocked
several times.

The grand jury had toured the jail that day and someone 
spotted a dab of grease on the back side of a bar where
we'd failed to clean it off.

The great escape to nowhere was revealed.

The sheriff was a little pissed but not unreasonably so.

It just became more difficult to get the trustee
to bring you a half-pint of whiskey for a
few days even if you had the $2.50.