FIVE TO TEN
This morality tale begins and ends in the Tongap Penitentiary, where I was serving time for a misdemeanor of no great consequence. The sentencing tribunal showed me no mercy, however. I was given five to ten years in maximum security.
The warden considered me a “model prisoner”, and for that I was assigned to a work-release program that allowed me to have a job at the Karenga Gear and Cog Factory in nearby Cape Keane Township.
Behind its massive locked doors, I worked diligently at Karenga Gear, loading boxes onto trucks going to faraway places. On a day that would leave its mark on me in ways that I never would have imagined, the owner of the company, Mrs. Karenga, came into the factory and called to me from a distance.
“You… Over there! Who are you? What’s your name?” she shouted over the noise of the grinding machinery.
“Who, me?” I timidly replied. She glared at me with a terrifying intensity. I answered meekly, “My name is Jedidiah. Jedidiah Bilko.”
I had been slowly getting accustomed to the chain-of-command protocol that dominates the life of a prisoner. How you read a someone’s facial expression or body language could ease your way through the daily confinement, or it could immerse you into a world of pain. I knew by looking at Mrs. Karenga at that moment that she was capable of both.
She circled around me, sizing me up. “So what did you do?” she asked as she approached closer. “To get thrown in prison, I mean. I need to know what kind of criminals Warden Kovách is sending me.”
I’m always prepared for that question, and long ago gave up the notion that it was rude to ask. People have a right to know what infractions have been committed against their societal norms.
She looked surprised. “Bank…? You robbed a bank?”
I always presented my crime that way. It elicits the assumption of a daring robbery.
“No, not that,” I explained. “I wrote a check to my brother to help him buy a car.” I looked up at the imposing figure of Mrs. Karenga standing before me. “I told him to wait a few days before depositing it, but he didn’t wait. The check bounced.”
“And they call that bank fraud?” laughed Mrs. Karenga. “That’s all? A bounced check. My God!”
I had hoped her laughter was an indication of her cordiality, but it wasn’t.
“Well, get back to work, Jedidiah Bilko. You’re hardly a crook,” she said as she walked away. She stopped and turned to me. “So, how long are you in for?”
“Five to ten.”
“Wow! I suppose Judge Gammonda was on the tribunal, am I right? You’re just another unlucky con he threw the book at.” She laughed as she walked out of the room. I saw that she whispered something to her assistant, who glanced at me briefly before writing something in her notepad.
Less than a week later, Warden Kovách visited me in my cell, unannounced. Speaking softly through the bars so as not to be overheard by the other inmates, he whispered, “You’ll be going up before the parole board tomorrow, Jedidiah. Clean yourself up and make a good impression.” As he left, he turned back to me and said, “You’d better make parole, son. I want you out of here!”
I didn’t know if that was a word of encouragement, or a threat. Maybe a compliment. It could have been anything. That was his way. Regardless, I was surprised that I was up for parole so soon.
On the day of the hearing I was nervous, but looking forward to impressing the board with feigned contrition. Officer Ferris brought me a clean prison outfit and let me use his comb. “Straighten up, Jed,” he said with a smile. “Today could be your day.”
Ferris escorted me from the prison block to the administrative wing. There we waited in the hallway while another inmate was finishing up his parole hearing. As he left, I sensed it didn’t go well for him. Poor bastard.
An officer came from the room and called my name. “Inmate Bilko. Jedidiah Bilko.”
Ferris wished me luck. I smiled and said thank you, put on a false air of confidence and walked into the room to face my destiny. In front of me was a table with the five parole board members intently looking over my papers. The board consisted of Warden Kovách, next to him sat the prison psychiatrist, the social worker, a man in a blue serge suit and…
…Mrs. Karenga! I wasn’t expecting this. Why was my boss here?
“Mr. Bilko… Jedidiah,” began Warden Kovách. “Be seated please.” The other four gathered up their papers. “You are here today to be reviewed by the Tongap Penitentiary parole board, aided by the advice and recommendation of your employer Mrs. Karenga.” He looked at Mrs. Karenga, who smiled at him and then resumed her concerned look.
“We have gone over your records to ascertain your ability to rehabilitate your behavior in regards to, you know… not being a criminal.” He paused as he was about to light a cigarette, but Mrs. Karenga shot a disapproving look. He slipped it back into his pocket.
“Present here as members of the board, in addition to Mrs. Karenga and myself, are Dr. Ignatov, Miss Laninga - “
“Mrs. Laninga,” interrupted the social worker.
The warden raised an eyebrow. “Pardon me… Mrs. Laninga. And lastly there is Mr. Otto Delarge, from Fort Chapin.”
They all remained stone faced as I sat before them.
“So let us begin,” said the warden. “We’ll cut right to the chase, and have Mrs. Karenga address the board.”
At this point, I had no idea where this was going. The warden and the others did know, for it seemed to me that they were eager to move on and end this affair.
“Mrs. Karenga,” said Warden Beam. “I hand this over to you. But first, I must say this to inmate Bilko.” He pushed the papers to the side and leaned forward. “If you are granted parole, Mr. Bilko, you are bound to end up right back here. Eventually.”
Mrs. Karenga got up from her chair. She looked taller than I was used to seeing her, but maybe that was because I was sitting down… and intimidated.
Reading from her papers, she addressed the board. “Warden, Dr. Ignatov, Mrs. Laninga and Mr. Delarge.” She nodded at each one as she said their names. “Today we’re here to decide the fate of Mr. Bilko as it pertains- ”
“Decide the fate…” I mumbled to myself.
“Be silent, Mr. Bilko!” admonished the warden. “This interruption is not helping your case. Please continue, Mrs. Karenga.” The warden was pleased to tell Mrs. Karenga what to do, for he regarded her as a force greater than himself. She set aside the papers on the table, and said whatever came to mind.
“Today we’re here to decide the fate of a remarkable young man,” she began. “It has been my pleasure to be his employer for several months, and I can attest that he is a good worker, an honest man who exhibits a strong moral character.”
What? Is this for real? I was waiting for her to say, “But on the other hand…”
Instead she continued to praise my positive attitude, my rehabilitated behavior and my noble work ethic. “I often give him a difficult time at work, but that’s only to help build his character. And it has worked. Since coming to work at Karenga Gears, he has developed into a completely new person — one with ethics, morals and a good soul.”
She went on for several minutes, detailing the good work I’ve done, what a fine person I am, an asset to her company, a role model to others. She then concluded, “I recommend strongly, and it is my considered opinion, that Mr. Bilko be granted a parole. I am so sure about his ability to adjust to civilian life that I will commit to giving him a proper job at my factory, affording him the opportunity to once again be a productive, self-reliant member of society. And he will certainly be a good example to other inmates.”
I had no idea that she ever noticed me beyond that initial awkward meeting. As I pondered this, my fate was being discussed in whispers by the five at the table.
“Mr. Bilko,” said the warden. “Please stand now. The five of us have unanimously agreed to grant you the parole, effective immediately. I want to thank Mrs. Karenga who has been so generous in offering you a job, which this parole is contingent upon.” Warden Bean seemed so much more cold and business-like than before. There was something about his bearing that seemed peculiar to me.
“And to explain the terms,” he said with an air of mystery, “Mr. Delarge of Fort Chapin will speak now.”
Otto Delarge then laid out the groundwork of my parole. I was to be employed by the Karenga Gear and Cog Factory to carry out operations on behalf of Mrs. Karenga. Nobody in the company could know what I was doing. I had to swear right then and there that I would not speak a word of this to anyone. My paycheck would come directly from Mrs. Karenga - not the company.
“Do you accept these terms, Mr. Bilko,” asked Mr. Delarge. There was an ominous tone to his voice. I sensed that it was not possible for me to object. This was going to happen whether I agreed or not. Whatever it was to be, my fate was sealed.
Day one of my new job began inauspiciously. I was ordered by Mrs. Karenga’s assistant to load twelve boxes of rack and pinion gears into the back of the ‘47 Hudson pickup and deliver them to Mr. Delarge at Fort Chapin, a day’s drive. I wasn’t prepared for such a long journey, and besides, those boxes were extremely heavy — over fifty kilograms each. I’m slight of build, and not very strong, so I exhausted all my energy by noon and still not all the boxes were loaded. But eventually the gears and I were on our way, driving through small towns on rough roads, burning oil and occasionally stopping for cattle and at train crossings.
My thermos of hot coffee had long been emptied, and I was feeling the intense exhaustion that comes with driving long distances at night. Pulling over at a clearing, I had intended to rest my eyes for only a few minutes. It wasn’t until sunrise, when federal officers were banging on my window with their guns and rifles drawn, that I realized I had slept for several hours.
Pinned to the ground under the weight of three officers, cuffed and shackled, I listened as an one of them radioed that they found the truck with the contraband and a suspect was in custody. I was brought to a local precinct where I was fingerprinted and photographed, but never mistreated. In fact, the detective brought me a sandwich and a glass of water as he questioned me. He evidently believed my story that I was merely the unwitting driver, unaware of anything illegal in the truck.
Within days, I was standing before Judge Gammonda and the tribunal. Once again, the book was thrown at me, and as I tell this story I am again serving five to ten in maximum security at Tongap Penitentiary.
Warden Beam didn’t seem pleased at my arrival, but he also wasn’t surprised.
“I told you you’d be back,” he said.