I first became introduced to the power of words when I was seven years old and a man drove up to our house, wanting to kill my father. The man was upset about a court decision to take his child away (as I recall), and he had called my father and told him that he was coming over and that he had a gun and would shoot him. A few minutes later, his car was parked on the street directly in front of the house. My mother was crying, begging my father to call the cops. He did not. Instead, he opened the door and walked out to the car. We watched from the window as he opened the passenger door and got inside. Then we waited. And waited.
My father was a juvenile probation officer who dealt with a lot of troubled kids, kids in trouble, and their parents, who were often the worst trouble of all. Growing up, our house was filled with kids who had no place to go, had either left their house, or had been removed from a bad environment, and were waiting for a foster home. I remember sitting at the kitchen table one night with my mother and my older sister and older brother when my dad came home with a high school-aged boy and said, “This is Leroy; he’ll be staying with us a while.” Leroy’s father had tried to shoot him and Leroy called my dad for help. When my father got to the house, the father said, “Take the son of a bitch; I don’t want him.” Leroy stayed in the bunk bed in my brother’s room for a few months before he was taken in by a family up the street. He and my brother became best friends. Other kids stayed a few weeks, a few almost a year.
My father also taught at the Iowa State Penitentiary for a few years. He was told explicitly not to give out any personal information to the inmates. He told them his address and his phone number. Our house became a popular destination for guys just released from prison. I remember answering the door one time and a man asked for my father. I told him that he wasn’t home. “I just got out today,” he told me. “I didn’t know where else to go.” He came inside and waited for my dad to come home.
I recall another prisoner, who had served a long time for armed robbery, took the bus to our house immediately after being released. He stayed with us for a number of hours, talking and watching us intently. He finally said goodbye and immediately went and robbed the bus station. “I don’t know what we did,” my father said, “but it wasn’t good.” When he visited the man back in prison, he told my father that talking to us he realized that he couldn’t live outside prison, that he’d been institutionalized.
The Iowa State Penitentiary was a massive building with high stone walls and higher stone turreted guard towers. It looked like a medieval fortress. It was built in 1839, one year after Iowa became a territory, and seven years before it became a state. It was remodeled in 1982, but when I was growing up, the original building was still operational, holding 550 prisoners. A federal prisoner was hanged there in 1963, the last federal execution until Timothy McVeigh was put to death in Indiana in 2001.
I didn’t know any of this when we would go and sit outside the prison’s massive walls and wait for my father to finish his class. It was always night when we waited. My mother anxiously watched the entrance; I watched the building itself, as it stretched high above us, the stones seeming ancient in the harsh white spot lights. The building frightened me; but it also fascinated me. I liked sitting there in the car in the night, with my mother nervous and worried. Behind the secure, placid walls was danger, I imagined. But then again, maybe there wasn’t. I thought about the men, sitting in small desks in a classroom not unlike the one I probably sat in during the day, but locked inside, and my father locked inside with them, at least for a few hours every week. And I thought about the men who walked through the walls and came to stay with us.
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As a kid just starting to read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, just starting to watch Bogart and Cagney in the Warner Bros. crime films of the 30s, I was fascinated with the men that came from the penitentiary. My father treated them the same as almost anyone else who came by, from the cops, lawyers, and judges my father knew and worked with, to the priests my mother worked for at the Catholic High School. And, in truth, they didn’t seem any different from anyone else.
There was one particular man we became close to; he came and stayed with us a number of times, would stay the weekend like any other guest or relative. The only thing different was that I remember him calling his parole officer. When I was in college, his name came up in conversation and I said to my father, “I don’t remember you ever telling me what he’d been in prison for.” “I didn’t tell you,” my dad said. “He was in for murder.”
Which reminds me about that guy with the gun outside our house.
I don’t remember how long my father was in the car; it seemed like hours. Too long. My sister and I watched out the window of the darkened living room. My mother paced, sobbing and terrified. We all kept wishing my father would get the hell out of the car. We couldn’t see them, sitting there in the street, just a car with dark windows, but we kept staring. I wondered what a gunshot would sound like. And I wondered why my mother, who had begged my father not to go out, had pleaded with him to call the police, hadn’t called the cops herself. He had made his decision, and she let him. The same way she let him bring kids home to stay with us, the way he invited criminals into our home.
My sister and I were still at the window. The car was still in the street. Finally, after maybe a half an hour, my father opened the passenger door and came back into the house. He never told me exactly what he said, but I knew it had to be good.
As a seven-year-old kid, I didn’t think of my father as brave. To be honest, I wasn’t sure. Part of me wished that he hadn’t gone out and put his life in danger, that instead, he had called the cops. The man should be punished, I thought. Which is, of course, not what my father thought. He thought he should be given a chance not to make a mistake. So he talked to him, probably the way he would have talked to him if he’d been sitting in our living room. And to the man’s credit—a man angry over something he thought he couldn’t control, a decision a judge had made that my father couldn’t change or control either—he listened.
Whatever my father said to the man—who did in fact have a gun, and did intend to kill my father when he parked in front of the house—had stopped the man from committing a terrible act. Words had stopped a gun from being fired; words had maybe saved two lives that night.
I asked my father recently about that night; he didn’t want to talk about it. He wouldn’t talk about it. So I asked him about teaching in the prison. “I wish I’d done it longer,” he said. I asked him why he stopped. He told me that one night he went to check in and he was met by two prisoners, who walked him to class. This was not the way it was done. He was never escorted by prisoners. “I didn’t ask any questions,” he told me. “I learned that much at least.” He taught class and was then led out by two prisoners. He found out later that other teachers had been taken hostage, along with a few guards. “I couldn’t put myself at risk,” he told me. “You and your sister were just little then.” I reminded him that the incident with the man in the car happened later. “That was different,” he said. And then he didn’t say anything more about it.
This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described. Writers learn how to avoid the dreaded responses of “so what?" and “I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learning to trust their writing intuitions, and developing a skilled internal editor to help with revision.