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I Was Afraid He Would Think I Was Crazy

This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

There are a few features of this story that I find to be examples of the truth being stranger than fiction:

  1. My brother, Richard, was sentenced to 90 months in prison for white collar crime. He was incarcerated 36 months ago after serving 3 years under house arrest in our parent’s home while wearing a GPS ankle bracelet.

That sets the stage for the events which follow:

Richard learned about a program known as RDAP, or Residential Drug Abuse Program in the spring of this year. It is an intensive nine month, 500 hour substance abuse rehabilitation program administered by the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons, offered to prisoners who qualify and voluntarily elect to enroll. Upon successful completion of the program, prisoners who meet the necessary criteria are eligible for up to a 12 month reduction of their sentence and possibly six months in a halfway house depending on how many months they have left on their sentence. The program is open to inmates with a documented history of substance abuse in the 12 month period prior to arrest for the sentence they are currently serving. RDAP is only available at a few federal prison locations, not including the one where Richard has been located for the last three years. He figured it was worth applying for the program without regard for where he might be placed. He has had limited visits from family and friends in his current location, so he figured if he could get a significant reduction in his sentence, it wouldn’t matter if he was relocated somewhere more distant since he could keep in touch via email and phone calls. He applied for the program.

I went to visit Richard with my parents and he wanted me there to help break the news to my mother, who would no longer be able to visit him at such a distant location were he to be moved. He explained the program to them, emphasizing the positive side of a significant reduction in his sentence. Mom was cool, and said they could just email and talk on the phone. Next, Richard asked if Mom, 83, and Dad, 84, could pick him up early for a furlough to travel to the new location. This would make for a trip of over 800 miles in one day. I asked what the alternative was, as surely the system can’t expect every prisoner to have a “ride” to RDAP. He explained that the federal transport would involve being handcuffed, shackled and put on a bus that would take weeks, stopping at some very not nice medium security prisons along the way, and would be miserable. Mom and Dad agreed to drive him on a furlough should all of this come to pass. This was pure speculation at this point.

He had heard through the prison grapevine that one of the nicest facilities where RDAP is held is 322 miles west of where he is. He decided this would be his best bet, if possible, and enlisted my help from the outside to advocate for him through an organization called Aleph which advocates for Jewish prisoners. I was able to speak to the rabbi about where Richard wanted to be designated, and he set to work trying to make the arrangements. Richard’s daughter had gone to college in Maryland where the newer prison was located so she likely would continue to visit him while visiting friends.

Thanks in part to my help with the rabbi, Richard was accepted and designated to the facility in Maryland. There was about a two month wait until he learned what the start date would be.

Once it was determined that he would be granted a furlough on November 13th to travel, I began thinking about the absurdity of my 84 year old father making this trip by himself since my Mom’s health was declining and would not be able to go with him. I made many offers for him to stay over either of my homes, both located much nearer to the prison, and I would go with him and help him drive.He stubbornly refused. He maintained that he could just get up earlier, get there early and get him there and get home no problem. I knew this was nuts.

I ignored Dad’s objections about being able to do this trip alone, much less be safe, and decided I should figure something else out. I had been dating a very nice man for a few months who drives a delivery van for a living in Northern NJ. If you don’t already know, this type of driving makes you an expert driver.

With some trepidation about this new man, Rex, thinking I was nuts, I explained the situation and asked him if he would be willing to use 2 vacation days to go on this trip with me and help drive. He immediately understood the necessity of preventing my father from making this trip alone. I told him I knew I was crazy, but we could also frame this insane trip as an adventure. He agreeed without much hesitation. Rex had told me that he “would follow me to hell and back.” This trip seemed akin to that sort of travel. Things had been going really well with Rex, and I was a little concerned I might be fucking it up by asking him to spend four days traveling with me for such an unusual purpose. It seemed like a big commitment for a fairly new relationship.

I was able to make the adventure less hellish by arranging for us to spend the weekend before that Monday at my lake house, a romantic cabin on a lake in the Poconos. We also determined that we would require a night of rest before driving 300 miles home after we dropped Richard off. I set about finding a nice hotel with a pool and a hot tub not too far from the destination prison. I thought it would be nice for us to enjoy a soak after spending so much time in the car.

Meantime, Mom was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer on October 30th, and was scheduled to have her initial consultation with the oncologist on November 13th, the same day as Richard’s furlough. Mom’s nurse thought it would be a good idea for me to attend the consultation because she would be bombarded with difficult, complicated information. I explained to the nurse that I would be traveling that day, and she arranged for me to be phone conferenced in for the meeting. It was now imperative for me and Rex to drive Richard to his new location since Dad needed to take Mom for her consultation with the oncologist.

Rex and I took off for the lake on Friday, November 10th. Richard instructed me to arrive at the prison by 8:00 AM, or even earlier, on Monday, the 13th. We enjoyed a cozy, romantic weekend at the lake together. With winter approaching, we made use of the fireplace. The weather had turned sharply colder on Friday, and stayed wintry over the weekend. On Sunday night, I set an alarm for 6:00 AM on Monday.

When the alarm sounded on Monday morning, we got right out of bed, had some quick coffee and oatmeal, changed the sheets, made the bed, cleaned the kitchen, and packed food to bring in the car for the long trip ahead. Richard had requested bagels with sweet butter and lox which we packed in a cooler along with cookies, hard boiled eggs, bananas, and some granola bars. We knew we only had until 3:00 to deliver Richard to the prison in Maryland over 300 miles away so we wanted to minimize stops for food.

I got behind the wheel for the first leg of the journey, about 40 miles to the prison that Richard was leaving. It was bitter cold and drizzling, with some snow and freezing rain mixed in. Driving conditions were fine, however. We made one stop to dispose of the small bag of garbage we generated over the weekend in a McDonald’s parking lot trash can.

We arrived at 7:20 AM and went inside. I was expecting a rigamarole as far as identifying who I was and vouching for my responsibility to deliver Richard by 3:00. The guard on duty told us we would have to wait in the car because they weren’t officially open until 8:30. Normally, my knee jerk reaction would be to argue and remind him that it was 35 degrees outside, but I thought better of it given this was a federal prison, not a retail or professional operation where you would expect customer driven service. I asked to use the rest room, and was directed nearby while Rex waited his turn. When I came out of the rest room, the guard told me “just stand over there where I can’t see you”. Seriously? The guard banged on the rest room door to harrass Rex to hurry up because we needed to wait outside.

No one asked to see my identification or fill out any forms. Visiting Richard over the last three years had been more of a red tape complication than picking him up for a furlough. We sat in the car until Richard came and banged on the window. He told me to drive over to a cart where some of his belongings were waiting. He put three boxes of books in the car and got in the back seat.

Rex told me that he planned on driving the 329 miles to the prison in Maryland, even though I offered to help with that. He felt that it was important that I have the day to visit with my brother and not worry about driving. He is a very experienced driver who is accustomed to driving hundreds of miles per week at his job. It was mostly highway and it was relatively easy compared to the frenetic experience of driving in northern New Jersey every day.

Richard had not traveled in a car in a few years, and sitting in the backseat made him a little car sick. We started the trip eating the bagels and lox I bought ahead of time. Technically, Richard was a free man for the day and we were able to stop at Starbucks and have real coffee. Richard was able to use my smartphone for the free wifi and look at things like Facebook and his old email address since he only had access to the federal prison system’s email program with no ability to be online for any other purpose. I took a photo of him next to the Starbucks logo sign and texted it to my mother so she could see he was free and enjoying Starbucks.

During the ride, Richard used my phone to call our mother and texted a friend who had been released from club fed. He had heretofore only been able to use the federal telephone system which rips off a “captive” clientele with their monopoly business. He was also able to Facetime with his daughter which was like an in person visit.

Rex was keenly aware of the time constraint we had of getting Richard to prison in Maryland by 3:00 PM, so he didn’t allow for stops to eat the many snacks we had brought. We had to stop for gas and to use the rest room of course. I think it was a bit of a thrill for Richard to pump gas. This straight on driving left little opportunity for Rex to eat much.

Richard had been playing the cool character about being locked up. He made good use of his time by teaching yoga, reading, learning how to play guitar and how to crochet. He put on a pretty good act as far as being at peace with the deal, but in reality it is obvious that this is a murderously stressful situation. Now, he was headed into an unknown environment after adjusting to life in club fed for 3 years where there were many priveleges not available at other prisons.

As the car’s GPS indicated we were getting closer to our destination, I could sense Richard’s growing apprehension. His day of freedom was drawing to a close. The GPS took us in circles for a short while in the town near the prison, and Richard called the number he was given to let them know he was a bit lost and might be a little late.

It was around this time that Richard became quite car sick and suddenly needed something to eat and to stretch his legs. We stopped at McDonald’s. Richard had an egg McMuffin, and I got oatmeal. Rex said he didn’t want anything to eat. He had been driving since 7:40 AM and had only had half a bagel with butter and lox.

We parked the car in the Maryland prison’s parking lot at 2:56 P.M. with four minutes to spare. Richard had no guidelines as to what he should do upon his arrival so he asked us to wait until he went inside then would try to come out and give us a wave. I got out of the car to give him a hug and a kiss goodbye and to wish him well as I’m fairly certain I will not be visiting him in Maryland. We will keep in touch through emails, letters and phone calls. He expects his sentence to be significantly reduced through completion of RDAP that will hopefully lead to him being placed in a halfway house in New Jersey for a good part of the remainder of his sentence.

I had made a hotel reservation after doing research online for a hotel nearby with a swimming pool and hot tub. I knew that after logging about 400 miles in a day Rex and I would appreciate a good soak.

The hotel was 95 miles away from the prison. The place is quite isolated with very few businessses in the area. I told Rex it was my turn to drive and he gladly relinquished the task.

My cell phone rang at 4:00 while I was driving down the freeway going about 80 miles an hour. I saw the caller I.D. was from the Princeton area where my mother’s oncologist was located. I had arranged to be conferenced in to her initial consultation. I got nervous because the situation was not ideal to participate in such an important conversation.

Rex calmly told me to pull over to the side of the road. I am not as experienced a driver as he is. I carefully slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder of the freeway. I put the car in park, turned on the hazard flashers, and put my cell phone on speaker mode on the center console of the car. I was able to calmly participate in a seriously stressful conversation with my parents and my mother’s new oncologist. I was glad to have Rex with me as a second set of ears. The doctor went over the treatment plan, and I was able to ask clarifying questions. I felt satisfied that I participated, and understood what was going on.

The remainder of the drive was uneventful, and we were relieved when we found The Hampton Inn in Frederick, Maryland. Richard’s daughter had gone to college in the area and had recommended a restaurant for dinner.

I asked the front desk clerk about the restaurant my niece recommended, and he gave me simple directions to travel a few miles down the road, park in a parking garage, and the place would be right there. I prefer establishments with their own parking lots so I can take advantage of ADA spaces because of my mobility impairment. The clerk gave me a list of all restaurants in the surrounding area. I checked on the pool hours as well as the breakfast hours.

As we were walking to our room and discussing dinner, Rex turned into a grumpy guy I didn’t recognize. He is normally sweet and kind. He wouldn’t hear of traveling to the restaurant that was recommended because he felt it was too far away. He became very snappish with me which was completely out of character.

We were getting settled in our room when I looked at the clock on the nightstand and it said 7:00 P.M. The pool was open only until 10:00 P.M. This news put Rex into a fit of sorts. He had wanted to spend a good long time in the hot tub with me, and now we needed to find dinner and probably wouldn’t have time. Very grouchy. He took hold of himself long enough to tell me that he hadn't felt this bad in years. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He realized he hadn’t eaten anything since that early morning bagel and was suffering from low blood sugar. Now it was my turn to calm him down. I’m good at doing calm. It was interesting to watch the transformation in his personality; almost like a Jekyl and Hyde. I gently suggested we go to the nearest place we could find to eat and dispense with the search for something special.

I drove across the street where there were a few restaurants from the list the front desk clerk had given to me. I parked next to a Greek restaurant, and we quickly went inside. The atmosphere was nothing special, the menu options were a bit limited, but the mission was to get some food and fast. Our orders of Gyro platter and sandwich were served in minutes and were very inexpensive. The food was actually delicious, and Rex was immediately transformed back to his old sweet self when he was done eating. The clock on the wall in the restaurant was an hour behind the one in our hotel room; clearly, the hotel had failed to turn the clock back for daylight saving time. This added a sense of relief that we would have time to enjoy the pool and the hot tub when we went back to the hotel.

We went straight to the pool area after changing into our suits. The hot tub was actually hot unlike many hotel tubs that are lukewarm. We were happy to be alone in the pool area and soak our achy middle aged bodies in the hot water after so much car time. Things got a bit hot and heavy between me and Rex in the tub and it was earlier than we first thought upon our arrival. We had our chance to fully enjoy the facilities as planned.

The rest of the evening was leisurely and romantic in our room. It felt great to relax after a frenetic day of traveling. We only had to cover 215 miles the next day to get home.

We enjoyed breakfast in the hotel before we packed up our things. We were back on the road by 10:00 and agreed to take turns driving now that Richard had been dropped off. Rex and I have similar musical tastes and rocked along to the classic vinyl station on my satellite radio.

I dropped Rex off at his house, and we felt a little sad to part after spending four days together on this strange and wild adventure. I had a short ride home.

I felt sorry for Richard having to enjoy ONE day of freedom only to return to being locked up in an unfamiliar place. He called me soon after I got home to let me know he was settled and comfortable. He said the food was marginally better than it was at club fed. He was glad to get a lower bunk so he could hang out and sit on his bed and not need to climb up to a top bunk.

Rex and I have enjoyed many more mundane yet satisfying adventures that did not involve traveling over 800 miles by car. I feel fairly confident that he will not be asked by another woman to help her drive her brother to a new prison. This trip will be a special memory for us both. He may think I’m crazy, but he still likes me and is hanging around.

Young stroke survivor, mother, champion equestrian, tambourine player, storyteller, https://www.victoriaponte.com amazon.com/author/victoriaponte

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