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Letter to a prison inmate

Oct. 8, 2017

Dear Pete,

It’s been many years and I’m sorry that it’s only now that I get around to writing to you. I hope you are well and staying out of trouble, though I understand that can be difficult, particularly for a man with such a vibrant personality.

I think about you from time to time, as my life is quite different now than when you went in. I believe I was working iron at the time. Work was plentiful and good. I did bridge work, though I got my share of ornamental and structural. Carrying rebar as the old guy on the bridge earned me a lot of respect with the younger guys, especially those just starting out. They wondered how an old man—I was 45—could keep up.

I was never the best ironworker on the bridge. What I didn’t have in strength, speed, or skill I made up with steady reliability. Often I was the last apprentice left on the job as it came to a close.

Just like anyone, I would take a day off when a job ended. But if I had more than one free, I was in the hall and in line the next morning. I did most of my work with Malco Steel, a black-owned company. I appreciated working with inner-city guys. We spoke a familiar language. I didn’t have to pay and racial dues or listen to some backwards-ass country cracker go on and on about “fags” on the bridge. Often the white guys working with Malco had more open minds than men working regular with other companies. Whenever I worked with another company, I looked forward to getting back with Malco. There was often too much homophobia and racism in a white work gang for my taste.

Still, I did the work no matter what company I was with and put up with a lot of shit. I’ll never forget getting on a crew putting in structure for conveyor lines in a kitty litter plant. I worked three weeks with the most distasteful foreman I ever worked with, ever, just me and him. We were demolishing existing lines with a crew of millwrights. (I could write another whole letter about them.) I think during our tenure together this foreman said maybe 150 words to me. At the same time, he expected me to know what the hell was going on.

When the rest of the crew joined us to start putting up the structure, I was the low man on the totem pole, which I didn’t mind. I was curious and ready to do the work. Then, I was up in a manlift with another ironworker. We were talking and I told him that I had spent most of my time previous at Malco. He looked at me and said, “How’d you like working around all them niggers?”

Well, I looked back at him and said, “Those black men are my brothers. They pay dues the same as me. And I liked it very much, thank you.”

The guy didn’t talk to me much after that. But I got on with the rest of the ironworkers like gangbusters and they really admired the fact that I worked my ass off. When the foreman, the guy who wouldn’t talk to me, let me go, he said, “I have never seen a guy with heart like you got. I’ve never seen a harder worker. When you get a little more experience, look me up.”

Well, fuck that guy. He let me go, I’ll admit, because I didn’t know my head from my ass. But he never gave me any direction, either. As I gathered my tools, all the ironworkers I worked with—except the racist bastard—lined up and shook my hand as I walked out. Several of the guys told me they were sorry to see me go.

I had a good time working iron. It was hard and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say putting a deck on a bridge is the hardest work a man will ever do. Or, at least, the hardest work I will ever do.

In summer 2009, worked slowed down. I called the head of the history department at Johnson County Community College and asked if they had room for another adjunct professor—I had a Master’s in history at the time and needed the work. The head of the department, Vin Clark, said, yes, college enrollment was up and could I start the next week.

Sure, why not? I talked to Clark on Thursday and classes started the following Monday. He then gave me four classes. I had to write and prepare those classes over the weekend. I was pulling syllabuses out of my ass. I taught before, and if you remember, I had just finished my Ph.D. coursework before I joined the union.

To go back a minute: I joined the union because we had adopted our son Nicholas when he was four and a half. He was my sister’s kid and she had gone down the meth hole. So, he came out of a situation where mom was a tweeker whoring in the back room while he sat out front at the TV with a plate of chicken nuggets. When he came to us, he needed a routine schedule and a lot of attention. Since I was done with coursework, I needed a job with regular coming-and-going. Ironwork filled that bill.

I started at the college in fall 2009 and for a couple of years, I had everything I wanted in life. I taught during the school year and worked iron in the summer. I had plenty of time to write. I got my brain taken care of and taxed my body. It was heavenly.

Then, almost by itself, the dissertation I needed to finish my Ph.D. studies started bugging me. I have never started something I didn’t finish and the thought that I had gone through three years of school without finishing the degree really pestered me. Because I was around academic types at JCCC, the need for that Ph.D. became greater as time passed.

About 2011, I started the research for my Ph.D. in earnest. I began to use the summer to work on the dissertation, doing the relevant research and starting the writing. One thing led to another, and soon, I wasn’t working iron anymore but was fully focused on the dissertation.

I finally earned my Ph.D. in November 2013—nine years after I started. I have been teaching and writing ever since. I didn’t give up my union card until 2016.

In between all that, I published two books. I’d like to send them to you, but I don’t know that the DOC lets people send books. I will see if they do and if I can, I will send you copies. People tell me they’re pretty good.

The teaching thing worked out fine. Virginia and I had an agreement way back when we got Nick in 2007. She would work full-time nights and I would work part-time and take care of Nick full-time. That worked with both iron and, later, with teaching. I have taught between three and four classes each semester at the college since 2009 and summers since 2012. Teaching adjunct is pretty low wages in the end, so I teach memoir-writing classes at libraries and sell my books. Virginia still makes most of the money but she’s happy with our arrangement.

And now Nick is 15. I’m faced with a problem. I don’t work full-time and don’t dad full-time anymore, either. I find myself feeling badly about not bringing home more money, especially watching Virginia working so hard. She’s an oncology nurse at Research and loves the night shift. Fortunately, she has gone from working three shifts at random times during the week to just working two weekend nights, for which she gets paid full-time wages.

My latest thing goes like this: Since I won’t make much money as a writer, I am going to get published. I have been writing essays, an average of about nine a month, since 2009. I have a large body of work to draw on. I spend part of my days when I’m not in school or grading searching out good essays from the almost 400 I have written. I work part of the day rewriting and cleaning up the essays. Part of the day I seek out literary publications and magazines like The Atlantic, New Yorker, and Esquire to submit the essays to for publication.

If I can’t make money as a writer, I might as well become a “man of letters.” After all, writing is all I ever really wanted to do. Since I’m writing, I better get on this publication thing. I’m 54 now and don’t have but 16 or 17 good years left in me.

I just started in this publication track and haven’t received the rejections I know will come from my efforts. But I am used to rejection. If I submit a hundred pieces, I’ll get maybe two or three acceptances, if I’m lucky. It’s a numbers game and in the end, I can’t worry too much about rejection. I’m shooting arrows into the universe. If I hit a planet or a moon, good for me. My job is to craft the best arrows I can and shoot them. More, I can’t ask of myself.

To change the subject a little: Nick has grown into a fine young man. He goes to Lincoln College Prep, a Kansas City, Missouri, Public School District school. It’s the best public high school in the state. He gets great grades and even when he gets Bs I get on him about keeping his grade-point-average high. Many Lincoln kids get scholarships to college. Since we don’t have a lot of money, we want him to get someone else to pay as much of his tuition as we can.

I never would have been able to get my undergraduate degrees or Master’s or Ph.D. had not someone else paid for it. Scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships paid my way through college at all levels. I came out with no debt. I want the same for him.

But I have to be careful not to put too much pressure on the kid. I don’t want him growing up the way I did, feeling that no matter what I do, it won’t be good enough. We are sure to praise good work and tell him we’re proud of him, just as we make sure to say, “Hey, kid, this isn’t your best effort.” We help him with his homework. Being a writer, I proof all his written work and show him where and how to make things better.

The effort seems to be paying off. He has a good opinion of himself without being arrogant. He’s helpful to other students. He’s not a procrastinator. He’s a great kid around the house. All I have to say is, “Nick, it’s time to walk the dogs (empty the dishwasher, take out the trash, mow the grass, read a book, etc.)” and he does it. Not even a whimper or huff.

I was never that way.

He’s also pretty self-contained. He gets himself up in the morning at 5 a.m., does whatever he does—watches videos on his phone, does last-minute study, etc.—then gets his breakfast and puts his lunch together. He’s out the door at 6:13, exactly. He’s always gone when I get out of bed at 6:15. He hates it when he doesn’t get to do it all on his own.

One more thing about Nick: He decided this past summer than he wanted to volunteer at the community center. He needed forty hours of community service for school. He basically created a volunteer position for himself with the community center kids’ summer camp. He went to work every day at 7:30 and worked until 5:30. He wound up with 390 service hours. Plus, the community center people want him full-time in a paid position in June 2018.

That ain’t bad. So far, we haven’t had to worry about cops or school suspensions or any of that. Like I said, I wasn’t that way.

Daughter Sydney is in a different position. She’s 26 and still having problems getting her act together. She works full time and attends Penn Valley Community College full time. She got herself a scholarship that will take her through the end of her time there. She has designs on going to UMKC or KU when she gets done. I think she wants to go into biochemistry.

But she has problems making her bills and keeping her head above water. She wonders sometimes why her life has to be so hard. I tell her, “Hey, don’t stress yourself. What’s the next thing you have to do? Try to keep your mind on that, rather than swallowing the whole of the next year in one swallow. You do that and you’re sure to think everything will fall apart.”

“Yeah, but . . .” she says. I have to let the conversation go at that point. I can only do my best. She has to do the rest.

So, Pete, this letter has been too long and if you have made it this far, you have done more than most people do with my long letters. Please write to the following address anytime. I will be sure to get another letter out to you, if you want one, as soon as I get a note from you.

I would be interested in hearing from you. How are they treating you? How much more time do you have left? What’s the chances of you getting out early, if there is such a thing anymore? Are you keeping yourself whole and healthy?

Just because I write long doesn’t mean you have to. If you want to write, a little note will be fine.

Patrick Dobson

1717 Jarboe St.

Kansas City, MO 64108


Published in Uncategorized

One Comment

  1. Maureen Goddard Maureen Goddard

    Thanks for the gift of your writing…. it’s a nice spot in my social media time…..really close to my only nice spot….

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