By: Gunther Fiek
Posted by: Bob Chatelle
I found myself not too long ago going through paperwork that I have piled up inside folders and legal size manila envelopes — all stacked inside my locker. I’m definitely what you would call a ‘pack rat.’ Aside from legal documents and notes, I tend to save articles of interest and notes that I make for later use or future reference … only to forget that I have them or why I even saved them in the first place. Such was the case when I ran across some notes I had made a few years ago – around five years ago! – about a conversation I had with a man while I was at another facility, H.S.P. I do recall that I had made the notes about my encounter with the man likely because of how it had impacted me due to how I was feeling around that time. I also had a desire to one day share stories with the world.
The notes I found called to mind a day, while in the cafeteria at H.S.P., for the first time I sat at the same table in front of an older man, who is in a different dorm, and that I have seen around the facility from time to time. His dorm had already left but slow eaters are allowed to stay until they are done eating their meal. He was just seating there and in no hurry to go anywhere. He was white, about 5’9″, and slender built. He looked frail and his hand shook a little with every effort he made as he scooped some food off his tray with the spork and then taking it to his mouth. I remember wondering whether he had Parkinson’s disease.
As I began eating my meal, I couldn’t help but stare at the man from time to time. Suddenly, I found myself in what seemed frozen in time as I saw his birth year on his ID (we all have our identification cards clipped to our shirt’s collar). I just kept staring at it. 1931. His birth year was 1931! I couldn’t eat any longer as many thoughts in my mind kept me in awe. I had never talked to the man before but I couldn’t help to ask him a question. I reckon that because of my lengthy sentence, I always felt drawn towards getting to know men who are elderly and or that have already spent many years in the system. I especially pay attention to those I have observed — how they carry themselves and the attitude they have as they confront what each day may bring.
I glanced at his name on his ID. “Mr. Pearce, do you mind if I ask you a question?”, I asked. He looked up and said without hesitation, “Of course not young man,” he responded with a typical heavy Southern accent. I smiled to his reply and proceeded to ask him some questions. I learned that he has been doing time for 41 straight years. He had been at just about every prison in Georgia and that he had stayed at H.S.P. since May of 1994. Eighteen straight years in the same facility. Unbelievable. It left me to think about my own self.
Would that be me 30 or 40 years from now? Would I even live that long? I had already done roughly a dozen years then. I recall wanting to ask him more questions but I couldn’t. I did not want to. Maybe I was afraid of his answers. Does he have family? Friends? Was he alone? Many here are left forgotten and some even have outlived family members.
Those days in 2012 had left me with much to think about and it comes to mind how I was feeling melancholic then. Two guys I knew from my time growing up in my home country of Peru had passed away just a short time apart. Both surfing enthusiasts. One used to be a Pro surfer, a former national and world champion, who died in an accident while doing what he loved … surfing. The other one to cancer— he left a beautiful wife and a precious little girl. Both of them had a whole life ahead of them. Both of them either well known or liked in my home country – tons of friends. Although I had not seen or spoken to them in many years, their passing affected me in an indescribable way.
Why would God take them so soon? Why couldn’t He take me? My life, in a sense, had ended years ago with my incarceration. So why keep me here and instead take them? The thought of one day being old and frail as that elderly man I met in the cafeteria that day and many others I have met since then scared me. Why spare us instead of allowing those two friends to live?
Anyone’s faith can be shaken or lost when things don’t go their way or when tragedy hits. It is during those times that people question God, even His existence, or attempt to understand a believe in Him. God cannot be defined nor understood. God is a Mystery that is better when left alone than solving it. I believe in God because it’s impossible not to. And I have learned that we all go through trials and tribulations in life for a reason — for a purpose. The Church teaches us that God allows ‘bad’ things to happen so that a greater good will come out. Something good will come out of whatever me, you or whoever is going through or has gone through. As a martial artist I was taught to receive success with humility and defeat as an opportunity to learn and grow.
I have met a number of individuals while in prison – great men of faith and courage – that otherwise I would have probably never met had this turn my life took years ago had stayed where it was. I have learned much from them and I hope too that they learned from me. I pray that I at least I was able to plant a seed in their lives and that one day that seed would flourish. We all have a purpose in life and it just seems that each one of us discover that path under different circumstances.
I never again had a chance to talk to Mr. Pearce again. I was transferred to a different facility soon after that conversation. But another thing that he did share with me after learning of my lengthy sentence was that regardless of where we find ourselves in life, there is always someone else, somewhere in this world, in a much dire situation. I was glad to hear that because it enforced how I have been doing my time.