By Eddie Griffin
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang, sang Sam Cooke. The year was 1960. As listen to this oldie, and watch the video, there is a point in the song that hits close to home and I shed tears.
Can’t you hear them saying, “I’m going home. One of these days, I’m going home. See my woman whom I love so dear. But in the meanwhile I got to work right here.” That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang.
Chained together, by iron shackles, feet to feet, ankle to ankle, hip to hip, wrist to wrist, and yoked together at the neck. From the slave ships to the cotton fields of Texas, some never came home again.
I weep for them, because the spirit of their memories haunts me, day and night. I can still hear the cries of Brother Herman, a prisoner, set to be released within days, stabbed to death by his best friend and running buddy, who could not bear to see him go free. Jealousy is a brutal killer.
Give me water, I’m thirsty. My, my, my, my work is so hard.
Shoot me, Boss. I just can’t do this kind of work no more. Cursed was the ground before I was introduced to the aggie. And, cursed it will be when I return to the dust thereof. So, shoot me now, Boss, before I recover my senses and want to live.
I wasn’t cut out for the ole plantation fields of Texas, with prison guards on horseback riding shotgun over me. I never saw a cloud in the sky, nor a shade tree, and the water wagon only came at the turn-row. And, fields stretched miles and miles, forever, and there was no end in sight, except death.
How many times the thought entertained my mind?
“Griffin, you’re chopping the Captain’s corn,” the man on horseback shouted. “Don’t you know the difference between corn and Johnson grass?”
Really, to tell the truth, I couldn’t tell the difference, even unto the very day.
Somewhere out there is a cemetery for all the nameless inmates that never saw the light of day again. Nobody knows their number. Nobody cares to inquire. Neither the end, nor the means, concerns the public. Death is death, whether by execute or a thousand cuts.
Except for a little red bible, I would have been out there with them, among the dead and forgotten. My end was beyond pain. I had endured entombment in solitary cages, behind steel doors, in refrigerated strip cells, and padded psyche ward cells. And, at last, in the twelfth year of my captivity, I baste to death in the Texas 110-degree heat.
I was beyond pain. I begged for death. I pleaded for death. But first I needed to set things right between me and my Maker. I had to finish reading the little red bible. It was a friend to me, having survived, from solitary cell to solitary cell, throughout all my dilemmas and rebellions. After this, I would take my stand: Shoot me, Boss. Take me out of my misery.
From the beginning of my captivity, I never expected to survive a 50-year sentence. I was unreasonable to even hope. And, I didn’t want to build my hopes up too high.
Every man pays for his sins, and there is an exactor that comes due. With a total of 50-, 20-, and 10-year sentences, I felt the burden of my sins. If I were to survive, I would have to walk through hell on earth. Only about seven men have gone into the dungeon of the abyss, and survived to reemerge. I am one, favored and bless.
I guess Sam Cooke conveys the spirit of my feelings in his soulful rendition of Stand By Me. The song tells of how the Lord delivered Daniel out of the lion’s den. “Do me like you did Daniel,” the singer sings, “Stand by me, Lord.”
[To be continued]