"Take a look at those clouds!" someone behind me said. I
strained hard against my chains, leaning over a guy to see out the
plane's window. A wild storm was building over Oklahoma City,
our final destination. Lord, please just let this plane crash was my
silent prayer. The storm seemed like an opportunity for an easy exit
from life. I was through with it. Growing up in Nebraska I had seen
enough poached green clouds to know the most beautiful sky is the one
about to kill you. As a kid I had often heard the town's tornado
siren and scampered to the top of the roof to see for myself, watching
horned monsters form in the clouds until Mom shouted me down. My brothers
and sisters and I would huddle with her under the splintered stairway
of our basement, safe in her embrace. My mother, I think, liked the
drama of those moments. Over the years I'd given her plenty of
that. Under the stairs was probably the only time she felt in control of
her three headstrong boys; my two sisters were well behaved. Dad's
red rusted toolbox was down there. I saw it in my mind when I thought
of that basement. On one of my bank jobs I had borrowed it just to
drop it a few feet to the shiny floor tiles. The bang was loud enough
to draw everyone's attention. That's how the first bank
robbery began, a year and a half earlier--already a lifetime ago.In the
plane, downdrafts were rattling our chains and bucking us around like a
two-dollar state fair ride. I was nervous enough just to be going where
I was going--federal prison. If Marty Barnhart still wanted to pray for
me, this would have been a good time, I thought. Marty was the pastor
of our church, and when my downward slide had first started, my parents
had asked him to come visit me in county jail, where I was staying after
buying beer for my barely underage brother. Marty came because he had
been asked to, but also--I could see it in his face--because he sensed
I was on the brink of something a lot worse.Marty held my hands through
the bars and prayed for me. Little did he know I had already robbed
one bank and would rob four more. I liked him, but I figured I was too
far gone for his medicine.My hometown of David City is an hour and a
half due west of Omaha, or forty-five minutes northwest of Lincoln, the
home of the Cornhuskers football team--football being the state's
second religion. The land is mostly flat. Modest hills of corn, grass,
and soybeans rise just enough to spoil your view of the Empire State
Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Those hills play havoc with the crop
pivots, which are quarter-mile-long steel sprinklers that look like shiny
backbones left over from some science fiction war. They come alive once or
twice a week, spitting water and chemicals as they roll slowly in great
circles. They save work, allowing sons and daughters who once toiled
with irrigation pipes the time to get into trouble. I certainly am not
blaming the sprinklers for what my best friend, Tom, and I did. For us,
David City was about fifteen hundred miles from anywhere fast enough and
slammed up enough to be worthwhile, meaning L.A. or New York. The very
tranquility of the town irritated us. We felt landlocked and depressed. So
we lived from weekend to weekend, party to party, inventing half-assed
rowdiness after the football games and speeding off to drinking parties
out under the stars with girls. That would pass for happiness for a
while. Tom and I were both sports stars in high school. I had worked
for that brief stardom. Back before I was old enough to start driving,
I would dribble a basketball with my weak hand all the way to school each
day, and all the way home each evening. At home, I practiced endlessly
under the old hoop in our driveway, even when it was dark and so cold
that the ball was hard as a rock and full of bounce. The purpose of life
was tracked on scoreboards in those years.I had always been determined
to have an interesting life. Not a superstar life necessarily. But, you
know, at least something--not the wasted life of a wage slave shoveling
cow manure--my last real job before the banks.Now I was on my way to
spending a decade or more in federal prison, which wasn't exactly
like heading off to summer camp. It would be heavy weather no matter
how you looked at it. And if I didn't make it, well, I had always
figured I would die young anyway.The plane banked sharply and I saw the
suburban fringe of Oklahoma City close below--clean little cars on clean
little streets in shopping center parking lots, and the green and brown
athletic fields of perfect high schools. Regular life can seem small and
too well ordered, but seeing it, I longed for all that suddenly, to be
small and well ordered and free. All those people down there were doing
whatever they wanted today--or at least choosing who would tell them what
to do.The airline flying us through this storm was JPATS. Trust me when
I say you don't want frequent-flyer miles on this one. The initials
stand for the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. It is
operated by the U.S. Marshal's Service, and it moves a few hundred
thousand federal prisoners around the country each year. Inmates call
it Con Air. The planes are similar to commercial jets, though a bit
worn inside from years of handcuffs, belly chains, ankle shackles,
and sociopaths. The seat belt sign always stays on, though mine had
a little broken blink to it. The bathrooms are for the marshals. The
conversations with seatmates differ from other airlines--they're
mostly about robberies, drug deals gone bad, snitches, and news about who
is now in which prison. We banked hard again, and I took another look at
the town below, now a worried brown. The hardworking people down there
were no doubt looking up fearfully, but not at us--we were the lesser
danger that day.You have probably looked up and seen, without knowing,
these prisoner planes flying over like white and mostly unmarked Pandora
seeds blowing in the wind.The marshals, mostly in their thirties, were
more professional than the guards back in the county jails. The county
guards looked like people who had fallen into those jobs, not by choice,
and while they had grown a bit mean, you could at least picture having
a drink with them someday. Not these federal marshals. They resembled
mercenaries who had come back to the States after working in tough
places, doing tough things. I was sure that if they suddenly received an
order to march us out the back door without parachutes, they would not
hesitate to do so.Shortly before landing, to my surprise, they handed out
apples, bone-dry crackers, and tiny boxes of juice. "Eat up fast,
we're almost there," they repeated as they tossed the food from
the aisle to a chained wave of big tan hands that shot up like rattling
tambourines.My seatmate, a black kid a few years younger than I was,
watched as I struggled to place the drinking straw into the juice box
and into my mouth."Why you got special handcuffs?" he asked. He
seemed too young to be going to a federal prison. "Bad luck,"
I answered. "They think I'm a flight risk."He looked
confused. "Like this flight?" "No, like flight in general,
as in run away."He still didn't get it."It's just some
bull." He accepted that with a nod. I guess his ears were plugged,
or maybe he was just slow or had an undiagnosed hearing problem. Maybe
something like that had screwed him up in school, and here he was. When
you come from poverty and a bad neighborhood, you're always walking
the tightrope, and any wrong move or bad luck can knock you into a free
fall. This kid should have been flying to meet his iron-willed grandmother
instead of meeting armed guards and years of steel doors. But in my ten
months in county jails I had learned to toughen my feelings about the
many young lives you see wasted by bad drugs and bad drug laws. Most of
them seemed so beaten down. The smarter and nicer ones--those qualities
usually go together--really stood out. Some would even return a smile.My
special handcuffs had a rigid plastic piece between them that kept my
hands stiffly apart like a stockade. Called a black box, inmate lore
says it was designed by a former convict. The rigid piece connects to a
belly chain. My leg shackles ensured that I could take only baby steps,
but we all had those. I had been flagged as a flight risk because back
in the St. Louis county jail where I had been warehoused for two weeks
an albino meth addict with two teeth had gotten angry at me and Craig,
one of my codefendants, for changing the channel on a television. He
told the guards we were planning to escape, and they believed him. We
were all on the eighth floor of a high-security jail, a place where the
elevators didn't move unless you had a key and a security badge. Only
Houdini would have tried it from up there. But whenever I was transported
after that I received the special restraints otherwise reserved for
murderers and terrorists. At least they made me look dangerous; I would
take anything that might help protect me.My travels that morning had
begun with a St. Louis guard pushing my face into a wall and calling
me whiteboy, emphasizing the boy part. He was yelling in my ear that
he would take care of me if I tried to escape, as if my even thinking
about it was akin to challenging his manhood. He had me by the hair and
could have cracked my skull like a coconut against the bricks. Even
so, I mouthed off. I said he must be incredibly stupid to believe a
meth-head and think I was trying to escape, and that I would announce it
to the world. That basically did it. I could feel it coming. But another
guard intervened and held the guard's arm. They compromised on a
kidney punch that sent me to my knees.A dozen of us were taken by bus
to an airport on the other side of the river from St. Louis and there
we were met by fifty or so men with rifles and shotguns. They thanked
us for our visit and showed us the way to the plane. We flew to Terre
Haute to pick up more prisoners, then Detroit, Chicago, then Rochester,
Minnesota, then somewhere in South Dakota, then finally to the back of the
Oklahoma City airport, where there is a large holding facility for federal
prisoners. It was like a garbage run: we were coming into the Oklahoma
City transfer station, on our way to a landfill somewhere. Assuming we
didn't crash, of course. I knew there was a tornado or two in the
storm. On final approach, my seatmate began mumbling. "I never
done this before," he finally blurted out. "You mean going
to prison or flying?""Both I guess. They always jump around
like this?""It's not unusual." I lied. There was
in fact a tornado coming, and more than one. The Oklahoma tornadoes
that day were among the most powerful ever recorded. The main one was
a hair under a category six--almost unheard of. In those four days
of tornadoes, in the first week of May 1999, sixty-six twisters would
kill forty-eight people in and around Oklahoma City. We touched down
and tipped slightly to the right as the pilot fought to keep us on the
runway. He throttled the engines louder and then back, and we settled
in. As we taxied, marshals rushed through the cabin to unfasten our
seatbelts. "Get ready to move fast when we give the word,"
they yelled a dozen times. "We're racing a twister, so move
when we say move." Everyone contorted to look out the windows. I
could see a black funnel cloud approaching, maybe two miles from the
airport. All the guys on my side of the plane could see it. There were a
lot of comments, all beginning with the word "holy."The plane
rolled past the civilian terminal to the federal facility. Extending
from that large fortress were two Jetway ramps like a mother's
impatient arms. The pilot was making fast turns and hitting the brakes
at odd times. He stopped at the gate with a sudden deep dip like a
teenager in driver's ed, sending the marshals into an aisle dance
that drew some laughs."Move it, boys, up, up, up!" the marshals
shouted. We clanked our way through the aisle and shuffled as fast as we
could into the tin corridor outside."Faster, men, go, go, go!"
The federal guards in the Jetway seemed anxious for their own survival
as they shoved and shouted us along. There were about seventy-five of us,
each with ankle chains, belly chains, and wrist shackles, all running in
baby step rhythm now: chink chink chink--go go go! Running in ankle chains
is like running with skinny jeans around your ankles.We fast-stepped it
as the apocalypse roared louder overhead. Near the front of the line a
man tripped, and down went fifteen behind him. They were pulled to their
feet by guards and each other, and the line again started jerking ahead,
with the men in the back yelling to hurry up and the men in the middle,
including me, trying not to trip. My basketball years helped me move
better than most. The metal corridor was rocking. The kid in front of
me, my seatmate, glanced back for moral support. I gave him a smile
like this is always the way we do it. I was actually okay with all of
it. I was hoping the funnel cloud would take us away to Kansas or home
to Nebraska or wherever it had in mind--right into the next life would
have been fine. Had the whole chain gang swirled up into the cloud,
most of the dots would have been black; I would have been one of the
few white charms in the necklace. I was twenty-three.