I have written these vignettes for Susan, the little girl I had to leave behind when I went to prison during World War II. Now that she is a grandmother, it is probably time for me to tell her something about where I went.
I have never written about this experience or said much about it because of the heavy emotional involvement I have with the incidents that meant the most to me. More than 50 years after the event, I still could not read aloud to a group the vignette "Farm Machinery." Support from unexpected sources when holding an unpopular position is difficult to handle. The guard in "Tensions" would understand.
I know Susan will be glad to share this story with siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and others who may be interested. The new generations have a right to know more about their father/grandpa/uncle/friend who sometimes walked the road less traveled.
There may be friends who are not clear about some relationships described here. Elizabeth Lindsay Tatum, always called Bickie by me, is the wife and mother in this story. We had been married for 22 years when she died in an automobile accident in Tanzania. Florence Littell Giffin also lost her spouse in a much too early death. Flo and I have been married for 31 years.
Although in roughly chronological order, the vignettes do not make a continuous story. Each one may be read alone as a separate unit. This is just a collection of a few things I remember.
I was serving as superintendent of Quakerdale Farm, New Providence, Iowa, a home operated by Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends for neglected boys. My time of availability was uncertain and limited, as I expected to go to jail for refusing to go into the army. With my approval, a new superintendent was hired, and we (Bickie, infant Susan, and I) moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where my parents were living. We rented an apartment, and I got a job as a painter working for the Coats Manufacturing Company.
I was one of about 20 blue-collar workers making manure loaders that fit on tractors. The loader was the invention of Mr. Coats. He was a self-made man, competent and very conservative on some issues. He was strongly antiunion, and workers signed on with that understanding. However, he would often call the men together and discuss shop matters with us.
After about three months, the date came when I thought I would be sentenced. I had a guilty feeling about never telling the men why I was leaving. On my last day there I told them my story without getting much reaction. I discovered the next day that the date of my sentencing had been postponed. I had just given up a badly needed job. I telephoned Mr. Coats and asked if I could go back to work. He said I was a good worker, and he would be glad to have me but the men would never work with a draft dodger. I then asked him to raise the question with the men and leave it up to them. He agreed.
That night I called Mr. Coats for the result. He said, "Lyle, every man in the place voted for you to return to work. Be there in the morning." My job was saved by men none of whom had more than a high school education and none of whom previously had ever heard of Quakers or conscientious objectors.
Mr. Coats did not let the matter drop at that point. He asked me if I would be willing to become a welder and continue to work there if the draft board would allow it. I told him, "Yes, I was willing to continue making farm machinery." He wrote my draft board asking them to give me an essential worker classification and told them he was training me as a welder. The draft board turned him down.
A grad student friend of mine, a conscientious objector, was a Methodist who later joined the Mennonites. A couple of years after I graduated he wrote to the Iowa State alumni office to ask why their news bulletin hadn’t carried a story about my struggle with Selective Service. He pointed out that since I was a member of Cardinal Guild (the student governing body), was elected president of the student body, had earned my "I" as a member of the debate team, had graduated with a 3-plus scholastic average (4 was straight A) while working my way through college, and was appointed head of a children’s home only two years after graduation, that I was newsworthy for Iowa Staters.
He received a curt reply from the director of alumni affairs that they only printed stories that reflected honor to Iowa State.
I was president of the student body at Iowa State, the first man to win that election who was not a member of a fraternity. I was a lifelong member of the Religious Society of Friends but denied classification as a conscientious objector by the Burlington, Iowa, draft board. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) took on my defense. All of this generated newspaper publicity.
The judge who had my case in U.S. District Court in Des Moines had a set pattern of sentences. If the CO pleaded not guilty, he would be found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison and fined $500. If the CO pleaded guilty, he would just be sentenced to four years in prison. The ICLU had done all they could for me without success, so I pleaded guilty to save $500 I didn’t have. My crime was failure to report for induction into the army.
After my sentencing, a federal marshal took me into an office in the building where a number of women were working, and there was a holding cell for prisoners waiting to be taken to the regular jail facilities. There was one man already in the small cell, and he was obviously very angry, which gave me a bit of uneasiness as I was locked in with him. It turned out that the women workers had been laughing about my publicity doing me no good, as I still got a four-year sentence. The prisoner poured it out to me how crass it was for anyone to laugh about a man going to jail for four years. "Crass" is not the actual adjective he used for the women, the laughter, and the sentence. I received great comfort from the feelings of my newfound friend and felt reinforced to live with whatever was ahead.
Later in the day after being sentenced, my friend and I were taken to the Des Moines City bullpen, a large room meant to hold prisoners for a day or two before they were taken elsewhere. I was there for a week. The room was filled with steel double bunk beds. I forget exactly how many men were there; maybe 25. The sleeping area on the bunks was a crisscross of narrow steel straps with 3" gaps between the straps. The bunks had no mattresses, nor blankets, nor pillows. It was impossible to stretch out and try to sleep for an hour or two without getting up and walking around the room to ease aching muscles.
I became a short-term celebrity as my companion from the cell in the office told my story.
My fellow inmates wanted to be helpful and, unlike officialdom and the laughing office women, were sympathetic about my wife and daughter. They asked around to see if anyone had served time in Sandstone, Minnesota, where I was headed, but nobody had, so they couldn’t help my orientation there. Nobody had served a sentence as long as four years, so they couldn’t help me understand how that would be either. They were stunned to learn that a man could be sent to prison for refusing to kill.
I was moved from the bullpen to a county jail where I stayed for three weeks or so. It was good to get to a place where there was a mattress and blankets on my bunk. I was being held until transportation was arranged to take me to Sandstone. The jail was crowded, the inmates friendly, and the stay uneventful.
I had no idea what to expect for the trip to Sandstone, a distance of about 250 miles. I was used to seeing men coming and going from jail in handcuffs. On the day of the trip, a U.S. marshal in civilian clothes came for me. He just asked me to go with him. We went to the office for him to check me out. We then went out to his car where he introduced me to his wife who was going along for the ride. At no time with them was I treated as other than a family friend, except that night.
I had told the marshal that I would appreciate mailing a letter to my wife if there was an opportunity. He stopped about a quarter of a block from a mailbox. I just sat there not knowing what to do. He told me to go ahead and mail my letter, which I did while they waited for me.
That night they planned to stay in a hotel in St. Paul, 80 miles south of Sand-stone. When the time came to stop for the night, the marshal was very apologetic but said they’d have to leave me at the local jail for the night. The night was uneventful, and they took me the rest of the way in the morning.
The federal prisons have a grading system of institutions ranging from camps to maximum security. The "camps" are not like what Boy Scouts know. They have buildings, but not with walls surrounding them. They are relatively open. These are the "country clubs" we hear about. Sandstone, a Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), is the next notch up the line. It is walled, although a number of inmates work outside of the walls during the day. The primary physical difference between FCIs and other federal prisons is that most inmates are in dormitories rather than cells. To be lucky enough to have a private cell you must have a night assignment such as working in the hospital. Danbury, Connecticut, where East Coast Selective Service violators were usually sent, is a duplicate of Sandstone.
FCI inmates tend to be younger men, first offenders, or men who committed relatively passive crimes. There are a few older men ending long sentences whom the Bureau of Prisons is trying to prepare for reentry into the other world.
Selective Service was overloading the FCIs. There were three huge dormitories at Sandstone filled with Selective Service violators. The dorms were gymnasium-style and -size, with locked doors. At one side of the room was a long wall lined with double bunk beds just far enough apart to get around and pull out the drawer under your bunk where you kept your clothes, old letters, etc. I can’t remember how many men were in a dorm, but I would guess more than 50.
One of the Selective Service dorms was filled with black Muslims, mostly from Chicago. They did not register for the draft, and most of them had refused to register for Social Security. Another dorm was filled with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most of them were not COs but had unsuccessfully claimed ministerial status for exemption from the draft. I was in the third dorm with COs and Selective Service violators of other types.
I give the Bureau of Prisons credit for having the good sense to segregate the Selective Service inmates into relatively congenial groups. The segregation did not carry over to the recreation area, dining room, or elsewhere. COs got along well with the non-Selective Service inmates. We played softball with them. Their team was called "The Thieves," ours "The Dodgers."
Soon after I entered Sandstone, the Bureau of Prisons offered me a parole to Civilian Public Service, the CO program for which I had first applied but was denied the proper classification. I turned down the parole. I told the Bureau of Prisons that I had learned my mistake and would never again cooperate in any way with a military conscription system.
Among the staff members at Sandstone, the psychologists ranked at the bottom of the list for all inmates. Early in their stay each inmate had an interview with a psychologist. There were many stories among inmates about what they told the psychologist. None of us felt any need to be truthful in this interview, which had references to the personal sex life of the inmate. Even more than the COs, the "regular" inmates would regale each other with lurid sex experiences they had dreamed up for the psychologist.
The psychologists were the butt of many jokes. Arlo, my brother, was in and out of Sandstone before I got there. A number of inmates told me about a skit Arlo had been in. In the skit, Arlo visited a psychologist. Arlo had a serious tic and was continually opening and closing an eye as he screwed up his face. At the end of the skit, Arlo walked out OK, and the psychologist was sitting at his desk with a serious tic, continually opening and closing an eye as he screwed up his face.
The disrespect for the local psychologists was not totally unearned. Before going to Sandstone, I had been the superintendent of Quaker-dale Farm, a home for dependent and neglected boys. This Quaker-run home had been in operation for decades, first in southeast Iowa as White’s Institute and later in New Providence, Iowa, as Quakerdale Farm. When I answered the psycholo-gist’s question about my employment, I told him I had been the head of a boys’ home. His immediate response was, "Boys! Only boys? Why boys?"
I was allowed a limited amount of correspondence with a very few family members only. I could write one or two letters a week, a single sheet (lined grade school paper provided) with writing permitted on both sides. I could receive a similar amount. Prison officers read all mail—outgoing and incoming.
We were allowed limited visits, but visits were emotional hazards. You sat in a room with other inmates and their visitors, supervised by a prison guard. You were allowed no physical contact, not even a welcoming or farewell kiss. Bickie made a few visits. We had a cousin living in the Twin Cities with whom she would stay. At my request, Susan never came along. I did not feel that I could take the emotional impact of such a visit from my little girl.
All of the inmates had work assignments. Often the work was in teams that would be accompanied by a guard or two. There was no pay for work, unless you count room and board. Most of the work was productive for the institution. I was assigned to a garden crew, which brought in large quantities of vegetables. If we caught up on the garden work for a day or two we would be given some other manual labor job outside. I was pleased to have that assignment, both for the work and for getting outside of the walls for much of the day.
As the fall weather started to cool, I was eager to get an inside job. As I suspected, and found out later to be true, outside crews in the winter were often working in subzero weather. There were two men from Frank Lloyd Wright’s group in my dorm. One of them worked at making drawings in the powerhouse. He told me the institution had lost its chemist, it seemed impossible to hire one, and they wondered if anyone in our dorm could do the job. The engineer in charge of the powerhouse had no chemical training. I got the job on the basis of starting my college work in chemical technology. It was actually a low-tech job doing routine things like testing boiler water, drinking water, and sewage processing plus writing a manual for the inmate who might get the job when I left and have even fewer qualifications than mine. I spent the rest of my time in Sandstone as the institution’s chemist.
Doing time is the universal synonym for being in jail. It is an apt description of what happens. The worst thing about doing time is doing time. The prisoner has a single objective—move through time to release. Although a day may bring a good dinner, great news from home, or the defeat at chess of the man who usually defeats you, it’s all irrelevant. The good thing is that another day has passed. As an inmate’s release date nears, time becomes all the more overwhelming. Time begins to take on new ways of expression, such as yards of spaghetti to be eaten and the number of times to line up for count before you leave. If you are a prisoner, time is a totally different concept than it is on the other side of the wall. Time is the oppressor.
There were many tensions in Sandstone, as should be expected, particularly between inmates and guards (usually called screws by the inmates). Tensions often broke through, as they did for me in the vignettes "Christmas" and "I’m Shot."
One day when I was working outside, a Jehovah’s Witness on the crew was giving the guard a rough time. He and some others were aggressive and abrasive about their religion, trying to get converts or, as in this case, taunting people about the inadequacies of beliefs held by those who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this instance, the guard took the taunting quietly, without reproach when most guards would have pulled him off the crew and charged him with a disciplinary infraction to be settled by the institutional disciplinary board.
Each evening as we went back inside the walls we were searched for contraband. We would take our handkerchief out of its pocket, hold our hands up over our heads, and be "shook down," hands run over our pockets.
One time I had a green onion secluded in my handkerchief, taking it in for a friend who longed for a fresh green onion. I was, of course, in serious violation of the regulations. The guard who was searching me was the one given a hard time by the Jehovah’s Witness. I thanked the guard for the patient and gentle way he handled him. The guard didn’t say a word, dropped his hands, and I left hurriedly afraid he was about to burst out in tears. Kind words for guards from inmates were rare.
Although World War II was a popular war with a cause that was widely considered just, unlike Vietnam, the churches, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, gave some support to their conscientious objectors. The Christian Science church was an exception. Their national headquarters issued a statement that there was nothing in Christian Science doctrine that would cause a man to become a conscientious objector. Yet, there was one Christian Science CO in Sandstone.
There was a hallway across the end of our dormitory with heavy steel fencing setting the hall off from the dorm and the inmates. There was a space of perhaps six or eight inches at the bottom of the fence through which guards would pass out our mail. The only time we were allowed packages was for Christmas. Each inmate could receive one gift. The gift had to be solicited by the inmate and approved by the institution. When the gift arrived, it would be shoved under the fence by a guard’s foot. I asked my family not to send me anything for Christmas, as I thought Christmas was badly polluted by Sandstone. There were also inmates, with whom I wished to identify, who had nobody to send them gifts.
Next door to home in Oskaloosa lived our neighbors, the Ruby family. They owned the United Delivery Company for which I worked on Saturdays and during Christmas vacation through high school and for a year after high school delivering groceries with a team of mules. The Rubys were not Quakers nor pacifists. They had three sons who went into the army. I had seen none of the Rubys for six years. Each Christmas they made very professional chocolates to share with their friends.
It was nearly Christmas, and my name was called as having received a gift. I thought it must be a mistake, but it was a box of chocolates from the Rubys. A box of homemade chocolates had made it past the restrictions of the Bureau of Prisons and my own personal restrictions for Christmas. I wept.
I learned some new vocabulary in Sandstone. Part of that was getting shot. To be shot had nothing to do with handguns or rifles but meant you’d been written up by a guard for an offense. That puts you before a disciplinary board for possible punishment.
I was working with a crew outdoors on some kind of digging job when the guard in charge came over to me and told me that I needed to work faster, because we were in front of the warden’s office. I responded that maybe he felt he should work harder in front of the warden, but I would work the same way in front of the warden or back of the building. Bang!! I was shot for insubordination, or something like that.
I appeared before the disciplinary board, three guards as I recall, a couple of days later. There was no disagreement about what happened. This was a context with-in which the board didn’t seem used to working. The guard who had accused me wasn’t present.
There was a little discussion, and I was asked if I didn’t realize they could take away some of my "good time," and I would have to stay longer, I replied that I knew that and when I did get out I would probably be back if the war was still going on. There was a void in the conversation. By refusing to be intimidated I seemed to have threatened their authority.
I presume there was some hesitancy about raising a public issue about how one worked in front of the warden’s office. I was dismissed with a warning but no penalty.
At the time, federal prisoners were eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence. A new plan made COs eligible for parole at any time to acceptable assignments with nonprofit institutions. The salary limit was board and room plus $15 per month. It was a Civilian Public Service kind of plan but totally devoid of any relationship to Selective Service.
Wistar Wood (unknown to me at the time), a Quaker, was superintendent of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia and desperate to find a boys’ supervisor. He seemed to be well-connected politically and got permission to review some files of COs in prison who might be qualified for the job. He selected me. The Bureau of Prisons told him that I probably wouldn’t take the job, as I had already turned down parole. Typical of the problems the Bureau had with COs, they couldn’t see the difference between a parole to a Selective Service assignment and a parole to a regular job.
I was glad to take the job and left Sandstone after one year in prison. Bickie was a graduate of Iowa State with a degree in dietetics and was immediately employed by the school as the dietician, so everything worked out fine with my $15 per month salary. Susan, then two years old, went to a Catholic daycare center for children. When we left the school after a little more than a year, with the war over and my parole terminated, to return as superintendent of Quakerdale Farm, Susan was crossing herself before meals.