Written by Christopher Boyce
I had not spoken for days and had spent the entire night listening to my sink drip. When you have not felt sunlight on your skin for years, you can almost forget what it was like.
To live in a regime of imposed inner stillness will oftentimes make you scream in your dreams. It did me. I would never tell them that, though. Not for many years. I did not want to give the bureaucrats who had jammed me into the enforced silence of solitary confinement the satisfaction of knowing how much they were hurting me. But they were.
I exercised vigorously, at first every day, all day. I jogged in place at a furious pace. I did pushups and situps and jumping jacks. In time I read voraciously, both history and philosophy, and did yoga. I contemplated every day of my life that I could remember. I planned a new life, a better life, but really believed I was only yearning for what could never be.
In the end, though resolved to never end it all, I only stared at walls. I knew all along what was going wrong in my head. Over the years, I was slowly being gnawed away by sensory deprivation and an increasing absence of thought.
That is not to say that the government’s modern day version of dungeon life was entirely silent. You could hear footfalls of passing bureaucrats out in the corridor. Three times a day, the metal outer door banged open and then the food slot in the inner barred door would clang open, too. A meal would be passed in, and three times a day the food slot would again be opened to retrieve plastic food trays.
The guards resented any attempt at speaking. For prisoners to speak meant we were human, and for guards to answer us only confirmed this to be true. Speaking only generated cold stares from guards as if to say, “Shut up so I can get out of here faster.”
Every morning, a physician’s assistant would peer at you through a vision slot and if you did not look up would kick the door until you did. Every several hours, you would be counted through the same slot by guards. Standing up was required as proof that you were not a lifelike dummy.
I had actually been the original cause of that rule many years before when I had absconded, leaving behind a paper mache dummy who passed several counts until the wee hours of the morning. For that embarrassing screwup, wardens – when they performed their weekly inspections – always glared at me like I was some kind of potential career threat.
But a life of sensory deprivation ended when Cait got me paroled and I was released into a chaotic world. I went from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. At times, my mind seemed overwhelmed.
I do not believe a bruised mind easily expands to handle an ever more complicated culture. A damaged mind does not mend quickly, like a broken rib. When I stepped out of prison, I was floored. Like Rip Van Winkle awakening from his 20-year sleep in the Catskill Mountains to a changed world.
My consciousness at once became a blur of lights, activities and objects I did not easily comprehend. I had remained numb through a quarter-century of accelerating cultural change. Even the language had profoundly altered. And I was intimidated enough to sometimes go off and hide in isolated, wild, empty places.
So my wife steered me back to falconry. It was a thing I knew and was comfortable with – and it had mostly not changed in a thousand years. But I had not thought of the airplane. That changed everything.
It was an Aeronca Champ, built in 1946. As I approached her, I realized just how ancient a fabric-covered flying machine she was. The Champ was one of the slowest airplanes still in the air, and was tandem-seated. I sat behind my friend, the pilot, who flew her with a joystick.
It was spring, and we were flying down the twisting course of the Deschutes River to the big Columbia, searching cliffs for falcons from the air. We swung and twisted and dipped through the gorges in a kaleidoscope of spring flowers, rushing river rapids and rock formations of every hue.
It all flashed by at 60 miles per hour, my mind an excited, roaring whirl. I had seen falcons and carefully noted the whereabouts of their nesting ledges on my maps, but when we landed I had to lay down. I thought my head would explode. Where I had only listened to dripping faucets long ago, I had in just a few hours seen more than I had once viewed in a decade.
Soon, I would return to the high river cliffs to rappel down for a young falcon, but I could not even think of that this day. Like a crashed computer too frozen up to boot, I shut down and went home to my wife’s quiet flower garden.
Her dog wagged his tail at me, but I raised my index finger in front of my closed lips and he lay down silent in the shade. Bees buzzed and hummingbirds flitted, and from somewhere nearby, peacocks called out.
The new leaves of Cait’s backyard trees whispered in the breeze, and her fountain gurgled. There are sounds to silence in my wife’s garden, but at first I had to tiptoe out of it back into the world. I still try now, though, to shut up whenever I can.
Christopher Boyce’s story was the basis for the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. His book, American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, tells the story of how he endured a quarter-century in prison, and how the efforts of an ambitious paralegal, Cait Mills, helped forge a path to freedom for him and his childhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee.