Spring dreams: Seasonal survival tips from maximum security

The following article was written by Christopher Boyce while he was serving a 68-year sentence at Oak Park Heights prison. It was published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on April 9, 1989.

Written by Christopher Boyce

I am often asked how I can face 68 years of imprisonment. On a recent morning I sat in the prison library and pondered the same question.

In my despair I glanced out the windows at a blustery April sky and saw a great, straggling vee of Canada geese flying north. The sealed security windows muffled all sound, but my imagination produced a wild music of honking that faded with them as they neared the horizon.

There was my answer. For a little while, as the flock hurried over the razor wire, my soul became one with the vitality of nature. With the geese went a part of me.

Spring is a bittersweet season in prison. This, my 37th spring, at once both heals and tortures me. Its arrival is the inspiration for my survival, but my inability to participate in all the rites of spring is a privation that becomes more painful with each passing year.

I must snatch bits and pieces of nature’s moods where I can find them. As I become older in prison, time is passing faster and faster. But even as I do this time, I uneasily realize that time is doing me.

When I was young and not yet prison-bound, spring came singing on the tongues of meadowlarks. But when I finally woke up from my folly and found myself in federal custody, nature seemed reduced to cockroaches, ants and flies. And so, to breathe in life once again, I replaced reality with “spring dreams.”

Alone on my bunk in my cell, surrounded by the squalor of the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, Calif., I would will my spirit away to the mystical outlands of my youth. I developed a personal kind of religion.

My mind’s eye would return again and again to the pristine perfection of the first spring I spent on the Sea of Cortes.

It had been no easy journey, and in my memory I would savor every mangled mile down the arid Baja coast. Our party, rushing south, had hoped at the summit of every new headland to glimpse Isla San Luis, the whispered haunt of peregrine falcons.

And one morning we found the island jutting out of the blue-glass sea. Below us, from the beach, Seri Indians worked an oyster bed and dove for sponges.

For a pittance and the gasoline we siphoned out of our tanks to fuel their one, wheezy outboard motor, the Indians had consented to run us out to Isla San Luis in their longboat. First we breakfasted on pan-fried seabass and Mexicali beer. On the way we passed through a pod of barnacled gray whales, breaching amid the fountains of their own water spouts. The sky was alive with the screams of countless seabirds. We were touched alternately by the warm rays of the sun and the cool sprays of the gulf.

We put in at a little cove where the beach was a white carpet of fuzzy pelican chicks. The whole shore was alive with their ungainly squawking. Sea lions and their pups barked from the rocks. God had made it all and it was good. So good.

I looked to the top of the precipice above us and saw the flash of a falcon’s wings slice across the cliff face. Peregrines ruled here in all their glory.

Alone in my cell I had reached the zenith of my spring dream. It was mine alone, and no bureaucrat could take it from me.

But memories like this, when there is nothing else, can also poison a prisoner in a mind-lock of stultification. These dreams must be rationed out during times of desperate need, or the cords that bind a man’s mind to reality are cut loose. It is a very fine line, and I have walked it.

To save themselves, some prisoners escape. I have gone down that lonely, tough road. Many sink themselves into the dreary world of prison politics, drugs, hierarchy and violence. They collapse in upon themselves in a psychosis of loathing and malice. Some never even go outside to the prison yard. Theirs is a seasonless world of clammy corridors, closed cells and slamming metal doors. Some become obese; others dry up like old pumpkins.

A good number turn, sincerely or insincerely, to religion in all its forms, while others find their inner peace through the exertion of physical exercise. The artist, poets and craftsmen among us seek refuge in creativity. Many convicts just vegetate and flounder, but an inspired minority soak up knowledge in educational and job-skills programs. Often they concentrate themselves to a degree they never would have achieved were they still free.

Some become so addicted to television that they resemble zombies. The schemers among the soon-to-be-paroled plan new crimes; most soon return. Some come to like prison and are happy in their “home.” But most cling to the remnants of their steadily deteriorating former lives, inwardly groaning as their wives and girlfriends fade away. A fortunate few maintain healthy attachments to family and community, and by directing all their energy beyond prison sometimes preserve their social worth.

Oscar Wilde, the snide English writer who died at the turn of the century, reached out and sobered me when I first found myself in prison. He had written:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

Bloom well in prison air:

It is only what is good in man

That wastes and withers there…

I shuddered when I read those words. But in the spring I suspect he was wrong.

I look around me and there is a dripping, slippery moisture cleansing everything, everywhere. Overhead, flocks of migrating mallards and teal bless me with their quacking. Dormant grass appears hopefully from under dirty snows in ever-widening patches while crows speculate in the sun. Somewhere, underneath it all, the prison’s resident 13-striped ground squirrels still hibernate, oblivious to my spring madness.

I do not know Minnesota; I only glimpse it beyond the prison walls. To the north the red oaks and jack pines are often cloaked in the wet fog that rolls up from the St. Croix River. If I squint I can almost convince myself that I see tiny, yellow flowers on the birch tress up on the hill. Somehow I sense that if I can do so I will have found a way to survive this monster of 68 years’ imprisonment.

I am savoring this fresh experience of Minnesota bud time. It causes me not to long for the good old days but to hope for better days. And when I look up and again see the long, undulating vees of Canada geese honking their way north, I rejoice.

Christopher Boyce, whose story was the basis for the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman, served 25 years in prison for espionage, escape, and bank robbery. The story of his experiences in the federal prison system and his eventual return to society was chronicled in the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, which he wrote with his wife, Cait Boyce, and author Vince Font.

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