Autobiography

I joined the Air Force to get money for a film that was shooting in Los Angeles. I had already been in the U.S. Marines and am the only Marine in the history of the Marines to hate the Marines. Or to be brave enough to say that. Or stupid enough to say that. I posted that once on Facebook and got three death threats in fifty seconds. I deleted all my social media. Which is not helpful for getting film roles. I’ve only done one film in my life. I played a Marine. There was no acting involved. I didn’t even try. Afterwards, the director said I did a great job. I have not been in any of her next four films. That film in Los Angeles, by the way, was cancelled. I found out when I got there. I still had to be in the Air Force. The U.S. government won’t cancel contracts. I’d signed up for Health Management Services. I managed health, apparently. Which I did not do. I did paperwork. For an Aeromedical Staging Squadron. A term that sounds like gobbledygook to me. And I’m used to military acronyms. We did drills to prepare for war. Often, I’d be a patient, which means that by the end of the day, I’d be wrapped in bandages on both arms, both legs, my head, everywhere. I’d lie on a cot for ten hours. I wasn’t allowed to pee. They’d tell me not to drink water. They had me hooked up to IVs without the IVs actually being in me, but still taped to my wrists. I’d have swathe-and-sling and splints and C-spine so that I was mummified. We went to war. But I wasn’t sent. I have some theories of why not. As I’ve said, I’d posted online that I hated the Marines. The Air Force isn’t the Marines, but it is still a military service. And I had people from my ASTS unit who I was friends with on Facebook. They’d probably seen it, recommended that I not go overseas with them. So, during the war, I had to stay at the training unit. I’d check in with the gate when I arrived and check out with the gate at the end of the day. I’d go to a huge empty office building where everything was locked. I’d have to check my emails routinely to see if my Commander sent me any work to do. She sent me two emails for the entire war’s timeframe. One said to organize the filing cabinet, which was already organized and was locked. Another said to mop the floor, if I had time. I tried to decide if I had time. I decided I didn’t. I just sat there, reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days. I remember nothing from the book. Nothing. Not that the book was bad, but just that the room was so dead-quiet that I couldn’t concentrate. I’d wanted to go to war. Felt like I’d betrayed my country in not being allowed to go.

They came back after the war. Actually, before the war was over. A week before the war was officially over. When they came back, I felt like I’d go mad from the noise. They patted me on the back and ignored me and hated me and thanked me for holding down the fort and they had me mop the floors. Me, mopping the floor while they all talked and recounted and got back to work and I mopped so hard that it was like I was trying to mop my way through the floor down to hell. A Sergeant came over and told me to “calm down.” He had a nose like a boxer’s, swollen and vascular. It was hard not to stare at his nose. I stared. He motioned for me to keep mopping. I did, making my way to a much quieter hallway where I overheard a story, almost whispered. One Lieutenant for the Psych side of our ASTS said that another Lieutenant had a panic attack while wearing his gas mask. Apparently, they had multiple times where they had sirens warning of possible chemical warfare attacks. They’d have to wear masks while they slept, while they worked, in the sun, often full MOPP gear, their entire bodies covered in overgarments and gloves and overboots and mask and so the sweat would collect and you’d feel claustrophobic and you couldn’t hear properly, everything muffled, and the mask would steam up so that you could hardly see and you could feel little creeks of sweat flowing from your armpits, down your sides, tickling, and the Lieutenant started to take his mask off and so the Lieutenant telling the story said she had to struggle with the LT, to stop him, and she called over some of the admin in Psych and they all held him down and forced him to keep the mask on and talked him down, talked him out of it, out of this rage he was having, screaming he wanted his fucking mask off and that he wanted his fucking mask off and that the fucking mask better come off or he was going to die. This was the head officer of the Psych portion of our ASTS, a guy with a Ph.D. in Psychology from Illinois—Urbana-Champaign. He didn’t die. No one did. Not from our unit. We had doctors and nurses and medical people everywhere and that tends to keep you safe. We were a moving hospital. We had trained for this. They had trained on me. They had experienced war. They were different now. I hadn’t experienced war. I was the same. I got out of the military after three years.

I became an EMT.

I got on an ambulance. We did IFT. Interfacility Transport. The patients were stable. There was nothing to it. There was a lot of paperwork. We had to put down that they were WNL. Within Normal Limits. Everything was in normal limits. Their breathing, their heartbeats, their blood pressures, their everything. It was boring. It was long shifts. They’d hold us over. Ten-hour shifts were thirteen-hour shifts. Twelve-hour shifts were sixteen-hour shifts. There would be days with no breaks for food. No breaks to piss. You’d run to the bathroom while the patient waited on a gurney, your partner furious that you were human. I’d wash my hands, realizing I was still peeing, look down and see my pants were all wet. I’d drop my pants, take paper towels, and try to dry it up. I’d splash water on my uniform shirt to make it look like the water from the sink had splashed. I’d run back out, the patient noticing, my partner noticing. “Let’s go,” I’d say. My partner wouldn’t move. “Let’s go,” I’d say, trying to sound like a dick. Being an EMT teaches you to be a dick. The other EMTs, I noticed, didn’t even take blood pressures. They’d just make up numbers. “He looks about 118 over 78.” How the hell can you tell a person’s blood pressure by looking at them? They’d scribble down whatever they wanted on the PCR. “His pulse is 66,” they’d say. They’d never taken an actual pulse. I’d tell them that. They’d lie, say they did. “When?” “When you were in the bathroom.” “I was never in the bathroom.” “Yes, you were.” “That was for the last patient. This is a new patient.” “Oh.” They’d use the f- word in front of altered mental status patients. Sometimes we’d get patients who were really stable, but who couldn’t talk, or had Parkinson’s so bad that they could only mumble something unintelligible. They’d throw around the f- word like a disease, right in front of the patient. They’d yell it at the patient, a patient who couldn’t yell back. Driving the ambulance, they’d crank death metal while I treated the patient. “Can you turn that down?” “Sure, when they pay us more than minimum wage.” They’d crank Death. They’d crank T.I. They’d crank Wire and Flipper and Mobb Deep. There’d be gun shots in the song. There’d be sirens in the song. They’d crank the music loud, the sirens in the song loud, like it was our sirens. Sometimes they’d even turn on our actual sirens, when we were on back roads, a patient on-board, a patient who was comatose, not a code 3 call, just a transfer from one hospital to another, and they’d throw on the flood lights, my partner, at 3 a.m., stop the ambulance in the middle of the road, put on some disco music, crank it, and go out to piss, pissing right in the middle of the highway, and I’d be watching them do this, pissing right in front of the window on the side of the ambulance, pissing on the ambulance, the patient on the gurney unaware of what was going on, and then they’d get back on and we’d drive off again, some headlights way up in the distance. The road so straight that you wondered if it really was a flat Earth after all. I quit.

I became a prison EMT instead.

It paid double what the ambulance paid. Double. All I did was suicide watch. That’s it. Just suicide watch. I was an EMT. It’s the lowest level of medical training. Except maybe a CNA. Certified Nursing Assistant. They change bedsheets in hospitals. We change gurney sheets in ambulances. A big move up. Except now I was a prison EMT, which I thought was better than a non-911 ambulance EMT, as if there are hierarchies to EMT jobs. It’s all the same. On the first day, I had to wait at the gate. “Where you working?” “Back ward,” I said. The guard at the gate laughed. “Backwards,” he said, “Good luck.” Apparently, the nickname for the back ward was ‘Backwards.’ The back ward was the farthest ward in the back of the prison. If there can be a ‘back’ to a prison and there can. I had to go through five gates to get to where I worked. As you walked, it got worse and worse. The first gate, there was a gazebo by it. The second gate, a basketball court with no nets but nice rims. The third gate, grass, brown. The fourth gate, dirt. The fifth gate, concrete. The fifth gate, I noticed, looked like it’d been kicked a thousand times. I got buzzed through it. There was a guard there. He said, “Go back.” “What?” “Go back and close the gate. It gets stuck.” I went back and closed the gate. The guard had his feet up. He was in a little protected wooden booth. There were prisoners out on the yard. They looked at me. They yelled something. I couldn’t tell what. One of the words sounded like “Mark,” like they thought my name was Mark. My name’s not Mark. I went inside the building, the final building. This would be where I’d be working from now on, inside this building. I thought about the Air Force, how much we trained outside, the sun on me all day, so that my nose would get sunburned, the only part of me that seemed to not have any bandages, how I did nothing, just lied there. In the prison, my trainer taught me to always keep walking. She said to never stop walking. She said it was dangerous to stop walking. She said there’d be prisoners out of their cells. That they were able to do that for good behavior, but she said that good behavior means nothing in prison. She told me not to talk to them, to not let them come up to me. “What if they come up to me?” “Keep walking, you should always be walking.” “But the shift’s twelve hours long?” “And it’s twelve hours of walking.” And it was. The back ward was really four wards. I’d walk down I, then II, then IV, then III. That’s how they told me to do it. “You start with the worst and make it easier,” they said. Ward I was the killers. It wasn’t really killers, mostly, but one of the nurses referred to ward I as ‘the killers.’ We were the worst prison in the state, in that the worst prisoners from all over the state got sent here. The most violent prisoners and the prisoners with documented psych evaluations where they were ruled to have strong potential for violence, whether or not they’d done anything violent, those were the prisoners in ward I. Ward II was the same in my opinion, but they were supposedly less violent. The nursing station had a book that listed all the ward prisoners and what crime they had done and I looked at what they’d done and I could tell no difference between ward I and II. A nurse caught me going through the book and told me to never do that, to never ask them what they were in for or to look up what they were in for. “Why?” “Equal treatment,” she said. I’d seen that one of the guys was a pedophile, that another had murdered three people, another had murdered six. Every single time I saw the pedophile, that’s all I thought: ‘pedophile.’ Every time I saw the guy who’d killed three, I thought ‘three,’ like three was on his face, like six was on the other guys’ face. She was right. All I saw was the crime. Ward III was mostly empty. They saved it for a sort of solitary confinement that wasn’t really. Sometimes they’d put someone in a ward III cell when no one wanted him in the other wards. All of the other wards were full or very near full, but ward III pretty much only had one prisoner, a pedophile, a different pedophile from the one I saw in the book. He was 83 years old. He’d been in the prison for more than fifty years. On the cell glass, they post two photos, a photo of when you arrived at the prison and a photo of what the prisoner looks like now, or at least taken within the last year. I hated the photos. You’d see just sheer youth in one photo and then the most horrible before-and-after pictures ever, because in the more recent photo all the prisoners looked paler and weaker and like a light had gone out inside them. I hated the photos. I’d do everything I could to not look at them. I wasn’t supposed to look at them, really. I was supposed to look in the cells, at them, to make sure they were alive. In ward IV, it was for psych patients who weren’t really psych patients. Sometimes inmates fake that they’re crazy in order to get out of the main prison population. Maybe they have a threat out against them, maybe they think the psych ward would be better. I have no idea. But there were a lot of people in ward IV. And I noticed that ward IV was a lot calmer. I’d walk through ward IV and III with a nice calm to my pace. I’d pick it up in I and II. In I and II, sometimes they’d throw feces at me. It was hard for them to do it, because their food tray slot had to be opened and to do that it meant that the guard had to forget or that the guard was a friend of the prisoner and had done it for them on purpose. The guards, I noticed, either hated the prisoners, loved the prisoners, or switched back-and-forth like they were bipolar. The ones who loved the prisoners would put on this huge act, kind of like they were servants to the inmates. If a prisoner wanted something, they’d tell me to go get it. I’d tell them that I was on suicide watch and they’d tell me to forget suicide watch and go get the prisoner some aspirin or whatever it was. I’d go get the aspirin. The nurse would tell me to never do that. Why? Because it could be a distraction. The prisoners all networked together. Some of the prisoners wanted to die and so if one of them was planning on suicide, they wanted as much time as possible to go by before I found them, so they’d help each other out by creating diversions. Because in prison there were few suicide ‘attempts.’ It was all people who were committed to dying. It was mostly suicide successes. They wanted out, badly, by any means, even death. The prison smelled like feces twenty-four hours a day. Every day. Soon as you walked in, the smell hit you hard. The front of each prisoner’s cell was glass, shatterproof glass, and so they’d smear it with feces to have some privacy, like paint. They’d do it so often that the guards just let them. I’d have to look in through the gaps to look into their cell. I’d have a checklist. I had to check if they were in the cell, alive. Thank God I was graveyard shift. The prisoners mostly slept at night. But only mostly. If there was a lightning storm, almost all of them would be up. The lightning would crack and if all the prisoners were quiet, you could hear it. It was the only time that the prison was quiet. Usually, the inmates would kick their doors all day. It was a thing they’d do to try to drive us crazy. They’d assign prisoners to bang on their cell doors. If the prisoner didn’t do it, they could get stabbed. And there were so many knives in the prison, it was incredible. The guards would confiscate knife after knife after knife, made out of soap or bedsheets or toothbrushes or anything. They could craft a magazine into a knife, a cup into a knife. And there were actual knives in their cells, smuggled in. The guards who were lifers, I noticed, were close with the prisoners, where you could just tell that they were working with them. They had to. It allowed them to not worry about getting killed, stabbed, attacked. But with the lightning, there was no killing, no stabbing, the whole entire ward silent, all the wards, waiting. A prisoner asked us to open up the doors. There were two doors to get outside. One main thick door to get into the ward, then a hallway, then the door to get outside, which was really two doors, both close to each other. You’d get buzzed in one door, wait, then get buzzed in the other door. The prisoners wanted us to open all three doors. The guards always said no. Hell no. But there was this one time where the prisoners just got into insisting. It was Easter. April showers. They said they wanted to hear lightning for Easter. A storm was happening. A head guard said they could hear the lightning already, even if it was distant. But they wanted to hear it better, for real. Loud. The prisoners wanted all three doors open. The guards said they’d only do it if every prisoner was in their cell, meaning even the prisoners on good behavior who could go out to do things like mop and other menial work, they had to get into their cells too. So they did. Every prisoner was in their cell. The prisoners asked if they could have their food tray slots put down. So they could hear the sound better. The guards went around an unlocked them all. All the nurses got put in the nursing station, for our protection. A guard came in and told us to be careful. What we were doing was dangerous. He warned us that this could be a setup for a riot. The head nurse asked why he was doing it then. “It’s Easter,” the guard said. And it was. Actually, not anymore. It was after midnight. Easter was technically over. Easter night had past. It was some halfway spot. All the prisoners in their cells. The food slots down. A guard went and opened the main door. We posted guards in strategic spots in the wards. They’d put on their riot gear. They looked like obese cockroaches in that gear. The guards looked ready to fight, like they kind of even secretly wanted a riot. These were ex-linebackers, guys with no fathers, vets with PTSD, men hungry and overworked and tired on a very early morning that wasn’t Easter, the midnight witching hour where the sky had been angry for hours. There was a motion to let the guard know down at the far end of the hall to open up both doors, the first time this had ever happened, all three doors opened, all these psych ward inmates somehow quiet, quiet because they knew if they made a noise they could be stabbed later, this anticipation that something great was about to happen. The inmates wanted to hear lightning. They wanted to hear lightning loud, where you could feel it in your chest. All the nurses were huddled near the filing cabinet, by the bulletproof glass so that we could see into ward I and II. A nurse asked if we should open the nursing station door. “Why?” “To hear the lightning too.” “Fuck the lightning,” said the head nurse. I was the only one in the room that wasn’t a nurse. There were four of us. I looked at the three nurses and thought of Macbeth. “I’m opening the door,” said the nurse who was new, who didn’t care if he was fired. He opened it. We waited. I wondered if the lightning would be louder than we’d expect, if it’d be close. I could see all the inmates lined up at the front of their cells, all their different twisted bodies, short and atrophied and sick and strong. And then a prisoner at the far end of ward II started kicking his cell door as loudly as he could, screaming that we were all in hell, that hell was dead, that the lightning was a hole and that he would kill every single one of us in our sleep and I think lightning happened in that moment, but I’m not sure, and the guards all slammed the three doors closed and the rest of the prisoners exploded with pounding and kicking and there were dozens of death threats yelled, aimed at the prisoner who’d broken the silence, and then aimed at us, and the guards tried to close the food tray slots, but the prisoners jammed knives tight into them so that they couldn’t be closed and the guards dropped tear gas and the head nurse slowly pushed her swivel chair over to me, sliding up to me so that we bumped into each other, and she whispered to me, “All of this is on camera,” she said, “All of it,” and, that quickly, the storm had passed and it was in all of our bodies.

–Ron Riekki