03 March 2006

Pursuing and winning freedom through books at bedtime

Daily Ireland

In the fourth excerpt from the Denis O’Hearn biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song, Sands discovers a talent for entertaining the other republican prisoners with his power of storytelling.


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usNight time belonged to the prisoners. Once the warders left, they began their nightly routine of cigarette manufacture, button shooting, news broadcasting, and general entertainment. After the religious prisoners said the rosary and everyone distributed cigarettes and messages, there was debate and discussion.

The men told the time by the night guard’s “bell checks”. He came on at nine o’clock and every hour he pushed the security grille at the bottom of the wing to show that he had checked the cells. Time was measured by the first bell check at nine, the second at ten, and the third at 11. After the third bell check, the last business of the night was entertainment, including the “book at bedtime”. The storyteller pulled his mattress up to his cell door and shouted out a story while the rest of the men lay, listening. All the surfaces in the prison were hard, with nothing to dampen sound, so noises travelled. When the book was a good one and the storyteller was engaging, everyone got lost in the story.

Bobby told an array of stories. His speciality was epics. His story of Geronimo and his Apache guerrillas “epitomised everything that he thought a human being should be,” says Richard O’Rawe.

“Compassionate but unbreakable, fighting the whole of America on his own.” There were other stories, all about struggle. Bobby told Trinity (by Leon Uris) several times and How Green Was My Valley, about the Welsh miners. He told Doctor Zhivago. The other prisoners began to learn political lessons from the stories.

“Bob’s stories were all about heroes… It was always about the individual against the establishment and how the individual, no matter what happened, couldn’t be broken. If he had to fight them all on his own, so be it. If he had to die, so be it. That’s just the way he was. That was his mentality. Bob just had a spirit that couldn’t be tamed, and he wasn’t going to allow it to be tamed. If it came to it, he was going to fight them on his own, he was going to carry the burden of everybody.”

It was not long before Sands told a story that became legendary among the blanketmen. He said that he had read a novel the last time he was in the prison hospital. Its title was Jet.

Like all of Bobby’s books, Jet was a story of someone pursuing and winning freedom in the face of all the oppression that the forces of reaction could muster. Jet was about a man who took on the US military-industrial complex and achieved his own personal freedom through struggle. To the prisoners, it was a story about them, about how they could achieve an inner freedom even as they lay isolated in their grim cells, surrounded by barbed wire and concrete and a hostile force of screws. For a couple of hours a night as they listened to Bobby tell his stories, they were free. Their mind’s eyes took them beyond the walls, beyond the razor wire, wherever Bobby chose to take them.

Each prisoner latched onto his words and created a vivid image of a place where, at that time, they most wanted to be… free, in struggle. Bobby was their travel agent and their guide and these stories, perhaps more than any other aspect of his seemingly tireless efforts to organise the prison struggle, turned him into their leader. They followed him because he could take them to the most special of places. He never let them down.

Jet was a young American named Jonathan Eisenhower Truman. He was the son of a fanatically militaristic colonel in the US army who named him after his two great commanders in chief, President Dwight David Eisenhower and President Harry S Truman. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the young boy rebelled. But he could not avoid the plans that his gung ho father had for him. War was raging and his father made him enlist and ensured that he would serve a tour in Vietnam. Jet was wrenched away from his music and his teenage parties, from the girl he loved.

Jet went to Vietnam and everything he saw fed his sense of rebellion. After a time, he began to hatch a plan of escape. He faked his own death by leaving his dog tags where his comrades would find them and think the Viêt Công killed him. After a series of dangerous adventures, Jet finally made his way back to the United States, where he took the pseudonym John Ernest Thornton… Jet. He bought a Harley, grew long hair and a beard (like a blanketman), and met his old girlfriend. They set off for the open road.

The blanketmen lay on their foam mattresses, miles away from the maggots and the shit, imagining Jet as he rode the American highways on his Harley, his girlfriend on the back with her arms around him and the wind blowing through her hair. They loved it when Bobby interspersed the narrative with music, adding a new dimension that made the fantasy even more real. As they rode along the open roads, Jet and his girl listened to music, loud, on the radio. They rode down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the sun beating down on them, when Bob Dylan came on the radio. Bobby broke into song, his husky voice turning book-telling into concert.

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
… it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

But somebody was looking for Jet. His father learned of his son’s treachery and vowed to take his revenge by having him court-martialled and executed as a traitor. He hired a renegade gang of Hell’s Angels to find Jet and bring him in. The head of the gang, a big militaristic guy called Hoss, had been a drill sergeant in Vietnam.

Jet took many nights to tell, “a bit of a record” since most books lasted only a couple of nights. At 2am on the last night, when Jet made a dramatic escape from the pursuing motorcycle gang, handing a decisive defeat to his father and (figuratively) to the oppressive forces of the state, the wing erupted into applause and whistling.

“It was an absolutely terrific story,” recalls Richard O’Rawe. “And it was a story that you could relate to because Jet was a free spirit and he was rebelling against conscription, he was rebelling against his father who was the establishment, he was on a big Harley with the hands up and he was on that road, hair flowing and the world was out there and he was going out to get it.” Jet was “even spiritual, in the sense that you were actually on the passenger’s seat with him when he went down the highway.”
Joe Barnes says that Jet really was an out-of-body experience. “The boys absolutely adored it because it was everything you wanted to be. You wanted to be free, you wanted to be your own man on that Harley-Davidson and the world’s your oyster and any worries you have are back there and you’re just heading forward.”

Tomorrow’s excerpt describes how Bobby Sands informed his family about the next hunger strike.

Bobby Sands book launches:
Belfast: Thursday, March 9 at 7pm, St Mary’s College, Falls Road.
Dublin: Friday, March 10 at 7pm, Pádraig Pearse Centre, Pearse Street.
Dundalk and Drogheda: Monday, March 13. Barlow House Drogheda 5.30pm, Imperial Hotel, Dundalk 8pm.
Derry, Tuesday, March 14. Details to be confirmed.
Mid-Ulster, Wednesday, March 15 at 7pm, Mid-Ulster Republican Centre, Gulladuff.

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