"'I’ve been achin’ for a while now, friends
I’ve been achin’ hard for years.'
He’s kind of like an artist
Who uses paint no more."
Replacements, “Achin’ To Be”
Preparing to visit former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til, a longtime faithful public servant who, incredibly, is in federal prison, I took a roll of quarters as instructed by wife Patti for the vending machines in the visitors room since George would be missing lunch. Driving down Route 41, I thought of trips with Juan Anaya when I was on his Indiana State PhD dissertation committee. Years ago, I put together a session on the Calumet Region for an Indiana Association of Historians conference at Rose-Hulman Institute featuring Steve McShane, George Roberts, and Lance Trusty. Toni and granddaughter Alissa went along, and we visited the Eugene V. Debs house adjacent to the Indiana State campus (before its restoration it was a fraternity house). The night before my prison visit I stayed at Drury Inn, which offered free dinner (meatballs, pasta, salad, and hot dogs) and breakfast plus yogurt and a banana for later.
On TV were updates on the horrific Paris bombings. The worst massacre took place at Bataclan music hall where Eagles of Death Metal was performing. Despite the name, the band has an upbeat bluegrass style that Josh Homme, who also played with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures, describes as desert rock. Formed in Palm Desert, California, near Palm Springs, the group toured earlier in the year with the Joshua Tree area rock band Graham Rabbit, which I saw perform at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown.
Even though briefed on what to expect, I visited the Federal Correction Institution with some trepidation, noticing the barbed wire fencing as I drove south on Route 63 before turning onto Bureau Road. Near the prison entrance was a Dollar store; George Van Til told me later that if visitors came dressed too provocatively, guards send them there to purchase more appropriate garments. The minimum security “satellite camp” was some distance from the main building and resembled a public school. In the parking lot I spotted a family of five was walking toward the entrance. I followed them, opened the door, and it closed after me with a loud thud. A guard gave me a form to fill out, then took my drivers license, and after a short while escorted me to the visitation room. I soon spotted George, looking gaunt (he’s lost 100 pounds) and somewhat spectral (with white hair and beard and wearing a grey sweatshirt) but better than I’d expected. After I used quarters to purchase for him a salad, burger, and pop (he’s not permitted to handle money), we found seats across from one another and could speak freely. The next three hours went by quickly, as George, starved for company, had much to talk about.
The highlights of his week, George told me, were playing piano at Sunday church services and having visitors. These have included State Representative Charlie Brown and Bill Pelke, a high school classmate who befriended Paula Cooper despite her having killed his grandmother. George has five roommates and shares bathroom facilities (one toilet, a couple urinals, sinks, and showers) with 60 inmates. Over six feet tall, he’s thankful to have a lower bunk but must make his way to the bathroom at night in the dark. When he has trouble sleeping – which is most nights – he listens on a radio to classical music or show tunes on NPR (National Public Radio) out of Indianapolis. He feels that he’s wasting precious days of his life and – with anemia and heart problems - might die before he gets out. Next week will mark seven months since his incarceration – midway point unless he’s transferred to a halfway house. When he arrived, most inmates were white; since Obama ordered the release of some 6,000 federal prisoners, many of whom were already in halfway houses, as a result of the prison population shift, the satellite camp now has a majority black population with a considerable number of Muslims.
Active in Lake County politics for amore than a quarter-century, George talked about longtime East Chicago mayor Robert Pastrick, whom he described as a consummate politician who made alliances and kept different factions loyal to him by employing a velvet glove more than an iron fist. Shortly after George started attending IU Northwest, Political Science professor Fedor Cicak encouraged to him join a club that morphed into the Young Democrats, whose members included Congressman Ray J. Madden’s press secretary Tony Trapane and Lake County Treasurer John Petalas. George also recalled taking courses with Political Scientist George Roberts and Historian Ron Cohen.
Lake Co. treasurer John Petalas; NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins
George tries to stay under the radar and avoid talking to others about why they are in prison, but several inmates in the visitation room greeted him with a smile. One elderly couple played cards; she put an unlit candle in a pastry purchased in a vending machine. Other couples held hands or cuddled awkwardly in adjacent chairs. A pre-schooler pushed a truck around a corner, causing his mother to jump up worried it might cause trouble. A guard monitored the two bathrooms to insure no hanky-panky inside. Many inmates don’t have money to buy necessities at the commissary. Sometimes George purchases small items for them.
George recently read Ira Shapiro’s “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.” During the 1970s George worked for both Indiana Senators Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke. He was one of Hartke’s pallbearers when the Senator was buried at Arlington cemetery. George spoke highly of such Senatorial “lions” as Robert Byrd, Frank Church, George McGovern, and Ted Kennedy.
A rumor was circulating that Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – now being held in Florence, Colorado - will be executed in the Terre Haute facility’s main prison building. Recently there was a drill for such an eventuality whereby all inmates are confined to their cells or temporarily housed in the Satellite Camp. Over 50 inmates are on death row; three have been executed since 2000, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Other current inmates include Somali pirate Abdulwali Abdukha Muse (release date 2038) and “American Taliban” John Philip Walker Lindh (release date 2019). Former notables include singer Chuck Berry, pitcher Denny McLain, Illinois governor George Ryan, and Native American activist Leonard Peltier.
Back home, I read about Newt Gingrich’s 2012 run for the 2012 Republican nomination in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s “Double Down.” When Newt surged in the polls, Mitt Romney’s team went negative, bringing up the former House Speaker’s marital infidelities, ethical lapses, and influence peddling in return for $1.6 million in payments from Freddie Mac as a “historian,” not a lobbyist. Referring to 2004 Republican efforts to disparage John Kerry record as a Swift Boat commander, Newt complained, “I’ve been Romney-boated.” I liked this excerpt:
Whenever he was asked about his latest successor as speaker, Newt compared John Boehner to [Ohio State coach] Woody Hayes: three yards and a cloud of dust. Gingrich, by contrast, saw himself as a gunslinging quarterback rolling out of the pocket and heaving the ball downfield. His style produced its share of touchdowns but also plenty of interceptions.
Woody Hayes got fired in the wake of an incident that took place in waning minutes of the 1978 Gator Bowl against Clemson. Down by two points but in field goal range, Ohio State QB Art Schlichter threw a pass that Charlie Bauman intercepted near the Buckeye sidelines. Coach Hayes cursed Bauman and then tried to punch him in the throat. Despite his dismissal, Hayes remained a professor of Military History at Ohio State and till the end of his life defended American atrocities in Vietnam, even the My Lai massacre. At Woody’s 1987 funeral disgraced former president Richard Nixon delivered the eulogy.
Sheriff Roy Dominquez, onetime political ally of George Van Til, released this post concerning the proposed immigration detention center across from the Gary airport:
The FIGHT continues: Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson may have said she has withdrawn her support for the ‘Immigration Family Separation Prison’ but she didn't state her opposition to the project. The Mayor says she is a fighter for civil rights but somehow convinced herself that deporting Hispanics was a morally correct way to resolve the African-American unemployment rate in the City. Mayor, you owe our entire NWI Community an apology and you can first begin by stating your OPPOSITION to this GEO endeavor and stand on the right side of history.
At a condo board meeting I mentioned visiting George Van Til, a political prisoner, taken down by political and corporate enemies to whom he did not kowtow. One board member declared that Republican Tony Bennett, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, did things a hundred times worse and went scot free after agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine. Not only did Bennett tamper with Indiana’s school grading system in order to help a certain charter school stay afloat, but he misused public resources and could have been prosecuted for wire fraud.
Poet Hollis Donald wrote a eulogy about Benny Guider called “I heard a Train Coming” addressed to the family of Nina and Will Hardeman. Here’s its ending:
Benny was a giant of a man, who talked about nothing but his family.
He was the “Jack of all trades.” He did miracles for this city.
He could pick up loyal friends like leaves picked up by the wind.
This train carried many people
But you could distinguish him in the end
Because he was the one that was a real friend!
I heard this train coming –
Then suddenly it stopped at he gate
And now it’s gone
I looked around and my friend was gone.
I looked around and me friend was “Gone on Home.”
Buildings all over the world are displaying the tricolors of the French flag to express solidarity with the victims of terrorism. IUN’s flags are at half-staff.