The novels of Patrick O’Brian unfurl aboard Royal Navy ships. The Shawshank Redemption is set in a prison. Both share a powerful bond witnessed behind These Stone Walls.
These Stone Walls marks eleven years of publication this week. When it began in 2009, I expected it to last about one year. I could not imagine back then that from the depths of prison I could possibly find enough things to write about to keep it going any longer. Now, eleven years later, These Stone Walls has featured 580 original posts including about forty from guest writers. Each post has averaged about 2,200 words which means that from TSW’s beginning in mid-July 2009, about 5,200 pages and 1,300,000 words have spewed out of my old typewriter. I am just gobsmacked.
Okay. Now you know that I cannot let “gobsmacked” go by without comment. I first saw the word in a message from Clare Farr, a Western Australia trademarks attorney who stepped up to represent Pornchai “Max” Moontri. Clare helped immensely to change the course of his life. In some of her messages, Clare has often written that she is “gobsmacked” by some TSW posts.
I cannot come up with an American version of the word – not one that I can repeat to polite company, anyway. So I set out to find its origin. ‘Gob” is a slang term that arose in Middle English (around the 12th Century) from the Scottish Gaelic, “gobbe,” which means “mouth.” To be gobsmacked literally means “smacked in the mouth,” a metaphor for being rendered speechless. Clare Farr may be gobsmacked that I got to the bottom of it.
Sorry for meandering before getting to the point. We have all been under dark clouds of contentious things of late. I have for weeks been writing about global pandemics, disastrous riots, racial tensions, a presidential election descending toward civil war, and “Bishops Who Bar Catholics from Mass.” We need a break. It is summer, after all.
But I also need a break from all this discontent to write about the looming change coming to our lives behind These Stone Walls. As surely as the sun sets, in about 11 weeks, my friend and comrade of the last 14 years is leaving, and we will likely never see each other again in this life.
When I published “Pornchai Moontri, Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night,” I sent a copy to the Maine Corrections system. After reviewing it, and all that Pornchai has accomplished in the last 14 years, officials there granted Pornchai a small reduction in his remaining sentence. We have calculated that Pornchai’s prison sentence will now come to an end on September 23, 2020. That date is the Feast Day of one of our Patrons, Saint Padre Pio. It is also the date that my own prison sentence began 26 years ago.
As the clock ticks toward that day, I have several times had to push back the lump in my throat and tears that well up as I try to focus on the next chapter of our respective stories. Pornchai will be relocated to Thailand, and I will remain in this prison. Before that happens, however, Pornchai will spend some weeks as an ICE detainee, and I must do all that I can to mitigate that.
I have written two past posts about our experience with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On or near the day he completes his prison sentence, Pornchai will be handed over to ICE agents and transported to the Strafford County Jail about 60 miles from this prison where ICE leases space for detainees awaiting forced removal from the United States.
Many readers have written to me suggesting that there must be a way for Pornchai to remain free in the United States. There is not. Since the Patriot Act was passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Congress has barred any judge from reviewing the removal of any foreign national who has committed a crime. Mitigating circumstances cannot be considered.
We have learned a lot about this process from the experiences of others of our friends who have been subjected to ICE detention and removal. The nightmarish conditions of one such case were reported on TSW. My friend, Augie Reyes came to the U.S. from Honduras at age eight and, like Pornchai, was led by someone else’s corruption into an offense at age 18. Augie served 25 years in prison with us before his deportation was initiated. On the day he was taken away at age 43, I asked him to keep notes and send them to me upon his arrival in Honduras. The result was my post, “Criminal Aliens: The ICE Deportation of Augie Reyes.”
The ICE process hit closer to home in the experience of another of our friends, a story told in “Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen.” That was a little different. Our friend, Chen, came here at age 18 to study English at a local college for one semester, but ended up in prison with a sentence of up to six years. Chen who came here from Shanghai, was “Shanghaied.” For that story, and the origin of that word, see my post, “Shanghai Knights, George Orwell’s 1984, and Religious Liberty.”
AT SEA WITH CAPTAIN AUBREY AND DR. MATURIN
I’ll get back to the point of all this in a moment. Pornchai and I have now been in prison for a combined 54 years. He will be released to ICE after serving 28 years and I mark 26 years on that same day. I have spent much of this time “at sea.” That term has mysteriously come to pass as a metaphor for a number of things, none of them good. It can mean off-track, off-the-rails, off-his-rocker, or, literally, it can just mean at sea. I mean it in the literal sense.
Over thirty years of his life, The great Irish writer, Patrick O’Brian (1914 – 2000) gifted the literary world with a 20-volume series of novels about adventures aboard the tall ships of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars of the early Nineteenth Century. The series has come to be known as the ‘Aubrey-Maturin” novels for their two major characters, Royal Navy Captain (later Admiral) Jack Aubrey and his best friend, ship’s physician, surgeon, and British spy, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
Patrick O’Brian accomplished something unique by taking actual Royal Navy ships’ logs from that era to spin his yarns within real events. This gave his novels what in literature is called “verisimilitude,” fictional accounts set against the backdrop of real history. His only fictional characters in these stories are his two protagonists set aboard real vessels amidst actual battles. These wonderful books kept me at sea and helped to maintain both sanity and spiritual equilibrium during 26 years of the insanity that is wrongful imprisonment.
Ten years ago, when These Stone Walls was but a year old. I first wrote of these novels in “The Stuck Inside Literary Award: At Sea with Patrick O’Brian.” My post told a rather amazing story. During the entire time that I was reading these books, while saying nothing to my friend, Pornchai about them, he spent a year designing and building three 28-gun, 42-inch scale models of Royal Navy vessels in the wood shop where he was working.
I learned of this only when the project was near completion. One day he told me about them, showed me some of his hand-drawn plans, and said that he was naming one of the ships after me. In the Patrick O’Brian books, I had been reading of the adventures of Captain Aubrey and his best friend, Dr. Maturin, aboard the HMS Endeavor, or the HMS Excelsior. So I envisioned something majestic sounding – The HMS Father G perhaps, or the HMS MacRae. You can barely make out the placard on the completed project pictured above. He called it, “The Olde Baldy.”
While writing this post, I came across an article in the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal entitled “My Captain Jacks” by Chicago attorney Michael O’Donnell. His title refers to the fondness with which he recalls what this 20-volume series has meant to his life. Mr. O’Donnell writes:
- “Here I should make an important disclosure. I care nothing at all for boats or the sea. I don’t even like to take a bath. But to me, Aubrey-Maturin is not about the water. It is about friendship… One party is Captain Jack Aubrey: lifelong Navy man, a fighting captain with a bold way and a lucky streak yet also a strict insistence on custom and tradition… Aubrey’s particular friend is Stephen Maturin physician, naturalist, republican, British intelligence agent capable of the most tender sympathies for his family and friends, and most of all for the man he calls ‘brother.’”
THE RESONANCE OF MUSIC & THE HOLY SPIRIT
I realize that what I liked most about these books was their subtle lessons in how to have – and be – a friend. Such knowledge is an endangered species in our self-destructive modernism in which so many grow up relating through an electronic screen.
It is the lifetime of friendship, spread over twenty volumes of adventures at sea, that is the heart and soul of these stories. I believe this long literary tribute to friendship is what makes these books so enduring and endearing – especially to men. One of the moving connections between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin is their love and skill for music. It expresses a resonance between them more powerful when combined than the gifts of either of them standing alone. That is true of music. It is also true of grace.
In one of my favorite scenes in the Patrick O’Brian novels, Captain Aubrey is at sea with his crew in a time and place of doldrums, a region near the Equator known for its long periods with little or no winds. Always playing their music away from the eyes and ears of their crew – Aubrey with a violin and Maturin with a cello – they decide to fill the ship at sea to lighten the mood. Taking requests, someone on deck suggests “Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make.”
This is how I learned that it had been set to music. It’s the first line of the 17th Century poem by Richard Lovelace entitled “To Althea from Prison.” It’s the poem that inspired These Stone Walls in 2009:
“Stone Walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.”
Pornchai Moontri and I know nothing of music. Neither of us can play an instrument despite his attempts in “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and the Twang Brothers.” We are seldom seen walking around with earphones blasting pop music against our tympanic membranes. In all these years in prison we have found ourselves in the force of another kind of resonance, one best expressed in the graphic above, the discovery and meaning of Divine Mercy in our lives.
Between now and Pornchai’s departure, we hope to write more of this pervasive grace that somehow turned a bleak imprisonment into These Stone Walls. Stay tuned. Pornchai has already asked me to reserve a spot for a guest post from him to the readers of These Stone Walls, and that is already planned for August 12, two days before the feast day of our other Patron, Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION AND ITS REAL WORLD REVISION
The film, The Shawshank Redemption was released in theaters on the same day I went to prison, September 23, 1994. Its main character, Andy Dufresne, and I went to prison in the same week, he at the fictional Shawshank State Prison in Maine, and me one state over at the far more real New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.
In the years to follow its release, The Shawshank Redemption became one of American television’s great “Second Acts,” films that have endured better on television than they did in their first life at the cinema box office. The Shawshank Redemption is today one of the most replayed films in television history.
Several years passed before I could see the film because… well… I was in a real prison. Andy Dufresne and I had a lot in common. We both arrived in our respective prisons convicted in court but innocent of the charges that sent us there. Andy got out eventually, but I must not dwell too much on how. After 26 years I am still here.
A few years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the film’s release in theaters, I was asked to write a review of it for the Spero News forum. I revised and repeated the review for a LinkedIn Pulse article, “The Shawshank Redemption and Its Real World Revision.”
It described how envious I was that Andy Dufresne had his own cell in the film. My first seven years in prison were spent living in squalid conditions in a place in this prison that houses eight men per cell. Readers said that my description, as sad as it was, made them laugh:
- “Imagine taking a long walk away from home, far outside your comfort zone. Imagine inviting the first seven strangers you meet to come home with you. Then imagine locking yourself in your bathroom with them and facing the reality that this is how you will be living for the foreseeable future.”
A reader just sent me a brief article with some facts and figures about books and films. I was not at all surprised to see that The Shawshank Redemption is the all time favorite movie among men. Who would have thought that a story about prison could somehow penetrate masculine hearts with such endurance? I have no doubt that this is for the same reason that the novels of Patrick O’Brian are so popular.
Like them, The Shawshank Redemption is first and foremost about friendship – the friendship between Andy Dufresne and Red portrayed in the film by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. “Friends and trust are rare commodities in prison,” I wrote, “but like shoots growing from cracks in the urban concrete, the human need for companions defeats all obstacles.”
My friend, Pornchai Moontri, had a very different prison experience from the one I was living back then. In the seven years I spent in squalor, eight to a cell, he spent those same seven years in the utter cruelty of solitary confinement. Thrown together, we at first had very different prison anxieties. I feared never being alone. He feared always being alone. As the years passed in our cell, Pornchai accomplished great things, and these were documented along the way as These Stone Walls reached out around the world. We will link to a few of those posts at the end of this one.
In a few months, my friend’s sentence will come to an end, but the bonds of prison will linger. He will be handed over for a stay with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for removal to his native Thailand, a country from which he was forcibly removed as a child at age eleven. He will emerge into the unknown in Bangkok, Thailand, but Divine Mercy has woven a place for him in “A Stitch in Time: Threads of the Tapestry of God.”
As broken as I know my heart will be, my spirit rejoices at the very thought of Pornchai’s freedom. I had a dream of joining him there in freedom one day. It is only a dream. But I cannot help recalling the words that Stephen King gave to Andy Dufresne’s friend, Red, as he finally emerged from Shawshank. I cling to these words in our final months together adrift on my endless, raging sea called prison:
- “I am so excited I can hardly hold the pen in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting on a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
- I hope Andy is down there.
- I hope I can make it across the border.
- I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
- I hope the Pacific is as blue as I have seen it in my dreams.
- I hope.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The readers of These Stone Walls have been especially generous in helping to provide sustenance and a future for Pornchai Moontri. He must start his life over at age 47 in Thailand, a land he has not seen since age 11. He will leave the United States in I.C.E. custody, permitted to have nothing but the clothes on his back after 28 years in prison. Thanks to you, $16,500 has been raised to assist him during this major transition. We have given him hope, a priceless gift. Should you wish to assist him now or in the future, use the PayPal link on These Stone Walls or send your gift to Pornchai Moontri or Fr. Gordon MacRae in care of: These Stone Walls, P.O. Box 205, Wilmington, MA 01887-0205.
Thank you. You may also like these related posts from Father Gordon MacRae:
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand
- I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope
- Pornchai Moontri: The Catholic League Changed My Life Too
- Imprisoned by Walls, Set Free by Wood