(Editor’s note: The Vanguard is proud to announce a new project in partnership with Incarcerated Allied Media. Thanks to Dr. Joan Parkin and D. Razor Babb. These articles are published by Incarcerated Individuals at Mule Creek State Prison and part of the Mule Creek Post publication.)
By Jesse Carson
RECENTLY, I FOUND myself moved to another part of the building to accommodate someone who wasn’t getting along with one of his cellmates. I wasn’t excited about the move, as I was pretty comfortable with my cellmates and had lived in the same bed for three years; plus, I was placed in what would turn out to be the outbreak section of the building. I’m usually slow to get used to new people, so a set of five cellmates to adjust to was not great either.
Soon after moving in, one of my new cellmates asked me where I was from. Aaron was surprised (most are) when I said “Washington,” and then asked more specifically where from. I told him I was from Richland, one of the Tri-Cities in the southeastern high desert (yes, Washington has a desert). I wasn’t surprised that he was familiar with the place; over the years, I’ve met a lot of guys who’ve been through the area at one point or another on their way somewhere else.
We moved to the Tri-Cities, where my stepdad is from, as I was preparing for fourth grade. His family had moved to Kennewick in 1943 when the U.S. government bought all the land from residents of Hanford and White Bluffs to make space for a nuclear facility that would one day provide 10 billion MWh for several states but also the fissile material for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The locals, who’d spent many hard years coaxing fruit orchards from the irrigated land following the dream of an easy life, were notified in March that they had until June to be gone. I recommended a book to Aaron which I’d just finished reading, Orchards of Eden, following one family’s journey from Tacoma to White Bluffs before the eviction.
Aaron shared that he, too, was a Washingtonian, though from farther west, a town called Amboy. I’d never heard of it, nor any of the other hamlets he named in the area. As he continued talking, though, he mentioned a high school — Battle Ground High — that sounded familiar, a name I remember seeing on a T-shirt my mother used to wear. When I called home a few days later, I mentioned this to my mom and aunt, who informed me that Amboy was where they’d grown up.
“Nobody’s from Amboy,” exclaimed my aunt when I said I had a cellmate from their hometown. That sure seemed true. Amboy is a 10-square-mile aggregation of people in Clark County, the southwest corner of Washington. I’m not even sure it’s actually a town: The 2010 census found a population of 1,608, and calls it a “census-designated place.” My aunt remembers about 600 when she lived there, “counting the cows” my uncle jokes. It’s so small that students travel to Battle Ground to attend high school (where about 17,000 people live). “We were lucky to have an elementary school,” she recalls. When I was younger, I was driven by the old family home. I remember it being a house and some trees along a highway in the middle of nowhere. That was Amboy. It consisted of a post office, grocery store, gas station, volunteer fire department, the grade school, and several taverns. “In the good old days,” muses my uncle, “there was a popular place called ‘Nick’s Tavern.’ Nick served customers downstairs, and his sister served different customers upstairs…”
If there was anything noteworthy to say of Amboy, it was the vicinity to Mt. St. Helens. My grandmother “jumped out of her chair like she’d been bit” when it erupted, Mom recalls. Great-Grandma Behrend, a talented painter, captured the mountain from a photo before it blew and again after; both paintings hang in family homes.
As Aaron and I continued talking, and both of us talked to our parents, it was discovered that his uncle was pretty sure he knew my mom in high school. We never got to follow up on this connection, though, as within a couple of weeks Aaron (and soon all of my cellmates) would test positive for the coronavirus and disappear among those moved for quarantine. What infinitesimal odds, for two people with a direct connection to such a small place in Washington — two yards at the prison have more residents than Amboy — to wind up in a cell together in California!
I shared the story with Dad, and we got to talking about his family. I asked about what drew them to those “Orchards of Eden” in the desert, and he shared his great-grandpa’s story of going from Seattle longshoreman to desert orchardist for his health, and how his wife and daughters took one look at the arid landscape of the Priest Rapids Valley and stepped back on the train to leave him and his sons to work the land. He added that his grandmother wasn’t from Washington herself, but from Idaho, a fact I’d heard before, a little town she always pronounced WEEZ-uh. With the incomprehensible odds of the Amboy connection still fresh in my mind, a thought popped into my head. “Do you spell that W-E-I-S-E-R?” I asked him. “Yeah, I think so,” he answered. “That’s WEEZ-er,” I exclaimed.
Danny and I were friends for about four years and cellmates for about two before he transferred. He always talked about his home back in Weiser, Idaho. It was another improbable connection: Weiser is actually considered a city, the seat of Washington County in eastern Idaho, but its population is only about 5,500 spread out over three square miles. The town calls itself the “Fiddling Capital of the World” and hosts the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest every summer since 1953, but there’s not much else to say about this place that once expected to be a major transportation center in the 1890s (before two different railroads decided to build their stations elsewhere).
There are some 95,000 people incarcerated in California’s prisons, and of course most are from the Golden State. Even if they didn’t actually know each other beyond the gates, almost everyone can get lost recollecting streets and businesses and families with others they meet from their hometown. I’ve never had that opportunity, and so unlike other guys in prison, I almost never ask “Where are you from?” when meeting someone. But now I see that this really is a small world, and I just may run into someone who’s from my family’s hometown — or even mine.
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