Copyright © 1998 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 6(1) (1998) 27-32
AN AMBIGUOUS PEACE: THE LIFE OF A
RETIRED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER
J Forbes Farmer, Ph.D.
Franklin Pierce College
There is an unmarked gravel road on Route 55 in
South Tamworth, New Hampshire, near the Route 113
intersection. It's a spruce-hidden right, just beyond
a cute post office that I first mistook as a farm
stand. If you've been in the area, perhaps venturing
for Mt. Chocorua or Mt. Washington and wanted to avoid
the slow traffic or the icy switchbacks on the
Kancamagus Highway, then maybe the tiny white post
office caught your eye. Anyway, about three bumpy
miles out the gravel road, in one of those one-
bedroom-trailers - the kind that gets demolished in
tornadoes - lives Karl Ebert, a kind, courageous and
unpretentious guy I met some time back.
Five years ago, when Karl was fifty-seven and
combed considerably more blond hair, he retired from
the Moultonboro State Prison, where he'd been a
correctional officer for thirty years. His rookie
years were during what he calls the "notorious and
tyrannical reign of the Order of the Golden Eagles."
Supposedly, the "Golden Eagles" were veteran officers
who beat up cons for no apparent reason other than to
be mean. The way Karl tells it, his surviving those
years was almost as difficult as being the
disinherited grandson of the Ebert Aluminum Eberts.
As far as I know, no one ever bothered to verify
Karl's claim about the "Golden Eagles," but the South
Tamworth postmaster swears that disability checks come
to Karl G. Ebert, III, so being as IIIs are usually
only used by families looking to be fancy, there's
probably something to that claim. Most folks just
think of him as a mysterious recluse because Karl only
leaves his trailer once a week, and then only for an
hour or so with Caroline Fiche.
Caroline, Karl's widowed neighbor, herself
suffering sixty-seven and slowed down from arthritis
in her hands and knees, has been driving him to do his
errands since he retired. Karl wasn't supposed to
retire until he was sixty-two, but he lost most of his
eyesight breaking up a fight between two methadone
cons who were arguing over the "formula" they were
going to use to concoct explosive pipe-bomb powder out
of fertilizer they had stolen from the prison green
house. So every Monday for the last five years
Caroline has driven Karl to the town recycling center,
the State Liquor Store, the village market and the
post office. Karl prefers to do the errands in this
exact order, so they do. It's not that Caroline
obliges out of sympathy for Karl's poor vision or
deference to his years of structured prison work, she
actually rather likes it. She does almost the same
errands Karl does, and she admits that the order makes
Both of them hate driving around with smelly
trash, so at their first stop they dump the green
plastic bags and their empty glass bottles, jars and
jugs at the recycling center. Long ago, Karl gave up
needing Caroline to tell him which bottle was what
color and what color bottle went where. It is not
that his vision improved, the doctors are convinced [End page 27]
his problem will never self-correct, the only hope for
improved eyesight is a terribly expensive and
generally unaffordable operation. His vision is
frustratingly limited to slightly out of focus objects
in blue-gray tones. He knows where the bottles go now
because he always buys the same brands and has learned
the colors by shape. The only question he asks now
is, "Any Victoria's Secrete catalogs in the magazine
bin?" To which Caroline always scolds, "no" and then
adds "and you couldn't focus those blues on the girls
Then they go across town and buy a half-gallon of
Bacardi rum for Karl's rum and cokes and a fifth of
Gordon's gin for Caroline's extra dry martinis,
straight up. She prefers Beefeater's, but she can't
afford it on her meager social security. Then they
walk next door to Cresenti's Market, where four paper
bags of groceries and two ten-pound bags of black oil
sunflower seeds have already been prepared for them
from a standing list. Before leaving, they always
make sure to buy their "winning" Tri State Megabucks
tickets, and they usually add some "impulsive stuff."
Karl likes chopped clams and sour cream for clam dip,
and Caroline loves oysters, if they're fresh, for
chowder she makes from her grandmother's "secrete
recipe." Every week they buy the clams and oysters,
but they're not on the list. Every week Karl asks,
"Know what I'd like?" "What's that?" Caroline
responds. "Some clam dip." And Caroline says,
"Sounds good to me. And I'm going to splurge for some
oysters for stew." Then they check for mail at the
little white post office, and she drives Karl back to
"Thanks, Chanel," says Karl. "See you next week.
I'll be listening for the Titmice. Hope they can fix
your washing machine."
Caroline laughs and says, "Hope so, too, Dobbs.
And maybe I'll invite the Sears man for dinner. Enjoy
your dip and be good."
Even though Caroline is Karl's closest neighbor,
she lives another mile down the gravel road in a small
modular house on which she and her husband took out a
medically motivated and barely affordable second
mortgage before he died. When Karl retired and moved
into the trailer a year later, she used to mosey up
the gravel road to visit him. First just to say
"hello," and then to listen to his prison stories and
to help him adjust to retirement and to being so
"visually impaired." When they first met he referred
to himself as "poor, blind and visually helpless."
Caroline worked on him for months before he was
willing to accept "poor, visually impaired and
helpful." Now they're buddies. He calls her Chanel
because of her perfume. She calls him Dobbs because
his favorite movie is "Treasure of the Sierra Madre"
with Humphrey Bogart playing the crusty Fred C. Dobbs.
She says Karl doesn't look or act like Bogie though,
more like the strong jawed, gaunt, sensitive and
melancholy Mikhail Baryshnikov she saw and read about
in Time magazine. He wishes he could see the movie one
last time. [End page 28]
The Titmouse thing relates to bird watching, one
of Karl's favorite and most contemplative pastimes.
He and Caroline nailed an open birdhouse to his back
deck railing, about three feet from a big picture
window that radiates the warm morning sun. Relaxed in
his worn comfortable chair, Karl sips the richest and
darkest Colombian coffee that Cresenti's Market
carries and, squinting, studies the birds, chipmunks
and squirrels as they feed and interact in front of
him. For a long time the only birds he could attract
were chickadees and blue jays, but recently a new
variety appeared. They were about the same size as
chickadees, but the gray shading and song were
different. And he thought there was a tuft of
feathers on their heads. Caroline identified them as
Titmice and helped him differentiate the songs.
Karl sits in his "bird chair" for hours,
marveling at how the birds, even within the same
species, differ in their eating habits. Some prefer
eating alone and, unwilling to share, frighten off the
others. Some don't mind eating with others, even
birds of different species. Some are sneaky. If a
larger blue jay eats alone, a chickadee waits until
the blue jay's back is turned, and then hops in, picks
up a sunflower seed, and races off. The squirrels and
the chipmunks behave much the same. Some squirrels
don't mind sharing with the birds, but attack other
squirrels that come near. It is funny how the
chipmunks are the most accommodating of them all. Of
course they are so busy stuffing their cheeks that
intruders don't bother them.
Karl sees many similarities between the bird and
squirrel behavior and that of people, especially cons
he remembers. There was "One-Ear Billy" who strong-
armed canteen food from weaker cons. There was "Gypsy
Steve," who traded fortune telling for desserts.
There were two Black Muslims, Jamale and Moses, who
cooked gourmet meals on their hot plate with supplies
that were mysteriously delivered to their cell. There
was Raoule, a Latin Kings gang leader, who controlled
the seating arrangement in the west side chow hall.
And there was Penny, the lipsticked prison prostitute
who hoarded the cookies and candy bars he received for
Karl suspects that he is probably
anthropomorphizing his sunflower feeding friends, but
that is what makes this pastime so contemplative. He
sits there wondering if chickadees can tell each other
apart. Except for size, Karl can't tell them apart.
Do they have friends to hang with? Do they always eat
with the same buddies? Do their parents keep in touch
with them? Are they mad at their parents for kicking
them out and abandoning them? Do they feel abandoned?
Do they have a word for that? If they get angry, how
do they communicate their anger? Do they talk or
fight? Do sisters get along with brothers? Can they
see the sunflower seeds from their tree perch? Do
they smell them? Are they gourmet? How do squirrels
see under the snow? What do blue jays think of the
chickadees? Do they have laws, outcasts or codes of
conduct? Do they think or feel?" [End page 29]
"I'm depressed," Karl told me a month ago when I
called him to arrange my recent visit. "And I'm mad.
Since my mom died last year, my family won't talk to
me. As you know, they never could stand that I was a
CO. They think I blew my Andover education, and that
I wasted my life working with cons, the 'useless
trash,' as my dad used to say."
"I didn't know he was still alive," I said.
"He'd be about eighty-nine. Surely someone, my
brother or sister, would have called me. Dad
certainly had the old social Darwinism down cold.
Just like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Just like a squirrel
at my birdhouse that's looking out for itself. He was
even worried that the cons could get to the family
through me. He thought I was stupid, but I only
shared private stuff with cons I really trusted."
"You miss your family?" I asked.
"Kind of. Chanel is all I've got now, and I
really don't have her."
"Maybe I should ask her to marry me."
"Would my eyes matter?"
"I could never ask my family for eye operation
money. Damn those two inmates."
"I was just breaking up their fight and keeping
them from killing each other. Then they threw that
fertilizer into my eyes. What makes men so violent,
the same thing that makes some squirrels so mean?"
I didn't have any answers for him, and told him
so. He talked. I listened. I hadn't seen him in
several years, but I'd kept in touch by phone.
The visit I arranged was a week ago. I was
sipping black Colombian with Karl and Caroline in
front of the "bird window." His trailer was cramped
with a low ceiling and we sat knee-to-knee in stuffed
chairs. The two of them had returned from their
weekly errands, and Caroline, who Karl had been raving
about for years, came in to meet me. We chatted for
awhile about prison life, about struggling on welfare,
in my case, and disability or social security for Karl
and Caroline. Karl bitched about not being able to
afford an eye operation.
"Damn the state and damn the Department of
Corrections. Bunch of cheap good-for-nothings. I
can't see crap, but they won't let me take full
retirement. And the disability pay sucks." [End page 30]
There was an uneasy tenderness in his voice,
however, when he spoke of how happy he was having his
"God, I wish I could see her soft face," he said
to me as he looked at Caroline.
"Shit," she said, "my face is vulture ugly."
I looked at her hazel eyes and high cheekbones,
accented by the bright sunlight, and said, "You're
"Thanks, but your eyes are worse than Dobbs's."
After a while, a peaceful quiet overcame us.
Karl and I were absorbed by the flurry of bird and
squirrel activity. The ruffling of a newspaper broke
the stillness on our side of the window.
"I wonder if either of us won the lottery," said
Caroline, searching in the paper for the winning
Karl didn't respond. The blue jays were
controlling the birdhouse.
"Chanel, did I ever tell you about the time I was
almost killed in the prison yard?"
"No, dear...no, you sure didn't. Tell me," she
said, without looking up.
"Well, another CO and I were escorting a shackled
con across the recreation
yard. We were taking him to a higher security
cellblock. He'd been remanded there for brewing
homemade hooch under his cell. The con, a tall,
intelligent, and good-natured fellow who I'd
befriended over the years, tripped on the leg irons.
The other officer and I bent down to help him. On the
opposite side of the yard, a hundred weight lifting
cons watched us. They thought we were beating the guy
up. They started running towards us. We were
helpless. There were two other COs in the yard, but
they were on their break, having smokes in the far
corner. I looked up behind me to see if the tower
officer was watching. He was a sharp shooter with a
high-powered rifle. But the tower officer was turned
away and, with his window closed, couldn't hear us.
We froze. What could we do? Then the wall of cons
was about thirty feet from contact, and we were ten
seconds from being goners; I stood up, raised my arms
in the air and yelled. I just yelled 'STOP, don't
come any closer!' And I don't know why, but they all
stopped. They froze right there and let us walk away
with the con."
"Wow!" said Caroline who, when I looked at her,
seemed only half listening and preoccupied with the
paper. She looked up at me and asked, "Did you know
"Felt it, close up," I said. "I'm that
intelligent guy who tripped." [End page 31]
"Wow!" Caroline said again. But even though she
seemed surprised, her reaction was more skeptical or
disinterested, or something.
"Dobbs?" she asked in a tone that led me to
believe she was looking for confirmation or some
acknowledgement of the truth. Then I noticed her
engrossment in the paper.
"Your number. Your lottery number. Isn't it..."
"1-3-6-11-22-33," Karl interrupted.
Caroline smiled a broad smile and showed Karl the
number in the paper. They looked at each other and
Karl checked the number again. Then he jumped up.
She jumped up. They screamed, danced around, and
flailed their arms, so much so that they scared off
all the birds and squirrels. As for me? I sat there
watching. It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so
emotional. Was this a joke? No, it was true. When I
came to realize it, I cried in joy. In retrospect, I
am quite amazed at myself. Crying is normally no easy
feat for a recently paroled con, but Karl had.well, he
touched my life.
[End page 32]