This is part 2 of an 8 part series about a poison gas attack on three Michigan Prisons located in Muskegon, Michigan
Scenario Number Nine: Death by Poison Gas
A True Michigan Prison Story
Part 2of 8
Warden Biggie Biggins dresses (it’s automatic: shirt, tie, suit) and the last thing he slips on is his father’s watch. That old Bulova his dad wore to church and fishing but never to work. Dad didn’t want to die with it on.
A peek into son Tom’s room and he’s asleep. The kid sleeps through anything. Warden Biggins touches his lips to Tom’s forehead and it’s cool. Tom rustles, then is still. Warden Biggins thinks of the walks they take in the woods behind their house, past the witch’s tree with its branches like gnarled old knees, and along the ravines where deer and woodcock explode from cover then disappear. He asks so many questions and Warden Biggins loves those questions and loves answering them. They’re often gone for hours and Anita worries and when they return. She says, “Well it’s about time you two decided to come home,” but she always smiles and Tom and the Biggie blame each other for being so tardy.
Anita fills a travel mug with more coffee and puts it on the kitchen counter near the side door.
“Call me when things calm down,” she says. She knows not to press for details because she knows Biggie doesn’t have them. Anyway, by now he hardly hears her. He’s in turtle-like withdrawal, she’s used to it in emergencies, when the world recedes and becomes very, very small. They kiss. He walks from the house to the garage passing under the large dark maple with throbbing cicadas and crickets answering their own rhythmic lament.
The trip in, and his body is hyperesthesiac: the air is heavy; every ridge and bump in his truck’s seat is alive; the radio a harridan. He turns it off. He calls Captain Whelton to bring in the Physical Plant Superintendent, and Fire Safety officer, and what medical staff she can round up.
“Oh, and see if you can reach Hannah Look,” Warden Biggie Biggins says. “We’ll need to activate the media team.”
Anita and Tom: Her intellectual companionship. Her soft brown hair. The warm press of her body at night. His amazing curiosity and curious laugh.
Warden Biggins descends a country road into the Grand River valley and crosses the bridge north of Allendale. Shoulders of fog hug the riverbank. Headlights shimmie against the fog, shadows ricochet off the dense, black, suspended wet — is this what the gas will look like, only green? And the fog parts and folds around his truck and the vents deliver it to him and he smells its dampness and sucks it in his lungs. His gray mottled world was jarred by the cell phone’s electro-chirp in the seat next to him.
“How did you know?”
She laughs and says all the officers came in and she dressed them out and placed one squad in the visiting room, and another in the muster room.
Was Warden Biggins surprised so many showed up? Responding to emergencies is in their DNA. Many live near the prisons in the area being evacuated. He suspects they’ve sent their families off and are adhering to the practiced prison procedure ritual. He’s grateful.
“And the PSPO? I don’t feel right leaving him out there.”
Warden Biggins says, “Leave him out there for now. We still have time. I figure four hours, max. But tell him what you’re doing and you’ll be getting him in as soon as the squads are ready.”
“Should I issue gas masks?”
Gas masks? Will they work against chlorine? How many are there? Who will get them? Who will decide?
“No,” Warden Biggie Biggins say. “But have a supervisor, make it a Lieutenant, you do have a Lieutenant…?”
“Yes sir, Saleem.”
“…have him count the gas masks and report that count only to you. When I get there let me know what we have…wait, on second thought, we must have enough for two squads. Distribute them to everybody carrying a weapon, then let me know what’s left over.”
There’s silence, and Warden Biggie Biggins hears a cough, or maybe a cleared throat, and Captain Whelton says, “You don’t want anyone in the control center to have one?”
“Keri, tell your staff they’ll get theirs when I get mine . . . but frankly, I don’t see that happening.
Hell Keri, we don’t even know the fucking things will work against chlorine gas.”
Warden Biggie Biggins drops the phone between his thighs and fumbles to retrieve it. “Keri? Are you still with me?”
“I’m here. What happened?”
He laughs and says, “It’s too complicated.”
“Warden, I want to give a gas mask to the bubble officer, the PSPO. And the two guard tower officers. They’re going to be our last line of defense if anything, well, what I mean is…”
Five fifty-five. Warden Biggie Biggins wonders: Is this what it’s like on death row; to know the time of your death? Is it this quiet, this calm, this calm melancholy, this scared resignation? Warden Biggie enters Muskegon and approaches the roadway to the prison property entrances blocked in his direction by local police. A line of vehicles moved away from him like a funeral procession. Civil defense officers keep everyone moving with rhythmically swinging flashlights. Klaxons of disaster. Emergency vehicles emit multi-colored flashes that illuminate the surroundings with strobing movement.
Warden Biggie Biggins shows ID and they let him pass. About a quarter mile more through thick scrub oak and the glowing prison compound emerged from the woods: a cement and steel netherworld, harshly lit and devoid of movement. Warden Biggie Biggins pulls into his designated parking slot and the PSPO vehicle silently glides past. He watches it disappear, along the perimeter fence, finally enveloped by humidity. Warden Biggins doesn’t want to leave his truck. The engine is still running.
Muskegon: Sandwiched between prosperous resort communities on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore; one of several blue-collar communities defined by hard times, unemployment, crime, drugs, the perfect place for prisons. The resort communities are white, white sand, white people, and Muskegon is heavily black, its waters and beaches laced with old industry pollution. Paper mills, chemicals.
Muskegon: During the Second World War tank parts were made here and many African-Americans moved north for the work.
Muskegon Heights: Where the prisons are now the second largest employer, and a major employer of African-Americans. White America’s solution to crime: hire blacks to lock up blacks.
Muskegon Heights: Where the toxic cloud is heading; how convenient for richer, whiter, communities.
And this is where the warden will die? Another blue-collar town? After all the childhood chemical explosion bullshit. All the education. All those lousy jobs to get through school. To die like his old man? Not slowly like his dad’s accumulated exposure, a triumph of lung cancer, but all at once. Or maybe it will be slow and painful. God damn it! You think when you’re this close to it you’d know what it’ll be like.
Go home. This is it. You can still go home. Anita is there. Tom is there. Put it back in gear and go home.
The PSPO stops next to the perimeter fence, and Captain Whelton approaches it.
Warden Biggins shuts off his truck and locks his cell phone in the glove box. Keri talks to PSPO officer.
Warmth and humidity cradle Brooks and excite pale green cicadas hidden among scrub oaks that borders the perimeter fence shielding adjacent neighborhoods. Rhythmic cicada chatter, almost throbbing, a counterpoint to the radio’s electro-squawk, magnified by night stillness, a breezeless blackness behind the mercury-vapor illuminated prison compound. Yellow-Orange harsh. Quiet.
Sweat rivulets form on the Officer’s arm braced on the windowless PSPO vehicle door. Keri’s bare brown arms sleeved by humidity.
“This better be good,” she says to the PSPO.
“Yes Mam,” he says and turns down the volume on his FM radio and increases that of his institutional radio. “Listen to this.”
“….to repeat a breaking local story, the Muskegon County Sheriff’s department has stated that Lomax Chemical plant personnel have reported a large chemical spill at their Muskegon plant. A Sheriff’s spokesman says a chlorine gas cloud has resulted and is moving west toward the city of Muskegon Heights. Persons located between the plant and Muskegon Heights, from an area north of Sherman Boulevard and south of Laketon Avenue, are being advised by Muskegon County HAZMAT to evacuate immediately….”
Warden Biggie Biggins is near enough to hear her say, “I already know and have called the warden. James, we’re going to quietly mobilize and I need you to do your job. I’ll get back with you. Continue making your rounds.”
“Yes Ma’am . . . I mean Ma’am, with all due respect, should I be out here?”
She’s recently been promoted to captain and sensitive to the image she projects during these first few months, particularly with the white male officers.
“James,” she says, placing her hand on his left elbow resting on the windowless driver’s side door, struggling to maintain a sense of sang-froid, “you need to trust me. I won’t forget you.”
“Yes Mam,” he says, placing the vehicle in gear and resuming his crawl along the perimeter fence.