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The Most Unlikely Students

Part of my training for the Vietnam War was cliff rappelling; climbing down the face of a sheer rock cliff on the end of a (hopefully) strong rope. When I returned home from combat, it came to me that I could actually use this skill to accomplish some good right in my home state. So I called the director of training and education for the state prison.

“Sam, I would like to teach some of your most hardened prisoners how to rappel down rock cliffs.”

My request clearly threw him off-guard. Nobody had ever approached him with such a request. After discussing the idea with the warden, he called me with their answer. “Bill, we are desperate in the prison and don’t know what to do with some of our most incorrigible prisoners. We’ve got killers, rapists, bank robbers, and more. They won’t even mix with the rest of our prison population. But the warden and I figured, what do we have to lose? Nothing else seems to be working. We are willing to let you try it with 23 prisoners.”

Wow! Twenty-three prisoners? I wasn’t expecting that. But I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass by. We made the arrangements and I began to plan – and pray.

The day before they arrived, I ordered 150 donuts from the local bakery. When I picked them up the next morning and told the baker who they were for, he got so excited that he gave the whole bunch to me at his cost! I think he wanted to be part of this kind act too.

It was finally time to meet my “students.” Into the parking lot came four state patrol cars and a big gray prison bus carrying all 23 prisoners. Each of the prisoners was shackled, not only on their hands and ankles, but also to the seat handle in front of them. Before any of them got off the bus, the guards informed me that, while I was in charge of the activity, they would be keeping a watchful eye on this motley group of thugs. What none of them realized was that I had wrestled with murderers and felons in my Ranger unit in Vietnam.

To this day, I don’t think the prisoners or guards expected what I was going to do. I asked that all shackles be removed. (After all, they couldn’t go cliff rappelling if they couldn’t move.) Then, as the prisoners got off the bus, I warmly greeted each one. “Good morning, Sir. I’m thrilled that you would come all the way up here to see me.”

That greeting was so unexpected that the demeanor of the prisoners (and the guards) completely changed.

When they were finally lined up, I surprised them by opening the boxes and telling them I brought my favorite chocolate-covered donuts to share. Then I said, “Men, I brought some for your guards, too. Do you think we should give ‘em any?”

Before anyone could answer I continued, “Oh, let’s give ‘em a break. They like donuts, too.”

Then it was my turn to be surprised. Suddenly, the prisoners got excited to share a donut with the guards! When I recounted that scene to Sam, he told me that the guards firmly believed that each of the prisoners purposely handed donuts to the very guard who they felt had been the most unfriendly to them. It was probably the only time those prisoners had ever been given a chance to render a kind gesture to their guards.

Never had I seen a box of donuts disappear so quickly, but now I had to get down to the task at hand. I pulled out all the equipment I had brought and carefully explained how all the ropes, belts, and carabiners were used.

They were thrilled and anxious to try cliff rappelling, but before we started, I insisted on giving everyone of those men a hug. Each of them eagerly lined up while the guards just stood there, amazed at the sight. Later, several of the prisoners told me it was one of the only times they had ever been hugged, and it was the highlight of their whole trip.

We had so much fun that day rappelling off the cliffs overlooking the St. Croix River. We only stopped long enough to have a quick lunch. That is, if you think grilling 20 pounds of hamburgers is quick. The guards helped me light the fire and get an old grill set up. But once those hamburgers were ready, they didn’t last long at all. I’d never seen such a bunch of savage eaters. They scarfed down everything in sight!

As the day ended, and before they got back on the bus, I gathered them together and made a suggestion. I told them what the baker had done when I picked up the donuts and that it would mean a lot to him if each of them sent a short thank-you note expressing their appreciation for such a treat. I even gave a supply of stamps to the guards so they could distribute them when the letters were written.

As I stepped back from the group, I just stood there and looked into each of their faces. I don’t think the guards or I realized that within these career criminals, there was a potential for kindness still left within their hardened hearts.

At that thought I couldn’t contain myself, and I broke out in tears.

Before I knew it, 15 to 20 of those tough guys – prisoners AND guards – broke out in tears themselves. The guards later told me those men had been so stoic that they had never before seen any of them cry.

When that day ended, I realized it had been one of the most exciting and meaningful days of my life. It had gone so well that four more police-escorted bus caravans drove over to see me during the summer. I even hear from one of the prisoners each Christmas, even though it’s been more than 51 years since we went rappelling.

And what about my baker friend? Not long afterward, he told me he had received a bundle of thank-you notes from the prisoners and the guards. I believe each of those men desperately wanted to return his kind gesture with one of their own.

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