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Tuesday
Nov282017

My Moment with Charles Manson

Manson at Corcoran State Prison, August 2017Charles Manson is dead. He died on November 17, 2017 of natural causes at the age of 83. I suspect for the vast number of people who remember him the, reaction upon hearing the news was “good riddance.” Having said that, he did, or does, have a cult following. The underground debated whether or not he was just a sick bastard or Christ returned. The Weather Underground positively loved the killings. Vincent Bugliosi in a prologue to the 1994 edition of his book Helter Skelter, a book about the murders and the Manson Family, quoted a BBC staff member claiming a neo-Manson cult exits in Europe, including seventy bands that play songs by Manson and songs in support of the killer. There are half a dozen popular songs written about Manson, including Revolution Blues by Neil Young, Look at Your Game, Girl by Guns N’ Roses. And there are at least seven works of fiction devoted to Manson’s story, including: Helter Skelter a drama for TV; the film Manson Family Movies; the novel Dead Circus; and a Broadway musical called Assassins that focuses the Manson Family.

Manson lived a lot of his life in California State Prison at Corcoran, but on September 25, 1984 he was sent to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, California. He needed medical care because a fellow inmate named Jan Holmstrom poured paint thinner on him and lit a match. Manson ended up with second and third-degree burns on 20 percent of this body. Apparently Mason had objected to Holmstrom’s Hare Krishna chants.

The medical facility at Vacaville is a prison. It was there that I met Manson. The inmates at Vacaville called it the Holiday Inn of Prisons. The hallways were painted much like my high school and many other institutional buildings. When I was visiting the prison most inmates could roam fairly freely for many hours of each day. I went to group therapy sessions, the chapel, the medical ward, and visited with individual inmates.  

In addition to the medical wing, I remember two other distinct wards. One was an honors ward where inmates with good behavioral records were housed. At the entrance of the ward was a painted line and an inmate seated at a small table. He greeted me and the guard who was giving me a tour of the prison. The guard explained that I was being shown the prison and stepped over the line. The inmate quickly got up, welcomed us, and said he would announce our presence in case any of the inmates were going to the toilet (the toilets in the cells, or houses as the inmates called them, were completely visible to anyone looking through the cell door window). The guard said that was not necessary because I could see whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and proceed down the ward. I hung back behind the line, nodded to the inmate, and let him check each cell before I entered.

The guard wasn’t a bad man. It’s just that he worked inside an organism with its own rules of conduct and decency. While he would never watch someone going to the toilet outside the prison, inside he lived by different and distorted rules. He was a guard and they were inmates. Not much more to say. I had not yet been in the organism long enough to be infected and thus for my understanding of proper conduct and decency to be challenged. I wondered if, suspected that, if I lived long enough inside the belly of this Holiday Inn beast I to would be compromised.

The section ward in the prison that remains vivid in my memory after all these years was the high security ward where serious offenders were kept and movement was more restricted. When Manson was not in the medical facility, he was in the high security ward. I can’t remember why I entered this ward, but at the time I was on my own.

Manson's booking photo for San Quentin State Prison in California on January 25, 1971.WikiMedia CommonsThere was a narrow circular steel staircase, I think painted green, leading up to the second level. I began walking up that staircase and about midway I realized someone was descending. Because the staircase was so narrow I stopped and squeezed myself against the railing to let the other person pass by. When the man coming down the staircase reached me, he stopped and faced me. It was Charles Manson. We stood face to face, nose to nose, looking in each other’s eyes. We were almost touching. We could smell each other. I wasn’t frightened, just surprised. I knew Manson was in the prison, but of course never thought I’d meet him. Nor did I want to meet him. We stood there staring at each other until he said hello and continued walking down the stairs. As he squeezed by I also said hello and then proceed up to the second level.

On the drive back down to the Bay Area I thought about this brief yet intense, almost intimate, encounter. His gaze was deeply concentrated, but wouldn’t that be so for most any inmate crammed up so close, belly to belly, to an outsider. I was not mesmerized. I was not impressed. I did not feel special or excited. Still, it was interesting being so close to someone so utterly brutal who had mesmeric influences over others. Is interesting the right word? Yes and no. The encounter was also something else, slightly beyond the intellectual. Something also visceral.

You’ll be happy to know that I didn’t become a cult member or seek out The Family. I didn’t read his writings, sing is songs, or write a book all about a grizzle murder conducted by a man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead. Still, I haven’t forgotten the encounter after all these years, and goodness knows I’ve forgotten most everything else.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

 

 

 

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