A prisoner on Death Row will touch your heart, no matter your stand on the Death Penalty.
|Lee Anderson keeps asking the time. Sweat drips from his forehead, his teeth grind audibly. Every inch of his body screams. His last earthly meal is the same one he requested at his last execution date. What a cruel joke since fluids were all he could tolerate now. The tray in front of him is untouched, the bloody sirloin, loaded baked potato, salad and pecan pie make him nauseous. With his last ounce of strength, he pushed the plate to the floor. Hell could be no worse.
The men that walk through the doors of Louisiana State Penitentiary expect to die there. Sentences of life without parole or the death penalty are why you are sent to Angola Prison. With Louisiana's humidly and hundred- degree temperatures, the lifers raise crops to sell and for their own table. There is a hospital, store, church and a cemetery. It is a town with a zip code. Around Southern Louisiana this place is called the "Farm" and that's what it is, a working farm where men toil and die.
One month ago he had been in this same olive green room with the huge clock, counting down the minutes. He ate his last meal and enjoyed it as much as anyone facing death could. His brother visited and said good-bye with a hug. A Priest listened to what was in Lee's heart and administered the last rites. This time Lee didn't want to see anyone.
If anyone asked him, he would have compared his life to "Leave it to Beaver". As a child, Lee had been quiet. He read a lot, and enjoyed playing outside alone. He had one brother, Clifford, who was five years older. Lee graduated from high school and went to work in the sugar refinery like his Daddy before him. His Mom had stayed at home to raise her children.
Lee passed by a new pawn shop in town. A Gibson guitar seemed to beckon him. It was beautiful, the body shaped like a woman with curves that ached to be caressed. A love affair began that day. He brought her home for twenty bucks. He put it on and posed in front of the mirror. Lee genuinely liked himself for the first time. He named his new lady "Sugar".
The next day he bought a "How to Play a Guitar in Ten Days" book and taught himself. He discovered he could play by ear. He would listen to the radio and copy the song. He began to write songs and the words came so easily. "Sugar" was his woman and love songs were about losing his ability to play. That seemed more devastating than losing any woman.
He hooked up with a couple of guys that liked blues and rockabilly sound. They even mixed some Zydeco in with it. They auditioned all the time and finally got a steady gig at a bar called "Krazy Kenny's". Shane played lead guitar, Danny played bass and Lee did rhythm guitar and vocals.
Lee had smoky dark eyes with beautiful long lashes and jet black hair. He had the face of a man that needed a woman. His dark looks reminded people of Elvis. The women loved him but he was more interested in Leadbelly, Blind Lemon and Robert Johnson. He did have short "roll in the hay" romances.
He would tell them in a slow sweet voice, as he ran his finger over their lips.
"Dahlin, we had some great lovin but I lose phone numbers."
The guys were trying to work ten hour shifts and play at two different bars. They were always sleep deprived. One slow night, Levon Hogan, a guy Lee knew from high school, came by.
He was a long distance truck hauler so he had the same problem with lack of sleep.
He told Lee about "Black Beauties."
"They are life savers, man. Plus, they make you feel like no one can beat you."
"I already feel that way, Levon, my life is great. I just need a pick me up."
"Then this will give it all to you then. You are Superman! Greatest in all things; playing guitar, singing, love making and bragging."
All of that was true for a while. They were beauties.
Levon was also a fine guitar picker and joined the band. He had a Stratocaster and a Marshall amp. Musicians were going electric. Levon's presence and expertise helped them but the drugs were a black omen of things to come.
It only took about ten months for Lee to discover an ugly side to the pills. They could make a man into a monster. Nothing else mattered but getting more. They sped you up so much you had to drink alcohol, smoke Pot or take another pill to slow down. Then he discovered Heroin. That wonderful feeling was better than sex. It felt like the most intense orgasm and lasted a few hours.
Lee was a full blown addict within the year. He always needed money for the "drug man." When the bar circuit was good, he had cash. For a while he had credit. Dealers cut that out soon enough. The band was losing gigs because of Lee's erratic behavior. They kicked him out.
It was an ugly scene when Lee started to swing his switch blade around. This was a gentle guy. He treated his women like gold, not cheating when he was in a relationship. He was generous, a good friend and a great musician.
But no one could talk to him. He was hell bent to throw away all he had worked for.
It was a dark day when he pawned his guitar. He was on the road to Hell. That guitar was his everything; mother and lover. He stood in the pawn shop sobbing like a small child. He was in dirty clothes and sleeping in the park. He panhandled . Now he was just so sick without the drugs, he had to have them to live. But he refused to prostitute himself.
The next step was robbery, something he had never done and was in no shape to try now. He was jerky and paranoid. A stupid fool, he knew he was doing it all wrong. A robbery should be planned while you're straight, able to think and have some backup.
The drug rush took over.
"Come on, you can do it. Are you a man or a mouse?"
Lee went into a drug store in a run down section outside New Orleans. He wanted money and maybe he could get some pills. It was a small drug store with an elderly clerk, Lily Mason, and the Manager/Pharmacist, Evan Schmidt. Evan was a sweet old guy that had survived the Holocaust. He actually took drugs to people's homes if they were too ill to get to the store.
A customer, Etta, was talking.
"Doc, I sure don't know what to do about my foot. I think it's a boil. Let me show you."
Most town people called Evan "Doc." If they couldn't get in to see the physician they brought their problems to Doc Schmidt. Etta took off her ace bandage to show it to him. Even Lee could smell the foot. It was infected.
It took about fifteen minutes for a demonstration of pouring peroxide in to clean it and then antibiotic cream, finally to cover it with a bandage.
Lee was thinking, ‘God will these two ever shut up?'
Doc asked about Ms. Gaynor's gallbladder surgery and Etta said they had prayed for her in church. Etta gathered her purchases, and said she needed to put jambalaya on. She promised the Doc a homemade pecan pie.
The store was quiet. The clerk had said goodnight and left Doc to close up.
Lee was hiding in the aisle close to the pharmacy register. He moved fast, catching the old man in a choke hold but the Pharmacist was feisty and happened to have a knife for opening stock boxes in his hand. He stabbed Lee in the front right thigh as deep as he could.
Lee, in horrible pain, screamed.
"You a dead man now!"
Lee stabbed the old man twenty times with a switchblade. After all Doc had been through it was hard to kill him, he fought to live. Lee finally cut the jugular and it sprayed every place. Covered with his victim's blood, Lee grabbed a bottle of medication left on the counter.
In an addict's haze and paranoia he opened the old register and grabbed the twenties. He heard the sirens so he ran out the emergency back door. His head and leg were both throbbing. He tried to run down an back alley. The manager of the grocery across the street had seen his friend "Doc" struggling with a stranger and dialed 911, so the cops were waiting for Lee.
Lee felt he had gotten screwed all the way around. There was only one hundred in the cash door. The drugs he had snatched weren't narcotics;' all the good stuff must a been double locked. The handful of Valium went in one gulp right before he was grabbed.
The old pharmacist was dead so Lee had murder plus robbery to send him to prison for life, and most likely the death penalty. He received a death sentence to be carried out in five years. It was 1975 and "Old Sparky" was used in Louisiana.
He was a model prisoner at Angola Prison once he detoxed. He was sorry for what he had done. Without the drugs, he was a nice guy. If you got in trouble there, punishment was confinement in a metal box, unable to stand, in the blinding Louisiana sun. Many didn't survive or their brains were fried and they weren't the same.
He worked in the carpentry shop where the prison made exquisite unique furniture for sale. In the shop the coffins were made for prisoners. Lee felt blessed to work on his own eternal home. It was fine wood with a tree carved on it, a beautiful elm with birds and Spanish moss. Against the tree trunk was a quiet guitar he had made, strings and all.
Lee thought how much better prison was than the year before he was caught. A prison guard had given him an old guitar to restring. If only he could erase the past, he would play and give everything to help drug addicts. It hadn't been him that did the crime, it was the shit he was on. A lot of the guys here had the same story. The drugs were demons.
Everyone loved to hear him sing and play. He played for visitors sometimes. His guitar, "Black Beauty", would be buried with him.
Back on October 5, he was strapped into the chair, a wet sponge on his head and electrical leads in place. He felt a jolt of lightening go through his body, rattling his teeth and sizzling his nerves. Again, the jolt came, his head felt like an explosion and his eyes bulged. Three times and he wouldn't die. His brain screamed "Take me please!"
The chair was refusing him. The Devil believed he needed to be punished more but this was horrible. He was like "death" walking around while they fixed the chair. Once in a while the prison doc gave him some Morphine. No one could stand to hear it. He sounded like a creature someone was sticking a burning poker into. If there had been a way to commit suicide he would have.
The faulty chair incident made the front page and the details were so graphic, readers tried to get the execution stopped. Lee prayed all the time that the chair would be fixed immediately. He was ready and eager for death. It took a month to rewire the chair and try it out. The Warden's job would be gone if a tragedy happened again.
Lee's burns covered a large portion of his body. They were infected, weeping fluid that smelled like a dead animal. His body was swollen with fluid from the burns. He couldn't sit or walk. His eyes were swollen shut and all he could do was lay on a plastic mattress that was used for burn patients in hospitals. They carried him to the chair. He was almost dead then from infection.
They strapped him in. His heartbeat felt like it was exploding outside of his chest.
This time the massive jolt caused a fire in his belly and he welcomed the peace of eternity.
By Kathie Stehr
word count 2103
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