A few years back I saw a 1941 movie called “Sullivan’s Travels.” It starred one of my favorite actors, Joel McCrea. Most of you folks are going, “Who?” I am afraid I am stuck in the Golden Age of Cinema. So I am showing my age.
The movie’s plot has a motion-picture director searching for the key ingredient to making movies that positively affect the lives of his viewers. His movies are successful but he does not get any joy or satisfaction out of them. Sullivan feels they are superficial. His movies do not improve the human condition. So one day he dresses up as an out-of-work, down-on-his-luck bum and sets off to tour the country and find out what he needs to do to make meaningful movies. He wants his movies to make a difference.
Sullivan ends up in a prison somewhere. No one in Hollywood knows where he went. Part of the movie focuses on the search for Sullivan. Some of his closest associates and friends think he is dead.
Meanwhile, while they are searching for him, he is toiling away in a prison. The work is hard and the prisoners are not treated very well. Their only chance to escape the horrible days in the prison are the times when they get to watch movies. During this time they can take their minds off their problems. It is here that Sullivan discovers an important secret: “laughter.” The inmates love to laugh and they do it whenever they watch his movies. At first he sits stoically and watches the movies he produced, without laughing at all. But the inmates are laughing! Over time he starts to laugh at his own movies, too. He finally realizes the importance of making people laugh. It’s kind of an escape.
I have been in the Atlanta Federal Prison Camp for eight months. I arrived here on April 1, 2013. This is a minimal-security prison. It does not have the hard-core murderers, drug dealers or violent offenders that inhabit so many of our prisons. It’s full of “white collar,” non-violent offenders: people who where successful business people before being sent here for some violation of federal law. They were realtors, doctors, heads of companies, financial planners, lawyers and small business people. These men have wives, children, grandkids and parents — now waiting for them at home. Many are here on conspiracy charges. Conspiracy covers a lot of crimes.
You would think that falling from a lofty position, a high-profile status in their communities, would have created an attitude of hate and bitterness. That is what I would have expected. But boy, was I wrong. I am always amazed at the loud and boisterous laughter I hear around the camp. Men playing harmless jokes on each other. And getting lots of laughs when the joke works or the recipient is slightly embarrassed.
TV-watching is a great time to hear laughter. Inmates watch TV in the break room. They talk about the programs they are watching. This leads to stories from better days, when they were not in prison. Some of these stories are funny. The stories are about their former girlfriends, friends, business associates — and you hear loud and boisterous laughter.
I attended a Bible study recently and the teacher was going through the process that some ministers use to prepare the sermons they preach on Sundays. He was using fancy, fifty-dollar words that seemed to have a lot of the members of the Bible study scratching their heads. It was clear some of the members of the Bible study did not know the meaning of some of the words he was using.
All of a sudden I remembered a scene from the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason. Bandit is helping to bootleg beer from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta, Ga. Gleason plays Buford T. Justice, a sheriff from Texas. Justice and his son are chasing the Bandit and have crossed over the state line into Arkansas. Justice announces over his police-car radio:
Justice: “This is Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Texas. I am in pursuit of a black Trans-Am. It’s all mine so get out of the way.”
Arkansas sheriff Branford, hearing the transmission and answers:
Branford: “Did you say Texas?”
Justice: “That’s a big Ten Four!”
Branford: “You are out of jurisdiction!”
Justice: “But I am in hot pursuit! Don’t you hear good?”
Branford: “I hear perfectly. The fact that you are a sheriff is not GERMANE to the situation.”
Junior (Justice’s son): “What did he say, Daddy?”
Justice: “What’s the GERMANS got to do with it?”
If you ever watch this movie, don’t miss this scene. It is too funny. I laugh every time I see it. And I feel better about whatever is bothering me for while. I know that the ability to laugh makes everything better. It sure makes serving time in this prison better. So please keep laughing. You will feel better too.
Wait a minute. What do I hear now? There are screams of joy, laugher, and some inmates are yelling, “Unbelievable!” Excuse me while I hobble off to investigate.
Unbelievable, indeed. Auburn has just returned a missed Alabama field-goal attempt 108 yards for the game-winning touchdown!
War Eagles: 34. Crimson Tide: 28.
Now, Auburn fans are laughing at Alabama fans!
Bernard Addison is serving 46 months for Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud. Questions or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or to:
Bernard Addison/ 44863-074/ FPC-Atlanta; Dorm D/ P.O. Box 150160/ Atlanta, GA 30315