Prison Blues

by Phil Temples,

guitarJohn sat hunched over the ancient “mill” typewriter with uncomfortable headphones covering his ears. His receiving station occupied a corner of a small, underground bunker in a remote section of Landsberg Air Force Base, West Germany. The concrete bunker was designated as the Security Service Signals Post, but most people called it the Bunker. The Bunker’s construction was slipshod and second rate. No one was certain what the bunker was used for before it was re-purposed as a signals intercept post. The underground facility always felt damp. It smelled of stale cigarettes and mouse piss. The brass never assigned regular cleaning details to the Bunker. The work inside was top secret. The occasional cleaning fell to John and to five other enlisted airmen who staffed the place.

The operators’ mills were inefficient and the keys had a tendency to jam. The mechanics didn’t impede him. John had learned from the old timers to type in a slow, methodical manner. Like most expert Morse code operators, John buffered the letters and numbers in his head until his fingers could catch up. Further, John did not think about individual dots and dashes. It was the sound made by the letters—oftentimes, entire words—that imprinted in his mind. It possessed an almost musical quality. The mixed letter-number groups that the Soviets transmitted were, at times, challenging. But no matter how challenging they were the texts almost always yielded their secrets to John. John possessed access to the latest secret Soviet ciphers.  He was adept at decoding their meanings—oftentimes, in mere minutes. It was no secret to the brass that John was one of the best signals intercept operators in all Europe.

John had been typing for ten seconds after the transmission of the mixed code groups had ceased. He finished, broke out the codebook, and started to transcribe the text. Fifteen minutes later, after checking and rechecking—three times, in fact—John took a deep breath and noted the time. It was 0125 GMT, March 5, 1953. The young staff sergeant realized that the message sitting before him was important. So important, in fact, the history books would memorialize the event.

John picked up the phone and dialed a number.

“Captain? I think you’d better get over to the Bunker, ASAP. We have Flash traffic.”


A native of Arkansas, John grew up as a good natured and talented young lad who possessed a humble demeanor. The age of five, he started working in the cotton fields with his family. They would all sing while working. By the age of twelve, John was composing and singing songs. He even performed on the local radio station in high school. Life was a constant struggle for John’s family. The family farm flooded on several occasions.

When he was eighteen, John enlisted in the Air Force. He met his wife-to-be, Vivian, at a rollerskating ring in San Antonio. They dated for three weeks. John received his notice to report for duty at Landsberg Air Force Base in West Germany. It was hard to say goodbye to his girl, and to have an entire ocean separating them, but Uncle Sam needed him. John promised Vivian they would be together again. She, in turn, promised to wait for him. He had few friends. But in the interim, the two exchanged hundreds of love letters. The love letters, along with his fondness for playing the guitar, kept John’s spirits up during those lonely years.


“What’s that song you’re working on, Johnny?”

John’s bunkmate, Sergeant Timothy “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, was a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Fitz folded his underwear and slipped it into a dresser drawer.  He walked over to join John who was sitting on his bed, strumming a guitar.

“Oh, a little blues tune.”

John hummed a few bars, and then strummed a little riff to add to the tune he had just improvised.

“It gets so lonely in the Bunker, Fitz. Sometimes I feel like the walls are closing in on me. And it stinks, too. I swear it’s like a damn prison down there.”

John hummed some more, and then he muttered some words aloud, Time keeps draggin’ on.

“… I cry my eyes…” added Fitz.

“Yeah. I cry my… no, ‘I hang my head’ and then ‘cry my eyes.’ Yeah. It needs something else. I don’t know what, though.”

Just then, Fitzgerald noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look, and then he yelled, “Ten, hup!” John placed the guitar down on his bed. He stood up and joined Fitz, who was already standing at attention.

“At ease, gentlemen.” The base commander, General Casey O’Malley, approached them.

“I hope you don’t mind my eavesdropping on your strumming there, John. You’re talented. Do you perform back home?”

“Yes, sir. My mother taught me how to play when I was twelve. I picked it up again eight months ago. I play gospel mostly, but I’ve worked on some blues songs here and there. In fact, we just formed a band here on base.”

“I see. And what do you call yourselves?”

“The Landsberg Barbarians, sir.”

The General chuckled. “Fitz? Can you give us a moment here, please?”

“Yes, sir.”

When Fitzgerald left, the General sat on Fitz’s bed. He nodded to John to sit down at his bunk.

“In case you were wondering, we sent your Flash traffic to USAFE in Ramstein. They sent it to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs. That was some mighty fine sig intel last night, John! There is no question in my mind that you were the first person outside of the Soviet leadership to learn of the demise of the Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.”

“I understand, sir. The message said it was a cardiac hemorrhage due to hypertension. Do you think they’re telling the truth, sir?”

“It’s hard to say, John. The Ruskies are sneaky bastards. And Stalin is one paranoid son of a bitch. It’s known that he keeps—rather, he kept—a ‘double’ around as a decoy in case of assassination attempts. But this report appears to be authentic. The higher ups are placing bets whether the Party will announce Stalin’s death later today, or keep it a secret for a prolonged period of time.”

The General stood, reached into his pocket, and retrieved a small box. He opened it, and took out a distinguished service medal. He walked over to John, who was now standing, and pinned it on John’s chest.

“Enjoy it for a few minutes, John. Then, I’m afraid I have to ask for it back. Your service record will note this award, of course. But for the time being, it must remain our little secret.”

“I understand, sir.” John thanked General O’Malley, saluted him, and shook his hand. Then, John removed the medal and handed it back to the General.

“I couldn’t help but overhear your telling Fitz that the Bunker feels like a prison. It’s an awful place to be stuck in. Of course, I’ll see what I can do to make some improvements.

“You know, that song you’re composing, it gets to me. It reminds me of the time I visited a childhood friend in a prison in California. He’s serving life without parole.”

The General paused for a moment to light his pipe. He drew on it.

“It was a sad, awful place. I guess the best way to describe it was the feeling of emptiness, hopelessness. I remember, in particular, one of the inmates. He was a lifer. He had to have been at least sixty or seventy years old.  Well, I tell you–every time he’d hear a whistle blow from some faraway train, he looked like he was gonna start bawling.

“Anyway, John, you keep working on that song. I’d like to hear the Landsberg Barbarians perform it in the June talent show.”

“I will, sir. Thank you, sir!”

“You’re welcome. Thank you again for your service to our nation, Staff Sergeant Cash.”


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing