The Gift of Worms


In prison one day follows another with little to mark the passage of time. But, on the outside where our loved ones live, birthdays and anniversaries, Christmases and Valentine's Days keep happening with alarming regularity. It presents the prisoner with a dilemma. There is something in every human heart that wants to give gifts to its beloved. Incarceration, far from erasing that impulse, intensifies it. Inmates are made aware daily of all the little gifts we can't give to our wives and children - the bills we can't pay, the school plays we can't attend, the skinned knees we can't console, the broken toys we can't fix, the tears we can't dry. The list is endless. In a very real sense, the punishment of incarceration consists of this very thing: we are made spectators of our family's life.

We want to somehow make up for our failures. We want to give good gifts. Prison doesn't stop us, it just makes it harder. There is the obvious issue of money. One good thing prison teaches you - the monetary value of a gift has little to do with its meaning. This lesson is harder to learn on the outside where bigger is assumed to be better. If a one-quarter carat diamond says, "I love you", a one-carat diamond must say, "I really love you." Prison disabuses you of that idea ... fast.

Most of us in here are living on "state pay." State pay is a motivational system to get inmates to work at prison jobs. It gives them money to buy toiletries, stamps and other necessities from the canteen, or to pay the $3.00 sick call fee. My monthly "pay" for working as a clerk for the Bureau of Programs was about $50.00. At that salary, if I was going to give a gift that says "I love you" it was not going to be a mineral. My repertoire of gifts was mostly limited to cards and an occasional chocolate bar purchased at canteen and mailed home. Thankfully, the women in my life, my wife and daughters understood the value of a homemade card, a poem, or an original piece of artwork executed in cheap colored pencil. They understood the limitations of my situation. This concept was more challenging for my boys, John and James.

Watching my sons and daughters has forever resolved in my mind the age-old nature-nurture debate. When it come to the "frogs and snails and puppy dog's tails" that little boys are made of, nature wins, hands down. My boys will spend hours watching the progress of an ant crossing the kitchen floor. One fall, five year old James carefully dissected some crabapples which had fallen from the neighbor's tree, and announced to his mother that when he grew up he wanted to be a "spirment man." I assure you my girls would just as soon stand on a chair and scream as share the same floor with a spider. Now, who taught them that?

I can remember having the same fascination with how things work when I was a boy. That's why I loved science. That's why I jumped at the opportunity to teach a college level biology course to inmates wanting to further their education. As a part of that course we had a weekly laboratory session in which we dissected sheep brains and eyes and did other such gross things - the kind of stuff my boys would love. That gave me the idea for a gift for them. In the catalog of the scientific supply company from which we purchased our laboratory supplies, in addition to various dead things for sale, there was offered an assortment of live creatures that would make a boy's eyes bug out. I found the perfect thing for my sons: a worm farm - everything you need to raise nematodes in the comfort of your own home. I ordered the farm, a book about raising earthworms, and twelve "large" specimens of Lumbricus terrestris, all at a cost affordable to someone living on "state pay." I filled out a cash withdrawal slip instructing inmate accounts to cut a check from my account.

Okay, I admit, I had my sister do the ordering and had the check sent to her. I wanted to avoid the hassle of having to explain to the Unit Manager just why I was ordering earthworms, not exactly prison "contraband", since it would be difficult even for prison security to stop earthworms from taking up residence within these walls.

But, they're not recommended as prison pets either. A few days later I broke the news to my boys at a visit. They were ecstatic. James could barely concentrate on anything else for the rest of the visit. The female members of the family were decidedly less enthusiastic about the prospect of cohabiting with invertebrates.

Over the next few weeks the boys gathered daily at the front door to meet the mailman. After a while, James became impatient. One day he handed his mother a piece of paper and a pencil.

"Mommy," he asked, "Will you write something for me?"

"Of course." My wife replied, "What do you want me to write?"

James looked serious, "Write, 'Please send the worms now."'

His mother dutifully wrote the words and gave the paper back to him. She watched as he folded it and stuffed it into an envelope, then put a LifeSaver into the envelope as well.

"Who are you going to send that to, James?" my wife asked.

"Daddy." He replied.

I am happy to report that the worms eventually arrived safe and sound amidst general rejoicing. John and James showed off Dad's gift to anyone who visited the house. Truly, it is more blessed to give than to receive.