Stanley died with his dreams

H. B.Johnson Jr.

February 19, 1993|By H. B.Johnson Jr.

THOUGH we had our differences, Stan Cherry and I had been good friends. The fact that I was a prisoner and he was a prison guard, paid to turn the key on me, made that friendship something of a paradox. But there was a deep and silent understanding between us.

Stanley Cherry grew up in the 2100 block of Penrose Avenue in West Avenue. I grew up in the 2000 block of West Lexington Street, just around the corner from him.In the 1950s and 1960s, our lives were filled with school, girls, music and sports. Stan loved football in particular, and he couldn't wait for a chance to play against us older guys.

Stanley got his chance, and he made good on it as best he could. He grew fast; he became big and strong. He was a standout player in high school and went on to star at Morgan State College. He was signed by the New England Patriots in 1973, cut from the team and picked up by the Baltimore Colts immediately after. He did quite well until, as he once put it, injury kicked him out on the streets.

He grew listless. The fire went out of his eyes. You could see his dreams in there piling up like ashes. He tried boxing, he tried track, he tried football again. He roamed the streets. He became a prison guard.

I'm not sure which is worse: to dream forever, never getting there, or to realize your dream in nothing but a patch or a morsel because fate's gotten mean and cut your dream off.

In any case, Stan was never the same after losing his dream to football.

The prisoners in the Maryland Penitentiary thought him cold, cunning, dishonest and brutal. Before I was thrown into the place, he already had a reputation for violence. When he was transferred to Supermax [the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center], things got worse. Rumor had it that he'd played a part in knocking a prisoner's eye out of its socket, that he'd charged into a cell and helped others beat a prisoner unmercifully.

I had the misfortune of seeing him lose it in the Maryland Pen several times. We nearly came to blows once when I caught him slapping a teen-ager around.

Now Stanley is dead at 42. In the cold of last Wednesday night, police found him in the 900 block of Guilford Avenue. He was wearing nothing but his underwear, his blood thick with cocaine, his body trembling and wet with delirium. Rumor in the Pen has it that he died of a "hot-shot," a dose of high-potency drugs or rat poison meant to kill an unsuspecting addict.

But it doesn't matter how he died. All that matters is a man is dead, and death always fills the air with a cool and sweet sadness.

Some will say good riddance to an animal, not farewell to a man. But I will not. I find no paradox in my reaction to this man's death and my circumstances as a prisoner. Our lines were clearly drawn.

I saw Stanley die a long time ago -- at least the Stanley I knew. That's why, in spite of it all, he and I were still able to see each other through a soiled veil of friendship.

We both knew what his job as a prison guard was doing to him and what my job as a prisoner was trying to do to me. It was something we understood with eyes. He was too weak when he entered the place, and its rage and violence simply gripped him in their teeth and chewed him up. (The single, buried newspaper story on Stanley said he had been suspended from his job for "allegedly using excessive force.")

I don't know what Stanley's religious beliefs were. Considering what goes down in the world around me, it would not have been difficult for his beliefs to be loftier than mine. But there is one thing I know for sure: Stanley Cherry was once a very kind and generous person, a gentle giant. Prison does irreparable damage to the soul of a man, and it choked Stanley in a way I have never seen it choke any other.

So Stanley is gone now. He can no longer hurt or be hurt. But what does that solve when his nightmare lingers, when the misery and confusion that drove him to violence and drugs seem with us like permanent, grotesque fixtures?

My love and sympathy go out to his family. Stanley is with God now, and that, perhaps, is the best many of us can hope to accomplish from beginning to end.

H.B. Johnson is a poet and playwright serving a term for robbery and attempted murder in the Maryland State Penitentiary.

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