January 07, 1994|By H. B. Johnson Jr.

YOU'RE out of prison after nearly 10 years. You're exhausted. You were almost destroyed by the fire of suffering, real and imagined, that bakes the soul the way heat destroys a cake left too long in the oven.

But you made it. You might be scorched, but you made it. Free at last!

But what are you free to do? Well, for one thing, there is the clear, fresh air. The air is the first thing you notice, as a matter of fact, and its smell and taste are sweet, even if you go home to the city. There also seems to be so much more of it than there was at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

Then you see the women and children and hear their sounds. And the things that spin around you: moving traffic, bright and pretty store windows, new and modern city landmarks, traffic cops, grass and trees, a woman with long shapely legs being pulled along by a big dog on a leash. Ahhh, freedom! How wonderful is the sun in an open sky!

So you head for home. You finally walk into your house, are greeted by family and a few smiling visitors whose hearts are warm.

And then it happens: Freedom sits you down and begins to remind you what it is really all about. To convince you, it calls special strangers through your door, among them people known to you for many, many years who you never thought would have an addiction problem. They seem strange. Their stories make them appear odd and alien. They have learned nothing from the destruction that blew through your life.

Freedom puts a towel on your shoulder and tells you to listen to them. Their stories are sad, and the story tellers must have a place to cry.

You sit and listen. And at the end, each one smiles at you and says, "I made it. I lost everything, but that's all right. I'm OK now. I've been safe and sober for one year, for nine months, for four years . . ." Whatever. "No ready rock [crack cocaine] today!"

Your shock wears off, and you begin to see the story tellers in a different light. Now you remember her. Now you remember him. Two days later, one of the story tellers is at your front door. She wants to borrow money to buy soap and laundry detergent and other household items. You tell her you can lend her the items. She says no and goes away. You know that she wants money to buy drugs.

Freedom is a very simple but powerful thing. It is human integrity. You must be true to its greatness, and you have to be responsible to it. It is ridiculous to walk around the streets in a drug-induced prison! There's no true freedom in that. It's fraudulent, and sooner or later freedom is going to get sick and tired of you.

I am rooting for those very sincere and legitimately struggling story tellers . . . and I pray for that little trickster, the would-be borrower of detergent, who thinks she has the world's brightest eyes.

But for now I am so overjoyed with my own freedom that it is hard to be concerned about the freedom of others. I tell you, it's good to be home! It's good to be around my sturdiest of friends.

Freedom is bad, Jack!

It is truly the nectar of life!

The day you understand that

Will be the day you have made it.

H.B. Johnson Jr.'s sentence was commuted in November by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.