Probation before freedom

March 29, 1996|By Mike Bowler

I'VE BEEN conjuring the scene at the Pearly Gates last week when H.B. Johnson Jr. arrived for his outplacement interview with St. Peter.

Three years ago while he was dying of AIDS, H.B. had been freed from a 30-year state prison sentence by Gov. William Donald Schaefer so he could continue his writing and act as a kind of reverse role model for Baltimore young people. (He'd contracted the disease from a dirty needle in the Maryland Penitentiary.)

He died last week, and now here he was at heaven's gate, no doubt having abandoned hope of admission but telling himself it was worth the attempt.

Always a bit of a con man, he pulled the rim of his hat down over the lesions on his face but made sure St. Pete spotted his million-dollar smile.

''I understand you had 28 months of freedom,'' said St. Peter.

Ankle bracelet

''Not really,'' H.B. said. ''The first nine months I was on home detention. That's a kind of probation before freedom. You wear a bracelet around your ankle that lets the authorities know where you are at all times, and they call you several times a day to make doubly sure. If you want to go out, you have to get permission and be in by 9 o'clock.''

''It was during that time that you won your second first prize in Channel 2's black playwrighting contest for 'Smooth Disappointment,' one of your three prize-winning plays with anti-drug themes.''

''Yes. For the premiere at Arena Players, I rented two white limos and treated my family and many of the friends who'd helped me get out of prison.

15 minutes left

''It got to be quarter to 9, and I was drowning in the adulation, when one of my friends reminded me I had 15 minutes left.

''We slapped a $20 bill in the limo driver's palm and told him he had 15 minutes to get to where I was staying on West Lexington. He ran every red light in West Baltimore, and the phone was ringing when I entered the house. What a night!''

''Tell me about those friends. What prompted so many people, 100 or more, I understand, to put so much time and effort into getting one man out of prison.''

''It was a motley crew but one that was a true Baltimore cross-section. Black and white. Rich and poor. A smattering of state legislators. A couple of artists. A couple of guys in a regular poker game. Some journalists. Charles Dutton, the actor who'd been in the Pen himself.

A wasted life

''I think a lot of them saw that I had a kind of credibility to speak to young people and show them the results of a wasted life. I remember when I went to Friends School -- I was pretty far along then -- you could have heard a pin drop.

''God, how I loved those people who had faith in me and helped me out! Loved them unconditionally. I never loved anyone conditionally.''

St. Peter said, ''You talk about that great night at Arena Players. How great was it the night you shot up an office in Annapolis and almost killed someone? Lot of people would have thrown away the key for the rest of your natural life, as they say, and they would dismiss as outrageous the thought of your petitioning for a spot Up Here.''

''I knew the discussion would come around to that, and I have no easy answer. It was August 24, 1982, the worst day of my life. I was drunk and on drugs. I almost killed someone. Yet it was also that moment that led me to start climbing the crystal stairway to redemption.

''Essentially, what I told the governor was that there is more than one kind of freedom, and I think I reached a kind of freedom -- in my own heart and mind -- before I left the penitentiary.

''It's also true that I died a horrible death, a kind of execution, if you will, as the direct result of my transgressions.''

Just then St. Peter's administrative aide rushed up and reminded his boss that the line was getting longer. Ed Muskie and others had arrived.

''I've already made up my mind on this one,'' St. Peter said. ''Seven millennia of home detention.''

Mike Bowler, education editor of The Sun, was along for H.B. Johnson's ride.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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