In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an inspiring young writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he agreed to help crew a boat loaded with drugs from the Virgin Islands to New York City., setting sail on an ill-fated expedition that eventually landed him in federal prison. Gantos finds himself stuck behind bars armed with nothing but his dreams of college and a desire to write.
–Hole in My Life, cover blurb
Yesterday I wrote a mini-biographical post about Jack Gantos, which only briefly referred to the above incident. Today I’ll elaborate about the time in Gantos’s life based on information taken from his memoir entitled Hole in My Life. As promised earlier this week, I’ll also include also a write-up about a creative activity which Gantos introduced at this year’s Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival and another review. Save the dates: October 23-24 !
I have learned this: It is not what one does that is wrong, but what one becomes as a consequence of life.
Gantos starts by writing about where he thinks he went around the bend. To begin, he was nineteen and still stuck in high school. How did this happen? During his junior years, his family had moved from Florida to Puerto Rico. Initially, Gantos choose not to attend school. Not knowing Spanish, he couldn’t attend public schools. His family couldn’t afford private school. So, Gantos decided to work instead as an electrical subcontractor for his dad’s construction project.
Eventually, Gantos found that electrical work wasn’t for him, and so he decided to get his high school diploma. After six months of saving money, he could afford private school. The problem is none would accept him. His grades were too mediocre.
And so Gantos returned to Florida, where he lived with a family who were desperate for extra cash, and attended school. After about six weeks, however, everyone realized that Gantos was a live-in party crasher. He went out drinking with his buddies and then come home late to play his stereo loud, smell up the house with cigarette smoke, and make long-distance calls. After he threw up one night over half their house, the family kicked Gantos out.
Next step was a motel, operated by the great-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett. There, Gantos pulled his life together enough to give serious attention to his writing career. Not having the grades to gain acceptance into his high school’s creative writing program, he tried on his own to get organized by arranging his journals into sections. First, Gantos simply captured his thoughts. Second, he challenged himself to copy entire pages of favorite books. Third, Gantos listed words that he wanted to learn. Fourth, he noted ideas. Unfortunately, it never took Gantos long before he would give up, thinking that he had nothing interesting to write about.
One day, the principal called the entire school down to the auditorium to meet some special guests. A traveling foursome of lifers from Raford State Prison came to address them regarding the perils of criminal behavior. Gantos reflects in Hole in My Life about how he felt that he had nothing in common with them. He didn’t use drugs. He didn’t steal. He wasn’t a rapist. Yes, Gantos felt adrift inside, but that didn’t mean he could end up in prison. Those were famous last words.
Where there is blood, there is ink.
–anonymous newspaper quote
Gantos moved back in with his family, who were now back in the United States, and helped his dad in the construction business again by building crates. He also read biographies, searched for significant material to write about, and… accepted an invitation to smoke drugs. The latter were available everywhere.
Soon afterwards, as part of the crate-building business, Gantos met up with a man who would change his life. Rik was in his late twenties, blond, shag haircut, green eyes, and a silver dollar sized circular burn scar on his forehead. When Gantos asked his dad about him, his dad took one look and pegged him: “He’s a dope smuggler.”
Gantos didn’t care. He agreed to package a stack of plastic containers for Rik. Ones that Gantos knew contained hash. Later, when Rik invited him to sail with him to New York and take six weeks to deliver these packages, Gantos agreed. It helped that the offer included earning 10,000 in cash.
The rest of the section pans out like most stories about the drug culture scene and so I’ll briefly summarize it. After their six-week sailing adventure, the two had to dock. And every boat Gantos heard, every noise he heard, every searchlight that spun its bright eye made Gantos jump. Even when the two arrived safely at their hotel, Gantos remained paranoid, except this time he worried more about the people who used the drugs rather than being caught with drugs. One night, he even snuck out of his room and slept outside to avoid a potential bloodbath. The latter didn’t happen, but while on the road they end up being followed. Then when almost all the drugs had been sold, the FBI showed. And Gantos ran, leaving his friends behind to take the fall.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
–anonymous prison wall quote
For a time, Gantos wasn’t ready to admit to his mistakes. When he called home and realized that the FBI were looking for him, Gantos actually asked, “Do I have to turn myself in?” After being convinced that this would be the wisest choice, Gantos still took his good time in doing this. Gantos read newspapers which featured articles about the drug bust in which he had been involved. He checked back into the hotel room, where he had stayed with drug dealers, and searched it for his journals, money, and even hash. After a long rest, Gantos brought some new clothes and showed up the office of his assigned attorney.
The next few chapters feel like a courtroom drama. The most interesting part is reading about all the emotional changes Gantos underwent. For example, at first, Gantos felt less guilty than stupid. He was angry his drug friends had ratted him out. For a time, he reached for anything which allowed him to escape his reality, which for him meant buying Chinese food and a collection of horror stories. However, as Gantos began to realize that being just a kid might not help his case, his stress began to increase.
One of the most riveting scenes is when the judge gave him a chance to talk for himself. Gantos admitted to making a mistake. The judge countered with the question: “A criminal mistake? Or just the mistake of getting caught?” Gantos couldn’t respond. In his heart, he knew the truth. And that this truth could doom him.
Another gripping scene occurs between Gantos and his dad after sentencing has been handed down. Gantos acknowledges that at this point, his pain is still what remains foremost in his mind. But, Gantos also realizes his dad is stunned. And is feeling anguish over the fact that his son is being sent off to federal prison.
Next, there are a few chapters which pan out like most stories about the grittiest stories about prison life. There were lice. Routine checks of being counted. No books to read but just writing on the wall. Lots of offers for protection against sex. And, on his part, plenty of guilt.
Gantos was fortunate to escape the worst by landing a position as an X-ray tech. After a time, Gantos also found relief from all the hatred and despair which surrounded him by thinking back on his childhood. By now, he had also been given writing tools and so was keeping a regular journal. And…. because he couldn’t escape his doubts by running away, drinking, or getting high, Gantos began to realize that he did have a rich life to write about.
Obviously, there is a lot more details to his story, but I have covered only the highlights. If you ever have made bad choices in your life or are simply a fan of author memoirs, you should check out Hole in My Life to read.