Columns > Published on October 14th, 2014

Locked Up: Books For My Father

Allowable property includes 2 books, 2 faith group items, 1 eyeglasses/case, authorized hygiene items, legal papers, 5 photographs, 1 plain wedding band & 1 pair of shower shoes.

—Colorado Department of Corrections Offender Orientation Handbook

My father probably wears shower shoes in prison. He's always been conscious of hygiene. He was a doctor, an anesthesiologist if you want to get picky.

Doubtful he wears a wedding band though. He was married three times, but I only know of one wedding band. He hardly wore it. The times he did, he'd twist it on his finger. He's not married to that woman anymore. He's not married at all. He didn't like the band before. He probably wouldn't have much use for it now.

Photographs were never a big deal for my father. I don't know that he ever owned five. He never put them up. He had a giant poster of the comic book character Lobo, one of our shared favorites. I'm guessing that doesn't count as a photograph.

He did wear glasses. Bifocals even. He's got those, for sure.

He was never religious in the least.

Of all the things I could give him, he probably doesn't need the shoes, the wedding band. The photos. He probably has his glasses, even though he's not wearing any in his Department of Corrections photo.

But maybe, maybe he could use a couple good books. My father, who I haven't seen in over a decade, who's been homeless when wasn't locked up, maybe he'd like something to read to pass the time until his next parole hearing.

There Are So Many Hard Things About This Column That It's Hard To Know Where To Start

The start might be with my dad. That he's real. That this former anesthesiologist, now prisoner, taught his kids how to ski, set our garage on fire (it was for a Cub Scout project), was a drunk, taught his kids condom safety way too early and in a terrible way, was divorced for the second time and married a third on the same afternoon. Maybe the first part is about how he's real. It's hard to convince people that it's all real, all the stuff from when I was a kid. There are some pretty tall tales in there. I'm less sure than I used to be. It's been a long time.

The next part might be how I feel about all of it. Which is harder. As unsure as I am about him being real, I'm even less sure how I feel about him, how I feel about the ways he raised us.

Somewhere in here we need to get to the part where I explain how I don't want to be exploitative. How I don't want to write this because it'd make great material or to hear how people feel sorry for me or for my father.

I thought some parts of this would be hard. The parts I didn't think about were a lot harder.

How about for right now we stick to talking books? About my father's love of books and reading, especially comics. How I credit my mom with teaching me how to read and reading to me when I was a kid, but it was my father who bought Preacher and Transmetropolitan and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Welcome to the Monkey House when I was way too young, which was the perfect time to enjoy them. How he always said, "I don't care WHAT you're reading, so long as you're reading."

There's so much to get to, so many parts.

Maybe the first part goes like this:

What you really need to know is that my father is in prison. I haven't spoken to him in over a decade. And I got the idea to send him some books.

What you really need to know is that I had two big questions on my hands. A third if you count the question of whether or not this is actually a good idea. But we'll get to that.

Can I send books to my father in prison?

If I can, which books do I send?

With those two questions, we have a start. The start of a column anyway.

Part 1: Is It Possible To Send A Book To A Prisoner?

Indigent offenders who have less than $4.60 in their account, have not received deposits, or have not been receiving unassigned pay for 30 days will be allowed to mail one (1) personal letter per week with postage paid for by the facility.

—Colorado Department of Corrections Offender Orientation Handbook

To find out whether I could send anything, I had to find out where exactly my father was. I said before that I hadn't seen him. To be clear, I haven't heard from him in any small way since maybe 2003 when he sent me a MySpace message. I could probably leave the year off that fact. Just knowing it was a MySpace message timestamps his last words to me quite nicely.

The sibling rumor mill told me he was still in the state. After spending some time homeless, or somewhat homeless depending on how you feel about tents as homes.

The part about how I searched for my father on the computer isn't very exciting. It's like the computer hacking part of a movie. If it goes on very long, I start thinking, "Wait a minute. I'm watching someone type right now. This isn't entertaining!" Then I think, "Wait ANOTHER minute. This person is PRETENDING to type. This has gone from bad to worse. Not amused."

So I'll sum it up. I looked into some court records, searched the evil LexisNexus database, which charged me about $7 per search, not per result, but per search. Then it was just a dab of Google (Wow. gross phrase there. Way to go, Pete.) to locate the Colorado Department of Corrections Offender Search.

There he was. All his information. When he was born. How tall. How heavy. How long he'd been there. I saw his picture. Saw his face for the first time in a decade. Which is a short word for a long time. I hadn't seen his face since before the end of high school. Before I got my job, where I've been for ten years. I'd never slept with anyone the last time I saw him. I could barely drive.

My father's eyes droop further at the corners, small hoods on the outside edge. His hair and beard are all grey. His nose is more crooked than I remember. It's definitely him, but he's not all the way the same.

I thought some parts of this would be hard. But the parts I didn't think about were a lot harder.

I read a little about the facility. On prison forums, which are mostly populated by the wives of inmates. They say the food is a little better at Delta, and overall it's not bad as prisons go. The inmates have lots of time to themselves, and they can work outside the facility. There's a short fence around the property that's used mostly to keep wild deer outside the prison grounds. The low fence is successful sometimes and not successful other times. One forum poster said she had a relative in Delta, and a lot of times there would be deer inside the fence with the inmates. It was a strict rule that inmates do not touch or feed the deer.

After I saw my father's face, after I read about the place where he is, after the details about the deer made it real, I was less sure about this kooky plan.

I didn't want to do this anymore.

But I'm a schemer. And I came up with a scheme, a cop out.

I did some more very boring internet stuff to get a number for the Delta Correctional Facility. I picked up the phone.

DOC: Corrections.

Me: Uh, hi. I have a question

My voice cracked like when I was 13. Like when my father wasn't locked up.

DOC: ...

Me: I have a question about whether or not the library over there accepts donations. Cash or books.

DOC: We do not.

Me: Okay. Thanks.


Well, crap. So much for schemes. In my head, the place where these things always work out, I figured it'd be easy to send books to the library. If my father got his hands on them, great. If he didn't, I tried. Sort of. Cop out tried, but that's still something.

I made a second call a day later.

DOC: Corrections, this is [garbled].

Me: Yeah, I saw online that I can send books to...inmates if they come straight from Amazon. Is that true?

DOC: Let me send you down to the mail room. They'll know for sure.

Me: Thanks...

DOC: Mail.

Me: Yeah, I saw online that I can send paperback books to...inmates if they come straight from Amazon. Is that accurate?

DOC: They don't have to come from Amazon, just from a publisher or a store. Not a person. They have to be new and paperback.

Me: Okay. And are there any restrictions on how many they can get or anything like that?

DOC: Well, they can have 12 books at any time. So if they already have 12, they have to mail some out or give them up.

Me: Thanks so much.

There it was. Yes, it was possible. I couldn't throw some books at the prison library and hope for the best. But I could send them directly to my father.

Question 1.5: What Are The Rules, Then?

The prison mandated that books had to be new paperbacks, available directly from a retailer.

My mandates were a little stricter. I'd send two because I felt like asking him to give up more than that would be too much. They had to be books I suspected he would enjoy. And they could not be books with any sort of message in terms of fathers and sons. I just...that wasn't the purpose of this. Finally, because of the nature of his incarceration, I wanted to stay away from mental illness if possible. Anything that might feed into that. If he were able to select those on his own, I'd have no problem with it. But this was me picking for him. He was my father. And I had no idea what kind of shape he'd be in now.

Question 2: Which Books Do I Send?

I'm a librarian. It might be surprising to find out that my amazing columns about smoking marijuana or making fun of a crazy person who thinks Frozen is based on her memoir don't bankroll my plush lifestyle. But hey, it's true. On the plus, a big part of my library job is recommending books. We all do things for money, and putting books in peoples' hands is not such a bad thing to do for money.

It can be hard to make recommendations to strangers. You don't really know them, and you have to recommend a book, something that can be very personal. A shared experience.

It can be hard to make recommendations to people you know. They'll usually tell you what they thought. Which, depending on how good a match you made, can have you questioning your career choice. When it's someone you know, there's no excuse. It becomes personally important that they enjoy whatever you put in their hands.

My father occupies a weird middle ground. I know him. But not now. Not the man he is right now. I have ideas about what he was like when he was 40, maybe 45. The things he liked, the stuff he enjoyed. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that what I know about him is what I knew about him when he was older and I was younger. When things were different. When he was my father and I was his son.

I thought some parts of this would be hard. The parts I didn't think about were a lot harder.

There's so much to get to. Maybe we can stick to books. Talk about my father through the books I considered.

"Stranger in a Strange Land"  by Robert Heinlein

My father talked about this book a lot. That's all I know about it. I think about him when I see it, but I've never read it. A little bit on purpose. Another part of him that's still mysterious.

Get Stranger in A Strange Land at Bookshop or Amazon


"Planet Hulk"  by Greg Pak

My father collected comics. Collected as in subscribed to and read, not as in cherished as obsessions. For years his comics lived on a decommissioned particle board entertainment center, stacked in the large middle space where a TV would go. He was always a Marvel True Believer. He drove us kids the hour to Mile High Comics where he'd let us pick out just about whatever. I still have the books I got on some of those trips. Preacher. The Dark Knight Returns.

Get Planet Hulk at Bookshop or Amazon


"The Collected Stories"  by Amy Hempel

My father was divorced three times. First from my mom, a split that happened before I was old enough to remember. The second time, from the mother of my younger brother and sister. A dirty, awful kind of divorce. The third, a woman he met in his apartment building. I don't know what their split was like. I don't know much about how he was as a husband. I don't know if a wise woman's words are what he needs or not, but Amy Hempel fits that bill.

Get The Collected Stories at Bookshop or Amazon


"The Sisters Brothers"  by Patrick DeWitt

A weird, darkly comic western. My father liked dark comedy. The darker, the better. And he liked the slow Clint Eastwood westerns from way back. He would sit in front of the TV with us. He made the saltiest popcorn, drenched in butter. He'd sit with us, his kids, in front of the TV and eat popcorn and drink beer. He would drink beer through the whole movie and then keep going after. Most of the weekends we visited, he drank at night. He'd drink until he slept in front of the TV. When he woke up, he'd squint and decide whether to go to bed or stay on the couch. I always hoped he'd fall back asleep and stay.

Get The Sisters Brothers at Bookshop or Amazon


"The Art of Fielding"  by Chad Harbach

A great sports story and then some. My father was always an athlete. Not a member of teams or anything, just someone who was good at whatever sport he picked up. He was strong. Quick. When he took us to the roller rink, the staff usually warned him about skating too fast. Backwards. On the ski slopes, the ski patrol usually warned him about skiing too fast. Backwards. Without poles. He said the poles slowed him down. He snowboarded. Rollerbladed. Rode bikes. Lifted weights. He met my mother in a college swimming class.

Get The Art of Fielding at Bookshop or Amazon


"Masters of Doom"  by David Kushner

My father loved computers. He had the internet at home before anyone I knew. He spent hours downloading a weather map once, and he was a little disappointed when no one else found this amazing. He left the computer connected all night to download a demo of Doom II, just the first level. After he was jailed the first time and lost his medical license, he still fixed computers and set up networks for a few of his doctor friends. Part of his sentencing, according to the sibling rumor mill, is that he's got restricted access to technology.

Get Masters of Doom at Amazon


"The Time Machine Did It" by John Swartzwelder

Maybe he could use something funny. A story of the variety where someone stupid does something stupid. My father told a lot of jokes. Knock-knock jokes. Street jokes. Joke book jokes. Dad jokes. I don't know if he was actually funny, but he told a lot of jokes.

Get The Time Machine Did It at Amazon


"The Proud Highway"  by Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson, his voice, reminds me of my father. I brought this book with me on a trip, and I couldn't finish it. I could hardly read it at all. Every word reminded me of my father. Thompson's sunglasses on the front cover, his dark hair reminded me of my father. When I read Hunter S. Thompson, I hear my father. Even though lot of what he sounded like, the way he spoke, I don't remember.

Get The Proud Highway at Amazon


"Leviathan Wakes"  by James S. A. Corey

He loved sci-fi movies. I only remember my father going to the theater a few times. Terminator 2. Species 2. Oh, and Bambi. He took us kids to Bambi. I looked over to him when Bambi's mom died. I wasn't sure whether it was alright to cry or not. I thought I could see what my father did and do the same thing. He was asleep. His head tilted back on the chair so his mouth pointed at the ceiling. He snored. I laughed and poked my brother so he could laugh too.

Get Leviathan Wakes at Bookshop or Amazon


"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

His own father was an airman in WWII. I don't know how he feels about that, though. My father told us a story about it that I thought was made up. Then, not so long ago, a distant relative emailed me a copy of my grandfather's "After-Action Report." Which was just like what my father said. The real story was just like the thing I thought my father made up.

Get Catch-22 at Bookshop or Amazon

I went through a ton of books. And even more memories.

I thought some parts of this would be hard. But the parts I didn't think about were a lot harder.

I settled on two titles.

"Snowcrash" by Neil Stephenson

I've never read it. I don't know if my father has either. There's a copy on my bookshelf. It's a sci-fi book that I've been meaning to read. The idea of sending my father a book he might like and that I'd read the same book, I like that idea.

[amazon 0553380958 inline]

Get Snowcrash at Bookshop or Amazon


"American Gods"  by Neil Gaiman

My father's been away during Neil Gaiman's rise from great comic book writer to great man. There's something bizarre and wonderful about this book. A mix of the old and the new. My father loved Stranger in a Strange Land, and he also loved Sun Tzu's The Art of War. He bought pocket-sized editions of this book, an entire box, and gave them out to family, friends, and even some of my friends. American Gods might be a good mix of the two book worlds I know my father dabbled in. Not to mention it's a longer one, which I imagine is a good quality in a prison book.

[amazon 0380789035 inline]

Get American Gods at Bookshop or Amazon


Question 3: Can I Send Books To My Father?

This question is the same as the first. And also not.

It's the question that comes after the question, Can you send books to prisoners? It comes after the question of what I'd send.

It's the question about whether I'm able. Me. His son.

I thought there would be parts of this that would be hard. There were. The parts I thought would be hard were definitely hard. And the parts that I didn't think would be hard, those were hard too.

I visited my father once in all the time he's been incarcerated. It was the first time, when he was in the jail down the road from the house we grew up in. My mom, she drove me and my brother to the jail to visit our father.

We had to take off our belts. Leave all the stuff from our pockets in the waiting room before we went through the door into the visiting room, where it was darker and there was a row of stools in front of Plexiglas.

I sat on the stool, in front of the piece of Plexi, just like in the movies. There was a phone that connected to a phone on the other side. Just like the movies. My father walked into the room, the other side of the room that was behind the Plexi, and he picked up his phone. A lady next to me, she talked to someone in an orange jumpsuit on the other side of the Plexi. She put her hand up on her side of the Plexi and the man across from her mashed his hand up on his side. Just like in the movies.

My father was there. In an orange jumpsuit. Just like the movies, and also nothing like the movies.

We only talked a minute. I didn't ask him anything. The things I was scared about. Would people beat him up in jail? Do they get raped there? I didn't ask him anything, and he told me he was okay. He said he ate a lot of cookies and played chess in jail.

That was way before. Way before anything. When my father was still my father. The skier. The son of a WWII navigator who used the stars to save his crew when their equipment was shot up. When my father was the man who got extra phone lines so he could stay connected to a primitive internet at all times. The comic book fan who gave all his comics away to his children. The problematic human who couldn't maintain a relationship. Any relationship. The man whose taste in music ran from bad to horrible, to the point my brother had to hide a CD by 90's singer Poe because he couldn't stand to hear it one more time. The man who always told his kids he wouldn't buy them cars but would pay for their college. The man who could have done it on his anesthesiologist's wages. The man who didn't because things changed and he couldn't. The man who drank until he passed out in front of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Doctor Who. The man who I always hoped would stay passed out on the couch. Wouldn't wake up and leave us.

I can. I can send something to that man.

What I can't do is send something to a different man. The man he is now. Maybe he doesn't care about Star Trek anymore. Maybe he doesn't like special effects anymore. Maybe he's been banned from computers and that eats him up just a little. Maybe he's mean all the time the way he used to be mean just sometimes. Maybe he's nice all the time.

Whoever he is, the man from today hasn't written. Hasn't called. I didn't know he was in the state. I didn't know he was homeless, tent homeless. Maybe he can't. Maybe he's thinking the same thing. That the son he knew is probably someone else by now.

I want to send two books to my father. But I can't. Because my father, the man from ten years ago, he doesn't have an address.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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