When I first saw Butterball he was wearing only his tighty-whiteys and a bath towel casually draped over one shoulder as he walked from the shower to his cell fifty feet away. His pronounced belly drooped over the distressed elastic waistband to such a degree that it was perfectly clear where his nickname came from. His resemblance to a rotund Thanksgiving bird was more that passing.
Butterball had to be told by inmates and officers both to put some pants or shorts on when coming from the shower, which only left him perplexed. He had been behaving as though he were in some kind of communal bathhouse or oversized locker room where certain degrees of undress were accepted if not unavoidable. While his characterizations did have merit, he quickly learned the requisite portion of shame and modesty. Regardless, based on these actions alone, I had him pegged as a supreme weirdo.
Several months later I found myself constantly in close proximity to Butterball—a nickname he embraced and to which he answered. The fact that he accepted this unflattering name, as well as the generally accepted prevailing opinion that he was indeed a weirdo, went a long way to proving that he was one. Similar to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, enough people believed it until it was accepted as gospel truth. While working with him in the chow hall, however, I soon realized that I had made a terrible mistake in my understanding and assessment of him.
Intelligence, politeness, and good manners are so foreign to the prison environment that exhibiting such traits will make a person stand out from those around him and inevitably be labeled as odd. Such was the case with Butterball.
He was perpetually upbeat and kind. I never heard him speak harshly, raise his voice in anger, or use profanity. Having never before spent time incarcerated, his forays from shower to cell in only his underwear were due to naiveté not idiocy or mental illness.
The truth was that Butterball had been a mechanical engineer before his arrest. More often than not once he got to talking I could barely keep up with him. His technical awareness aside, topics ranging from history, to politics, art, music, literature were all areas in which he was well versed. I modestly count myself a fairly intelligent fella, but Butterball routinely put me to shame. He was never mean-spirited about it, but in speaking with him I learned a lot, not the least of which was finding out how severely lacking I was in my own education.
Butterball’s wit, intellect, kindheartedness, easygoing nature, and high work ethic (another rarity in prison) all conspired to make me wonder just what exactly he was locked up for. Often smiling, jovial, quick with a laugh—that’s the guy I knew. Never did I glimpse or see any shades of the man who had bludgeoned a family of four to death before fleeing across state lines and leading authorities on a week’s long manhunt that traversed a half-dozen states before culminating in a standoff in which, rather than having a shootout with police, he attempted to take his own life. Once he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds he was returned to his state of origin to stand trial for his crimes.
After I discovered his story I didn’t stop speaking to Butterball, but knowledge of his crime did change the dynamic of our relationship. Too often I’d catch myself trying to see beyond what was in plain sight and looking for signs of that other guy.