—the guy at the center of the most bizarre story I’ve ever worked on—called from a federal lockup a few weeks ago to say he’d written me a poem.
I’ve got to admit, I typically don’t have that effect on people, and this was certainly the first time someone had written me a jailhouse poem. I was flattered by the tit-for-tat and oddly tickled to be the muse instead of summoning one. Still, I was not surprised that Carlson, the Indiana man who’d made national news after being arrested for abusing his grandsons on a hike in the Grand Canyon, had written me a poem.
First off, Carlson is not your everyday dude—a fact, I think, that comes through loud and clear in the piece I wrote for the September 2012 issue of Indianapolis Monthly. But, secondly and more importantly, he and I spent hours and hours together on the phone as I gathered the raw material that went into this long-form writing project: lengthy interviews, heavily redacted legal documents, and a trip to the Grand Canyon to get my own first-hand account of the Bright Angel Trail.
Originally, Carlson and I agreed to three hour-long phone interviews, but after the first five minutes of our initial conversation, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. He had a lot he wanted to say—about nearly everything imaginable. We were probably halfway through the phone call before I slipped in my first question. Carlson and I ended up doing one more official interview, a fourth and final stem-winder that was again scheduled for an hour but ended up being closer to two. And then, from time to time while I was writing the story, Carlson would call unannounced, and we’d talk.
Or, rather, I’d listen.
I didn’t mind. As a journalist, I want to hear someone’s story over and over, to the point where I know it cold. At the same time I’m paying attention to what subjects say, I’m also trying to pick up on how they say it—their rhythms, quirks, intonations, and tells. That way, when I’m relating the story for publication, I can inhabit a point of view and, sometimes, if I’m lucky, make it read as if it were my own.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to speak for Carlson, put words in his mouth, or defend him (or anyone, for that matter). I simply feel that sometimes taking on the persona of the subject is the most efficient and entertaining way to help a reader truly understand a story. The neat thing about any artful adaptation, I think, is that it has the potential to round out life’s rough edges and incongruences, whereas real life is never quite as satisfying. You certainly don’t make anything up (a mortal sin for most reporters), but you want to present events and perspectives in a context that makes sense—bring order to chaos.
There was a lot of chaos with Chris Carlson, and, yeah, even rhyming couplets. When he read me the poem, it sounded a little singsong for my ear. And, sadly, I didn’t record that particular conversation or take notes. But the guy does have a way with words. Read some of these excerpts from my interviews and see for yourself.
On what one grandson told authorities after the hike…
“I think he stepped up and played the part of the hero. I’m reading this book called The Jesus Plot—no, The Passover Plot. It’s about Jesus knowing that he was going to become the Messiah, and he plans his own crucifixion. I’m not saying I buy into it or I don’t—it’s just a book I’m reading, so I hope this doesn’t get twisted. But it’s interesting, and in it, it says that early on Jesus knew he wanted to be the Messiah or thought he was going to be the Messiah, and it says that children readily see themselves as playing the part of the hero. I think when [the oldest boy] got to the top, [the middle grandson] got some attention, and then they asked if someone called for help, and I think [the oldest] stepped to the plate, trying to vie, jockey, and jostle for attention.
On the impact publicity has had on loved ones…
“I have a family. I’m a human being. My family has been dragged through the mud big-time on this. There’s a family here. I’m not asking anyone to mollycoddle me, just like I didn’t want to mollycoddle my grandchildren on that day. In certain situations you have to assert command of the situation. If they run out into the road and there’s a car coming, you don’t want to have them questioning your authority at that point. But indignation? The indignation of the situation? Indignation. I’m learning a lot of new words with this Mark Twain guy. I’m telling you, he’s great. But my real new guy is this Wilbur Smith. He’s great. The Seventh Scroll? Check it out, man. I’m telling ya, he’s on time. He’s got another one called River God, but I read one called Monsoon, it was more ship-oriented. The Seventh Scroll is African, mummy-type, hidden-tombs stuff, but it’s turning out to be real good. I’m wearing my dictionary out, that’s for sure. So, to finish that up, there’s a family involved here.”
“I kind of get wild with the food, but, hey, me and the kids stop and get doughnuts now and then. Believe me, I’m the hotdog, chili dog, pizza king. Pork chops and bacon. But I don’t do any of that anymore. I’m an adult. Bacon? It’s got that fear in the meat. It’s called adrenaline. Look at the Muslims. They calm the goat down once a month for the amino acids and use the power of the crowd to calm the animal, and they have a real sharp knife and then it happens so fast and the knife is so sharp, the animal doesn’t know what’s going on. But, all of sudden, they grab him, slit his throat and drink the blood. The meat’s clean that way. But I only eat sea fish. It’s not really as expensive as people believe. You can get it for as little as $2 a pound, especially for things like ocean perch. And some of the Korean markets will have ocean fish—whole, head-on, and gutted—for about $1.50 a pound. Only sea fish. I don’t eat the shrimp or the oysters or the lobster, basically anything that’s a bottom feeder or pollutant-cleaner. They say the smaller the fish the better, because the older ones, the bigger ones, have mercury built up in them. I love to eat good, and things that clean your blood. Ginger. Garlic. Echinacea. Horsetail root. Burdock root. Ginseng.
Did I tell you that story about Li Ching-Yuen? Lived 250 years? Had 168 children? Chinese? Look it up. Look it up, but don’t look it up on the computer, because the computer will tell you that two scientists discovered what he really discovered, and it’s called fo ti tieng, this vitamin X that’s supposed to have a marvelous, rejuvenating effect on the brain cells. I mix that with gotu kola, which strengthens your endocrine glands, and mix that with some spirulina, which is the most awesome protein in the world. Think it has more than 20 times the amount of protein as soybeans on the same acre, and it’s an active ingredient. It’s a Hawaiian sea algae or something like that. But, I think in the Bible they say it’s supposed to be the first, uh, growth or something like that. But, anyway, I kind of like to get wild with the food.”
On growing marijuana…
“It was beautiful. That was amazing. I am proud of that. I was good at what I did. Whether it’s tomatoes or marijuana, whatever I do, I’m good at it. I’m also a darn good musician and damn good poet. I don’t mean to be yanking my own chain … Let’s just say I was impressed, because pride is not a good thing in the Bible. Or with God. It was a runoff of the nitrogen, and soybeans also put off nitrogen in their roots. So it was a low land by a running-water creek, and everyone knows that sun and good soil, and you put that next to a creek with that crank on it, that—that crystal meth is what it really is, that anhydrous ammonia. That’s what makes corn grown 15-freaking-feet tall. Yeah, you add all of that into the equation, and it gets ugly. And, by the way, they dried marijuana in the sally port, and when I walked in that jail, I got a standing ovation from everybody there. It permeated the entire jail, and, basically, everyone was drawing on it. For two weeks. Literally. Even the guards. I’m telling ya, people were on their knees thanking me. I’ve seen a little bit in my life, and that was extremely impressive.”
“If I was as cool as I really am all of the time, I’d probably have a lot more children. The bottom line is that I’ve got to regulate it. I don’t go to bars, man. I don’t go out looking on the computer on one of those websites where they are taking their clothes off. I don’t have cellphones. I don’t do none of that. I’d have too many dang girlfriends—you know what I mean? I’m focused on my children. That’s the truth, brother. I don’t get high. I like to eat weird foods and ginsengs and things like that. That’s the way I get high. I got this new system of trying to go to sleep and being real tired and using your REM. I’m trying to stay in my REM because I have some killer dreams that have very much power. I can write a whole song or a movie in my dream, I just can’t remember it in my dream-catcher. So basically, I just want to keep myself in my REM by being so tired, and have someone there with a feather waking me up so I can write some of this stuff down. They say you can use more of your brainpower when you meditate or are in your REM. You go from about 5 or 6 percent up to about 8 or 9. Shamans are able to do that. But they don’t want smart people out here. They want dumb people to die quick. But, no, I wouldn’t say I’m a ladies’ man. I like people, in general, and, yes, women are beautiful. There’s no creature in the universe that has breasts like a woman. The female body is wonderful, man. That’s why all the artists love it.”
Photo of Chris Carlson courtesy Fayette County Sheriff’s Department
This article is a companion piece to a feature story in the September 2012 issue.