Recently, I found myself being moved to another part of the building to accommodate someone who wasn’t getting along with one of his cellmates. I wasn’t excited about the move as I was pretty comfortable with my cellmates and had lived in the same bed for three years. I’m usually slow to get used to new people, so a whole set of five cellmates to adjust to was not great. Plus, I was placed in what would turn out to be the outbreak section of the building.
Soon after moving in, one of my new cellmates asked me where I was from. Aaron was surprised when I said, “Washington,” and then asked more specifically where I was from. I told him I was from Richland, one of the tri-cities in the southeastern high desert. I wasn’t surprised that he was familiar with the place; over the years, I’ve met a lot of guys who’ve been through the area at one point or another on their way somewhere else.
We moved to the tri-cities, where my stepdad is from, as I was preparing for fourth grade. His family had moved to Kennewick in 1943 when the U.S. government bought the land from residents of Hanford and White Bluffs to make space for a nuclear facility that would one day provide 10 billion megawatt-hours for several states as well as the fissile material for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The locals, who’d spent many hard years coaxing fruit orchards from the irrigated land following the dream of an easy life, were notified in March that they had until June to be gone.
Aaron shared that he, too, was a Washingtonian, though from farther west — a town called Amboy. I’d never heard of it, nor any of the hamlets he named in the area. As he continued talking, he mentioned high school — Battle Ground High — which sounded familiar. It was a name I remember seeing on a T-shirt my mother used to wear. When I called home a few days later, I mentioned this to my mom and aunt, who told me that they had grown up in Amboy.
“Nobody’s from Amboy,” exclaimed my aunt when I said I had a cellmate from their hometown. Amboy is a 10-square-mile aggregation of people in Clark County, the southwest corner of Washington. I’m not sure it actually qualifies as a town. The 2010 census recorded a population of 1,608 and called it a “census-designated place.” My aunt remembered about 600 residents when she lived there, “counting the crows,” my uncle joked. It’s so small that students travel to Battle Ground to attend high school, where there are about 17,000 residents.
When I was younger, I was driven to see the old family home. I remember it being a house and some trees along a highway in the middle of nowhere. That was Amboy. It consisted of a post office, grocery store, gas station, volunteer fire department, the grade school and several taverns.
“In the good old days,” mused my uncle, “there was a popular place called Nick’s Tavern. Nick served customers downstairs, and his sister served different customers upstairs.”
If there was anything noteworthy to say about Amboy, it was its vicinity to Mt. St. Helens. My grandmother “jumped out of her chair like she’d been bit” when it erupted, mom recalled. Great Grandma Behrend, a talented painter, captured the mountain from a photo before it blew and again after; both paintings hang in family homes.
As Aaron and I continued talking, and after having spoken to both of our parents, we discovered that his uncle is fairly certain that he knew my mom back in high school.
We never got to follow up on this connection; within a couple of weeks Aaron — followed by the rest of my cellmates — tested positive for the coronavirus and disappeared among those moved for quarantine. What infinitesimal odds for two people with a direct connection to such a small place in Washington to wind up in a cell together in California.
I shared the story with my dad, and we got to talking about his family. I asked him about what drew them to those “Orchards of Eden” in the desert, and he shared his great grandpa’s story of his journey from a Seattle longshoreman to a desert orchardist. He told me about how his wife and daughters took one look at the arid landscape of the Priest Rapids Valley and stepped back onto the train, leaving him alone with his sons to work the land. His grandmother wasn’t from Washington herself, he said, but from Idaho, a little town she always pronounced WEEZ-uh.
A thought popped into my head. “Do you spell that W-E-I-S-E-R?” I asked him. “Yeah, I think so,” he answered. “That’s WEEZ-er,” I exclaimed. I knew someone from there.
Danny and I were friends for about four years and cellmates for about two before he transferred. He always talked about his home back in Weiser, Idaho. It was another improbable connection — Weiser is actually considered a city, the seat of Washington County in eastern Idaho, but its population is only about 5,500 spread out over three square miles. The town calls itself the “Fiddling Capital of the World” and hosts the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest every summer since 1953, but there’s not much else to say about this place.
There are some 95,000 people incarcerated in California’s prisons, and of course most are from the Golden State. Even if they didn’t actually know each other, almost everyone can get lost recollecting streets and businesses and families with others from their hometowns.
I had never had that opportunity because I came from out of state. Unlike other guys in prison, I almost never asked, “Where are you from?” when meeting someone new. But now I see that this really is a small world, and I just may run into someone from my family’s hometown — or even my own.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.