By Jeremiah Cahill
My wife and I differ in appreciation of Bob Dylan’s music. She first heard his songs during an overnight train trip while a young man at the back of the coach played early Dylan all night on a cheap cassette, keeping her from even a fitful sleep and spoiling any future appreciation for the music.
In contrast, I had an unexpected—and mesmerizing—first encounter.
August 1, 1964—six days before my 18th birthday—Bob Dylan played the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu. Billed as “America’s foremost poet and folksinger,” I had never heard of him. Friends said “We gotta go,” so that Saturday night we descended on the Shell.
Just as it sounds, Waikiki Shell is a stage roofed over with a hemispherical shell, facing rows of reserved seats then open seating on the lawns beyond. At the time, the outer perimeter was ringed with shrubs and a seven-foot wire fence—not much of a challenge for barefoot teen barbarians who never even considered buying tickets.
At dusk, we circled outside the Shell, watched for security guards, then “Go, go!” Grab on, climb up and over the fence, make sure we’re all in, then run up the back slope and melt into the gathering crowds.
Since I knew nothing of this slim young folk singer from Minnesota, I had no expectations. After a brief introduction, out walks young Bob Dylan, jeans and a plaid shirt, plunks into the one chair center stage, and starts strumming. Acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice—that was it.
By then Dylan had released four albums, and that evening he did the classics—“Blowing in the Wind,” “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Funny, I don’t remember those. But one less-known song simply stunned me.
“Oh, the age of the inmates
I remember quite freely:
No younger than twelve,
No older ‘n seventeen.
Thrown in like bandits
And cast off like criminals,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.”
“The Walls of Red Wing” describes the Minnesota Correctional Facility, built in 1889 to house juvenile male offenders. I’d never heard of it, but oh, boy did I relate!
Within the last year, I had been stopped by the Honolulu police, pulled over around midnight—speeding, slightly drunk, and carrying an illegal switchblade-style knife. That was plenty to earn me a trip downtown and booking into what was then the Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center, otherwise known as the “detention home,” “DH,” or “juvie.”
The intake was simple: A cop behind the desk took what information he could get from me, slightly impaired. I surrendered all my belongings. I was told to strip down, given a pair of skimpy brown athletic shorts and a white T-shirt, then led to a dark dormitory. An officer walked me down rows of cots occupied by other young men and pointed his flashlight to an open bed.
I lay there trying to take it all in. In the dark, I had no idea who my dorm mates were but clearly the guy one cot over was masturbating energetically. I just hoped everyone kept to themselves, and I must have settled into something like sleep.
Morning wake-up came early. We trudged to the bleak cafeteria, where I sat alone, slightly hung over, forcing down a few bites of jailhouse breakfast.
“From the dirty old mess hall
You march to the brick wall,
Too weary to talk
And too tired to sing.
Oh, it’s all afternoon
You remember your home town,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.”
Well, the Honolulu lockup wasn’t quite that grim for me. But it was sobering.
From the mess hall, we mustered to an outdoor area enclosed by fifteen-foot high concrete walls topped with chain link and barbed wire fencing, bathed in bright Hawaiian sunshine. My jail mates were all brown-skinned local boys, many of them well-muscled, limber, athletic, and really into basketball. I was the only haole (white) boy, a skinny kid with no skill at shooting hoops. I sat there on the sidelines, arms across my knees, trying to disappear into the background.
It was a relief of sorts when my father showed up mid-morning to sign me out. Oh, but I knew I was in for it. Serious home consequences. Juvenile court, probation. I had it all coming.
Looking back, why were those local boys detained? Were they “bandits and criminals”? Turns out that few of them were in for violent crimes. Quoting a 2006 article in Honolulu Magazine, “Most of them were what the system calls status offenders—kids who’ve run away, cut class, or given their parents some other reason to call the cops on them.” Additionally, mentally ill kids were locked up because there was nowhere else to put them.
The detention center was the scene of judicial hearings for “… kids brought in the night before and their guardians—fed-up foster parents, tired grandfathers, and tearful mothers who don’t always want to bring the kids back home.”
At the time, I didn’t know this background, but I had questionable role models among my own friends.
My good buddy Bo had done time in the real juvenile lock-up, the Koolau Boys’ Home or “the reformatory.” His stories were boastful but harrowing—long months in lock up, escapes, fights, and violence. Looking back, I realize one of Bo’s problems was hyperactivity. At some point neither his family nor authorities knew how to control him, so away he went.
Bobby, on the other hand, was hardened by 17, a sneering crook, a car thief, and a hoodlum. Sadly, I think back on a young offender already living way out on the wrong side.
Then there was the kid we called Alley Oop, a runaway from the leeward side of the island and another graduate of the reformatory. Good guy, but stocky, quick with his fists, and not someone to taunt. We got along fine and he stayed with our family for several weeks, sharing a bedroom with my brother and me, while my dad negotiated his return home.
How did this happen? How were we able to run wild in so many ways?
“Too much freedom and too few controls,” says my brother. My dad had another take: “In Hawaii, there was no weather to force you indoors, as on the mainland.” Both true.
For contrast, watch a Wisconsin high school boys’ basketball game. Players, coaches, parents and families, cheerleaders—they’re all indoors rooting for the home team. The hours of practice, the talent and teamwork and camaraderie of teenage boys, electrifies the gym.
And it helps keep them out of trouble.
We missed that. Lackluster schools, few extracurricular activities to grab us, no extended family. It left me with energy to burn, acting out, seeking thrills, and looking for peer approval.
At the extremes, some of my friends suffered from emotional and behavioral disorders that called out for treatment. Instead, they were locked up.
The Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center closed in 2010 amid reports of mistreatment and crumbling facilities.
Dylan’s concert punctuated the summer of ’64—I was out of high school and facing—what? I had no plans.
At some point, my dad gave me the ultimatum: get a job and start paying rent, go to college if I could overcome my dismal academic record, or join the military. Unspoken, I think, was another option: I could simply leave home. Two months later I was gone, off—my parents hoped—to employment and stability near family and friends in southern California.
“Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison,
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things,
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads,
From inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.”
By spring of 1965 I was on the road to Selma, Alabama to join in civil rights activities. Then west to Berkeley, California hitchhiking, hopping a freight train, and heading into the emerging anti-war movement. It would be seven years before I’d return home to Honolulu. Lots of adventures, and plenty of meet-ups at various crossroads.
I’ve often asked, why has that little-known protest song, “The Walls of Redwing,” stuck with me all these years?
Perhaps it was my first exposure to hard-hitting, contemporary poetry—words that really spoke to me.
Or Dylan’s presence on stage. In the words of a reviewer who was also at that concert, “I knew I was in the presence of greatness that night.”
More than anything, it was the resonance of my own brief incarceration—and knowing other young men in trouble and in need—that kept the power of those words alive.
(c) 2016. Jeremiah Cahill lives in Madison Wisconsin. He somehow grew beyond his rowdy youth and now atones for his past through social activism and good works.
Richard Ross, photographer and Distinguished Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, documents the lives of thousands of American teenagers held in lockdown and solitary confinement. The Juvenile-in-Justice project includes photos, posters, books and exhibitions. Images are available to institutions and non-profits working to reform the youth justice system.
Thanks so much, very moving. Social justice in Nashville, TN as well as many places has realized that the prison system itself is out of control and motivated itself according to the “Serve oneself” economic law. We’re working on it. We listen. I’ll share. What else is Cahill writing?
I was there in 1964