For Billy Hayes, being arrested in 1970 and sentenced to life in a Turkish prison was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him. As chronicled in the book and film, Midnight Express (Watch Full Episode: The Real Midnight Express), and now in the sequel book, Midnight Return, this fascinating journey into peril, fame, and fortune was a strange voyage of discovery that extended far out beyond the bars--from the isolation of a prison cell to worldwide notoriety. Midnight Return takes us on that ride, using photos, maps, and old handwritten letters in this vivid portrait of a most unusual experience. The book is also available on Amazon.
A VAST ABYSS OF PAIN AND FEAR
I tried to move the file slower, with heavy pressure. Harvey nervously coiled the nylon rope on his shoulder, his skinny body shivering beneath a cheap cloth coat. This was an insane plan--even if we got out the window and onto the roof, the guards in the towers would probably pick us off like flies--but Harvey and I both had thirty-year prison sentences, so sanity was becoming difficult to define.
Harvey Bell was a grinning wild man from Alabama who'd been caught driving a nifty green TR3 with 200 kilos of hash hidden beneath it. He'd spent three years in a small prison in central Turkey and was transferred to Sagmalcilar after a botched escape attempt had left him beaten, but not broken. He showed up one day and proceeded to turn life there atilt.
"Yeeess!" he'd shouted, as he entered the foreigners' cellblock, a battered guitar in his hand. "Where the hell are the Americans and who's in charge of escape around here? Goddamn, ah'm so tired of fuckin' Turks an' fuckin' Ah-rabs and fuckin' Muslims."
I was the only American in a cellblock full of Arabs and Muslims, so I wasn't thrilled to hear this scruffy madman bellowing about escape. I got closer and realized he'd managed to get himself drunk on the long trip here from Elazig.
"Oh, man, it's clean here," he drawled, a silly smile creasing his thin, ascetic face. I looked around at the dirt and scum, sniffed the putrid smell coming from the toilet, and made a mental note never to transfer to Elazig prison.
I informed him of his situation and advised him to keep his voice down, but the damage had already been done. That evening I had to intervene in a pipe-swinging confrontation between Harvey and a Jordanian car thief who'd taken grave offense to Harv's comments about the Muslims. It wasn't the most auspicious beginning to a relationship, but during the following year we became best friends, and like most guys in prison, spent our days plotting and planning escape attempts that we never carried out. There's a vast abyss of pain and fear between planning an escape and actually trying it.
Harvey, like myself, had been an English major in college, and his gruff exterior hid a sharp, educated mind. We shared the books that passed through the prison, talked philosophy, and argued politics. He was a good ole boy who could quote Faulkner. "Lib Arts degree oughta be good for sumpin,'" he'd laugh.
I made the mistake of telling Harvey about one escape plan--cut through the bars, climb onto the roof, then slide down the wall with a nylon rope I'd improvised from a volleyball net that had mysteriously disappeared one day after a game. I'd had the file hidden away for several years, a parting gift from Claude LeBrun, a Belgian diamond thief who'd been released. I'd never tried the plan, because the bullet percentage was way too high. Even if we managed to cut the bar without being spotted, the chances of getting down the wall past the machine gun posts were, as Harvey would say, thinner than frog hair split four ways.
But once Harvey heard I had the file and rope, he was unrelenting; and then one cold December afternoon a letter arrived from my mom:
November 15, 1974
...here I am remembering about long ago. They say that's a sign of growing old. I'm fine. Still the same. Life goes on, even with a little heartache every day for my oldest child so far away.
The letter devastated me. The pain my mother had to bear because of me hollowed out my heart. I picked up Harvey's old guitar and began to play the few chords I knew. Harvey came by and began to softly sing some old Alabama blues. We found a simple beat and improvised a song that seemed to write itself.
When the song wore down to a stop, then Harvey asked, "How long you been here, Willie?"
He knew the answer. "Four years," I said.
"How many summers?"
We sat while he plucked some strings. Then he stopped and looked at me. "Four summers. They're stealing our summers, man. And now here comes another fucking winter. I mean, can you ever get back a lost summer? Can you?"
I must have been crazed at the time, because I agreed to try the roof escape with him that very night, which was why I found myself cutting nervously at a bar in the toilet window, certain the guards would burst in and drag us away.
"C'mon, for Christ's sake," whispered Harvey.
"It's slower than I thought." I filed for a while, fighting the building panic as I realized I'd misjudged the timing.
"You said it'd cut like butter," said Harvey.
"I was wrong."
Harvey worked at it for a while. The bar only had a slight scratch mark. This would take forever.
We worked in shifts, one man filing while the other kept guard. I looked out at the dark sky through the bars. Five a.m. and we'd barely dented the tough metal.
"We'll have to try again tonight," I said.
Harvey stared at me, then coughed and spit on the filthy stone floor. "Fuck it. We try again tonight."
I picked up an old butt and Harvey scraped some putty from the window frame. We mixed the cigarette ashes with the putty and dabbed the mixture on the bars.
"We got lots of time, right?" grinned Harvey.
We both laughed.
Three days later, just before dawn, I woke in fear to the sound of guards rushing into the cellblock. They were led by Arief the Bonebreaker. They made straight for Harvey's bunk, and two guards dragged him up by the arms. He shook them off. Arief slammed him across the face.
"Who else was with you!" Arief bellowed. "Where is the file?"
They dragged Harvey to the bathroom. Arief rubbed away at a few bars until he dislodged the makeshift putty. "They saw you," he said, pointing across at the children's cellblock across the yard. "You and someone else."
Arief backhanded Harvey across the face.
"Where's the file?"
What else could Harvey do? He went to the locker and dug the file out from under the metal molding in the back.
"Who else was with you?" demanded Arief.
Harvey stared into Arief's face.
Arief smiled and told the guards to take Harvey to the cellar. They dragged him past me, and we made flickering eye contact. I kept my face a mask, but my heart slowly filled with fear and anguish as the metal door slammed shut and Harvey's shouts faded away.
The next day I slipped the door guard a couple of packs of cigarettes and bribed my way over to the prison dispensary, where I heard Harvey had been taken.
I entered the dispensary and walked down a row of small cells. Harvey wasn't there. I turned to leave, then looked again at a prisoner lying in bed with a puffy, blackened face.
"Harvey! Jesus Christ! I didn't recognize you."
He roused himself to a sitting position. "Hey, Billy. Yeah, they really fucked me up," he mumbled through swollen lips. "Goddamn Arief kicked me in the balls. Think he opened my hernia."
It hurt me to look at him.
"They wanted my name, didn't they?"
He smiled and winced. "Yeah, well, what could I do?"
"I owe you," I said.
"Listen, Billy, tell the Consul. I'm afraid the Turks are gonna hustle me away to some little prison in the sticks."
"I'll contact him, Harv."
"And do yourself a favor and get the hell out of this prison while you still can. This place is bad news."
I stared at him awhile. "I won't forget you."
"Everybody forgets when they leave here, you know that."
"I owe you."
"Oh, yeah," I said, slipping a few blue Nembutal capsules between the bars, "These might help."
"Thanks," he said, taking them, "but some acid might be better."
I laughed. "This place is definitely a trip."
We stared at each other.
I lifted a string of dark rosary beads with a tiny silver crucifix out of my pocket.
"I want you to have these," I said, flipping them onto his bed.
Harvey picked up the beads, stared at them. "You must be shitting me, you don't believe this crap."
"I know, but my old grandmother sent 'em to me, said they were blessed by the Pope or something, and I want you to have them."
Harvey smiled at me, then winced.
"Go with God," I said, in Turkish.
He smiled again. "Go with God."
Two days later he was gone.
Like what you've read so far? Read the book on Amazon. Fore more information on Billy Hayes, visit his website. And if you haven't seen The Real Midnight Express as seen on Locked Up Abroad, watch the full episode online.