The sliding metal door behind us groaned to life, pushing most of the light out of the dead-end hallway. As the shadows fell, I looked around at the small crowd gathered around me. On my left a square-jawed Major stood ramrod straight, to my right, a shaggy, bearded fellow stared at the low ceiling and smiled serenely. Behind me, Sheriff Deputies waited at parade-rest. As soon as the door clanged shut, the wall in front of us began slowly moving leftward. Filtered sunlight poured into the space, revealing a cavernous cell block beyond the threshold, where nearly a hundred idling inmates loitered and paced. Without a word, we all stepped forward; the cameraman and the goat-herder, flanked by Randolph County’s finest. As we entered the cell-block, incarcerated eyeballs washed over us.
‘Yeah, that’s right...we bad...’
A few minutes later the old man pursed his lips and a low mournful sound wafted out of his strange horn. Slowly rising, the strange tone rose, filling the highest reaches of the two-story lock-up with a sound born in the Swiss Alps. As it did, the inmates stopped shifting in their jumpsuits. Those sitting on the bolted down picnic tables slowly tapped their feet, their county-issue shower shoes bobbing in time. On the balcony above me, a shirtless inmate leaned into a urinal and smiled serenely at the foreign music. Even the deputies seemed more placid than before, as they silently fanned out into the crowd. Off to the side, I peered through my viewfinder, struggling to bring this latest absurdity into finer focus.
Halfway into the next desolate tune, I abandoned my tripod and shouldered the camera. As I skirted the perimeter of the incongruent gathering, more than a few inmates watched my every move. I knew better than to point my lens directly at them; instead I framed up shots from across the room while stoic deputies tracked my progress from behind mirrored sunglasses. That’s when a squirrelly looking gentleman in an orange jumpsuit motioned for my attention. When he got it, he began whispering loudly about being attacked. With the low drone of the alp-horn filling every crevice of the great space, I could only catch every other word. But when he pulled back his stenciled collar to reveal a scabbed-over bullet wound, I knew he wasn’t asking what time this would be on.
Up front, the old man and his assistant stopped blowing their horns. With the help of a third man, the old goat-herder barked out a message in what I guessed to be German. In a voice oddly reminiscent of the Burgermeister from that old Santa Claus cartoon, the old man’s translator barked a message of love and forgiveness. I didn’t expect his jumpsuit-wearing audience to be very receptive but as I panned the camera around, I saw more than one inmate nodding in silent agreement. After a few more pleads and platitudes, the trio of foreigners fell silent. Taking the horn’s mouthpiece into his weathered lips, the old goat-herder from Switzerland began blowing a familiar series of plaintive notes. As ‘Amazing Grace’ filled the highly-disinfected hall, more than one crusty inmate looked to be on the verge of tears. Me, I glanced at my watch and thought about my next stop: a sit-down interview with a local politician. Whatever the elected official wanted to discuss, it couldn’t be any weirder than this.
Or could it?