We in West Virginia pride ourselves on being neighborly.
That’s why my friend Carol and I decided to take a cake to Martha Stewart, a recent arrival to our state. Martha is serving a 5-month sentence at the federal prison camp in Alderson for lying about a stock deal. I don’t condone Martha’s actions but at least she is doing time while her male counterparts in financial skullduggery are still free.
Charles Town is 231 miles from Alderson. Carol and I left early on a frigid Saturday because visitors are allowed at Alderson on the weekend. We knew we would never actually get to see Martha but that was not the point of our visit. We merely wanted to welcome Martha to the mountaineer state.
The chocolate cake we transported was homemade (would anyone dare bring Martha a store bought confection?). We declined a friend’s suggestion that we bake in a glue gun. Since this trip was all about Mountaineer hospitality we used a West Virginia family recipe. Margaret Ellen Vogler, Carol’s 82-year-old mother-in-law, gladly volunteered her recipe for Chocolate Cake with Boiled Caramel Icing. Mrs. Vogler, a native of Wheeling, West Virginia, perfected the recipe decades ago and it is the staple of all Vogler family reunions.
We arrived at Alderson, cake in hand, shortly before noon. The prison looks exactly like a college campus with one important difference: finding a parking space is really, really easy. We entered the Visitor’s Center, located in what looks like a former house. The place was packed. Inmates and their visitors shared sofas and benches, crowded around tables and spilled out into the yard. “Can I help you?” asked the guard. “We brought this cake for Martha Stewart”; we whispered realizing that most of the inmates and their families were probably getting sick of all the attention surrounding Martha.
The guard was friendly but firm. No food was allowed, she told us. We offered to leave the cake for the guards but that was not allowed either. She suggested we mail our hand made greeting card to Martha.
Carol and I were disappointed but still felt good about our neighborly mission. We took a few pictures in the parking lot and started to pull out. That’s when another prison guard, his jacket flapping, stopped us. He informed us that taking pictures at Alderson prison is a federal crime. Given the absence of any signs announcing this policy, we were caught by surprise.
We defended our actions the only way we knew how. “Can we offer you a piece of Chocolate Cake with Boiled Caramel Frosting from a recipe of an 82 year old grandmother in Wheeling?” In West Virginia, where there are still close family ties all over the state, there was a chance the guard had relatives in the Northern Panhandle and might forget the whole episode. This was not the case.
The guard demanded our driver licenses and destroyed the film from Carol’s camera. “Wait here”, he ordered and disappeared into the Visitors Center. “I can’t do time”, moaned Carol, an elementary school teacher. “I didn’t leave any lesson plans for next week.”
The guard returned our drivers licenses a few minutes later. He said he intended to report us to the Superintendent of Inmate Security but that we were free to go. We left Alderson with the cake and the threat of legal action over our head.
Martha Stewart will probably never know about our expedition to welcome her to West Virginia but that doesn’t matter. We wanted to show our sympathy for Martha and we did.
And that, as Martha would say, is a good thing.
The Herald-Mail, February 2005