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Sorting Through the Years

"It's been a long time up in here."

Time and tedium: They're the same thing in a mental asylum. You can see the boredom written on the face of another NGBRI, not a stamp sorter but a patient with Dayne in minimum. He's out walking the grounds one afternoon -- a lumpish, sandy-haired fellow in faded black jeans and a flannel shirt, trudging with his head down along a road through the fields -- when you come upon him and ask directions. He looks at you with a dull expression, mutters something you can't make out, and gestures to a building up ahead. Then he turns back to the road and continues on alone with his thoughts.

He was 25 when he shot the president. Next month, he'll turn 50.

(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

A Thinking Man's Job

Then there's David Jones, 65, in charge of the plastic cabinets along the walls, a worker of legendary enthusiasm and diligence.

He works on his feet, usually bent over a counter. His job is to look through piles of U.S. stamps sorted by the other men and decide which of 3,600 or so little drawers each stamp should go in. He once got a plaque for being employee of the year.

"It gives you a chance to utilize your neurons and your transmitters in your brain," he says. "See, we have stamps in here with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, FDR, Hoover, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. We have Abigail Adams. We have Ayn Rand. We have some of the most illustrious people throughout history, right here on these stamps. . . .

"I find it gives me a chance to walk through history and bring my brain up to date on things I've forgotten," he says. "Many things."

He has 21 years of formal education, according to hospital officials, including graduate work in biochemistry and a few years of medical school at Howard University. Melanson says it's unlikely anyone in John Howard lost a brighter, more inquisitive mind than Jones.

He takes a 15-cent stamp honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. out of one of the drawers, holds it to the light and says: "I marched in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1961." He was an undergraduate at what's now Tougaloo College and was inspired by the Freedom Riders. "I marched to the state fair, which was segregated. We marched to integrate the fair. We were all locked up and spent the night in the Jackson jail."

He left Mississippi for graduate school at Purdue University, then moved to Washington in 1963 to study medicine.

Locating an Albert Einstein stamp in another drawer, he says: "This one here, now, you see this? E equals MC squared -- energy equals mass times . . . times . . ."

The speed of light.

"A constant! Times the constant squared. The theory of relativity. And he went on to develop quantum theory. And later came the development -- with Oppenheimer, Teller and other illustrious figures in the field of physics -- the development of the atomic bomb for the United States of America, which allowed the United States to . . ."

His illness took hold when he was in medical school. He dropped out in 1966 and became a type of person you avoid on the street.

"I've been in here locked up since October the 16th, 1984," he says. "Assaulting a police officer with the intent to kill. And shoplifting."

Now he reaches for a 33-cent Jimmy Cagney.

"He had a movie once that was a very significant movie," Jones says. "Had a lot of meaning in it. And the end was a metaphor, very significant symbolism, where he was a gangster and he was on top of a big gas tank. . . . He was climbing up the stairs to the top, and all throughout the ground were the police, and they were shooting at him. And he knew it was all over for him. And he yelled, 'Made it!' He knew it was all over, and he yelled: 'Made it! . . . Top of the world!'"

Jones holds the stamp at arm's length, the name of the film escaping him, and says: "Yes, sir, James Cagney. . . . There he is."

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