Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
I leave home each morning to oversee child abusers, rapists, thieves and killers in a place where memories of past sins devour men like cancer in their cells. One inmate here dismembered his victim; another torched the “evidence” of his crime. Most offenders mingled with neighbors, family and friends for years until they unmasked their evil and acted out bitterness and self-hatred.
Because of their atrocities, these felons have forfeited what we sometimes take for granted living outside of prison walls: respect, freedom, self-worth, hope. Hammering on most inmates’ empty souls is the same question that echoed in me as a boy: Why? Why was I born, and why had I tumbled into cruel hands? I was as bitter and hateful as any man I meet in corrections, but today I guide offenders to the Counselor who rescued me. No, I am not a prison chaplain or a pastor. I am a correctional lieutenant, and I could just as easily be telling you about my life from a prison cell.
Clug waits, a thick leg crossed over one knee, his prison slipper jiggling nervously in the air. Faded gang tattoos — grinning demons carved when he was 14 — ripple on his forearms as he tightens hammy fists. Bloody splotches, like two smashed mosquitoes, show a hasty shave on his knife-scarred cheek, and under his breath, he mentally paces off the room to kill a little prison time: 34 steps long by 16 paces across. It’s a habit now, measuring boundaries: like in the room where he showers with a dozen other men; like in the Clorox-smelling chow hall; like in his own small cell that he shares with another inmate.
Suddenly, Clug’s pasted-on prison sneer dissolves into a soft smile. Two children in hard black shoes and white socks with strands of dark hair dangling across runny noses clip-clop into the bright florescent-lit room. Between them is a disheveled woman, short, heavy and smiling wearily. She wears a tight blouse, and Clug’s eyes devour her as she herds the two children to his steel table. He glances at the guard, who nods, and Clug stands to his feet. After three years in prison, the visiting rules weigh on Clug like a stone tablet.
Three seconds for a kiss and embrace.
No body contact except hands clasped across the tabletop in full view of the prison guard.
But Clug is a thief today. He steals a few extra seconds in each embrace and hopes the guard doesn’t notice.
None of the chairs score the floor as his children wiggle and squirm on their seats; all the furniture is bolted down in the sterile visiting room. Anger shows in Mama’s face as she discusses finances, but Clug barely listens; instead he drinks in his babies’ laughter and stores away each touch of their pudgy fingers to comfort him in his cell. He swipes at their snotty noses with a sleeve and chokes off a commotion inside as he glances about the room. He dare not appear weak, even in the company of his wife and babies.
Clug started out as a petty thief before he was arrested for peddling drugs — one of several hundred files I might evaluate as a correctional lieutenant. And like him, I was a thief when I was a boy, too.
Church service ended, and in the small foyer, I crouched in the shadows waiting for my chance.
“You hit the nail on the head today, Pastor,” a thin man holding a baby carrier said, shifting a crying child to his left hand and extending his right. The pastor shook his hand warmly and smiled at the woman in jeans beside her husband. She added a few dollars to the offering plate as the two backed through the double doors, and the pastor stood alone a moment looking after them. He yawned long and large, glanced at the bills fluttering in the offering plate perched on an oak stand near the church exit, then walked wearily into the sanctuary.
Section by section, the small Baptist church began losing light, and I scooped up the tithes, jamming the bills and coins into my pocket. A great pastoral sneeze sent me into a panic as I bounded out the door and down the steps, and the scripture carved into the base of the offering stand, “Give and it shall be given unto you,” skittered across my mind, chiding me. I piled into the backseat of the family car, where Dad and Violet waited with the motor running.
“Now, listen, you get out here right after church is over. You hear? We been waitin’ forever! Your sister came right out … just what were you doing in there?”
“Nothin’.” I didn’t look back at the little white church as Dad pulled away, and I slouched a little lower in my seat.
“Nothin’ ” was my standard reply to Violet whenever she probed — and it was always the wrong answer. I glanced at Dad in the rearview mirror, and as usual, he seemed to be driving somewhere in another country.
“Before I leave tonight, you got lots to do. I want that backyard mowed and …”
The coins felt cool in my fingers, and I rumpled the crisp bills in my pocket, dying to see if they were fives, 10s or what. This morning I had stolen more than church tithes; I had stolen respect. I had stolen independence. This small triumph would console me a little when painful red welts grew on my back and legs sometime after midnight when Dad and Violet returned from partying. I glanced in the car mirror again, and this time I saw me with my practiced, unreadable frown. Not even Violet could know that I was thinking about where to get cigarettes.
Our tract house looked like every other on our street, with three bedrooms, fenced-in backyard and manicured lawn, but inside, our family was anything but tidy. When I was 5, our father had wed a “prison warden” when he married our stepmother, Violet. We yearned to be with our older brother where he lived with our kindly grandparents, but Dad had been awarded custody of my sister, Joann, and me after the divorce, and we stayed with him and Violet. My real mother lived close by, but we were seldom allowed to visit her.
After school, other kids on our street jumped bikes, hollered in water balloon fights or scurried between houses with half-rolled sleeping bags, but my little sister and I knew our boundaries. Violet’s “razor wire” rules had scored borders into our little hearts: backyard fence, front lawn and driveway. No one entered our exercise yard, and we dared not leave to dance in a water-filled gutter or even retrieve a ball. From my earliest memory, Violet brandished control over my father and commanded his children with violence.
They could be a frightening team, Dad and Violet. Violet’s influence on my father ran amuck when they drank late at local bars in our town of Clovis, California. Dad worked as a trucker by day. They called him Peewee, but he could flay with a belt like a man twice his size when drunk and goaded by Violet by night. I knew when the bars closed on the Clovis strip. I dozed fitfully until awakened by the creak of our front door, and then slurred voices scornfully tossed my name around the living room as Violet worked her manipulation.
Footfalls in my room. A pause. The jingle of a belt clasp and blankets snatched from my back.
I leaned submissively over my bed as the strap laced my legs, and I gave Dad his sobbing response. His strokes were half-hearted tonight, and he stumbled out of my bedroom. I wiped my eyes and sat for a moment, foraging for nerve, and then Violet burst through the door. She was holding Dad’s belt. Her flaming red hair was still bound after her night out, and her freckles, usually prominent, fled into her scowling red face. As she adjusted her dark-rimmed glasses, I fell across the bed, again burying my face and biting the covers. Her thoughts were shouting at me as she landed blows: No good. Stupid …
When my bedroom door slammed, I crawled into bed again, pulling the covers over my aching body to shut out the world. With my eyes squeezed hard, I imagined bare feet marching on our lawn — thump, thump, thump — and my welts continued throbbing until the marching faded and I drifted toward morning chores and elementary school.
Did the parents of other kids in our neighborhood tuck them in bed the way Dad and Violet did? Why did Violet hate me so? I was the same age as her boy. His sister and he had lived with us for a time until their father took them away. Did Violet hate them, too? Everything I said or did seemed to set off a riot inside Violet, and her verbal and physical abuse became as normal for me as brushing my teeth each morning.
My sister, Joann, and I worried together, schemed together and cried together, growing close as we wriggled under Violet’s tweezers and microscope every waking hour at home. For years, I got the worst of the beatings until Joann reached her early teens — and started to fight back. Once Violet slapped her full in the face, and I expected Joann to leave the room crying, but instead, she doubled up her fist and swung a Sonny Liston clout to her jaw! I watched in horror as Violet wobbled a bit, then came to her senses and grabbed up a red high-heel shoe to use as a weapon. Joann turned to run, but Violet had her by the collar and in silent rage jammed the heel into her back over and over.
For just an instant, Joann’s eyes met mine, and we seemed locked in a scene at the picture show when the film stuck in the projector. Nothing moved except that red shoe plunging up and down, then Violet flung a hateful look my way and stomped out of the room, leaving Joann in a heap.
“Why, why didn’t you help me?” she stuttered through tears, and I didn’t have an answer for a few seconds.
“You know why,” I finally said. “I would have got it worse than you.”
It was the first time Violet had resorted to using another object for a weapon other than a belt, and Joann and I knew that something inside her was changing for the worse.
“Tom, other kids don’t get walloped like us. We gotta get away.”
“And go where?”
“I dunno, but one of these days, I’m goin’.”
“I’ll go too,” I said, but then summer came around again. Violet paroled us to Grandma and Grandpa McKinzie’s, where the very air we breathed changed from the stench of bitterness to a sweet fragrance of Christian love — and livestock. Home would have been intolerable but for our summer respite each year at the McKinzie farm.
A Grand Parole
I never saw Grandpa carrying a gun or dressed in a police uniform, though he served as a deputy sheriff until he retired. His beat, Plenada, just 10 miles from Merced, included about 500 townsfolk in those days, and he never seemed troubled or stirred by his job. My grandparents, who were raising my older brother, welcomed Joann and me as cheerfully as their garden growing season, and we stayed with them until Violet and Dad uprooted us again each fall.
“We’re butchering tomorrow, kids.”
Grandpa’s ruddy, bald head glistened with sweat as he eased his heavy frame into his recliner. “We’ll do the rabbits first …”
Joann and I glanced at Grandma, who chuckled. At the mention of butchering, we both looked like we were sucking lemons. I figured that I was a pretty hardened farmhand: hoeing the garden, feeding livestock and even catching the chickens for Grandpa to wring their necks, but his cute little bunnies sure got a raw deal. Grandpa hung them by the heels and whack! At supper, I always blocked out the picture as I chewed fried rabbit.
I left “the thief” at home with Violet whenever I visited my grandparents, busy instead following my older brother in the hayfields or swimming with my sister in a tepid canal full of pollywogs between chores. At day’s end, Grandpa would sit us down and discuss our activities, while Grandma flumped on the couch in “her spot,” which was imprinted in the sofa cushion. After Grandma broke her hip, Grandpa “retired” the outhouse behind the garage and installed indoor plumbing. I still recall the old farm kitchen and the sound of Grandma’s hop-and-wobble promenade on the scuffed tongue-and-groove floor as she ambled back and forth, rolling out biscuit dough and frying up eggs and bacon. One side of Grandma seemed to have healed a little shorter than the other, but it barely slowed her down.
The safe, unhurried pace of life with my grandparents became a ritual of contentment that seeped into my soul, helping me survive my childhood. Each evening, Grandma unbound her long gray hair that draped over the sofa cushions and onto the floor. With loving care, she taught Joann to braid her tresses as tightly as the bonds between her grandchildren and herself. I don’t recall the scriptures she read from the big black Bible, and it seldom left the wide arm of her couch, but the enduring portrait of her faith became a landmark for me.
In my grandparents’ world, showing kindness was as natural as tilling their garden. How could they fathom the abhorrent life I led back home? I tried to tell them, but my world was incomprehensible. Their son, my father, would never sanction abuse of their dear ones, and I shuttled between two realities with my brain twisted into the shape of a question mark. Where was Grandmother’s all-powerful Creator when Violet beat me? Grandma and Violet were as different as fried chicken and applesauce, yet each claimed to represent standards of right living. Violet demanded that I go to church every Sunday to learn rules, too. And where did this horrendous guilt come from when I considered my behavior of stealing, smoking and cursing?
A year before Joann and I made our prison break to live with our real mother, our mutiny reached a climax when we devised a plan to make some money and ended up embarrassing Violet as a bonus. It had been easy to acquire a few blank checks from Violet’s unguarded purse.
“The O needs more of a loop.”
Joann studied my first attempt at matching Violet’s signature, and I tried again.
“Perfect,” I whispered, immersed in my crime. I definitely had a forger’s eye.
“How much?” she asked, and I excitedly considered the amount we would steal from Violet this first time.
“Fifteen,” I said, still chafing about lawn-mowing money Violet had stolen from me when I was younger. “It’s enough for this first one.” Our eyes met, and we both grinned.
Joann cashed the check at a corner grocery store without a hitch, and the next week, we forged another. But after our third “withdrawal” from the account, Violet cussed out the store manager and called the police. We took the haranguing by the authorities and were sentenced to a curfew for eight months, but it barely affected our spare lifestyle. The only freedom we usually enjoyed was at school, or when Dad and Violet left for the bars.
Joann finally ran away to live with my mother, and later, I joined her. Mom had remarried a good man who worked at Gobbler’s Nob outside of Merced, and while I helped him milk cows in the early morning, Joann assisted Mom with farm chores before school. With free time at a nearby creek, I speared bullfrogs and Mom cooked frog legs and okra for supper, and we reveled in sleeping the night soundly without fear. No one abused us, and I had time to ponder my future for the first time. I decided that the day I turned 18, I would join the military.
Shaped Aboard Ship
“Son, you failed your test, but the Navy still wants you.” The recruiter barely looked up as he shoved a waiver across his desk. Relieved, I signed enlistment papers and sat for a moment, picturing myself in a crisp new Navy uniform.
“Now what do I do?” I asked.
“Pack up, sailor — you’re on the way to Chicago for boot camp.” He pumped my arm a couple times, glancing past me at the waiting room, like he had just tossed another fish in his creel.
It was the winter of 1965, at the height of the Vietnam War, and the military needed every able-bodied man, with or without a high school diploma. I spent the next three months marching and shoveling snow not far from the Great Lakes, training for life aboard a Navy vessel. The Navy taught me to believe in myself for the first time, and even my appearance changed to shipshape, but painful welts still throbbed in my soul that no one, except me, knew were there.
I adapted well to the structured life aboard a tanker where the smell of diesel hung around my berth like stale cologne. Our vessel served the American fleet as a floating fuel station for destroyers and battleships. A few months later, I was flown to Clarke Air Force Base in the Philippines for duty aboard the USS Vesuvius. I was still a wide-eyed boy, rudderless and impressionable, as I squeezed into a crowded bus bound for the old ammo ship, Vesuvius, anchored in Subic Bay.
Awash in the chatter of small, brown-skinned passengers, I pressed my forehead against the window, enthralled with the jungle, the smells and the foreign culture. In the distance, I watched farmers plowing with water buffalo, not tractors. No one seemed to own a car, and the Filipinos carried burdens nearly as large as themselves on their heads or backs. Travelers trudged the same muddy, narrow thoroughfare as our bus, and there seemed to be no houses anywhere — no suburbs, no tract homes, no paved streets. Where did all these people live? How did they live? Men, women and children relieved themselves in ditches on the side of the road, unembarrassed, and drank out of muddy rivulets after the rain. I shook my head in amazement.
My mind drifted back, and I reevaluated my childhood in the extraordinary hue of this new experience. As a boy, I had felt caged and abused, but at least I had food, a bed and a roof over my head. A measure of gratitudetook root in my heart — a feeling every bit as foreign as the islanders teeming around me — and for the first time, I discerned the touch of God’s hand in my life. Yet, God still seemed distant, and at ports of call where the Vesuvius anchored, I followed my shipmates, drinking and carousing my way into their acceptance.
Aboard ship after duties, I played cards, smoked and read books. Sometimes burning questions about my past life prodded me to seek out the chaplain. He wasn’t hard to find. We sailed in and out of Vietnamese waters, so the din of cannons sometimes echoed along the shoreline. Death was on all of our minds. Our chaplain was someone I could confide in, but he never pointed to the only one who had answers — Jesus Christ.
I loved Ella almost as much as her parents detested me. I was her father’s worst nightmare: a carousing, worldly-wise seaman who pursued his daughter. But Ella was in love — with my Navy uniform, with the excitement of my stories, with possibilities of children — and a part of her must have had feelings for me, too. My heart was twisted in knots at the thought of marrying beautiful Ella, and we headed for Mexico for a quick ceremony-of-sorts after just a few months. When everyone realized that they couldn’t talk us out of starting our lives together, they prepared a traditional ceremony, and we legally wed. Pastor, Ella’s family, my mother, her husband, my father and Violet were all there.
While delivering ammunition to a Marine division in Vietnam, I received a letter telling me that Ella would be delivering my firstborn. I barely made it home before the birth of my daughter, Deann. On my next tour off the coast of Vietnam, my wife wrote again to tell me she would be giving birth soon. “Hurry home!” she wrote. And somehow, I arrived just before the birth of my son, Robert.
When my tour of duty with the Navy ended, we moved out of our little apartment in San Francisco and headed to Plenada. My hope was to plant my family in the rich kindness of my grandparents who had opened up their hearts once again. We stayed in Grandpa and Grandma’s rental house on the same property as them, and it seemed a perfect start for us as I watched them doting on their great grandkids. If only my little ones could absorb some of that love that I remembered!
My father had tapered off in his drinking and helped me get a job in the almond orchards for the Hershey candy company, where I worked for several months. But Ella was restless and despised the country life, and soon, we began to despise each other.
“I can’t live this way, Tom! We can do better in Seattle.”
“But everyone here has helped us, Ella. We’ll break Grandpa and Grandma’s hearts if we up and go now. Can’t we wait awhile? We don’t have the money to move anyway.”
“I’m going, Tom — with or without you. Find a way.”
Find a way. How? Violet stood over me again, and the welts in my heart throbbed as I read Ella’s thoughts: No good. Stupid. An old bitterness welled up as I watched her slam the bedroom door. I reached into my shirt pocket, fingered my last payroll check from Hershey’s and sat down at the kitchen table. $100 became $300, and I headed to the grocery store.
“Pack up. We’ll go tonight,” I told Ella when I returned with the cash. She seemed surprised, almost disappointed, and without a word to my grandparents, I threw our belongings and the kids into the car and sped out of town. This marked a low point in my life, one that would haunt me for decades. I imagined Grandma’s pain as she clumped through the rooms of our vacant house, and I could never eat Hershey’s chocolate without experiencing a twinge of fear. This wasn’t kid’s stuff anymore. Forging a check as an adult was a felony.
Even worse, I had unmasked the old Thomas McKinzie — the thief who acted out his revenge — and I hated myself for hurting the ones who loved me most.
Fables for Father
On the way to Seattle, we stopped in McArthur, California, to visit Ella’s aunt and uncle and were persuaded to stay. I landed a job managing a potato farm and worked long hours to catch up on bills. But as the months passed, my wife’s depression deepened. One day, I arrived home to find that Ella and the kids had vanished, clothes, suitcases and all.
“Where’s my wife?”
A distance wider than a hayfield suddenly gapped between Ella’s aunt and me. “She left today while you were at work, Tom. She tried to kill herself, and her mom came and took her home.”
“To Seattle?” I asked incredulously.
She didn’t answer, and I knew the family blamed me when she said emphatically, “They said not to call and not to come after her or the kids.”
Over the next few months, I withdrew into myself, feeling like the boy on pins and needles again, waiting for the next beating. I continued to work, and when my boss offered me a job managing a warehouse in Klamath Falls, Oregon, I moved immediately, happy for a change of scenery. I settled in, miserable but busy, until one day, I received a call from Ella.
“Tom, Deann and Robert are dying. They need to see you.”
In stunned silence I tried to gather my wits, and I never did ask the right questions before hanging up the phone. The next day, I sold everything in my house, quit my job and found a flight to Seattle, while my brain twisted into that old question mark: Why?
I was down to less than $2 in my pocket by the time my cab pulled up to Ella’s apartment, where I found that she did not live alone. Inside — where my two healthy kids bounced around like super balls — her live-in boyfriend drug himself out of the bedroom to answer the door.
“Oh, yeah, Ella said you’d be comin’.”
With mixed emotions I gathered my children in my arms, examining them, hugging them and looking around for Ella, who suddenly materialized, looking smug. Her explanation left me speechless. Ella had divorced me months ago, telling the judge that I had deserted her and the children. Why had she lied about their illnesses?
She wanted me to come to Seattle and see for myself that she could live just fine without me.
Homeless But Hopeful
It was a surreal, intolerable arrangement; I slept on my ex-wife’s couch while she and her boyfriend slept in the bedroom. I had forfeited what was left of my self-respect to be close to Deann and Robert — until Ella threw my belongings outside and had the police escort me away. With no money, no friends, no job and no place to go, I wandered the streets of a Seattle suburb called White Center. I was now a homeless man, unraveling in my mind and hopeless.
Cold and hungry, I decided that getting arrested for vagrancy would be my best option to stay warm. I took to sleeping in a laundromat on a folding table until a portly cop firmly told me to leave, but no arrest. The next night, I hid a bayonet in a deep pocket (it had been one of the few keepsakes from my father that I hauled to Washington), and when the same police officer woke me up and patted me down, he whistled a little as he pulled open my coat.
“Son, this is a concealed weapon. I could haul you downtown and book you on a felony for this.”
I glanced outside where a cold rain blew against the laundromat windows. I needed to be out of the cold with food in my belly where I could figure out what to do next, even if it was jail.
But to my astonishment, the officer handed the bayonet back to me. “I don’t want to see you back here again. Understand?”
Was I still asleep? Did a Seattle policeman just give me back my “concealed weapon?” I jammed the bayonet back inside my coat and shuffled out the door past the police car where another officer eyed me suspiciously. This was the height of failure — I couldn’t even get arrested! I found a church bus to sleep in for a time and then walked to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a complex where I could rest safely as I tried to locate a job.
Lying on Ed Baker’s couch, I had a home-cooked meal in my belly and could think clearly again. Ed worked for Alaska Airlines, and when I told him my story (as I dodged security guards) at Sea-Tac, he reached out to me in kindness, inviting me home until I got back on my feet. I signed up for classes at Seattle Community College on the GI Bill, and with my first $1,200 government check, I rented an apartment with an acquaintance and started a new life. I was a 23-year-old broken man with no trade, no family and no future. The college counselor placed me in a mechanics class because I couldn’t decide on any other career path. I quickly adapted to college life, which was an institution like the military, with set programs to follow each day.
I latched onto a group of friends around White Center, young adults like me, trying to fill up the emptiness in their souls by drinking at honky-tonk bars. Partying filled up our space between classes, especially on weekends, and it never entered my head that I had fallen into the same destructive lifestyle as my dad and Violet.
“Hey, Tom, I got a girl I want you to meet. Here’s her number. Set it up for a double date,” a friend of mine said one day as we walked into the college lunchroom. Dating had never been my strong suit, and I wondered if I could trust any woman again after my broken marriage, but I was lonely, so I called.
On the phone, Betty got right to the point. “So, what are you looking for in a woman?”
I tripped through a few standard answers like “someone with a good personality …” Then I got clever beyond my craft when I added, “and no one more than 150 pounds …”
Betty punished me by letting silence hang on the line between us like stale dishrags. “Well, I’m 156 pounds,” she finally said.
I swallowed hard, and then she laughed. “So, when do you want to pick me up?”
At a local honky-tonk, my prospects for dancing with this woman seemed as dim as the Hamm’s Beer sign above the bar because so many offers came her way. I really liked Betty but felt that I didn’t stand a chance for her attention. Inside, I was beaten down and felt unworthy of a relationship with a truehearted woman. But as all the cowboys drifted away to other bars, our time together actually turned into a date. And after a few more dates, I knew I was in love.
Betty brought new purpose into my life, and I rode my bicycle 30 miles one way after college three times a week to see her when I couldn’t catch a ride. She loved the nightlife, and so did I, so we used up our free time hopping from bar to bar with friends. I moved into her house, and months later, we made a trip to her parents’ home in Montana to be married. This time her family was in attendance, but none of my own. I graduated from college with a degree and new wife by my side but still carried the old baggage from an abusive childhood: self-hatred, bitterness and fear.
“Montana’s too cold, Betty.”
“California’s too hot, Tom.”
We weren’t teenagers anymore, and our experiences had taught us that we needed to plan out our family’s future rather than flit along with the winds of chance. It never occurred to us to ask God for guidance, but without a doubt, he was channeling our lives to a home in between extremes. Betty’s aunt and uncle lived in Lewiston, Idaho, and the weather suited both of us — and God’s plans.
An old sense of fear settled into my gut as I filled out applications for work in Lewiston. I remembered my “felony” in tampering with the Hershey’s payroll check and worried that this lawbreaking incident might follow me to Idaho. The anxiety over authorities hauling me to jail perched like a demon in the back of my mind, tormenting me. (It wasn’t until my father died years later that I found out that Dad had gone to Hershey’s and paid off the extra $200 to keep me from being charged.)
In Lewiston, I broke into the filling station business, working my way up from mechanic to proud owner of a Phillips 66 service station. I had no experience in running a business, but I was determined to succeed. For nearly eight years, I sweated long hours — often wishing that I was just a grease monkey again — and then the poor local economy ate away my working capital. Without enough financial backing, I closed the shop for good and started looking for a job.
I found work at a giant department store, and my background as an entrepreneur landed me in a manager’s position in several months. I settled into a steady work rhythm, feeling secure financially again, while Betty worked for Head Start. We planned for our first child, Daniel, then a year later our daughter, Cordi Leah. The bar life lost its luster when we stopped smoking during Betty’s pregnancies, and we settled into a family life that was satisfying and stable.
“I’m at the hospital, Betty. I injured my back. It looks like I won’t be working for a while.” I related the whole bizarre accident on the phone, how I had lifted a heavy piece of furniture that fell and pinned me against a steel pole.
After months off, I went back to work for the store, reassigned as a store checker. My days as a manager were over, and so was the overtime that kept our heads above water. When I heard about the new Idaho Correctional Center in Orofino, I considered a drastic change in my career plans.
“What do you think?” I asked Betty.
“Well, I know Trish’s husband is applying for the correctional academy.”
“It’s good money and benefits, but,” I said a little chagrined, “you know me and tests.”
In February 1989, I graduated from the academy for the Idaho Department of Corrections as a fully trained correctional officer. For five years, I served as a manager again, only this time, I managed the daily lives of inmates. I told them when to work, when to eat, when to sleep, what they could have in their possession and what they could not. It was like raising overgrown children, and for some reason, I thrived on helping these hardened criminals. I understood them and could have been one of them.
I thought back on how the police had never charged me in Clovis and Merced when I broke into houses and cars. I could still picture that cop handing back my father’s wicked-looking bayonet, and I thought about all the years I looked over my shoulder, waiting for the cops to nail me for altering that Hershey’s check. Any of these offenses on my permanent record would have kept me from a career as a correctional officer. I could have been sharing a cellblock with any one of these outlaws, but something or someone had saved me from a serious brush with the law.
I still blamed God for the abuse he had allowed me to endure, but I had stopped asking why. Instead, I retreated into a silent, seething bitterness. When Violet died, I had promised to “piss on her grave” if I ever visited, and my relatives knew how I felt. Helping the inmates was therapeutic; I felt better about myself but realized that I still had no answers for these men who might ask how to change. And I wondered if anything could heal me of a past that still haunted my dreams.
I was waiting, waiting for bad things to finally catch up to me again as they always seemed to in my past life. My wife loved me, my children were both on the honor roll, I had been promoted to sergeant at work, and I expected more advancement in pay and rank. Why did I feel so fearful and unfulfilled?
“I’ll be back later. I’m going to church with Trish.” A growing friendship had grown between Betty and the wife of my fellow correctional officer, but this church stuff annoyed me. I had never found comfort or answers in a church building.
I didn’t see a sudden change in Betty, but a rebirth had taken place in her soul and a revolution in our relationship. Betty didn’t argue with the old fire anymore; it was as if she didn’t need to be “right” all the time. She cooked dinner for me, lovingly, and seemed more affectionate and attracted to me. I was confused.
One night while we watched television — a place where I could usually tune her out if things got too intense — Betty explained what had changed. “I accepted Jesus into my heart, Tom. I’m a new person. Inside.”
Suddenly, I was really listening. Betty’s face seemed to glow with love as she spoke about her new faith and how she wanted me to share it with her. “Come to church with me,” she said, and I told her I would think about it.
Another month passed, and she asked me again. It was harder to refuse now that our relationship had become so comfortable. “I’m praying for you,” she said good-naturedly. Two more months drifted by before I gave in.
I stood beside Betty at Covenant House Christian Center, feeling like the only person in the sanctuary peering out a bean hole (the slot in a cell door, four inches by 11 inches). I longed to be standing on the other side of the cell door, free, like these Jesus worshipers, but wasn’t it all a sham? I knew there was a God. I even talked to him to complain sometimes, but he never spoke back, or did he?
As the church service came to a close, I scanned my life, knowing that God had steered me past off ramps leading to ruin. Suddenly, this insight kicked open the cell door to my soul. It dawned on me that his intervention had always been gut-level and personal. He had been speaking to me through circumstances, calling me to admit my need for him. I had been asking the wrong question all my life: Why? I should have been asking who? Who could take away my fear and guilt? Who could heal my bitterness and broken heart?
When I walked past all those Jesus worshipers to the front of the church to give my life to Christ, I knew how it felt for an inmate to experience freedom after 35 years of hard time. A weight lifted from my heart as I wept, and God filled me with peace for the first time in my life.
And my Betty was weeping, too.
I thought that I could never forgive Violet or my father for what they did to my sister and me. But Christ had set me free, and the old bitterness vanished when I told Jesus that I forgave them. Someday, I will visit Violet’s grave — I feel that I should — but the reason I’ll go is different now. I’ll go to seal my pledge of forgiveness for a troubled woman.
After all these years, Betty and I still attend Covenant House Christian Center, where I am studying eldership courses to better serve the body of Christ. I’m pushing 60 now, a lieutenant at the Idaho Correctional Center and a grandfather to many of the men in my care. I realize that God has prepared me well for my work among the most hated in society, and though I shall retire soon, my heart will ever be with the man or woman who cries out why? because of a wounded heart.
I tell them about the counselor that can give them peace and freedom, and I say, “It’s Jesus, that’s who.”