Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
At 17, I lay in my bunk shivering, a thin wool blanket drawn about my shoulders, tuned to every creak and groan in the ship’s iron belly. At my baptism as a 6-year-old, I had been afraid of the water – going under seemed like dying – and here I was, encompassed by the sea. My quarters, a 5-by-12 steel room with lockers for clothing and a porcelain sink, badgered old memories about a jail cell in Tacoma. I was 14 then, and I worried about the thug in a cell next to mine who threatened to kill me when we took our showers. Now I conjured up fresh fears as raucous hoots and cursing drifted from the ship’s foyer. It was poker night on the MV Matanuska, and tempers rose and fell with the ocean swells beneath the 363-foot ferry. My rough-cut roommate, at least twice my age, wasn’t in his bunk; he was probably hunched at the poker table with the crew. Like most of us, he was part of “beach scrapings,” hastily dredged from the West Coast to work aboard the fresh-built Matanuska on its 1963 voyage traveling Alaska’s Inside Passage.
The Mat was the third sister in a fleet of three ships that belched a trail of digested fuel into the pristine air from Prince Rupert to Juneau along the Alaska Marine Highway. My Uncle Brooks, a former Navy commander and the purser on the Mat, had given me the heads up about a job as a messman aboard the ferry, and I had flown from Seattle to Ketchikan for an interview. Oozing with confidence, I landed the job, but now in my cubicle, straining to glean the seamen’s conversations, I relived tatters of my past, wondering whether I was cut out to be a sailor.
Sleeping was out of the question. New rivets, welds and sheet steel moaned all around me while the fresh diesel engines demanded that the new ship “settle in” for a lifetime of duty on the salt sea. Perhaps I could find the money for schooling to become a teacher; after all, I was the first child in the Buster family to have graduated from high school. But in days to come, any plans of becoming a teacher drifted away like the island fog as I adapted to life aboard the MV Matanuska. Shipmates taught me the duties of a messman: cleaning staterooms, preparing food and serving grub to the 35 crewmen aboard the ferry. Like the rivets and welds deep in the ship, I settled in for a lifetime at sea, too.
Men, toughened by life’s brutal knuckles, tutored me on how to wrest satisfaction from every port of call. Shipmates floated in and out of my life-like foam on the tide, but from each man, I tucked a little of their worldly wisdom inside my heart, believing that their knowledge of life (given over a whiskey bottle) would always rescue me. I became a composite of all those teachers and others I had known from my earliest recollections. I could be like any one of them whenever I chose, and just as evil or benevolent. My mentor’s lusts became mine, and like a dark riptide over nearly 40 years, those lusts sucked me deeper and deeper into despair, until my breath was nearly gone.
I was 52 years old when I finally understood why Christians call Jesus “Savior.” When I gave up struggling against his strong arms, Jesus hauled me back to the surface, calm and shimmering with God’s truth. Jesus had been with me at my first inkling of rejection as a child and had preserved me during my troubled teen years as a petty thief. Jesus had been with me on those first days aboard ship in my bunk, trembling inside, and later, in my violent years as a drunk and a cocaine addict. He would have given me peace at any moment, if only I had asked him to take control of my life.
A 4-year-old can’t understand why they must desert their mother. I was Ruth Buster’s boy, Larry; but suddenly one night, I slumped like a rag-doll in big Aunt Bernie’s Pontiac, speeding out of San Diego and destined for a new life in Washington State. At one time, my dear mother had been OK (Ovid Kenneth) Buster’s pride and joy. She was his 16-year-old bride when my dad was 37. After the divorce, OK could brag that he was one of the first fathers in California history to be awarded legal custody of his children, rather than their mother. Dad had lied convincingly about her drunkenness and evil dalliances and had triumphed in court.
In his heyday, OK Buster was a dapper dresser, usually sporting a fedora whenever he went bar hopping. He was 5’6” with dark, thinning hair, and his green eyes were searchlights for pleasure. For all his moral shortcomings, he did love his offspring, though he was clueless on how to raise us. There was 6-month-old Raymond, 7-year-old Roxie Lee, 6 year-old Jim and me, a 4-year-old. In the bowels of immense concrete dams like Grand Coulee and Boulder, my father repaired mazes of pipes and ducts, and the demand for his plumbing skills kept him away for months at a time. His personal excesses (drinking and carousing) nearly matched the scale of his work in constructing the greatest dams on the West Coast, but OK had not one tool for the daunting task of fatherhood. It fell to his sister, Bernice, and brother-in-law, Larry (my namesake), to make a family for his sons and daughter.
My Aunt Bernice could have easily stood for a Norman Rockwell portrait; she was homegrown and peculiar. With the air of an empress, she inwardly carried herself like a petite girl – though she was heavy-boned and attired in giant polka dots or overpowering flowered dresses. She had quit school to take over raising her siblings while her mother worked to make ends meet – my Grandpa Buster had run off – and now it seemed that everyone around her had to pay for her damaged youth by staying absolutely busy at all times. Her hands seemed glued to either side of her ample hips as she inspected rosebushes, tomato worms, dust bunnies, my uncle and her brother’s children.
Her presence in any room always took up most of the space, as the principal of my school soon found out. She won her second battle concerning her brother’s children (the first was gaining command of our lives) when she bullied the school administrator into enrolling me in first grade. He had wanted to hold me back in kindergarten, the grade I had already completed in California. Aunt Bernie was in her mid-50s when she took us under her wing, and though my uncle was 17 years younger than she, they seemed well suited to one another.
Uncle Brooks (no one called him Larry) had a deep, commanding voice that one might have heard 100 years ago, calling out soundings on a three-master while dodging icebergs. He could talk for hours (though not to us children), telling war stories and tales of his experiences around the world. For Uncle Brooks, laughing was second nature, unlike Aunt Bernie. He had joined the Marines as a youngster with a sixth-grade education and received his diploma in the service. During WWII, he made full lieutenant, receiving two purple hearts and held his grade after the war was over. Uncle Brooks had gained in rank to become a medical officer, and I revered him, though whenever he looked at me, I felt like he was measuring me for a Marine uniform. He was my war hero, and I imagined his exploits, surviving the three boats the Japanese had blasted from under him.
I grew to love my uncle and aunt for their sacrifice in taking us Buster kids into their lives, and though they had no open relationship with God, some of their old-fashioned values stuck fast in my heart. God’s name was never blasphemed, although cursing was as common as three squares a day; but woe to us if one of us children slipped with a bad word about God! The Man Upstairs had appointed Aunt Bernie to be sergeant at arms for the Busters.
Aunt Bernie’s Castle
After a trying six months at a house in Otis Orchards in Washington State, Aunt Bernie decided that the Buster children needed a course in what she might have called “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Workshop.” (My grandchildren are learning a gentler variation). Uncle Brooks found just the place for her “academy” in Spokane: An ivory-colored, two-story house trimmed in yellow, with 14 rooms, a stonework façade and a screened-in porch which perched upon white pillars supporting the grand entryway. Nearly an acre of shaded lawn carpeted most of the yard (except a large garden plot), and massive trees pushed up through the grass, shedding leaves like stubborn parade confetti. The day we moved in, Aunt Bernie’s reform school commenced.
In fall, my brothers and I raked and piled oak and maple leaves into mountains to be hauled away, burned or composted. We gathered horse chestnuts, trimmed up the weeping willow branches and manicured the lawns from dawn until nightfall. In spring, we tilled and weeded Aunt Bernie’s bountiful garden, while my sister, Roxie, scrubbed wood floors and tilted on ladders to defrock the high ceilings of pesky spider webs inside the castle. Often, Uncle Brooks was away on military business, but Aunt Bernie had us well in hand. She sashayed in and out of the house like a bulky, multicolored phantom, materializing wherever we made blunders. Although liberal with a willow switch – she could strip the leaves from a limb quicker than my uncle could pry open a beer bottle – we were never mistreated, and it was at the house in Spokane that I learned “a job well done” is satisfying for a man.
My aunt saw nothing wrong with sharing her Sunday Sabbath with God, and after our morning chores, loaned the Buster children to the Baptist church a few blocks away to be morally renovated. My aunt couldn’t have fathomed the life-changing effect Sunday school had on my small heart. I became a regular churchgoer and yearned to hear more about Jesus. Each time my Sunday school teacher gently patted Bible figures on the felt board, God did the same inside my heart, gently securing his truths in my soul. I loved the Bible stories of Jesus, David and Goliath and Joseph and his multicolored coat, and the embers of God’s word began to glow brightly.
I was 6 years old when Pastor Willettes noticed my spiritual awakening and my extraordinary soprano voice. With some trepidation, I allowed him to baptize me in a lake nearby, and perhaps it was his explanation of the meaning of baptism that spooked me (dying as I went under water, then coming back up to life as a new creation). It was one of the first times I remember having to conquer real fear, and afterward, I became a faithful child of the King, complete with a picture of Jesus above my bed.
My a cappella rendition of the Lord’s Prayer brought a curious notoriety to my life as Pastor Willettes took me to other churches in the area to sing. The words “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…” never left me for the rest of my life, especially in times of trouble.
I saw my father once a year or so, when he would breeze in with stories and gifts. Uncle Brooks and he would crack open a bottle of whiskey, and my Aunt Bernice would draw up a chair, too. Late into the night, they would stumble down memory lane: the war, the depression, humorous youthful indiscretions. Discreetly, we Buster children absorbed all we could hold from the staircase or behind a sofa. It was the only way we learned about life. None of the adults ever offered us meaningful personal advice on how to live.
In all the years we lived with my aunt and uncle, I remember very few visitors to the Brooks home. Perhaps it was because my aunt and uncle’s ages spanned two generations (being 17 years apart) that their social lives were stifled. Still, seeing their stability together somehow helped me take my own commitments seriously. I believe that later in life it served me better than having had a houseful of guests on weekends.
Mama came to visit my aunt’s castle just once; she had remarried and wanted to see her children. I don’t recall the reception, or any strained conversations she may have had with my uncle and aunt. I only recall the end of her visit when I made a scene. As she stepped onto the porch, preparing to go, something burst inside me and spilled out like leaves in an overstuffed sack. Not even Aunt Bernie’s words about my mother’s evil ways (sprinkled regularly like weed killer) could rescue me from the stabbing pain in my heart: I was losing her all over again. I wrapped myself around Mama, breathing her perfume, desperately trying to sweep together crumbs of love that she might leave me. Unkindly and with strong fingers, she pried me off, got into her car and drove away. A slap on my cheek would have been less painful, and in years to come, I could never get past the trauma of that day. The ache from her rejection subsided, but I nursed bitterness for decades, blocking out the memory of my mother as best I could.
During all the years with my aunt and uncle, the dread of being deserted haunted me, provoked by what seemed to be strange abductions in the night. Sometimes my brother Jim would be missing when I awoke; sometimes it was little Raymond or Roxie. When I asked what had happened, my aunt would brush me off.
“Your Dad came last night and took’em,” is all she would offer, as if it was none of my business. Then as suddenly as they were taken off, my brother or sister would be delivered back for another six months or so. As I grew older, my anger smoldered over my guardians’ uncaring attitude, and it reinforced my dread of being alone.
“We’re moving. Get packed up.”
Aunt Bernie wasn’t happy about leaving her castle. Her mouth puckered with resignation as she threw bedding in cardboard boxes, her big, fleshy arms wobbling like jello.
“We going to Whidbey?” I asked Jim, and he warned me off with widened eyes and a short shake of his head. It wasn’t a good time to talk about it. Uncle Brooks had come back from a long stint in Japan, and his next assignment on Whidbey Island had the look of being permanent.
A dingy, flat-roofed motel was our first home in the island community of Whidbey. The tan and blue-trimmed apartments leaned against one another like a row of drunken soldiers. In the rooms, military personnel or civilian travelers passed the time drinking beer and stacking empty beer bottles outside the doors. Uncle Brooks worked as a medical officer at the seaplane base about a half mile away, and I was enrolled in school at the Air Force base that shared the island with the Navy port.
It wasn’t long before Aunt Bernie saw opportunity in the situation and took on the challenge of managing the complex. The Buster children had new employment. For several months, my job was to empty the beer bottles from crates and clean up garbage the soldiers left behind. We were overjoyed when Uncle Brooks bought the 40-acre farm – until we got there.
Aunt Bernie actually smiled as she set out to administer her new Whidbey farm. Assignments spun in every direction like rocks from a lawnmower, and we Buster children scattered like ants, trying to look busy. None of us were strangers to work, but the 40-acre Whidbey farm made Aunt Bernie’s castle in Spokane look like a dollhouse. Jim, now 10 years old, and myself, now 8, ended up with most of the outdoors work. Little Raymond was 4, and 12-year-old Roxie usually saw to most of his needs. Trouble began to bubble as my aunt churned out more and more work for Roxie Lee. As the only fly in Aunt Bernie’s buttermilk, my stubborn adolescent sister had to go.
“Where’s Roxie?” I asked one morning, wiping the sleep from my eyes. It was barely light out my window, and I hurriedly pulled on pants. I was late for feeding the 14 goats.
“Dad came last night,” Jim said. “She must be with him.”
A light from the kitchen shown under our door, and I could hear Aunt Bernie clattering pans. I flopped down on my rumpled covers, risking a tongue-lashing for being late, wondering when I would see Roxie again. I knew she wasn’t coming back, and I wished I could have said goodbye.
“You better get going,” Jim whispered, and I yanked on my coat. It was time to break ice in the water troughs so the stock could drink, and I needed to saw up more wood to restock the shed. Jim was always one to make sure that I got my work done and usually some of his, too.
Baseball was my life on Whidbey Island. My dad had showed up with a mitt and ball one day, and thereafter, nearly every evening, I plagued my brother Jim to “burn’em in” over and over. For a few years, our lives seemed fairly normal as I found friends at the school and played baseball. I was proud of my knack for the game, and word about my skill circulated among Little League organizers. Then my brothers, Jim and Raymond, disappeared, and no one offered an explanation why. I knew that Roxie had ended up back with my mother and that Dad had remarried, so I figured that my brothers were safe with one of them.
I was 11 years old when a friend of my Uncle Brooks showed up at the farm, which was an unusual event. Aunt Bernie invited him inside, and Uncle Brooks and the man sat at the kitchen table while my aunt put away the dinner dishes.
“It’s about Larry…”
“What’s he done?”
Aunt Bernie suddenly got interested in the conversation.
“Nothing, nothing. I wanted to talk to you about letting Larry try out for our Little League team, Brooks. He’s really got talent.”
“Talent” to Aunt Bernie was wielding a chainsaw or pulling weeds, but she held her peace. Uncle Brooks glanced at her scowl.
“He practices every spare minute,” Uncle Brooks said thoughtfully.
“I think he could make the All Stars, if he works hard.”
“If he can keep up his chores, I don’t see why not,” Uncle Brooks said, ignoring a disapproving cluck at the sink. “When does he try out?”
Yesterday I was a Little Leaguer, preparing for the All Star Championship, I thought.
Every ounce of my 11-year-old body had tensed for my swing. In just a few weeks, the All Star game would tell how our Whidbey team ranked in the Pacific Northwest. I had slammed the bat against leather as moms and dads in the stands roared — another base hit by Larry Buster!
But that was yesterday. Today, I was on the way to California to reunite with my brother and sister at my mother’s house. There had been no discussion, no explanation, just “get on the bus.” I wasn’t disappointed; I was mad. I was missing some of the season’s biggest games but why? No one respected me enough to tell me, and my mind hummed like a chainsaw, ripping through every generous feeling I had ever felt for my father, mother, uncle or aunt. I determined in my heart that I would never treat my own children this way.
The fiasco at my mother’s house (everyone called it a family reunion) ended with my 14-year-old brother going home first, disgraced for pounding fists on our new step dad. Jim got the worst of it, and he looked like a bloodied bantam, still swinging long after he was beaten. The debacle ended with outrageous threats and everyone wishing the Buster boys had never come. After Jim left, our “reunion” felt tainted, and I was given a hasty farewell and put on the bus, too. I hoped that I could salvage what I had missed of the baseball season. At least I would make the All Star Championship game.
When my bus veered into Tacoma, I knew something was wrong. My father stood at the bus stop, waving at me to get off, and I cursed a little under my breath as it sunk in that my life had been hijacked again. There would be no more grade school chums or All Star games to make my existence worthwhile. My life in Whidbey and Spokane had only been temporary ports of call.
My only consolation was that big Aunt Bernie now had to do all the work at the farm.
OK Buster never bought a house. He rented, moved and rented again, and having a new wife and four children didn’t change his habit. Often he disagreed with a landlord, or just found a “better” house, and we would pack up his plumbing fixtures: toilet bowls, brass fittings, oakum and lead. Load after load of copper pipe (soldered into odd shapes 30 years ago) were hauled aboard his 1956 Dodge pickup to our new rental house, which was always situated on the same body of water, Spanaway Lake.
Spanaway Lake was a rich bedroom community outside of Tacoma, and the newly formed Buster family lived far below the neighborhood paradigm. Across fenced, manicured yards, uppity lawyers and doctors waddled on blue-grass putting greens, while their youngsters splashed in chlorinated concrete swimming pools. Tan teenagers in white shorts swung racquets on private tennis courts. Lawns – green swards that stretched for acres in every direction – filled me with dread at the prospect of keeping them mowed.
Like a chameleon, I absorbed the culture of my new home, a survival skill I was honing everyday. Jim, now a small, leathery 15-year-old, challenged every waking moment in Spanaway like it was a mortal enemy. With slicked-back hair and a t-shirt with a pack of smokes rolled up one sleeve, Jim joined a clique of wannabe hoodlums that welcomed me into their brotherhood, too. When following the older boys, I could smoke and curse better than most of them, and Dad could never fill our time full enough to keep us out of trouble. We had learned from Aunt Bernie to shorten any eight-hour job to three, and afterward, we scooted to town like greased lightning to be with our gang, drinking beer and thinking up ways of getting more booze.
Due to his size, my brother became a magnet for physical confrontations, and in every fight, his challenger found me leaping from the shadows to Jim’s aid. No one fought one of us without the other brother rabbit punching from the side to give a “Buster advantage.” In my teen years, my gang interests replaced any spiritual yearnings in my soul, and when Dad’s wife, June, sent us to church, only Raymond would end up going inside.
To Catch a Thief
The nails screamed as I wrenched with a pry bar under a plank securing the door, but it still didn’t budge. My friend and I searched the deserted streets, shadows dancing across the wet pavement. Like other Sunday mornings, we hid our tool under rolled-up newspapers and pedaled away, chuckling. One day the plank would give way, and I would steal the treasures inside the old store, but until then, our task was to loosen the plank, little by little, during my friend’s legitimate paper route.
Because of “perks,” I sometimes helped deliver my friend’s newspapers on Sunday morning before dawn. We staked out garages with open doors or unlocked cars, then, at the right time, rifled them for cigarettes and booze. We graduated to breaking and entering when the plank noisily dropped to the sidewalk one Sunday.
“Shh,” we hissed at one another, a little like Laurel and Hardy.
“Hurry up, Buster. I can’t get through that hole. You go.” A dark shaft for customers to drop shoes inside for repair now yawned open before me, and I shinnied inside.
Bottles of beer and cigarettes started vomiting out the shaft, and my friend stuffed them in his canvas bag. I slithered out of the opening, dusty and coughing, brushing spider webs from my shoulders and weaving on my bike as we sped away. For a few hours we savored our victory, until my brother and his older friends stole everything we had risked our skin for. Truly there is no “honor among thieves,” and I was hungry to try again, this time without bragging about my exploits.
Another Sunday morning, I grabbed a half-guzzled bottle of booze from the seat of a car and sold it to a kid at the theater who promptly ratted me out. Even after a night in jail, I failed to choose my associates more carefully, and I later played lookout for an older thief who ratted me out again after he was caught. This netted me another night in jail, and since it was my second offense, Dad (as well as the cops) hammered me with the possibility of doing serious time in juvenile hall. At 15 years old, I was impressed and determined to turn over a new leaf.
My Italian Sweetheart
Doris entered my life in my last year before graduation. She was a ravishing, dark-haired 16-year-old Italian girl, who I immediately fell head over heels in love with. To Doris I could pour out my heart, and her quiet, stable spirit helped me steer away from wrecking my life beyond salvage. For years, I would continue as a struggling moral nomad, and she would brave the sickening swells of life with me. God had embroidered my name on her heart when we were high school sweethearts.
In my senior year, my dad and I never had a single meaningful father-son talk about life, marriage, college or any other subject that might have provided insight for my future. Instead, he launched me into the adult world by helping sponsor a graduation party on Spanaway Lake with girlfriends, booze and all. After graduating, I anxiously decided to keep all my options open, and I attached myself like a barnacle to any opportunity that floated by if it made me feel good.
Although I was the first Buster to get a high school diploma, I soon stood out among other graduates because I couldn’t land a job better than catching chickens at a poultry farm. Most of my friends had been hired at Boeing, and I couldn’t understand why I had been rejected. After a couple of months slipping and sliding in the poultry yard for two dollars an hour (these chickens were deep-fried for Pederson’s Three-legged Friers), my dad told me to kick down Boeing’s door and find out why.
After work, I barreled into Boeing’s hiring office, vaulted past the scowling secretary at the front desk and burst through the superintendent’s door. Taken aback for a moment, the superintendent appraised me and asked, “Can I help you?”
“No, sir, but I think I can help you.” I hoped I didn’t smell of chickens. The speech that I had practiced the whole night in the poultry coop rolled off my tongue easily, as the silver-haired man smiled. “All of my friends have jobs here at Boeing. I got better grades and could outrun and outscore any one of them in high school. Why in tarnation haven’t you hired me?”
He nodded in a grandfatherly way, and after asking my name, shuffled through old employment applications. I stood like a man waiting for last rites as he reread my aptitude test. Then he fixed me with steely but kind blue eyes.
“Mr. Buster, here is the reason you don’t work for Boeing. According to your profile, you would make a fine machinist or welder or drill press operator. But training you would be a waste of Boeing’s money, because,” he paused and doffed his glasses to the desk, “you won’t stay. Son, you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re an able young man with a bright future. Go find it. It’s not here with us.”
I thanked the man before I left his office, appreciating his candor. He was one of the few people who had ever taken the time to discuss my problems or to wish me well. I wasn’t crushed but baffled. How could he know from the way I filled out paperwork that my restless mind pitched and rolled atop waves of discontent? If it was that obvious, could Doris see it, too?
A “Couple” in Ketchikan
“You have to be here to land the job, Larry. Hop a plane, and you have a good chance to start as a messman,” my Uncle Brooks told me over the phone.
He had mustered out of the service after 30 years, and immediately taken a job as purser aboard the MV Matanuska, a ferry ship that carried vehicles, freight and passengers up the north coast.
“Where exactly is Ketchikan?” I asked my Uncle Brooks.
“Alaska, Larry, the Last Frontier. It’s a great opportunity. Hit your dad up for airfare.”
“Where will I stay?”
“If you get the job, you’ll be aboard the ferry most of the time, and you can stay with your aunt and me when you’re in town, until you find your own place.” I cringed at the thought of the chores Aunt Bernie was already cooking up so that I would earn my keep.
On August 22, 1963, I borrowed $53.60 and boarded a jetliner for Ketchikan. Waving to my sweet Doris, her dark hair was blowing, and tears were streaming down her red cheeks. I hated to leave her, but I would see her sooner than I realized.
The ferry MV Matanuska, named for one of the massive glaciers of Alaska, carried up to 500 passengers and 108 vehicles. During my maiden voyage, I beat the odds, as nearly 80 percent of the crew that first week discovered that they weren’t cut out to be the crew of a floating hotel. Fresh from my rejection at Boeing, I was determined to make a seaman, and my new shipmates noted my commitment. Friendships developed as the older men mentored me in the art of surviving 18-hour days, working aboard ship and blowing off steam at ports of call. I soon moved out of my aunt and uncle’s house and found a room with a hot plate in Ketchikan’s former red-light district. I was home one week and gone the next, sailing the Inside Passage. Things were going pretty well until I got a call from Doris.
In a small voice that seemed farther than 600 miles away, she said, “Larry, I’m pregnant.”
Dead silence, and it wasn’t a bad connection.
“I’m here. Um, how?”
“Okay, okay. I mean…”
“My daddy wants to see you.”
My heart plunged to my spit-polished shoes. This might go very badly. I would take the responsibility, certainly, but how could I face her family – and mine?
But face them I did. As soon as I could get the time off, I hopped a plane to Tacoma for a meeting with Doris’ father. I found a new respect for my dad as he stood up for me and asked that we be allowed to marry. To our relief, Doris’ father agreed.
Doris made a home for us in Ketchikan, nesting in our one-room apartment but pining for her family when I was sailing for a week at a time. Soon, our first daughter, Deborah, was born, and we moved into old military apartments for $120 a month, which was more than we could afford. By the time I was 19, our second daughter, Denina, had arrived, and we found an efficiency apartment that barely met our needs but saved us $22 a month. In the first year, I was promoted to be a waiter on the ferry, and my pay began to creep up in the right direction.
God’s Charity and the Devil’s Voice
In 1967, I was 22, an Alaska Marine Highway Seaman, and proud to have my third child, a son, Lawrence Michael, born on Alaska soil. The ferry route was to Ketchikan, Wrangel, Petersburg, Juneau – make the turnaround – then Skagway, Sitka and south to Prince Rupert, B.C., then we would do it all over again (about 800 miles). I knew the bartenders in each port on a first name basis and tore up a few joints with other crews on occasion. Drinking made me feel nine-foot tall and bulletproof, and bar brawling and partying became my passion when docked. At home with my wife, I knuckled down to being a good family man, but my façade sometimes wore thin as my drinking took up more and more of my free time.
My goals were simple in those days: I wanted to buy a small house in Ketchikan and own a car that was less than 10 years old. Like most of my shipmates, I bought into the notion that no one in Southeast Alaska ever made real money unless they owned a bar. I seldom had a more complex thought than how to spend some of my next paycheck in one. I had completely abandoned my “Father, who art in heaven…”, and I never considered finding a safe harbor for my family to drop anchor among God’s people at a church. I loved my children and wife intensely, but I believed that I had all the brains I needed to be their source and protector.
At 27 years old, I was a well-paid second steward with my private room on the MV Matanuska, and I levered at full steam toward alcoholism. My beautiful Danielle was born in 1972, and when she was two years old, Doris sat me down to explain how our lives were about to change.
“Danielle will need treatment at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle, Larry.”
I looked at my toddler, whose fingers throbbed in pain when she grasped my hand, and I felt utterly devastated and helpless. “But I thought arthritis was for old people,” I said quietly, knowing that my wife had been studying about Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) since Danielle had been diagnosed.
“The disease attacks the tissues in her joints, and the doctors say she is getting worse.”
“I’ll get us a flight south,” I said resignedly, hoping our insurance might help cover the stream of new hospital bills already trickling in.
The JRA had spread to nearly every joint in Danielle’s tiny body, and nothing seemed to be helping. I spent as much time at the hospital in Seattle as my sailing schedule would allow, reeling at the possibility of having to take charity for the first time in my life to pay for treatments. I took any mention of help as a direct assault on my manhood.
“I’ll get the money!” I asserted loudly to a hospital administrator one day.
“Mr. Buster, you’ve racked up over half a million dollars in bills already, and there is no end in sight.”
Sweat rolled down my ribs, like I was standing too close to sweltering ship engines.
He continued, “Our program here at Children’sOrthopedicHospitalis made to order for folks like you. They will help pay for all your daughter’s treatments. Here is the paperwork to apply.”
During the next several years, we agonized together as a family, commuting back and forth from Ketchikan to Seattle regularly. Aboard ship, I felt cut off from my shipmates, often alone with my grief and a bottle. At times, I treated God like a fellow poker player, trying to bluff him. “God, I know you are here, and if you take care of all this, I promise, I’ll change my evil ways.”
I didn’t understand that a more insidious disease called sin was consuming me. When Jesus showed doctors a treatment that halted the JRA in Danielle, I ramped up my partying, as if I had never prayed. My daughter was on the road to recovery. The Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, the Alaska Crippled Children’s Association and other foundations had paid for nearly every treatment, and I still refused to acknowledge God’s provision or give him control of my life. It seemed like I balanced on a ship’s rail, swinging my fists at ocean waves that threatened to sweep me overboard, and I was destined to ultimately fall off.
During a time of worry over my daughter, a strange episode began to unravel my self-confidence, as the devil revealed his intensions to me. On visits to my dad and step mom, I often hiked around Spanaway Lake, sifting through the debris of my life to find the good times. On this night, Satan’s voice spoke very distinctly into my mind. “Larry, come over here.”
I stopped dead, like a wolf checking the wind, and the voice spoke again. “I’m over here. Behind this bush.”
By now the hair on my neck tingled, and I knew who was speaking.
“If you come over here, I’ll give you everything you ever wanted, Larry.”
An instant of indecision skittered across my soul, and then I lunged toward the bush.
“No! You can’t have me!” I screamed, exercising great faith in myself.
Though I rebuffed Satan, I know he must have been chuckling. At that moment, I really understood who the enemy of my soul was. I believed that I could keep his demons at bay as well as Jesus, whom I remembered as a cardboard figure on a Sunday school felt board. This strange, spiritual confrontation haunted me for the next 20 years.
My Bar, My Vice
“Uncle Brooks, I… I just wanted you to know how much I respect you. Thanks for all you did for me, you know, when I was a kid.” It was more than the booze talking on the phone. He had been ill, and I really meant the words. It was our first and last meaningful talk, and months later, he was dead. Then my dad’s oldest sister, Aunt Roxie, whom I had grown close to, died. Then my stepmother, June, passed away. My father passed away next, then my Aunt Bernie. In a matter of months, I had lost most of the family that approved of me and validated me as a man.
After that, one-day drinking binges strung together from port to port along the Inside Passage and south, as far as Seattle. Racing on freeways in rental cars during suicidal rages, I crossed double lines to even up the scores with everyone who had ever hurt me, especially my own mother. God spared my life and the lives of other drivers, and I finally came to my senses, deciding to buckle down and be a good father and husband again. My lonely anguish subsided, at least for a time.
Andy had been a shipmate since my first days on the MV Matanuska, and I trusted him. He had sold a house and had a few bucks to invest. So did I since my Aunt Bernice had left me a few thousand dollars. I had also tapped some relatives, so my dream of owning a drinking establishment in Ketchikan was suddenly within reach.
“I’m telling you, Andy, you can make a lot more with that money if you throw in with me. I’m buying the old Arctic Bar, and I need a partner. We’ll remodel it and expand the front deck for customers to sit and watch the sunsets. You and me can stagger our shifts aboard the Mat and count the money as it rolls in.”
Andy made the leap, and suddenly, we were the proud owners of the historic Arctic Bar, a continuous mixing bowl of fishermen, attorneys, city officials and local drunks. I cherished my bar, like a long-lost mother, and as soon as we remodeled the space, we expanded our clientele and profits. I had also become chief steward in charge of 35 sailors and passenger services on the ferry. My income was climbing, so the next logical step was to purchase a new house for my family.
But our new five-bedroom house in a neighborhood with tennis courts and swimming pools didn’t help my marriage improve the way I had hoped. Doris wanted no part of the bar life, and I was content to keep it separate from my family altogether. The bar sucked up most of my time, and I started a new search for fulfillment. Booze wasn’t giving me satisfaction, and partying seemed empty. My job as chief steward had fed my ego, but the feeling was short-lived. What was there left? On a trip to Seattle, a “friend” offered me a snort of cocaine, and after initially declining, I rubbed a few grains of leftover powder on my gums. My high was instant, and I craved more.
Cocaine made me a new man, bolder and able to party harder than I had ever imagined. Sometimes when I sailed to Seattle, my brother, Jim, would know what I needed and be there to help. He had become a smalltime drug dealer in the area.
“You need how much?”
“A couple ounces. Can you get it?”
“Yeah, but I don’t stock that much. We’ll have to find it on the street.”
“Let’s go,” I’d say, and we’d check our handguns to make sure we each had a full load. At a sleazy hotel, or in the back of a darkened bar, Jim would fork out my thousands to a fellow dealer while I stood in the shadows, gun hand ready for trouble.
After a long party ashore with all the cocaine I could handle, I would head for the ship, somehow always able to pull it together for my trip back to Ketchikan. But at home it was a different story. God had been softening Doris’ heart, and my two older girls had been attending church. When I wasn’t high, guilt felt like a ball and chain whenever I walked through the door, so I stayed away more and more often for days at a time, fooling no one. I was a drug addict now, choosing a razor-sharp reef rather than the safety of a protected cove, and Doris could not allow me to shipwreck my family.
One morning, about 4 or 5 a.m., I had returned from a three-day toot, still high as I sprawled in my easy chair, watching TV. Danielle, now a teenager and the last one living at home, was asleep upstairs. I had discreetly spirited out a bowl of cocaine from under my chair when Doris suddenly appeared.
She pointed to the powder. “Larry, it’s over. You have to choose. It’s me or that stuff.”
Something in her eyes told me that I had crossed a line, and an icy panic reached through my cocaine high and gripped my heart. I realized that I was losing the only person who had stood watch for me in every storm since I was 17 years old. I might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I knew it would be stupid to trash that kind of rare loyalty.
God only knew who else would ever love me that much.
My living room must have been full of spectators, rejoicing at my wife’s boldness that morning, and in the following months, some of her greatest spiritual battles were won. Doris’ mother passed away, and she sought out grief counseling from the pastor at First Assembly of God, where my daughters attended. She had been raised a Catholic but never had enjoyed a relationship with Christ. In 1992, my wife committed her life to Jesus, and I still recall the remarkable transformation. Our house reverberated with uplifting Christian music, and her countenance suddenly reflected happiness rather than depression. I still led the life of a bar owner and sailor, but Doris had stirred up old embers of God’s love, deposited in the days when I belted out the Lord’s Prayer. And even as I tried to douse them with self-indulgence, the Holy Spirit was gently blowing, urging those embers to ignite.
A Command in the Desert
“I need a partner, son, someone I can trust. Are you up for it?”
I had recently bought out Andy’s share of our Arctic Bar after a difference of opinion about business, and the logical choice for partner seemed to be my own flesh and blood.
“Sure, when do I start?” Larry Jr. said.
I was overjoyed. My son and I had always been close, and as he grew up, I had taken time to educate him on how to be a man’s man. Now I could mentor him in business, and who knew where our teamwork would take us? Larry Jr. reveled in the bar as I did, and after he got his sea legs, Doris and I began to spend more time together, taking vacations in Arizona each winter. I was secure in knowing that my bar was in the family.
Over the next few years, with every radio preacher I overheard, every passing note of Christian music and every discussion about religion with Doris, the Holy Spirit was softening my heart toward Christ. On our long drives across country, I would often make a deal with Doris – half an hour of my secular music, then half an hour of her preachers – and I actually began to enjoy listening to God’s word, though I wouldn’t let on.
I had no idea that back home at Doris’ church, a group of prayer warriors had me in their crosshairs for salvation, and their intercession was having an effect. At our new home in Arizona, I found myself looking forward to hearing my wife’s radio “Bible thumpers” during the day, and like the Bible heroes I learned about as a child, God was getting my attention in a desert.
We had rented a beautiful home on the edge of town with a stunning 240-degree view of desert and city lights, and in the evenings, an arid wind cooled our deck area, where we relaxed in a spa. It was the good life I had worked my whole life to achieve, yet even here, true fulfillment eluded me. Guilt still anchored me to hard liquor, and I drank while my wife prayed.
Old habits die hard, and I paced like a chief steward, feeling responsible to keep our vacation home in tip-top condition for the owner. On this night, patchy clouds danced past the moon, swept by the desert wind, and as I watched a baseball game on TV, I noticed something out of place on the deck. A lawn chair cushion flapped wildly in errant gusts. Making a mental note, I planned to secure it to the chair after the final inning, but when I looked again, the whole cushion was nowhere to be seen. Chiding myself for my dereliction of duty, I policed the deck area thoroughly, without success.
I’ll never find a cushion to match this set, I grumbled in my head, trudging into the desert as the wind pelted me with sand. Waves of strange remorse passed through me at having neglected my responsibility, building to a climax when I returned to the house empty-handed.
My wife met me at the door. “I can’t find it, Doris. I’ll never be able to replace it.” My face must have given away the peculiar distress I felt in my heart because she looked for it, too.
Suddenly in my mind, a voice so gentle and firm that it stood out from any other sound I had ever heard, said, “Go up the hill. You will find the cushion.”
“Doris, did you say something?”
The hair on the back of my neck tingled when she shook her head.
“Go up the hill. You will find the cushion.”
I grabbed the car keys and started out the door, weighing my sanity but knowing as surely as I lived that God was directing these events. I returned with a sense of uncertainty, without the cushion and without answers.
“I don’t know, Doris. I thought I did what he told me, but…”
Doris smiled the thoughtful way I had seen her smile when our children asked hard questions. “The important thing is that you went when he spoke to you, hon,” she said, and waited for the next scene to unfold in God’s time.
On the deck, the naked chair glinted as I shut off the lights. About six hours had passed, and I had resigned myself to replacing the whole lawn chair set, when I paused to take in the billion shards of silver in the sky above the desert. Glancing at the deck where I had spent most of the evening, my heart nearly stopped. Sitting beside the spa, brightly lit by moonlight, the cushion glowed. Suddenly, God had my full attention for the very first time.
“What do you want me to do, Lord?” I asked, tears now welling in my eyes. I half expected his answer to thunder from the desert as I stood in silence, but no answer came.
I explained to Doris what had happened, and when I asked her what to do next, she knew exactly what to say. “Open the Bible, and read St. John.”
She handed me her Bible, but the first words I saw in John were not “In the beginning was the Word…” but a direct command to Larry Buster. “Change your life. Sell your bar. Change your friends.”
Then the dam really broke, and this old sailor cried like a child, along with my Doris. By the time we got back to Ketchikan, I had read the whole Bible, from front to back and still felt hungry for more. I put the bar up for sale and tried to explain to my son why he should sell his half. Naturally, he was put off by the strange turn of events, but it got him thinking, especially when he saw my attitude toward my most cherished possession change. My bar was now a weight around my neck, and I couldn’t wait to fling it overboard.
A man approached me that summer about buying the bar, but when we left for Arizona months later, I still owned it. Like that elusive cushion, the sale just wasn’t there, and I suffered with intense guilt over still being a bar owner. I had been refusing to go to church because God’s house reminded me of every evil thing I had ever done. Finally, after an invitation to a tiny church for an evangelistic revival, I decided to attend with my wife.
“We’re going to have a miracle tonight,” the evangelist said, and throughout the service I watched for one. My wife had been touched by God’s spirit in a special way, but nothing seemed to be happening to me.
Well, Lord, maybe this isn’t the time, I prayed.
I glanced around at the folks around me, and suddenly, I noticed how tired the pastor of the church looked.
Lord, that man looks like someone you have used mightily, and if you aren’t going to do something for me, do something for him.
As soon as I had considered someone else’s needs rather than my own, God spoke directly to my heart: Why do you seek me there, when I am right here? A sensation like the kick of a mule hit me in my solar plexus, accompanied by the words I have never left you.
Suddenly, a confirmation swept over me that every Bible story I knew from Sunday school was true, from Daniel in the lion’s den to Joseph’s coat of many colors. It dawned upon me how I had dragged the Holy Spirit through all my sinful behavior and I fell to my knees, weeping. The young evangelist came over and started to lead me in a prayer, and I shuddered inside as I recognized the verses.
“Personalize it for yourself, Mr. Buster,” he said.
I began, “My Father, who art in heaven…” In my soul, I heard my own soprano voice as a child, clear and strong, singing The Lord’s Prayer above 40 years of chaos. At that moment, Jesus ignited the flame of his Spirit and made his home in my heart.
At home in Ketchikan, the bar did finally sell, and my great weight of worry lifted. I began attending the First Assembly of God Church, and the night I gave my testimony, a small choir of weeping filled the sanctuary, including my wife and the prayer warriors, who never gave me up for lost.
The miracles that have flowed from my born-again experience could fill a book, but one of the most powerful and intimate ones happened weeks after accepting Christ. When I had prayed the Lord’s Prayer with the evangelist, I had stumbled on the words “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”, and I knew I needed to reconcile with my mother. I called her, and she invited me to her home. As I stepped out of the car, we embraced, and it was like we had never parted nearly half a century before.
“I always knew I would get my Larry back,” she said. I had two wonderful years with my mother, a time of restoration before she died.
At 60 years old, I have seen others pass away, like my brother, Jim, who died in my arms without the love of sons or daughters or a faithful wife. Now every waking moment is precious to me. Twice, I have been admitted to hospitals when the veins in my heart closed, and twice, I believe I have been spared for the purpose of telling others that God is real and that Jesus is willing and able to deliver them from sin.
At Ketchikan General Hospital just before my second angioplasty procedure, I lay in a bed as Doris, my daughter, Deborah, and Larry Jr. kept vigil before my Medivac to Bellingham. Doris led out in prayer for me, and then Deborah. Larry Jr. never hesitated. He too had joined the family of Christ, and hearing him speak to God on my behalf comforted me more than any man can know.
At that moment, I told God, “I’m ready now, Lord,” but I guess he still had work for me to do. I have eight grandkids (and one on the way) to help bring up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” This old sailor can teach them how to navigate the roughest seas of life and ride fair winds all the way to their heavenly home, where someday, in God’s time, I’ll be waiting.