Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
I loved the snow in Alaska.
White on a mirror, my razor blade caressed its powdery drifts, and I watched my beloved Sonja breathe it in, her dark eyelashes fluttering.
She waited for the cocaine to cut a path to her brain, and soon she would fly, leaving her problems behind. Confident, mentally agile for hours at a time, Sonja and I often soared high above the humdrum world, like wild ravens.
In our hippie culture I was known as Doc. Whatever ailed your cannabis, I could help you find the cure, and I mentored friends in exploring paths that often led them to harder drugs. Pot was a suicidal gateway.
Our first summer together, I tried to help my Sonja find bliss in marijuana, but it was coke that hooked her. I told myself that I was sharing my heart with her. The pot plants I pampered, the cocaine I bought and sold, wasn’t just product to me — it was my identity.
Marijuana calmed me, softening the sharp traumas I carried from childhood — but cocaine rewired my personality. A close friend of mine had helped me snort my first line of cocaine, too, and I had awakened to unmatched sensory pleasures, while a seething darkness invaded my soul.
And the darkness was alive.
I realize now that witnessing a fiery tragedy when I was 3 years old trenched a wound in my formative psyche.
I loved watching the airplanes droning above laughing children in the Pacoima school yard across the street from our house — but one afternoon two planes met in midair over the playground …
After the air collision in 1957, my nerves never seemed to heal. I spent most of my untamed youth tranquilizing a nameless trauma inside me, and my dysfunctional family inflamed the pain.
I remember my father as a functional alcoholic Catholic. My mother was a devout Catholic — and among us nine kids, I was a confused Catholic. Growing up in Pacoima, California, I was shy, introverted and carried a strange dread of the world around with me.
My one and only year of Catholic school convinced me that I could never measure up to the rules the nuns enforced for God. I believed that no mercy existed to deliver me from the torment waiting for me in purgatory, and I quaked over my certain doom.
When I was in fourth grade, Dad moved us away from the street gangs that encroached on every major street corner in Pacoima. He built a dream home — from footings to shingles — on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Our wonderful new neighborhood distracted me from my angst for a few years. Mom herded us to Catholic church every week without fail, and our family seemed destined to become an upper-middle-class family. I explored new territory and swam in backyard swimming pools with our new friends.
Then one night Dad came home drunk and dispirited. He cursed and spluttered the names of two businessmen we all knew he was working for. He stomped back and forth on his hardwood floors, raging: “They owe me! They owe me thousands!”
My father had remodeled their opulent homes, but his shrewd clients found a way to cheat him out of construction wages and material costs. The California economy was soft in the ’60s, and Dad’s small company suddenly teetered at the edge of financial ruin. In a few months, foreclosure letters piled up. Dad stumbled home drunk night after night, blistering the air with angry, irrational tirades — now targeting my mother.
One day, my older brother got crossways with the law and agreed to leave the state to avoid prosecution. Dad decided to use this excuse to make his escape with my brother, and he loaded up his pickup and headed up the Alaska-Canadian Highway. The ’64 earthquake had leveled hundreds of structures in Alaska, and carpenters were in short supply.
My mother breathed a sigh of relief when he left, and I did, too.
Mom’s cousin, a Catholic missionary to Chile whom I called Father Fred, showed up for a visit while we were packing up to vacate our foreclosed dream home. Mom’s parents had invited us back to their 160-acre family farm in Minnesota to start a new life, and we had sold most of our possessions.
Our ’63 Bel Air station wagon barely held all nine of us — but Father Fred, with his priestly collar and big grin, squeezed in, too. He and Mom shared the driving chores as we ambled cross-country through the Midwest.
Road games and lightning storms cast a happy glow on our trip to Sebeka, Minnesota. Dad’s fury and failures were behind us, and Mom was happier than we had seen her in years. After days of travel, jovial Father Fred pointed out Holstein cows and horses grazing contentedly in green pastures. I sat in our rolling sardine can wishing I could sit next to them and absorb the peace and quiet. City noise and hustle and bustle seemed foreign here. In hay meadows I felt like I might find the peace I craved.
As we piled out of the Bel Air at the farm, Mom’s brothers and sisters, her mother and father and dozens of my cousins surrounded us like a goose down comforter. My grandparents — retired farmers — lived on the home place. They were loving family icons, and around them, dairy farms and cornfields were organized like a checkerboard, owned by my uncles and aunts.
Grandpa and Grandma moved our whole family into a vacant farmhouse, and in the mornings before chores we washed down Mom’s biscuits with milk fresh from cows we grew to know by name.
No one among my 50 cousins would have considered missing Catholic Mass, and they all worked as hard as the adults. I adapted to weeding gardens, churning butter, riding horses, feeding stock and running wild. I was born for country life! For almost a year I romped and worked on Grandpa’s farm — planning on enrolling in school — until Dad’s pickup growled down Grandpa’s long gravel driveway one evening. He had it all planned: He was moving his family to Alaska.
As I listened to Mom and Dad argue in the farmhouse, my old fears and inner turmoil weighed on me like heavy sacks of oats. My mother and us kids were slaves to my father’s decision.
On the way to Alaska, I sat in the back seat of our Bel Air, mesmerized by the incessant tire vibration on the gravel highway. I breathed through a blanket to filter out the road dust and Dad’s cigarette smoke. The 11 of us had left the family farm in a muddle of tears and bitterness. Mom’s family didn’t try to hide their contempt for Dad’s drinking and verbal abuse, but they couldn’t convince Mom to stay in Minnesota.
Mom took her marriage vows seriously. She dutifully loaded our station wagon for an Alaskan odyssey — praying that God would keep us safe. Her calm inner strength usually impressed me during these upheavals, inviting me to explore where it originated. But on our trip north, while Dad puffed contentedly on coffin nails, I felt only anger at leaving our security behind. I had hundreds of miles to worry about our uncertain future.
One main artery bisected Wasilla, Alaska, and if you shot clear through it, you’d be traveling remote stretches of wilderness to Fairbanks 300 miles north. Dad offloaded us at the Willowa Resort (with a convenient bar), where Mom stacked us like cordwood into a couple rented rooms. When Dad’s carpentry work fizzled out, Mom tossed our clothes in the Bel Air again, and we drove to a burg even smaller than Wasilla. In the community called “Big Lake,” Dad swung a hammer again, while Mom and us kids tried to keep sane in tiny cabin rooms.
Then one day Dad flung the door open with a big grin.
“I got a surprise for you! We’re moving to a real homestead. Forty acres and a fish pond!”
What he didn’t say was that we boys had to buck firewood with a Swede saw to heat the dilapidated old house. Our new digs had a phone and electricity, but I had to ride a bus 15 miles to school in Wasilla every day.
Our first winter in Alaska my dad helped my brother and me get jobs patrolling upscale waterfront cabins on frozen Rocky Lake nearby. We shoveled roofs and decks to fool thieves into believing that they were lived in. When summer finally arrived, I spent much of the time at Fish Creek, hauling in good-sized trout for the dinner table.
When Dad’s job at Big Lake petered out, we moved back to Wasilla.
After we finally settled into a house we could afford, I discovered an ability that satisfied my yearning to create harmony where none existed in our otherwise chaotic lives. I played guitar, mimicking musicians like the Beach Boys and the Beatles — but I wanted to go beyond strumming chords. To find the soul in my music, I built my first guitar, and the seed of a luthier (stringed instrument craftsman) began to grow. During my drug-sick years it should have shriveled, but the seed was protected by a patient mentor I had yet to meet.
In ninth grade I landed a job with a youth organization, pulling weeds and brushing out trails around parks. With my first checks I saved up enough money to buy a Honda 50 motorcycle, and suddenly, I sprang free from the family trap! Exhilarating! I wove in and out of traffic, grazing bumpers and racing across old homestead trails with abandon. I had been bound up in everyone else’s dreams, but never again.
I wanted to try everything, and the hippie culture sucked me in like a leech to a vein. Cigarettes and pool games led to new friendships, and parties led me to experimenting with marijuana and psychedelic drugs. I still bunked with my little brothers, and I couldn’t wait to move away.
Dad drank more than ever, and when he was home he still dragged himself out of bed to attend Catholic church with Mom. Twisted strands of religion bound our family together — care-worn and dog-eared — and each strand snapped as we children left the nest for good.
Mom seemed to be the only one who had a relationship with this Jesus we heard about in church — and her prayers for my safety were answered. I should have been mangled over and over, as often as I lurched recklessly through intersections high on pot or LSD.
Mom never gave up hope that I might relent and become a Catholic priest someday — her dream, NOT mine. As for my father, he left religion at the door of his favorite tavern before he bellied up to the bar. Never measuring up to the rules in God’s approved church on earth had set my dad on a trail of hopelessness, too — like father, like son.
Then, one fateful day, like falling through lake ice, I plunged into bone-chilling truth: Not even drugs could ease the grief over the death of a close friend.
Joe should have been a graduating senior when the train killed him on the Wasilla Highway, but he had dropped out of school. Joe was my best stoner friend in the world.
I stood like a statue, my mouth agape, when Mom told me that she had driven past the scene of an accident where Joe’s mutilated 350 Honda Scrambler lay near the railroad tracks. Alaska Railroad cars were frozen in red tape for hours, until the investigation was over.
No one knew exactly what happened, but I pictured Joe challenging the train to a game of chicken, hitting a familiar pothole and losing control. In fact, I was seeing a lot more than the accident in my mind. The blue and yellow train slithered like sections of a massive toy snake, and I shook my head to refocus on Mom and my crying sisters. I made my way to my bedroom, hoping no one noticed that I was high. I was new to this mushroom derivative, and my best friend’s death made coming down all the harder.
A sad vision of my friend’s blood smeared on the railroad tracks showed brightly in my mind, but my drug trip was plugging up my emotions.
Later, I thought. Maybe later tears will come …
I graduated from high school the year after Joe died. It was the same year that I moved into a pad with other stoners. It was the same year that I decided psychedelic drugs were too hard-edged and intense for me. I partook of mushrooms sporadically, but marijuana became my misty elixir, my savior. It deadened my senses to insecurity and fear. Nothing could find me in the warm fog of marijuana. I was invisible — even to myself.
One particularly scary trip on LSD had reinforced my dedication to pot — I awoke to reality clinging to the wispy top of a tall spruce tree. At the time I lived in a cabin with five other hippies, who sponged off two of us who actually worked to support our habits. After that, I had decided once and for all: No meth. No LSD. Just weed. It’s all I need. And I stuck to my mantra through the next few years, living a daily pot “maintenance” lifestyle.
In junior high, I had encountered the true “soul” in my music by crafting an acoustic guitar. As a young adult I wanted to know my cannabis. My best highs were achieved if certain horticulture science was applied before harvesting. I began studying how to create the most potent plants in Alaska.
But Dad needed me.
He had taken a job transforming a residence into a commercial building, and he couldn’t complete the work alone. It was all I could do to tolerate him berating me, his outbursts of rage and his drinking (rather than eating) his lunches.
When he ran his fingers through the spinning blades of a lumber planer, my fate was sealed. He really needed me then. For two months I gritted my teeth and smoked pot to deaden my feelings of hatred and despair. His hand still hadn’t healed completely when the job was finished, but I lit out as fast as I could, before he could ask me to help him on any other job.
I found a new vocation working for absent homeowners, and it allowed me to begin growing my own pot. As a reliable caretaker in the Wasilla area, I seldom got visitors, and I had plenty of time to experiment with lighting and soils inside other peoples’ homes.
One day Dad and Mom popped in to say hello …
When she saw my pot garden, Mom’s face fell, like she had lost her best friend. I felt her disappointment in my gut and needed a joint badly.
“Rodney. If you don’t get rid of those … those … plants, I’m calling the police!”
This was the last thing I wanted to hear from my own mother. Dad thought it was funny and grinned at me as she stormed out the door.
This event drove a wedge between Mom and me, and I didn’t visit her for months. Dad, on the other hand, warmed up to the other addict in the family, and he even smoked weed with me sometimes.
By the next summer, my ambition to grow my own marijuana had reached a new high. For a few months I grew it with a friend, but soon I found a place far off the grid where I could put my expertise to work. I saved money from carpentry jobs until I could buy my own land, and I built a greenhouse that accommodated 15 quality pot plants.
My best buds during this time of my life were my plants. We didn’t need anyone else. My marijuana had me to feed them Miracle-Gro, and I had them — to fill my lungs every few hours. Kerosene lamps lighted my evenings as I sloughed into a haze of melancholic repose.
What finally drove me from my cave was a need to pay bills, and I emerged with a new plan.
I was the guy that you tell your daughters, “Don’t smile back!” when he pulls up beside her at a stoplight.
With stringy, shoulder-length hair, dilated hazel eyes and lanky (almost skeletal), at 6 feet tall, I was the hippie everyone loved to hate. I drove through Wasilla in a Volkswagen van, a peace child whose motto was: Live and let live, man.
Whenever we hippies congregated in a tent to pass around a joint and chew the fat, we avoided subjects like religion. The Great Spirit was in everything. In everyone. Church was the Alaska forest, and we attended pot-smoking meetings regularly. It beat the h*** out of Catholic Mass.
Peace came from our dope, and everyone needed more peace — so I decided to start selling it. My new venture bloomed quickly, and I joined a sophisticated group of growers who mentored me in budding techniques.
In a short time, growers began seeking me out when they had problems with their plants. I was their Doc, and for the first time in my life, I felt like somebody. I began developing a custom strain of high-grade marijuana — potent and in demand.
A fellow grower and friend joined me in experimenting on our green leafy children, but his ambitions ranged farther than mine. He found a supplier of cocaine in Anchorage, and he already knew customers who wanted hard drugs in the outskirts of Wasilla. I tried a little. Then a little more again — and I loved how it created a new me.
When I was high on coke, I had something to say. No more hanging back, holding back. I just said what I thought, and it sounded profound! I felt stimulated, animated.
My old mantra, Just weed, it’s all I need, went up in smoke.
Sonja and I grew up in California 10 miles apart, and we didn’t even know it.
With an ebony afro, olive complexion and shapely in her Levi’s, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She captivated me, and I needed to know more about the woman.
To my utter delight, our attraction was mutual. Her older brother was a good friend of mine, and they had grown up in the same kind of dysfunctional Catholic family as mine. Painfully shy like me, Sonja and I spent a whole summer getting to know one another, until she had to leave for her next semester of nursing classes in California.
I loved Sonja and told her so before she left — but she didn’t believe it. She just thought the dope was talking.
When she flew back to California, I was heartbroken and marijuana only depressed me more, so I turned to a convenient new passion — one that seduced me closer to a nightmare. Pot had opened the door to darkness, and cocaine waited to invade my mind.
In the beginning, I thought that I owned my habit. I called myself a “maintenance user” (an addict who plans out his day): snorting coke in the morning; working for a few hours in the real world; more coke and partying with friends in the evening; then smoking pot late to gently drift into oblivion — and do it all over again as often as possible.
Cocaine fundamentally changed my brain. In reality I was a gaunt, long-haired hippie who dodged in and out of conversations like a hopped-up kid on a Honda 50. But after a snort I felt transformed into a suave, confident intellectual — a cool individual.
Sometimes a sliver of truth sliced through all the confusion in my mind. I needed something more. In lucid moments I felt desolate, like I sat in the back of the old Bel Air again — being driven somewhere I didn’t want to go.
And what was waiting for me at the other end of the highway?
I ached to love someone who really cared about me, and only one person I knew had shown me tenderness without clamoring after my dope. Sonja still held me captive, and I loved her from afar until it became unbearable to live without her. I had to see her. I had to tell her that I loved her again … I made a trip to California, and this time she believed me.
When Sonja moved back to Alaska and into my custom-built dream home, she enrolled at University of Anchorage and completed her nurse’s training program. But rather than altering my dysfunctional lifestyle to accommodate her new career, I absorbed Sonja into mine.
My addiction to cocaine ruled every waking moment, and in time my sweet Sonja climbed the suicidal ladder toward becoming a maintenance user, too. Our weekends always included partying with friends or a quiet evening together — snorting coke.
Paranoia — cocaine’s evil twin — took up residence in my mind. Paranoia taunted me about the cops closing in, or about friends who might rat me out, or kill me for my stash.
Finally I told everyone that I no longer grew any pot to sell anymore — an obvious lie, because I never turned anyone away who wanted to buy my product.
I studied coke the way I had pot, and I learned to freebase (alter the form for smoking). I planned to offer this crack cocaine to clients at a higher price, but I needed to experiment first. My new best friend, James, agreed to be a guinea pig with me.
After his first hit, he shook his head. “Nothin’. Don’t feel nothin’, Rodney …”
My own crack was hitting me between the eyes, and I heaped his pipe, instructing him how to breathe and … suddenly he stood up.
“I gotta get outta here!”
James’ eyes were bulging out, and I worried they might pop out onto the floor. Euphoria never touched James — instead terror drove him out the door. He surrounded a birch tree with his two big arms, chuffing in short, erratic breaths, like he endured horrible pain. He seemed to be just holding on until evil stopped violating his soul.
I thought I was killing James.
An hour later, he peeled himself off the tree, still shaking, and I drove him home before Sonja returned from her nightshift at the hospital. Even after this close call, I could sense my craving for this poison intensifying like never before, and I tried to ignore any guilt seeping past my addiction.
My Jesus-freak sister, Anna, had visited, and she tried to talk sense into Sonja and me.
“Give your lives to Jesus. He’s the answer to your search for peace. Just pray like this …”
Her words seemed surreal yet serene at the time, and now I wished I could forget them! Jesus freaks reminded me of my future in purgatory.
Soon after Anna’s visit, a Bible had arrived in the mail, and Sonja placed my sister’s gift on a dresser. For days I avoided this Bible like bad juju.
The night after James OD’d, Sonja was at work, and a group of potential clients came over to score. I gave them a coke sample to reel them in, and they left at about 4 a.m. — with my product. Triumphant with a wad of cash and ramped up too high to sleep, I decided to finish staining some kitchen cabinets to surprise Sonja.
The Varathane fumes stung my eyes. I brushed the thick liquid inside a cupboard, breathing in, breathing out. Suddenly I stood up and threw my brush down. I craved coke. With shaky fingers, I dumped a line of cocaine onto a smudged piece of mirror.
Exhale … breathe in hard …
Thirty minutes later, another line.
Minutes later, again …
Even in my extreme agitation I knew I was under the influence of an entity that wasn’t me. A darkness — thick like the Varathane — oozed into my senses, choking me. This darkness was living, hellish, suffocating, and my heart thundered in my ears as I stood close to the edge of eternity. I experienced sheer terror waiting for my brain to shut down for good.
Sonja would be home soon to find my body, stinking, my eyes bulging like James’ … I stumbled to the bedroom.
What was it that Anna told us?
I didn’t say a word aloud, but in my head I was screaming as I fell onto the bed.
JESUS! Help me! I can’t do this anymore. I’m dying. Save me … JESUS!
It seemed ludicrous to expect God to answer me now, after all these years of rejecting him. But I was desperate. I had run out of time.
Suddenly, my sinuses began to empty. My nose ran like a faucet as the suffocating, living darkness seemed to be flushed out of me. Every microgram of cocaine excreted away, and the thundering tempest in my chest obeyed a quiet command from Jesus: “Peace. Be still.”
Tranquility like I had never experienced enveloped me. This was a peace far greater than what I experienced on the Minnesota farm; far more intense than any hallucinogen; and more satisfying than any acoustic nirvana I had enjoyed while playing or building guitars.
Without drugs and without a priest, I met God.
When I opened Anna’s Bible gift, it flopped open to Proverbs 10, and I read the first verse: “… a wise son makes a father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother” (NASB).
Mom had been grieving over me for years, praying for me — and in that moment I finally understood how much she loved me. As I read more of the Bible, a strange soul “flushing” continued as I sorrowfully acknowledged my utter ignorance about God’s plan for my life. Every verse in Proverbs 10 revealed the real me: selfish, fear-ridden, angry, full of guilt. I knew that I had to change direction for good.
After about an hour of reading verses and praying for forgiveness, I gathered up thousands of dollars worth of high-grade pot and cocaine — my labor of love, my cherished life investment — and tossed every gram and leaf into the woodstove. In the belly of this iron altar my past life burned away as I promised to follow Jesus the rest of my life.
Then, Sonja came home …
“Yup. It’s all gone. I gave my life to Jesus, Sonja.”
I tried to explain about how God had spared my life after a serious cocaine overdose. She listened intently with a quizzical expression, not certain if I was high and irrational. I told her about the peace I felt and that I was a new man — rewired instantly by Jesus!
Sonja slowly digested the words from this stranger, and then it hit her — it was her weekend to kick back and snort a few lines. She opened the woodstove and sniffed.
“Nice, Rodney, but some of that stuff was mine! What am I supposed to do?”
“Babe, you gotta quit, too … it’s killing us.”
I could see panic welling up in her eyes.
“And, Sonja, we need to get married, too.”
Our heart-to-heart talk lasted all morning, until finally Sonja needed more than lunch to help her endure this day of crazy changes. From her very private stash she found a vial of cocaine and cut the powder with infinite care on a mirror.
Perhaps it would have been her last hit forever. Or maybe she never would have found the strength to break the chains of addiction had she indulged this last time.
Before she could position her straw, I blew it all away! Her coke was irretrievably gone, and she looked at me aghast. “What the h*** is wrong with you?”
“I can’t let you do this anymore, hon. I got you onto coke. I’m so sorry. Please, please — no more.”
My beloved Sonja glanced at the dust on the floor mingled with snowy white sprinkles and shook her head, resigned and trying to understand.
Just a week after I did, Sonja gave her heart to Jesus Christ, too. Five weeks after I burned our dope in the woodstove, I married Sonja — a sweet, godly woman, no longer pining for cocaine to lift her spirits.
To say we cleaned up our act and that we lived happily ever after skips pages and pages of heartaches and joys we have experienced together.
Jesus knew we would struggle in our promises to serve him. That’s why he died on the cross to pay for our failures: past, present and future. We learned that the life-altering peace and security we received was a gift of God, completely unearned.
And when I failed Jesus that next summer by snorting coke at a friend’s house, it was Sonja who laid down the law this time.
“Get clean for good, Rodney, or I’m leaving you.”
No contest. I knew that God was speaking loud and clear.
For 33 years, my darling Sonja has been my faithful friend, my children’s home school teacher, my partner in ministry. Our three sons are grown men now, and to Sonja’s credit, each one is serving Jesus.
My luthier seed — planted by my patient Mentor — is sprouting. I believe that someday my dream of building musical instruments as a family business may be realized. In God’s time I want to help other young people find the soul in their music as I have.
God has led Sonja and me to Northgate Alaska church, to serve with our loving friends. No two guitars sound alike, and among these friends, our ministries resonate with unique sounds, too.
Sometimes I drift back to my childhood and recall events that trenched deep furrows of despair in my life, until Jesus lifted me onto his way …
I stood in our backyard in Pacoima, staring toward the roar of plane engines. Aircraft came and went from an airport not far away, and I often watched them as they droned above the grade school across the street from our house.
A private plane and a vintage WWII bomber with gun turrets and USAF painted on its fuselage slowly entered the airspace above the school for a few seconds — before colliding. A frightening ball of flame seared my little mind, as, transfixed, I watched burning wings, engine pieces and what must have been body parts spreading like shrapnel over the school yard. I heard hunks of the airplanes striking pavement. I heard children screaming.
It was months before my mother could coax me out of the house without struggling.
The trauma of that scene stalked me for years — until the moment that I gave my heart to God. The childhood terror drained away on the day I trusted my future to Jesus Christ.
Peace has replaced every trauma once and for all.