Copyright © 2016 John Providence
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This story is true. People and place names have been changed.
The natural person does not receive the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14
It began when God spoke to Grandpa Rocky on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1969. “I was bathed in perfect light,” he said, “and the Lord took and told me that all my sins were forgiven.” I have always wondered if Gramps really heard God’s voice that day because of the madness that followed. All the more so after I, too, was struck by a light and heard a voice from the heavens.
In the 1950s, Rocky was a handsome devil with ice-blue eyes and a blonde pompadour. In the picture I am holding he is wearing a high school track uniform and showing off his champion shot-put form. The smirk on his face betrays the arrogance of a young man with a wide-open future and the world at his feet. Rocky was a gifted athlete in multiple sports who was offered a scholarship to play collegiate baseball. Gramps was not big or tall, but he was strong as an ox with hands like bear paws.
During his senior year in high school, Gramps worked at a hardware store where he liked to show off his power by lifting things that required the strength of two men. “My boss took and warned me not to move those crates of bolts alone, but I was full of pride in those days, see. While carrying one of them crates the bolts suddenly shifted and tore my arm out of the socket.” The injury kept Rocky from playing ball that spring and he lost his scholarship.
Gramps had a fuzzy blue streak on his forearm that I often asked him about. “That was a tattoo of my gang, The Dukes, before it took and blurred with age. Yeah, say, Johnny, did I ever tell you about the fights I got in as a Duke?” He did, many times; that is why I asked about the tattoo. Rocky was the youngest and shortest member of The Dukes: traits that singled him out as an easy target to rival gangs. Anyone who picked a fight with Rocky was in for a rude awakening. He did away with all comers and quickly made a name for himself as one of the toughest guys in school.
My favorite story was about the star football player, a lineman nearly twice his size, who challenged my grandfather to fight. Rocky felled the Goliath with one swing! “But remember John, no matter how many fights you take and win, there’s always someone out there who’s tougher than you, see.” Then Gramps would tell of the day he met his match. I did not like that story very much.
The best part about Rocky’s stories was the “buxom” and “comely” girlfriends on hand to witness him setting a track record or knocking someone out. I did not know what buxom and comely meant, but he said those words like they were really good things for a girl to be. His life was so exciting and romantic…until the law caught up to him. The way Gramps tells it, he was busted driving a car with stolen tires and took the rap because he refused to “rat” on the Duke who stole them. According to his brother James, Rocky stole the entire car and it just happened to belong to the policeman who pulled him over. Either way, Rocky was given a choice by the judge to go to prison or the military and he was shipped off to the Army bound for Korea before graduating from high school. While in boot camp, Rocky got a “Dear John” letter from his main squeeze, Mitsy. In the end, all my grandfather had to show for his promising young life was a brokenhearted stint in the service.
After discharge Rocky met a tall, sassy, nineteen year-old with an olive complexion named Pearl at a YMCA dance. They married six months later. The couple had three children in three years: Teddy, Martha, and Vinny. Gramps sold cars to support his young family. He was a born salesman who quickly rose to the top of his dealership, making what we would call six-figures today. He was even featured in the dealership’s TV commercials. By the fall of 1961, Rocky was living the American Dream with a beautiful wife, three healthy kids, a successful career, and a house in the suburbs. The world was at his feet once more.
But there was still a Duke in Rocky. He continued to use marijuana—the drug his gang smuggled across the Mexican border. Pearl found bags of it in his pockets on occasion when doing laundry. While in The Dukes, Rocky was always chasing skirts, and he did not stop as a married man. Women were his weakness, and being a handsome salesman made it easy to close the deal. Gramps picked up ladies at a bar called The Filling Station where he hung out with the guys after work. “You know, John, for years I thought that lowdown Filling Station serviced cars for your grandpa’s dealership,” said Grandma Pearl. “Lord help me, I was so naive!”
By the summer of 1969, the guilt over his affairs was eating Gramps alive. “I desperately wanted to confess to Pearl, but I knew she’d take and divorce me if I told her, see.” Then the solution to Rocky’s dilemma struck him out of the clear blue sky on that Sunday morning. Pearl and the kids were at church without him, as usual. Gramps was in the backyard of their home when God’s light hit him like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. His conversion was instant and radical. Gramps confessed his unfaithfulness to Grams and followed after the Lord with fervent devotion.
“The trouble started,” said Grandma Pearl, “when your grandfather quit his job saying that he could not serve the Lord by being ‘the liar on the lot’ selling cars. He sat around on the couch all day in his underwear reading the Bible and preaching at us. When I tried to get him to look for a job, he said that the only job that needed to be done was for us to sit at his feet and learn from his teachings. The Lord would miraculously supply all our needs if we just had faith.”
Next, Rocky hatched a plan with his brother Tom to start their own church. Tom was also out of work, believing his considerable talents qualified him to be “the president of a company,” and he would settle for nothing less. Surprisingly, he remained unemployed indefinitely. Where were these two unemployed men going to get the capital to buy a church building? Why, from Rocky selling his family’s home! In the meantime, the brothers divined that they were to dedicate themselves to Bible reading and preaching while their wives and other family members worked fulltime to support their ministry until it took off and rivaled Billy Graham’s.
Grandma Pearl was not one to suffer fools gladly. She refused to allow Gramps to sell their house. But the money she made could not replace his once bountiful income, and they fell behind on the mortgage. Fearing the loss of their house, she begged Rocky to get a job. After berating his wife with Scriptures and condemning her unbelief, he proclaimed, “I am Abraham, and you are Sarah. You will call me ‘lord’ as she did him! I am Jesus Christ to you, and you must obey me as you would him.”
“Well I may not know as much about the Bible as you,” Grams said, “but I certainly know that you ain’t Jesus Christ. And you’re no Abraham either. He provided for his family!” Pearl packed Rocky’s bags and threw him out of the house one year after his Sunday morning vision.
“What else could I do, John? I had to provide for my family and save the house. I couldn’t get any help from the state as long as there was an able-bodied man in the home who wouldn’t work. Rocky knew that’s why I was divorcing him. He spewed a bunch of Scriptures to the judge in court talking about how it ain’t the state’s place to provide for his family. You know what the judge said? He quoted 1 Timothy 5:8: ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.’ You should’ve seen the look on your grandfather’s face when he heard that!”
With Grams working two jobs, some help from the state, and the kindness of friends, she kept the house…for a few years at least. Pearl received “only $80 in eight years” from Rocky to support his children.
In 1971, Pearl’s friend Gloria called in a panic after her husband, Al, pulled a gun on her and their five kids. “Gloria was asking me what to do. I told her to get out of that house and stay the night at my place because Al didn’t know where we lived. At 2:00 a.m., the whole house was awaked by the sound of someone pounding on the doors and windows.” In moments, the two women and their children were gathered in the living room.
“Everyone get down!” yelled Pearl, fearing Al was outside with his gun. She army-crawled to the phone and called the police. The banging continued until the cops arrived. Grams identified the suspect—Rocky!
When asked by the police what he was doing there, Gramps said, “The Lord took and told me to see my kids.” After determining Rocky arrived on foot, the officer noticed that he was not wearing shoes. Gramps walked barefoot from his parents’ house nearly twenty miles away!
“The officer told me he was going to drop Rocky off on the highway out of town. I couldn’t let him do that; he had no shoes on! So I told the officer to take him to a restaurant and I’d call his father to pick him up there. The kids were upset and crying, asking me why I let the policeman take their daddy away without letting them talk to him. It was 2:30 in the morning for crying out loud! I told Rocky he could come get the kids anytime he wanted; all he had to do was call, and the only time he decided to show up was unannounced in the middle of the night?”
Gramps explained his absence to his kids by telling them they were not his “real children” because he “only gave birth to spiritual children.” Who they were, I do not know. Rocky did pop in unexpectedly on his family now and then—like the time he ambushed them at church. After noticing Martha’s pierced ears, he unleashed a harsh sermon on her, calling his eleven-year-old daughter a “street walker” in front of everyone before the pastor threw him out. He was also known to materialize out of thin air bearing gifts. Once, Teddy, aged fourteen, wanted to give his father a present in return but did not have one on hand. “Then I remembered a leather jacket I stole out of a car that was too big for me,” Teddy said, “but Dad wouldn’t accept it because the Lord told him it was stolen! I denied it, but he threw me in the car and drove straight to the owner’s house and made me return it. The man didn’t know us. Johnny, there was no way Dad could’ve known who owned that jacket! When I asked how he knew where to take me, Dad said the Lord gave him directions as he drove.”
Rocky followed the voice of the Lord wherever it led. Soon after the divorce, he was called to be a street preacher in New Orleans. When the Big Easy did not embrace his message he moved back to his parents’ house in Minnesota. Later, he was told to “wander the earth like John the Baptist” in the Western desert. How long he did that or where he went next, I have not a clue.
No matter where Gramps was, he preached to everyone if they liked it or not. His sermons were anything but brief or intelligible. Countless souls suffered through his wild-eyed orations for hours out of politeness or fear. Gramps could not find a church to belong to or preach at because, “They wouldn’t take and accept my testimony.” Eventually he and Brother Tom got their hands on a decrepit Catholic church building that Rocky lived in while fixing up. For reasons unknown, Gramps was not there the night two teenage boys broke in to vandalize it. One of them set fire to a curtain. The blaze quickly spread and burned the place to the ground. The boys had no idea at the time that the church belonged to the father of their good friend, Teddy.
Bobby, Rocky’s youngest brother, told me about a strange occurrence that took place in that church before it was reduced to ashes. After a hard day of renovation, Gramps lay down on a pew to sleep, and behold, a “being of light” was standing in the balcony. It slowly descended the stairway and stood over him for a moment before entering his body. Rocky climaxed at the moment of their union. He told Bobby that it was an “angel of the Lord” that granted him great spiritual powers, but the younger brother was not so sure about that.
“You know I could’ve been famous,” is how Bobby begins the story that would have added another chapter to the Crossroads Blues Legend had he taken the deal. One evening, Bobby locked himself in his parents’ bathroom to smoke weed and jam on his guitar when the Prince of Darkness appeared and offered him the ability to play “like Jimi Hendrix” in exchange for his soul. Satan allowed his potential Faust to take the talent he was offering for a test drive. Bobby was instantly able to peel off hot licks on his ax that he never could play before or after because he turned down the infernal bargain. In response to Rocky’s story, Bobby reminded his ecstatic brother of the apostle Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that, “Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” The Word fell on deaf ears.
It was Martha and Vinny’s unanimous testimony that Pearl favored her eldest son Teddy to their detriment. “Dad knew it.” Martha said. “Before he left, Rocky kept Teddy in check and made things fair between all the siblings. After Dad split, Teddy ruled the roost with an iron fist. He beat Vinny mercilessly and poor Vin just curled up in a ball and took it until I rescued him. Teddy didn’t go after me as much because I used my nails to defend myself from the coward. Telling Mom was useless because Teddy charmed her with his stories and she swallowed them hook, line, and sinker! She let him get away with bloody murder; yet, Mom was very hard on Vinny—slapping him and calling him names at the drop of a hat. I never understood it. Vin was such a good-natured and sensitive boy!
“Teddy got the lion’s share of what little money Mom had to spend on us. He was bought new clothes for school every year and all Vinny got was his hand-me-downs. Teddy was also a glutton who ate all of our food, leaving Vin and me to starve and fend for ourselves. One Christmas, Mom even gave Teddy a pair of brand new hockey skates! Our presents were so pitiful in comparison; I don’t even remember what they were.”
Late at night while stealing home from a caper, Teddy passed by a neighbor’s open window and saw a couple making love. A peeping Tom was born. “Hey, I didn’t have a dad around to teach me about those things.” Teddy explained. “I had to figure it out myself! And besides, some people like to be watched. Why do you think that couple left their widow wide open? Even if they didn’t do it on purpose, what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
During his senior year in high school, Teddy was arrested for stealing a car. I do not know if that is what put him in the Army before graduation like Rocky, but he was stationed in Germany where the MPs arrested him for pleasuring himself on the balcony in broad daylight. “It was just a big misunderstanding,” said Teddy. “I was only urinating, not masturbating!” That, or some other incident, earned him an early discharge. Teddy married a woman to stay in Germany. What got him deported shortly after the birth of their son is another mystery. Back in the States, more people misunderstood Teddy’s innocent actions as voyeurism and exhibitionism. Teddy readily admits to having “an enormous sexual appetite and some unusual fetishes,” but insists he was wrongly convicted of all his lewd crimes.
There was something I always wanted to ask Teddy about—a certain duffel bag Vinny found in a storage unit for an apartment they shared. The bag contained a black ski mask, duct tape, gloves, a large knife, and notebooks filled with the names of women, their cars, license plate numbers, etc. Vin and Martha were convinced it was a “rape kit.” Teddy had a different explanation. The mask, tape, gloves, and knife were props used to fulfill the rape fantasy of a kinky sex pal. “She wanted me to surprise her one night by breaking into her house. I used the knife to cut open her screen….”
“What about the notebooks?”
“Hey, I like women, lots of women. It’s hard to keep track of them all! If I see one I like, I learn as much about her as I can to figure out the best way to meet her and strike up a conversation. And if I really were a rapist, do you think I’d be dumb enough to leave a bag of evidence just lying around for someone to find?”
No, I do not think Teddy was that stupid. I personally believe he was simply a burglar and conman who targeted single women, but God only knows the truth. I made a point over the years to ask Teddy about a few choice scandals from the family lore and his explanations were ever changing. The strangest thing about it is that I wanted to believe him even when I knew he was lying to my face. Teddy is one of the most engaging and dynamic people I know. He is the life of the party. In no time, he has everyone gathered around playing a game or listening to his stories. No matter what he is doing, Teddy is doing it with a laugh and a smile that is downright contagious.
But Martha believed Teddy was a rapist or worse. His actions did him no favors in that regard, most of which cannot be shared for shame. Martha noticed other suspicious things about her elder brother like his ever-changing appearance. I have seen it all my life. One day Teddy would have long, dark hair and a beard. The next day he would be clean-shaven with short, blond hair. He never kept the same look for more than a few weeks—something Martha believed was a tactic to make him harder to identify by victims or the police.
Then there was his drifter lifestyle. In over three decades, I have never known Teddy to have his own residence. But he has managed to maintain multiple storage units. Throw in his career as a truck driver, and the imagination has plenty to work with. Martha noticed that the details of Teddy’s life and personality were textbook characteristics of a psychopath: charming exterior, nomadic lifestyle, changing image, sexual deviancy, pathological lying, violence, lack of remorse, etc. She tipped off the FBI about Teddy in case they had any unsolved crimes for which he might fit the profile.
Martha and Vinny forged a close bond as children, suffering together at the hands of their sadistic brother and indifferent mother. The two were so close in age that they were even in the same grade at school. To escape Teddy’s terrible kingdom at home the brother and sister spent most of their time outside with friends where they quickly fell in with the drug crowd. Vinny was only ten when he began smoking weed.
On a frigid January evening, Martha left a party around eleven to find Vin and bring him home. She thought he was sledding with friends at a school nearby, but on the way there she ran into those friends and Vinny was not with them. While talking with the kids, a man jogged by and brushed up against her. “I thought it was odd that someone was out running in the cold at that hour,” she said. After walking away from the group, she was grabbed from behind. Martha pulled a knife, but her attacker snatched it out of her hand and threw the fourteen-year-old girl in his car. It was the jogger.
The man threatened to cut off Martha’s breasts with her knife if she made any noise while he raped her. For the next three to five hours, the jogger drove to various locations, beating and strangling his victim at each stop. Martha was repeatedly choked unconscious and was told each time would be last—only to wake up and be strangled again.
“At one point, I told the jogger that I wasn’t afraid of him because I knew Jesus Christ,” Martha said, “but when he announced that he really was going to kill me and dump my body in the Mississippi River, I believed him. By then, I’d accepted my imminent death and could only think about how my poor mother would feel when the police told her that they found my body in the river.
“When we got to our final destination the jogger said, ‘I suppose you hate me now and think I’m a bad person.’ Then he ordered me out of the car, but we were not at the river. We were only a block away from my house! He said, ‘I know who you are and where you live. I’ll come back and kill you if you tell anyone. Now walk straight ahead and don’t look back.’
“I thought it was strange that he told me to walk away from my house but I did as I was told until the sound of his car faded. When I was just a few houses away from home, a car came squealing around the corner and pulled into the driveway in front of me. I dashed into a backyard and hid under a camper, listening to the sound of snow crunching under foot in the alley as someone walked around looking for me. Then it got quiet and I waited for what seemed like hours to make a break for it. My house was only a few doors down, but all the yards between me and home were fenced. When I started climbing the first fence, I heard the sound of footsteps racing towards me from the alley, so I ran to the nearest backdoor and pounded on it for dear life. When it opened, the footsteps took off in another direction.”
The police stayed outside Martha’s house for the rest of the night. Grandma Pearl was not home. Soon after, Martha started getting calls from someone who just breathed heavily into the phone. The authorities traced the calls to a local bar but could not determine who made them. The only details Martha remembered about the jogger were his blue eyes and blond ponytail. A suspect was never identified.
Decades later, Martha saw a TV show about the murder of a local girl who bore a striking resemblance to herself. That girl was murdered in the next town over not long after Martha’s rape. She contacted the girl’s parents and told them her story. They were convinced the jogger was the same man who killed their daughter and six others. His father lived in the same town Martha did at the time she was attacked. He had blue eyes and a blond ponytail. The jogger has been rotting in prison for over thirty years and will never be free.
“All I remember my mom saying about the rape,” Martha said, “is that she was so ashamed she wanted to hide me in a closet.”
What was Teddy’s take on this tragedy? “Martha shouldn’t have been out wandering around like that in the middle of the night. What did she think would happen?”
A woman from church, herself a victim of rape, reached out to Martha and read her Bible passages as she recovered from her injuries. Isaiah 54:7-8 stood out: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee…but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee.”
“I heard the words forsaken and wrath and feared that God abandoned me and allowed the rape because he was angry at my sins. I specifically prayed for the Lord’s protection when I left that party to look for Vinny because there had been a spree of attacks on women in the area. That’s why I had the knife. Why didn’t God protect me? I thought he might be testing me like Job to see if I’d curse him. I couldn’t read the book of Job for twenty years after that.”
About a year after her ordeal Martha fell in love with a childhood friend named Jacob and was soon found to be with child. The fifteen-year-old mother-to-be explained the pregnancy to her sixteen-year-old boyfriend as “a judgment against our sin.” I arrived on May 31 with red hair all over my ears—a prophetic symbol of the role I was cast to play in the family drama about to unfold. Dad wanted to name me John. When he went to sign the birth certificate, he was surprised to see that I already had a name; one that Mom does not even remember giving me.
“The first time I met Rocky,” my dad said, “was at the hospital after you were born. He didn’t say much at first and just stared at me. Then he said his God would judge me and gave me a letter that I wish I’d kept. It was all about the ‘spirit of cancer,’ the ‘cedars of Lebanon,’ and ‘passion like the bulls of Bashan.’ Classic stuff.”
Dad walked to the grocery store in the morning before going to high school, using a toy shopping cart to transport supplies back to Mom and me. My first doll was found by him on the side of the road while hitchhiking to work. Six months after delivering me, Mom got pregnant with my sister, Norma. Rocky showed up unannounced proclaiming that the Lord commanded him to perform a “spiritual marriage” for my parents because they were too young to get legally married.
Gramps took Mom and Dad to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. It was early spring and he insisted the ceremony be conducted in the frigid lake where the river began. Rocky loudly preached from a marriage covenant he wrote that went on for pages as they stood in the numbing waters. The wedding was sealed with an icy baptism. Mom and Dad were legally married in another state three weeks before Norma’s birth. Fourteen months later, my brother Davey was born and our family was complete.
Rocky’s Sunday morning vision in the summer of 1969 led him to quit his job selling cars – forcing Grams to divorce him and work multiple jobs to save the house – leaving the kids at home with little supervision – subjecting Martha and Vinny to Teddy’s abuse – driving the two away from home and into the wrong crowd – placing Martha at the party she left to find Vinny on the night she was snatched by the jogger – and on to the next link in the chain of tragedy that began with perfect light: the Theory of the Eldest
In one of my first memories, Davey and I were gleefully jumping on the bed in our room when we collided and knocked heads. Davey wailed in agony. The instant the sound escaped his lips, Mother flew into the room in full-on crisis mode and threw herself down beside her youngest child, hysterically inquiring what happened. Davey mustered between sobs, “Johnny hit my head.” At that, Mother grabbed a fistful of my hair and slapped me across the face while throttling me about. When her furry subsided, I tried to tell her about the accident. “Don’t lie to me, you little sh-t! You hurt Davey on purpose because you hate him!” And the fury commenced.
Mother stalked me. Often while playing alone with Davey, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Looking about, I would see some part of Mom’s body sticking out from her hiding place, notice the shadows cast by her feet under the door, or hear the floor creak as she crept closer. Her presence made me feel terribly awkward, and I did not know what to do. I knew why she was there—to catch me hurting Davey. But I did not want to hurt him like she believed. Then I got a grand idea. While Mother was spying, I would play extra nice with Davey to show her how much I really loved him!
“AH, HA!” Mother yelled as she leapt into the open. “You sneaky little cheat. You knew I was there the whole time and tried to put me on with your act. Well, you’ll have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on me, Buster!” The next time she snuck up on me I said hello to avoid looking the deceiver. “So you think you’re pretty clever now, don’t you? You better enjoy this victory while it lasts. You may’ve won this time, but I’m in it for the long haul. We’ll see who’ll have the last laugh!”
Why did Mother treat me so? “You are the eldest, the firstborn child, just like your Grandma Pearl and Uncle Teddy were. As the eldest, you were born with the same character flaws as them. You have the Type-A personality and choleric temperament that every firstborn automatically does. I know who you really are, and it is my God-given duty as your parent to correct the personality flaws that come along with being the firstborn.
“You were jealous of your brother and sister when they were born because you had all the attention before they came along. Now you take it out on them for stealing your precious spotlight! And you shamelessly exploit your unfair advantages of size, strength, and wit to torture your siblings for sheer pleasure and to get my goat. Not on my watch, Mister! You cannot pull the wool over my eyes like Teddy did to Grams.
“You act out on purpose to get my attention back, and I’ll make your life as difficult as possible until you get with the program and follow the simple rules I lay out for your own good! I’ll go to whatever extremes are necessary in order to save you from turning out like your pervert Uncle Teddy—a grown man living in his mother’s basement. It is called tough love. You may not like it now, but you will thank me for it someday. Look at me! Look into my eyes!”
“Look at your mother, John! The Bible says you must ‘honor your father and mother.’ Do you know that it’s disrespectful not to look at her when she’s talking to you? Now honor your mother and look into her eyes!” That was Debbie; a strange friend of Mom’s who came over once raving about how “the demons just flew out of my butt!” She lived in the same low-income development as we did. There was something off about Debbie’s eyes, but they were far more bearable to look into than Mother’s.
Mom was a beautiful woman with stunning blue-green eyes that took on a sinister quality when honed on me. Then they lit up with an eerie light and bulged out of her face with the left eyebrow contorted into an inverted V. There was a fierceness about them that struck cold terror in my soul as they burned with righteous indignation at me. Mother went into a trance when “the look” came upon her face. She rarely blinked, and her voice changed into a melodic howl. She thrust out her finger and stabbed at the air in front of her as she lectured in a meter and tone akin to a song.
“If you’re not looking into my eyes, then you’re not listening. If you’re ever going to be saved from becoming Teddy, then you must pay the utmost attention to my teachings. You’re utterly rebellious and have been since birth. Only my parenting techniques and your cooperation can change that! We can do this the easy way or the hard way; it’s up to you. Look into my eyes!”
I do not know when my indoctrination into Mother’s system began, but this particular lecture session from my fourth year stands out because I could not look into those eyes until the day she teamed up with Debbie. The two women took turns lecturing and scolding all afternoon until something broke inside. From that moment onward, I looked unceasingly into Mother’s maniacal eyes as she injected her venomous ideology-the Theory of the Eldest (TOE)-into my tender heart via detailed lectures of excruciating length throughout my childhood.
“Did you know that nearly every president was the eldest or firstborn male in their family?” Mother asked. “The same can be said of the majority of powerful politicians and CEOs. That’s because the eldest is the automatic favorite in every family. They get all the privileges. They get all the breaks. Their families invest all their resources in the precious firstborn while callously leaving the younger children to fend for themselves. All the eldests of the world form a good ol’ boys club to help other firstborns get ahead while holding their younger siblings down. Why do you think the eldest male is always first in line to become king or chief in countless cultures throughout history? But I’m going to make everything as fair and even as possible between the siblings in my house! Wipe that smirk off your face before I wipe it off for you!
“Why is the eldest the automatic favorite in every family? Because there is no greater joy than having a child, and like most experiences in life, the first is always the most memorable and cherished. Being the firstborn endears the eldest to its parents in ways that can never be equaled by the arrival of other children. Then the eldest unfairly gets to experience all the firsts in life like being the first to walk, talk, go to school, drive a car, get a job, graduate, get married, and have children of their own. As parents watch their eldest reach these milestones, they take great pride in them and heap adulation upon their accomplishments, but when the younger siblings reach these very same benchmarks, they’re no longer special because the eldest has already been there and done that.
“Along the way, the firstborn revels in the glory and showboats in front of the adoring eyes of their admiring dupes who are none the wiser to what kind of person the eldest really is. I bet you feel sorry for yourself because I don’t grovel at your feet and worship you. Come hell or high water, I will not allow the pattern of eldest favoritism to be repeated in my family!”
The lectures were harrowing. I was expected to sit or stand “as still as a statue” for hours on end as Mother expounded on her TOE day after day, focusing upon whatever character flaws my latest crimes revealed and how her parenting techniques were going to fix them. Inevitably, fatigue set in, body parts fell asleep, nature called, or my mouth and eyes dried out. Movement brought relief, but if I squirmed too much, Mother slapped me or pulled my hair for “fidgeting.” I was so terrified to stir that even my blinks were timed with hers in the hopes they would not be noticed.
Mother saw her TOE everywhere and took advantage of every opportunity to point it out. For example, you have no doubt witnessed the struggle for survival that takes place in a bird’s nest on nature programs. The first chick to hatch, endowed by nature with a ruthless personality and the unfair advantages of size and strength, crowds the younger chicks out and takes all the food from parents who blindly hand it over to their favored eldest. If the younger chicks do not succumb to starvation first, there is the heart-wrenching scene where the eldest chick pushes them out of the nest to their deaths! When such dramas played out on our TV Mother would look over at me with the I-told-you-so look on her face.
“Do you know who the first murderer in human history was?” asked Mother with the big family Bible open in her lap. “It was Cain, the very first eldest child! ‘And the Lord accepted Abel and his offering, but he did not accept Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry….’ Cain killed his righteous younger brother because he was jealous of him just like you are of Davey! It’s right there if you don’t believe me. And yet people went right on favoring the eldest and giving them a double portion of the inheritance!
“‘Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.’ Even Isaac, the promised child of Abraham, had the wool pulled over his eyes by his eldest. But God wasn’t about to let firstborn favoritism get in the way of his plans! The Lord knew the eldest was evil and the youngest was good. That’s why he said, ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated,’ and told Rebekah that, ‘the elder will serve the younger,’ as the twins wrestled in her womb! She was such a wise mother. You know it was Rebekah who came up with the plan to trick Isaac into giving the blessing of Abraham to Jacob. And afterward Esau tried to manipulate his father into giving it back, but it was too late! He sold his birthright to Jacob for a measly bowl of stew and then wanted to kill his brother out of revenge for taking the blessing he sold fair and square. Esau was a glutton and a sore loser, just like you and Teddy are!
“‘And Reuben went and lay with Billah his father’s concubine.’ Reuben was Jacob’s eldest and look what the pervert did! ‘And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.’ This ain’t no fun and games, Bucko. You better shape up before the Lord decides he’s had enough of your rebellion and snuffs out your life like he did to Er! Do you know where you’d go then? To hell where you’ll be begging for just one cool drip of water for all eternity!
“The Bible is crystal clear about the nature of the firstborn. Even Abraham’s eldest, Ishmael, had to be sent away for mocking Isaac! You should thank God that he gave you a wise mother like Rebekah who knows the truth about the firstborn because even godly men like Samuel were blinded by eldest favoritism. When God told him to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to replace the evil king Saul, who was an eldest, Samuel assumed the Lord would choose the firstborn Eliab! Samuel had to go through all Jesse’s sons in descending birth order before finally pouring the oil on God’s chosen one: David, the youngest!
“And most important of all, we can’t forget what Jesus Christ himself said, ‘The first will be last and the last will be first.’ There’s simply no arguing with that. Now follow me!” Mother said before leading me upstairs to the narrow, shelved closet by the bathroom with just enough space to crawl into. “Get in there and stop your blubbering! Where else can I put you? Your room has toys that you could use to avoid the consequences of your actions. This isn’t supposed to be fun time. It’s an opportunity for you to think about what you’ve done and decide to stop going against the grain. And why should Davey be inconvenienced by your rebellion? I’m not going to restrict him from going into the room you share because you’re being punished. Besides, you’ll probably take it out on him for tattling. You should be thankful that I even take the time to explain myself. It’s the most fair and merciful thing I can do under the circumstances. It shows my willingness to work with you. Do you know how many other children’s parents don’t care enough to do that much? Now get in there!”
If hundreds of hours were spent in lectures, then thousands more passed contemplating them in solitary confinement. Mommy thinks I’m Teddy, but I’m not! Nothing she said about me seemed to be true, like my being jealous of Norma and Davey for being born and stealing my attention. I felt nothing of the sort and could not remember a day in my life before them. Mommy is wrong!
“I know you better than you know yourself,” Mother would say. “I’ve been watching you for your entire life, and nothing you say can change that fact. I’m sure you really do believe things aren’t the way I know them to be, but you’re utterly mistaken. You’re the first and greatest victim of your own deception. You’re too cowardly to face the truth about yourself, so your mind twists everything around to make you out to be the innocent victim and me the bad guy. Someday you’ll see who you really are and thank me for being hard on you.”
Was my mind playing tricks on me? I thought hard about it in solitary and could not find any reason to believe that. Another reason for my troubles had to be found. A vivid recurring dream that began my fourth year offered a potential explanation. In that dream, I saw a spaceship hovering in the living room with Mother and Davey standing beneath it in a trance. Then some evil looking aliens came out of the ship, opened a door on their backs, and programmed them to be mean to me. There was also an episode of The Twilight Zone that told the story of a man who woke up one day to find that no one knew who he was anymore. The scene where the man was trying to convince his mom that he really was her son riveted me. She would not believe him and the poor man was thrown in the loony bin. Was there an evil alien conspiracy against me? Was I living in The Twilight Zone?
Often, I just shot holes in Mother’s TOE to pass the time in solitary. Was the eldest really “the automatic favorite in every family” as Mother insisted? Grandma Pearl was not the favorite in her home even though she was the firstborn. Her youngest sibling Chester was! “Chester was the eldest son and families always prefer sons to daughters like they do in the Bible and China. A little soap in your mouth will teach you to be a wisenheimer with me again.” But Dad was the firstborn son after his older sister Judy. Mother never talked of either as an evil eldest. The favorite in their family was the youngest son, Timmy…until a bonus sister came along a decade later and stole the crown. And there was no doubt who the favored child in our home was—Mother’s “special little guy”—Davey! It seemed obvious that if any child was the automatic favorite it was the youngest, not the eldest!
I got so bored in solitary that I even tried to figure out how that stupid TOE worked. What made the eldest evil? The question often turned my thoughts to Mother’s favorite Bible story: Jacob and Esau. The brothers were twins. What if Jacob came out first? Would he have been evil and Esau good? Mother would say, “The privileges bestowed upon Esau for being firstborn facilitated the development of his malignant character.” So would the same privileges have made Jacob evil, too? But I never received the privileges other firstborns did! Where did Mother think my character flaws came from? “They come along with being the firstborn. Everyone’s personality is set in stone by birth order.” But how? Does an evil force wait to jump into the first child when it comes out? Would it have invaded Jacob had he made it out before Esau? Then would God have chosen Esau instead of Jacob? How is that fair? Who decides when they are born?
God decides when we are born. No matter where my thoughts began in solitary, they usually arrived at the Lord’s door. God set me up. Our family had the same sibling pattern as Mother’s. She was the only girl between two boys just like Norma was between Davey and me. My futile attempts to show Mother I was not Teddy made me conclude that no matter who was born to her first, including King Davey, she would mistake them for her brother. God knew what my fate would be!
“God, why did you make me the firstborn and put me in the wrong family?” I often prayed in tears from my cell. “Why didn’t you give Mommy a boy who really was evil like Esau or Teddy for her to correct their character flaws instead? Why did you do this to me? You made a mistake!”
“You know I didn’t have to have you.” Mother often reminded. “Do you know how many others would’ve taken the easy way out and not had a kid so young? But I knew the Bible is against abortion and had you anyway. You should be thankful you’re even here in the first place because I could’ve aborted you!”
I wish you did.
“I didn’t get to enjoy my teenage years like everyone else. No, I had to be a mother instead! When I got pregnant with you, I lost all my friends because I couldn’t go out and party with them anymore. What few friends remained stopped calling soon after you were born because it ain’t no fun being around a baby with a blood-curdling scream like yours! No one was there to help me with your impossible temperament. I had to go it alone. And what’s the thanks I get? These lousy stretch marks and varicose veins….”
God, why did you give me to a mom who didn’t even want me? I wish I was never born!
“And you don’t even know how good you have it. At least you have a mom and a dad! My father went crazy. He thought he was Jesus Christ himself and left us in the lurch!” The things Mother said about my mysterious grandfather helped to solve the riddle of my existence. If Gramps was crazy for thinking he was Jesus, then Mother was crazy for thinking I was Teddy.
“God, please show Mommy that I’m not Teddy. Please make her not crazy anymore so she’ll love me.” Time passed and nothing changed. “If you can’t help me, then can you at least talk to me like you did to people in the Bible?” No matter how many times I asked, God always gave the same reply: silence. Why? Was it because the Lord rejected me as a firstborn like Esau? That is not fair! But God did kill all the firstborns in Egypt because Pharaoh would not listen to Moses. God was not very fair.
That is about how I reckoned things in kindergarten. We moved that year, and my new cell was a roomier closet in mine and Davey’s room that was held fast with a knife through the doorframe. Towels were stuffed under the door to block the light. In my eleventh year, we moved into a big house where I got my own room. Mother hung blankets on the windows, removed the light bulbs, and tied the door shut from the outside with an electrical cord. In the event of a fire, Norma and Davey were instructed not to risk their lives to free me because I could jump to safety out my second story window.
As the years passed in solitary confinement, I left off wrestling with the Lord and Mother’s TOE for the fantasy world in my head. It was more fun to imagine myself in my favorites movies like The NeverEnding Story than to think about God and Mother’s TOE. The vast majority of my adventures in solitary were of the romantic variety. I won the hand of many a fair maiden by many a chivalrous deed! The end of every quest was the same. My princess and I lived happily ever after being really nice to our kids.
On a Thanksgiving in my early twenties, Dad and I were discussing faith and reason when he said, “Even James, Jesus’ own brother, did not believe until he saw the resurrection.”
Mom interjected in the singsong of her knowing voice, “Well, wasn’t James the eldest brother?”
“No, Mom,” I said, “Jesus was the eldest.”
“I have to love you, but that does not mean I have to like you,” Mother often said. “It’s my responsibility before God to love you as the Proverbs instruct: ‘Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but the one who loves him is diligent to discipline him.’ It’s called tough love, and that’s all you’ll get from me until you decide to shape up.”
When I got home from school one day in second grade, Mother greeted me with “There’s a present waiting for you on your bed.” Mommy got me a present, and it’s not even my birthday! What does this mean? Is it over? Does she know who I really am now? Did God answer my prayers? Such thoughts raced through my mind as I flew to my room. On my bed was a pink bucket with some yellow plastic gloves, rags, scouring pads, bathroom cleaner, and a toilet brush inside with a bow on top.
“Did you really think you could get away with pissing all over the toilet seat without my getting wise to your passive aggressive attempt to get back at me for being so hard on you? Well your foolish scheme to get my goat gave me an idea for a punishment that’ll teach you some responsibility to boot. From now on, you will clean the toilet, sink, and tub twice a week! Bet you didn’t see that coming did you?”
I did not see that coming, but I saw something else. I was not the only boy using the bathroom. Davey had a habit of holding it for as long as he could, playing with a toy in one hand, squeezing his plumbing shut with the other, while doing the pee-pee dance for extended periods of time. Then he took off like a shot, pulling his pants down on the way, and letting it fly without lifting the toilet seat or closing the bathroom door.
After receiving my new chore, I followed Davey’s flight to the bathroom and stood outside the door begging him to be careful because I got in trouble for his messes and had to clean them up. Davey turned from the toilet and, lo, directed his stream onto me, squealing with delight. I froze as he painted me up and down with urine before crying out in disgust.
Mother was on the scene in a flash, snatched my ear, and swatted me while howling through clenched teeth, “You couldn’t let up your antagonism for even a moment to let your brother go to the bathroom? It was all Davey could do to get some peace! Serves you right to get pissed on. You sure can dish it out, but you can’t take it. You love hassling others, but when it comes time to get a dose of your own medicine, all you can do is cry like a baby!” For the duration of Mother’s tirade, Davey stood behind her gleaming triumphantly at me.
That summer, Mother sniffed out another mystery to solve in the bathroom and lined us up for questioning: “Who’s been wiping their butt and throwing sh-tty toilet paper in the trash, instead of flushing it like you’re supposed to?” She was brandishing a piece of streaked TP in her hand while scrutinizing our faces. I prayed the offender would confess. No one did. “I’m on the case!” Mother said with her eyes trained squarely on me. “I will catch the culprit if it’s the last thing I do.”
Game on. I had to stay one step ahead of Mother and the TP Bandit, or the caper would be pinned on me. The trash was carefully sifted through and the evidence flushed whenever I went to the bathroom. Sure enough, Mother stole in there and looked through the trash right after I went but not after anyone else. She was gunning for me and for me alone.
As the sole suspect of Mother’s investigation, I conducted an independent inquiry and quickly solved the mystery. It was Davey. I begged him to confess and he refused. Then I tried to solve the case for Mother by going in the bathroom right after him and bringing her his soiled TP. “That’s a bunch of bunk and you know it. Davey would’ve confessed if he did it. He’s not a liar like you! Besides, how do I know you didn’t just save some sh-tty toilet paper of your own and plant it to throw me off your trail? Your biggest thrill isn’t simply to get away with it. Like Teddy, your biggest thrill is to set someone else up for the fall, and watch them pay for your crimes!”
I don’t recall how long the game of cat and mouse lasted but I forgot to check the garbage one afternoon in my haste to run outside and play. Mother called me back inside as soon as I got out the door. She was quaking with rage, eyes bulging out of her head, and thrusting the single square of TP that hung me out in front of her. The blood drained from my face. Game over.
“So you thought you could lull me to sleep, did you? I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was you all along. When are you going to stop playing these games with me? Not until the consequences of your actions become too uncomfortable to bear, that’s when! And you had the gall to try and frame Davey for it? You’re so wildly jealous of our special relationship that you’d stop at nothing to get between us!
“I almost died giving birth to Davey. He’s the last child I’ll ever have. He was born with the same happy-go-lucky, good-natured, and sensitive disposition that Uncle Vinny and all youngest children have. The lastborn child has an advantage over the others because they come into the world with siblings and must learn to share from the get go, unlike the eldest who begins life as the star of the show and doesn’t have to share with anyone. And remember, God chose Jacob over Esau. ‘The elder will serve the younger.’ Jacob blessed Joseph’s youngest son over the eldest, in spite of their father’s objections. God chose the youngest son, King David, over all his elder brothers. So it’s just natural and right for me to be freer with my affection towards Davey and give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your lying mouth.”
It was no use implicating Davey. His word was gospel. Telling Mother I didn’t even go #2 was a waste of breath because I was born with a forked tongue; of course I’d say that. I remember pointing out that the crap on the TP was dry and crusty, how could that be if I just went to the bathroom? But that evidence was dismissed in a manner I no longer recall. Then my futile defense strategy shifted to Devil’s advocate. Why would I throw my TP in the trash when I knew full well Mother was looking for the culprit?
“That’s easy. You have to empty the bathroom trash as part of your chore, so you’ve been throwing your sh-tty toilet paper in there to get back at me for it and to get attention. You’ve been an utterly and willfully rebellious attention-seeker since birth. You were such a difficult baby who screamed bloody murder for hours on end because you loved the attention it got from me. You refused to learn how to walk and talk or be potty-trained because you knew everyone wanted you to and you reveled in the attention their encouragement gave you. Your brother and sister learned to walk and talk and use the toilet at a much earlier age than you! You’ve always been lazy, doing the bare minimum on your chores, constantly looking for shortcuts to circumvent my rules, and taking the easy road to get my attention by acting out instead of doing the hard work it takes to earn positive rewards. You’ve always been Mr. Opposite, Mr. Contrary, going against the grain at every turn.”
That one always fried me: Mother’s oft-repeated theory that I was always doing things I never did to get attention I did not want. According to her, I even did it in my sleep! “When it’s hot out, you sleep with as many warm blankets as you can, but when it’s cold, you hardly sleep with any at all!” In my sixth year, I awoke to the most violent thunderstorm ever witnessed. Davey bolted to sleep with Mother like he always did when it was storming, leaving me to ride it out alone. Raucous thunder shook the house with every clap as lighting lit up our room through sheets tacked on the windows as makeshift blinds. I dove under the covers and pressed the pillow over my ears.
Suddenly my blankets were ripped off, sending bolts of terror through my body. When the pillow was yanked away, I saw Mother’s furious face lit up by the lightning. She silently went about the room removing Davey’s pillow and blankets along with mine, emptying the dressers of all clothing, and taking down the sheets on the windows before slamming the door behind her. Deducing why she did this was easy enough. It was summer and I was rebelliously buried in blankets! I lay there all night alternating my hands from ears to eyes, shivering with fear and cold, praying for the storm to end.
I spent as much time as possible outdoors and away from Mother to escape her attention. If grounded to the house, which was often, I snuck around pretending to be a ninja or hid somewhere listening with dread to Mother’s thunderous footsteps as they rattled the dishes in the cupboard with each tread. Everything she did was accompanied by as much percussion as a human being could produce, injecting adrenaline into my veins with every clash. The roar of commotion allowed me to pinpoint her location anywhere in the house and avoid it. But true or not, attention seeking was the TOE’s star witness. Its testimony falsely convicted me in countless trials like The Toilet Paper Caper. No matter how many times it happened, I could not accept it. All that was left was to beg with tears for mercy.
“Knock off that sniveling, you coward! You should’ve taken the consequences of your actions into consideration before you decided to willfully disobey me. In your arrogance, you thought you’d get away with it, but when it comes time to face the music and pay the piper, you start singing a different tune and pull at my heartstrings. But I won’t be fooled like Grams was by Teddy! Your tears are not those of genuine remorse for what you’ve done; you only feel sorry for yourself. You just can’t hack it that I’m smarter than you and won’t allow myself to feel sorry for Poor Johnny and take it easy on you. The Bible commands me to, ‘Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.’ That’s tough love, and I have a punishment in mind that ought to take you down a notch or two.”
Mother left the room and returned with a roll of tape and a large wad of toilet paper. As she went about taping poopy TP to my forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin, I realized with horror that she was collecting evidence all along, only she never found it right after I went to the bathroom until now. When Mother ran out of room on my face, she taped the rest to my head and hair.
“I’m at my wits end with you. I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired! How long have I been trying to teach you the lessons that’ll enable you to make it in the big bad world when it’s time to leave the nest? But nothing seems to work! You’re the one who forces me to take extreme measures to correct the character flaws that come along with being the firstborn! The Bible says that, ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it out of him.’ You will thank me for this when you are older, now follow me!”
Mother went out the door with a chair in hand and seated me on the sidewalk in front of our home with instructions to inform any curious passersby why there was poopy toilet paper cascading down my head and face. She had a knack for humiliation, “Pride is the sin God hates most!” Previously Mother made a fool of me in public with a cat box. For some reason, Davey, our cousin Alex, and I thought it was a good idea to pee in it. The cat did, why couldn’t we? When it was discovered, I was charged as “the instigator” of the affair who convinced the others to go along with me, hoping to get caught so I could watch them hang. It was a scorching summer afternoon when Mother put me outside in that filthy cat box. The ammonia burned my eyes. When my neighborhood friends gathered around, I tried to play it cool like I was not sitting in a reeking cat box. I was not cool enough.
Rage smoldered within as I waited anxiously for my curious friends to be drawn over by the TP fluttering off my head in the wind. Mother always forced me to “confess and apologize” for things I never did. Often the sentence handed down was of indefinite duration and I would be grounded, put in solitary, denied food, etc., until I confessed and apologized. The struggle over giving a false confession or enduring punishment was agonizing because a confession only proved to Mother that she was right and I a liar all along! At least with the cat box I might have done something wrong. But this time I was absolutely innocent and resigned in my heart that no confession would be given…no matter what!
As Mike and Todd made their way towards me, I looked nervously back at the house and saw the all-seeing eyes and all-hearing ears hovering about the window. When my friends strolled up one of them asked, “What’s that all over your face? Are you wearing a costume or something?” Upon closer inspection, they figured it out. Then a look of pity crossed their faces, and Todd asked in a hushed voice, “Your Mom?” I nodded my head and they sulked away.
“Don’t think I’m unaware of the smear campaign you wage behind my back to assassinate my character and get me to let up on you. I can almost hear your admiring dupes now at the pity parties thrown in your honor: ‘Oh, boo hoo hoo,’” Mother cried, rubbing mock tears from her eyes. “‘Poor Johnny! Why is his mommy so mean to him? Oh, why is she so hard on him? Boo hoo hoo!’
“Well, I don’t care what they think! All I have to care about is what God thinks. I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to parent you the way the Bible says for your own good no matter the cost to me. God will be my judge, not them. We’ll see who’ll have the last laugh when my tough love accomplishes what was intended. Until then, you’ll go right on manipulating others into feeling sorry for you with your tales of woe. That will not lessen my resolve one iota! You may be able to pull the wool over their eyes, but I know who you really are. You are a liar and a manipulator. You are the eldest!”
My name is John! Do you hear me? My name is JOHN, not THE ELDEST, you crazy witch!
On a beautiful summer’s day, I saw Norma and her best friend Jenna riding bikes in the church parking lot across the street. I was madly in love with Jenna: a tall girl with dark, flowing locks who later gained immortality in my book for being the first girl to kiss me on the lips. The sound of the girls’ laughter floated into my ears as their hair flew in the wind behind them like the streamers on their bicycles.
“Do you know what you’d have without me? Nothing, that’s what!” Mother shrieked, jerking me in and out of the house buck naked.
Please God, don’t let the girls see me!
“Here I put food in your gut, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and you’re not the least bit grateful, you unthankful little snot!” Thankfully, Mother pulled me into the house before the girls saw me nude and continued screaming, “We were too poor to have all the nice things you do. We lost our house! You live such a charmed life, yet nothing is good enough because you’re so hard to please. Well you should know that we are right on the brink, just a step away from being kicked to the curb and living in the poorhouse. Maybe then you’d be thankful and finally understand what you’d have without me!”
I know what I’d have without you. I’d be outside riding my bike like a normal kid!
Mother’s TOE constantly misinterpreted my melancholy temperament and unhappiness from her abuse as me being unthankful and hard to please. As a consequence, anything and everything I loved was liable to be taken away at any moment. The day after Christmas one year, Mother instructed me to place all of my toys on her bed. After transporting my treasures, she said, “I’m taking all your toys to the Salvation Army so they can be given to poor children who’ll actually be thankful for them, unlike you. Stop your whimpering! ‘The first will be last and the last will be first!’ Well, I suppose you may pick two toys to keep…but not any of the new ones!”
Food was my greatest joy. Dad said I got so excited when we went to McDonald’s—a rare treat in those days—that I literally shook as I ate my fries. The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a chef and hours were spent poring over Mother’s mouthwatering cookbooks. “You’re a glutton, just like Esau and Teddy! When you were a baby, I couldn’t shovel food into your greedy little mouth fast enough to stop your screams for more!”
Mother was an amazing cook! Her spaghetti was my absolute favorite. She simmered the it for hours, filling the house with its intoxicating aroma. I hovered about the kitchen all day watching Mother make her delicious sauce, asking to taste it, and raving over the results. Then, a pattern was noticed in the punishments handed down when spaghetti was on the menu: no supper for me! It got to the point where I loathed the sight of that pot filled with red, warm happiness because I knew it was only a matter of time before Mother found a reason to teach me a lesson with it. She did that with all my favorite meals and treats, excluding me from going to McDonald’s or getting something from the ice cream man when he came jingling down the street, not to mention the common punishment of being denied food and sent to bed hungry or given lower quality meals than everyone else. “Here’s some bread and water to tide you over. Think of it as a little preview of the meals they’ll serve you in prison when you grow up to be a criminal like Teddy.”
Let us pause here, so you can dab your tears over my lost toys and missing out on spaghetti night. This seems rather petty now, especially considering what others have been through, but when you’re a kid, everything is larger than life. Little things like toys have monumental significance. Your problems are the most pressing matters on the globe, and the adults in your world are like gods. I lived in constant dread of Mother and her threats.
“That’s it! Pack your bags and go live somewhere else. If you don’t want to work with me and change, then you can find another family that’ll put up with you!” The first time I remember being kicked out was in kindergarten. As I packed my little Big Bird backpack, my heart filled with fear and relief. I had no idea where to find a new family but wanted nothing more than to be away from Mother. No matter how many times she kicked me out, Mother never let me get far before stopping the charade. That did not prevent me from thinking it was for real every time she did it.
“Do you know what you’re getting for your eighteenth birthday? The boot! In the meantime, it’s my job to prepare you to leave the nest just as soon as I’m no longer legally responsible for your welfare. Mark my words; you’ll get nothing from us! No one helped me when you came along. You’re not going to leech and sponge off us by living in our basement like Teddy does with Grandma Pearl.”
On my tenth birthday Mother marked the occasion with her customary countdown, “Yep, only eight more years, and you’re out the door! Then the grueling task God gave me as your mother will finally be over! You may think it’s a long way off, but time flies. Before you know it, you’ll be on your own in the big bad world. You won’t be living on Easy Street for the rest of your life like you do under my roof.”
You call this Easy Street? I can’t wait to get out of here!
To prepare me for life in the real world, Mother drafted so many rules and assigned so many chores that I could not keep track of them all or ever do them right. For example, she discerned that my shoes were thrown by the door in a “slovenly” fashion to get her goat, so laws were passed regulating how my shoes were to be put away. If I forgot or if someone disturbed them I know not, but Mother found my “intentionally misplaced” shoes and took them away, forcing me to wear clunky winter moon-boots to school when everyone else was in shorts and sneakers. She said it would teach me to follow the rules at my future job.
Another rule was made that I could not look at Mother at the dinner table. Her eyes bored a hole through the side of my skull for who knows how many meals waiting to catch a look. I resisted the instinct to look back until a nervous sideways glace was detected by her surveillance. For a period of time afterward, Mother put post-it notes on the side of my eyes like horse blinders to prevent me from looking at her through my peripheral vision. That would teach me not to antagonize my future boss and coworkers with my looks when I ate with them, and save me from getting fired.
At one time or another in elementary school, I had to clean the toilet, sink, and tub in the bathroom and empty its garbage; clean mine and Davey’s room and make our beds; do all the dishes by hand; sweep and mop the kitchen and take out its trash; wash and fold the laundry; vacuum all the carpeted areas; feed and pick up after the dog; feed the cat and clean its box; shovel snow and mow the lawn. I was so small when I began doing the dishes and laundry that a chair had to be put by the sink and washing machine for me to use them. Mother said my chores would make me a good worker someday and not lazy like Teddy.
With me busy doing most of the housework, Mother spent her time in bed with the shades pulled, monitoring the house with supernatural auditory abilities that earned her the nickname “Eagle Ears.” Her sonic radar was tuned to detect the slightest sound of Davey’s distress. To my astonishment, she was often roused from her haunt two stories above by the little puffs Davey made as the machinery that powered his violent temper gained steam. No matter what happened, Mother raced to our location and swooped on me. Once, Davey pulled over a table with a heavy brass bowl on it that slid off and hit his upper lip. At the sight of his blood, Mother mauled me like a she bear. When Davey calmed enough to explain, Mother said, “You don’t have to cover for your elder brother, sweetheart. Don’t be afraid of his threats of retaliation for tattling. Now tell me, what really happened?”
Being anywhere near Davey was dangerous. He was the reason for my troubles with Mother nine times out of ten. It was not his fault really; he was groomed from birth to rule over me. Davey wielded his power early and often, learning the art of blackmail before he could speak. If I was playing with one of my toys that he wanted, and he wanted whatever toy was in my hand, then he filled his lungs with air, threatening to let out a scream if I did not hand it over. He knew Mother would give it to him permanently as a lesson in sharing. That forced me to learn reverse psychology, pretending to play with one toy until he took it away and then playing aloofly with the toy I really wanted.
Davey was encouraged by Mother to “fight back” against my imaginary oppression and she often said, “One day Davey’s going to be bigger than you. Then he will hand you an a— whooping you won’t forget for all the abuse you heap upon him now, just like Vinny did to Teddy when they were adults.” I did not have to wait for that. My little brother already bit, scratched, and beat me with impunity. His frequent attacks were preceded by screams meant to conjure his savior to protect him from any reprisal. I rarely fought back for fear of Mother, although I am sure there were times I whacked him first. We were little boys after all.
Staying away from Davey was impossible. If playing with Norma, friends, or by myself for my own safety, he followed me around pestering me to play with him until I caved or he flipped out. “So you think you can get away with tormenting your little brother by ganging up on him with others? You think you can get back at Davey for tattling by excluding him? Boy, I tell you, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. You don’t mind having your little brother around to lord it over him, hot-dogging it and rubbing his face in it like Teddy did to me and Vinny!
“I see right through you. Because I won’t let you get away with antagonizing your brother, you try to hurt Davey by ignoring him instead. You’re only in it for you and have a complete disregard for the feelings of others. But I’m going to make you learn to play nice with Davey. How else will you learn to get along with others in the workplace? If your grandmother would’ve given Teddy the tough love I’m giving you, he might be able to hold down a job today. Now go play nice with Davey, and he better not bring me back a bad report!”
Keeping Davey happy was imperative. That was a difficult task given his aggressive personality and short fuse. I was constantly in negotiations with him not to tell on me, but it did not take long to learn that he could be used against Mother to my advantage. First, I sowed the seeds of desire in his heart by saying things like, “Boy, Davey, wouldn’t it be fun for us to go outside and play together? If only I wasn’t grounded!” Once the idea was planted in his mind, my little brother stopped at nothing to make it a reality. I cannot tell you how many times Mother paroled me early so Davey could have his favorite plaything! And he had a voracious sweet tooth that was often exploited to get treats for me and Norma. Now the only thing on this earth that could possibly stand in the way of Davey obtaining a treat was Mother’s money concerns. When Davey’s consuming passion could not be satiated for lack of funds, his displeasure was demonstrated with extreme performances. He often collapsed in the aisle at the grocery store yelling at Mother his signature phrase: “I hate God! I hate Jesus! I hate the angles! And I hate you!”
Never did I say anything close to that, and yet, bar soap was regularly crammed down my throat. What do you think happened to Davey for saying that? His punishments were so light and brief they do not merit mentioning. Never was he locked in solitary, denied meals, publically humiliated, lectured for hours, or given chores to do as was my routine. “Everyone thinks you had it the worst,” said Davey after getting married and buying a house, with Mother still doing his laundry, “but my childhood was much worse than yours.”
Mother shamelessly doted on Davey. He sat on her lap like a prince while she chirped and cooed, showering him with affection and praise. They laughed, played, and snuggled together for hours. The rare times Mother was approached for physical affection, she tensed up, inverted her brow, and asked, “What do you really want? I know you’re buttering me up for something!” Any affection given me seemed forced and mechanical, as if only to be fair. “You should thank your lucky stars that everything is so even Steven around here. You may think I’m unfair now, but one day you will see that I was in the right and you were in the wrong. I make everything as fair and even as possible among the siblings, unlike my childhood where your grandmother spoiled Teddy and abused poor little Vinny!”
But you spoil Davey and abuse me!
Mother’s omnipresent tough love coiled so tightly around me that it strangled the life from my soul. The TOE’s every injustice, hypocrisy, and absurdity flogged my exasperated mind as I stewed over them in solitary, banging my head against the wall to relieve the tension – until Mother put a stop to that “rebellious display of defiance.” In no way was I allowed to express the storm of emotion raging within over all my needless suffering for a crazy reason that was not even true. All I could do was rock back and forth with my knees pulled tightly to my chest to stifle the gnawing emptiness in the pit of my gut while grinding my teeth, clenching my fists, and flexing every muscle until I passed out.
The TOE prescribed a monotonous life of continual discipline and surveillance that Mother ritualistically administered with indomitable conviction to exorcise the demon of the eldest from her firstborn son. “I will not stop! I’m in it for the long haul! I will outlast you and make your life a living hell until you get with the program. But you just keep on testing the limits, pushing the boundaries, forcing me to teach you the hard way. I will continue to up the ante and increase your consequences as long as you remain obstinate. I will break you if it’s the last thing I do!”
There’s no way out. There’s nothing you can do. No one can help you. God will not help you. It will never change. You would be better off dead. I don’t remember my age exactly when, after a fresh miscarriage of justice, I took the cloth belt to my little robe, tied one end to baseboard of my bed, twisted the rest around my neck, sat down on the floor, and strangled myself. As the world grew black, the door to my room flew open.
“What are you doing on the floor? Your instructions were to sit on your bed! And do you really think you can get my attention and make me feel sorry for you by pretending to hang yourself? What kind of fool do you take me for?”
These tales of woe are not told to make you feel sorry for me or to make Mom out to be the bad guy. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Mother never read me that verse from Romans in lecture, and if she had, I would not have believed it.
“I don’t understand,” Grandma Peal said when asked about Mom’s version of her childhood. “I loved all my kids the same.” I believe that, just as I believe Grams unintentionally favored Teddy in practice. It happens all the time. Paul said to the Romans, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doeth the same things.” Mother judged Grams for spoiling one son and abusing the other. In her zeal to right the wrongs of her childhood, Mom did the same thing.
Dad was my hero. He knew the real me, and Mother was not as mean when he was home. I often rose early in the morning to spend a moment alone with Dad before he went to work as a cabinetmaker. When it was time for my father to leave, I hugged him tight and begged him to stay. That was not an option with a wife and three kids to support. I watched him pull away with a heart full of dread and eyes spilling tears. Sometimes, I sat in the laundry room burying my nose in one of Dad’s dirty work shirts waiting for his return. The scent of sawdust and wood glue made him feel near.
“Are you happy, John?” Dad frequently asked with a tint of sadness in his voice. His gentle brown eyes, long brown hair, and beard made him look like the pictures of Jesus at church. Sometimes I lied to spare his feelings. “Mom’s getting better and then things will change,” he would say. “Just hang in there a little longer, Tiger, and you’ll see it get better real soon.” Until then, we lived like soldiers in the trenches. Dad gave me intelligence reports on Mother’s secret investigations to help me avoid her traps. If captured, he petitioned for my release; if unsuccessful, he snuck me food when Mother and Davey were not looking.
When asked why he had so many kids so young Dad said, “The moment you were born, I was hooked. I knew right then and there that all I wanted in this life was a family.” Unfortunately the aid given his eldest son put that family at risk. Mother constantly dangled the sword of divorce over Dad’s head and often kicked him out of the house with me.
“If you think you can do a better job raising your eldest, then you can have him!” Mother screamed when giving us the boot on Father’s Day my eighth year. Getting Dad in trouble always made me feel terrible, but on this special day my remorse was compounded by not having a present for him. We went to Aunt Judy’s place and I wandered around lamenting in the rain until a gleaming white object in the grass caught my eye. It was a big porcelain whale! I was so proud of that gift. Dad put it on his workbench in the garage, and the sight of it always made me feel better.
“Do you know what your eldest did today?” was Mother’s standard greeting when Dad got home from work. It seemed like I was always the cause of my parent’s frequent arguments and Dad was always the loser. He was often banished to the couch for the night, and who knows what other sanctions were levied against him on my account.
“You’re too easy on your eldest!” Mother would scold. “He needs consistent and severe discipline. Your kind treatment is undermining the whole program! That’s it; I’m packing my bags! I’m tired of being the disciplinarian around here. I’m tired of being looked upon as the bad guy while everyone loves good ol’ easygoing Dad. No one appreciates me!” As Mother stormed about gathering her things with Davey clinging to her ankles, I prayed to God that this time was for real. But her bag packing ritual was ever the farce mine was.
“I knew who each of you was by age two,” Dad said of his children, “and your basic personalities have not changed.” He knew Mother was wrong about both her sons all along. In his way, Dad tried to persuade Davey not to get me in trouble with Mother so often. There was not much he could do. Davey lipped off at him and ran away. If Dad tried to grab him, my little brother flung himself to the floor crying out things like, “You touched my nerve!” Then Dad had to answer to Mother. Sometimes my father got so frustrated that he thumped me around asking, “Why can’t you just get along with your mother and Davey?” The answer was written on my favorite little t-shirt: “I don’t look for trouble, it finds me!”
Mother did her worst when Dad was at work. He never witnessed her extreme punishments, and she never lectured me when he was around. But the only time I truly felt free and safe was away from her. Starting school was a godsend.
In kindergarten I noticed all the “cool” kids at my school, Harding Elementary, wore shirts with neat little alligators on them and shoes with zippered pockets on the sides. What would fit in those tiny pockets but a dime that would be easier to retrieve out your pants? For the first time, I realized what Mother meant about us being poor. The maroon corduroy pants I had to wear all the time made a ghastly swishing sound that got me teased. I walked around without bending my knees so my slacks would not make their awful racket until it struck me that the kid who crunched his drawers a lot walked just like that when he messed his pants.
There was a girl in my class who got teased for being poor more than me. She had to wear the same tattered pink sweater all winter. I valiantly defended my fellow fashion outcast whose name is now lost. She became my first girlfriend. One day, my lady asked to meet on the playground after school. I was confused. Our romance was strictly a classroom affair; what could she want? At the playground, the little princess took my hands and kissed me on the cheek. I turned and ran all the way home.
The next year I went to new school: Polk Elementary. My best friend in the whole wide world went to Polk. His name was Robby. We were the same age, and our parents grew up together. Apparently I had trouble making friends at Harding, so my parents put me in Polk to be with Robby. We did not end up in the same first grade class. The principal of the school spanked my bare bottom for punching a bully I saw picking on Robby in the hallway.
Back I went to Harding for second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Johnson, ate animal crackers and wore nothing but leisure suits. She had us make an acrostic by using each letter of our names to begin a word that described us. I completed the task easily using words from Mother’s lectures like “irresponsible” and “evil.” Mrs. Johnson read it over and said, “John, I want you to do this again, using nice words about yourself.” That proved near impossible. Mrs. Johnson had us do a fill-in-the-blank about our dads for Father’s Day. It was easy to say nice things about him! “My favorite thing about Dad is ! My Dad loves me best when I like being with dad the most when My Dad knows best, and the best advice he ever gave me was .”
My poor social skills prompted the school to recommend me repeating second grade. Mom and Dad refused, they said, because they did not want me to suffer the loss of my friends. I suspect the decision had more to do with the fact that moving on to third grade would keep me on track to graduate high school the week I turned eighteen and got the boot.
We went to church twice a week at First Pentecostal—a funny place where people jumped around with their hands in the air singing, talked in babbling sounds called “tongues,” and fell down on the carpet when hands were laid on them in prayer. The preacher, Pastor Richards, fascinated me. He was a very short man who grew ten feet tall in the pulpit. Pastor was a fiery orator who wept and wailed through his sermons. His mannerisms were mesmerizing. My favorite was how he dabbed at his face and mouth with a white handkerchief. But the best thing going at church was the girls! There must have been something in the water at First Pentecostal because so many cute girls filled my Sunday school class that it was a struggle deciding which one I liked best. I dared not speak to them, but they made fine princesses to rescue in solitary!
The story that confused me most at church was about Jesus on the cross. This is how I understood it: God killed Jesus so we did not have to go to hell. Jesus was a nice man who did nothing wrong, and he was put to death for all the bad stuff everyone else did? How unfair! Wasn’t I suffering for what Teddy and Grams did to Mom? No wonder God did nothing to help me when he let his own innocent son get killed!
The highlight of my life came every summer when Grandma Pearl sent us to Camp Zion for a week of fun and Bible stories. Everyone was really nice at camp: like the counselor who asked me to sleep in his bunk with him one night. When he put his hands on my privates, Mother’s lectures about perverts like Teddy played in my ears. “My mom says you’re not supposed to touch me there,” I said matter-of-factly and went to my own bed. Her warnings got me out of another jam when I dragged Davey away from the old man who lured us to a secluded area with his cool metal detector and exposed himself to us.
The neatest thing that happened at camp was when a boy yelled out one night, “I see an angel outside!” Moments later, a glowing white silhouette came through the window, walked down the aisle between our bunks, and stood over the only boy still asleep before leaving the way it came in.
Back home, Davey and I waged a personal crusade against the Catholic Church and school right across the street from our house. We busted out windows, wrote swear words on the brick walls with nail polish, climbed on the roofs of their buildings, and tore through the halls with nuns and priests hot on our heels. That is what those Catholics get for following the antichrist Pope and not the Bible!
Evil reasoned past my conscience in other ways. You know you’re always getting in trouble for things you don’t do! Why don’t you actually do something wrong? That logic launched my career as a master thief. It began with candy. Davey was a most willing and able accomplice. One of us distracted the store attendant while the other loaded his pockets with spoils. Our heists quickly increased in frequency, complexity, and value. The rush was so addictive that we even snuck out and biked to a 24-hour convenience store to get our fix!
I got in serious trouble in third grade when our teacher walked into class and found me standing on a desk wiggling a finger through the fly of my pants with a crowd of laughing kids gathered around. He was not amused. Mother made me famous that year for making me walk to school with snow up to my chest after a blizzard, landing my picture in the newspaper. Here is an excerpt from the story:
John braved the cold and snow to make it to Harding Elementary Monday morning. The district, which has a history of remaining open in the winter when others lock their doors, was bucking the trend again. John didn’t mind. He liked it, he said, because “it ain’t so crowded.” Only four classmates showed up with John for Mr. Edwards’ third grade class. Except for an ancient radiator that gurgled like an upset stomach, it was totally quiet in the nearly empty classroom.
Mother got a job working as a lunch lady at Harding that year. I did not mind so much because she was always nice to me in front of strangers. Besides, all the boys in my class raved about how pretty Mom was, and that made me proud.
My fame grew the next year when I got in the paper for taking first place in a big Christmas-themed art contest. My picture was of a boy on a hilltop looking at an angel next to a big star hovering over a town in the distance. My artistic talent peaked early; I could hardly draw anything better today.
My antics as the class clown inspired our fourth grade teacher to take my desk out of the rows with the other students and put it slap next to hers. Like every year, I was the smallest boy in the class. My best friend, Chris, one of the biggest and toughest kids in our grade, protected me from bullies.
“God made a mistake by making me a boy and putting me in a girl’s body,” Chris confided.
“God made a mistake with me, too, by making me the eldest!”
Chis and I made friends with a new kid named Greg who got beat up a lot. We formed a gang to protect him: The Kick Ass Cobras. We did something called “fence flipping” that allowed us to acrobatically clear any barriers that prevented lesser gangs from defiantly cutting through your fenced yard. To complete the image, I carried a knife to school and word of it got to the authorities. I was forbidden from hanging out with The Cobras after that. In junior high, I often noticed slashes on Chris’s wrists and felt terrible for not being her friend anymore.
There was a girl in my fifth grade class named Cheri that I nursed a crush on for years. “You should let her know how you feel,” Dad encouraged. My short stature and crooked teeth—that included a freakishly contorted front tooth that hardly stayed in my mouth with my lips closed—made me too self-conscious to do that. Somehow Dad convinced me to declare my love to Cheri by giving her a present. I carefully wrapped the little bottle of perfume and attached an illustrated love letter.
After days of stalking for a moment alone with Cheri, it became clear that privacy was not an option. The move was made in front of her posse of friends on the way home from school. I handed Cheri her present with shaking hands. She promptly smashed the bottle of perfume at her feet and tore my love letter into tiny pieces as her entourage roared with laughter.
That was the year I started winning dance contests. Who knows where that ability came from? Mother did not allow us to listen to “devil music.” On the way home from setting the floor ablaze at a street dance, a classmate ran up to me and said, “Tiffany told me to give you her phone number. She thinks you’re hot.”
Tiffany was a sixth grader and arguably the most beautiful girl in all of Harding Elementary. The boys in our grade talked about her in reverent tones, and she wanted me to call her? What would I say? I must have said something right because we became a couple. Tiffany was rich. She had a pool and cable TV!
One day, Tiffany announced it was time for us to kiss. She took me to Turtle Pond for the grand moment. My snaggletooth made me nervous. Do you know what she did? She stuck her tongue in my mouth! Yuck! But if I did not like the way she kissed, I certainly enjoyed the prestige that came along with dating the most popular girl in school. How funny did I look to Cheri and her friends now? But after a few weeks of bliss, Tiffany called and said that “we should just be friends” and never spoke to me again.
In sixth grade, I got stuck with the most feared teacher in Harding Elementary—Mr. Miller. He was an ornery man who struck terror in his students by way of corporal punishment. Most of the time, he simply cuffed us upside the head, kicked our shins, or yanked the hair on that sensitive place by the temple like Mother did. My best friend that year was the tallest and widest kid in our grade named Justin. With me being the shortest and skinniest, we made quite a pair! I walked Justin home from school every day and got a bang out of his house. It was the smallest house ever. I wanted so badly to go inside and look around, but he never let me in there. Years later, I saw him on a bus in downtown St. Paul wearing a white gown and what looked like a doily on his head.
“Hey, Justin! Where are you going?” He looked and did not answer. “It’s me, John, your friend from Harding.” Blank stare. “Justin, don’t you remember that we were in that mean Mr. Miller’s class, and you always gave me your lunches?” No reply. He was obviously ignoring me, but I did not let up until he said, “My name is no longer Justin! It is Muhammad Alshareef Shabazz, and it’s forbidden to talk to infidels!”
That year, we moved into a new house right next to Turtle Pond. It was a long walk to Harding, and I had to leave extra early to report for my duties as a patrol (crossing guard). One thing kept me going to that corner every morning in the rain and snow: The Patrol Party! It was the stuff of legend that my fellow patrols talked about all year. You got out of school for the whole day to go bowling and had a chance to win great prizes like a new bike in the raffle! The day before the party, Mother disqualified me from going. “In this life, you have to learn to follow the rules, work hard, and do the things you don’t want to do, in order to earn positive rewards and do the things you want to do.”
Why do we remember some things and not others? Why do people remember the same event differently? I think it has something to do with who we are. Our memories are reflections of ourselves. Sure, I was a troubled kid who acted out as a thief and vandal, but my memories are primarily those of a romantic boy with artistic inclinations. My memories demonstrate that I was not anything like the sociopath Mother’s TOE said. I was the opposite.
In my early teens, I took a personality test at church that was based on the Greek humors. It came back as melancholy, not the choleric Mother insisted every firstborn automatically is. The test was taken again to be sure and then shown to her in the hopes it would finally break the eldest curse.
“You just answered those questions in line with the personality that you’d like to think you have to prove me wrong. But I know better. You are the eldest and that makes you a choleric. You are a Type-A, not a Type-B. You’re just trying to pull one over on me and get on my good side by pretending to have the same personality that Davey and I do.”
Grams and Teddy are in fact Type-A cholerics, but Mom and I are both Type-B and melancholy. But there was a Type-A choleric among us all along—Davey. Dad would tell you the same. He knew it all along.
Football was my passion. Unfortunately, I grew up a rabid Minnesota Vikings fan. How many bitter tears were shed and futile prayers were offered over the fate of that accursed franchise! But someday I was going to be a wide receiver for the Vikes and catch the winning touchdown for them in the Super Bowl. That was my dream when I weighed in at a bruising fifty-eight pounds on the first day of football practice in seventh grade. Coach gave me the distinction of being the smallest player ever on his roster. That is probably why he rarely put me in the game.
My one shot at glory came on an errant kickoff that hit me in the chest. This was my chance to show Coach that, even though I was small, I had the speed, moves, and toughness to be his receiver. But the play did not unfold as it had a thousand times in my imagination. After taking two steps, a pack of tacklers drove me into the ground like a stake.
More hits were taken in the hallways than on the gridiron. Our junior and senior high schools were in the same building. The land was teeming with giants, and I was the smallest boy in school. All the usual things you can imagine were done to me by bullies, and more.
That winter I joined wrestling because it matched me up with someone the same weight and gave me a fair chance to compete. It turned out there was no one small enough for me to wrestle. I often gave fifteen pounds just to participate, and that is a lot to give when you are only sixty pounds! Even though I was routinely creamed, I liked wrestling because it kept me away from home for a few more hours after school, and it was an easy way to make friends. It was good having a crew of grapplers as buddies because they provided some protection from bullies.
Not having the “in” clothes to wear was now a bigger problem than ever. Surely the right fashions would provide some armor or camouflage! That year the hippest thing to wear was a Hypercolor t-shirt that changed colors when in contact with body heat. All of the coolest kids had those. I wanted one more than anything, but it was not in the budget. When Mother took us school shopping, we went to one of those “less than perfect” stores to stretch our funds. It was difficult finding enough clothes to buy—two pairs of pants and five shirts—to have a different outfit for each day of the school week. But I had it good compared to Matt, my friend from church. He only had two outfits assembled out of one pair of black pants, a grey shirt, and a Vikings sweatshirt. The problem was that one of my ensembles was a pair of black jeans and the same Vikings sweatshirt! It was my life’s mission to avoid wearing that when Matt did, but we often matched and got teased for being “twins.” The horror!
That summer, I set my sights on getting a paper route to solve my fashion dilemma for the next school year. Mother had to be begged for weeks. “If I let you get this paper route, then you can’t cop out when the going gets tough and the job is no longer fun! You must follow through on your commitment and live up to your responsibility come rain or shine. You will stick it out to the bitter end and not quit like Uncle Teddy does all his jobs.” After vowing to meet her expectations, I embarked on my new career dreaming of the cool clothes it was going to buy.
I had no idea what I got myself into. My bike was too small to attach the paper bag to the handlebars without the load rubbing on the front tire. I was too weak to ride with that heavy bag slung over my shoulders or lug it around on foot. I either had to walk the bike with the papers balanced on the seat, or rig the bag to the handlebars and ride with one hand holding the papers off the tire. It would not have been so hard had my route been on level terrain, but my customers lived in the undulating hills that surrounded our neighborhood. It was backbreaking labor. I went at it rain or shine cursing myself for making a deal with the devil. “God, please get me out of this!”
“I’m taking part of every paycheck you earn and putting it into savings, so that you’ll have a big enough nest egg to move out on your eighteenth birthday,” Mother said. “Another part will come out for your tithe to the church. And you’re not going to be selfish with the rest and spend it only on yourself. I will not allow you to rub Davey’s face in it! If you want something for yourself, then you have to buy something for him. It’s not fair that you get to work first just because you’re the eldest. And it’s not fair for you to have more money to spend on clothes than your siblings. Any money you save to buy clothes will be deducted from the amount we would’ve given you. You have to learn to pay your own way because you won’t always be living here on Easy Street!”
Having to tithe really chapped my hide. Why did God need my money? What did he ever do for me? He wasn’t answering my desperate prayers to grow or for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl! Complaints rolled in for late papers. Many customers asked how old I was with concern on their face. They were noticeably surprised, like everyone, when told I was thirteen. “You’re just doing a half-a—ed job like you’ve always done on your chores,” Mother said. “Your poor performance is because you’re lazy like Teddy, not because it’s too difficult!”
Dad saw WWIII looming on the horizon and tried in vain all summer to make the route easier for his tiny son. The pressure mounted as school approached. How was I going to deliver those papers that took hours of my day when there was class to attend and sports to play? “I’m not about to let you quit your first job and establish a pattern that’ll end up with you living in our basement for the rest of your life!” Mother said with steely resolve. The battle that erupted when Dad finally stepped in to extract me from the route was unlike any before or since. It raged through the house all night and into the early morning hours. “I would sooner divorce you than allow your eldest to quit that paper route!” Mom screamed, “I’m calling the lawyer first thing in the morning.”
The next day, I was back at the route with the help of my classmate Brett who lived nearby. The most notable headline was “Helicopter Crash Kills Members of Eric Clapton’s Band.” Legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn was among the deceased. As Brett and I worked through the route, we came to the steepest hill in the neighborhood. He sped down ahead of me. I hesitated because of the stop sign at the bottom of the hill. The cross street did not have a stop sign and view of the cars traveling on it was obstructed by houses. To avoid the danger of riding through the intersection, we usually turned onto a driveway at the bottom of the hill and cut through the grass along the cross street. That is what Brett did. Normally, I walked my bike down that hill, but I did not want to look like a wimp to Brett, so I lifted the bag off my front tire and started down the hill steering awkwardly with one hand toward the driveway.
Then I was floating on my back with lights zipping above. Everything looked like it was made of sand. “You’re in the hospital, son,” Dad said running alongside me. “You got hit by a car and are being wheeled into surgery.”
“Can I quit my paper route now?”
“Yes,” Dad said with a nervous laugh. I did not wake up again for days. Apparently, I bailed out on cutting through the driveway and shot into the intersection at the same moment a blue Ford Bronco on the cross street did. The impact sent me flying through the air and skidding across the road on my back with no shirt on, removing most of the skin.
Only weeks earlier, the braces worn for two years to straighten my front teeth were removed and a metal bar was cemented behind to keep them in place. One of those teeth caught pavement and was ripped out of my head along with the three others that were cemented to it. The doctors reinserted two teeth; the other two were missing until Davey found them the next day on the side of the road in dried pools of blood.
The right side of my skull was shattered, and my lower jaw was broken in multiple places. The doctors told my parents they had to wait for the swelling to go down before going in to reconstruct my face and wire my jaw shut for six months. By the time the swelling went down, none of those measures were necessary—all my bones were healed. Right after the accident, my parents called the church and got an army of people praying. Everyone believed I was miraculously healed, including me.
It was sad to learn the identity of the driver who hit me—Mrs. Wilson. She was a really nice lady who lived across the street from us and was one of my customers. She even gave me a tip once which I used to buy food because Mother was starving me at the time. I took the dollar Mrs. Wilson gave me and went straight to the grocery store looking for the most food that money could buy. I settled on a big bag of marshmallows. After wolfing down my fill, the rest were stashed in my paper bag to fuel the next day’s route, but Mother snooped through it that evening and found them. The punishment was classic: having to eat marshmallows for every meal until the bag was gone. I could not eat them again for twenty years.
The lawyers settled on assessing 51% fault to Mrs. Wilson and the rest to me. All my medical bills were paid, and a modest settlement was held in trust until my eighteenth birthday. Well, that took care of the “nest egg” Mother wanted me to have when she gave me the boot!
The greatest thing about my accident, even better than all the presents and money people gave me, was the change that came over Mom in the aftermath. When Brett told her what happened, he said he never saw a human being run as fast as she did to my side, outrunning him on his bike. She held me in her arms getting soaked in my blood and wailing until the ambulance arrived. Upon my return after weeks in the hospital, Mom declared that we were “going to start over as mother and son.” She even got me the best present of them all: a miniature dachshund puppy.
The Bronco left its mark on my face. For years afterward, you could see a dent down the side of my face in the right light. Witnesses at the scene said I was sticking my tongue out a large gash running from my chin to lower lip that nearly severed the latter in half and left a prominent scar. My bottom lip never recovered its symmetry and went on to ruin many a picture. I showed up for my first day of eighth grade sporting a toothless grin and mouthful of metal wires that held my salvaged teeth in place. Everyone was so nice at school that I hardly felt any shame about my looks, and the brand new Hypercolor shirt I bought with the proceeds of the accident and proudly wore on my first day made me feel pretty darn cool!
Life was a dream that fall. It was a relief to have Mother off my case and her frequent hugs and kisses were a welcome change to the cold distance that once stood between us. Was it really happening? Did God finally answer my prayers? Maybe the tithe Mom forced me to give God really did pay off!
But it did not take long for things to get back to normal. I was hardly any bigger than the year before and was still the smallest boy in school: the fresh batch of seventh graders included! The immunity from bullies vanished along with my stitches and scabs. I was not allowed to play football because my internal injuries were still healing and another wrestling season came and went with few matches to speak of.
I am not sure when the honeymoon with Mom ended, but it was definitely over after we were summoned to a meeting with the junior high dean. I thought it was going to be about my clownish antics that made me a regular guest in detention. Instead, the meeting was about an aptitude test that revealed a disparity between my intellect and grades. The dean believed my lackluster performance as a student was due to my not being challenged enough and recommended I be placed in advanced classes. Mother had another theory. “I knew you’d been sloughing off in school the whole time, doing the bare minimum to get by like always. You have no excuse now, Buster Brown!”
Freshman year found me in more difficult classes with high expectations on my grades, but that was the least of my concerns. In study hall, I was seated right across from a senior named Biff who was the reigning homecoming king. He had a full-on beard and long brown hair that he often accentuated with a Jesus t-shirt.
“Hey, everyone, get a load of this little guy!” Biff started in, grinning like a wolf. “Isn’t he precious? He’s so…he’s so…fragile! Hey Fragile Boy, how’d you get so fragile?” I did not know how to answer that question, which he repeated on a daily basis along with the following interview. “How old are you, again, Fragile Boy? Fourteen! Fourteen! And how much do you weigh? Seventy pounds! Seventy pounds! Gee Fragile Boy, I think I weighed that much in second grade! It must be hard being so fragile, isn’t it, Fragile Boy?” That is when Biff waxed eloquent about how small my genitals must be as his audience wept from laughter and I turned deep shades of crimson. “I think we should leave Fragile Boy alone now, guys. He looks like he’s going to cry!”
But there was a class that was even worse than study hall with Biff: physical education. Everyone took a shower after gym except a few of the smaller or chubbier boys who got teased for not doing so. I swallowed my pride and braved the showers, dreading the moment all day as if I were going to face the firing squad. I was a boy amongst men, and many were kind enough to point that out in case it escaped my notice.
I did not bother trying out for football that year. Everyone was sprouting like weeds, making me smaller than ever in proportion. There was no wrestling season for my failure to meet the grade requirements Mother set because of that dumb test. It was devastating, but I was probably spared sorrow upon sorrow. Being thirty pounds lighter than the lowest high school weight class, who would I have wrestled?
Mother now worked full-time and did not get home until supper. With no wrestling practice after school, and her not around to keep Davey safe, she put me in an after school program called Latchkey that was basically a daycare. My younger brother and sister got to go home after school, and I had to hang out with elementary kids because Davey needed protection? He was the one who chased me around the house with knives! My enrollment in Latchkey was hidden from my peers until one of them saw me when they arrived to pick up their younger siblings. I looked like a little kid, went to Latchkey like a little kid, and Mother still took me over her knee and spanked my bare bottom like a little kid! “God, why won’t you make me grow?!”
Life was perpetual humiliation and loneliness. By the end of ninth grade, the handful of other late bloomers left me in their pubescent dust. It felt as if I walked around stark raving naked with everyone staring at me and laughing. School had long ceased to be the refuge it once was. I preferred being at home with Mother! Even Norma was well on her way to womanhood as I languished behind in the body of a child. What is wrong with me?
While conducting research to find a way to speed up the arrival of puberty, I read that children in tropical climates mature at an earlier age than others. The author theorized that it was due to their exposure to more UV light. It made sense to me. Plants need light to grow, right? Was all the time I spent grounded or locked away in solitary out of the sun responsible for my lack of growth?
That summer, I soaked up as many rays as possible while fishing with Davey at Turtle Pond. We spent every waking hour of our summers together, fishing if possible. Turtle Pond was a pathetic mud hole that stunk to high heaven and whose murky waters concealed a jungle of snags that claimed so many lures our parents could not afford to replace them fast enough. But we had bass fever and stole to replenish our tackle. Despite all the drama with Mother, Davey was my best friend. Whatever I did he did. When I got into golf, we made our own course in a field. When I got into tennis, we played in the street. Looking back, I had a lot of fun with him during those years of pubic futility.
I landed a new career that summer working at McDonald’s. It seemed like the perfect job because I loved the food and the current girl of my dreams, Amy, worked there. The absolute worst consequence of my boyish physique was the limitations it placed on my love life. There were no girlfriends to speak of since elementary, only a string of unrequited loves that never went beyond the intricate fantasies composed in my mind. Amy had a boyfriend that I dreamed of stealing her away from in countless ways. But, like always, I found myself stuck in the friend zone.
“O Johnny, you’re so easy to talk to…you’re so sweet and cute…you’re so funny…you’re such a good friend,” Amy would say—they all would say. Doomed to play the role of trusted confidant and shoulder to cry on, I got as close to my crush as possible until the heat of my passion, jealousy, and frustration drove me away to start the process anew with another.
Anxiety over my appearance reached its zenith at McDonald’s. The humiliation began as I rode three miles to work on my bike wearing a lame helmet and my ultra-geeky polyester uniform because I was too ashamed of my body to change into it on site. Once on duty, hyper self-consciousness supercharged every sense to pick up the slightest indication that my size was detected by others. But my love for Amy gave me the strength to endure my duties working the register and cleaning the dining room as curious customers asked how old I was or wondered aloud if the minimum working age of fifteen had been lowered.
I tried to get switched to the grill making burgers in the back where no one could see me, but my boss would not allow it. When my passion for Amy was spent, the only thing that kept me going was fear of Mother. Even that was not enough the day I got stuck front-and-center on the fry machine where I could feel everyone’s eyes ogling me. I walked out the door in the middle of my shift and quit. Let Mother do her worst; nothing she did could possibly exceed the agony of enduring one more day as the world’s youngest-looking McDonald’s employee! “You’re nothing but a quitter like Teddy. You wanted to quit your paper route the whole time you had it, and now you’ve gone and quit your first real job! What am I going to do with you?”
Sophomore year was so humiliating that I blocked most of it out except for the day I forgot my swim trunks and had to wear a tiny speedo. On the bright side I finally began to grow at nearly sixteen, although I was a long ways behind my classmates
During my junior wrestling season, Mother threatened to kick me out like she often did. Afterward, the thought struck me: Why don’t you just leave? What can she do then? It will be over, and you can do whatever you want! I quietly packed my things and went to live with one of my teammates. Days later, Dad called: “Your mother wants you to come home now.” I agreed to return on one condition: Mom could never threaten to kick me out again. And she never did.
Norma was very popular and all my friends talked about how beautiful she was all the time. I hated it, but the upside of my sister’s popularity was her flock of gorgeous friends. One of them was an artistic girl named Summer who had long, shimmering straight hair parted down the middle. Seemingly out of nowhere, Summer asked me to sleep with her. Shame and disgust washed over me afterward. My first thought was, What did I just do to this poor girl? I could not look her in the eye. Sex was supposed to be the greatest thing ever. What went wrong? I know; this bad feeling is what happens when you lose your virginity. It probably won’t happen next time. Wrong! Guilt plagued me for months. It was so intense in Summer’s company that I avoided her at all costs.
News of Summer’s pregnancy nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I was only sixteen and she fifteen—the very same ages Mom and Dad were when they got pregnant with me! Was God punishing me for having sex outside of marriage like he did my parents? That is what I asked one of our pastors at church named Max. “Having children is part of what God intended for sex,” he said. “That is why you’re supposed to wait until you’re married.” The pregnancy rumor turned out to be a ruse Summer concocted to get back at me for ignoring her. Incidentally, she got pregnant for real with another guy shortly after, and I blamed myself for it.
That spring, I tried out for our high school’s production of West Side Story. My audition lines were practiced until they could be done in my sleep. When it was time to deliver them, my mind went perfectly blank. How grateful I was to be given the role of a nondescript Shark! While minding my own business at rehearsal, someone said “Hey, John!” in the sultry voice that could only belong to the overwhelmingly talented and gorgeous leading lady of our play: Julia.
As I turned to look at our Maria, she asked “Do you wanna screw?” through a smile so bright it lit up the stage. Paralysis. Looking at her was like staring into the sun. When my eyes managed to pry themselves from her bright red lips, I noticed Julia holding a wood screw in her hand. Why did she single me out for that prank? Julia was hands-down the most beautiful girl in school. That is probably why I never uttered a word to her before. Julia was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed goddess with ivory skin and dizzying curves. She was also a member of the dance line, an honor student, an accomplished singer, and a perennial lead in our school plays.
Julia and I talked incessantly through play practice, gabbed on the phone for hours, and even hung out together outside of school. She had a vivacious personality, a quick wit, and a generous heart full of compliments. No fantasy ever compared to the epic romance unfolding between us! There was just one problem: Julia’s obnoxious boyfriend, Checkers.
You would not believe the costumes that bombastic barrel of buffoonery rolled around in! Checkers’ getups consisted of loud colors and busy patterns that were so incongruous they must have been selected on that criterion, and they were always accentuated by wacky ties, zany suspenders, goofy shoes, or novelty glasses along with every kind of stupid hat ever invented that perched on his bulbous head in any way but regulation. His effervescent personality and madcap antics made me ill with cynical loathing. What was Julia doing with that clown? “He was the first and only boy to ask me out,” she said.
“You should ask Julia out,” Dad constantly pestered.
“She has a boyfriend, Dad.”
“Julia likes you, son. Do you know how I know that? Because she spends so much time with you. A girl doesn’t spend that much time with a boy she doesn’t like.”
“But Dad, she has a boyfriend!”
“I’d say that’s too bad for him, and ask her out anyway.”
I ruthlessly cut Checkers down looking for some weakness in their relationship, but Julia always came to his defense. “We’ve been together since freshman year when he rescued me from loneliness. He’s my best friend and knight in shining armor.” How could I compete with that? I weighed myself in the balance and was found wanting. Besides, what would a full-blown woman like her want with a shrimp like me? After our final performance of West Side Story, my love for Julia fermented into poison. It was obvious that we connected on some level she and Checkers did not, but he got the better part of her. Pride would not suffer me to serve as page in Julia’s court while she gave herself to that prancing fool. I drifted away from her having never confessed my love.
“All I remember,” said Julia many years later, “was being totally in love with who you were, and I was desperate for someone like you in my life. I remember thinking: If John really liked me, he would risk something—ask me out or kiss me.” Or exactly what Dad suggested and what I did a thousand times in my imagination.
While yawning my way through a textbook in graduate school, the author began describing the effects of abuse on child development. I snapped to attention when it was noted that rejected infants take longer to walk, talk, and use the toilet. “You refused to learn how to walk and talk or be potty-trained because you knew everyone wanted you to, and you reveled in the attention their encouragement gave you. Your brother and sister learned to walk and talk and use the toilet at a much earlier age than you!” When the author mentioned a correlation between child abuse and delayed puberty I nearly fell out of my chair.
Near the end of junior year, I drifted into a circle of stoners who gathered at The Ravine, a clandestine party spot in the woods. On weekends, I snuck out and waited in the bushes for my friend Crane to pick me up and take me there. Crane had it all: a license to drive, a fully restored ’64 Mustang with a killer sound system, and a fake ID to buy the beer that drowned my sorrows over Julia. He and the others continually pressured me to smoke weed with them. I refused on account of the horror stories Mom and Dad told of their experiences on the drug. My resistance began to wane after Davey and Norma started getting high with their friends. None of the terrible things I heard about drugs happened to them. In fact, everyone who did them seemed to have a really good time.
After submitting myself to the rite of passage my friends were all too willing to perform at The Ravine, they celebrated my initiation with gusto. As we made our way out of the woods that evening, we entered a clearing on the top of a hill and saw the northern horizon draped in shimmering curtains of pulsating yellow and green lights. We stood there in awed silence for ages watching the aura borealis snake its way across the sky as waves of euphoria swept through my aching soul. On the drive home, Crane fired up the tunes and transported me to another dimension. My barren world was instantly transformed into a magical place brimming with possibility. Boy, were my parents full of crap!
That was about when Grandpa Rocky moved in. We never saw much of him before then. During my early years, Rocky was in his catatonic phase and sat motionless for days on end staring off into space. One time, Dad pulled him out just long enough for Rocky to explain what was happening. He was doing battle with a powerful demon that he tangled with once before. On the previous occasion, Rocky found he was not strong enough to defeat the mighty devil outright, so he “took and cast it into a polar bear in the North Pole” for the protection of others. But someone just shot and killed that polar bear, releasing the demon from its prison, and it returned with a vengeance.
My first memory of Gramps is when he appeared out of the blue bearing Christmas presents for us in July. I got Chinese checkers. During that visit, Mother yelled at Rocky and kicked him out. “It’s okay Grandpa,” I said escorting him to the car, “Mommy’s just mad because you think you’re Jesus.”
Before Rocky came to us, he lived with his mom in her house. Then she died and left no written will. The house was verbally willed to Gramps who looked after her and kept up the place for years. Rocky occupied the home alone for a mere two weeks before taking in Brother Tom and family after their house mysteriously burned down. They returned his hospitality by driving him out—a situation that infuriated me then but now fills my heart with thanksgiving. We never would have experienced the phenomenon that was Grandpa Rocky had injustice not delivered him to our door.
It began when he arrived in a gargantuan 70s Dodge van filled to the brim with so much junk there was hardly room for a passenger. I am not kidding; I found a ten-year-old box of cereal in the back of that van! When brought to his attention, Gramps refused to throw it away, along with the bins of flour and other foodstuff mingling with tools and buckets of paint in the back of his chariot. “It’s still good, see,” he assured.
One of the first times I rode with Rocky in that van, he said, “Say, John, how would you like a Whopper?”
“Sounds good,” I said, thinking he meant to take me to Burger King. But then he reached under his seat and pulled out a bag of burgers. “When did you buy those, Gramps?”
“A few days ago.”
“But they’re still good, see. I just take and thank the Lord, and he blesses it.” Rocky often complained about his “bellyaches,” but he never seemed to connect them to the aging Whoppers under his seat.
Rocky’s van was the eyesore of our neighborhood. It was an awful metallic gold, at least in the places not ravaged by rust. It was a passenger van so you could see all the crap piled in it through the windows. One evening, Norma awoke to a policeman knocking on our door. The officer asked, “Is that your van?” Flames were shooting two stories high out of Rocky’s Dodge. The fire was so hot it reduced everything but the frame and axles to pools of molten metal. All the sirens and commotion failed to wake Gramps that night. When he left for work the next morning, Rocky walked out to the still-smoldering remains of his van, stood there perplexed, and then waddled back into the house asking, “Yeah, say, why is my van all wet?”
When the wreckage cooled, Rocky picked through the debris for salvage. He found a couple of charred tools that were “still good.” Dad pulled those tools out for Gramps to use once in a while, but he never did, just like the scraps of food he was always throwing in the freezer and telling us to eat because they, too, were still good. But when Dad served him up a plate of that good food, he would not eat it!
We suspected someone might have set fire to the van via the old rag that was used for a gas cap. Perhaps one of our neighbors tired of the sight of it, or maybe it was spontaneous combustion from all the chemicals strewn about the back. Who knows, but the blazing van is just one of many riotous happenings Gramps brought to our lives.
Some of Rocky’s eccentricities were harder to swallow than others, like his preaching. Those convoluted sermons were like nothing heard at church. At first, I endured their mind-numbing length and content not wanting to hurt his feelings, but he did it so much that Mom and Dad made a rule against him preaching to us. Well, that did not prevent him from trying to “take and teach you about the Lord” at every opportunity. If he was eating a pomegranate, “Did I ever tell you about the time the angel of the Lord told me I was a pomegranate?” If we were playing chess, “Yeah, say, did I ever tell you about the time I played chess with the Lord? When I took and checkmated him, he said, ‘Look again,’ and here he’d already checkmated me!” How he roared telling that one. Anytime Gramps talked about the Lord his eyes twinkled, his lids narrowed, and his mouth smirked like he knew some big secret no one else did.
Norma, Davey, and I spent that summer with a steady rotation of friends getting high with us while our parents were at work. Rocky sat in his room in the basement while we were up to no good, and we incorporated him into the shenanigans to amuse ourselves at the expense of unsuspecting friends. To set the trap, we told our prey to go down in the basement and ask Gramps about one of the Old Testament characters he was always talking about like Methuselah, Enoch, or Nebuchadnezzar: names we knew would evoke a classic sermon. The longer our victim languished under Rocky’s preaching, the more we rolled on the floor and howled with laugher,
Our friends were also smuggled in the basement late at night after Mom and Dad went to bed. Rocky’s bedroom door opened to the area where we hung out watching TV. Gramps got up and waddled to the bathroom in his undies every night with his hair standing on end like a mad scientist. The sight alone was enough to crack up a roomful of high adolescents. What he did next nearly killed us.
Rocky’s bowel movements were so loud they shook the ceiling tiles, making every kind of sound imaginable from high pitched whistling toots to the deep bass of cheek-flapping flatulence. When the dust settled, Rocky shuffled back to his room to a chorus of laughs. “Say, John, is that you?” he asked as good as blind in the dark. I regret the sport we made of Rocky, but his fame grew far and wide as tales of our strange grandpa spread.
That summer, I took a job at The Pizza Machine to finance my growing drug habit. The owner, Bill, worked himself into a frenzy in direct proportion to how busy we got. And we got busy! He ran the operation like a grizzled drill sergeant under battle conditions in our nightly war on hunger. Had a grenade been tossed into our pizza-making trench, I would have dived on it without a thought! The last thing anyone wanted to do was make a mistake. “What does it say on a carton of orange juice? Concentrate!” Bill had all kinds of gems like that, and even cuffed us upside the head on occasion. But when the rush was over, he transformed into the nicest guy in the world and slipped us cash for a job well done. When Bill was not around, we took off with free pizzas and two-liter soda bottles filled with tap beer. That made me a very popular guy with the stoners.
When senior year got underway, my harem of lady friends composed of former crushes were giving me all kinds of compliments about how much I had grown and how handsome I was. My old flame Amy from McDonald’s even kissed me in the stairwell! Although I relished the attention, my heart had yet to move on from Julia. She was nominated for homecoming queen that fall. I wanted to vote for her but did not to demonstrate to myself I was over her.
Julia won anyway, and I lied about voting for her in one of our few conversations that year. As part of the homecoming tradition, anyone could ask the queen to dance at the coronation ball. No one did but Checkers. I might have asked her had I made it in. On our way to the big dance, my friends and I tore around the football field making such a racket that it drew our dean, Mr. Paulson, to investigate. He determined we were intoxicated and requested the police through his walkie-talkie. My buddies stayed, but I took off, apologizing to Mr. Paulson beforehand. I was suspended from school, had to go to a boring group for months, and was given another suspension from extracurricular activities. That last one was no big deal because I had no plans to play sports. Drugs were more fun.
All that was missing from my life was a girlfriend. There was a sophomore cheerleader named Misty that had caught my eye for years. Her elegant articulation and dainty mannerisms gave Misty an aura of royalty. Admiring her from a distance was easy; making a move was not.
“You’re always talking about Misty,” said my friend and drug dealer Doug, “but you never do anything about it! Why don’t you call her and ask her out? You can do it from my phone right now!”
I accepted Doug’s challenge and called Misty. When asked if she would like to hang out with me some time, she said, “You had your chance at me, John. Why didn’t you take it? I liked you then, but I’m in love with my boyfriend now.”
Indeed, I had a shot at Misty the prior school year. My friend and fellow wrestler Joe dated Misty’s best friend, Lisa. Joe always stole the girls I liked. I raved to him about the current girl of my dreams and then he dated her. I liked Lisa before he got with her and Sarah before that. Joe and Lisa hatched a plan to hook me up with Misty and took me over to her house during the pregnancy scare with Summer. They told me I was supposed to kiss Misty when they left the room, and when the moment came, I could not bring myself to do it. “I’m bad and you’re good.” I said to spare Misty’s feelings. “I don’t want to corrupt you.”
Now Misty had a boyfriend, but I was not about to let another Checkers stand in my way. “She will be mine!” I vowed as I hung up the phone with her. Seeing as she was a wrestling cheerleader with Norma, my mind was changed about not playing sports. That suspension for getting caught drunk by Mr. Paulson prevented me from participating in any matches the first month of the season. Having to sit out gave me all the more time to flirt with Misty at our meets, and I wrestled her heart away from her boyfriend! I was transfigured. Love was the ultimate drug, and I rarely used around Misty.
My girlfriend confided that she got teased for being one of the last remaining virgins in her group of friends. I was in no hurry to change that! After my experience with Summer, I resigned not to have sex again until I was in love. Misty agreed and we tabled the subject until we were officially in love, or about three weeks later. Surely this time I would not be terrorized by guilt and shame! The occasion was memorialized by writing Misty a poem entitled “Pig with a Spade.” That one did not land well, but she loved all my other sappy poems about how she was my angel of love sent from heaven above.
“Let me take and tell you about the passion,” is how Rocky introduced his frequent sermons on sex and masturbation. Believe me, you do not want to hear what Gramps said about the passion, but it was awfully funny to a teenager. “Say, John, you don’t take and have sex with Mitsy, do you?”
“Her name is Miss-Tee, not Mit-See like your old girlfriend. And yes, I do. We are in love.”
“Wah, waah, waaah!” Gramps reeled. “Well, I took and fell in love with Mitsy, too. We had sex. But that didn’t stop her from sending me a ‘Dear John’ letter in boot camp, see. Do you know what I did when I came home on leave? I took and dated Mitsy’s best friend who was even comelier than she was! Now you better knock that off, John. It’s a sin against the Lord to take and fornicate.”
My assurances that we would surely get married someday did not seem to make Rocky feel any better about our relations.
“Do you plan on attending college?” the academic dean asked a few months before graduation. I told her I did. “Where have you applied?”
“What was your ACT score?”
“I haven’t taken that yet.”
Apparently you have to be proactive about your future. After taking the test, I was summoned back to the dean. “Where do you want to go to college?” I had not thought much about that, beyond wanting to stay close to Misty, so I mentioned the University of Minnesota. “That might be difficult,” the dean said, “your grades are not outstanding, and most everyone has already applied and been accepted by now. They may not have any openings. But you did very well on the ACT, and that might be enough.” The dean filled out and sent the application for me. I got in.
A week before graduation, my English teacher asked me to stay after class. “Your essay on The Stone Boy was one of the best papers any student has written for me.” That was nice to hear seeing as I pulled it out of thin air at the last possible moment! “I do not believe you wrote it. Plagiarism is a serious offense, and I will have to fail you.”
“I wrote that paper at my girlfriend’s house. Her mom saw me do it. You can ask her. She is a teacher at Polk Elementary.”
“I cannot verify to my satisfaction that you wrote this essay because you handed nothing else in all quarter for me to compare it with.”
“That essay is worth 75% of our grade. I didn’t have to do anything else to pass the class. I’m already accepted to the U. If you fail me, I won’t be able to go in the fall!”
My teacher would not budge, so I went over her head to Mr. Paulson who was my science teacher before he became a dean. I aced a test that he thought I cheated on for the same reason: not doing homework. Mr. Paulson made me retake the test in front of him, and I repeated the feat. After talking with him my English teacher passed me, just barely, with a D-.
About half my class drove to a cabin on Mille Lacs Lake for our senior skip party. It degenerated into one of the most despicable displays of debauchery ever witnessed. As seemingly everyone paired off to mess around regardless of prior relational commitments, I noticed Joe being led into the woods by Jody. “Don’t do it Joe! What about Lisa?”
“Leave him alone,” Jody said, “Joe is a big boy and he can do whatever he wants!”
Joe and Lisa were history soon after, as were most other couples. I took great pride in being one of the faithful few and looked with scorn upon those who abandoned their relationships just because they were graduating. Misty was convinced I was going to leave her, if not that summer, then when I went to the U in the fall. The thought never crossed my mind. Our love was too powerful to be broken by the superficialities that claimed lesser romances. If you do not believe me, just look at what Misty wrote in my yearbook:
John Providence, the love of my life! Just like we always say, “Where to begin?” Let’s start with that day oh so long ago when you chickened out and wouldn’t kiss me! You shy little boy—Oh! Well, that messed us up for a while—you chose to party and the goody-goody I am, I stuck with my goody-goody friends, but waiting made the final outcome all the better! We are so perfect together and you always treat me like a queen—you’re such a sweetheart! I’ll miss you more than anything in the world when you leave for college, but I’ll try as hard as I can to make everything work out between us forever. You have to have the common sense in our relationship because we both know how idealistic I am. I guess that could be bad in some cases, but my ideal life has you in all of it right next to me—and that would be the bestest!
On the Saturday after graduation, I snuck out to The Ravine for another round of celebration with classmates. Everyone partied with reckless abandon into the wee hours of Sunday morning, but something held me back. “As long as you live under our roof, you will go to church,” my parents always said. Going to First Pentecostal bright and early every Sunday morning did not fit my rock and roll lifestyle! A smile crept over my face as I left the party to sneak back into the house. I won’t have go get up for stupid church anymore when I go to college! After catching a wink of sleep, Dad was in my room dragging me out of bed for church. In protest, I put on the same grunge costume worn only hours before. The dirty jeans, tattered flannel, and Jim Morrison t-shirt still reeked of the bonfire that lit the previous night’s revelry.
Norma, Davey, and I slept all over each other in the pews during church, which was not very funny to Dad who was on the board and taught Sunday school with Mom. My plans to enjoy a good nap were interrupted when Pastor Richards announced, “We would like to call all the graduates forward to honor their achievement and pray for the Lord’s blessing and guidance on their future.” I was woefully unprepared for that development! All the other graduates must have known because they were dressed in their Sunday best. Suddenly, my outfit did not seem so cool. I tried to sink into the pew and disappear, but Dad’s stern eye directed me forward. By the time I sulked up front, everyone else was in place and there was nowhere for me to stand except the dead center.
Next, Pastor Richard called the deacons and their wives to stand behind the graduates and lay hands on us as he prayed. Every graduate had someone behind them except me until Pastor Max ran up and laid his hands on my back. Then Pastor Richards began to pray, “Lord, speak to these young people and show yourself to them. Reveal the plans you have for their lives.”
I snickered to myself recalling all those unanswered prayers in solitary. BOOM! I snapped my head up at the sound, half expecting to see the roof blown off the church. Then a voice like thunder rang out in the sanctuary, “You will be great.” I looked around to see other people’s reaction to the voice, but all heads were bowed and eyes closed. I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I must be delirious!
After a summer of love, drugs, and working at The Pizza Machine, I was off to college at the University of Minnesota. Due to a shortage of freshman housing, I got stuck in a dorm on the St. Paul campus and rode a bus for forty-five minutes every day just to get to class in Minneapolis. My resident advisor was a member of a fraternity located on the Minneapolis campus where I wanted to be. He said if I joined his fraternity, I could move out of the dorm and into the frat house. I was a pledge in no time. But most of the guys in the fraternity were rich pretty boys. The parking lot was loaded with luxury cars, and they all dressed in costly fashions. The few grand in my bank account from the paper route settlement would not cut it there.
One afternoon, I saw a sign for a rush event at the Zeta house. There were no luxury cars in their parking lot, and the guys were not very pretty. That winter, I moved out of the dorm and into the Zeta house right across the street from the Minneapolis campus.
To become an initiated member of Zeta, one had to take a test on its history and go through a progression of secret rituals during “Hell Week.” That last part is off the record because Zeta officially forbade hazing. After enduring seven days of psychological torture, hilarious pranks, and bizarre rituals, my pledge class was ready to learn the secrets of our fraternity’s ancient Greek knowledge and swear never to reveal them to the uninitiated. But first, each of us was taken one by one to be “examined” in front of all the brothers who were clad in black hooded robes. The examiner had bad news for me. I failed the history test and could not be admitted to the brotherhood! My bags were solemnly placed at my feet, and I was told to leave. Tears burst from my eyes as I pleaded with the brothers to let me stay. “Away with him!” they chanted in unison. Then, I was seized by a mob of robbed figures and rushed towards the door. At the last moment, the door slammed in my face and everyone started laughing and hugging me. I was the only pledge who cried at that final prank.
That spring, I enlisted in the United States Air Force Reserve to fund my education. I was given the choice of any available specialty in my wing. How did I choose which career path to follow? Why, by selecting the job with the shortest technical school so as not to be away from Misty any longer than necessary! That is how I became an Air Transportation Specialist. Don’t let that fancy name fool you. I just loaded cargo. The school was only four weeks long. Combined with basic training, I was to be away from my love for ten torturous weeks in the sweltering state of Texas.
With my departure for boot camp drawing near, I took Misty to church at First Pentecostal and petitioned the Lord to preserve our union in my absence. Guilt prompted me to strike a bargain with The Man Upstairs. “I know we have sex and it’s wrong, but we will get married just as soon as we both graduate college! Then I promise to take religion seriously and go to church every Sunday.”
As soon as those words were uttered in my heart a thundering voice said, “She is not a preacher’s wife.” Say what? Who is the preacher? Not me! That is the last thing I wanted to do. I needed to make lots of money to provide for Misty as she was accustomed through her father’s well-paying career as an engineer. I must be hearing things again. Just to be safe, I took Misty to a Billy Graham crusade where we went forward and gave our hearts to Jesus. I never told her about the voice and hoped God was just scaring me into shaping up with the threat of making me a preacher. That, or Misty’s commitment to Christ would qualify her to be a preacher’s wife if it came down to it. Any future without her was unthinkable.
After arriving in Texas, the Air Force dropped us off outside the doors of our barracks and told us to stand there in formation for what seemed like hours until a door was kicked open and an intimidating collection of hulking drill sergeants descended on us like a pack of ravenous wolves. “Get out of here!” one of them yelled as he threw a young lady’s bags into the street. “We don’t want you here!” The girl made like she was told. “Where do you think you’re going?” The drill instructor barked. “Are you going AWOL on us? Staff Sergeant Smith, we have a deserter; call the MPs to take her away!”
Sergeant Smith was a massive former wrestler for the Air Force National Team with eyes that peered directly into your soul. “Y’all suck,” he said all the time. “Y’all are about the sorriest assembly of trash my beloved Air Force has ever entrusted to me! I will turn you heroes into proper soldiers if I have to stomp a mud hole in y’alls cracks to do it!” It was hard not to laugh at those pseudo swears the drill instructor used because of the order forbidding vulgar language. “Do you think I’m funny, Airman Providence?”
“Sir, Airman Providence reports as ordered, no sir!”
“Then why were you laughing at me, California?”
“Sir, Airman Providence reports as ordered, I was not laughing at you.”
“Well you must’ve been laughing at something! I bet it was a joke. Listen up y’all, California has a joke to share with us. Go ahead hero, tell us your joke, and it better be funny!”
“California” was my name for the next six weeks where everything I did was wrong. If I looked Sergeant Smith in the eye when he chewed me out, he said, “Why are you looking at me, California? Do you think I’m cute? Although I’m flattered by your admiration, I must inform you that I’m a happily married man!” If I did not look at him, “Why won’t you look at me, hero? Do you think you’re better than me because you’re a pretty boy from California?” I was so terrified of Sergeant Smith that he was not informed I was from Minnesota until the last day of boot camp.
One morning I awoke with a sharp pain in my privates. Upon inspection, something terribly wrong was found down there, and the ensuing panic made me late for roll call. Sergeant Smith was in my face on sight, “Why are you trying to ruin my flight, California? Were you catching up on your beauty sleep?” When told the situation, the ferocious look on my drill instructor’s face instantly transformed into sheer compassion. “Y’all hang tight while I call Airman Providence a medical van!”
After the longest six weeks of my life, Misty flew down with her father for my graduation from boot camp. The ceremony was something to behold. We were decked out in our handsome blue service dress uniforms and marched around a field lined by dozens of retired aircraft. Generals arrived in bulletproof limousines and fighter jets flew in formation overhead. Pride swelled within. The telltale slouch that marred my posture all my life vanished, never to return. Oh, how far I had come from my days as the eldest and Fragile Boy! The love of my life was on my arm and the world at my feet. Nothing could stop me now!
When I was little, I thought those children of Israel were pretty stupid. They were always doubting and complaining. God led them out of Egypt only to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, into the desert to slay them with hunger and thirst, and to the Promised Land to be devoured by giants. I could not understand it. The Lord did all kinds of miracles for them, and they went right on doubting and complaining! When God spoke the Ten Commandments to them, they even said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us lest we die!” Who does not want to hear the voice of God? After hearing it for myself, I no longer think those children of Israel were all that stupid.
Upon return to the Zeta house that winter, my brother Freddy hit me up to trade rooms. It was an odd proposition because I was in a double with a roommate, and he had a single room: a highly coveted asset in a frat house. Why did he want out? By asking around, I learned that Freddy “saw ghosts” in his room. But he did have to leave school the previous year after a mental disturbance, so I figured Freddy’s ghosts were only in his head and took the room.
While in the service, I decided to change my major to chemical engineering to make the big bucks for Misty. Those classes were far more challenging and time consuming than any taken previously. The weekdays flew by as I labored to have all my work done so the weekends could be dedicated exclusively to Misty. After burning the midnight oil to get an assignment done, I got into bed at three o’clock in the morning. Moments later, someone whispered my name. I must be hearing things. It happened again. I was in my room alone all night. The door was locked by a dead bolt from the inside. There was no place for anyone to hide in that tiny room, and a soul had not stirred in the house for hours. Then I remembered Freddy’s ghost, and my hair stood on end.
“Jooohny…Johhhny…Johnyyy…,” the voice deliberately hissed my name, emphasizing different syllables each time with a hideous inflection like a death rattle. There was a mocking quality about it, as if it were delighted by the terror it sent flashing through me with every malevolent repetition of my name. Paralyzed by fear, I could only pretend to be asleep and hope the serpentine voice would stop. It did not.
Eventually I worked up enough courage to look in the direction the voice was coming from. There, in the far corner, stood a figure draped in a flowing black robe. The arms were crossed in front of it like a monk, and its head was bowed and hooded so I could not see its face. The robe looked much like our Zeta ritual robes only much bigger and lacking the symbols.
If there was anything else to see I missed it because my blankets were now pulled over my face. The voice let out a maniacal laugh, and I leapt from the bed and dove for the light switch. The room was empty. The door was still locked from the inside, my windows were frozen shut, and there was no doubt in my mind that I just met Freddy’s ghost.
As winter gave way to spring, something far worse than that ghost haunted me. Misty changed after returning from a trip to Europe with the high school. She was distant, her kisses lacked passion, and she became very hard to get ahold of. But she wouldn’t say what was wrong. After finishing the year at the U in May, I moved back home and heard rumors that Misty was spending a lot of time with a classmate named John that she had never mentioned. When one of my younger wrestling teammates told me about a massage session he witnessed between Misty and John #2 at school, I put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The truth had to be pried out of Misty with a crowbar. “I’m just too young to be in such a serious relationship,” she said. “It’s my senior year, and I want the freedom to spend what little time I have left with my classmates and going to their graduation parties without being tied down to one person. I want to find myself and date other people.” My ears tingled as Misty coolly filled in the details. “Mine and John’s parents have been friends since before we were born, and he’s been in love with me since we played in the sandbox together. We have many of the same friends and will be going to the same graduation parties all summer. He’s even attending the University of Minnesota in the fall like me! I still have feelings for you, but I like John a lot. We grew close on our trip to Europe, and I would like to have an open relationship so I can date you both this summer. After that, who knows?”
It all seemed so perfectly set up for Misty and #2 to fall in love and live happily ever after that I hardly put up a fight and fled at the first opportunity. Misty’s father was waiting for me in the driveway. His words are lost, but the impression of them was genuinely empathetic. Not knowing what to say, I stuck out my hand and asked for his reference. After receiving his endorsement, I left and it was night.
My spirit was torn in two. The wound was infinitely more excruciating than any suffered before. My entire life to that point was a cakewalk in comparison. I ate and slept little for weeks. Waking hours were entirely consumed with thoughts of her. When sleep did come, Misty infested my dreams. A vicious cycle of thoughts and feelings twisted and turned inside, picking up momentum with each rotation, forming a whirlwind of agony so intense it made me physically ill.
What a fool you were, waiting faithfully for Misty for two years, and dreaming of the day you’d be reunited at the U. Now she’s leaving you for another John to go there with. And remember how afraid she was that you were going to leave her when you graduated and went to college? Now that’s exactly what she’s doing to you. And how you looked down your nose at those who left their relationships at graduation and advised you to do the same!
For the life of me I could not understand Misty’s attraction to #2. He was a band geek and drama club nerd with perpetually blushing cheeks. He never even had a girlfriend before! Why would Misty ruin our perfect two-year relationship to date him? A blasphemous theory stepped forward. Other than the fact that I was cool and he was not, #2 and I had much in common. We had the same eye and hair color, the same build, were headed to the same school that fall, and even had the same first name! It appeared as if Misty was simply trading similar guys purely to accommodate the nostalgia that grips seniors near graduation. Was she breaking my heart just to eat cocktail weenies and Swedish meatballs at graduation parties all summer with a more agreeable date for the occasion? The heartless way Misty handled the situation made it hard to deny my growing fear that she was nothing more than a shrewd opportunist all along. It was more convenient for her to date a wrestler when she was a wrestling cheerleader, so she dumped her boyfriend for me. It was cool to date a guy in college who took her to frat parties while her friends drank in the woods, but now that there were graduation parties to attend, I became a social liability! It could not be true, could it?
I never bought that Misty wanted to keep dating me. There was no doubt that she originally planned on dumping me outright in two weeks but I sprung the trap early by finding out about #2 first. The open relationship thing was an emergency measure enacted solely to keep me as her date to the senior prom in seven days. The tux was already paid for, our reservations made, and the party set weeks in advance of the #2 revelation. I asked Misty that night if she would rather go to the prom with John #2, and she said he already had a date with a plutonic friend that could not be honorably broken so close to the dance. My gut told me not to go, but my heart feared jeopardizing any future chance of winning Misty back by ruining her senior prom.
On prom night, Misty played the role of my date so perfectly it almost fooled me into thinking she still loved me. I kept my distance from her until she tracked me down and asked me to dance. When we paired up, she would not look at me. Her eyes were fixed in a certain direction, and I danced myself into position to see what she was looking at. It was #2 dancing with his date while looking right back at Misty. No matter what direction she was facing, her eyes remained glued to his. I tried to make it so her back was constantly turned to him, but she contorted her head around like an owl to keep #2 in her field of vision. “Go dance with him if that’s what you want!” I said and walked out the door.
I sat outside writhing in pain and chastising myself a coward who would rather share Misty than make a clean break. “Careful, careful, son! You don’t know what a day will bring,” Dad’s words repeated in my heart. He always said that when warning me about the intimate nature of my relationship with Misty. His words did not make any sense until then. My house was built on the shifting sands of a girl’s fickle love, and it came crashing down when the winds of change blew!
There was one more date for which Misty had need of me. I had tickets to an outdoor music festival that she insisted on attending. Misty was still playing like we were going to date through the summer, but I knew this concert was going to be our last date. Wanting to leave a good impression, I drove Misty and her friends to the festival. When we arrived, I wandered away from the group and into a game of hacky sack at the venue’s entrance.
Then I heard someone calling my name. The source of the voice could not be determined, but it kept calling, growing louder and more authoritative each time. The voice distracted me so much that I left the hacky circle and stood at the gates to wait for them to open. A line formed behind me. “John! John! John!” I tired of that voice. There was no explanation for it. I quit getting high because it amplified the torment over Misty exponentially. Voices were never heard on weed anyway. Then the voice added, “Go to your car, John!” Why go back to my car? It was parked a mile away, and I was the first in line to get into the festival. If I started listening to voices, then what was to stop me from following them into the jaws of insanity like Grandpa Rocky?
The voice was ignored until the force of it doubled me over and nearly knocked me off my feet. We’ll see what this crazy voice has to say when I get to my car! After trekking all the way back to my golden 1984 Chrysler LeBaron nothing happened, so I got in it to rest up a bit before walking back to the festival. The moment the car door shut behind me I was struck by a blinding light and a warm, electric presence filled the LeBaron. Tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and a voice like thunder spoke, “I have a plan for your life, John. You will tell people about my son, Jesus.”
“Oh yeah? Where were you when I was a boy? I begged you to speak to me then, and now you start talking to me? I don’t want to be a preacher! I like sex and drugs and rock and roll. I can’t do those things and follow you. If you really are God, then you must make your plans happen. I won’t do a thing to change!” There was no reply and I just sat there for a while unable to move.
Back at the concert, Misty asked where I was and gave a nervous laugh when told. Misty demoted our relationship from dating to “just friends” right after the festival, as expected. When I called to wish her a happy birthday a week later, she was not very talkative. “Is he there?” He was. “Well I’m sorry for putting you in an awkward position,” I said.
“Who’s feeling awkward? I’m not feeling awkward at all,” Misty said flippantly. That was the last time I called. Instead, impassioned letters were mailed describing my agony in minute detail and imploring her to end it by coming back. Misty was the only one who could heal me, and she was not willing!
On top of losing my love, I was about to lose my best friend, Davey. When I came home from the service, my little brother was replaced by an “urban gangsta” named Pimp DP. I thought him ridiculous with his pants around his ankles, speaking in ghetto tongues, and driving around reclining in his car thumping rap music out of a stereo system on steroids. One morning, Dad went into Davey’s room to wake him for school when God told him to look in Pimp DP’s jacket. There was a gun inside. Davey stole it to sell or trade for the drugs he sold unbeknownst to our parents. Dad called the police, and Davey was charged with a felony. Prison looked unavoidable.
Through some connections at church, Davey was accepted into a Christian residential drug treatment program called New Life just in time for the judge to order him there instead of jail. Mom and Dad saw the hand of God. That inspired me to tell Dad what happened at the music festival, and he said I should talk to Pastor Max.
After telling Max my story he said, “God called you into the ministry.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Why would God call me to do something I don’t want to do?”
“I didn’t want to be a preacher either,” Max said. “When God first called me at eight years old, I ran and hid from him under a pine tree.” Well there he was, now the head pastor of First Pentecostal after Pastor Richards retired. If God could make Max a pastor when he did not want to, then he could make me a preacher, too! I better cut a deal now before it is too late, “God, I promise that if you give Misty back, I will become a preacher!”
I looked forward to hanging out with Davey and his crazy friends to distract me from Misty, and now I would be spending the summer without him! I wandered the earth alone until an unexpected companion came along—Julia. We were fellow castaways on the sea of romantic sorrow. Checkers was history. He did not make it through her first year at college. Julia’s next boyfriend had just left her for someone else like Misty did to me.
I could not have asked for a better person to help me through, and the old chemistry between us was as dynamic as ever. Get this, Julia lived a mere block away from John #2! I figured Misty drove by my golden LeBaron parked outside Julia’s house enough for her to notice that I was spending a great deal of time with the prom queen.
Sure enough, Misty and her blushing boy drove by at the exact moment Julia embraced me in her driveway. I held her extra close to give Misty’s eye something to feast on. Things might have escalated between me and Julia, but I vowed not to defile myself with other women and remain pure for Misty when we got back together. #2 had the upper hand, for now. I suspected the tables might turn back in my favor after the graduation parties dried up and the two of them became freshman nobodies at the big bad U. How long will their relationship last while Misty knows she has a dedicated worshiper in a fraternity house on campus?
When Julia started dating someone, I decided to get out of town and move back into the frat house. The night before leaving for Zeta, I lay in bed unable to sleep. That is when the most monstrous question of all came calling: Is Misty having sex with #2, possibly at this very moment?
I asked Dad once what he thought: “I don’t know; she had sex with you didn’t she?”
Then I asked him if she thought Misty was in love with #2. “People fall in love with who they spend time with, and she spends time with him, son.”
Very late that night, my paranoid thoughts were interrupted by an eerie presence that filled my room like a heavy fog until it suffocated the breath from my lungs. It was pure, spine tingling, evil. All my packed bags and boxes levitated off the floor and flew around the room spinning like tops to the sound of wicked laughter.
Having a serious high school girlfriend kept me on the fringe of the social scene at Zeta. All of that was about to change. Every summer night was a party at the frat house where the endless stream of pain-numbing booze unleashed a raging fool in me who was named “R” by my frat brothers. He wore leisure suits, danced like a disco robot, shocked the ladies by flipping his prosthetic teeth at them, and did things so outrageous that they cannot be written in good taste. I have no idea where that alter ego came from, but R was a hit. In mere weeks, people I did not even know were calling me R all around campus and in the clubs.
One night I came out of a drunken stupor to find myself making out with a woman who was so beautiful that it scared me. “What are you doing?” I asked leaping to my feet.
“I’m hanging out with you, silly,” the goddess said.
“No, I mean, what are you doing with me?”
From then on, R fancied himself a “player” who tried to make out with the most beautiful women he could every night. And the part that fried my sober self the most was that he was wildly successful. Who knew that the secret to getting girls was acting like a big clown? But R was a gentleman who kindly informed his victims up front that sex was not on the menu. Many ladies seemed to take that a challenge but R held his ground. Oddly enough, every conquest only seemed to make me more miserable over Misty. The girls I was “macking on” were much prettier than she was; why was I not over her yet?
Late one night while drunkenly fuming over this, my thoughts turned to God. He told me Misty was not a preacher’s wife right before I went into the Air Force. A year later, he called me into the ministry at the music festival right as she was leaving me for #2! “So, you took Misty away to make me a stupid preacher, did you? I’d rather die than live another day without her! We’ll see what kind of preacher I am when I’m dead!”
I jumped in my car and drove toward Misty’s house with no intention of making it there alive. Not wanting to take any innocents out with me, I drove very carefully until I came in view of a certain curve on an elevated freeway with a concrete wall on the side that I planned to hit head on to send me through the windshield and plummet to my death. When the curve approached, I unbuckled my seatbelt, took my hands off the wheel, and stepped on the gas.
What happened next was so surreal that it seems like a dream now. My LeBaron traversed the curve by itself and continued steering on its own as I watched in utter disbelief. The car slowed without my braking, exited onto another highway without my steering, and accelerated on its own. I alternated between shocked silence and hysterical laughter as the LeBaron drove on through the night. Command of the vehicle was not taken by me until we reached the exit to Misty’s house.
Upon arrival, I was at a loss for what to do next. We had not spoken in months. It was the middle of the night. Misty would surely be in bed and her parents home. A light was on in the living room, and I snuck up to the window to investigate. Misty was on the couch watching TV alone. Her parents were out of town. All I remember is Misty holding my head in her lap as I repeated through convulsing sobs, “God drove my car.”
When school started that fall destiny placed Misty in one of my classes. I sat with a sorority girl from our hometown that did not have a very high opinion of Misty, and we ignored her until she ran me down after class one day. “How do you like the U?” I asked awkwardly.
“It’s great! I’m having lots of fun meeting new people.”
“I’m so glad our relationship is no longer holding you back from the joy of discovery! Come to think of it, I’m glad I’m not being held back either.” At that I turned sharply down another path.
Misty called later that day and said, “I want to see you again.”
“Why do you want to see me now that you’re at one of the largest universities in the nation? There are plenty of new guys for you to meet and ‘find yourself’ with here! Isn’t that why you tore my heart out and put me through hell in the first place?”
“I don’t want to meet anyone new. I want to be with you.”
“What about #2?”
“I stopped seeing him a while ago. I was in love with you the whole time, and I just hated seeing you with Julia.”
Now I had Misty right where I wanted her. How could she be trusted if, while being in love with me the whole time as Misty claimed, she was capable of leaving me at any moment for frivolous reasons? Besides, I enjoyed my new career as a pick up artist and all the approval it won me from the Zetas. Why give that up for a girl that took my fidelity for granted and left me for a stooge to drag along to graduation parties, only to come crawling back when I predicted? No way! She had to earn my trust and faithfulness. Until then, I wanted the freedom to see other people if Misty liked it or not. She did not like it, but that was tough luck for her because I held all the cards now!
The revenge inflicted on that poor girl in the name of winning back my trust was despicable. Had you confronted me with my true motives, I would have scoffed you out the room. You see, I only made out with Misty’s best friend Lisa to help me get over the mistrust that prevented a full commitment on my part. I only introduced Misty to my gorgeous make-out pals because they were my friends, too, and not to make her jealous and insecure. That one time she had to be walked home in tears by one of my brothers because of the vicious names I called her? Well, I was black-out drunk. I never said anything like that to her sober. And, all the girls I fooled around with on the side did not really count because I did not have intercourse with any of them!
That fall was a fool’s paradise where I had my cake and ate it, too. Then, a girl with a trembling voice called. “John, we don’t know each other that well, but I saw you on campus today.” It was Rebekah, a girl my age who went to First Pentecostal and wore her hair in braided pigtails a lot. We never spoke before, but I did remember our eyes locking when we passed each other at school earlier that day. “I hope this isn’t too weird,” she said nervously. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” I said stuff to calm her down and she continued, “God spoke to me when I saw you, and told me to tell you what he said, but I was too afraid to do it then. The Lord said that he has a great calling on your life, and you are running from him. Please don’t run from God, John! He loves you so much.” She was sobbing.
“Don’t worry about me, Rebekah. I’m just young and having fun. Someday I’ll settle down and follow God more seriously, like after I graduate and get married.”
“But John, how do you know you will live that long?” Rebekah’s question made me uneasy. And how did she know about my calling? Pastor Max probably told her, I reasoned and hardened my heart.
I went home for Thanksgiving break in eager anticipation of the delicious meal Mom always made, but it was not to be. Dad and Davey were out of state attending something called the “White Sands Revival” at a church down south. What a lame reason to ruin Thanksgiving dinner! We went somewhere else for the meal, and the turkey was dry.
Back home, Mother yelled my name exactly like she did in my youth. As the sound of her thundering steps reverberated through the floor, I instinctually hurried to report. Mother was just rounding the corner when she met me head on with “the look” pasted on her face in all its fury—howling with her finger thrust out.
“Shut your f-cking mouth!” I roared. “Do you hear me? You f-cking shut it!” Mother froze. “I’m not taking your sh-t anymore; can you hear me now? You will never raise your voice at me again. I’m done with it, and I’m done with you. All my life I’ve been the problem in this family. Everything that happened was my fault, no matter what it was. All you and Dad ever fought about was me. And why? Was I really that bad? No! Your precious youngest son is a drug dealer who’d be in prison right now for stealing a gun were it not for New Life! Wasn’t I the one destined for prison like Teddy?”
The look vanished from Mom’s face, and she just stood there flinching as my profanity laced tirade continued, “You’re daughter dates an even bigger drug dealer than Davey was and dropped out of high school! I’m the only child of yours that will have graduated with a real diploma. Now I get good grades in college, and serve our country in the military. Oh, but I’m the big f-cking problem child, right? Well, if I’m such a problem for you, then I’ll solve it. I’m not your son anymore!”
Mother was left speechless to gather my things. Rage gave way to euphoria. It’s about time you told that hag off, Davey and Norma have been doing so for years! When Mother got her voice back, she screamed that she was calling the police to take me away like she often threatened when I was a kid. “Don’t bother! I’ll call them for you on my way out!” As I left the house, Mother was given a farewell insult punctuated by slamming the door in her face. All those years sitting at attention muzzled by fear were over! Mother was powerless now. I no longer lived at home, and they did not give me a dime for school!
Dad’s frequent calls and messages were ignored until just before Christmas. “You need to apologize to your mother and come home for the holidays, son. Don’t you think you overreacted a little? All your mom was upset about was…”
“You may think it was a small thing that set me off, Dad, but it was a lifetime in the making! I will not apologize to Mother. You always wanted me to make her happy, but I never could. I’m not Teddy. I never was Teddy, and you let her treat me like him all my life when you knew the truth. I will no longer be a part of this family as long as I’m the black sheep.”
The Zeta house was spookier than ever when everyone went home for the holidays except me. “R sees ghosts!” is how my brothers teased after awaking to find me in their rooms at odd hours with tales of frightening aberrations. I am not sure when they started appearing to me, but they were nothing like Freddy’s ghost. I referred to them as “the visitors” to my friends because I knew they were not ghosts. They were something even harder for people to believe. They always came very late at night when my roommate was asleep. Their impending arrival was signaled by an electric sensation. When the current began running through my body, I shouted at my roommate to wake up and he never did. Eventually, the current amplified to the point of paralysis, as is commonly reported by alien abductees. Then the demons came. Sometimes one. Sometimes many. Every time a terror. Some were big, others small, every one grotesque. One put its nose to mine and screamed in my face. Another dangled me from the ceiling by my ankles. They all laughed.
My eyes were usually squeezed shut as the demons frolicked about mocking me. But they never seemed to bother me if I got drunk enough to pass out, so I drank with even more fury to stave off the devils. Blackouts became frequent. Once I came to wandering around town in the dead of winter with no coat on. Another time, I woke at the bottom of a stairway with a nasty bump on my head.
Reporting for Reserve duty one weekend a month was my only source of income and it did not even cover the booze and drugs. To fuel the party, I took out student loans and maxed out credit cards. Going to bed at the raging Zeta house and waking early for duty was near impossible and I slept through drill for months in a row. After explaining my situation to the commanding office, the major said, “Because you told me voluntarily of your substance abuse problem, you have two options. You can go to treatment and start reporting to drill again, or you can stop coming and I will take care of it.” He took care of it.
Going to school also did not fit my schedule of partying all night and sleeping all day. In danger of failing all my classes, I spoke with a school counselor and the U gave me Ws (withdrawals) instead of Fs, and referred me to a psychiatrist who experimented with drugs until the magic pill was found.
I do not remember how things got smoothed over at home, but they did. It probably had something to do with the religious fervor that was affecting my parents. I would go to Mom and Dad’s looking forward to a home-cooked meal only to find my parents fasting! “We’re praying for you,” they would say. Pray me up a plate of spaghetti while you’re at it!
Dad was always watching tapes of services from the White Sands Revival he and Davey ruined Thanksgiving with. Once Misty and I went into the living room to chat with Dad while one of those tapes was playing. “You!” shouted the evangelist, Reverend Friday, pointing his finger at me through the TV. “You are having sex with your girlfriend and it’s wrong! You know it’s wrong!” That seemed like a good time to leave.
Misty stoically endured my philandering until a brilliant tactical maneuver put it to an end. Her dorm was right across the street from the Alpha house where she went to a party without me and met a guy named Smithers who was good friends with the same clique of girls I messed around with. They all shared tales of my feats with Misty, and she related them back to me along with the news that she was now seeing Smithers on the side.
All of a sudden, I no longer wanted an open relationship and fully committed to Misty on Valentine’s Day. She should have played that card sooner! But the damage was done. That spring, Misty told me about an excursion with a “friend” named Jason and another couple to one of those places where you park to watch planes land just above your car like in the movies. She insisted it was a harmless activity, but I did not have to be a prophet to read the writing on the wall. Jason was my replacement.
I was broke and owed Zeta thousands in rent. They would not allow me back the next school year unless that debt was paid. With my exit from the Air Force, I no longer had the means to pay for school. At least a year would have to be taken off to work and pay off my debts before returning. There was no way my relationship with Misty could weather that with Jason waiting in the wings. I did not have the will to watch that scenario play itself out. It had to end by my hand before Misty left me for Jason, but I lacked the courage to raise the knife and forced her to break up with me over the phone. I hung up with tears in my eyes and a clenched fist raised to the heavens, “Are you happy now? You took Misty away and gave her back only to take her away again! I hate you! Do you hear me? I f-cking hate you!”
Proverbs 19:3 never fails to bring this chapter to mind: “A man’s foolishness ruins his life, and yet his heart rages against the Lord.”
I prayed so hard for the Lord to bring Misty back to me because I believed she was the only cure for the crushing despair. If anything, it only got worse after her return. For the life of me, I could not figure out why. Today I know it was because I never forgave her, paying Misty back stripe for stripe instead. Although the news of her dating Jason was expected, it still left a nasty stripe. My one shot at true love was gone. What is the point of living if not for that?
Elaborate suicidal fantasies possessed my imagination. One condition had to be met: I could not kill myself intentionally, or I would go straight to hell. If only I could go out performing a heroic deed like pushing someone out of the way of a speeding bus! But if that was my intention, then I would still be killing myself on purpose no matter how noble the deed that caused my death. In late May, while contemplating the paradox of accidental suicide, my room suddenly flooded with the presence that filled my LeBaron at the music festival the year before. A gentle voice asked, “Are you happy now?”
Then the words God spoke at the music festival replayed in my ears along with my response to his call: “I like sex and drugs and rock and roll. I can’t do those things and follow you.” My mind shattered. I was just wrapping up a year like none other filled to the brim with all the drugs, women, sex, and parties my rock and roll ethos demanded. Slowly the irony dawned on me. I got everything I said I wanted instead of following God. Was I happy now? Check and mate! At that moment, the Lord seemed like a cosmic prankster who foiled my every hope and dream since boyhood in the most amusing ways he could engineer. My response to his question was, “You win! You might as well kill me yourself and take me to heaven now. There’s nothing left for me here. Take my life! I don’t want it anymore.”
That weekend, I went to Mom and Dad’s for my birthday and dug out a little book filled with Bible verses that was given to me at church on the Sunday after I graduated high school. Tears flowed as passages on forgiveness were read. I repented of my sins and put my faith in Christ. The crushing weight of despair lifted, and peace beyond words flooded my soul. Then a joy bubbled up from my inmost being that had me walking on water for months. The calling I ran away from was now embraced. I was going to be a preacher if it was the last thing I did!
Weeks later the White Sands Revival traveled to a nearby state to hold a series of evangelistic crusades. My entire family went filled with expectation. The rocking Southern gospel music filled the convention center with jubilant praise, and the presence of the Lord was so heavy I could barely stand upright. Reverend Friday delivered a blistering sermon that sent me running forward at the altar call to get saved again. After leading us to Christ, members of the revival team went through the crowd laying hands on people to “receive the Holy Spirit,” sending many sprawling to the floor. I saw people fall out all my life in church, but never in such numbers or so quickly. These ministers merely tapped people on the forehead or stomach while shouting a single word and sent them crumpling to the floor.
As multitudes fell like dominoes and lay in twitching piles all around, I wondered what would happen to me. Not everyone went down. Dad never did. Then a man lightly tapped my stomach yelling, “Fire!” and a holy bolt of lightning struck. The force threw me on my back and bounced me up on my feet like a basketball. That was better than any drug or sex I ever had! I staggered about like a drunken man as waves of power washed through my body that left a sensation like a warm heap of coals in my belly that did not subside for days. I was an instant addict of the fire shooting out those minister’s hands and spent the next three days getting zapped with it as many times as possible.
White Sands held a school of ministry at a local church the next day before that evening’s crusade. Dad tried to register us for it before we left, but it was full. I prayed and asked Jesus to get us into that school. Was I not called to be a preacher? Then I needed to go! Dad and I got in at the last minute when some friends who registered could not attend and gave us their place. The church was packed to overflowing. There was nowhere to sit. I prayed again and somehow we found seats in the center of the very front row!
Reverend Friday took the floor and spoke of the great revival that was going to sweep the nation through ministers like us. I could have sworn he was looking at me the entire time! Was I going to be a powerful evangelist like Rev. Friday who sent people falling to the floor when I prayed for them? Afterward, another round of Holy Ghost shots was served. When Dad and I made our way out of the sanctuary, we stopped to talk with friends in the foyer. Out of nowhere, the Spirit knocked me to the floor. From my perspective on the carpet I saw that Rev. Friday had just walked behind me.
At the revival, I was emboldened towards Satan and the visitors he sent to torment me at the Zeta house. I was hopping mad at that stupid devil and told him in no uncertain terms that I was coming for him! He would do well not to bother dispatching his imps to bother me again, and if he did, I would hit him back now that I was filled with the power of the Holy Ghost!
Upon my return to Zeta, I went about ferociously devouring the Bible. Being unemployed afforded me the time to lie around in my boxers reading the Word day and night. My brothers were taken aback at the new me after I swore off drugs, booze, and women. R’s ridiculous escapades and amusing tales were replaced by a Jesus freak with bizarre stories like the following.
One afternoon, while lying on the couch reading the Word, my body became charged with the sensation that preceded the entrance of my visitors. When the paralysis spread to my extremities the Bible fell from my hands, but I was not afraid because it never happened in broad daylight before. Then the room filled with people dressed in medieval garb talking excitedly amongst themselves until two men on either side of the door silenced them with flag-adorned trumpets.
A herald stepped forward and announced, “The King has arrived!” Everyone bowed low. Was I about to see the King of Kings—Jesus Christ himself? Then, a hideous being, so huge it barely squeezed through the door, burst into the room. It was cartoonishly muscular with goat legs, great spiraling horns, and luminescent red eyes lit by a fire of hate. Whoever that was, it was not Jesus! It spewed a deluge of words that sounded like Latin and charged at me, but it hit an invisible wall just out of reach and kept running in place as if on a treadmill. When the name of Jesus was mustered aloud, the vision dissolved.
That story got a range of reactions from my Zeta brothers. Some were fascinated, others scoffed, but most squirmed and changed the subject. I knew it sounded crazy, but my strange experience made sense from a certain point of view. Jude said, “But even Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil…did not presume to bring against him a slanderous accusation.” After that demon called on me, I remembered foolish things I said to Satan at the revival.
Other strange things were happening at the Zeta house that summer. Before my conversion, I had to buy my own drugs and alcohol, now those things were offered on a daily basis free of charge! In addition, the Zeta house had many women living in it because the sororities closed for the summer. I only talked to them about Jesus, but for some reason I woke up at night with girls knocking on my door asking me to take them to bed! Absolutely no advances were made, and yet they were throwing themselves at me? In hindsight, there must have been some kind of competition between them to see who could break me first.
Misty dropped by to return some personal effects and tokens of our love. After she informed me how intimate she and Jason were, I needed a drink. The Zetas were all too willing to take me to the bar and R returned with a vengeance. The ensuing bender was so debased that nothing done before came close. What a fool I must have looked like to everyone I told about Jesus, especially the girls! When Rev. Friday got saved, he was instantly delivered from heroin addiction, and it was nothing but victorious holy rolling for him ever since. What was wrong with me?
Grief-stricken over my fall from grace, I begged Jesus to get me out of the Zeta house. “I can’t live for you here and stay pure with all these temptations! Where do you want me to go to school next?” The Lord said, “Go to Bethel,” but not in an audible voice like before. An audible voice was never heard again. Jesus said that in my heart, but I could not be sure it was him. If it was Jesus, why would he tell me to go to Bethel? That was a Baptist university and everyone knows Baptists do not believe in the supernatural! And one year at that private school cost nearly as much as a whole degree at the U! I did not qualify for enough student aid and my grades were no longer good enough for scholarships. The only possible way was to get hired at Bethel because of the free tuition benefit they gave full-time employees. Davey’s father-in-law worked there, and he put in a good word for me. I applied for a security position praying my military training was qualification enough. I did not even get an interview. If Jesus had really told me to go to Bethel, then it would have happened. The voice I heard must not have been his.
Fall was approaching when Zeta would turn me out for moneys owed. I did not want to stay anyway. I was nothing but a drunken clown to them. I had not a single real friend that stuck by me after finding Jesus except Sam. He was a shameless ladies man who made R look like a grasshopper. Sam was the real deal, and it baffled me how he could do it. Even in my heyday as a kissing bandit, I had to be wasted to fool around and was hounded by my conscience when sober. Sam seemed so at ease with himself and proud of his flings that I took upon myself the role of angel on his shoulder, “Why do you have sex with so many girls, Sam? Don’t you want to fall in love and get married? How will your wife feel about what you’re doing now?”
“I will never get married!” Sam would say. “My mother is the only woman I’ll ever love!” I fell in love with Sam’s mom, too, after he invited me to live with him that fall on his family’s farm two hours away. Her name was Jackie, and she took me in like an orphaned cub. That woman was a downright saintly, salt of the earth, super mom who loved Jesus. Our shared faith bonded us as if we had known each other for years; although, my strange stories seemed a bit much for her at times. She called me “son of mine” and I called her “Ma.”
The contrast between Sam’s flippant irreverence and Jackie’s humble righteousness was mystifying. How did he turn out like that with a mom like her? Well, it explained why Sam stuck by me when I got religion. Besides the nightly demonic torments, it was a blessed four months living on the farm with Ma and Sam.
That winter, I moved back in with my parents just in time for one of Rocky’s classic gift-giving sprees. He rarely gave presents on traditional occasions like Christmas or birthdays. Instead, Gramps went through phases where he bought everyone the same kind of present. I think it was coats that year. “Yeah, say, that’s a good coat there,” Gramps said with a twinkle in his eye when he gave it to me. “I took and got a good deal on it.” Rocky was still a salesman at heart. He always got good deals and always took and told you all about them.
Gramps scoured stores and pawn shops all over town looking for deals and spent so long in one that the clerk called the police fearing Rocky was casing the joint. He once stayed at the junkyard until it closed, locked the gates, and released the dogs not knowing he was still there. Gramps had an eye for bargains, but not for fashion. I wore his coat out to my car and changed into my cool jacket after driving away.
The visitors followed me home. After Jesus came into my life, there was often an unseen hand holding mine or resting on my shoulder while the demons tormented me, making the experience much less frightening. The attacks always ended the moment the name of Jesus was said aloud, and all fear was instantly replaced with peace, but I was growing weary of them.
Mom and Dad were going to a new church pastored by a Bethel professor named Greg Boyd. One Sunday, I went with them and Boyd preached on unforgiveness using the abuse he suffered at the hands of his step-mother as an illustration. That got my attention! Then he showed us how Satan gets into our lives through the door of unforgiveness. Before then, I could not understand why my demonic torments continued, and even increased, after coming to faith in Christ. I had to forgive Mother to close the door. I did. The nightly terrors ceased. That does not mean I have not suffered an occasional demonic attack. There are other doors.
I could be found at First Pentecostal every time the doors opened. The Saturday evening prayer meeting was my favorite service. Only the diehard, “on fire” believers showed up for that. My stories did not seem so crazy to them. “When I was in high school,” Pastor Max said, “I went to a prayer meeting where God was powerfully moving. In the midst of the excitement I said, ‘If the devil were here right now I’d punch him in the face!’ That night I woke up and saw a black figure with red eyes standing at the foot of my bed. It said, ‘Go ahead.’ I dove under the covers instead.”
Everyone laid hands on each other at prayer meeting and I spent a great deal of time on the carpet “slain in the Spirit.” When I laid hands on others, fire shot from my belly out my hands so powerfully that it often toppled me before them! But the coolest thing going at prayer meeting was the prophecies. Most of my prophecies came through the mouths of three women who called me “son” like Jackie did. For example, one of my spiritual moms said, “The Lord is showing me that your life is going to crumble to ruins and he will rebuild it for his glory.”
Another mom said, “I see your future wife. She plays the piano and sings.”
Pastor Max had this prophecy for me, “The Lord says that he has prepared a man of God who will take you under his wing, mentor you, and show you your ministry.” Well, obviously, that mentor would be none other than Pastor Max himself!
But the vast majority of the prophecies spoken over me were about some “great ministry” God planned for my future. Getting words like that made me feel weird. What was so great about me? But the Lord was already doing neat things through me at my new job working for a regional airline. My main task was to drive around in the commissary van loading the planes with drinks and snacks. I worked with a partner named Kevin who was training to be a pilot. Being tall, dark, and handsome with a cleft chin, he already looked the part. After telling him some of my stories, Kevin said, “Wow! I wish God would talk to me like that.” When he jumped out of the van to load an aircraft with provisions, I asked the Lord to speak to him. Kevin came back minutes later as white as a ghost and stammered, “I think God just talked to me. Do you have a sister?” I told him I did. “God told me that you have to forgive her.” Norma and I had a recent spat that was not mentioned to anyone.
The Lord spoke to the aspiring pilot for the rest of our shift. As we walked in together at the end of the day, Kevin picked up one of the many locks that litter the tarmac after being torn from luggage in transport. It was a combination lock. Kevin giggled and said, “Try to open it.” I tried and failed. When given back to him, he dialed in the combination and the lock opened. The Lord told him what it was. Kevin gave his life to Jesus that day and asked a short time later, “Do people still get visions from God?” I said yes. “Then I think I had one last night. I was flying in a fighter jet over the desert in the Middle East.” If I did things like keep in touch with people, it might be known if Kevin’s vision came to pass.
Misty called unexpectedly the day before leaving to study abroad for a semester in South America. We had not spoken since she returned my things at the Zeta house. “I got the letter you sent me,” she said, “and it made me think.” The letter was written asking forgiveness for stealing her innocence and all the terrible things done to get back at her for breaking my heart. Misty said she wanted to see me that night. Jason was gone, and she was dating another guy, “but we’re not that serious.”
When I accepted her invitation, the Lord reminded, “She is not a preacher’s wife.” I went to Misty’s apartment with the sole intention of talking to her about Jesus. When she asked me to sit right next to her with a certain look in her eye, I realized what she really wanted. I fled. It seemed an empty victory because I was still in love with her. Prayers were constantly offered begging the Lord to deliver my heart from Misty once and for all. That night, the same request was made along with the following: “Jesus, will I ever love anyone more than Misty? If so, please tell me her name!”
He answered, “Karen F.” Now why would he say that name? Karen worked at the airline with me. She was a Norwegian girl with hair so blonde it was white. She was a Barbie model on the side—way out of my league! A word was never spoken by me to Karen. Well I had to talk to her now! I assumed she would be vain and shallow before getting to know her, but Karen turned out be one of the coolest people I ever met. And she loved my stories. Karen gave her heart to Jesus and my heart was hers. Maybe I really did hear from Jesus this time!
Working for an airline allowed Karen and I the opportunity to fly down to the White Sands Revival for free. “I don’t care if anything happens to me at the revival if you’d only touch her,” was my prayer. We arrived at the church hours early to get a good place in line. That night, Jesus answered my prayers for Karen in a mighty way. I had to carry her out of the building to our cab because the power of the Spirit rendered her unable to walk. When able to speak Karen asked, “Why were they pouring water on my head after I fell down?” No one was doing that, but it was a sensation reported by some people when being filled with the Holy Ghost,
On our last night at the revival, an invitation was given for anyone who wanted to be baptized in the Holy Spirit to gather in a back room for prayer. White Sands and First Pentecostal belonged to a denomination called the Pentecostal Congregation (PC) whose official doctrine states that speaking in tongues is the “initial physical evidence” of Spirit baptism. The practical implication being that if someone never spoke in tongues then they could not be sure they were baptized in the Spirit. I often prayed for that gift and had yet to speak in tongues.
Karen and I reported to the room. “There are too many of you for us to lay hands on individually,” the man in charge said. “I’d bet there are about 120 gathered here just like on the day of Pentecost! Well, no one laid hands on the disciples in the upper room. We’ll pray for the Spirit to fall, just put up your hands and receive him. When he fills you, start praising God in your new heavenly language.” And so it went. The Spirit fell and tongues were loosed about the room. The joy over hearing Karen’s tongues was so total that I did not even notice mine! It kind of scared me. My tongue was doing things it never did before or since.
A better trip to the revival could not have been had. Not only was I “officially” baptized in the Holy Spirit, but everything was falling into place for Karen and me to fall in love. And that is how it had to happen because she already had plans to move to California two days after our return! How were we going to get married then? Should I confess my love and try to stop her? Instead, I prayed for God to keep Karen home and she left for the Sunshine State as planned. God tricked me! He never said Karen would love me in return. He only gave me her name in response to my question about if I could love anyone more than Misty. I certainly could have loved Karen more!
But the Lord’s genius was undeniable. I never would have spoken to Karen had he not said her name. And what did I have to complain about? She got saved and filled with the Spirit through our friendship! It still jerked my chain. God betrayed me. He used me. I was all alone, still not over Misty, and yet heartbroken over Karen.
As fate would have it, Karen met some of Norma’s friends in California and moved into a house with them. She came home to visit a few months later, and I finally revealed the secret behind our friendship. Karen was gracious but clear that she did not think of me in a romantic way. I understood well enough given my current admirer at work. Her name was Laura, a convert of mine who followed me around like a lost puppy. She was nice, but her spunky personality wore me out in minutes flat. Laura sent a steady stream of emissaries at work informing me of her love. I played dumb, and avoided her like the plague. God let the wrong girl fall for me; it was supposed to be Karen, not Laura! I held out hope that she would have a change of heart, but our communication tailed off until all contact was lost.
Thank God for Pastor Max! He walked closely beside me through the highs and lows of my fledgling spiritual journey, sharing his incredible stories and wisdom along the way. Max was so cool. He took me out to eat, counseled me in his office, and recommended great books. Max had faith like you would not believe. He even gave up his appointment to the Air Force Academy to go to Pentecostal Bible College (PBC) instead! That is where all of our pastors went to school, and Max advised me to go there, too. “The Pentecostal Congregation does not require a seminary degree for ordination. PBC’s bachelors program in ministry is specifically designed to prepare you for the PC’s licensing exam.” With Max’s recommendation, I was accepted to PBC for the coming fall.
When Mom and Dad sold their house, I moved into a rental property owned by an elder of First Pentecostal that was only blocks away from church. My roommate, Bo, was a Southern boy making money hand over fist as a roofer in Yankee country during the housing boom. This was our nightly ritual. “Now, Johnny, why do you lay around reading that Bible all the time?” Bo asked in a drawl and dialect I lack the skills to reproduce. “Why don’t you go to the club with me tonight?”
“I can’t afford it.”
“Don’t worry about that, Johnny, I’ll pay for you!”
“Thanks for the offer, Bo, but there’s nothing but trouble in the clubs.”
“But aren’t you always talking about wanting to get married? How are you ever going to meet a wife if you don’t go out and find one?”
“The kind of woman I want to marry can’t be found in a club.”
“Well, I’m a Christian and I go to the club. I meet plenty of fine Christian ladies there, just go with me tonight and you’ll see!” Bo got his heart broken twice a week by those right fine Christian women at the club. He was a giant of a man and all heart. I could not help but like the guy and admire his courage, but his dogged persistence was irritating. I never went to the club with him, but we did go golfing together on Father’s Day with the men on Dad’s side of the family. On our way home, we stopped at a traffic light on a divided highway behind a line of cars when I saw the grill of a Ford F-150 truck racing towards us in the rearview mirror.
Then I was inside an old country church. The widows were boarded up. Besides the columns of light pouring through holes in the roof, it was pitch black. When my eyes adjusted, I looked about the dilapidated sanctuary. In the corner stood a man in a white robe looking intently at me. He was easily nine feet tall and held a glittering sword to his chest by the hilt with the blade pointing between his feet. The man’s face was obscured by the flowing robe that hung off his other arm as he held it perpendicular to the floor at nose level, allowing me to see only his eyes. I asked him who he was. “I am just a servant like you.”
Meanwhile, my family said I called from the hospital about every ten minutes asking the same series of questions. “Why am I in the hospital?” They told me about the accident. “Do I have insurance?” They said I did. “Was it my fault?” No, I was rear ended. “Oh great, am I going to be whiplash boy now?” And so it went for days, either on the phone or when they came to visit. There was one more question I kept asking, “Where is Misty?”
The truck hit us full speed; there were no skid marks from braking. The impact was so great that it caused several cars ahead of us to rear end the cars in front of them. My trusty golden LeBaron did not survive, having its rear bumper crunched right up to the back of our seats. Davey was going to ride with us and would have been crushed in the back had Mom not forbade him out of her classic fear that she would lose multiple family members in the same accident. Bo escaped with minor injuries and I sustained a massive concussion.
Providence reunited me with the driver of that truck ten years later, but that story will have to wait. For now, I was looking forward to starting school at PBC—nicknamed Pentecostal Bridal College—where I would surely meet my wife like pastors Max and Richards did!
Rocky and I had more in common than I knew before writing this story down. Both of us heard the voice of the Lord for the first time on a Sunday morning. After our conversions, we both sat around unemployed reading the Bible in our underwear, felt called to be preachers, and did battle with demons. Could anything stop the repetition of Rocky’s story in my life? Find out in The Fool’s Costume: A Strange Confession II.