I left my parents' home at age eleven. After living with various relatives, I struck out on my own at fourteen. The state of Oregon sent me to MacLaren School for Boys at age fifteen. MacLaren was the state reformatory. The decision that I needed to be "reformed" was based on my record of running away from various foster homes, and for usually having a pocket full of drugs when I was finally arrested. I had also stolen a car during one of my escapades.
MacLaren was located in a rural setting outside of Portland. There were no fences. Instead, there were numerous security guards in cars. To run, one would have to cross miles of open fields. The cars almost always caught up to you before you got too far.
The living quarters were broken up into about a dozen self-contained cottages. Each one included a dorm, kitchen, shower area and common room. I was originally assigned to Thayer cottage. A number of the residents of Thayer were older and had obviously been there for awhile. Having already spent some time on the street, at first I wasn't too intimidated. Then we had our first locker search. A staff member started to reach into the locker of the young man standing next to me. "Don't touch that watch!" the boy screamed. "That's my watch!" The staff member continued to reach into the locker. "I said get your hands off my watch. I took that off my dad after I shot him! It's mine now!" I was now officially intimidated.
Within a week, a new policy was adopted at MacLaren. The residents from each county were grouped together by cottage. That meant that I was moved to Hall cottage. It also meant that I now lived with some of my friends from the street.
There were about forty of us in Hall cottage. There were a few rough characters. There was Mike Cooley, who was known to suddenly punch you, usually before you had any idea what you had said or done to tick him off. And Terry Maggort, one of the scariest psychotics I've ever known. But, for the most part, we were the throw-away kids. Most had little or no family connections. Few of us ever had visitors. Some had been at MacLaren for many years, and when they got out, returned after a few months for doing some stupid thing. For those few, MacLaren had become home; the safe place.
Life at Hall wasn't really that bad. It wasn't difficult to understand why a boy from a home where he wasn't wanted, and maybe regularly beaten, might find it his preference. We had our bad moments. Of course there were fights, but they were usually broken up by staff before anyone got seriously hurt. Our staff were more of the model of house parents instead of guards. We respected them, and rarely acted out towards them.
One of the reasons our staff were given so much respect was a little understanding that we had. Tobacco was contraband, as we were all under age. I think all forty of us smoked. All of our tobacco, and our matches, had to be smuggled in. Among the residents, tobacco was our currency; our gold. The shower area; a large, tiled room that also contained the toilets and sinks, was called the flats. The flats had exhaust fans. The "understanding" we had with our staff was that during certain times of the day; early morning, after returning from school or work (I worked in the bakery), and shortly before lights out, they did not enter the flats. That's when we would have our smoke. Since only three boys at a time were allowed in the flats, we were formed into "toking groups". Usually this consisted of at least one boy who had a connection for tobacco, and one large boy who kept us from getting robbed by the other groups.
Every once in awhile, someone would smuggle in some pot. This was rare, as it was very risky. If you were caught with drugs, you got sent to Benson. Benson was segregation. I was sent there twice; once for a fight, and another time for cussing out a staff member that had ticked me off. Both times I was put in the holding cell; a small room with a padded door that you could throw your body against until you exhausted yourself. After a few hours, I was allowed to return to my cottage. There were some boys who spent weeks or even months in Benson. One of the infractions that could lead to a long stay there was drug possession. Consequently, most of us lived a drug-free life, out of fear of Benson.
One of our residents who worked in the commissary discovered an interesting amusement. It was a form of drug use for which there was little danger of being busted. It involved inhaling the contents of an aerosol can. I'll not mention what the inhalant was, as this is dangerous stuff. Let it suffice to say that it was a common product that would not raise the suspicions of the staff. The effect was immediate and very powerful. It was very similar to the effect of poppers (amyl nitrate), and had some similarity to lysergic acid dythalamide. The effect wore off within five or ten minutes, which made it ideal for a situation in which you are under close observation. We could go into the flats for ten minutes, and the staff would just think we were having a smoke.
Although I'd never been a huffer, others had, and so taught us the "safe" way to do it. Since the aerosol was so cold, it would be sprayed into a bread bag first, allowed to warm, and then inhaled. Seemed like harmless fun.
Mike Drew was the one with the job at the commissary. He would inhale this substance throughout the day at work, and then bring some back to the cottage to share with us. This surprised me, as Mike had always seemed to be one of the more clean-cut kids at MacLaren (if you can be considered "clean-cut" in reform school). Mike had been raised by a Christian family. Since I had also spent many years in a Christian family, we had that in common. Sometimes we would talk about God, church, and even the bible, as long as we knew no one else would overhear us. "God" was not cool in MacLaren.
Mike also worked the laundry room, which was located in the flats. So, one night, the two boys working the laundry room and the three boys in my toking group are all in the flats getting loaded. Suddenly Mike fell over. We shook him, tried to pick him up, but he was unconscious. He began to turn blue. We ran for staff.
Most of the residents had gathered around the door of the flats as the emergency crew worked on Mike. After about half an hour, a member of our staff slowly walked out and told us that Mike was dead. He never regained consciousness. The aerosol had frozen his lungs.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Maggort shouts out, "Can I have his commissary job?" Cooley punched Maggort. The staff broke those two up, and sent the rest of us to our bunks.
Over the next few days, the state of Oregon turned our cottage upside down looking for contraband. A staff member now accompanied us into the flats. There was no memorial service that we were allowed to attend. We didn't talk about it much. Actually, we didn't talk much about anything.
After a couple of days, Alan, my toking partner, broke the silence. He said that he knew that I sometimes read the bible. I was known as the cottage bookworm. The bible was one volume in my small library. He asked if I could read something, and maybe say a prayer for Mike. A couple of the boys overheard this, and asked if they could come too.
We got permission from the staff to go into the kitchen. The word had spread, and so now there were about a dozen of us. I didn't feel that it was right for me to do this. I certainly didn't consider myself a Christian anymore. But there they were, twelve sets of eyes staring at me, silently waiting. So I read to them from the third chapter of John. I told them about my talks with Mike. I said that I believed he was with God now. And then I said a prayer. I don't remember what was in the prayer. I'm not sure that it mattered.
One thing I will never forget; there were no tears. Ever. The boys of Hall would never let anyone see themselves that vulnerable. We left the kitchen in silence, each returning to our own bunk. I stared at the ceiling and prayed some more. I like to imagine the other boys did the same.
Those were the first heart-felt prayers I'd offered to God in a long time. I'd like to say that was the beginning of a rebirth for me. But that's the stuff of fairy tales. The next years were full of more self-destructive behaviors, and included one more term in MacLaren.
So, this morning, thirty-seven year later, I gave myself permission to grieve the loss of Mike. I cried. And then cried some more for the boys of Hall.
When I arrived at the church, it was time for the Wednesday morning Eucharist. As I kissed the stole before placing it on my shoulders, I suddenly knew the answer to a question that I've been asked many times over the years, but to which I have never been able to find an honest response. When did I first know that I was called to be a priest? When I looked into the eyes of those twelve boys gathered in the Hall kitchen and saw their hunger for hope.
Father of all, we pray to you for Michael, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.J.