Monday, October 19, 2020

The Nicky Cruz Home

In 1968, I was fourteen years old and stuck in Skipworth Juvenile Hall in Eugene, Oregon.  At first the clean sheets and hot  meals were a relief from the streets, but the locks on the doors started messing with my head.  I needed to get out.

Some months before, I had been living with my cousin and her family.  I had taken my cousin’s mother’s Cadillac for a drive in the middle of the night.  Since it was my first time behind the wheel, I didn’t get too far before smashing it up.  Before I could be sent back to California to live with my dad and crazy stepmother for pulling such a foolish stunt, I disappeared and began living on the street.  I slept where I could and ate what I found.  One night the cops stumbled across me sleeping in the Neuman Center on the U of O campus.  Not sure what to do, the state of Oregon was holding me in custody until someone claimed me.  It had been three weeks.   No one was coming.   It was time to plan another way out of Skipworth.

Most of the kids that get cycled through Skipworth were gone in a day or even after a few hours.  Someone comes to get them out.  There’s no bail, and limited laws, regarding holding minors in custody.  Some kids are held for longer than hours or days for various reasons.  Those of us who remained for weeks instead of hours usually had something in common; we were the throw away kids.  We were the kids who got lost in an adult world of marriages and divorces, poverty and abuse.  No one was coming to get us.

Ralph was one of our small group of half a dozen throw away kids at Skipworth.  But now, Ralph was getting out.  He had hooked up with this Christian group. They were connected to a boy’s group home in Fresno, California called The Nicky Cruz Home for Boys.  It was run by Nicky Cruz, the prominent character in David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade.  A home for throw away boys.  I wanted to get into that home.

I was confined to my room in my youth, which is another story for another time.  Those years of isolation became an unusual silver lining, as they made me a reader. Among the approved list of reading materials in my room was a bible.  I had read parts of the bible many times by that point in my life.  I knew the bible.

Prior to Skipworth, I had lived with my cousin’s family for two years.  They went to church three times a week.   Uncle Dub and Aunt Edith (my Grandmother’s sister) were the pastors.  They were old-fashioned Pentecostal fire and brimstone preachers.  I knew that church world. 

The church group was taking Ralph out to a local revival.  I convinced Ralph to ask them to take me along.  They agreed.  By the end of the night, I had run to the altar in tears, given my heart to Jesus, and everyone was singing and praising God all the way back to Skipworth.  I knew I was almost on my way to Fresno and The Nicky Cruz Home.

I’ve always been a Christian.  Not everything about the night of my “conversion” was contrived.  But much of it was.  I was trapped, and possibly even worse, in danger of being sent back to the home of an abusive stepmother.  This Nicky Cruz Home was a way out.  So, I did and said the right things.  

I was accepted into the Nicky Cruz Home for Boys.  Before leaving for Fresno, I was allowed out of the locked doors of Skipworth for one overnight at my cousin’s home.   They let me go to the drive in with friends to see 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We dropped some strong acid.  My cousin knew I was wasted when I got home, and reported this to the church group. 

My church sponsors were very upset as they drove me to the airport the next morning.  They assumed I had completely played them.   It was suggested that I was demonic, among other scripturally-based descriptions.  At the time I wondered if they were right.  They silently watched as I boarded the plane for Fresno.   It was a sad departure, but I was out of Skipworth Juvenile Hall.

When I arrived  in Fresno, Ralph had already been in The Nicky Cruz Home for about a month, so he helped me get settled.  There were usually about a dozen boys, with roughly half being Latino and half being Anglo.  Ralph had blonde hair and blue eyes, so I ended up bunking with the Anglos, which is just as well.  I pass for a Latino, but “no habla Espanol.”   I had a nice bunk and three meals a day.  Life was better.

The deal seemed to be that we boys were expected to speak to churches and youth groups.  We would tell our sad stories and how Jesus had saved us.  Then we’d sing some songs as they passed around an offering basket.   When we boys didn’t have a church gig, we were dropped off downtown with piles of tracks to hand out.  The only one I recall was “The Four Spiritual Laws.”  It boiled down to; God loves you, sin separates us from God, Jesus is the bridge, accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and be saved.   I’ve heard worse things pass for Christian theology, but this was fairly basic stuff, and not terribly controversial.

I did meet Nicky Cruz a few times. He would visit “his boys” once in a while.  Nicky was about five feet tall and five feet wide.  A big little man.  From what I saw, he seemed like the real deal.  For the most part, the staff seemed to be sincere Christians as well.  They were big young guys, looking much more like bouncers than social workers.    They were usually fair, even when breaking up fights and handing out discipline. 

Since we were now bunkmates, I learned more about Ralph.  He would become frightened sometimes, and elated for no reason at other times.  The house had a small prayer chapel.  One afternoon, when Ralph seemed to be having tough day, I pointed to the chapel and said, “Hey, let’s go get high.”  Having been a Pentecostal for a few years, I knew how to pray yourself into an emotional frenzy.   We visited the chapel to get high quite often over the next three months. After twenty minutes of screaming at God, we would emerge from the chapel giggling like we had just smoked the best Acapulco Gold.  Then we would walk to the store for a coke, and sneak a cigarette.  As we retraced our steps, we grabbed flowers and shrubs from front yards we passed and rubbed them on our hands to mask the tobacco smell.

Except for being paraded around as a fund-raising tool, I had no real problems with this group home.  I did not do any drugs while I lived there.  No fights, no arguments with staff.  I was actually starting to imagine that maybe I could be a real Christian one day.

Then September came.  I was told I had to get my hair cut and I had to go to school.  I refused.  Staff carried me to the van and escorted me into the barber shop.  My long locks, which had taken years to grow, were gone.  The next stop was the high school, where the bouncers ordered me to go in or they would drag me in.  I was done with the Nicky Cruz Home.  I wanted out.

  I walked in the front door of that high school, ran down the hall to the rear door, and made it back to the group home before the van.  Grabbed a bag and some clothes, and headed for the Interstate. Stuck out my thumb and was headed north in twenty minutes.  I was free again.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

In Defense of Saliva Soaked Rags

I wore a mask last week when I took the Harley out.  A short ride, with no stops.  In the midst of this pandemic, my wife and I are being careful.

Wearing the mask on the bike wasn’t so bad.  I’ve worn something similar in cold weather to keep my face warm.  It does cut down on the number of bugs you eat.  But I hated wearing the damn thing.

Hate is a strong word.  But it is the term that fits, in this case.  I hate wearing a mask.  It reminds me of a very ugly chapter of my life.

My mother ran off when I was eighteen months old, which is another tangled tale I’ll save for another time.  When I was five, my father remarried.  Within a year, it was obvious that my new stepmother had serious mental health issues.

Unfortunately, I became one of her fixations in her deranged world.  A specific manifestation of her illness was revealed when she became convinced that I emitted deadly “germs,” and had to be isolated for the safety of the family.  I was confined to my room for the next five years.  When I had to leave my room to go to school, I was required to wear a surgical mask as I walked to the door, and deposit it in the bag by the door, where it would await me until I returned from school.  I never left my room unmasked.

My breakfast was left in my room every morning.  Dinner time was a bit more complicated.  Once the family had gathered around the dining room table, I would be called.  Wearing my mask, I would walk into the kitchen, where my dinner was waiting on the counter, which was as far away from the table as the kitchen allowed.  I was required to drop my mask and eat as fast as possible, as I stood at the counter across the room from my family. When I had finished dinner, the mask was raised to again cover my face, as I slowly retreated back to my room.

Sometimes when there were no clean surgical masks, she would tie an old t-shirt around my face.  This made it difficult to breathe sometimes, but since I could not leave my room, any strenuous play was not an option anyway.

When I was eleven, I was sent to live with relatives.  The masks disappeared, although the memory of those saliva soaked rags will never go away.  My ride on the Harley, sixty years later, brought back that bitter taste, and the painful memory it contained.  I hate wearing a mask. 

Having said that, I recently read that as many as 40% of people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 may have no symptoms. But when they talk, cough or sneeze, they can still spread the virus to others in the form of droplets in the air. The mask traps larger droplets.  So, wearing a mask does seem to prevent spreading the virus.  Everyone needs to mask up.

I hate wearing a mask.  But, if it will help stop the spread of this deadly virus, I’ll wear the damn thing.


Friday, February 07, 2020

The Adventure Begins

I have not checked my email or chanted a word for two weeks.  I am on vacation, which will conclude with my official retirement on March 1.   It feels very strange to suddenly be disconnected from that world.

But, the future is exciting.  Part of that future will include, I hope, a bit of writing.  I'm playing with the idea of using Fr. Jake for that.  The advantage is that I know this world.  The disadvantage is that, since I lost all my comments, this place has been dead.

But, since my topics will wander, perhaps the lack of my previous audience will prove to be a good thing?   We shall see.

My immediate plans are to read, and to sleep, whenever I feel like it.  Beyond that, I'm building a camper van.  I plan on rolling west as soon as it gets warm enough.  I've got five grandkids I haven't seen for much too long.  So I'm headed west to camp for awhile.   That's the first big project.

My wife and I are still in the process of boiling down three houses into one.  That is the other immediate project.  And I now have time for my Jersey grandkids, who are delightful!  That is also a priority.

So, let this new adventure begin!