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.