Thinking about my past has opened a floodgate. I hope you don’t mind. It feels good for me to write these things down. Perhaps it will help someone.
In the institution for “disturbed” children there were, as far as I could make out, two kinds of staff: counsellors and high-level counsellors. I say “high level” because these were the ones you very seldom saw except by appointment (these were probably the staff psychologists and psychiatrists). The other counsellors were the ones whom you saw almost daily–the morning shift, who were the motherly counsellors and who kept us and our clothes somewhat clean; the afternoon counsellors, who were mostly college students and who kept us busy through the afternoon and evening; and the night staff, who were mostly ignored except when you wanted to play around at night and had to wait until they checked the rooms before you jumped out the window and snuck around in the dark. I had had very little contact with these high level counsellors after my first few months in the institution. I had quickly figured out that our “talks” were actually evaluations and in my pre-adolescent peevishness I would try to turn the tables and figure out who this person was who was evaluating me. I would say things like, “If I said A, you would probably think B, but if I said C you would probably think D. As the counsellor got frustrated, I would begin to comment on what I thought his or her issues were. My meetings with high-level counsellors came quickly to an end.
There was, however, an old man–a retired naval officer, as it turns out–who was different. I would have never gotten to meet with him except that one of the other kids told me that this counsellor had taken him out for an ice-cream cone. I wanted in on that action, so I nagged the staff until I got an appointment. At the first appointment, the old man said, “What do you want to talk about?” All I could think about was how I might manipulate him into taking me out for ice cream. He wasn’t an easy man to manipulate. He spent our first appointment telling me stories about the navy and asked me to tell him about what my dad did in the navy. Somehow he made it sound like what my dad did was important and that I too could be a sailor if I wanted. I told him that I didn’t want to be like my dad (who was a submariner), so he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to fly jets. He told me that the navy had jets, but that only officers could be pilots. When I understood that an officer was a higher rank than my father (who was a petty officer [like a sergeant in the army]), I had a sense for the first time that there was something I could do, something I could become, that would “show” that I was better than my father. In my childish mind I imagined myself as a naval officer making my father’s life hell, “court-martialing” him (what that meant, I had no idea, but I had heard the term in movies and I knew it was bad).
Over the weeks, that followed, I began to feel like this man was my friend. He taught me how to play backgammon (which he said was a game naval officers played–this man was a genius!). He took me out to hit golf balls. He took me to meet his wife and pick loquats in his back yard. He even bought me a few ice-cream cones. And then the day came when he said that he couldn’t meet with me any more. I had had my turn, he explained to me, but now there were other boys who needed to have their turn with him. I understood that, so I wasn’t bitter that our meetings had to come to an end.
The influence this man had on me was huge. He made me feel like I could have a high goal to shoot for. It was a goal mixed with all of the anger and confusion of my young life, but it was nonetheless a goal. I eventually came close to attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. I was eighteen years old, an athlete, and because I had been in high school ROTC and my father was a career enlisted man, the recruiter was sure I would get in. All I had to do was write a letter to my state senator in Washington, D.C. I didn’t write the letter–but not because I did not want to be a naval officer. I wanted to get married, and your were not allowed to be married while attending a U.S. military academy. I knew I couldn’t wait four more years–at least not as a Christian.
[Two paragraphs omitted here because they are not appropriate for this context. If these blog entries ever become a book, the paragraphs will appear there.]
I would like to mention two other counsellors who had a good influence on me. One was an older black man who was a pastor of some sort. Religion, at least any specific religion, was a forbidden topic in this institution. However, somehow this man was able to organize occasional Sunday outings to visit various churches. I always wanted to go. We visited several different kinds of churches. The vague feeling I experienced visiting these churches stuck with me and motivated me once I was in foster homes to want to go to church. My most vivid memory is of the visit to a black Holiness Pentecostal Church. The feelings that it stirred in me almost scared me to death. Just a couple of years after I began foster homes, I would again be in a Pentecostal setting (Charismatic, actually) and have the same feelings. However, this time I was drawn by a strong desire to know God mixed with the same deep fear. This fear only left after a demon was cast out of me (another story I will have to tell you sometime).
The last counsellor I’d like to tell you about got me hooked on the Bible. This counsellor was a Christian student at Westmont College. He occasionally came to my room and talked to me about Jesus. It was our secret because he could lose his job if I told anyone. He “smuggled” in for me a copy of the New Testament (Good News For Modern Man) and one evening at bed time he explained it to me. He even drew pictures on the inside covers of the high priest and the holy of holies and of the veil being torn in two and of the crucifixion. He only worked in the boys’ dorm for a short time, but I kept the New Testament, and with a flashlight I occasionally read it at night. The stick figure drawings in the text helped me to understand what I was reading. I could not understand a lot of the words, but the drawings, it seemed to me, explained everything. I was only eleven or twelve years old. In many ways the Gospel was nothing more than stories to me, but they were just about the only stories I had. They were stories that created wonder in me. Stories that brought peace to me when I read and thought about them. But they were also stories that I quickly found out could not be easily applied to my life: when a boy turns the other cheek, he often gets another black eye.