An excerpt from, While Its Still Day
This is the 1st chapter of “While Its Still Day” and this will be the only chapter I post here at Faith Writers. Honestly, the only reason I’m submitting this is so that some of you will “take my feeble hand” while I write and pray for me. These memories are, to say the absolute least, not days I want to remember; but they must be told.
The experiences I’ve had have proven to me to be a terrible tapestry, when seen from His perspective, each one of them have shown the ways in which the Lord has woven my life and in such a way as to result in my salvation and although from “down here” the patchwork seems dreadful, from His perspective they present themselves a garment of praise to Him.
I don’t consider my life to have been substantially different from any one else’s. “There is nothing new under the sun” we are told and I make no claim to uniqueness as a person. There are others that have lived like I have, and worse. It is TO them and FOR them that I write as I do.
My hope is that they will see that although life has been hard and no matter the avenues they have explored seeking refuge from it all, that Jesus Christ alone is the reason for their searching. The answer to every question and the explanation for every mystery.
This book is meant to show just how we are clay. Some of us have been fired in the most horrible of furnaces, painted by unmentionable sins, but above and beyond all of that, the way God Himself chooses people like you and me.
The Potter of Heaven and earth that descended to take as His own those of us who have known a life similar to mine and in a way that only He can do, He receives not just the praise, but the glory.
As you read, get out your fine-tooth comb and really “go through” this chapter. I’ll appreciate any genuine critiques and make them a matter of consideration and prayer.
Take a deep breath and dive in. For some of you, this is NOT an easy read. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s the life I had and it’s meant for those whose heart is fainting, even as we speak.
I need to say this with perhaps more force. This excerpt from my book is true. As much as I could; I have avoided being disrespectfully graphic. However, there are some portions that may be offensive to some of you. I really must insist that you either don’t read it at all, or if you do, keep in mind who it is written for.
The writing style, so far, is patchwork in nature; that is, not wanting to list each event, as that would take away from the Message; I've "patched" together some of the main points. So, the tempo of this particular chapter seems like a roller coaster. It suits just fine, the life that I had.
Like little mice, the four of us scurried to our mother’s closet to find clothes to wear. Most homes have some sort of an early morning “get your day started right” routine. Our older brother, one older sister, and me, all shadowed by our little sister began our school days in pretty much the same way.
Days for us usually began with a quick search of the house to see if mom had made it in from the bar the night before. Her typical level of intoxication seldom allowed her to go beyond the living room and into her own bedroom. Often we’d find her and some stranger passed out on the sofa.
It wasn’t at all unusual for a fellow patron at her nightly hang-out to correctly diagnose her symptomatic loneliness and prescribe their presence as the remedy for what ailed her. A sinister pharmacist, dispensing generous doses of 80 proof medicines knowing the anesthetic would soon take affect. They’d rush her into the OR of their own depravity, but to her it had the appearance of open heart surgery. “At least she isn’t alone.” We’d excuse her behavior in an attempt to calm our own childhood fears.
Realizing that the one person we could count on to care for us was being cared for herself, we’d continue the sprint for the closet.
Like a pimple on a prom queen, the home at 114 Van Ness Ave, stood out among the other houses of our neighborhood.
Most of the nearby homes were like the hands of a doctor; neatly manicured lawns, smooth sidewalks and clean windows. Contrasted with the mechanics hands of our yard; coarse weeds like small trees strangling a patch of grass here and there, an obstacle course of broken toys had to be negotiated to get to the front door, the windows were decorated with filthy little handprints outside while the whiskey bottles doubling as a vase for plastic flowers rested on their sills inside.
The nearest Laundromat got the least amount of welfare money from our mother. Which was good for us kids; then we’d always know where to find some clothes. Mom’s promises to do the laundry were as believable as when she’d say she’d be home early.
Piled high like a moldy hill, our clothes lay entombed in mom’s closet. Shirts lay in worse stages of decay than the more durable pants. A team of forensic clothing designers, we’d exhume an outfit for the day. The first criterion to be met for an item to be deemed useful for the day was its color. Next, did it smell worse? Everything smelled bad. We had to learn to compromise, mismatched socks were a minor detail. Missing buttons were slightly higher on the list than footwear.
Set in the middle of our three bedroom abode, the closet had no windows. One light bulb dangled from a hangman’s noose. Strangled, the days of its service had expired. Linda, the oldest sister, had pilfered a book of matches from mom’s purse. The pale light dimmed rapidly as the flame neared her 8 year old fingers, we had to act fast.
Hoping to give us an extended period of illumination, she held the match for a millisecond too long. Like a fiery scorpion, the match stung her. We all watched it fall like a miniature meteor, upon impact it shed the light of the noonday sun. Our sister was on fire. Our shadows grew into Goliath silhouettes on the walls; the pile of filthy clothes was Kilauea aglow from this eruption.
As if heaven responded to our 911 calls, our 6 year old sister somehow knew what to do and she ran to the bathtub. Her tiny hands opened a waterfall of rescue as David; the oldest carried the torch, our sister, across the room. The smell of smoke was all that remained after he’d thrown her into the arms of her cast iron savior. A blister the size of a half a grapefruit peered through the hole in her pajama leg.
“We can’t tell anybody about this,” David warned, “if they find out, they’ll take us away again.”
“Can’t we tell mom?”
“No! No one.” Were our captains orders and since Dave did the cooking, cleaning and tended to other household affairs, he was the only Dad we had, so we listened.
Except for the fire, this was a normal day.
At 9 years of age our brother wasn’t the most reliable when it came to utensil sanitation. The good news is that what he didn’t wash off the dishes; the maggots took care of for us. Powdered eggs with a generous helping of mystery meat on a semi-sanitary dish, the house special, was good enough for us.
Thanks to bare cupboards, one day I discovered that spaghetti isn’t too bad if it’s seasoned with two tablespoons of brown sugar and you wash it down with a delicious glass of powdered milk.
Holidays were always a special time of year. Most kids were led to believe that Santa Claus, in the silence of night, maneuvered his reindeer powered landing craft onto the roof of their house.
Like the winner of “The Biggest Loser”, Saint Nick would glide effortlessly down through the elevator-less shaft and deposit glad tidings of great childhood cheer under the warm, welcoming boughs of a twinkling evergreen. Collecting a cookie or two from a decorative plate left just for him, his jolly eyes would “sparkle” his “farewell” to the tree and like a whisper, he’d leave.
But I knew better. I felt sorry for children that believed such nonsense. Not wanting to play Ebenezer Scrooge to their North Pole faith system I let them believe the lie. Anybody with half a Yuletide brain knows that Santa Claus is a grumpy old man who drives a noisy Salvation Army truck and he doesn’t leave presents under some dead tree either. He drops them on the front porch and leaves.
The 4th of July was almost a year round event in our home. For most folks, that day is a celebration of freedom and independence. We only reveled in the “independence”, we were anything but free.
Thanks to various breweries, we knew we could count on their product to fill our house with the sounds of fireworks. All you have to do is empty enough bottles of their elixir and the show was on. Blowing the smoke from her cigarette into an empty bottle, mom would quickly force the lid back on and toss the “firecracker” into our wood stove. The heat inside the bottle, thanks to the smoke, had no more room to expand and the container would explode. A frequent source of happiness in our home.
The downside to her fireworks display was that the explosions finally cracked the inside of the stove. No problem though, we’d just go to the closet and find another layer of clothes to put on. Usually the money for firewood got lost in the taverns cash register anyway. We learned to adjust.
Fortunately the body heat of our siblings joined with our scrawny, starving pets and the well-fed rats inside our house generated enough heat, raising the temperature inside to a few degrees higher than outside. More than once I played with the icicles that formed from the faucet in the bathtub.
At 6 years old I learned things about girls that you aren’t supposed to know for another 15 years. More than once my brother and me would threaten a “boyfriend” telling him that if he didn’t put our unconscious mothers clothing back on her, we’d call the cops.
One memorable experience was when Mom and her boyfriend expressed their amazement that I was actually able to drink that much beer and still walk. Good thing it was the weekend. I don’t imagine I could have endured a day of 1st grade with a hangover.
The highlights of my earliest days were those days when our brother or a sister or two got to come home. I’ll always remember the times we’d see Linda’s painful smile as she climbed out of the case workers car and had come to spend the weekend with us. She smiled because she didn’t have to be back at the reform school until Monday! The pain came from knowing she had to be back on Monday.
Or those times when David’s foster parents would bring him over for a visit. Always a Kodak moment! The times when some strange man would fall into a drunken stupor onto my bed and wet himself were forgettable. But, I’ll always have those memories when the four of us were together. They were so special that mom might even stay home for the night!
Other fond memories come to my mind. Like the time I got to ride in the back of a police car after they’d found the neighbor girl and me “discovering ourselves” underneath a bridge.
How could that have been wrong? I’d seen such things numerous times and in the comfort of my own home. The penalty for my crime still haunts me. The going to bed without dinner was the easy part; we didn’t always have food anyway. Leaving me in a dark room was no big deal either; money for light bulbs went the way of money for firewood.
I wasn’t even scared when my bedroom door crashed open. Even the flood of living room light pouring into my darkness didn’t unnerve me. I was used to violent displays of anger. What bothered me is when “his” silhouette darkened my door. The doors slamming shut cut off the flow of light, but “he” didn’t leave. “Where is he?” wasn’t too much of a concern, no, it was “Who is he?” that scared me the most.
Boys dream of being able to fly. My first experience in Neverland was at hand and I flew across the room. I hadn’t even finished bouncing off of the floor when fists revealed the whereabouts of my assailant. My ribs alerted me to the fact that whoever he was, he wore cowboy boots. Like an ugly wind, my attacker left as quickly as he’d come. I’d known fear in my life before this, but now I could say I knew the difference between plain old fear and horror.
Having spent my formative years in the Rogue River valley in southern Oregon, I’d learned about pain that comes from being beaten. My Native American complexion was a beacon, a summons for other boys to harass me. Some used their words; others let their fists speak for them. The wounds inflicted by this invisible terrorist made all of the others seem like a pillow fight.
For some reason I didn’t mention any of this in my 2nd grade review of “What did you do this summer?”
Every boy in my class had some guy living in their house and they all had the same name; “Dad.” I was told that the same guy used to live with us, but he didn’t like any of us, so when I was 2 years old he showed his indifference toward us by leaving.
“Hello?” Being the winner in the race to answer the phone, I answered.
“Yeah?” My reply likely showed my surprise that whoever this was, he somehow knew my name.
“This is your dad.”
The “thud” as the receiver hit the floor was mom’s cue to pick up the phone. My screams of jubilation made it difficult for her to hear. “It’s Dad! Hey guys, it’s Dad!” The same guy that lived full-time with my classmates was calling us! I circled mom the way a dog chases its tail. “It’s Dad!”
“Kids, go find some nice clothes to wear. Your father will be here in 15 minutes.” Mom’s words were like the starting gun used to signal the beginning of a 100 yard dash. The good news is that it was during the day. Linda didn’t have to worry if she’d brought any matches.
I scrounged up the best smelling clothes I could find. Not wanting to wrinkle the wrinkled, I sat carefully on the floor. Assuming guard duty, I would be the first one to see him. The enormous picture window was my duty station.
“Dad” was a flower and all five of us were hummingbirds. He’d barely made it in the door before we flew to him, hovered around him and drank deep of the nectar of his presence.
“Kids,” I’d never heard him say that, “your mom and I need to talk. Can you give us some time?” Reluctantly, we retreated to another room. But, like racehorses in the starting gate, we stood ready to resume the race around him.
“I’m taking Davey to school. I’ll be right back, okay?”
“Oh, alright,” I tried to say it like I meant it, “I’ll be right here.” Pointing to my guard post.
His big, black car disappeared as the two of them drove away. I watched jealously as big brother got more than just a ride to school. He had this “dad” guy all to himself. But, I’ll be the first one to see him again.
“Donny,” her tears betrayed her “what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna be the first one to see Dad come back.”
“He’s not coming back. He’s gone, Donny.” Her words were drowning in sorrow.
“Oh, yes he is! And I’m gonna be the first one to see him. You’ll see!” I tried to deny her words with my own.
“Donny,” she tried once again to pry me away from my dream.
“No!” I dared her to make me move “I’m not. I’ll see him first.” Refusing to yield to her nightmare, I stood my post faithfully.
Life without him returned to normal and as soon as the thrill over seeing “Dad”, whoever he was, subsided; life went on as if he’d never been there. Used to this life, the excitement over his coming only lasted a week or so and there was no noticeable pain when he left. His abandoning us when I was much younger became a habit.
Occasionally Linda got to come home for the weekend. The state of Oregon took a dim view of unattended children who set themselves on fire and punished her by putting her in foster care.
The nights we didn’t have a babysitter were standard procedure. Dave and I would take those opportunities to explore Lithia Park, at night. Like a green velvet snake, Lithia wound back away from downtown and slithered gracefully along the creek, heading back up into the foothills that surrounded Ashland, Oregon.
The hills that bordered our paradise were etched with trails on several levels. Dangerous enough during the day, we’d practically memorized them. Under cover of darkness we relied on the Braille of our feet to read them and keep us from falling. A fall in any of several places would have meant serious injuries or death.
We were safer in the park at night than we ever were at home. Mom’s spanking our little sister, Terri, proved that. The doctor said she would have to keep the cast on for several weeks, but her broken arm should mend quite nicely.
One other thing frightened us more than mom’s intoxicated corrective measures. We lived in fear of being taken away again.
Life became a paragraph. Most sentences were penned in fear. Several of them spoke of freedom, especially when we didn’t have a babysitter; still others inked our souls with defiance.
Mom’s rules became ours and we became little barbarians, living in a civilized town. We knew the phone number for the bar about the same time we learned what “2+2” was and likewise with the taxi company. There wasn’t a 911 system back then and we’d memorized the phone number for the police. So had our neighbors.
Foster homes and reform schools were the “comma.” Dad showing up was an “exclamation point” while mom’s lifestyle was the “question mark” Of our existence.
Life was a paragraph. But one punctuation mark stands out above the rest…
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Your story drew me in and definitely held my attention. My only suggestion is that you edit the number of metaphors, similes, and/or analagous references, retaining only a few of the most natural ones. Just my opinion, but I think too many take away rather than add to a story as they tend to interrupt the flow. If the reader has to stop and think if a metaphor works, then it probably didn't. You have a real jewel here Don and I wish you success for your book. I love the transparency and courage of your project.
This must have been very hard for you to write. My heart ached for you and your siblings while reading and several times it brought tears to my eyes - knowing it was true. It WAS a hard read but sometimes those are the best kind. It drew me in - took me inside your heart. The only thing I can say is; let your emotions completely out - don't hold back anything in this book. I know you are now a child of God and He has healed you. But I have found that writing down memories from a painful past can be very liberating to the soul when you share it as if you are giving it all to Christ, again. God bless. You are in my prayers. In Christ's Love, Julia
Don, your story--or excerpt from it--was heartbreaking. I grew up during the depression, and our family knew poverty, but we also knew stability and loving, caring parents. My dad was a mission worker, earning pennies a day. We saw God providing for us, and never went hungry. Our mother did what she could to provide us with clothes, made from hand-me-downs or pass-ons...But that's another story. I felt so badly about your beginnings. I am sure this will make a wonderful story--book. I am sure that what I read here is like an unedited version of what the book will be like....I found that it was sometimes hard to follow, but I am sure that in the editing, you will put things to your reader, more clearly. I know what is is to write a book-- I have had one published-- so I know the work involved from the rough draft to the finished product. You have made an excellent start. Your "research" was real-life experiences... May God guide you as you proceed with your book. I am sure He will use it to help other people who have had similar experiences in their early life....Carry on, and God bless you...Helen