This is a long read, so you may want to grab a cold soda and maybe even a snack. There really isn't any other way I'd want to write this.
I’d really done it this time. All the other times I’d been in jail weren’t a big deal. I knew that the jails and prisons were overcrowded and although my crimes were felonies, they weren’t violent. Which meant that the most time I’d spend locked up was 6-9 months. The state of Oregon was determined to keep the more violent offenders behind bars. (Do they still have jails that have bars?) The “petty” crooks, like me, took up more space, time and taxpayers dollars than their crimes warranted.
All the other times, my time spent in jail was unpleasant. But, the life I was living was even more unpleasant than jail time. At least in jail I didn’t have to plot, plan or manipulate some people so I would have a place to sit, lay down or sleep and I didn’t have to give some “sob” story meant to “guilt trip” someone to feed me.
I’d gotten used to the occasional relief from life that jail offered. I know this sounds strange to most of you, but what you don’t realize is that there are men and women who have discovered that in jail or prison there is a sense of calm. There isn’t any peace, but there is calmness, a relief and for weary people who are trying to run and hide from life, it’s a welcome respite.
But, this time, I’d gone too far. It’s not that I had gone on to crimes that were violent, no, it was that I’d crossed the line and because of the new charges against me, the Parole & Probation department was considering prosecuting me under the “habitual offenders” law and if convicted for being a career criminal there was a mandatory 20 year prison sentence.
We called such sentences, “flat time” and it meant that, if convicted, the guilty man/woman would serve every minute of every day of every month of every year and they’d do it without any opportunity for “time off for good behavior.”
Everything was different this time. All the other times I’d been arrested there was a sense of relief that came from knowing I didn’t have to run, at least for a while. But, this time I was enjoying the mayhem of my life. I was “on a run”, which meant that I made sure there was a continual river of either drugs or alcohol flowing through my body and mind and it had begun to matter less how either of those two were obtained.
It had been about a year since my last incarceration and it was during my last time in jail that I said a prayer that would yield darkness, not only over me, but in me.
Long story, short; I’d been abandoned by both of my parents and at 9 years old was sent to live with my grandparents. Too old to raise 4 kids, but for whatever reason, willing to take us in they not only took us into their home but our grandmother took us into the world of religion and without going into all the details, I learned to despise it.
I couldn’t conceive of a religion that spoke so much about love, truth, mercy, grace, forgiveness and gentleness when the woman who insisted that we be indoctrinated was the same woman who would discipline me with razor straps, blocks of firewood, a closed fist smashing into my face and I sure couldn’t come to terms with her smearing my sisters’ blood soaked feminine napkin all over her face.
It was during my time at “home” that I learned about prayer, God and Jesus and after seeing the way he changed his people; taking them from lukewarm, T.V. watching beer drinkers and transforming them into monsters who beat, sexually abused and tormented their young I decided that my first night back in jail might be a good time to pray.
It was the year before and after we had all been sent to our cells, the doors were locked electronically and as soon as the lights were dimmed I knelt down to pray. I took one deep breath and began my recitation to God of all that I wanted in my life.
“Jesus, I don’t see how you are any good to me and I want you out of my life forever,” I began, and with the same breath I spoke to the other powerful being I’d learned about in church, “and Satan, I want you to come into my life and be my god. Amen.”
A year had passed since my rejection of one and invocation of another and now here I was, receiving the answer to my prayer. The other times I had been in jail there was lightness in my soul and I had time to rest. The judge thought he was sending me there as punishment but those were the only days of my young life when I could take a break from my pitiful life. Not this time though, this time I was disgusted that my days and nights of “if it feels good, do it” had been interrupted.
Angry? No, what was happening inside of me was well beyond anger. Rage? It wasn’t that either because what I was feeling made rage look like table manners. Hatred? I can’t say for sure, because I’d never known love, but the furnace I was living in was hotter than simple hate.
I’m sure it was a portion of each of those and the whole emotional “train wreck” of my being was embroiled, being brewed, by fear. To say I was seething would be a disgusting understatement. I understand the pacing of the caged lion better now; I wanted to be free, but not freedom in the sense that I was outside enjoying life, laughing and smiling. No, I wanted the freedom to tear someone apart and make their life worse than mine and I wanted to be able to do it without the thought of ever being “caged” again.
By this time in my life I had developed a relationship with everyone (yes, everyone) on the jail staff. In fact, I was on a “first name” basis with the guards and we’d speak to each other like friends when a sergeant or lieutenant weren’t around. Our friendship had become such that, there was even an occasional practical joke played on them by me or vice versa. In a maximum security facility, that’s saying something.
The jail was logistical and technological dreams come true. There were 8 inmates in each “dayroom” and inside of each dayroom there were 8 individual cells. During the day, the cell doors would be “popped” (opened electronically which made the locking mechanism “pop”) and all of us were then free to watch T.V., play cards, make some phone calls and so on. The lights, doors, T.V. and even the phone were all controlled electronically. The only time a guard had to enter the cell was to take what they called “head count.” Even though it was considered escape proof, jail policy mandated a periodic and physical accounting for all inmates. (I was in another cell the night John Day actually chiseled a hole in the 2 inch glass and jumped 4 stories, making a run for freedom.)(By the way, he was captured two days later and sentenced to prison for 5 years.)
One of the practical jokes that brought some levity to the guards was at night. The cells in each dayroom were side by side and each small window of those cell doors faced the dayroom. If you were inside your cell and the door is closed, it’s impossible to see from one end of the dayroom to the other. This set it up so that if a guard chose to, he could knock on the door, take a few steps back and be out of your line of sight. They took great joy in making us believe we were hearing things.
There were times when a guard would take some delight in causing a ruckus and more than once I was the object of their friendly taunting. Either Rick or “Six-pack” (his nickname derived from his given name of Spzak) or another of the jail staff would call us by name and then step back out of sight. Since there isn’t much in jail by way of humor, fun and friendship and even though the jokes were inconvenient, they were a welcome diversion from a life of “gray clouds” and sorrow.
Here I was again, but as I said, this time everything was different. If convicted, I was assured that I wouldn’t see “the light of day” until I was 84 years old. The habitual offender charge along with the 8 other felonies I’d been arrested for all but guaranteed that I would die in prison. It was a life sentence that wasn’t ordered by a judge, it was a life sentence over which time would preside and enforce.
But, believe it or not, the wasted life in prison wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was that since I was in a maximum security facility, there wasn’t any way for me to make someone else’s life as miserable as mine was. By this time I’d accepted that “they” thought I was a bane to society and all that mattered to me now was to make someone, anyone, as sorry they were alive as I was.
10 o’clock at night came and it was time to adjourn to our rooms, it was “lockdown.” During my other times of incarceration I saw “lockdown” as a rude interruption to some show on T.V. or a night long time-out from a game of cards. But, on this particular night I was already in my cell/room when the call came for “lights out.” I didn’t want to be around anybody.
Not only had I distanced myself from my roommates, I had also divorced myself from my jailhouse friends and had come to see the guards as adversaries and antagonists. My request that the prince of darkness come and be my god had been granted and darkness was what I craved. I was certainly in no mood for practical jokes and I definitely didn’t want some underpaid, professional babysitter knocking on my cell door and then scurrying away, giggling like an immature kid at my expense.
I lay in the semi-darkened cell. Every cell looked the same. There was a concrete slab poured like a shelf against the wall, directly below the only window facing outside, and on top of that concrete box spring was the thinnest vinyl mattress ever invented. A matching pillow complemented the ensemble and the single pillow case, sheet and wool blanket completed our bedroom décor. The air conditioning was always turned down; the reasoning was that cold inmates are less likely to become violent. It was nothing compared to the violent storm brewing just under my skin.
They say that if you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water on a stove and gradually increase the temperature, the frog will adjust accordingly and will actually boil to death. I can relate. It wasn’t until I was in jail again that I became aware of how hot and dark my heart and mind had become. Maybe this was the fear that empowered the rage I was feeling inside.
As I lay there I recalled one event in particular that had occurred some months prior to this.
My roommates were still asleep and the apartment the three of us shared was still a mess. The living room looked like a beer truck had overturned in it. The ashtrays were beyond capacity and the carpet was called on to assist. “Roaches” (stubs of marijuana cigarettes) lay on just about every surface available and the empty whiskey bottles received their fair share of ashes as well.
Growing up on the farm I’d learned to appreciate the early morning and although my head felt as if I’d woken up with a pair of vice grips on each temple, I got up anyway. Maybe a “smoke” and a swallow of stale beer would ease the pain.
The summer sun rose and invited the inhabitants of the earth to come outside and give it glory. The most I was willing to do was to open the front door, leave the screen door closed and this was really just a meager attempt to air the place out. The screen door was supposed to keep bugs out, but in just a few minutes I would be face to face with the worst parasite of them all. Christians.
“Good morning!” She said. Before I’d even turned to see who was at our door, I was filled with disgust by the happiness I heard in her voice.
My elbows had somehow found a clearing on the table and my aching skull was resting heavily on my hands. Refusing to move my head more than was necessary; I did little more than allow my head to pivot on my hands and looked through bloodshot eyes toward the door. “What the hell is this?” I groaned inwardly.
“What do you want?” It wasn’t a question. It was a challenge. The sickly smile on each of their faces was repulsive. He was beaming like the noonday sun every bit as much as she was and I was insulted. They had the audacity to believe that life was good.
“We just wanted to bring you some good news.” He offered.
I saw the bibles in their hands, the fake smile on their faces and immediately I recalled my previous experience with bible toting, smiling idiots but not wanting to make a bad headache even worse I simply told them that “This isn’t a good time.”
“Oh, but, sir, we’ll just be a minute or so and we’d really like the opportunity to tell you some things you need to know.” Their sweet syrupy words might have meant something to them, but all this meant to me was that I would have to sacrifice my “hangover” and deal with these two in a more persuasive manner.
“If you two don’t get away from my ________ door, I’m going to gut both of you and offer you to my god! Get the _______away from here, now!” was my response to them as I approached the door. I’d never seen two people run that fast in my life.
“Don” Hearing my name was like a slap in the face and in an instant I was forced to remember I was in jail. As much as I wanted to relive that day and the way I swiftly dispatched those two would be disciples, I was thrown back into the life of an inmate.
Since the cells are only ten feet square, I was able to glare through the glass after three short steps. No one was there. “This is really not a good night for this!” I murmured.
You ever have one of those dreams that are interrupted and after you address the situation at hand, you try with all your might to return to the same dream? No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t quite get back to this one. I could remember it, and I could relive it, but what I couldn’t do was retrieve the feeling of victory, of conquest over those bible thumping knuckleheads. There was no joy to be had. The monster I’d become was growing inside of me and the feeling of rage, hatred and indifference to human life was running amok in my soul.
Being all too familiar with life in the Jackson County jail I already knew that this practical joke would neither cease nor desist until there was some kind of reaction from me. I lay there like a snake, prostrate, but coiled and ready to lunge toward the door as soon as some guard tried it again. It didn’t take long and I was at the door in the proverbial heart beat. Again, there was no one there.
Normally, when a guard would come in for “head count” most of us would be awakened from our sleep by the sound of the dayroom door being “popped” open and I noticed that I hadn’t been roused by that sound, but only by the hearing of someone calling me.
Still, I lay back down and was all the more determined to confront my antagonist if they opted to make this childish gesture again. It didn’t take long.
So convinced that I’d heard my name, this time I stood on the headboard and looked out the window. There was someone, somewhere calling me and I wasn’t about to let them get away without hearing my foul response. Never mind that my cell was 50 fifty above the ground, I look anyway. No one was there, of course, but that’s how sure I was that I’d heard my name.
I turned on my heels to take a single bound to the door and as soon as my bare feet landed on that cold concrete floor I knew who had been taunting me. I knew who was calling me. I didn’t have to look out of the window of my door to see him either. I only had to look up to where I thought his face might be.
I shook my fist in his face and dared him to answer me as I challenged him, “What do you want?” I yelled and I yelled so loud that my words echoed throughout the jail. I defied him to his face.
I’d seen firsthand the fist of one of his followers and I had felt the beatings of a disciple. My first prayer after making my escape from home was “Jesus, if following you means that I’ll be like my grandmother, then, no thanks, I can do that by myself.” And even though I knew that he was all powerful, there was no way I would let him near me.
I lived in the fear of God and I lived in fear with my god. The One turned his people into religious animals, but the other turned them into monsters. But, at least as a monster I had the alcohol, drugs and the women to offset the wages of sin.
“What do you want?” was my daring him to give an answer that I hadn’t heard before. I’d heard all the talk about love, grace, mercy and forgiveness and I was convinced that there wasn’t an answer he could give that would break the stranglehold of sin I’d come to enjoy. His reply literally floored me.
“All I have ever wanted is you.” His emphasis was on the word “you.” I’d never heard those words before and after my experiences with Christians, I certainly didn’t expect this from their leader. I truly believed that he was as vicious as his people but worse is that I believed he was like them, but much more powerful.
Nothing within me could defend me from his words. There wasn’t enough darkness to eclipse such light. There wasn’t enough hatred, rage, indifference or murder to deafen me to words I’d unknowingly been longing to hear all my life.
Years on the street had had a hardening affect on me. Months of being a self-styled Satanist made my heart a black diamond. Hard, polished (street smart), but if there were the slimmest chance of light entering my soul, it most certainly would never reemerge.
Still, as hard and as dark as I had become, there was nothing within me that could keep me on my feet at the sound of those words. Not just those words, but His words. If they’d come to me second hand, like the two who I’d sent running from my door, I could have dismissed them. But, these weren’t just His words; they were His words coming from His mouth. I could dispute such claims made about Him by His people, but there was no argument I could form that would silence Him as we met “face to face.”
Like a water balloon that has fallen onto a rock, I collapsed and the tears of my years flowed. I lay there and wept until the morning sun made its debut. Still, I hadn’t responded to His invitation. I somehow knew that He wasn’t one to be trifled with and I had also determined that should I allow Him to have me, it was to be for the rest of my days. It seemed to me that I must really consider, as much as I could, my reply.
Three days later and alone again in my cell I was ready to RSVP the Lord Jesus Christ.
On our first meeting I shook one fist in His face, but this time I raised both hands, palms up and open and I yielded to His choosing a man like me; “Lord, sixty years in prison or not. I’m yours.”
That was well over two decades ago. What have I learned over the years?
You remember in school sports, when it came time to elect a captain who would then choose their teams? Remember what it was like to be last or close enough to last to make you feel like a loser? Remember when, as luck would have it, that although you may have been the last one chosen, at least you were chosen by the team that was doubtlessly going to win this competition?
That, although, you were basically excess baggage to your teammates, you could at least leave the playing field with a victory of some sort? No one at school would share in your victory, they all know you were only chosen because the captain had to, but at home, where life really matters, you could tell your family about the big game.
Well, what I have learned is that I didn’t deserve to be chosen. In fact, I wasn’t even on the field when it came time to choose any one at all. I wasn’t even on the sidelines. More than that, I wasn’t even on the school property.
I raised my hand, but I sure didn’t mean for Him to assume that my raising my hand meant that I wanted His attention, much less His affection. I was about as interested in Jesus Christ as you are interested in Osama bin Laden. I raised my hand in defiance.
He raised His hands on a cruel cross on an ugly skull shaped hill and let men like me drive nails through them and He did it so He could come back to men like me and choose me to be “on His team” and more than that, there isn’t a game to be played, there is only a victory celebration to attend.
Oh, how long did I stay in jail? Remember I told you that I had good reason to believe that I would see my 84th birthday in jail or die there? Well, 6 months later I was released from jail, but I had been set free 6 months earlier.
Amazing grace, yeah, I agree.
P.S. If you have any other comments or questions, then feel free to leave a message here or write to me at my e-mail address: rebuild_NO@yahoo.com or you can even call me at (863) 812-5751. Would I consider coming to speak at your place of worship/study? You bet, just call me and if life isn’t imposing its implacable demands on me, I’ll come to see you.