Monday, November 15, 2010

Have We Finally Come to the End? -- Chapter 1

Do exactly what we tell you to do . . . or he will shoot you.”

Maybe it is true -- and who really knows for sure? -- that your whole life flashes before your eyes just before death, preceding the darkness with the bursting brilliance of life, slowing that final moment, expanding the time to wash the brain and heart in memory.  Falling of a cliff, sliding beneath the waves, crashing into the barrier wall, or just seeing the faces of the medical team around you slowly fade away as you lay on a table, may bring comforting visions of the beautiful moments of a re-hashed life, filtering out the times of unloveliness, the grey days of loneliness, the harshness of sandpapered relationships that wore you away.  I don't know.   I do know that death is not the only occasion for the panoramic view of the mixed-up-mess of past, present, future.

Try being arrested, knowing that in that brief moment - with few words spoken -- life is changing.  You're not dying, but it is.

“Do exactly what we tell you to do . . . or he will shoot you.”

When I replay those words from my past, it as if I can hear them all again.  They are embedded in my memory.  Perhaps in time they will fade, as God allows.  Or perhaps they will remain in place as a reminder of where I have been . . . where I am now . . . and where I am going because of Him

 When I heard the words that past April day, I sat very still and processed them, my heart beating faster with the absorption of each syllable . . . my brain freezing time, searching through each cell for a way out of reality . . . I analyzed them.  Where was the emphasis in the phrasing?  Was it on "exactly?"  Was it on "you?"  Or was it really on "will?"  

"He will shoot you."

As my life spreadeagled before me, as my brain sifted through all the possibilities -- even the remote one that perhaps I was asleep and dreaming -- I froze, afraid to move, and had the briefest separate thought -- rooted in reality --  that if I refused to do what I was told, I could  -- no, would -- be shot and I might die.  I would go to glory in a gory blaze of glory.  Pay out the life insurance and put a "finished" stamp: on this ragged race.  I could just give it all up.  Make a run for it and be done.

Until the moment the undercover police officer opened the passenger side door of my car and spoke those words, looking into my eyes while tilting his head toward the officer on the other side of my car to make it clear where the shot would come from, I thought I might escape.  My mind was racing, working up the words to talk myself free, searching for a convincing explanation, a plausible way to defuse the accusations I knew were coming. But as my head turned in his direction and I saw the seriousness with which the officer looked straight into my eyes, his convincing tone struck down all hope.  I’d better do exactly what “they” told me to do.  I had no doubt in his warning.

My life stopped flashing before my eyes and settled in slow motion to just this one moment.

The office had pulled his car up in front of mine only seconds before, blocking me into my parking space.  The man, in the pickup parked beside me, with whom I had been talking, had said to me the words that signaled his partners, apparently listening in, to race in.

            “I’m an undercover police officer and you are under arrest.”

             Me?  Under arrest?  What an understatement for someone having taken the earth and shaken it.

           My quick sunny-day lunch in the park, a convenient spot to pull into while out running errands, had turned into a darkening nightmare, my life careening wildly out of control, at just the point where life had seemed so in control.  The quick short-circuit was stunning.  Even in the context of personal history, it made no sense, not on this day.  Years of struggling, falling, denying, crying, destroying, re-building, ignoring, learning, steadying, slipping, climbing, stumbling, relying on self, then relying on God, descending into darkness, emerging into light, doubting, knowing, renouncing, rejoicing . . . stubbornly resisting . . . slowly changing.  Just when the roller-coaster seemed ready to slow and glide into the end gate, the operator – was it God? – pushed the button and I plunged into another round.  Why not just unbuckle the seatbelt and once and for all plummet to the ground?

In a matter of minutes, my guard disintegrating through a string of poorly-chosen words -- inappropriate words of response to a flattery I knew to resist -- I had turned my life over to others.  Lunch became a lunge into no-where . . . or wherever I was told to go.  If that flashing former life was a video, I had just discovered how long it would take to erase it.  Five minutes.  Five minutes is exactly how long I had been in the park.  But how long had I been traveling down the road that took me into that park?  While it was just a 20-minute drive from the office . . . my glide into the parking spot of hell was the result of a decades-long road-trip that had brought me to this place.

What might seem to some a brief indiscretion was transforming rapidly into a relentless wrecking ball that would destroy my reputation, end my career, turn away my church, drive a deep wedge between me and my friends, further distance my children, and thrust me into a spotlight I had spent many years and countless energy avoiding.  I had endured this spotlight before, but once outside its glare, I had relaxed too much and slipped back into the familiarity of self-dependence.  This time it would be worse.

In an instant, my efforts to hide who I have been ended.   It was just a random right-turn into a near-empty park.  But how random really?  That question would soon be in the minds of the many who would hear about about my fall.  To some, my struggle with same-sex attraction would be a complete surprise; my arrest in a public park known as a cruising place for homosexuals, an “outing.”  To those who already knew about and had skeptically observed my struggle against the temptations of same-sex attraction, this fall would reinforce the belief that homosexuality had a permanent grip on my life and that my professed battle against it was a cover-up.

It would become a cause celebre for the "I told you so" crowd.

Maybe my struggle with same-sex attraction would have ended years ago if I had been honest about it with those around me. Maybe.  When I had been confronted by suspicions, I had lied. There must be some mistake, I argued, though the evidence was pretty clear to those who confronted me. I fought hard and I lied as well as I could and was given some passage. Why did I lie? At the time, the choice seemed to be lie or die.

The choices were narrowing further now.  Even the opportunity to die was passing me by as I found myself doing what they said.  The tension was relaxing; the guns were kept out of sight.

Unwilling to acknowledge to myself that I had battled a sexual addiction through the years, much less share that reality with others, I had opted for deception and the decay it brings into the life of the deceiver, which spills over into the lives of those who want to love him, even as they take moves to convince him of his lies.   Caught in a serious offense, I’d deny it, cover it, much like Adam and Eve did when confronted in the garden.  My survival instinct would kick in and I would say what was necessary, blame carelessly and proclaim breathlessly my innocence.  Not this time.  I was fresh out of fig leaves.  I find myself envying those sinners who just own up right from the start. Not me.  Not if I could escape, buoyed by that inner voice that says so convincingly:  "I'll never do this again."

            “Put your hands on the steering wheel,” the officer said as he slid into the seat beside me, carelessly tossing my cell phone, newspaper, lunch and everything else from the front seat of my car into the back.  “Do you have any weapons in the car?  Anything you could use to harm yourself or anyone else?’

            “No,” I said.  I felt very harmless.

            “I want you to slide across and exit your vehicle through the passenger-side door,” he said, before realizing that would mean climbing across a console and gear-shift, which I would have done just to avoid the threatened bullet.  I awaited instructions and focused on breathing.

            “Alright,” he said. “You can get out on your side, but walk slowly around the front of the car and put your hands behind your back.”

            I determined to move slowly though my heart was racing and my mind was way out in front of me, already trying to predict the outcome of my disastrous decision to be there that day, to have that conversation.  Why that park?  Why that moment?  I wanted God to tell me right then and there in very plain English exactly why this was happening to me.  Certainly some of it was the result of my own decision-making, but the randomness of it hit me as well.  This was not a plan gone wrong; there was no plan.  Just a tuna packet and newspaper and a baggy full of Goldfish crackers.  And then a rolled-down window through which chaos flew.

Not totally resigned to the futility of my situation, I immediately began to plan my recovery.  What will I tell people when they hear about this?  Is there a chance no one will ever know, or will the struggles of my hidden life be revealed?  Is life as I know it over? I could ask myself all the questions I wanted, but for now, decision-making had moved beyond my control.  There were no answers.

            I wanted to pray, or cry out to God, or run, or melt into the pavement, or just die.  These seemed reasonable choices, but weren’t among the ones being offered.  The only prayer I could think of was “Why, God, why?”  But why what?  Why was I being arrested?  I knew the answer to that question. I wanted my life back, though I had not even begun to see how far gone it was.

            “Face the side of the car and put your hands on the roof,” the officer said.  He spoke in a demanding but casual tone, barely audible over the pounding of my heart and the serious effort my mind was making to blot out my self-implosion.  I heard him, but it seemed as if he should be saying it to someone else while I viewed from a recliner with my feet up, waiting for a commercial to cut the tension.

The officer waited for me at the side of the car, where he patted me down, handcuffed me behind my back and told me to get back into my car in the passenger seat for a brief ride that would change my life.  My little indiscretion, a letting down of the guard, would become a reckless revelation. My life’s secrets would be spilled out like the belongings on the floorboard of my car.  It would be impossible to gather them back up, to reconstruct the pre-park life.  Some things are done before you even know you're contemplating them.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked the officers.  “You don’t have to do this,” I pleaded.  I can't imagine how many times these very officers had heard the pleas of the offenders who want just a chance to take two steps back into the past . . . to scratch a few words from the script.

“Tell it to the judge,” he replied.  Despite the matter-of-factness with which they did their job, I could see small glimpses of sympathy, more of the “thank God it’s not me” variety.  The resolve with which they worked was evident; this was not going to go well, this revelation. 

Growing up I became aware there were things about me that, if revealed, would not be acceptable to the people in my world.  Having felt the sting of rejection early on in life, I had learned to hide the parts of my self that scared me, on occasion threatening to claw their way out of the closet.  Rather than risk having all of me cast out, I tied the unacceptable into bundles and stuffed them away into the basement of my ever-leery self.  Christians don’t have “those kinds” of thoughts and feelings.  Christians don’t give in to “those kinds” of temptations.  Christians don’t desire “those kinds” of things.  I knew that my acceptance of Christ and His salvation as a 12-year-old was real.  God would “fix me” in time, I was sure.  In the meantime, we would just keep this secret between us.

How can a life so carefully concealed unravel so completely in a matter of minutes?  At 12:35 p.m. I was a respected mid-level executive having lunch like millions of others.  By 12:40, I was pressed against my car in an empty public park, handcuffed and charged with “Engaging in an act of lewdness in public,” a vague charge that conjures up images of things I had not done but would stand accused of and accountable for.  I didn't "engage" in anything.  There was no "act."  There wasn't even a "public."  Just a cop in a pick-up on a routine round-up.  A cop who had a way with words and knew which buttons to push.

  A married father of five . . . . a Christian . . . I was being accused of coming to the park not to have lunch alone, but in hopes of having sex with the man in the pickup, or someone.  I had been in the park just over five minutes. I’d had no intention of engaging in a conversation, much less engaging in lewd conduct. 


I had always had good intentions, but it was not what I intended that really mattered; it was what I did.   After I had been confronted about my sexual sin, years before this fateful day in the park, I intended to stop giving in to the overpowering temptation.  Since it’s never going to happen again, I told myself, why admit it?  In that earlier event, faced with the possibility that my life might crumble,  my very-strong survival instinct kicked in fast. My career was trending towards success; I was married and had five children to finish raising.  Admitting to same-sex attraction . . . admitting to sending e-mails and making phone calls . . . admitting to having actually met and sexually interacted with men, despite the fact I was a married father of five -- seemed like a mountain too high to climb . . . unless I intended to jump off when I reached the top. So, I lied. I believed the lie would buy me time to conquer my problem once-and-for-all, repair all the damage, reconstruct the relationships and carry on with life. I had lied out of fear, but my intentions were good.

I had lied because I believed in time I could reestablish truth and carry on with life.  I knew my same-sex attraction was consuming me, distorting my personality, disabling my dreams, increasing distances between me and the ones I loved . . . but, I thought, forced to face it, I can finally defeat it.  And I intended to do so.  I lied to protect myself, but I also lied to keep the things I thought I might lose, my wife, my sons and my daughter. I lied to others because I believed in myself and my ability to overcome. My "self" let me down. By fleeing the responsibility of my actions, I doomed myself to repeat them.

In the end, I lied even to myself because I wanted to be someone else and not myself.  A person who struggles believes the struggle will end before it hurts too many people beyond himself. He may be torn up inside, but the end of the journey seems always in sight.  The struggler's energy goes into covering up, recovering from guilt, trying to maintain composure, and sometimes into concocting elaborate lies to buy time to overcome, to claim that elusive victory. Energy that should go into the struggle itself is consumed by the overwhelming labor of deception. The struggler becomes almost double-minded; develops an alter-ego; maintains two existences and worries all the time that one is seeping into the other.

Some see the struggler as using the life he shows – family, church, and career -- to enable the life he hides, a life some think he would prefer if he were not trapped by his past decisions. Decisions like trusting a Savior for salvation, marriage, fatherhood. Decisions rooted in the same soil of hope in which the non-struggler grows: a desire to please God.  Those who do not struggle often believe the struggler should just face reality and stop doing what he knows is wrong. They believe it's that simple.  I wish it was. I did not choose the hidden life I lived, and during that fateful April lunch encounter, I would have given anything to be someone else, somewhere else, on some other day.

This particular leg of my journey into the darkest pit of my life began innocently enough when I left my office in downtown at 12:15 p.m. to run the errand and go to lunch.  I called my wife, Lisa, on my cell phone. This was my daily routine; hop in the car, buy a “Big Gulp,” call my wife; head to a nearby parking lot; eat the lunch I always brought from home; read the paper; go back to work. 

Lisa, who was in Precepts Bible Study training at a local church, didn’t answer.  When she called me back at 12:32, I was driving down the highway approaching an exit onto the street that would take me to the trophy store to drop off a flag for framing.  As we talked on the phone, I made a right hand turn into the park to finish our conversation in a nearly-vacant parking lot.  One vehicle, a pick-up truck, was parked at the far end of the parking lot.  I parked in the center of the lot and Lisa and I continued our conversation, which was, as were most of our lunchtime chats, of no consequence at all.

The entire conversation, according to the phone record, lasted 2 minutes and 46 seconds, about half the time it takes to unravel a life. 

“You have a good afternoon in your training and I’ll see you tonight,” I said. 

“I love you,” she said.

I set the cell phone down in the passenger seat, unpacked my lunch and unfolded my newspaper.  When I looked up, a man in a pickup truck had pulled up beside the passenger window, smiling as he moved his hand in a circular motion, gesturing for me to roll down my window.

He was friendly and personable, and at that point, I should have driven out.  Suspended between the instincts of survival and curiosity, I paused and returned the smile. He began what seemed like a very innocent conversation, but I should have known where he was taking it.  I resisted the conversation and the direction it was headed, but he was skilled, perceptive and persistent and I allowed it to proceed to an inappropriate point. I never left my car; nor did the undercover officer who was conducting the sting operation leave his.  There was never an indication either of us would do so. 

Proceeding beyond the beautiful day comments, the man kept prompting me with questions about why I was in the park, to which I replied I had stopped there for lunch on my way to run an errand.  I also told him I never come to that park because I work downtown, but just happened to be there that day because of the errand to a trophy shop less than a mile away.  He told me he was just there on his lunch break to see “what all was going on today.” 

I admit to being flattered that he expressed so much interest and I continued the conversation. 

How quickly resolve disappears when the opportunity presents itself to seek secret satisfaction or to hear words that play upon some buried need.  A casual play on words moves into the mind and creates powerful images that numb the ability to reason, blotting out all common sense in hopes of satisfying a personal “need” that seems real and reasonable at the time.  Resistance dissolves; awareness of the potential costs vanishes.  Selfishness takes control.  Want becomes the driver. Black and white, right and wrong, leave the scene. Sins we think are buried deep inside show themselves to be barely beneath the surface, easy to arouse.  It takes little time to move from where you will never go to being there. A word or two will do.

            The man stopped talking and dropped his smile as he signaled his fellow officers who were driving around somewhere else in the park.  The time of the arrest was12:40, just barely five minutes after ending the phone conversation with my wife. 

I engaged in nothing but conversation, very brief, following his lead.  There were no physical acts or contact with anyone nor was an offer ever made to engage in any activity.  I was about to understand better than ever that thinking can be as damaging as doing. 

After I was handcuffed and frisked, I was driven to a staging area a few blocks away where they were collecting other men who had been arrested in the sting operation. My car was impounded and I was placed temporarily in a police van with two other men whose lives were also falling apart that day.  We did not talk, our eyes focused on the floor, our ears on the door.

At the staging area, the officers asked some basic questions and the arresting officer posed with me like I was a trophy fish.  After a while, I was driven to the county jail in the backseat of a police cruiser, transferred into the county jail reception area, fingerprinted, booked, tested for tuberculosis, chained to a pipe against a wall and then placed in a holding cell.

“Hey man.  What are you in for?” asked the sad-eyed guy sitting with his knees clutched to his chest a few feet down the stainless-steel bench in the holding tank.  For the second time that day I was hearing a set of words I never thought would be said to me.  And this time, I did what came naturally and seemed prudent:  I lied.

“DUI,” I said, feeling ashamed that I was willing to accept one sin over another.  I realized I was as judgmental of my condition as my children were, as my church would be, as my employer would be . . . as the sad-eyed man might have been.

“DUI?” he said.  “You don’t look like a drunk to me.”

I turned away and leaned against the cold tile wall.  Am I ever what I appear to be?

I sat among these men whose lives had merged with mine on this day because of the self-interruption of our own actions and choices.  Thieves, “deadbeat dads,” drug dealers, violent offenders ,drunkards and sexual offenders . . . the dregs of our city’s streets, rounded up and held, to be sorted out and placed in little rooms for processing and handling.  We had been removed to protect the community.  I looked around me at the brokenness and thought of how a graceless God might come in with a broom and sweep us all into some big dustpan, those with sprung sprockets, missing wheels that made them turn in constant ever-closing circles, batteries ebbed, paint peeling, color fading, cracks spreading, wings skewed in wrong directions.  As the day went on, I would see the sorting; some would go upstairs; some outside; some would slide further in to the hopelessness, finally becoming almost one with the stainless bench or the concrete floor.

Where was my desk?  My Blackberry?  My piles of files and projects?  My calendar?  My keys?  My life had been reduced to gray walls and trapped men, all proclaiming innocence; all “wronged.”

I knew that outside that room my life was going on as always, absent me.  Nothing was yet amiss.  The normal calls of the day were coming in; deadlines were approaching, messages were being left, excuses suggested for my extended lunch absence.  My wife was planning dinner.  The dogs were wandering the yard and there was rain in the forecast.  Only I knew it was crumbling.  I would have wept, but not there.  Not in that room, not with those men. 

Several hours later after mug shots and more processing, I was finally moved to another cell with phones bolted a wall and piles of limp ham sandwiches stacked upon a try.   I was given the right to make the proverbial one free phone call.  As the hours had passed, I had narrowed down my choices; I had chosen my words.  I called my wife.


It would take a long time for me to know what the minutes in the park had done to the years of my life.  How a brief conversation through a window can shut down relationships I thought were a permanent part of my life.  How a pair of handcuffs and a ride downtown can bring both loss and gain.  How dear the depths can be.  How dreams and nightmares can run parallel . . . and lead to the same place.

Had we finally come to the end . . . or had we finally come to the beginning?

Sadness at the Sound of Trains -- Chapter 2

I had waited several hours to press my cheek against the stainless steel phone embedded in the wall of the holding cell.  I held a small piece of paper in my hand, written on it the priceless code for one phone call to connect me to the outside world.  Punching the code incorrectly would send me to the end of the line to await another free phone.

The world I had moved within with ease until my hands were pulled behind me, held together with zip ties at the wrist as I traveled downtown in the back of a squad car, feeling as if every passing motorist was passing judgment . . . was a world that was no longer mine.  I was in a world now defined by a pink ticket picked up in a public park sex sting alleging that I had engaged in an act of lewdness in public.  My car was impounded; my belt and shoes removed; my dignity dissolved.

While I waited for the opportunity to place a call and end the mystery of my afternoon disappearance, the list of potential recipients narrowed down as fast as my false hopes that I would somehow avoid the consequences of my arrest.  My past actions had separated me from my children -- grown now, but grown apart from me -- and I could not call a son to bail me out.  Those who knew the truth about my sexual struggle -- those I had acted out with in the past -- tended to be anonymous and unreachable; such is the situation of the one who has led a double-life. 

I pressed into the cold wall, my ear smashed against the recessed speaker, contorting myself in a strange way to be able to talk into a mouthpiece that was built into the wall to keep it from being broken off, and I listened to Lisa's phone ring and prayed it would not go to message, even as I dreaded she would answer.  My mind raced to find words of explanation . . . and settled on the truth.

In the greyness of the cell, locked behind a heavy metal door with pacing men in various stages of depression and denial, I knew only that there were two who would still listen to me:  God and Lisa.  I would spend a great deal of time talking to both. 

The ringing ended and the voice said "Thom . . . where are you?"

I had 90 seconds.

Every train wreck begins with a chug.

Our first breath, a priceless gift from God, is followed quickly by another and on we go, sometimes shallow, sometimes rapid, ever-gasping, on through life.   If we could foresee the journey on which our first breath thrusts us, if we could know why we end up where we do, why we veer onto courses we would never choose intelligently for ourselves, we might avoid disaster.  If we were even aware of the beginning -- but we don't even realize we have arrived -- we might be able to write a different ending.  “If.”  Is it an abbreviation for “I fear?”

God, even before my first breath on a plain May morning, saw my journey from beginning to end in that Only-He way He has of womb-to-tomb detail.  The baby in the bassinet, the boy on the playground, the man in the jail cell . . . everything in-between and beyond . . . all at once, laid out and played out.

Seven years after that first breath, during the long, hot 
Texas summer of 1961, I set out on the first involuntary steps of a dangerous, painful and defining journey.  I did not know it was even underway.  I had no concern with where I was going, no map to follow, no input, no desires for any, no causes for concern.  

Decades down that twisted road, I can still see where it all began:   the patting of feet on hot pavement . . . the passage of idle thoughts and simple curiosities . . . the small decisions that add up to momentous change . . . the overflow of things that happen whether we will them or not . . .  and the gnawing emptiness left by the things we hoped would have happened but never did.

The summer of 1961 unfurled like a lazy cat on a sun-warmed porch . . . but was in reality moving forward like a speeding snake down a wet gutter pipe.   To this seven-year-old, there was no cause for concern.  Every day was hot and very similar to the one before.  Each stood on its own, beginning and ending on the same pillow.  I could not have known they were piling up and soon would collapse upon me, pinning me beneath their weight, demanding more of me than I knew how to give.  Wandering unencumbered, I was on the verge of being buried, oblivious that long-term near-suffocation was already in process.  My life was changing . . . but neither I nor anyone else knew.   No one set out on that summer Saturday to make my life a mess, so there was no one to blame. Such is the privilege of retrospect.  On that morning, it appeared as just another Saturday.  A very hot one.

The sizzling sidewalk baked my feet.  The Popsicle melted faster than I could lick it off the stick.  Our dogs drooled in the shade, watching for flies, too lazy to play or even lick the purple drips off a little boy's knees.

I sat on our small covered porch in the shrinking shade as the sun rose in the sky.  Our evaporative cooler jutted awkwardly out the living room window next to me. Woefully inadequate for our large frame home, the heat of the summer sun and the blowing dust of the afternoon mocked the rusty box.  My grandfather had excavated the cooler from the far back corner of his garage on an unusual day when he felt sorry for us, sweltering in our house on 
Texas Street.  PaPa’s sentiment was measured.  He had a great love for his grandchildren, but his fondness for our father was slight.  He was good at filling the gap when my father’s weaknesses affected the family.

Though he was a gifted mechanic, PaPa hadn’t had the time to repair the rusty monster before dropping it off.  He unloaded it on the front porch, blocking the screen door to get my dad’s attention, and drove away in his air-conditioned cookie delivery panel truck – after dropping off a few packs of cookies for the grandson -- to visit the air-conditioned stores all over town.

PaPa felt sorry for us, but was torn about the idea of making life easier for us.  My mother, his youngest daughter, had married against his wishes.  When Mother was a senior in high school, Papa warned her not to marry my daddy, a too-happy-go-lucky 
Oklahoma boy.  She didn’t mind, and married at 17, so though PaPa must have figured she -- and we -- got what we deserved, he did his best to give us more, or to at least make sure our needs were met.  I loved my grandfather, but I did not understood how a man could drive around with a truck full of cookies all day and be so hard on my dad.  I did not understand the whole “men-should-be-men” concept and PaPa’s frustration with my dad for “shirking his responsibilities.”

It became easier to accept PaPa as the gruff man he was in later years when he traded in his cookie truck for a maintenance rig and worked in plumbing repair.  PaPa’s affection was limited to an occasional grin, chuckle and a brief touch on the top of my head.  Fortunately, my grandmother – Nanny-- who was the goodness I knew in my early years, was very good at feeling sorry for us.  I thought as a child that her resources were pretty limited, but I learned later in life she was amazingly resourceful.

After Daddy got home from work the day the cooler arrived, he set out to put it in the window, while he put away a six-pack of Lone Star.  To Daddy, anything worth sweating for was worth a six-pack or a bottle of cheap wine.  Unlike my grandfather, who believed there was a proper tool for every task, Daddy believed he could fix anything by picking up whatever was nearby and thinking creatively.  He supported the fan’s huge box outside the window with an old stick he found laying in the flower bed.  The stick  was a little too short to make the fan level, so he perched the stick on a rock.  He proclaimed the cooler “in,” attached the garden hose, turned on the water and flipped on the fan.   Water shot through the box, across the rusted fan blades and all over the hardwood floors in our rent-house living room.  Mother ran in, said the water would make the wood warp and the curtains droop and asked Daddy what he was going to do about all that?

Daddy muttered something about nothing ever making her happy and he pulled his chair close to the fan and enjoyed the sprinkles.

As the sun dipped and the temperature dropped to 90 degrees, my brother and my two sisters and I crowded around the cooler, fighting to be within spitting range of the small drops of water shooting from the blades.  Even that close, we could not really get cool . . . not like real air-conditioning – but it was worth pretending.  I was seven.  My brother was 12.

“Face it,” he shrugged, “It’s just a fan.”

And not a very good one.  The slightly-bent blades clanged against each other as they rotated on the wobbly sprocket.  The awkward spinning produced a noise that sent the cat running under the car and the neighbors peering from their cool closed windows.  Everyone always wondered what was going on at our house.

That first night, the cooler cried out in a barely-audible shrill metal-against-metal sound.  I believed it was the sound of progress, and swore we were all cooler.  I even left my pajamas on.  I was sure I was sweating less than usual.

The second night, the stick settled deeper in the drip-softened flower bed outside the window and the cooler box shifted just a bit.  The blades moaned and cursed and I lay awake much of the night along with my brother, wishing Daddy would pull the plug.  He would not.  The fan cursed and moaned; the freight trains -- which ran practically right through my bedroom -- roared and whistled.  If I could have slept I would have had a nightmare.  If I had had a nightmare, I would have cried out but no one could have heard me.

On the third night, the stick broke and the cooler tilted heavily and the window frame split.  The monstrous machine hung precariously out into the night and the blades rattled and clanged so badly Daddy finally turned it off, jerked the plug from the wall and shoved it out the window on top of the honeysuckle in the flower bed.  The weight of the water in the cooler crushed the honeysuckle and the big rusty box settled into the mud, where it would sit until the mailman a few weeks later would ask my mother if she needed help moving it off the flowers.  Together they dragged it to the side yard.

Daddy was through with it the moment he tossed it out the window.  It was my grandfather’s fault, he said, removing his undershirt and stomping down the hall.  Daddy said PaPa had meant this to happen and that we should have known so all along.

“Another damn lesson he’s trying to teach us,” he yelled, retreating to the garage.

Our experiment with air conditioning ended and the water cooler again found itself resting in the dark recesses of a garage, cooler than we would ever be.

That was how 1961 would be.  Good intentions.  Halfhearted fixes.  Promises precursors to curses.

I lay in bed with my window open during that long third night, the gentle swish of the soft curtains teasing my toes, an almost-cool breeze blowing through the open house.  I could hear the even whirring of the window unit across the street at our neighbor’s house, taunting me.

Daddy worked at Convair, building airplane engines.  My mother said he made good money, but she was always reminding us that other people just had a better way with money than Daddy did.  And it showed.  All I really wanted was a bike with a banana seat, a flashlight of my own for exploring the field on the other side of the railroad tracks and a window unit air conditioner in my own room.  As I listened to the air conditioner across the street, I knew whoever was inside was sleeping, probably under a bedspread to escape the chill as he dreamed.  All I really wanted was to sleep and dream . . . like whoever he was.

Instead, I lay awake and listened to the sadness of the trains going back and forth on tracks with no beginning or end.  I never knew if they were full or empty, almost through or just beginning.  They never stopped, they just whistled down the track that cut across our town and practically our yard.  Our house was the closest of all to the tracks and our windows rattled as each slid by, unaware we lived there.   When a train roared by, I could not hear my parents in their bedroom down the hall.  As it faded into the distance, their voices would take its place.

Daddy’s voice was louder than Mother’s, especially if it was his dreaming voice, the one he used when he talked about the big house he would someday own far away from the railroad tracks . . . someday.  In the same voice, Daddy would tell us about trips to places he would dream of but where we would never go.  And the car he’d seen and planned to buy so he could drive his old Buick off into Bridgeport Creek and park it among the catfish.  And the job he'd heard about that would pay so much more than he was making then.  Daddy always said “it never hurts to dream a little, now does it?”  His dreaming voice was clear and strong and I liked the sound.  I wished it was like that all the time. I wished he was always able to free himself that way.

In an earlier day, maybe before she had four children and a hot train-rattled house, Mother had listened better to the dreamy ramblings and would respond with encouraging words; on this night, in this momentary quiet, she was responding with “mmm…hmmm,” and “yes, dear,” which sound like agreement, but are really just acknowledgment that she hears the words, but no longer shares the vision.  Maybe she realized he usually said “I” when he dreamt aloud, forgetting that there were five of us in his family, a definite “we.”

Mother may also have had dreams, but if she did, she did so only while asleep and apparently never awake, or at least never spoke of them so anyone could hear.  I don’t know what her dreamer’s voice sounded like before it faded away.

No one knew mine either.  I believed even then, at seven, that it was wrong to have big dreams, or at least to share with anyone the ones you might secretly hang on to.  There was something about listening to my dad’s, and my mom’s responses to them that made me keep mine to myself, as if sharing them would endanger them.  But there was something about keeping them to myself that eventually caused them to cease to be altogether.  Maybe if I had shared them they might have come true . . . one or two?

I didn’t dream that night.  I thought of cooler air and jets . . . and fell asleep.  I heard my little sister get up for a drink in the middle of the night.  My older brother and sister got into an argument and slammed a couple of doors. Eventually there were no voices.  That didn’t last.

“Get up stupid,” said my brother in the doorway and I realized I had overslept.  “We’re going to 
Bridgeport.  Whitey’s dead and Dad wants to fish.”  Even at 12, my brother had a simple way of communicating reality.

Whitey was our dog and I knew he would be dead when I went to bed.  In the morning, Mike had found “Whitey,” named so because Daddy had said he was a Dalmatian that never got his spots, lying in the ditch between the railroad tracks and our house.  Daddy had tried the day before to kill bagworms on our cedar trees by spraying them with a sulphur mixture.  The yellow rain ran into the street gutters where Whitey lapped it up and ran yelping crazily down the street like a mad dog.  When he came back home, he stood at the edge of the yard and whimpered and then lay down by the railroad tracks.

“Stay away from him.  He’s gone mad,” said Daddy.  “He’ll be better by tomorrow.”

Daddy always had a simple answer and it usually involved waiting for tomorrow.  He never spent a lot of time searching.  And when his answers turned out to be wrong, he ran . . . or fished.  He was wrong about Whitey.  The dog didn't get better.  Time to fish.

Mike got the shovel and the fishing poles, buried the dog and loaded the gear.  Mother packed a lunch and some clothes for a three-day stay at Aunt Nell’s farm in 
Bridgeport.  Daddy told us over and over thatBridgeport is where our roots were, and with each visit there, he dug himself deeper into the rough past from where he'd sprung.  Years later when I would visit, I would think it a very odd place to have been planted.  But that is where my mother, Mary Ellen, and my father, Bertram Montgomery, began their family:  my brother Mike, my sisters Deb and Sue and me, Tom.  Creativity in choosing names was not their high mark as a couple.

Nothing grew on the farm in 
Bridgeport that I am aware of other than watermelon, but it was a farm because it had always been a farm.  And because it was a farm, the perception was that food was plentiful there, so we often visited near the end of the month.  My Aunt Nell was a connoisseur of anything fried, which usually included okra, squash, fish and frog legs and an occasional chicken.  Morning?  Fried eggs and fried bacon.

What grew best on the farm in 
Bridgeport were anger and discontent and control by people who overstated their needs and exercised their power to meet those unrealistic needs by exploiting people, usually in their own families, who were convinced their own worth lay in how well they met the needs of the dominant demanders.  This cycle naturally lead to lowered levels of esteem that were never recognized.  Hence the bar was never raised for anyone in our Bridgeport family.  Fortunately, younger children were free of this caste system and we came and went freely through the squeaky screen doors without question.  I will forever remember that freedom.

Bridgeport was a dusty place; summer’s hometown.  But it had a pond full of catfish and bullfrogs and a winding creek with an old bridge where my Daddy could spend hours shooting empty beer and wine bottles with a 22, filling the creek bed with multi-colored broken glass, a testament to his ability to hold his liquor and maintain his sharpshooter status .

Daddy ran to 
Bridgeport when life seemed too difficult, when jobs slipped away, kids needed new sneakers or car payments lapsed into overdue, tempting sheriffs’ front-door visits. In Bridgeport, he could hide. Nothing was expected beyond fitting in among the misfits.  And that he did.  InBridgeport, Daddy was family; the bar of judgment was level to the floor.  I realized that while I didn’t like him much in Bridgeport, I loved being there, myself in need of a little misfitting on occasion.  I felt more like my Dad there than anywhere.

As draped in dust and depression as 
Bridgeport was, it had the pond.  The small but deep pool was surrounded by dense, dark growth all the way to the edge, thick lilly pads and water-growing plants.  The pond teemed with life, above, on and below.  Fish splashed, frogs jumped and mosquitoes and other flying bugs dodged.  Only by paddling out near the middle in the small fishing boat could we even see the water, so dense was the coverage of life.  The fish were big; tiny tadpoles were as thick as the mosquitoes which buzzed above us.

In the inviting twilight and beyond to 
midnight, the evening roar took hold . . . the overpowering sound of thousands of huge croaking bullfrogs.  They were the staple of Bridgeport weekend dinners – meaty frog legs rolled in cornmeal, fried to a golden crisp and served with fried okra and fresh tomatoes, followed by a home-grown watermelon.  I think that may be all we ever ate.

Above the constant croaking of the toads, beneath the uncountable stars and a brilliant moon, I rowed along alone with my dad.  One vibrant little boy with a whole world before him; one tired man looking for a way out of the world beneath him.

“Daddy . . . you know what I want to be when I grow up?”  I said.  “I think maybe I want to be a soldier like you were . . . and fight in battles across the sea.”

“That sounds like a good choice,” Daddy said.  “But I hope we won’t have any more battles.”  His eyes lost their focus and his hands stilled on the boat paddles as he remembered in silence his days in
Germany during World War II.

We drifted along in the dark, listening to the sounds of the frogs along the banks of the pond and I heard my daddy -- in his loud dreaming voice -- tell me I could be anything I wanted to be.  All I needed to do right now was dream.

“Well then,” I said.  “I think I’ll be a fireman.  Everybody likes firemen.  They’re strong and brave and they save lives all day.  I would be a hero, wouldn’t I?”

“I’m sure you would,” said Daddy.  “You’ll be a great fireman.”

I laughed and kept dreaming aloud.

“It sounds kind of scary,” I said.  “And really hot.”

I sat quietly for a few minutes, watching my dad at the other end of the boat, the red ashes from his cigarette glowing in the dark.  I could tell he was watching me too.  We moved so slowly across the water, I could barely hear the ripples against the boat.  I took it all in, the peacefulness, the security, the surety.

“You know what, Dad?” I said.  “I think I’d rather just fish with you forever, right here in this boat, on this pond, with these frogs.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Daddy said, even as he turned the boat toward the shore.  We gathered our frogs and he helped me through the bulrushes and up the muddy banks of the pond and into the clearing.  With his arm around my shoulders, we made our way back to the farmhouse, where he tucked me in for the night.  Daddy lingered at the bedroom door before he turned out the light and headed down the hallway.

Relaxed and secure, I dreamed all night of winning wars and putting out fires, but even more so of fishing for frogs, always with my dad at my side.

And then morning came.  I awoke from my dreams, rolled out of bed, ran down the hall for breakfast and was told that my father was gone.  As ingone.  He would not be coming home.  We would never fish again.

The bright and vibrant conquering child who had seen himself able to be anything he wanted to be . . . anything he dreamed of . . . was just a little abandoned trembling kid in a wrinkled pajamas, wanting really badly to leave Bridgeport behind.  The once unlimited little boy was limp.  Wanting . . . and alone.  Alone . . . and awaiting rescue.  Vulnerable and eager.

In the distance, I heard a train, lumbering across the wooden bride outside
Bridgeport, making its way to Texas Street to scream through my backyard, where I would not be to listen.

I did not know God.  I did not know that God knew me.  I'd never heard He never leaves us.  My faith had been in my father . . . not THE Father.  I did not know that when I hurt and cried, He heard me.  I only knew that change had come upon us . . . and I did not like it, want it, or know how to survive it.  My instincts would tell me to close the doors and build protective walls, reinforcing myself against anyone who might ever hurt me again.  I did not know about the armor of God; I reached instead for a sword of silence with which to cut off those around me.  I knew the storm, but not the shelter.

The fierceness I would demonstrate was but a disguise to hide the vulnerability that penetrated to the very soul I did not know I had.  Reeling from the profound pain of abandonment, I was ripe for picking, and he -- Mr. Hooten -- would soon come prowling.

Why Was My Voice So Small? -- Chapter 3

Lisa's voice on the other end of the line stunned me. It was a strange combination of normalcy and urgency. I had for hours been pacing in my mind, watching others pace around the holding cell, while others re-arranged themselves on the cold hard metal benches. Still others, I could tell, were beginning to withdraw from some substance of influence, changing before my eyes from who they were when they first came into this small grey space of life. Everyone was an "other," as no one wanted to know much about anyone. It hadn't taken long for my mind to begin thinking that all normalcy was gone, as if the world beyond the heavy metal door and the small unbreakable glass window had been reduced to limping men in orange jumpsuits and blue uniformed men with guns on their belts.

"Where are you?" she asked.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been a "break-it-to-her-gently" moment. However, in a very controlled environment where you have given up all control -- a jail -- each word seems precious, as if it will be the last chance to talk to the outside world. And it wasn't like I had not had several hours already to contemplate . . . where I was. For the moment, that meant location, but it would come to mean so much more when time allowed exploration. Where was I really?

"I'm in the county jail," I answered. "I was arrested."

Silence. Breathing. Waiting for response.

"Are you okay?"

Love. Overwhelming. Relief. All-consuming. Dread. Encompassing.

"Yes," I said. "But I need you to help get me out and I may not be able to call you again."

"Tell me what I need to do," she said.


Not all rescues are welcome.

Our return to
Texas Street from Bridgeport was a temporary stop in a newly-defined normal that no longer included a dad. The house was familiar; the yard was the same; the trains just as loud and wall-rattling as they clipped the yard on their way to somewhere . . . somewhere else. Which is where I wanted to be, away from the bagworm-infested trees and the heat of the summer. The barefoot boy was ready to walk away from pain and confusion, but had no where to go.

I loved that old house, though it held its fears. I remember when our family would sit around the table in the dining room with bowls of pinto beans and cornbread and sour pickles and great glasses of sweet iced tea. I remembered the time Daddy brought home a pet skunk which had the run of the house, but usually just hid in the hall closet and dashed out only to taunt my mother and provoke an argument about the absurdity of a rodent rummaging among our Sunday clothes.

The fear? It was the attic opening above the hallway between the dining room and the kitchen, slightly askew as if it were frequently used by someone living up there who came out only in the dark, perhaps to itself rummage the closet in my bedroom or slide beneath my bed. When I would be sent to the kitchen to refill the tea pitcher or bring more bread, I would skirt along the wall and keep an eye on that opening.

When I look back now, I am comforted to know that as a seven-year-old, my fears were so benign and common: dark and empty attics, monsters under beds. That would end at the age of eight to be replaced by fears that moved inside of me to produce a different darkness.

“Rescue” came in 1962.

For the first few years after my parents’ divorce, the Continental Trailways bus between
Denton and Fort Worth was the connection between my dad and his children. Sometimes Daddy would take the bus to Denton for a day in the park; sometimes all four of us children would board the bus for the trip to Fort Worth for a walk in the zoo and an evening of biscuits and pinto beans in Daddy’s little apartment. And sour pickles.

The bus was loud and smelly and the people, despite the fact they were on a bus headed to some specific designation, looked lost and wandering and self-absorbed, which is how I felt. Though we would laugh and share the inner jokes of siblings, pestering the passengers, exhausting the good will of the driver, the bus became a symbol for never being home, but just somewhere in between.

Within a year of the divorce, the bus trips became less frequent. Daddy was often broke and unable to afford the ticket to come see us, or the four children's fares for us to go see him. We began to find other ways to spend our Saturdays. Movie matinées and Milk Duds, swimming with cousins on my mother's side, cashing in coke bottles for comic books to curl up in a world of conquering heroes.

Home still echoed an aching emptiness I was sure would never go away. Everything was a reminder. The space in the driveway where Daddy used to park his car. The disappearance of the ash trays in the living room. No
vienna sausages in the pantry. No snoring at night; no red flickering of his cigarettes in the darkened living room where he would wander to try to figure things out. No weekend fishing trips to Bridgeport. No skunk. No one to chase away the monsters or straighten the tilting attic door. We soon moved and Texas Street moved into memory.

Mother worked hard to fill the emptiness, loading us up to go to drive-in movies at night, putting together picnics on the weekend, bringing home a new puppy. Still, she knew my brother Mike and I needed the influence of men in the absence of our father. We were too cooped up with sisters, and my brother -- five years older than I -- was already beginning to find his own way out into a more adventuresome world.

When Mike came home with the news that a bunch of the boys in the neighborhood were being rounded up to start a new scout troop, Mother was all for it. A young, clean-cut outdoorsman and self-proclaimed scoutmaster, Mr. Hooten, had been showing off his collection of hatchets and knives, outdoor gadgets and camping gear. He had a way with words and weapons. Like all the boys, we were hooked. Mr. Hooten was going to build the sharpest Scout troop in
Texas and every boy in the neighborhood was welcome to join and march in formation into manhood. I was, of course, way too young.

I took to Mr. Hooten right off. He reminded me of all the good things about Daddy. Mr. Hooten decided I could join the troop – unofficially – even though I was only eight, several years too young. He promised Mother he would watch out for me; he promised my brother he would not let me be too big a pest. And he promised me he’d “protect” me from the older boys, just in case any of them might be bullies. I was parading in the personal attention. I was finally someone’s favorite, and I was anxious to learn all the things Mr. Hooten could teach me.

Mr. Hooten was a pedophile. Sick and sly, he knew how to take a little boy’s grin of anticipation and turn it for his personal satisfaction. He “protected” me as anyone would valuable personal property. I was not a member of the troop; I was his.

The sexual abuse began innocently enough, creeping in like a welcome sunrise on a clear morning that gives no hint of the storms to come in the heating of the day. If sin would announce itself, like the first incoming missile of an air war, we could duck and run for cover. It doesn’t happen that way. Sin slides in.

Mr. Hooten’s favorite activity was movie night. He would order movies boys love – westerns and war movies and hokie horror flicks – and we’d all crowd into the community room he’d borrow from the city. Movie night was a reward for the hard work of memorizing oaths and carving soapbox cars. There, in the dark, perhaps 30 young teenage boys and a little brother or two would sprawl on the floor and become enthralled in the adventures on the screen. There, in the dark, Mr. Hooten became enthralled with me. I didn’t mind. I admired him; he cared about me. Sitting closely in front of him in the crowded room, I welcomed his arm around me as he would pull me back towards him and slide me down so I would be comfortable and he could see above my burr-cut head. I didn’t mind the backrub, the slow movements of his strong hands along my spine. It didn’t seem wrong when he reached around in front and rubbed my chest and stomach and pulled me closer. There, in the dark, with all my friends around, it didn’t even seem strange when he fondled me through my jeans, or even when he began to reach inside, never taking his eyes off the screen. He was, after all, Mr. Hooten. It couldn’t be wrong. He even called me Tom-Bo, the nickname my Dad had given me. I began to live for Friday nights.

My daddy had taken our family on a few campouts when I was a little boy. He’d even driven us all the way out to Yellowstone National Park where we slept in a tent and listened for bears and took hikes and identified berries and skipped rocks on streams. I missed those days, so I was very excited when Mr. Hooten said our troop was going to camp . . . and I could go along. He assured my mother I’d be safe. In fact, he said, I could sleep in his tent to make sure the older boys played no late night pranks on me.

When I was with Mr. Hooten, I felt loved and accepted and singled out. He knew that. I was so easily taken in by him. I anticipated the camping trip with more excitement than any Christmas. I packed my things weeks ahead, complaining incessantly to my mother that I needed a sleeping bag we couldn’t afford. Mr. Hooten told me not to worry about it; he had one for me. He would take care of everything.

Off in the wilderness, out in the woods, beneath the stars, only a few feet away from the remains of a smoldering campfire, behind the zipped doors of a musty tent and crowded into one sleeping bag together, Mr. Hooten’s cautious caring came unraveled. His “little buddy,” his Tom-Bo, became his toy. His protection became perversion. His acceptance of me became his using of me. I went into the tent puffed up, euphoric and longing for the next day’s outdoor adventure, my mind crowded with memories of
Yellowstone adventures of the past. I came out broken, confused, and longing for home. The comfortable reassuring closeness of movie night, which he had used to reel me in, was replaced by the rough manipulation of a strong man accustomed to making people do things, and accept his doing things to them. He did as he wished and I did as he wanted. He was, after all, the master.

“Do exactly what I tell you to do or I’ll . . .” I had never heard words like that before, spoken in a tone that made it clear I had placed myself where I could no longer choose my actions. It would be the first time I had done so; the first moment of giving away control, an involuntary step onto the edge of an, at the time, invisible slippery slope, a re-defining of what was right, a challenge to all reason. I found myself, even at eight, rationalizing to prevent rejection.

Just as I would not weep years later when tossed in a holding cell as a result of my own actions, I would not weep that morning as I emerged into the clearing where the campfire’s ashes lay cold under the dawning sky. Not here; not with these boys.

Mr. Hooten was a sick man with a twisted mind and a way of making evil look and feel like love. I had a deep need for an adult man worthy of my trust and admiration. I was ignorant and innocent and eager to be accepted, wanting and wandering, ready to be molded, as he said repeatedly, into a little man. And he took it upon himself to reshape my life. With sadistic precision he filled in the gaps left by the loss of my father’s love with his predatory sickness. With a false smile and a corrupted touch, he slowly and skillfully and malevolently took my childhood simplicity and innocence and pleasured himself, turning it into premature guilt and confusion, which I buried deep inside so as not to disappoint him. He took the gentle psyche of an innocent boy in his perverted hands and twisted it so hard that he left a permanent imprint on the future shape of my life. And from this, he gained his wicked satisfaction.

Back in
Denton, in my shame, I was silent. For a time, I curled up in the quiet with my comic books and plastic soldiers and the pain, both physical and mental, slipped away as I found justification for his intentions. I resented myself for the sullenness I had shown in the last day of the camp-out, for the hurt feelings he must have had as I shied away, which had made him mad and had lead to his ignoring me all that final day. I felt guilt -- not for his actions in the dark, but for my reactions in the daylight -- and I was ready to tell him I was sorry. In only a few days, I was longing for movie night. I needed Mr. Hooten to be nice again, to curl up on the floor of the big room full of boys and pull me – only me – up in front of him and hold me, touch me; make me feel special. To remind me that I had been chosen. I decided he had not really meant to hurt me in the tent, that I had just been stupid and not like other boys, who would have been glad to have been given such attention. I had been mean and ungrateful and I wanted to make it up to him so he would keep me in his troop.

Mike and I were only a few minutes late to movie night, but the lights were already down low. I scouted the room from far in the back and finally saw Mr. Hooten, there in the darkest spot in the middle behind the projector and I started picking my way around and between the sprawled bodies of the scouts. And then I stopped. Mr. Hooten and another burr-headed boy were curled up together in the dark. A smaller boy, maybe only six, someone else’s little brother, had taken my place. My week of fading remorse had resulted in a jarring rejection. I found myself a spot alone far out on the edge of the room. I don’t remember the movie.

After Mr. Hooten traded me in, I retreated into a shell, custom built a safer world around me, and became very selective about who would enter. It was only a brief "relationship," but like all children preyed upon by sick adults, I did not escape undamaged.

When I was cast aside by Mr. Hooten and able to think more clearly, it didn't take me long to know how wrong it had all been. Feeling real guilt for the first time in my life, I went to a couple of people I thought I could trust. I was embarrassed and frightened, but I took a risk and told. I sought real rescue.

"I've been doing something terrible. Can I tell you about it?" I remember asking. It did not occur to me that it was he -- Mr. Hooten -- who had done something terrible. To me . . . it was me.

"Yes," I was told by each. "You can tell me anything."

And I did. And I thought they were listening. And I thought they would help me.

"Don't you ever repeat a word of this to anyone," one said angrily. "People will call you a liar . . . and a lot of other things. There's no excuse for making things up just to get attention."

One even punctuated his shocked response with a hard punch to my shoulder, as if the pain would reinforce his warning to never speak of this again.

I tried to tell a few others, but it was too difficult for them to hear. Pretty soon I learned that there are things you just don't tell people. Things that people do to you; things you yourself do. Secrets that slowly become a part of you. Deeds that do indeed shape your manhood, but with contaminated clumps of clay. In Mr. Hooten's menacing shadow, my voice had been too small.

I don't know what eventually became of Mr. Hooten. I have lain awake at night wondering about the hurt and damage he inflicted on other little boys. Sexual abuse is slick and tricky and well-disguised. It slips into a child's world with a smile and a laugh, a chuckle and a touch, and doesn't leave until childhood purity has been stolen away and destroyed, and along with it, the ability to trust.

I don't know if Mr. Hooten was gay or straight, because it was not really about sex at all. It was sport and selfishness and an unending search to fill a perverted emptiness. It was the conquest of a child, power over innocent prey, the sad satisfaction of a selfish soul at the expense of another, and the crumpling and tossing aside of a person perceived as less significant. There was no love, no care, just power and presence preceding emptiness and rejection from both to each.

And shame. I know there was great shame on my part or I would have told my father. I wonder if he might have risen from his own self-absorption to rescue me?

I've not been one for excuses. I know what statistics show -- that a great majority of grownups with sexual identity problems were abused as children or abandoned by their fathers, or both -- but I believe that, despite all that, the responsibility for my actions lies with me. What I became later and what I did in the desperate acts of self-destruction rest on my shoulders, not on Daddy's or Mr. Hooten's, both really only transitory visitors to my life. But I do know that in the mix of the me I came to be are the shaping memories of trains along
Texas Street, a small boat on a star-lit pond, a grimy Continental Trailways bus racing down the road to Fort Worth, dark movies, camping tents and a punch on the shoulder. Things that add up.

Some of us keep our secrets too long, thinking it is our burden to bear, unaware that we share it with others in our very actions, in the way we live as we hide and dodge and hurt the ones we love, even as we destroy the goodness of our selves.

In the span of a year I had lost my father, found Mr. Hooten and lost him also.

I would learn through the years that rejection is one of my significant “triggers” for acting out on my same-sex attractions. When the need to be wanted is not met in a child, he or she often does not develop the level of self-confidence that makes gender-identity more natural to move into. Does that mean that all the little boys Mr. Hooten bent with his seeking of self-satisfaction grew up to struggle with same-sex attraction? Did they become gay because of his wicked use? Not necessarily. I will never know.

The accepted “side effects” of childhood sexual abuse are many: guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, self-blame, a feeling of powerlessness, an inability to say no to others in relationships, difficulty nurturing self, a lack of trust in your own feelings, an emotional shut down or 'numbing', an inability to see your positive aspects, a desire for perfectionism, a need to control at all costs, a feeling of being invisible or of being a non-person, problems giving or receiving affection, difficulty relying on others. Each of these side effects can produce a new wave of guilt, an inner question that goes unanswered: “Why can’t I just get over it?”

The question is punctuated by the advice of others: "Get over it."

The anger the adult feels at himself for acting out on something that happened to him as a child is furious and frustrating. We are allowing that person to maintain control long after he has moved on. Depression is familiar.

Some of the children abused by Mr. Hooten and the other predators who prey upon the innocent may emerge, through the grace of God, to lead completely normal lives, unfazed by their brush with evil. Others may not survive at all, driven by self-doubts to self-destruction, seeking solace in things that lead them no-where and merely compound their lostness until they can no longer find themselves at all. Others may move into some form of sexual abuse themselves, seeking power over spouses or, heaven forbid, repeating the misdeeds done to them. Others may just retreat into themselves and live behind a wall.

That’s a lot of baggage to take home from movie night.

I appreciate the fact God made each of us “wondrously.” I just wish people would leave His work alone so it can manifest itself in the way He intended. That little boy who wandered into the community room dreamed of being like his dad, only better. Even 8-year-olds can look beyond rockets and rifles to being daddies. I was going to do it perfectly. And in my perfect world, I would be the best Daddy. There would be no end to the zoo trips, the campouts, the fishing, the storytelling, the listening. I would rescue. I would have had nothing to hide; my children would never have been confused.

If only we could see what lies ahead. If only there were not so many twists and turns and hills and valleys obscured. We could carve out a road to overcoming instead of laying down stones for a pathway to succumbing. We would know we were being swallowed up before we plummeted so far into the depths of the struggle that all our energy goes into flailing instead of climbing.

It would take many years and a great deal of pain before someone would lead me down the better path of forgiveness for both Daddy and Mr. Hooten . . . and myself. Forgiveness would be the only way to begin to unzip the dark tent and emerge into the clearing.

It would require rescues that are real.