Growing Up Fast
I can’t remember Mr. Roquemore’s first name, but he taught vocational agriculture at Arlington High in the fifties, and he made a lasting impression on almost every boy he taught. I mean that literally. Nobody could swing a paddle like the Rock.
He was short and powerful with arms like strands of steel cable, no great scholar but a man of deep and abiding convictions. He claimed there was no such thing as a bad boy. He blamed Fool’s Hill: kids just had to climb Fool’s Hill a time or two. When a boy ventured up Fool’s Hill, the Rock demonstrated the courage of his convictions by lifting the lad off the floor with one brute swing.
Paddling was a daily, almost hourly, ritual. Some poor sinner was always presenting himself to the Rock for redemption. At the beginning of each school year most of us handcrafted our own designer paddles. Some boys decorated them with daggers or initials, and a few class pets even drilled holes in the surface to provide aerodynamic balance and ensure welts. Several dozen paddles hung from the base of the Rock’s blackboard.
“Boy, grab the jewels and bend over,” the Rock would say. He’d always treat you to his gap-toothed grin as he added, “This won’t hurt a bit.”
You could hear the pop all the way to the home-ec cottage. You could hear the bloodthirsty cheers from classmates clear past the gym. Then the Rock would smile again, to let you know all was forgiven. And here’s the part my own kids could never understand: thirty years later I still remember the Rock with affection.
Arlington was a small country town when I grew up. It had a definition and a perimeter. It had a center. Rules and limits were clear and simple. There weren’t a lot of choices. No kid in full possession of his senses talked back to an adult, any adult. If you talked back, or cut school, or got caught smoking or cursing or transgressing in any of a hundred other ways, you took your licks. Licks were a matter of pride — for both parties.
Everything changed with World War II, but change came a little slower, a little easier, in Arlington. There was an enormous sense of security in a small town. Families were large and seemingly permanent. Your cousins were usually your best friends, at least until you got to high school. Few mothers worked outside the home. Nobody had much money, but nobody wanted for anything. There was no TV, no stereo, no rock ’n roll, no freeways, no nukes. Divorce and crime and communism were conditions they sang about on Hillbilly Hit Parade. Drugs were things you took when you got sick. Almost everyone I knew went to church. Church was what you did on Sunday, before dinner at Granny’s.
We loved our parents and grandparents and took it for granted that we would be parents and grandparents someday. And none of us had the slightest idea what that might mean.
They called us the “silent generation,” those who came of age in the fifties. That was a polite way of saying we weren’t bright enough to ask questions. We bought the whole package — wife, kids, home in the suburbs, horizons unlimited. In truth, the prospects of getting anything except fat, broke, and old were pitifully narrow. The three most exciting things I remember about the fifties are some foreigner breaking the four-minute mile, the Russians putting up an electronic basketball in space, and a group of existentialists in San Francisco who recited poetry to jazz. Beatniks, they were called, forerunners of hippies. I desperately wanted to join them but never found the courage. I volunteered to fight in Korea and was disappointed that the war ended too soon. I was almost thirty when I cast my first ballot. I voted for John F. Kennedy. He was murdered three years later.
As fate had it, I married my second wife, Mary Jo (M.J.), six days before the assassination. I was writing sports for the Dallas Morning News and occasionally smoking a joint, slipping on dark glasses, and marching in civil rights demonstrations. I had written a column about a guy I knew, an Army helicopter pilot killed in some place called Viet Nam — he was one of the first Americans to die in that god-awful land — and to my surprise the column created some controversy. But basically I was an innocent, a mainstream dreamer and dancer, until that shattering day Kennedy was wiped out. Then a strange thing happened — to me and to millions of others. Once the numbness and bitterness subsided, we were overcome with a sort of fatalistic exhilaration. I still don’t have words to describe it — it was like being born again, or maybe being kidnapped by gypsies. Our whole value system changed. Little by little, over the next several years, we no longer felt accountable to the system, nor did we owe it allegiance. If patriotism was blindly following, patriotism was a joke. Our mood was one of massive rebellion. Never in my lifetime had so many Americans questioned basic assumptions.
Less than two years after the assassination, our only child, Shea, was born. Two years after that, I quit my newspaper job and began thinking of myself as a serious writer. A year after that, M.J. and I were busted for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana in the privacy of our home. They wouldn’t give you a ticket for it today, but in the late sixties the offense carried a possible life sentence in Texas. The ultimate victim of our arrest was a hapless antiwar congressional candidate I was trying to help — he was forced to withdraw because of the publicity. Our case was later dismissed, but the bitter taste lingered. What M.J. remembers most about being arrested, aside from the handcuffs, is that they took Shea along too. He was still in diapers. He was so terrified by the experience that for years he cried when Sam Houston Clinton came into the room. Sam was our lawyer, the man who came to get Shea while we were in jail.
After that, we moved around a lot — Austin, Mexico, back to Austin. Most of our friends were in their late twenties or early thirties: writers, artists, actors, filmmakers, musicians, politicians, lawyers, doctors, dope dealers, hippies, hookers, almost anyone who was interesting and shared our opinions. The country had split into two distinct groups — we and they. Us and them. Everyone we knew worked at something, organizing peace marches, food co-ops, softball games, day nurseries, naked swimming parties.
Kids were part of our scene. They were always around, with us or close by. They marched, protested, played third base, and passed joints like everyone else. It was considered enlightened to teach your kids about drugs and sex rather than allow them to learn in the traditional way — on the playground behind the schoolhouse. We taught them to love and care for the land — not the country, or the government, or the free enterprise system, or General Motors, but the earth itself. Because of our lifestyles, our kids were infinitely more aware and, we presumed, better prepared than any previous generation. Teenage girls became consumer specialists or raving feminists because some woman not much older than themselves awakened them to reality. The shock waves of the generation gap wouldn’t rock us, but it would stupefy them — William Randolph Hearst, Art Linkletter, Gerald Ford.
The trauma of parenthood, the legacy of the sixties, if you will, didn’t really hit me until a few years ago, when I heard that the stepson of a musician friend had jumped off a bridge and bashed himself to death on the rocks. Not long after that, the son of a judge I knew took too much acid and permanently scrambled his brains. By this time M.J. and I were divorced. M.J. and Shea moved to Dallas, and I began receiving scary reports about Shea’s conduct. He was having trouble accepting the divorce; his anger and frustration resulted in constant clashes with his mother, the teachers, and with other kids. He had always been a restless, temperamental kid with an explosive temper. Since he was an only child and usually the youngest of his group, older kids sometimes bullied him, and I encouraged him to fight back. M.J. thought he was hyperactive because of complications that had occurred at birth. I didn’t put much stock in this theory. I was impulsive and temperamental myself. It seemed normal. I’d always tried to treat Shea the way I’d been treated by my parents, and by the Rock: with love and discipline and good advice. I explained the rules and paddled him when I believed he needed it. But now that he was ten years old and living two hundred miles away, I didn’t know what to do. I thought the problem would go away.
M.J. thought it was getting worse. Shea was having serious problems with school and with almost everything else in his life. He was stealing things and destroying other people’s property. “He’s either so hyper he’s climbing the walls, or he’s in a purple funk,” M.J. told me. She thought he was taking drugs. She knew he was drinking, because she came home one night and found him passed out in his own vomit beside an empty six-pack.
“I thought we taught him drugs and booze were for adults,” I said lamely.
“Apparently not,” she said. “Maybe he grew up too fast.” She wanted to take him to a psychologist. I agreed, though the depth of the problem still hadn’t registered.
For a while the treatment seemed to work. The therapist used the method called confrontation. The sessions consisted of a lot of shouting and name-calling, but at least Shea was starting to articulate his hostility. He directed it at us — his mother and father. He felt betrayed. After a few months, the psychologist recommended that the boy be placed in some sort of residential treatment center for more extensive therapy.
“Are you talking about a nut hatch?” I asked M.J. I couldn’t believe it.
“Just a place for treatment,” M.J. told me. “The psychologist says he’s got sociopathic tendencies. Most teenagers do. It’s a time for preoccupation with themselves, for seeing themselves as the center of the universe. They’re not ready to live with anybody’s rules, but especially not ours — yours and mine.”
“Sociopathic” — just saying the word made my skin crawl. I’d heard that word many times, invariably from prosecutors describing mass killers, a Richard Speck or a Charles Manson. I believed that there were people like that, people born without a conscience. But I didn’t believe Shea was one. I proposed an alternative: why not send Shea to Austin to live with me?
In the summer of 1976 Shea and I moved into a well-equipped two-bedroom apartment in the hills overlooking Zilker Park. There was a school a few blocks away, and Barton Springs was within easy walking distance. As it happened, Willie Nelson lived directly behind us, just across the alley. We spent many stimulating hours with Willie and other musicians and friends. It was the best of times and, as I soon realized, the worst of times. Until then, I’d never thought much about being a single parent. Fortunately, I was at home most of the time working on a book, but after eleven years of marriage I was also indulging in various long-neglected hobbies of the flesh.
I knew this was no way to raise a pre-teenager, but Shea seemed content, and I confess, I didn’t look hard for signs of trouble. I’d started dating Phyllis, my current wife. Her son Mike was only a year older than Shea, and we did a lot of things together as a family. Shea and Mike didn’t especially like each other, but we figured they would learn to coexist. Mike was more mature than Shea and not as moody. Phyllis and I decided to set up housekeeping and found a large apartment in West Lake Hills where each of the boys could have his own bedroom. Not long after that, we got married. The wedding was one of those impromptu, joyously anti-authoritarian celebrations of permissive hugging, wildflowers, tequila, and endless declarations of love, peace, and goodwill. For a moment it was the sixties all over again. I can barely remember it, but sometime late that night I climbed on the stage at Bull Creek Inn with Willie Nelson and sang a song of my own composition called “Main Squeeze Blues,” which I dedicated to my bride. Shea and Mike both came up later, shook my hand, and told me they enjoyed the song. For a moment at least, we were a big, happy family, full of love and tenderness.
The party was over too soon. The boys had both suffered the pains of divorce and craved the attention of their natural parents. When they weren’t fighting one another, they were teaming up against us. Shea was worse than Mike, maybe because I didn’t make much attempt to discipline Mike. When Mike messed up, though, he was crafty about it. Shea was the one who was always getting caught. “He leaves a trail nine miles wide,” Phyllis observed. They had no trouble finding drugs. We conducted daily searches and seizures, but it was like bailing the ocean with a thimble. They always came home after a few days, or, more frequently, a few hours, and we were always grateful to have them back.
Shea absolutely refused to obey Phyllis. When she would ask him to clean his room, he’d respond by dumping more things on the floor. Cleanliness and order was a passion Phyllis inherited from her own mother. She wasn’t able to let things go. One day when she decided to clean Shea’s room herself, she discovered a petrified milk shake and several mossy green sandwiches stuffed in his underwear drawer. She also found a missing kitchen knife and his badly mutilated teddy bear.
A man from the sheriff’s office telephoned late one night and asked if we had two boys named Shea and Mike. “Sure do,” Phyllis said. “They’re downstairs asleep.” That’s what we thought. They’d gone out the side door hours earlier. They were throwing firecrackers at cars, but the person who reported the noise thought it was gunfire. A deputy told me later he had drawn his pistol just as one of the boys popped up from a weed patch, crying, “Don’t shoot! I’m just a little kid!”
We grounded them, grounded them repeatedly. It was futile. All we were doing was grounding ourselves. We’d become full-time jailers. How the hell do you divorce your kids? We started leaving them Marine Corps recruiting literature.
When Shea was thirteen and Mike was fourteen we moved into a spacious home on the western edge of downtown Austin. Mike’s father had bought him a Honda and was sponsoring him in local dirt bike races. Both boys got interested in soccer. I tried to get Shea interested in football, but the coach at O. Henry Junior High thought he was too small. He wasn’t too small to get in fights with football players, though. I was getting daily calls for conferences with the assistant principal. Mike was a naturally gifted athlete: he was usually the star player on his soccer team, and his room was filled with racing trophies. This contributed to Shea’s feelings of worthlessness. We threatened to take away Mike’s racing bike unless his deportment improved, which it did, but we never found a similar stabilizer for Shea.
Phyllis is God’s own pacifist, a resolutely nonphysical person, but she was finding it increasingly difficult to avoid physical confrontations with Shea. Shea frightened her. I could usually subdue him just by changing the tone of my voice, but I sensed that the situation was becoming unmanageable. Shea’s unauthorized absences from school had become an official matter, and we had to appear before a judge, who tongue-lashed Shea and threatened me with a large fine. Shortly after that, Shea disappeared for four days. I knew he had been running with a crowd of young toughs who, it turned out later, were involved in stealing hubcaps and peddling speed. One of them had stolen Phyllis’s jewelery. Another pulled a gun on my oldest son, Mark, who was about twenty at the time and sometimes watched the house when we were gone for a weekend.
When I learned that Shea was hiding out at the home of one of these teenage hoodlums, I asked Mark to go with me. It was an ugly scene. I had to take Shea by force while Mark restrained the other kid. By the time we got home I was soaked with sweat and shaking all over. It could have been worse, I told myself. Next time it probably would be.
By now we had given up locking the boys in their room. Instead, we locked ourselves in our room. At least they couldn’t sneak in and steal the car keys. I mentioned that I was seriously considering buying two sets of handcuffs, and to my amazement Phyllis had already priced them. Great God, what was happening to us?
I hadn’t yet discovered that my blood pressure was dangerously high, but I knew I felt like hell. I had constant headaches, and I could hardly drag myself out of bed in the morning. One school morning Phyllis shook me awake, obviously distraught and fighting back tears.
“Let me guess,” I said. “The boys are gone again.”
“Unfortunately not,” she said. “Come look.”
The gigantic attic room they shared was littered with cigarette butts, beer cans, roaches, playing cards, games, and clothes. A foul-smelling bong, one of those marijuana tubes sold in head shops, had overturned and leaked gray sludge onto the carpet. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, and then I realized that the little rats weren’t alone. Each was passed out in bed with a teenage girl. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Phyllis did. I could hear her brokenhearted sobs through the bathroom door.
Now that Shea was fourteen and approaching manhood, his relationship with his stepmother reached rock bottom. It wasn’t just Phyllis — Shea seemed to hate all women. One day Phyllis set him off by asking him to put away some things he’d taken out of the refrigerator. He responded by dumping the contents of an entire shelf on the kitchen floor. Phyllis’s reaction was so sudden, so rash and out of character, that it stunned all of us. She smashed him in the face with an egg! Then she ran upstairs crying, and Mike and I started laughing. After a few seconds, Shea started laughing too. For a moment there was a measure of respect in Shea’s face: I think he had wanted her to shove that egg in his face.
A week before Christmas, during a routine physical, I learned that my blood pressure was in orbit. Skylab stuff — 240 over 150. An hour later I was in the hospital with a bunch of tubes running out of me and nurses yelling down the hall for their colleagues to come look at this one. Shea ran away again while I was hospitalized. He did sneak a visit to my room late one night after everyone else had gone, but neither of us could think of much to say.
The last time I spanked Shea was the night I got home from the hospital, just before Christmas, 1979. The incident is burned across my memory. He had come home a few hours earlier, but only long enough to steal my new car. He was nearly fifteen, too old to spank, too young to throw out. I called the cops, and while they were out looking for him I got a bottle of whiskey, turned out the lights, and waited in his room, a belt coiled in my fist. I was just barely sane enough to realize I was going crazy, or dying, or both. I’d been on the edge for weeks, working on a book ten and twelve and sometimes fifteen hours a day, fighting the panic and fear and incredible isolation. Phyllis was working just as long and hard, trying to sell real estate and keep us together. By now we were begging the kids, begging for time, begging to get by just one more day, one more week. I couldn’t even remember the last time we’d gone out or been with friends. I wanted to quit — quit writing, quit drinking, quit being me — but I couldn’t remember how. I laid my head on Shea’s pillow. It had a strong, earthy smell, and I closed my eyes, remembering a little boy in a red cowboy hat, remembering holding his hand as we stood very still and watched a mother raccoon lead her young along a moonlit trail.
It was still dark when I heard him climbing through the window. He was stoned and drunk, and I knew he couldn’t see me. I took a pull off the whiskey, my rage returning. He’d lost his shirt somewhere, and my own was soaked with sweat and stained by rivulets of madness too vile to catalog. Suddenly I was slashing my belt at his naked back, cursing and screaming and trying to hold him by the wrist while he cursed and screamed and danced out of my grasp. I can still see the fear and blind hatred in his eyes. I felt old and used up. I felt beaten. Shortly after dawn the cops reappeared, and we asked them to take Shea to Gardner House, a short-term lockup for juvenile offenders. We had no intention of filing charges, but we all needed time to think.
When we went for him on Christmas Eve, Shea was considerably calmer, and so was I. He tried to act contrite, but I knew it was only an act. None of us was likely to change, not in our present environment. I’d been years trying to create the right atmosphere, the right structure; nothing grand, but something conducive to work, harmony, and love. Obviously, I had failed. I discussed the situation with both Phyllis and M.J., and everyone agreed that Shea had to be…we could hardly say it…put away. Some sort of childcare facility. Too late for guilt, too late for second guesses, just play it where it lays. The trouble was, none of us had the slightest idea where or how to begin.
This is a problem you can’t find a solution to in the Yellow Pages. There are hundreds of thousands of badly troubled teenagers in Texas, handicapped kids, abused kids, neglected kids, delinquent kids, and, more commonly, kids who just can’t handle it in a normal family situation. Churches, civic groups, and government agencies have programs, but for a family just beginning to face the problem it’s almost impossible to know where to start. The legacy of the sixties is here right now, but society hasn’t come to grips with the fact.
A few days after Christmas I got a call from a social worker who had seen Shea at Gardner House. She wanted to talk to me. I entertained some vague hope that she could help, but it turned out she had a different purpose in mind. She had observed the red welts on Shea’s back and wanted to know if there was some reason I shouldn’t be cited for child abuse. I tried to explain the situation, but the more I talked the worse it sounded. She seemed sympathetic. She mentioned foster homes and halfway houses, but nothing sounded right.
M.J. had already inquired about the wilderness camp in East Texas financed by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas. It was a long shot, but so was everything. The Salesmanship Club pioneered the now-trendy concept of taking teenagers with emotional and behavioral problems to the wilderness and teaching them to survive — to function as a family with other kids just like themselves, kids almost everyone has given up on. They learn to build relationships and self-esteem, learn to cope and cooperate, learn that survival depends on cooperation. The program is amazingly successful and has been widely copied all over the country. The problem was that there were about twenty boys waiting for every vacancy. “Frankly, it’s the luck of the draw,” an administrator at the camp told us.
We also made application at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch near Amarillo. Cal Farley’s is one of the largest and best facilities of its type in Texas or anywhere else. It’s essentially like the old orphans’ home, a long-term program of loving care for boys in trouble, cast in the mold of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska. Cal Farley’s is financed totally by contributions: parents don’t pay anything. It can handle as many as 404 boys at a time, but there are only about 80 vacancies each year against 1200 applications. Another long shot.
In the meantime, we agreed that our best move was to get immediate psychiatric help. We selected a child psychiatrist whom I will call Dr. Z. The doctor’s first move was to order a psychological evaluation from Counseling & Assessment Services in Austin.
The night before our first meeting with Dr. Z, I studied the evaluation carefully. None of the conclusions surprised me. Using the sort of clinical language you might associate with an autopsy, the psychologist described Shea as “a slender, attractive youngster with brown hair of stylish length…cooperative and pleasant during the testing…motivated….to improve.” We’d all seen that side of Shea. The psychologist wrote that the boy demonstrated average to above-average intelligence and showed no learning disabilities. The complications of his birth and early childhood suggest hyperactivity, and the psychologist recommended additional neurological investigations.
“The history suggests that Shea has always had some difficulty with his peers,” the psychologist noted. “His favorite fairy tale was ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ in which story he identified with ‘the guy who came and killed the wolf.’”
What particularly caught my attention was a series of drawings Shea had made at the psychologist’s request. Shea had always expressed his feelings best with drawings. When the psychologist asked Shea to draw a male, he sketched a swashbuckler brandishing a sword. His female was a seductive vamp in an evening dress. His self-portrait was a young man who looked something like Zonker in Doonesbury, dancing and snapping his fingers. The psychologist found Shea “elaborately creative” but seemed disturbed that his creations and perceptions were “not always conventionally justified by…reality.” Someday I’d like to talk to all those shrinks about the nature of reality. Pinned to my bulletin board was a sketch the psychologist hadn’t seen, one Shea drew not long after the divorce. It depicted a broken heart dancing across a stage on wobbly legs, an arrow shot through its chest and a tear in its eye. The caption read: “The heart dies for the first and last time.”
At our first session, Dr. Z made an instant diagnosis based on the psychological report and on Shea’s early medical history. He decided that Shea was hyperactive and prescribed a mood-elevating drug. My immediate reaction was one of enormous relief. At least we had a name for it. And a drug.
Shea disliked Dr. Z from the start. “He never really talks to me,” Shea said after his fifth or sixth session. “All he ever asks is does that medicine make me sleepy in school.” I’d noticed the same thing. All I got out of those $75-an-hour sessions was that Z didn’t have much faith that they would help. He seemed extremely interested, however, in having Shea committed to the children’s psychiatric ward at Shoal Creek Hospital. When I asked how much this would cost, Z told me not to worry. “Your insurance will cover a big part of it,” he assured me.
The following week Phyllis frantically telephoned me in El Paso, where I was doing research. Someone had broken into a friend’s home the previous night. Everyone thought it was Shea. They had found his pocketknife on a window ledge. When Phyllis confronted Shea with the accusation that morning in Z’s waiting room, he threw one of his famous fits. Z’s response was to suggest that the boy be immediately committed to Shoal Creek. He advised Phyllis to contact our attorney. Instead, she telephoned M.J., who drove to Austin to offer support. Together they arranged for Shea to be temporarily locked up at Gardner House. Late that night, Phyllis finally located me in El Paso. I told her to hold what she had, I’d catch the next plane home.
When I talked to Shea the following day we were both calm and deliberate, almost as though we were talking about two other people. Why would he break into the home of a friend? Shea said he thought she might have some drugs. Why did he need drugs? He just liked them. Why didn’t he just ask for them? He didn’t think to ask. I asked if he’d ever heard of the golden rule. I knew the question sounded strange, coming from me. Shea and I had never talked philosophy before.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ve heard of the golden rule.”
“Tell it to me,” I said. “I want you to hear you say it.”
Without a flicker of irony or sarcasm, Shea said, “Them that’s got the gold rules.”
Shea looked puzzled when I told him the more traditional definition. He’d never thought about it that way. He seemed to recognize the problem. He seemed to understand that we couldn’t continue like this. We discussed our options, which seemed pitifully slim. Shoal Creek was out of the question; even if the insurance company paid half the cost, we were still talking about a minimum of $50 a day. The Salesmanship Club idea appealed to Shea, but they hadn’t given us any encouragement. Cal Farley’s had told us that Shea didn’t qualify.
Phyllis and M.J. visited another wilderness operation near Bryan, a licensed psychiatric hospital called Discovery Land. The cost was $100 a day, a bargain compared to some of the $400- and $500-a-day hospitals around the country. Phyllis and M.J. agreed that for that kind of money, we could all be committed.
I arranged an interview with a juvenile probation officer, but he only added to my confusion. There were dozens of categories to the problem, but we didn’t seem to fit any of them. We were too affluent for Cal Farley’s and too poor for Discovery Land. It was possible for a juvenile court to put the boy on probation as a runaway and a truant (I didn’t mention drugs or breaking and entering), but this was just a holding action. As soon as Shea violated the terms of his probation, which he was certain to do in record time, he could well be committed to the care of the Texas Youth Council, which supervises a number of facilities, including what we used to call reform schools. “It’s a funny situation,” the probation officer told me. “Sometimes we can’t help until a kid gets into real trouble. It’s like saying, ‘Go out and commit murder and we can help you.’ Then, of course, it’s too late for help.”
We all agreed on one thing — we didn’t need any more help from Dr. Z. We found another psychiatrist, Dr. Jackson Day, who came highly recommended. Dr. Day is a gentle, highly sensible man with a sense of humor and a practical approach. At our first session Dr. Day discarded Z’s theory of hyperactivity and stopped all medication. Shea and I both liked Dr. Day instantly and found it easy to talk to him. He told us that the majority of his patients were there because of behavioral problems. The public was slow to accept it, but many children today are suffering from deep depression, from anxiety associated with the growing sense of competition among adolescents, from the fantastic array of choices, and from isolation from important people in their lives. Adolescence used to be roughly defined as ages twelve to sixteen. “A lot of kids today, girls especially, start adolescence at age eight and continue until they finish graduate school at age thirty,” Dr. Day told us.
“It’s a rare family that gets through a child’s adolescence without some really scary scrape,” he said. “I’m not talking about the families I see in my office — they’re all in trouble — I’m talking about the families I see on my block. I don’t know a single family on my block that hasn’t had problems, including my own.
“The parents recognize the problems, the schools recognize the problems, the juvenile authorities recognize the problems. Only the kid doesn’t think he’s got a problem. The kid thinks he’s just imitating adult behavior. why does he take drugs? He likes them. He doesn’t like school, so he doesn’t go. Of course, it goes much deeper than that. What he really wants is to be accepted by his friends.”
Getting drunk and stoned used to be considered antisocial behavior. Now the opposite is true.
I let myself believe that we were making progress, but after our fifth or sixth visit Dr. Day shocked me by saying, “I don’t think I can help Shea. I don’t think this is a problem for a psychiatrist. I think what he needs is a well-structured environment away from his parents. The irony of adolescence is that everyone can do better with someone else’s kids.”
Dr. Day had heard of a place near Uvalde called Faith Ranch. He searched his files and gave me a telephone number and a name — Roy Glasscock. “I don’t know anything about the man,” he said. “It’s a long shot.”
“The way I feel right now,” I told him, “I’d take Hitler Youth at seven to five.”
The first time I saw Roy Glasscock I knew he was better than a long shot. He was about my own age with thin, sandy hair and a rosy Scottish Highlands face. There was a subdued intensity about him, the aura of a good parish priest. If Father Flanagan had been born a Methodist, he might have been such a man.
Steps of Faith Ranch, as it was formally titled, was Glasscock’s creation, though he didn’t actually found it and he didn’t particularly like the name. The ranch was located in the Dry Frio Canyon about 25 miles north of Uvalde, in the wonderfully isolated hills and cedar brakes near Garner State Park. It occupied the site of the old Reagan Wells mineral spa. The resort dining room functioned as Faith Ranch’s main house, and some of the cabins were still standing. The first thing Glasscock told us about himself was his deep commitment to Christianity; though born a Methodist, he was an Episcopal layman, who had given up his ministry. What he really was, he said, was God’s whatnot.
He took me into his office and showed me a hand-carved statue on a bookshelf. Then he told me a story. In 1970, while he was teaching at an exclusive boys’ school in Mexico City, he was admiring the statue when God asked him what it was for. “It wasn’t for anything,” he said. “It was just a whatnot that I enjoyed.” God asked Glasscock if he was willing to be like that statue, to be a whatnot. A whatnot for God. It was exactly the sort of opportunity he’d been looking for.
I had been a professional skeptic too long to take all this at face value. I know people talk to God — I do it myself, all the time — but anytime God talks back, I have a few questions. When God talks, how does He sound? Any noticeable accent? But Glasscock told this story as casually as you might describe repairing a leaky faucet. There was nothing wonderful or supernatural in his tone. Just the routine work of a whatnot executing one of God’s miracles.
A week after his talk with God, Glasscock continued, he and his wife, Mary Anne, received an unusual request. They were asked to pray for a nun who was dying of cancer. They’d prayed for the sick before, several times, when Glasscock had directed Youth for Christ and later when he headed the youth program at the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. Nothing magical, understand. They merely read the Scripture from James 5 found in the Book of Common Prayer: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him…” Then they anointed the dying nun with olive oil, also according to the Scripture. The really peculiar thing about this incident, other than the fact that the nun was immediately healed, was that the nun spoke no English and neither of the Glasscocks was Catholic or spoke Spanish. A nondescript man in street clothes translated. They learned later that he was Monsignor Carlos Talavera, now one of the bishops of Mexico City. They never knew how they happened to be called there.
“After the nun was healed,” Glasscock said, “word got around. People were coming up to us on the street and kissing our hands. It was pretty freaky stuff. But God had blessed my life. I still feel my role is being God’s whatnot.”
In 1972 some people from Uvalde who had known Glasscock from his work at the Church of the Redeemer asked him to take charge of a child care project they had started. They called it Steps of Faith Ranch. There wasn’t much there. All they had was five acres on the banks of the Dry Frio, a mobile home, a temporary building, two kids supplied by the county probation authorities, and a debt of $76,000. They needed someone to make it work. In January 1973 Roy and Mary Ann Glasscock moved into the temporary building on the land next to the crumbling and abandoned Reagan Wells resort. It was two years before Glasscock or any members of the staff that he gradually assembled received a salary.
“The problems seemed insurmountable,” he recalled. “Mary Ann and I sold our car. We used up our savings. Some people I knew in Houston made contributions, but there was no substantial financial backing. I took off my shoes and began wading along the shallows of the river, talking to God. ‘God,’ I said, ‘I believe You want me here. But I need a gift to make the place work.’ I knew something about love, faith, and hope, but wading along, I realized that God was giving me something else — the gift of courage.”
Within a few years the original 5 acres had grown to 180. Glasscock had walked the property line of the old spa and “claimed it in God’s name.” By that time the original $76,000 debt had been retired. This new claim added another $125,000 to the debit ledger, but that was paid off in less than a year. “We did it all with nickel-and-dime donations,” he said. “God was blessing us.”
I was barely listening. For some reason I was thinking about a long time ago when I took my oldest son, Mark, with me on a business trip to New York. Mark was about twelve at the time. I was late for an appointment, so I gave him a $20 bill and dropped him off at the corner of 42nd and Broadway. My cab hadn’t gone half a block when I thought, Great God, what have I done! Somehow I knew Mark would be okay, and he was. My instincts told me Shea would be okay, too. I liked Glasscock and trusted him. And I was desperate. We were seated in the living room of the Glasscocks’ home on the banks of the Dry Frio. Shea was off somewhere with one of the boys, learning about tractors. What really impressed me about the ranch was, it was there. The houses, the school, the dorms, the tennis court, the land, the river so cold and clear they used it as drinking water. It was hard to say what part God provided. Merchants in Uvalde and other places provided many of the materials, and sometimes the expertise. The staff and the boys did all the work. Everything on the ranch was freshly painted, clean and neat. The boys were so well-groomed and well-mannered and in harmony with the surroundings that it was difficult to imagine they’d ever been anything else. There was probably a secular explanation for it, but the real miracle was, it was there.
We talked with some of the boys during lunch. It had been a long time since Phyllis and I had been addressed as “ma’am” and “sir.” One fifteen-year-old was there in lieu of doing time in prison. He had been charged with breaking into the home of a high school teacher, and the district attorney had decided to try the boy as an adult. “This boy is a very young fifteen,” Glasscock told us. “He wouldn’t have lasted eight minutes in prison, much less eight years.”
After lunch Mary Anne Glasscock gave us a tour of the one-room school where she and two other women supervise about twenty students. Faith Ranch is one of the few facilities I know (Cal Farley’s is another) that operates its own full-time school. In the beginning, the Faith Ranch boys were bused to Uvalde, but Glasscock gradually realized he was throwing them back into an environment dangerously similar to the one they had come from. At Faith Ranch each boy works at his own level, or pace, as they call it. (Two older boys attend junior college in Uvalde.) The three teachers circulate, helping when one of the boys has a problem with his pace. Nobody fails, but nobody gets promoted for the convenience of the system: a boy must master each pace before moving on.
Glasscock purchased his packaged system from Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a controversial God-and-free-enterprise curriculum business in Lewisville that, according to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, is helping “bring amoral public education to its knees.” Glasscock was aware that the ACE curriculum was top-heavy with right-wing propaganda. It didn’t bother him. His own politics, I learned much later, were traditional — God, mother, country. He worried about the decline of patriotism and honor. People were losing the power to believe, he thought. He didn’t always agree with ACE, but he defended its quality. “It’s a good system,” he said. “We stress a lot of reading, everything from the classics to any sort of recognized good literature to the Bible.”
He believed that the Bible contained “all the answers.” But Glasscock was making another point. In evaluating an educational system, it was ultimately necessary to ask if it worked. This system appeared to work, at least for these boys.
One part of the ACE curriculum that Glasscock rejected was its emphasis on corporal punishment. Dr. Donald Howard, founder and president of ACE, has said: “If a child does wrong deliberately and you produce a pain in his body and the pain is related to disobedience, then he develops a respect for obedience.” Glasscock believed that paddling should be exercised only in extreme cases — and only for boys who had been at the ranch for some time. “I’d never spank a new boy,” he told us. “You have to know a boy well before you spank him. You have to establish love.” Glasscock had his own method of discipline. He called it gratitude therapy. He’d take the boy for a walk and ask if there wasn’t something about life that made the boy grateful. Wasn’t the kid glad to be alive? No? Wasn’t he glad for this fine day? Or the good food? Or the happy coincidence that he wasn’t back in jail?
“It never fails,” he said. “Little by little, the boy thinks of something and stops rebelling. Gratitude is the opposite of rebellion. This therapy may not last long, but it always works for the moment. After a while the boys pick it up. You see it around you all the time.”
Glasscock estimated that 80 per cent of the boys who came to the ranch learned in time to adjust to the normal demands of society. Some ran away, of course. Some came back. Some, a few, they flat couldn’t help. Some converted to Christianity or rediscovered it. Some didn’t. The system wasn’t perfect. They were just doing the best they could with what they had. The ranch was financed mainly by contributions, but in most of the cases the parents paid a portion (usually $360 a month) of the cost. The food was good, and there was plenty of work to keep the boys busy. There were sports and trips, too. The previous summer Glasscock and his staff had taken most of the boys on a fifteen-day tour of England.
All afternoon Phyllis and I had been waiting for somebody to ask if we were Christians, but nobody did. The answer would have been yes. Sort of. Neither of us had been to church in years. I wasn’t even sure I believed in church. I preferred to deal directly with the Almighty. I had mixed feelings about organized religion, but not about Faith Ranch. “It won’t hurt him a bit,” I kept thinking. The truth was, I didn’t believe we had a prayer of being accepted.
“Tell me honestly,” I asked Glasscock. “What are our chances?”
His reply caught me off guard.
“Do you think it’s God’s will that he be here?” he asked evenly.
My own reply surprised me even more. “Yes,” I said.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Phyllis nodding enthusiastically. Shea obviously liked the ranch. We’d cautioned him to cool it about his drug experiences, but in the course of the day he’d told Glasscock nearly everything. Glasscock wasn’t shocked: it was a story he’d heard many times.
“Of course we’ll take him,” Glasscock said.
About seven weeks remained in Shea’s school term in Austin. Glasscock told Shea to report in early June and warned him how important it was that he complete the school year in Austin, so that in September he could start the ninth grade at Faith Ranch. Shea promised, and he didn’t miss another class all year.
Early one Sunday in June, Shea and I started for the ranch. Shea was badly hungover and slept most of the way. He had treated himself to one final fling. I could tell he was frightened. So was I. Neither of us knew what to expect. He looked small and vulnerable, huddled against the door of the car.
I stopped in the small town of Sabinal to buy some stationary and stamps. Shea was still asleep. I bought a couple of soft drinks and, walking back toward the car in the peaceful stillness of that Sunday afternoon, realized that Shea had probably stashed some drugs in his luggage. I hadn’t brought up the subject, but time was running out. I woke him and gave him the soft drink. “Tell me the truth,” I said, already feeling like a fool. “If you’ve got any drugs, tell me now. This may be our last chance.” Shea swore he was clean. I knew it was a lie, but I couldn’t call him. I offered him a last cigarette as we approached Reagan Wells.
It was Thanksgiving before Phyllis and I saw Shea again. We had moved to Taos, New Mexico, so it was impossible for him to come home on weekends; anyway, the ranch discouraged trips home for boys who had been there only a short time. M.J. had visited him a couple of times and told us she had never seen him so happy and content. He wrote us regularly, which was something of a surprise in itself. When we saw him at Thanksgiving he had changed noticeably. He raved about life at the ranch, the food, the school, the boys, and especially Mr. Glasscock.
I’d never seen him so calm, or easy to be around. He did everything he was told, and a lot of things he wasn’t told, like cutting and stacking extra firewood. “I can’t believe this is the same kid,” Phyllis said. We couldn’t help being a little apprehensive, of course; it was like living very near a temporarily inactive volcano.
Shea told us he had started attending church in Uvalde. Glasscock had taken him and several others to a Christian youth rally in Corpus Christi, and this had greatly impressed Shea. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he told me he wanted a Bible. And maybe a guitar, if it didn’t cost too much, and only if we could afford it. I reminded him that when we had given him a guitar three years earlier he had broken it over Mike’s head. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said. “I don’t know who you managed to live with me.”
I hugged him and said, “I don’t know how any of us managed to live with any of us.”
By the time he returned for Christmas, he had “found Jesus.” It was the central fact of his life, something he couldn’t stop talking about. It was a strange sensation, listening to Shea deliver the blessing before meals and talking to him about Jesus and religion. Self-righteous Bible-wavers gave me the willies, I told him. It’s not the Bible that bothers me, but the self-righteousness. I believe the Bible is one of our great pieces of metaphorical literature. Maybe even the Word of God, though God has never assured me it is. But I’m amazed when anyone claims an absolute understanding of the Bible. I’m always tempted to ask if he can also understand T.S. Eliot. Unspeakable atrocities have been perpetuated in the name of God by pompous and arrogant prelates who claim to speak for Him.
“Like the Inquisition?” Shea said. Yes, like the Inquisition, I told him. But you don’t have to go back that far. You can pick up today’s newspaper and find an example.
One night during the holidays we watched a self-appointed messenger of God on TV, a pompous dandy in ruffles and rhinestones, wearing a baby-blue cutaway jacket and the kind of tight pants favored by rock stars. He waved the Bible as though it were something he’d just written that afternoon, gesturing toward the glittering celestial staircase constructed by the studio set designer. “And all your fakeness and all your phoniness shall come tumbling down — so saith the Lord!” he shouted.
Shea and I started laughing at the same time. “Talk about phoniness!” Shea said.
I was delighted that Shea seemed so well adjusted. It was natural that he would be a little self-righteous this soon after his conversion, but it pleased me that he was aware of this danger. We joked about how frightening it was, waiting for the old Shea to reemerge. “I’ve got to admit,” he said as we shared a cup of wine punch, “I still miss my old sins sometimes.”
Mike was home, too, from New Mexico Military Institute where he had undergone his own, less dramatic transformation. The boys joked about Mike’s military haircut and talked about cruising the plaza to look for girls. They behaved like long-lost brothers, which in fact they were. I learned later that Shea gave his old Bible to Mike. I don’t know if Mike ever read it, but without question he appreciated the gesture. It was the best Christmas any of us could remember.
It has been almost exactly two years since that day I first drove Shea to Faith Ranch. He’ll be seventeen in August, an honor roll student about to begin his junior year in high school. He has decided to try public school next fall. We talked about it and agreed it was his decision. He was a little uncertain about returning to Austin, where his old crowd is still roaming the streets — those who are not behind bars. But M.J. had moved to a small town in East Texas, and Shea thought that might be the ideal place for his reentry into society. I agreed. I’ve come to believe that it was God’s will, the whole ordeal and lesson.
When I visited Faith Ranch a few months ago the boys were busy building a new, larger school and erecting a roof over the tennis court. A foundation in Houston had also contacted Glasscock, and he was hoping the ranch could get a new bus to replace the ancient vehicle it had been using. He had many plans for the ranch’s future — he wanted to turn the old school into a recreation room and construct a third dorm, as well as a workshop and bus barn. He plans to increase enrollment from the present 24 to 40. That’s as large as Faith Ranch should be. More than that, and it will risk losing what it’s got. Glasscock was weighing a job offer to open another child care camp for a group in West Texas, agonizing over it and waiting for word from God. I later found out that he turned it down.
Shea and several others were training for a track meet and academic competition against students from ACE schools in the South Texas region. I learned later that Shea finished third in art and nearly won the oral argument contest. He would be competing in the nationals in late May. “I think he probably had the best presentation at regional,” Glasscock told me. “The judges downgraded him for mannerisms and lack of eye contact. What impressed everyone was how he handled the situation when he momentarily forgot what he was saying. Instead of panicking, he picked up a law book and said, ‘Now, this is so important I’m just going to read it word for word.’”
At the weekly chapel service that afternoon Glasscock showed a badly dated ACE propaganda film. It featured blank-faced students with short hair wearing red, white, and blue uniforms like so many stewards and stewardesses for Air Jesus. A few of the boys at Faith Ranch laughed at the haircuts and costumes, although those competing in the ACE competition had voluntarily cut their hair and agreed to wear track shorts that covered their knees. It was my impression that most of the boys ignored the dialogue, which was predictably insipid and laced with slams at the public school system and code words like “collectivistic and “absolutism” and “creation science.”
I was curious about how well this steady diet of ACE inanities really worked, so I conducted a test. I asked Shea to give me the definitions of some words and phrases I took from an ACE workbook.
“What’s a secular humanist?” I asked him.
“Secular means those things that are not Christian,” he said. “A humanist is someone who believes that man is basically good, but that’s as far as it goes. He believes man is an answer in himself.”
“Is it a put-down when you call someone a secular humanist?”
“Not really. Most people believe man is basically good, so it doesn’t matter one way or another.”
“How about creation science. What’s that?”
“It’s that branch of knowledge that believes in the concept of creation rather than evolution. That God created the world in six literal days rather than billions of years.”
“Do you believe that?”
Shea hesitated, then he told me, “I don’t believe he created everything in six days. I look at it this way. Jesus said he was coming soon, and that was two thousand years ago. Who knows what God’s timetable is?”
I asked Shea if he was apprehensive about transferring back to public school.
“Are you?” he asked.
“No, I think you’re ready.”
“So do I,” he said, grinning at some private joke. “It’s about time for me to go out and practice my newfound skills.”