Diverging Paths

divergentI got a text from an old friend yesterday that put the last 20 years of my life in a whole different light.

I had an insanely demanding day yesterday and wasn’t able to read Richard’s text until this morning after gobbling a bowl of cereal over my morning scripture. It was 4 a.m. when I finally read it. In the text, he related how he had reluctantly picked up a hitchhiker on a cold Anchorage morning. The hitchhiker was visibly subdued as he got into Richard’s van, and he had a sad story to tell. What he disclosed was enough to make anyone take a step back:

So I swung the van back around to pick up this hitchhiker, who didn’t look as though he was having much luck. He told me he had just gotten back to Alaska from Washington State and that he had been gone away in prison for 19 years. We talked and swapped stories about Anchorage and eventually got around to talking about high schools. I told him I graduated from West High in 1986. He said that he should have graduated in 1985 but McLaughlin Youth Center [Alaska’s largest juvenile corrections facility] ruined it.

“My ears were pricked up; he definitely had my attention now. This wayfaring vagabond told me his sad tale, and right before he got out of my van, he stuck his hand out and thanked me. Introductions at last… Tyrone H—-.

MYCMy jaw hit the floor when I read the name at the end of Richard’s text. Richard and I had done a stint in McLaughlin Youth Center with Tyrone many years ago. I had long ago forgotten his name. Now he was a grown man in his forties, just emerging from a 19-year prison sentence.

I thought about three troubled teenage boys nearly thirty years ago, full of anger and bewilderment, emotions and hormones easily overtaking our shaky grasp of life principles. We scarcely understood the meaning of our juvenile crimes, let alone the reasons we had committed them. This was an opportunity for the three of us to mend our ways before the world started handing us serious consequences. Richard and I managed to find our way out of the maladjusted snarl we had stumbled into. Tyrone didn’t.

Richard and I met in January of 1983, when we were 15 years old. We had both been inducted into Alaska’s Juvenile Corrections system for small-time villainous conduct. I admired Richard for his intellect, humor and his independent mind. We both carried a robust bravado that concealed a profusion of inner turmoil. If we had persisted in our disagreeable ways, our lives would have turned out dark and lonely, buried in regret.

It took some years for each of us to straighten out and find civilized ways of getting our needs and desires met. It didn’t happen when we were 15, or 25 for that matter. In 1983, we were in a light-fare juvenile program for mildly wayward young men called Adventure House. It was minimum security; any kid could walk right out the front door if he wanted to. Some did. Richard and I didn’t, but the inner struggles we faced were too great to be turned around by the gentle structure of Adventure House. We were like those deep water fish that blow up if they are brought too close to the surface. We both continued running afoul of society’s boundaries with such reckless disregard for authority that we ended up in the place where the worst juvenile offenders go: Closed Treatment Unit (CTU), a subset of McLaughlin Youth Center. We were each sent there, not because our crimes were serious but because we were profoundly troubled. It was a mercy that we came there, though at the time it seemed society had thrown us away.

CTUCTU was a military school that looked like the inside of a prison. When you walked into the unit, you saw nothing but a bank of cells. The days were filled with exhausting physical exercise, year-round schooling and demanding program activities. The staff were ruthless in confronting manipulation and anti-social behavior. The pride of many rebels was crushed in that place, where nothing was left to distract the teenager from his self-made mess. The counselors were educated and well trained. The hope was that, little by little, the light of knowledge and sanity would come in and break up the darkness inside us, which we didn’t understand.

Richard and I held on to some of our peccadilloes: we called the place Closed Torture Unit and shared laughter at the expense of the staff in hushed conversations. We broke minor rules and kept things light by thinking of ourselves as people who were a bit too healthy for such a somber environment. But on a deeper level, we both knew we were there for a reason. We began to see what had been happening to us in our young lives and chose light instead of darkness, though it meant painful probing in the counseling sessions, the shock of self-disclosure—the Herculean effort required to change. We were set on a different road, almost by sheer external force, so intense was this program. But to the degree that we chose right over wrong, we began placing our feet on the path to health and freedom, little knowing that the grueling experience at CTU was only the beginning. Ahead of us was a lifelong process of adjustment. Many years later, I realized that what I was exposed to at CTU was the first murky rays of God’s light of truth shining into my life.

Richard and I have both fought battles with drug addiction, alcoholism and various flavors of self-destructive compulsivity. We both acknowledge God in our lives and see the inherent danger in the self-will that almost destroyed us as youths. And we pine for more—more stability, more health, more fulfillment in life.

Sometimes we find appreciation through contrast, when our proportionate blessings are seen against foils—the lives of less fortunate people. (If only others didn’t have to suffer in order for us to have an understanding of our comparative station. And yet, each of us chooses his own path.) Tyrone is such a foil. When I put my story together with his, I feel immensely grateful I was able to avoid the road he ended up on, which I shudder to think about. 

Bicyclists at Summer StreetsNineteen years! Almost two decades—a very long time indeed. I think of the blessings I have enjoyed over the last 19 years: delicious dinners with family members, invigorating university class lectures, great movies, dates with lovely ladies, heartfelt talks with trusted friends, bicycle rides in the sunshine—the list is almost endless. I have complained bitterly at times because I thought I was living a “B” life. But I am rich!

Tyrone, on the other hand, had to live in a concrete box for 228 months—6,935 days of eating dismal food, watching Maury Povitch and jockeying for space with violent, angry, hopeless people, many of whom will never breathe free air again. I hope he had friends and family members who still loved and cared for him, that he received letters and packages to brighten his days. Even if he did, I can’t quite wrap my mind around 19 consecutive birthdays in prison. What did he feel when he prison-handssaw beautiful women on television, or coming to visit other inmates? What was it like to see people come and go year after year, listening to stories of life on the outside, while he languished in confinement for such a long time? What a strange blend of joy and revulsion he must have experienced when he looked at photographs of family members enjoying Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas gatherings, picnics and frolics at the beach!

Surely every prison inmate is a walking lesson on human waywardness. There is nothing Lord of the Fliesinside “them” that can’t be found in every one of us — a great breach between the good we desire and the failure that is our collective lot. The Bible calls it our fallen nature. William Golding referred to it as a “defect” in his disturbing book The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of adolescent boys is stranded on a deserted island and, left to their own inclinations, form factions and become would-be murderers. They are, in fact, engaged in a senseless manhunt when they are interrupted by an adult rescue team that has discovered their whereabouts. Whatever we call it, every person is driven (at least in part) by irrational impulses. This is true even of those who fight tooth and nail to bring about a better outcome.

When I read Richard’s text, I realized that I could easily have wound up in the shoes of our old comrade from McLaughlin Youth Center. I have made more than my share of poor choices in my life. I went through violent and bewildering experiences as a small child which put me into a posture of defense against the entire world, and I lived like a hermit for many years in spite of having decent people around me. I had the classic paradigm of the victim, shared by 2.3 million prison inmates all over America.

4060118_f520Why am I out here while so many are caged like animals? Given my history, the odds were that I would end up living an institutional life. Society has little choice but to confine those who cannot overcome their base drives and toxic emotions. Of course, I had advantages Tyrone may not have had—upbringing, environment moments of clarity along the way. But I had no say in any of these. In the final analysis, God’s grace is the decisive factor that separates the prison inmate from the successful surgeon. To put it in a more personal way, Christ the Savior chose me before the creation of the world to become one of his own. I will thank him for all eternity.

About Douglas Abbott

I am a freelance writer by trade, philosopher and comedian by accident of birth. I am an assiduous observer of humanity and endlessly fascinated with people, the common elements that make us human, what motivates people and the fingerprint of God in all of us. I enjoy exploring the universe in my search for meaning, beauty and friendship. My writing is an extension of all these things and something I did for fun long before I ever got paid. My hope is that the reader will find in this portfolio a pleasing and inspiring literary hodgepodge. Good reading!
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9 Responses to Diverging Paths

  1. Anne Cliffe says:

    Your writing is terrific in this one, Doug. It’s always good, of course, but this is exceptional. The sobering truth you tell needs to be often told. “There, but for the grace of God…”

  2. Douglas Abbott says:

    Thanks, Anne. It is absolutely true: “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m glad! I’m also praying for Tyrone.

  3. Auntie Sarah says:

    Well, I know of Richard, but I missed hearing of Tyrone, maybe because the family didn’t know of him. A story like this bring that old dichotomy back to the surface: How much of this is about making poor choices & how much is about being a prisoner to one’s sinful nature/broken life? I pray that Tyrone’s next 19 years will include wholeness + the opportunity to be all that God originally meant him to be. Yes, just the grace of God.

  4. I’m praying along with you, Auntie Sarah. I didn’t know Tyrone that well, but I never perceived that he was some kind of monster. About that dichotomy, I think some of us get away with a lot more bad choices than others. To put it another way, some of us get more grace to deal with our sinful nature. I pray that now is Tyrone’s time to experience a deluge.

    • Dear Doug. I was so moved by this story I had to go back and re-read some parts. Thank you for writing this. My dear friend, Marla, called my attention to it. I find myself drawn to the stories of people who did not grow up with Ward, Wally and the Beave as their family unit, yet through the grace of God have become the people He designed them to be. God moved me to write and publish my own story, very similar to yours, except my prison never materialized in the form of bars and small cells. Mine was not external. My book, “Dolores, Like the River,” has helped me to help other children born into families of alcoholic/abusive parents. Even though in recovery for many years, penning this tale in honor of a remarkable servant of our remarkable God, was one more step of freedom from the lifestyle that could have claimed me for the enemy. But more importantly, it puts God’s grace, great plans and impeccable architecture for salvation into print. God through Dolores, and my pen (both gifts from Him), has given me opportunity to offer that same hope to others and to speak about His love, faithfulness and deliverance. Thank you again for your obedience to our Father and for the courage to tell truth. By His stripes we are healed and by our wounds others are brought closer to Him. Praise Him. Be blessed brother as you are a blessing.

      In Christ’s love, we are all one
      Laura L. Padgett, Author, Speaker and Dancer
      “Dolores, Like the River” Westbow Press 2013

      • Douglas Abbott says:

        Laura, thank you for your kind words. It’s a thrill to hear how this moved you (every writer’s desire). Thank you for reaching out. Be blessed!

      • Douglas Abbott says:

        Laura, I thought for sure I had responded to your comment. Thank you so much for what you said. It means the world to me. And thank you for sharing your story. God is faithful, isn’t he? These kinds of stories remind us of it. Bless you and good reading/writing!

  5. Scott Stocker says:

    Excellent my friend

  6. Douglas Abbott says:

    Thanks, Scott! I’m glad you found it. This one really got to me. I hope and pray Tyrone is doing well.

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