Twenty-something years of coming in and out of prison and I still find myself reflecting on memories that have been buried in the recesses of my mind, the thought only moments before we're dead and gone. I remembered talking to my stepfather, about his time in the Navy during Vietnam. I remember how we would sit out at the fire pit behind our trailer and I would ask; “what happened over there?” His eyes would glass over and you'd see the creases in his face tense and he would tell the half-truths that he's held close to his heart. The stories were never about all the ugliness of war, it was the revised version that glorified the realities of serving our country, (real parenting, is trying to keep the ugliness of the world from our loved one's eyes, especially, our children's eyes).
Now, I do not want to make it sound like my stepfather was a bad guy. He was the father that my “blood father” never even attempted to be. Matter of fact, he was a better father than that of many others I knew or heard of in my childhood. However, the horrible realities he faced in war reflected on the person I knew him to be, both his good and bad sides (my stepfather loved to drink and fight). Nevertheless, by talking with him on numerous occasions, I gained a sense of a lot that was gone unsaid, and that the pains of war were buried and left in one of many depths of the sea and his mind.
In the book “Six Hours One Friday”, written by Max Lucado, it talks about a recruit that sat alone with his guilt for years, until the guilt drove him to make amends. Not the type of guilt that the most heinousness of the heat of war could entail, but the guilt that comes from the simplicity of stealing some blankets from the supply post, or for another guy, the non-returning of supplies like KC rations, boots, etc. The U.S. government since 1811 has received literally tons of letters from service men and women that are guilt stricken by the simplicity of stealing or not returning of seemingly insignificant items. Matter of fact, an average of $45,000 per year is received. The largest amount ever received by the government for these types of incidences was $350,000 in 1959.
I cannot imagine feeling guilty for not returning a pair of boots. I have seen people leaving prison who are willing to get over on “the man” in any conceivable way. I have actually seen a guy go through and trash every item in his cell, and even go through the motions of destroying and trashing items the unit had for the conveniences of his fellow convicts, just out of spite and ignorance.
I have been in the criminal arenas ever since I could remember; I am talking since before I even started grade school. I remember as a toddler the police wanted my mother to take my brother and I and go down to the police department to look through police criminal identification books for a couple of robbery suspects that robbed the local fish market. We ended up only being able to identify our own father's (blood father's) mug shot (as young children in our excitement, all we could do is say, “hey, that's daddy”). Being ingrained as young children snitches isn't cool. The everyday aspects of the criminal world became our truths and everyday realities. Thus, the playground for our criminal lives became instituted into our lives by our very births, into the only world we have ever known, and the battlegrounds drawn for people like us, in truth, are not black and white. We have become blind, and, we in and of ourselves, have become our own worst and most lethal weapons.
We have been the passive soldiers in the war against ourselves. We have been in the trenches of the ugliest wars ever fought. I do not mean to compare us to the brave people that serve our country in any war ever fought; they are truly heroes and do not deserve to be shed in the same light as many of us that have willingly become some of our nation's worst enemies. However, I do fully intend to bring to light to the realities of the wars that our society has become willingly blind to.
In a discussion I was in not long ago, I was told a story. In this story, I was told about how this guy went to a local takeout joint, and in this takeout joint while waiting for his order, he noticed this gang member all decked out in his gang colors. However, the thing that shocked this patron (and me for that matter), was that this gang member had his toddler at his feet, and this child was sporting the same attire, color for color and bandanna for bandanna, as his father. Emulating his father even before the child had a chance to consciously comprehend the significance of his actions.
At what state in our lives are we willing, through youthful ignorance (or otherwise), to throw our children in the trenches of war, before they can walk, talk, or make any decisions for themselves? How many times have we ourselves questioned the very lives we have lived, the decisions we have made on our own, and honestly wished that we didn't even make them in the first place, the choice to do the dirty deed that first started our lives in the life we've come to know? Be it, to be jumped into a gang or thieving for the first time or taking that first plunge in the drug world? When, in our lives, do we get to the point where we are not going to turn a blind eye to the truth, the truth that has been nagging at the back of our minds since the very first time we've delved into the realities we now face daily, being it incarcerated physically, jailed in the haze of our own drug induced minds, or the feelings of being trapped by the fact that we have to face the gang life at our own front door when we go home. When do we realize the realities of the war that we face are, in fact, the very people we've come to love and even the internal war we face within ourselves?
While reading Max Lucado's book, I came across a topic that I feel applies to the matter at hand. He stated that, “Nothing drags more stubbornly than a sack full of failures.” Moreover, there are some serious questions that we need to ask ourselves. Questions like: could you do it all over again, would you do it differently, or would you do it at all? Do you consider the decisions that led you to where you are today as fatal errors? Would you be a different person today if given a chance? While taking the time to evaluate you yourself at depth, honestly and seriously ask the questions presented here. Finally, take the time to be honest with yourself about your own inner strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, you have become stronger in the realization that prison is only what you make it. After the initial week of being incarcerated, the fear wears off, and you are faced with some decisions of where your life is headed. The decision, which might be the only real decision, you've really ever made in your life for yourself.
I want to take the time to congratulate you right now because if you're still reading, you've consciously or unconsciously made the distinction that the status quo of your life is unacceptable. That distinction is the first step to making the first choice in changing your life for the better. Good job, and good for you!!
For me, the strongest reality that I ever had to face is coming to the determination that the only real “fatal” mistake I have ever made is the murder of a man. There is nothing more fatal or more final than that. In learning to itemize my strengths and weaknesses, I had to come to the point of understanding the baggage that I've been carrying. This started with an autobiography of my life's events, as far as I could remember, being chronologically laid out to where I could visualize my life and come to terms with what I have done, not only to myself but also to all the victims in the wake of my twenty-plus year history of being a low-life. When you are engaged in battle, the main factor is learning to understand the enemy (and yes, you can be your own worst enemy). I've already touched base on this subject slightly by explaining that I was born into a criminal environment and furthered that involvement by circling the lion's den every chance I got. I had to come to the realization that in digging me out of the hole I have dug for myself, the very life I have come to know best, happens one shovel at a time, and digging my way out is no different than digging a hole. It takes time.
I started with the fact that everyone I was associated with as a child has mostly continued to progress in their lives. They own homes, work the forty-plus hour workweek, and do the daily grind, day after day in the progression of their lives. We need to learn that being present in our people's lives is essential to building relationships, and it takes a proactive approach. People will continue to grow and strengthen their relationships while we are in prison. We grow away from those relationships the longer we're away, and each time we're incarcerated, another stake is driven in the coffin of our loved ones' empathy, forcing them to move on without us. They have not been imprisoned one or more times, nor have they made a twenty-something year career of crime (nastic's), and that reality builds resentment after awhile. They cannot figure out why prison means more to us than they do.
Realizing that the people I know from prison are and always have been out for themselves, for me, has been a hard lesson learned. I have searched for the “solid,” “hardcore,” and the “real” brotherhood of hard knocks bro's for as long as I've been in “this business.” The truth of the matter is, it's a dog eat dog world and only the ones that are willing to eat their own young and/or the self-serving bunch come to survive the mental fu— of being, the veteran of prison life. You will find some convicts that appear to be solid on the inside of prison are not what you had expected in the real world. It is when you come to realize that these clowns are in prison for a reason. As you get out, you'll find the “friend,” “the solid bro,” has become the nightmare that entails the casualties of “our cold-blooded war”, and it is, in fact, a cold-blooded war. Then, there are the sharks of prison life, the one's that at first seem to be out for your best interest, but then you come to find out that you're only part of the food chain (reality is a bi___, but we all need to wake-up and smell the coffee sooner rather than later).
Although I believe that there are some good people that reside within the walls of prison, these guys are far and few in-between. They are not the ones hiding behind the mask of some gang or the ones furthering their criminal career in the school of hard knocks. The people that are beneficial and potential friends to you are the ones that are involved in bettering their own lives, by setting and achieving educational goals that they have set for themselves, and the people that will call you on your b-s, which, in a way, is uplifting. The one's that give you the chin check, that entails real push-ups, the kind of push-ups that strengthen you in a way that doesn't come by doing someone else's dirt or forcing you to prove yourself by furthering your knowledge of how to be a better criminal. The real friends in your life are the ones that need and want you living life outside of being oppressed; real friends will teach you how to live the life, without the need of a bunch of pus– thugs, which need a gang to survive. The real friend will be the (one) that is willing to put his life on the line to keep you from making the same decisions that landed you where you are right now. Encompass your life with people you want and need to emulate. Remember; you hang with knuckleheads, you are bound to find nuts and bolts in the roads of your life (and usually, these nuts and bolts are falling out of your brain-pan because you're not using your head), but if you surround yourself with smarter people, smarter than yourself, you're bound to learn something.
If you're going into battle, would you prefer to have the type of people around you that are willing to sacrifice you in order for them to climb over you, only to find themselves in the next cell? Not only finding themselves in the neighboring cell, but not even realizing or caring about the pointlessness of wasting their own lives, as well as not even considering the fact that your “life” has meaning or that you could have been more valuable in a productive mission, a mission that entailed the reassurance of true freedom. (Think about it; that is the common experience of the majority of convicts in the school of hard knocks). On the other hand, would you rather be the guy that knows that you have a brother at arms, a real brother, which is willing to spend his time and life in the mission that entails the training and strengthening of you, that finds you worthy of investing in? A friend who enables you to fight the battles worth fighting, the kind of battle that you would be proud to lay your life down for, the kind of battle that would make you the soldier that knows how to choose the mountains worthy of living and/or dying on? Could you, in your heart of hearts, in all honesty at this very moment, state that this is the person you see in the mirror right now or in your inner-circle of associates; can you be characterized this way? Is this the type of person you want to see in the mirror? Do you see the picture being painted before your eyes?
If your answer is yes, congratulations; you are progressing, and you are ready to start making “the right” decisions in your life, the kind of decisions that will enable you to be proactive in the battle of taking your life back. Taking your life back from the waste that has become the definition of our lives as criminals. Do yourself a favor and look up the definition of insanity. My definition of insanity is: “Repeating the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.” Is that not every repeat offender's motto? The School of Hard Knocks teaches us convicts, “to learn how to do the dirty deed better, in order to get away with the crime.” That is an insane way of thinking!
I've come to think about where I am today, twenty-something years of coming in and out of prison, repeating the same insane lessons over and again, and I've come to the conclusion that, I want to be the guy who gets up each day and does the daily grind. You know, the guy that puts in the forty-plus hour workweek and struggles to pay the bills, as long as I can be proactive in building the relationships that matter, and yes, I even want to be the guy that has the conscience to write the check for a can of KC rations stolen thirty years ago. I don't want to be the man that wakes up one morning, after serving a thirty-year sentence, and comes to the realization that I've lost everyone in my life to a life of crime, that I've abandoned the only relationships that mattered most. I want to know that I at least put up a fight!
Here is where you and I need to be in our lives; you and I need to make the distinction for and of ourselves that it is not okay to be the guy that finds the criminal code more important than becoming the mother/father, son or daughter that we know we need to be. We need to come to the understanding that we, the son/daughter, have the determination not to precipitate the insanity of our fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins (or who ever else is precipitating the madness). Even though we love them (the people still leading the reckless life), we need to be the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, etc. that truly love(s) because we, as individuals, need to have the foresight to join the fight that matters. We need to learn, that love is not love if it entails the death or senseless sacrifice of others or even ourselves, if that sacrifice entails wasting away in a jail cell for a lost and/or meaningless cause. True love is taking the time to choose your battles wisely, partaking in the battles that entail building relationships; by being the one that stands in-between the world we know. In our hearts, we know we are not living the lives we would choose for our children, brothers, sisters, or anyone else we truly love. Therefore, the message I'm trying to convey is: be the soldier that fights the fight worth fighting. Make the mountain you choose to live and /or die on the mountain that you and others would want to build a monument on, the kind of monument that reflects the decision to join a fight that you will never regret because you and all the people around you have become better. This is the kind of fight that makes heroes out of backstreet brawlers.
However, it all starts with you choosing to join the fight, the fight for yourself, and if you have soldiered through reading this far, you have enlisted in the fight for your life. Therefore, now, you are on your way to being the soldier you need to be. In all that you love, fight, fight, fight and never lose sight that you are worth fighting for. You are the soldier that has come to know that the mountain, which monuments your cause, is bigger than you; the monument you're building is your legacy. Therefore, God bless you in your fight, and I pray and encourage you to soldier on. Soldier On.
Since 1996, The Beat Within’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. Outside of the juvenile justice system, The Beat Within partners with community organizations and individuals to bring resources to youth (between the ages of 11 -17) both inside and outside of detention. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life. The following pieces come from our weekly workshops which were recently held in one the 18 juvenile detention facilities – from Hawaii to San Francisco to Washington DC – we venture into each week. From the writings we produce the national publication, The Beat Within. For more information please visit us at www.thebeatwithin.org.