In the name of Jesus
His fingers clamped onto my slender shoulders like the talons of an eagle. With a great deal of force, he slammed me into the lockers. If I hadn’t thrown my hands in front of me my head would have made a good-sized dent in the metal locker.
Mr. Lewis, my 8th grade Science teacher, was furious with me for wearing my American Flag on my cut-off jean jacket. I was a scrawny, long-haired 14-year-old kid. What did I know about losing friends who died defending that flag? I was just wearing it as a statement.
Mr. Lewis sure didn’t see it that way. With an angry growl, he kept me pinned against the locker, his fingers clawing at the stars and stripes on my backside. The bad thing about the entire incident was that the dismissal bell had just rang. The hallway at Robin Mickle Junior High was flooded with kids anxious to leave for the day. At that moment, lockers, books, and coats were completely forgotten as each of those kids spun around to watch the show.
Things were starting to get ugly.
“Take your hands off me!” I snarled, flicking the long bangs out of my eyes so I could glare over my shoulder into the eyes of Mr. Lewis.
It just made Mr. Lewis more angry. I could feel his fingers scrabbling to rip that flag off my back. The whole thing was turning into a desperate situation. I wasn’t only losing face with about two hundred kids, I was also about to lose the colors off my jean jacket.
I warned Mr. Lewis one more time. “Let me go, you crazy bastard!”
He growled again. I cussed. He shoved. I tried pulling away. He slammed me into the locker again. Angered by his assault, I cut loose, and rammed my elbow into his stomach. With a loud ooomphf! Mr. Lewis released me and clutched at his stomach. One look at the angry glare he shot my way, sent me running down the hallway. Mr. Lewis came chasing after me. Inspired by the hoots and hollers of kids scattering before me, I ran for the front doors.
I ran like the wind. Mr. Lewis never caught me.
That evening, walking down the dark streets of Uni. Place, Craig couldn’t get over the fact I had actually hit a teacher.
Pumping my BB gun to its full capacity, I aimed at the street light above us.
“What did your mom say?” asked Craig, his long brown hair hanging into his freckle-spattered face. At that point in time, Craig and I were heavy into the Biker Culture, both of us dressed in cut-off jean jackets, patched and faded jeans, and scuffed up combat boots. Having met and partied with members of the Screaming Eagles, the Association, and the Devil’s Fly High, we thought that we had at least earned the right to imitate the Biker heroes we idolized.
“My mom,” I told Craig, “said old man Lewis shouldn’t have grabbed me in the first place.”
Craig watched me aiming up at the street light, and said, “Isn’t this the fourth time you’ve been kicked out of school?”
“Sixth,” I replied. “This time my counselor wants me to see some kind of shrink. Guess she thinks I’m pretty messed up.”
Craig nudged me. “You are messed up,” he jokingly said.
“Guess so,” I agreed, pumping up the gun again.
This time, I aimed, fired, and blew out the light bulb of the street lamp.
It burst with a loud Pop! A brilliant flash of purple light illuminated the pole and the branches of surrounding trees. Glass came raining down on us.
“Hey, you little asshole!” came a shout from the porch of a nearby house.
Craig and I stood there staring at three older boys who we hadn’t noticed before. It was the three Weaver brothers. “How about I call the cops and report you?” Charlie, the oldest brother said.
“Let’s just take his gun,” Larry the middle brother said.
“Yeah!” agreed Brad, the youngest Weaver brother.
Craig caused all three brothers to pause for long moments as he said, “I’d like to see you try that.”
At that point, I raised my BB gun and aimed it at them.
A second later, all three Weaver brothers came charging off the porch after us.
Craig and I decided it was time to swoop.
Three blocks later, and almost to the border of our own neighborhood, Craig and I ran side by side, the Weavers not far behind us.
Tossing aside my BB gun as tall, skinny Charlie Weaver closed in behind me, I spun about in desperation. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. Everything just fell into place. Kinda’ like magic. Spinning in midair, I hurled myself back at Charlie. The moment my left foot hit the ground, I launched a wicked right hook directly into Charlie’s surprised looking face. There was no loud Crack! like in the movies as my tightly balled fist plowed into the side of his face. I don’t recall any noise at all with the exception of Brad’s and Larry’s shoes slapping the asphalt as they charged toward me to avenge their fallen brother.
“Run!” shouted Craig, trying to stifle a laugh.
Charlie was already scrambling to his feet, and this would be no laughing matter if he caught me.
Running that last block was like running in a dream, as if I was escaping from those three raving lunatics in slow motion. I could hear their loud, angry curses echoing in my ears. I could feel them gaining on me. I knew that at any moment my wobbly legs were going to give out. I knew that shortly, I was going to feel fists raining down on me. Shortly, I was going to die.
And then… Dennis Grant seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Grant moved so fast that I gaped in astonishment as his punch took Charlie off his feet.
“You okay?” Grant asked, nodding in my direction.
“Uh–huh,” I managed to mumble. I then said, “They were trying to take my BB gun. It’s down there where those two guys are standing in the street.”
Grant latched onto Charlie’s shirt and hauled him to his feet. He then shoved him in front of him and started down the street toward the other two Weaver brothers.
Craig and I just stood there watching as Brad snatched up my BB gun and handed it to Grant. Neither of us could hear what words were exchanged, but when Grant returned he was grinning and shaking his head. “Just can’t stay out of trouble, can you?”
Grant playfully grabbed Craig and I by the back of our necks and headed us for home. “I heard,” he said to me, “about your run-in with Mike Shade. That was pretty smart throwing Johnny’s name out there to get Shade to back off. I am just wondering why you didn’t use mine.”
Not wanting to tell Grant that I wasn’t sure if using his name on a giant like Mike Shade would have had the same result, I said, “I already used your name the week before.”
As the three of us mounted the porch steps of Craig’s house at 3542 Saint Paul Avenue, I went on to tell Grant, “This jerk walked up to me at the Hinky Dinky store. He had a pack of Twinkies in one hand and he grabbed a hold of the front of my jean jacket with his other hand. He then started banging me up against the building. I told him, “If you don’t leave me alone, Dennis Grant will come and find you and royally kick your ass!”
Grant seemed pleased by this. He grinned and asked, “What did he do then?”
I laughed and said, “He let go of me and quickly said, ‘Here! Do you want a Twinkie?’”
The three of us laughed.
Names and reputations in those days sure did me a lot of good.
That next week, another name changed my life.
That next week, while riding with my parents, I got into one helluva fight with my mom over the Catholic rosary I had started wearing around my neck. A rosary is a string of prayer beads with a crucified Jesus at the end of it. Catholics, which my mom happened to be, use them to say prayers with by pinching each bead between their fingers while they pray. I think it’s so they can keep track of how many prayers they prayed before they stop.
According to my mom, if I didn’t take it off I would probably be sent to hell for wearing it and disrespecting God. She proceeded to yell at me about it as my dad drove Craig and I down this street somewhere on the south side of town. I told her she could just go to hell for being such a bitch. The next thing you know, my mom hauls off and lunges over the front seat and slaps me right in the face. Then she tried to rip that rosary from around my neck, which practically choked me out.
So I hauled off and shoved her away from me, at which point my dad slammed on the brakes.
Craig and I banged our heads together and bounced all over the backseat. I then had my dad coming halfway over the seat to slap me silly for shoving my mom.
Rather than stay around for the beating, I yanked the door open and leaped out of the car.
Craig followed right behind me, and we took off running in between these houses, and continued to do so until we were absolutely lost. Lost. On run. On the south side of town. We were screwed. Until Craig got the idea to break into a church to stay the night. I thought it was a great idea, as well, but just as we tried to open a window on the back of this church, some man came out of the building and chased us off.
Eventually, we found my aunt’s place all the way across town. She, being my mom’s sister, sympathized with me and allowed us to stay the night with her. But she made us both go to school the next morning. I was still heated and mad, and I wasn’t wanting to be there in school, but the first person I ran into that day at Robin Mickle junior high was my friend, Bob Bauer. And he shocked the crap out of me.
He walked up to my locker and said, “Hey, Tom, did you know Jesus loves you?”
About two months before that, Bob and I got drunk and totally ripped on quarts of Orange Vodka. Bob got so hammered, he got sick and threw up and ended up with orange scrambled eggs plastered all over his face. I told his mom when she came to pick him up that he had lobster for dinner, and it made him sick. Shortly thereafter, Bob got arrested for selling LSD at school, and his parents shipped him off to his aunt and uncle’s down in Ashland, Nebraska.
Aunt Dee and Uncle Bob were Born-again Christians. Bible-thumpers. Holy Rollers. Jesus capitol FREAKS. Dee and Bob took young Bob to this Jesus concert up in Minnesota, and Bob accepted Jesus and got saved. The experience completely changed his life.
So when he walked up to me in the hallway and said, “Jesus loves you,” that is where he was coming from. Bob then tried to invite me to accept Jesus, which I wanted nothing to do with, as it was wearing that rosary that got me into so much trouble in the first place.
“Jesus?” I asked. “God? Is there a difference? Aren’t they like one and the same?”
Bob patiently said, “Oh, no not really. God is the Father and Jesus is his Son.”
I went back to Craig’s house after school that day, because I was still not ready to go back home. I hadn’t called my parents nor spoken to them, and I wasn’t going to until I was damned good and ready.
I started laughing when I told Craig about Bob’s conversion.
Craig wasn’t laughing though. He got this real serious look on his face, and said, “My mom invited us to this movie tonight. It’s about this gang leader from New York who did the same thing Bob did. He accepted Jesus and it changed his life. Do you wanna go see what this is about?”
“No,” I told Craig. “The last place I wanna go is to some church movie!”
But later that night, Craig and his mom talked me into going to that movie. She asked me not to wear my jean jacket with my flag because there were going to be a lot of preachers there from all these churches. But I kept it on, thinking I didn’t care if I offended them. It just didn’t matter to me.
Craig and I sat through that move twice. And it wasn’t boring at all. It was about this gang leader from New York named Nicky Cruz. He was super bad, and the leader of the Mau Mau’s, a really bad gang. He knifed people, he robbed people, and he beat the crap out of other gang members. Nicky Cruz was one tough guy.
There was this preacher named David who went to New York to try to invite all the gangs to his meeting he was having. He wanted to tell them all about Jesus, and offered to pray with them so they could change their ways. Nicky absolutely hated this David the preacher, and he once pulled a knife on him and said, “If you keep preaching to me about God and Jesus, I’m gonna cut you up in a million little pieces!”
“And,” David said, “if you do, everyone of those million pieces will cry out Jesus loves you!”
Then David invited Nicky and his entire gang to his meeting. When Nicky arrived, David put his gang in charge of taking up the offering. So Nicky and his gang walked through the crowds of other gang members, and forced them to put money in the collection plates.
When it came time to turn the money over to David, Nicky’s gang wanted to take the money and run. Nicky was even tempted to do it, as well. But then, he changed his mind. Something about what David said had been gnawing on his mind. Something to do with how he said Jesus loved him.
Nicky forced his gang to turn the money into David, and at the end of the movie, Nicky gave his heart to Jesus. He asked God to forgive him for all his past sins, and then asked Jesus to come into his heart. And by doing so, God changed Nicky and made him a new man.
The next day after Craig and I saw the movie, Bob invited us to his church. I told him I didn’t want to go, but Craig had agreed to go with him. Bob told us he would have his Jesus Freak friends and him pick us up at six that evening.
In the mean time, my dad showed up at Craig’s house, asking me to come back home. He said that I’d been gone for four days, and it was time to bury the hatchet and just return home. When I refused, he told me I should come back so I could see my German shepherd, Sandy, who at 15 years of age, had to be put to sleep.
I was extremely sad about losing my dog I had had all of my childhood. But I was just too angry and stubborn to go back with him.
When he tried to catch me, I jumped over a fence, cut through three yards, and ditched him.
After ditching my dad, I snuck back to Craig’s house, and I wanted to just explode. Now my mom and dad knew I had problem behaviors ever since I hauled off and slugged one of the Seven Dwarfs when I was eight-years-old in Disneyland. They even had proof, for my dad had caught it all on his video camera. It was Sneezy, and he walked up to me and stuck his big nose in my face, and so I hauled off and popped him. The Big Bad Wolf quickly intervened, and latched onto my hand and led me away from the injured Dwarf.
My parents had to deal with me getting into fights at school, as well. At the time, I don’t think many teachers knew about ADHD, Attention-deficit Hyperactive Disorder, but believe me, I had it. I often sat in school, going off into an imaginary world inside my own head. It’s probably why I channeled my energies into writing. I could sit for hours, pecking away on an old typewriter in my basement. Or else stay up into the wee hours of the morning filling reams of dime-store notebooks with my scribbling.
In those days, labels like problem child or special needs were not placed in a kid’s file. But teachers who encountered me knew there was definitely something special about me. And I think I made their life a living hell if they ever were so unfortunate to have me in their classroom.
So, yes, my parents knew I had problems, but they just dealt with it the old fashioned way.
That night, I was so angry I wanted to go to up to Ag. Campus and break something, and cause some damage and destruction. In the past, we had done our share of damage up there on the agricultural campus. We didn’t always do harmless pranks like riding cows in the rodeo grounds, or stealing eggs from the chicken coops. No, this one time, when I was nine, Grant, Bobby, and Geno drug Craig and I along to steal sawdust from the horse barn. The bigger guys filled all these gunny sacks with sawdust to make a high-jump back in the Saint Paul neighborhood. While they snuck up into the loft of the horse barn, they stationed Craig and I to watch for campus cops down below. I got to fiddling with this big metal gate, and suddenly found myself facing a whole herd of Black Angus cows who nosed forward and stood eyeing me.
This big gust of wind came up, and Whoosh! That gate got ripped out of my hands! It swung open, banging into the fence beyond, and those cows stampeded! Craig had the sense to yank me back and out of the way, and we just stood there, gawking wide-eyed as this whole heard of cattle went tearing off all over the campus.
Grant chewed me out all the way down to the Ag. College bridge, but when Geno and Bobby spotted the campus cop chasing the cows around, everyone started laughing and thinking it was funny. So Grant let me off with just a slight thump to the chest.
Another time, we got ourselves into the steam tunnels and ended up beneath the dental college, where they keep the dead bodies. Someone pulled the door shut behind us and we found ourselves locked inside the basement of the building. We couldn’t get out by going back through the steam tunnels. So we had to creep past the cells where they kept the cadavers and climb up through this closet to get up on the main floor. When we did, we saw the illuminated exit sign in the distance, but there was a female janitor on her knees cleaning the floor. And she was right in our path.
We all took off running right toward her, and she screamed bloody murder and dove to floor. We ended up leaping completely over her and running out through the exit door.
So, Craig and I were set to go back up there that night to let off steam.
And then Bob and his Jesus Freak friends pulled up, cutting us off from leaving Craig’s house. Craig then climbed in the car, and I reluctantly followed, and ended up going with Bob to his church.