Something from Nothing
1982-1990 (26-30 years-old)
I was nine-years-old when I first sat in front of an old, dusty typewriter and hammered out my first story. I remember it well, too, for the Dog Days of a Nebraska summer had sent me to the cool of the basement of my childhood home, and there in my retreat from the sweltering heat, I typed out The Lost World.
During the process, the D key stuck constantly, and in the story, Professor Gray and his body-guard, Steve, drove a space ship underground and rescued a little yellow dude named Spock. I drew 10 pictures for the 10 page story and stapled them into a booklet. My babysitter and her two sisters were my only audience for that particular work, but I still have that booklet to this day.
In sixth grade, I remember my teacher phoning my mom and telling her that I didn’t seem to be there with the rest of the class. When my mom interrogated me about my space-off sessions, I told her I was bored out of my mind. But the truth of the matter is, I had been sitting there at my old wooden desk, when I started poking the end of my pencil into this perfectly round hole that some other bored kid had evidently drilled into the pencil tray long before I was destined to sit in that particular desk. Suddenly, in my head, I heard, “No! No! Stop!”
Fascinated, I withdrew my pencil from the hole, and in my “mind’s eye” I watched as a tiny gray mouse named Tuffy popped out. He was a friendly little fellow and he flew around my classroom in his airplane. Mind you, this is two years before I even thought about dabbling in any kind of mind-altering substances. Thus another story was born.
When I was 13, I began wearing that cut-off jean jacket with an American Flag on the back, and in goal to become a biker, I began to write with pen and paper, and I filled up three entire note books with a 900 page story that I named Wings like Eagles.
At 14, I cut the flag and motorcycle patches off of my jean jacket and rode my dirt bike out to Steven’s Creek. There I started a huge fire, and I removed all 900 pages of that biker story from my backpack. I then wrapped them in my flag, along with all my patches, and I tossed the whole bundle into the fire. I watched those writings burn, and like a Phoenix that rises from the ashes, I vowed to write something that would hopefully change lives.
I re-wrote Wings like Eagles, then added a manuscript called Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball to my collection and began sharing them with clients confined at the Attention Center. Little did most of those kids know that I had been exactly where they were and that is why I wrote stories addressed specifically to them.
I eventually submitted those two stories to publishers but never got a bite. I remember having a sit down with my friend, Dan Newton’s mom, and she showed me an entire drawer full of rejection slips, and told me to hang on because being a writer was a rough and rocky road.
When I was 25, I produced a slide presentation called, Love that sticks like Bubblegum on Tennis Shoes. It was presented with two slide projectors, a dissolve unit and a full musical background. Kids performed the dialogue and I included lots of strange sound effects such as motorcycles, vacuum sweepers, crunching ice cubes, and cows grazing on dried corn stalks. One scene included a kid throwing a soccer ball across a school playground and accidently beaning his teacher in the head. Her glasses flew off and shattered when they hit the ground. I used a large mayonnaise jar to get the right sound effect for that particular shot, and the first time I presented the show at Huntington Elementary, one elderly teacher walked up afterwards and grinned as she asked, “Just how thick were those glasses, anyway?”
For the next 2 years, I continued to present Love at schools, institutions, and at dozens of private showings. Until one day my friend, a barber by trade, was cutting this guy’s hair and telling him all about my slide show. The guy getting his hair cut was Jerry Kromberg, the President of Media Productions. He wanted to see my presentation. So my friend arranged a meeting between us. Although Jerry was impressed with Love, he rejected it as a future project. However, I left him with two manuscripts to read, Wings and 8-Ball.
A month later, Jerry asked me to meet with him, and he agreed to publish Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball. He wanted to start with 5,000 copies as he had a wide-range distribution with schools all across the nation. He set me up with an English Major, Arda Pounds, and she and I worked late night hours getting my 345 page story ready to go to press.
At that point in time, I had no clue where the quotation marks went, how to use commas, how to make a paragraph break. God forbid, if getting that book published involved passing a test on nouns, pronouns, verbs or even Proverbs, I would have been doomed! I had a slight case of ADHD when I was a kid in school, and when I should have been paying attention to the lessons on grammar and punctuation, my mind was elsewhere, oftentimes flying around the classroom with Tuffy in his plane.
I remember when the manuscript was finally done, and my artist friend called me and said, “Your publisher wants me to include a large marijuana leaf on the front cover of your book. The trouble is, I have no clue what one looks like. Could you do me a favor?”
So, I drove out in the country and picked some ditch weed. I drove all the away across town, sweating it and thinking I was going to get caught for possession! And yet because of that harrowing trip, with weed plants crammed beneath my driver’s seat, the artist, Russ Wahl, ended up with a nice rendition of his marijuana leaf on the front cover of the book.
The same year 8-Ball was released, I took on one of my most challenging cases.
His name was Steve. I met him when he as 13-year-old runaway was placed at the Attention Center. Steve had actually run away from over twenty different placements. Due to an unstable home life Steve was a Ward of the State. His biggest problem centered around the fact that he wouldn’t stay put at any of the places the State placed him at.
Later, I visited with Steve about giving me the heads-up on Bill’s very real threat. We ended up talking at length, and I heard Steve’s rather long story about being removed from his home because he was uncontrollable and also about the many placements he’d been in. At the end of our conver-sation, Steve told me his caseworker was looking for a new placement for him. He bluntly asked if I had room at my house. I told him I would give the idea some thought and that I would also speak to his caseworker, Dirk Sasso.
Dirk, a real down-to-earth caseworker from the Department of Social Services, spoke with me at length about Steve. He then made a deal with the boy, telling him that he would be allowed to come and live at my place if only he could accept another placement at a special home in Omaha. Dirk told Steve that if he could remain at this home for a thirty-day evaluation, that he would then be allowed to move into my house.
For once, Steve stayed put where the State put him, and within the next month he was placed in my home in Havelock.
Having dealt with Special Needs foster son who had lived with me for two years, I thought I was prepared to handle Steve as well. So I figured I could handle anything that Steve dished out. I soon found out, the care of my first foster son had been a walk in the park compared to the whirlwind of negative activity that often erupted out of Steve when he was on a roll.
Steve had a rage inside that wouldn’t quit. One day, he’d broke the bathroom door. Another time, he hurled a pole lamp across the room and smashed it to pieces. Another time, he broke three cupboards in the kitchen. One time, he burned himself while cooking on the stove, and he threw a pan of frying bacon at the kitchen wall. That wall glittered for years if the morning sun hit it just right. And this was just the first week I had him.
One day during his second week in my home, Steve had a violent episode in which he trashed his room. When I went to investigate and find out what had set him off this time I discovered Steve had broken into my gun cabinet. There he stood in the center of his room with a .22 rifle in his hands.
As I entered the room, Steve pulled the bolt back on the rifle, locking it into a firing position. He then turned to face me, tears streaming down his face as he put the gun to his head.
I froze and quietly asked, “What’s going on? Why are you doing this?”
Steve wept, “Because you hate me! Because I know you want to get rid of me! I don’t deserve to be here! All I am is a pain in the ass to you. I should just be dead!”
We must have stood there for nearly thirty minutes as Steve continued to cry and I tried coaxing him to put the rifle down. The manner in which he kept his finger on the trigger didn’t allow me any margin for error. I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, in desperation, I tried a different tactic. Rather than gently plead with Steve to hand me the gun, I raised my voice and inflected anger in my tones.
It threw Steve off guard. Up until that point, I don’t think he ever heard me cuss or swear. So that fact alone was shocking to him. But where he was desperately acting pout to receive sympathy, he was no longer receiving it. I had run out of sympathy, and Steve was a little surprised by the heat in my words. Surprised enough to slightly lower the rifle.
And that’s when I rushed him and latched onto the rifle. I wrestled it out of his grasp, fighting to keep his fingers from slipping back into the trigger guard. When I finally ripped the gun out of his grasp, Steve dropped to the floor and began to cry.
It took me quite some time to bring him back to a relative comfort zone. After I did, Steve told me he was just testing me to see if I really cared about him, telling me that at all his other placements he’d worn out his welcome and no one wanted him around. He wanted to see if I really wanted to keep him or not.
It was a helluva way to get my attention.
One day I came home to hear crashing and cracking sounds coming from the backyard. When I opened the gate to my stockade fence surrounding the yard, I discovered Steve heaving an axe at my Doberman pincher. Bummer moved out of the way barely in time as the axe narrowly missed her. She ran and hid beneath the deck where Smoky and Sam, a shepherd and husky, were already cowering in terror.
I had seconds to examine the dozens of boards Steve had broken on the fence before he ran to rip the axe out of another shattered board. By the time I reached him, Steve spun around, axe in hand, trying to determine where Bummer had run off to. Ignoring me completely, Steve set his sights on the Doberman crouching beneath the deck. He then raised the axe over his head and prepared to give it another throw. At that point, I latched onto the axe handle.
It was as Steve just noticed I was standing there as his smoldering eyes locked on me. Steve then snarled, “Let go! Let go of the goddamned axe! Let you go, you stupid bastard!’‘
I struggled to maintain my grip on the axe handle. “What in the hell is going on? Why are you doing this?”
Steve angrily spat, “Bummer snapped at me! She pissed me off and I’m gonna kill her!”
I stood there remembering the night before when Bummer actually snapped at Steve when I caught him rubbing her vagina with his foot. I had walked into the den to find Steve performing this perverse act. During out talk afterwards, Steve told me that he had once used the handle of a horse whip on a horse at a farm he’d been placed on. Steve thought it was funny to watch the steam rising from the horse’s privates. He also thought it was funny to see Bummer the dog run around humping things because he’d turned her on. I was disgusted and told Steve in no uncertain terms that he would not be practicing this bizarre behavior again. Evidently though, my talk did little good.
As I wrestled the axe away from him I asked, “Why’d Bummer snap at you? What did you do to her this time?”
“Fuck you, you stupid bastard!” Steve growled as he continued to yank violently on the axe.
He finally lost his footing and I pried the axe handle out of his grasp and Steve fell to the ground.
Seconds later, he came up off the ground and launched himself at me with his fists flailing.
I often thanked God for the self-defense training I learned while working at the Attention Center. We had a good trainer who was an expert in martial arts, and he taught the staff there many defense moves as well as restraint techniques. If I hadn’t learned so well from this 1st Degree Black belt, I would have gotten seriously hurt many times over as I had to deal with ranting and raving lunatic kids. As Steve attacked me that day, I had to employ many of those defensive moves or I would have taken a painful battering.
Many times in a crisis situation with an out of control kid, I literally slipped into a sort of auto-pilot mode. I don’t know how many punches he actually landed before I placed him in an arm lock and took him to the ground. (Youth workers who read this will more than likely relate to this situation and readily agree that when under attack your adrenalin starts pumping and you never quite feel the kicks and punches until afterwards.) So it was with Steve’s violent attack on my person. He punched, kicked, bit and spit on me. It was not pleasant, but it all comes with the territory when dealing with an outraged, emotionally disturbed kid.
After restraining Steve for thirty minutes, I finally sent him off to the house, still sputtering like a mad, wet cat. After calming the dogs down, I examined the wreckage caused by Steve’s rage. He’d actually broken more than a dozen boards all up and down the length of the fence as well as shattering several of the deck rails.
Did I keep Steve after that?
Sure. That violent incident only happened during the first year he lived at my house. Steve was in my care for a total of two more years after that memorable incident.
Dirk Sasso was one of the best caseworkers the Department of Social Services had. It was because of his constant support that I persevered with Steve. Aware of Steve’s uncontrolled rages and the destruction he caused, Dirk was very sympathetic to my plight. Unlike most caseworkers (who you can never seem to reach by phone when you have an emergency), Dirk made himself available to me 24/7. He even invited me to his house to see the two wolf-dogs he owned, and there we could often talk about case plans in regards to Steve. Dirk often was instrumental in raising my Special Needs payments as an incentive to continue caring for Steve, and yet he also continued to ask whether I had had enough and whether I wanted Steve moved to a different placement. He never made me feel obligated and because of his easy-going manner, I was able to work with him and feel my work was appreciated.
The following year, Steve began to really settle down. He attended school regularly and had absolutely no trouble with the law. He adjusted and compared to the twenty three different place-ments he’d previously run away from, he never ran from my house once.
The third year with Steve is when things turned really bizarre.
I had always gotten along well with his mother, Barbara. She was fairly young and attractive, and she and I had never had any disagreements about home visits or anything of the effective ways I dealt with her son. Many biological parents feel very left out when it comes to a foster parent raising their own son or daughter, and oftentimes relationships between foster parents and the real parents is strained. But not so with Barb. In fact, she constantly invited me over for Sunday dinners after Steve’s weekend visits and phoned me to ask for help dealing with many of his violent episodes. However, during one of these Sunday dinners, things turned a little weird.
After finishing our meal, Steve got up from the table and grinned wickedly as he told me, “I’m going to go ride my bike until we get ready to leave to go back home. While I’m gone, you can pay my mom back for having you over for dinner!”
The moment Steve made this announcement, Barb’s one foot snaked out beneath the table and somehow found its way in between my legs!
Barb offered me a seductive look and rubber her foot against my crouch. I immediately shot up from my chair. Grinning sheepishly, I muttered, “Thanks for dinner, but I think Steve and I need to be heading home now. Right now.”
Barb simply offered me a pouting look and calmly purred, “What? You don’t want to snuggle with me? That’s all we have to do. I just want to cuddle with you. How about it?”
I turned down the “cuddling” and “snuggling” offers, and Steve and I promptly left.
When I reported this to Dirk, he simply laughed and said, “How do you get so lucky? I just get the fat and ugly mothers who hate me with a passion! And you? Hell, you get a slender and attractive mother who wants to cuddle with you! Consider yourself fortunate!”
We both had a good laugh over the incident, but neither one of us laughed three weeks later when Dirk received a visit at the Department from the police.
Dirk phoned me to say, “The Lincoln Police and the Department of Social Services are investigating both of us!”
“For what?” I asked in disbelief.
Dirk replied, “Martha, Steve’s grandmother phoned Crime Stoppers and reported both of us for several things. For one, the raise in payment you received. For another, the trucks we just purchased and our house improvements. And believe it or not, Martha also reported that you sexually assaulted Steve’s twin brother, Scott, when he stayed at your house last month on the emergency stay. She also reported that you were putting drugs in Steve’s food because she’d never seen him acting so calm before. This is a real mess!”
I shook my head in stunned disbelief.
In those days, regular foster care payments were $98.00 per month. On Special Needs kids the pay was a little higher. When Steve first came to me, I received $365.00 per month. But because of Steve’s destructive behavior (which no home insurance policy covers), my pay went up to $410.00 and finally up to $550.00.
In those days, that was high but justified payment for providing care for a difficult youth.
Coincidently, Dirk and I both took out loans to buy new trucks. We also both involved in home improvements on our houses. Again, another pure coincidence. Through Steve, Martha, his grand-mother, found out about these two facts. She also learned about my foster care payment. She immediately suspected that Dirk and I were frauding the State and splitting this foster care payment in order to finance our truck loans and home improvement loans.
Sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly what Martha reported to the police.
For years, she’d seen nothing but hyper-activity out of Steve, and so was more or less in shock when he visited her and remained calm (like he was at my house). Her suspicions arose again, and she determined that I was putting drugs in Steve’s food to control him and keep him calm. And this is what she reported.
These first parts of her accusations were actually humorous. At least, Dirk and I knew how absurd they were, and though we had to submit to Police and Department questioning, we both knew how totally bizarre this report had been.
But as to the allegations of sexual assault of Steve’s brother, Scott, I knew exactly how that story had come about. In fact, I reminded Dirk about it as we spoke, both of us wondering how far LPD and DSS would go in this investigation.
“Do you recall when Charlie Burdett had to remove Scott from my home during that emergency placement?” I asked Dirk.
“Last month, during that snow storm?” he responded.
“Yeah. The allegations of sexual assault probably have to do with that night,” I told him.
I then recalled the events of that evening in January. I had received a phone call from Charlie Burdett, another one of the better caseworkers at the DSS. He shared with me that Scott, Steve’s twin brother, had gotten into a violent confrontation with Barb at their house. Charlie asked me if I’d be willing to take Scott on an emergency basis for several days until they could get the situation figured out. I did so reluctantly because I knew how much negative influence Scott was capable of adding to Steve’s already turbulent nature.
When I arrived at Barb’s house to pick Scott up, she was in a rage. “Get him out of here or I’m gonna kill him!” she snapped.
Barb then led me around the house to show me the pictures and lamps and walls that Scott had shot up with his BB pistol. She didn’t tell me what the fight had been about. Only that Scott had went on a shooting rampage. Barb still held the pistol that she had wrestled out of Scott’s hands. She was still fuming and threatening to put a BB in Scott’s butt if I didn’t get him out of her sight.
On the ride home, I overheard Steve and Scott conversing about what had started the altercation between he and his mom.
“She wouldn’t do it with me,” is what Scott told Steve.
I remained quiet after that, knowing it was best to just to listen. But no more was said on the matter. When we arrived home, I drew Steve aside and asked him what Scott had meant by his comment. He shocked me as he casually said, “They do it together all the time. Scott was just pissed because mom didn’t want to do it tonight.”
“But he’s her son!” I said. “And he’s only fifteen-years-old!”
Steve simply laughed at my shock and went off to play Atari in the other room with Scott.
Shortly before ten o’clock that night, I heard a loud commotion coming from Steve’s bedroom. Both boys were shouting and cussing, and by the time I reached the room, Scott and Steve had ripped the controllers out of the Atari console and were attempting to whip each other with the cords. I had to wade into the middle of the swinging cords to stop either twin from hurting each other. I managed to retrieve both controllers from the boys and settled them down. After talking them down, I left them to continue their game while I returned to the den to finish a movie.
Thinking that I’d probably hear another altercation breaking out before my movie was over, I was surprised when I head dead-silence coming from Steve’s bedroom. So I went quietly down the hall to investigate. It was then that I had probably the most strangest experiences in my foster care career.
As I reached Steve’s bedroom door I heard, “Suck it till it stings!”
Mystified as to the meaning of such words, I entered the room to find both 15-year-old twins stark naked and performing oral sex on each other.
The moment I said, “What the hell are you doing?” Scott leaped up off the bed and came directly at me, masturbating as he charged at me.
I managed to back away just in time as Scott ejaculated all over the floor.
I am not certain what I said after that, but I know I did a lot of swearing. In fact, neither one of the boys knew what to say after the incident. You would have thought they would have been majorly embarrassed or ashamed. But that wasn’t the case as Steve explained to me later that night that Scott and their older brother, John, did these activities quite often. That night, I phoned Charlie Burdett to report the incident, but due to the severe snow storm hitting Lincoln, Charlie could not remove Scott as I requested and place him in another emergency placement. Stuck with Scott for the rest of that night, I sent him off to Steve’s room to sleep while I had Steve sleep in a sleeping bag on the couch in the den.
The next morning, before Charlie could drive out and remove Scott, the brothers got into another violent altercation. Scott went after Steve with a pool cue and hit him with such force that he shattered the pool stick on Steve’s arms. He left six inch slivers of shattered wood up and down Steve’s forearms and shoulders. He then literally shattered my front door and my back door as he bolted to get out of my house. That was how Scott ended his stay at my house.
“So,” I said to Dirk, wondering if LPD or DSS would even believe Martha’s story, “that could be the sexual assault allegation.”
In the end, the Lincoln Police and the Department of Social Services determined that all the allegations against Dirk and I were unfounded. Dirk continued on as a caseworker, and I kept my foster care license. And Steve remained with me six more months after the investigation.
The death knell came to his three year stay when he went into another raging fit and attempted to take down the wall he had built in my room. He picked up a hammer and went to tear it down.
I got in his way.
He swung the hammer at me, and I planted the palm of my hand into the center of his chest and catapulted him back and off his feet.
Before he could fully recover I snatched the hammer out of his grasp, and tossed it aside.
I then stood there, determining if indeed I needed to pursue restraining him, but I think he was so shocked that I had actually struck him, he simply got up and walked outside to the front porch.
We talked for awhile after that, and I told him of my plans to take a trip to visit friends in Colorado. Steve begged me to take him along.
But Harold and Paula, both foster parents themselves, had earlier forbid me to bring Steve into their home. They had also invited me out to the mountains because they knew I had nearly burned out on this kid, and they wanted me to take a much needed break away from him.
Before leaving for Colorado, I made arrangements with Steve’s dad to have him stay there with him. He agreed to take him, and that was the last time I saw Steve again until three years later.
Just after his first stay in the State Pen.