WHEN HEROES DIE
March 2, 2001
The night was dark as I drove my car down the winding road to the county seat. I had driven this road many times, and it was almost as if the car could drive itself. As often as I had been this way before, I had never taken the detour to go to the county jail. My friend, Al, had been volunteering his time there, working through the Chaplain's office ministering to some of the minor offenders every Tuesday night.
--- Copyright © 2000 Mark L. Renner
Why did he ask me to come and speak to them? What am I going to say to these guys? What common ground do we have? I have never been in trouble with the law. In fact, my mother was the deputy court clerk. I don't drink, smoke, or take illegal drugs, and you could say, I grew up on the nicer side of town. I have been far removed from this world. What do I have to offer them?
As I robotically navigated my car around one turn, then another, my mind began to wander. I found myself thinking about how my own life had taken one turn after another, only to lead me here tonight. I have some time to dream before I reach my destination - maybe I can find some inspiration.
As best as I can recollect... It seems like yesterday when it happened. Then again, it was almost a lifetime away. Ever so often, visions of it haunt my dreams, that I might not forget that fateful day that changed my life.
I can so vividly remember the strained look on my mother's face as she tried to explain the unimaginable to my sister and me. She left such a short time ago for the hospital, and now she was returning so soon. Walking with measured steps, slow and methodical, she was supported by our neighbor at her side, as they hesitantly made their way down the red brick path to our house, stopping at the gate.
Mother had the look of exhaustion, like that of a tired swimmer who just swam the English Channel. As she approached us and knelt down, I can still feel her loving arms wrapping themselves around our little necks, squeezing so tightly, as if we might be taken away. Holding us there, in full view of all the neighbors, a few minutes seemed like an eternity.
She then leaned back and gripped my small left hand in her right, and my sister's right hand in her left. As she nervously held them, she began rubbing the backs of our hands in small circular patterns. With her head down, we did not dare ask her what she was struggling to tell us. As she slowly raised her head, I could see the faint glint of tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
There, upon her face, came the gentle smile of feigned assurance that she had been trying so hard to muster. With the steady voice of a strength I never knew she had, came the words, "Children, daddy won't be sick anymore."
It was Labor Day, just three months after my eleventh birthday, when I heard those words usher in the darkest years of my life. Until that point, I had a delightfully clueless youth. I lived a sheltered life, almost privileged, as I spent most of my days either in a private school, or playing blissfully on the beach.
I never had a want or a need that I had to care about, as my parents made wonderful provision for both my sister and me. Unlike the children of today, I was innocent and na´ve. My world of comfort, however, was about to fall apart, as life decided that I was no longer going to enjoy such a contented and spoiled existence.
This was the appointed time for my first emotional spanking. My pledging, as you will, into the fraternity of reality. Actually, it was more of an assault than a spanking. I cried that day, although as I look back on it, I am not quite sure why.
It was far too soon for me to miss him. I suppose much of my tears came from fear. Fear of change, fear of being alone, the fear of not being in control, and the fear of the future and the unknown. Yet mostly, the fear of the uncertain finality of life seemed to consume me the most. To that degree, I cried for my father also, since I was uncertain of his final resting place, and whether or not I would see him again.
My father was bigger than life to me. At 5'11", he was the watchful giant that protected me against the world. He never smiled much and always wore a foreboding look that warned everyone, "Don't bother me. I mean business." Since he ran his own factory with only a high school education, that look fit him well.
He married late in life and was 48 years "young" when I was born. With a touch of gray, the "crown of wisdom," he had an answer for every question. He came from another time, and another generation where strict rules for civility were observed, and character
was measured by self-discipline. He wore duty and responsibility like a banner strapped across his chest. He was George Washington and Abe Lincoln; a red, white and blue patriot.
I remember how the pride beamed across his face when the American flag was lifted, or how tall he stood when the National Anthem was played. He was more than an example for me of how I should live; in my eyes he was a national hero. He was John Wayne. He was Captain America. He was the one steadfast source of courage, strength, and truth, and he was gone, never to come home again.
When heroes die, worlds collapse, and that day mine did. The walls came down, and I had a glimpse of reality. I felt lost and afraid as I was confronted with my own mortality. If this could happen to him, the one person I thought was indestructible, what was my future to be like?
I retreated to the recesses of my comfortable little world, the four corners of my mind where nobody could hurt me, and life would stay still for awhile. To be a child forever, that was my unobtainable goal. I became extremely introverted and kept the rest of humanity at arms length. I could not do this forever, though, as I was growing up much faster than I had ever intended. As the years in my life progressed dauntingly onward, like Sherman's March through the South, my fear turned to confusion, and my confusion turned to frustration.
My father had always been somewhat aloof (more than likely because of his age), and being only eleven, I had no deep thoughts to share, no probing questions to ask. The meaning of life was not an issue to me. The only important concern in my life was when we would go fishing next.
On that first day of high school, eleven seemed like an eternity away. I had somehow found myself dropped in the middle of this bustling metropolis, and I quickly realized how ill-equipped I was to handle the social structure of that teenage community.
Now I had some life changing questions to ask, but where was my hero, my mentor? "Help, can anyone hear me? I need answers! How do I become a mature man when I don't even know how to be a successful boy?" No answers received, my response: "Adolescence is a bitch."
So the years passed, and I moved on. It wasn't as if I didn't have any guidance and direction, though. I must be clear about this. My mother demonstrated a strength and courage that amazed me. Those loving arms that she wrapped around my neck that Labor Day when my father died, never left me. Always a comfort and an encouragement, her love kept me sane.
Unfortunately, she didn't know an awful lot about becoming a man, or how a man deals with the world around him. Consequently, I was very shy, and I never dated in high school. I wasn't big enough to be a jock, not smart enough to be a nerd, and I never took drugs or alcohol, so I couldn't be one of the "cool" kids. In other words, I was awkward, and I just didn't fit in.
It seemed the only people that I could talk to were people who were much older than I was. I felt more comfortable with them and more easily accepted by them. I looked up to them the same way I looked up to my grandparents, but they were far too removed from the teen generation to offer me any helpful advice.
I awkwardly stumbled through high school, and somehow made my way into college. Even though the world that opened up for me was kinder than I had ever thought possible, I found myself falling fast. The other students in the dorm were really great to me, but I still had more hang-ups than a dry cleaner. My grades dropped and I bailed out by the end of the first year, but over the summer I regrouped and went back to try again.
I was sure I could do it, and with dogged determination, my life was really starting to work for me. My academic life was taking off, and my grades started to rise.
In the second year I also found my personal life starting to come together, as I fell in love with my first girlfriend. Everything was fine for three months, and then she crushed me by saying, "I just want to be friends." I had avoided rejection all my life. It was the one fear underlying all the others. Now this monster came to do battle with me and I didn't have the weapons to slay it.
I cried out in the darkness, "Help! I have some more questions. Can anybody hear me? I want to become a mature man and I can't even successfully deal with the opposite sex!" No answers received, my response: "Love is a bitch!"
After that experience, I dropped out of college and fell into the real world, where I found myself floundering for the next ten years of my life. Through one nickel and dime job after another, one failed relationship after another, I stumbled through life. Just as fear gives birth to confusion, and confusion grows into frustration, my frustration matured into anger. A deep rooted, smoldering, anger that consumed me day and night, and my friends and family suffered for it. I hated myself, and I despised the world around me.
Just before my 30th birthday, my girlfriend of one year, (the longest relationship I'd had up until that point) dumped me, saying, "I don't see any future in you." Two weeks later, I was laid off from work.
Now I had hit rock bottom. "Help! I have some more questions. Can anybody hear me? I want to become a man of maturity and I can't even successfully deal with life." No answers received, my response: "Life is a bitch!"
Like an aging sea captain who dropped his sextant, I was lost in a sea of despair. Amidst the fog of uncertainty, I was in sure peril of running aground on the rocks of turmoil. When all was lost, however, a beacon of light appeared on the horizon, a lighthouse of hope to guide my way. Humbled with rejection, my heart cried out to God, and in His mercy He heard me and took pity on me.
A few days later I was invited to a men's Bible study at a local church, and since I was now amongst the ranks of the unemployed, I thought, "Why not, I have plenty of free time." There were only a few guys there, and the message was nice -- somewhat convicting, and very encouraging. I felt comfortable with them, and when it was over, the leader of the study, Pastor Ron, invited me out to breakfast later on that week. I thought that would be great; a free meal, and good company. This was just what I needed right now.
As we met outside the local "greasy spoon," I couldn't help but notice how tall and straight he stood. As we sat down and ordered, he began to ask me some questions about myself.
"So tell me, Mark, how are your parents?" His voice was deep and casual, as the words seemed to fall out of his mouth. He was very pleasant to listen to, and I wondered why he wasn't on the radio.
"Well, actually, I'm very close to my mom, but my dad passed on many years ago when I was eleven." He looked at me with his old and gentle blue eyes that seemed to read me like the Sunday paper.
"How do you feel about that?" he asked. "Well, I guess, I try not to think about it all that much, since there's not a lot I can do about it." I was trying to sound like I had my life all together, but he knew better.
"Mark, who is your hero? Who is the one person, outside of Almighty God, that you look up to most?"
His question gripped my heart. "Nobody, I guess. I'm 30, and I don't have a hero anymore." I couldn't fool him, though, and before I could elaborate on how good my life was going, he continued.
"Mark, as the plague of single parent homes has covered this land, the lost youth of the past few generations has become a curse upon this country. Fatherless children are the shame of our society. Whether by neglect, abuse, or death, these children walk through life only half complete, looking for some way to fill the void. Mothers teach us how to love and how to accept love.
Fathers, though, give us our sense of self. Without a good father, many young girls fall into promiscuity looking for the love and admiration of any male figure that they can find. Without a good father figure as an example to live by, many young boys lose direction, and the ability to make sound decisions. They grow up frustrated and angry. Eventually, they lash out and society pays the price."
It was chilling. In only 10 minutes, he knew my deepest fears. Was I really this easy to read?
"Things in this world aren't likely to get any better. With the help of welfare, and women's lib run amok, young men are being told that they are expendable, and easily replaced. The government, we are told, (with all its wonderful handouts), is all a woman needs to raise her children. The role of a father has been reduced to a child support payment once a month. In response, the men in this country have become nothing more than procreators, and they have fallen down in their responsibility to their families, and to society as a whole. Do you know why it takes a village to raise a child, Mark?"
I shook my head as I chewed on bits of omelet. "Because two parents aren't doing it the way they should. As one generation affects the next, we are now on a downward spiral. Divorces, infidelity, neglect, and abuse, are the examples we are giving our children to learn and grow from. As one father neglects or abuses his family, the sons then become abusers themselves, and the daughters learn to accept it from their future husbands."
He stopped for second and leaned back, while he took a breath. "Mark, what do want from life? Better yet, what do you want to contribute?"
I stopped chewing to respond, while he took another sip of his coffee. "I always thought I wanted to get married and raise some children, but that's not looking to hopeful right now."
Before he could finish with his coffee, I fired back, "What about you? How do you get along with your dad?"
He now sat up straight and spoke soberly.
"When I was young, I had a horrible stutter. I couldn't take a girl out to the ice cream parlor without the fear that it would take me 10 minutes to order. My father was a harsh man, and thought that maybe he could change me with ridicule and discipline.
He had a wicked temper and always reminded me of how disappointed he was of me. My mother's love got me through my younger years, but it was a long hard road. Then one day, I met Dr. Conan. He was a wonderful, old preacher who took me under his wing. He became a spiritual father to me. He healed the scars left by an abusive childhood, discipled me, and taught me how to be a man."
As I sat in amazement, I couldn't help but notice that he spoke just fine now. "What happened to your stutter?" I asked. "I met a beautiful, young lady when I was 19, who taught me how to speak with confidence. After 6 months, I haven't spoken with a stutter since."
That can't be all. He was leaving me hanging. "What happened to you and your dad? Does he respect you now that you have your Ph.D.?"
He thought for a second, "With the help of Dr. Conan, I learned how to love and forgive my father, but it took the death of my mother to bring us together."
"What about the lady who taught you to speak? Does she know what an accomplished preacher you are?" I needed to know.
"Well, Mark, I married her. You don't let a woman like that get away!"
This was nice chit-chat, but where was it going? "What does any of this have to do with me?" I quipped.
"Mark, you said you wanted to be married and raise some children. That's nice, but you must first learn to be a good son, before you can become a good father. Dr. Conan was a spiritual father to me, and I would like to be that spiritual father for you."
I was excited, and yet, I was finally at peace. Like finding a well needed rest stop at the end of a long journey. With that, he stood up from the table, put his hand in his right front pocket, and fondled for some cash to pay the bill.
He then put his large arm around my neck, and as we walked out the door he said, "Son, next time, you pick up the tab."
Well, here it is, the entrance to the county jail. I pulled into the parking lot and walked up to the front door, not knowing what I would find inside. With a little hesitation, (and much trepidation), I pulled the door open and approached the window. I emptied my pockets and took my ID that read "Chaplain's Office".
As the heavy metal door opened, a tall man in uniform stepped out and sternly yelled, "Ministry". "That's me," I said, and followed him down the long corridor to the Visiting Room. As I walked, my mind again began to drift, thinking of Pastor Ron and everything he was, and did for me. The time he took me to buy a suit.
"Son, every man should have at least one Navy Blue suit." "How do I know what kind of suit or how it should fit?" I asked. "With your thin build, you could get away with three-button, or a double-breasted. Don't forget to check the fit, stretch your arms out, and give yourself an inch at the wrist. Then hang your arms at your side and cup your fingers; you should just be able to touch your hem."
No matter what the topic was -- politics, theology, baseball, or cars, he knew about it. I would ask him questions about everything from life to love, and growing old. It didn't take me long to realize that I could trust his sound advice and wise judgment.
I remembered the drives he would take me on, and the talks in his office. Let's not forget the hugs. He could give the most comforting hugs, wrapping his big old arms around me, just like my dad did. How I needed that hug when I had to put my dog to sleep, and how could I survive without his advice on women.
"Mark, find out about her dad, the most influential man in her life. Find out the good and the bad; emulate the good, and correct the bad. What she saw in her dad is what she'll be looking for in a husband."
As easily as I had drifted off, I abruptly woke up as we came another heavy metal door that had the words "Visiting Room" on it. I noticed that everything was painted in Battleship Gray; it was not a very cheery place.
As the door opened, I saw my friend, Al, going through some notes on the desk next to the wall. "Is there anything else you need in here?" the jailer asked.
"No, we should be fine," Al answered.
"Okay, it's gonna be about 5 to 10 minutes before the inmates show up."
I had a little more time to think. I looked down at my watch and remembered the time he noticed I wasn't wearing anything on my wrist. Then without hesitating, he took off his expensive Skagen watch, and said, "Every man should have a good wristwatch. Merry Christmas."
With all these things and more, he became my hero, and shaped my world. Years ago, I learned that when heroes die, worlds collapse, but now I know that when men reach out in love, heroes are made.
"Here they come, Mark, are you ready?"
"I guess so...as much as I'll ever be."
The inmates filed in slowly, shuffling their feet, shoulders slumped over as if they carried the weight of the world. Some had Bibles, but all wore the hopeless look of the incarcerated.
Like animals in a trap, they knew there was no way out. Even when they leave, life will hunt them down and bring them back. Most of these men weren't bad; they just didn't know any other way. As Al introduced me, "Gentlemen, this is Mark. He is going to be speaking tonight, and helping me out a bit in the upcoming weeks", I stood next to the far wall and tried to look tough. Who was I fooling?
I steadied my voice and began to speak. "Hello gentlemen. Just to help me get to know you, how many of you have kids waiting for you when you get out?"
More than half of them raised their hands.
"Now, how many of you have a great relationship with your mom?"
The stoic look on their faces changed and came alive as they all raised their hands and spoke up.
"Hey man, don't talk about my mama!"
"My mama's the only one who took care of me!"
"You leave my mama alone!"
I tried to quiet them down by asking, "Last one, guys, how many of you get along with your dads?"
Now they were quiet. In a sea of faces, White, Black, and Hispanic, some of their heads went down, but not one hand went up. This is one great tragedy that they all shared in common, and I shared with them. I knew where they were coming from, and I knew where to begin.
"Some of you guys in here have kids at home, waiting for you when to get out, and the rest of you will probably have kids someday. Did you know that, good or bad, you are the most important influence in your child's life? What they become in life depends
upon you. The question is, are you your child's greatest hero or villain? I can't answer that question - only you can. If you don't want your kids to grow up and find themselves in here, you must become their hero. You have to be there for them and give them a good example to follow."
One lanky inmate in jailhouse orange coveralls stood up and said, "That's nice, but I never had a hero. How can I be a good example if I never had one? I don't know how to be a hero."
I looked left and right and saw that he spoke for all of them.
"That's a good place to start," I said, as I picked up the book next to me. "I'd like to introduce you to my hero. So open your Bibles with me and turn to..."