How a corrections officer ran a home within the foster care system, and how his boys beat the odds.
When I hit middle school, I was less than unpopular. But with the help of my foster brothers, I found my niche: stealing cigarettes and Swisher Sweets from the gas station and selling them out of my locker. Not only was I making money to buy my own BMX gear, but I was learning how the world works. There was a demand, and I supplied.
It was a month before I learned the kids weren’t smoking the Swisher Sweets but using them to roll blunts. Life lessons of this sort aren’t Rockwellian, but they’re necessary for those of us in need — that is, in need of knowing not merely how to survive but how to be relevant.
And in my home, where my parents took in boys from juvenile corrections and foster homes all across the state, there were lessons to be learned. As a young child, I was always willing to learn a con, a scam, a jab-cross-cross-uppercut or a simple sucker punch.
The guardian of the brood was my father, who kept my foster brothers from escaping into old habits.
In my childhood, my bedtime stories were read by a teenage boy who’d served time in juvie for stabbing his abusive father. You know Pop had done something right to make my new foster brother feel at ease, accepted, respected and perhaps even loved. When that teenage brother became a man, he confirmed that respect and love for the man we all called simply Dad, or John-Dad, in emotional letters from Fort Benning during army training.
Although all of us kids knew violence, each of my foster brothers slowly left it behind in Dad’s home, where we learned it was neither needed nor necessary. Our father taught us we could make it with our wits — but only if we wanted to.
And we did, in part due to every foster brother’s first week of shock and adjustment, when Dad set the rules in motion. From being required to do push-ups and pull-ups to holding a piece of paper to the wall with one’s nose for an hour, each of us paid a price for breaking a rule. If one of us came home past curfew, we were met on the dimly lit porch by Dad in his underwear with a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver and one sobering question: “What if I thought you were a burglar?”
These types of consequences were few and far between, though, as Dad usually chose to lecture us instead. But he employed them in response to a wide range of infractions, including fistfights, school expulsion, hiding roasted chickens under mattresses or Hustler spreads behind Guns N’ Roses posters, arson, or threats with knives.
Each of my foster brothers learned to leave these behaviors in the past, where dinner might’ve been peanut butter on graham crackers and where punishment was a fist. Instead of violence, my foster brothers learned to exchange words, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sensitive.
Only one poor soul didn’t outlive the horrors of his abusive past and died by suicide. He was with us less than a week. Given more time, who knows what would have come of him? But we understood. Sadly, we all did.
For those of us who remained, Dad turned chaos into order. Our father — not in blood or name to every one of us but in spirit, love, loyalty and respect for all of us — didn’t use corporal punishment but enacted something else we saw as punishment: monthly family therapy sessions. At the time, the sessions seemed more of a nuisance than a help.
We did enjoy his version of our own foster home justice system: Family Court. In the living room, Dad would tap a hammer (gavel) on a large antique writing desk. The jurors (birth and foster children) sat on a couch to the side while the defense and prosecution (more birth and foster children) sat in kitchen chairs in the middle of the room. It was a meaningful way to handle a disruption with humor and a foreshadowing of adulthood, and it introduced all of us to true justice, not street justice.
Dad did not put up with any bullshit, and with each new foster brother, the dos and don’ts were whispered from boy to boy. To settle any doubts about Dad’s discipline, the thunderous holler of our authoritative father echoed throughout the large old farmhouse.
If the man I write about here should come upon this, he should know he was more than a father who five days a week came home from work at the prison with baseball cards and beef jerky for his youngest in blood. He’s a father to every boy who entered his home through the foster care system and who, because of his example, left with the ambition to become a man.