The Long Road Home
Have you ever been so close to an accident that you feel you should have been involved? One second earlier or later and you would have been. Somehow you were delayed or you got off early and you missed, what could have been a disaster. They say it happens all the time if you're paying attention enough to see it. My life has been full of those types of situations that I some how escaped. I used to call it fate, now I can see the hand of God. His protection, His safety net, His grace, His mercy. And like those who experience the opposite say. Why me God? Why would he look out for me? Of what possible good could I be to Him? Then I learned I was a child of God. That He looks out for all His children. The problem is the children do not always look out for themselves.
My dad died when I was only twelve. He was an alcoholic and an abusive one at that. He mistreated my mom and me but seemed to be a little easier with my two sisters. My mom had to raise us alone on a meager salary. We lived in a four-story walk up in Astoria Queens, New York City. We had nothing, but we didn't know it because nobody in our building had any more. We would yell out the window to neighbors to come out and play or borrow sugar or flour. It was a simple but good life. My grand father owned a candy store and so I was very popular with the kids in the neighborhood. He taught me a lot. He instilled a sense of collecting that has never left me. I still collect stamps, coins and baseball cards. My grand mother was always ill, so we never got to close, other then the trips into Manhattan to see her doctor. On these trips we always stopped in the Horn and Hardart cafeteria. I was amazed that you could put a dime or nickel into a small window in the wall and food would appear. I never was too bright.
When I turned sixteen, it was 1965, and things had changed. We had lost a president. There was a war in southeast Asia that would not go away. Music was changing also, and the British had it all wrapped up. The Beetles brought a new sound and long hair. Along with this new music came songs about drugs and getting ready to drop out. Drop out of what? What were they talking about? It wasn't long before I found out. One of my schoolmates was taking pills on the weekend and told me how great they were. How great they made you feel. Hey I feel fine, I used to think. Not wanting to be called a chicken, I tried it one weekend and it was pretty neat. I don’t remember a thing, if that can be considered neat. He was taking a pill I remembered seeing at my grand mothers house in her mini pharmacy. I started to sneak out a couple at a time. No one ever noticed. One weekend I got greedy. Hey if two make you feel good imagine what six or eight would make you feel?
I woke up in Elmhurst Hospital with a tube up my nose, pumping out the nastiest stuff you've ever seen. Injections of stimulants kept my heart beating so the sedatives I took would not kill me. I fell back asleep and didn't wake for 36 hours. I was in a psyche ward on the tenth floor. I was in restraints and under constant watch, suicide watch. Hey, why else would a sixteen year old take sedatives. After two weeks I was released. They did not think I wanted to die, but they also didn't know why a kid would take pills meant for an eighty-year-old woman. I shared this great new treat with my sister Ellen, she thought it was great also. Maybe too great. I'll explain later.
It wasn't long before the pills didn't get it done any more. Another friend told me about a drug called heroin. Cool, I'll take three pills for now and I'll get back to you. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me it had to be shot into the veins. Needles? You gotta be kidding? I am not using no needle. Well not today anyway. I out grew that fear very fast and was on my way. It is amazing what you can learn if you have to. Heroin was expensive. The more I used the more I seemed to need. What was good last week did nothing this week. I needed money. By now my sister Ellen was addicted to pills and needed more that I ever did. We would go to a doctor's office and fake an ailment. While he left the room to get a form or something. I would swipe his prescription book and be out the door. A quick trip to the library and I knew how to fill the prescriptions out for the pills the other kids needed. Just write sloppy and be accurate. Back then pills were about five cents a piece at the drug store and about one to two dollars a piece on the street. A prescription for thirty pills cost me $1.50 and would net me $30 to $60 in profit. Enough to keep me in heroin for a while. My sister was my best customer.
Like any good businessman, I had to recruit new customers. Another sister Kathy, was my first candidate. Easy as pie. Would her brother give her anything that would hurt her? Word of mouth is still the best way to sell. The times were right and everyone wanted to be hip and with it. I had more pill heads than I could handle. At one point I wash filling ten prescriptions in the morning and ten more at night. I got so well known with the local pharmacists I had to start going into Manhattan to fill my prescriptions and using others to do the dirty work. Seventeen years old and making $600 to a $1000 a day on pills. Unfortunately most of it was going into my arms. Daily trips to Harlem to by heroin. Regular trips to Harlem General Hospital for overdoses took its toll. I had to stop this before I killed myself. The music had changed again anyway, psychedelics were in and sedative drugs were out. LSD and speed were the thing and like everything I did, I dived right in, big time. Unfortunately my pill business went down the drain. Couldn't be bothered. Too busy tripping. But it was kept a family business. Both Ellen and Kathy took over and were doing better that I ever did. But the times they are a changin!
You can only go so long with out sleep. And you don't sleep on LSD or speed. I can remember (well sort of) not sleeping for a week at a time. This took a great toll on the body and I soon ended up in another psyche ward, this time for a month. Of course I only remember the last two weeks. Bomb factories were being built, the government was after me, and there was a contract on my life. Not really but I thought there was. I was loosing it. After I got out I knew I could no longer keep up this pace. It was time to quit right. No way. I decided if I took LSD or speed in the day and heroin or pills at night. I could stay high and still get my sleep. Like I said I was never too bright. Arrest after arrest led to small stints in jail. Always with probation. I was lucky, or was I? A really good deal came along one day and I couldn't say no. It could mean thousands of dollars. All I had to do was make one sale. Easy money. Piece of cake. The only thing I didn't count on was that I was being watched. I had become too popular. I no sooner got to the schoolyard to meet the buyer (eleven at night) when every cop in queens showed up to say hello. You know the old saying, if it seems too good to be true….
Eight ounces of heroin. Not a lot. You can hide it in a shirt pocket. A very small thing. The judge did not think so. Ten to fifteen years, was how he put it. Ten to fifteen years in a five by eight room. Not bright. Not even close. I'm standing there in front of this judge and all I hear is ten to fifteen. Over and over again in my head. When in walks this little leprechaun. A man about five foot four in a priests robe. Oh great, now I'm gonna be excommunicated too. Well, it turns out he's an Episcopalian priest who works with drugies. My mom had contacted him to try to help me out. He had just started a drug rehab center in Richmond Hill and talked the judge into giving me a chance. Ten to fifteen in jail or an eighteen-month to two year stay in this new rehab two days a week. Boy there was a hard choice. But it was the most important choice of my life. Of course I did not know it then.
Two days a week was great. Being clean was even better. Like anything though, I kept tripping. One week clean them I would run into a friend and bam, dirty again. Father Pit (the Episcopal priest) decided to open a full time rehab center. Sleep in and eighteen months long at the minimum. I knew somehow this was the only thing that would work. The program started out slow with 6 boys and 3 girls. As it was not state funded we had nothing. Peanut butter sandwiches and soup were the main stay for months. The eleven of us shared a carton of cigarettes a week. We all applied for welfare to get the program by. After two months we were up to 27 full time residents. Now this was a weird program. It was totally regimented. You could do nothing without permission. You could not leave a room with the light on without getting written up. If you used an ashtray you had to clean it immediately or you got written up, if you got written up twice in one day you were called to the director's office and blasted through the wall by your peers. Jail was looking pretty good at this point.
It was December of 69 when my sister Ellen checked in. things went all right for about a week. I was higher in seniority so it was all right she was there. One night about two AM we were yelled out of bed by the words you do not want to here in this type of therapeutic community. "General Meeting" this meant something big was going on. The director and his entire staff were at the front of the meeting and they looked very unhappy. It seems things were getting slack and had to be tightened up a little. This meant making examples of some of the screw-ups. That was me. I was told I had to have my head shaved. This was a common form of humiliation in this program. It usually worked and made you take up the slack. You really can be a wise guy with a shaved head. I said no way and I was leaving. This of course was not done. You had to take it like a man. Now the directors had to be firm and seem like they could care less, but this was not the case as you will see. I was told if I split, I was on my own. That was OK with me. I put on my clothes and coat and out the door I went. Like I said it was December 69, if you can remember that far back we had two major snow storms that month. Out into eight inches already down and still snowing like nobody's business I went. Still not too bright.
Now this community center was in the middle of an industrial area in Richmond Hill (no one wanted it in their neighborhood) and I had a good walk to even get to a phone. Had to call mom, mom was always there for me. She would understand and take me home. After all I was her sonny boy. An hour and a half-later and half-frozen I found a phone and called my mom. Hey ma, just hanging out here in queens, can you come and pick me up, I'll explain later. NO! I never knew how cold that word sounded before. Colder than my frozen feet. What do you mean no, this is John, you know your son. NO! Again there it was. I never realized how loud it could be either. But there's a foot of snow out here and I have no place to go. NO! A third time. It was like Casey at the bat. I had struck out. She hung up on me. I was devastated. How could a mother do this to her son, her first born, her sonny boy? Well, I had no choice at this point it was die in the snow or go back. I was cold, I was angry, I was scared, and I was lost. I mean this was rock bottom. Where do you go when no one wants you? I went back to the community house and was made to sit on a wooden chair for twelve hours. Still no sleep, but at least it was warm. They put me in front of another General Meeting and I had to beg to be taken back. I had to scream at the top of my lungs how I wanted to come back and I was sorry. Louder they would yell. I would yell louder, "I WANT TO COME BACK" louder they would yell, my sister yelled the loudest. I think she enjoyed this. Well finally they said yes. What a beautiful word, yes. They shaved my head anyway, so I accomplished nothing, and for thirty days I did any of the dirty work no one else wanted to do. During that time my sister split the house, only she did not come back. She was more resourceful than I was. But not too much brighter.
It was not till after I became assistant director of the program that I learned what really happened that cold night. Tony Caputo, the director had called my mom. He said I had split and under no circumstances was she to give in and take me home. It was my life at stake here. Tony was always the over dramatic type, but this time it was an understatement. When I got back to the house, he called my mom. She told me his exact words. "Mom, he's home, thanks". And he was crying. Now this was a street hard junkie. He had gone through the program in California and knew what I was going through. He cried. Later after I graduated the program we had the opportunity to talk about that night. We both cried.
During the re-entry phase of the program, that is where you start to go out without supervision. I met my darling wife of twenty-six years and two years later we were married. I was drug free, working, responsible but God had not finished with me yet. You see, just being good or responsible is not good enough. Marion got pregnant with what was to be our first born. It did not turn out right and she miscarried. Now you would think this would be a disastrous situation, and it was. However God used this time for what was to be our salvation. Marion was a good catholic, or as good as you can be. She went to the rectory and tried to find answers to why she miscarried. There were none to be had. But they couldn't even take the time to talk to her or listen. She was really depressed and went to her sister, Connie. Now Connie had been attending a church in Central Islip and suggested Marion talk to the minister. Someone named E. P. Murphy. This was a very patient and loving individual. He listened and talked, but mostly listened. He shared Jesus with both of us. It was so unlike the things we had heard before about Him. That he loved us, and wanted us to be with Him. Well three months later we accepted Jesus and were both baptized one Sunday night together into Christ. That was twenty four years ago. Getting a little brighter, I think.
Sometimes things you do years before come back to haunt you. We never realize the consequences of the things we do today. First my sister Ellen was found dead in Manhattan. Apparent suicide, note and all. She could no longer take the drug life. It was like a stake in my heart. I had started her on this trip. I even had the opportunity to share Jesus with her and she had been baptized a year earlier. She just couldn't let go though. Three years later my sister Cathy took the same way out, only this was a little harder. If anything like this can be easy. She took enough to put her into a comma but not quite enough to finish the job. My mom had to make the painful choice of disconnecting her from life support. No parent should have to make that decision. There is not enough sleep to hide in to cover that kind of guilt. Two sisters, two customers, two wasted lives, two deaths. And all to fulfill my habits. All the time my mom was asking why them? I was asking why not me? Why was I spared? Why did I make it? Why did I fine Christ? How come I listened and not them? We talked enough about Jesus to them as all new Christians do. Did we talk enough, or did they just not listen. I'll never know down here. But the peace that came, finally, came from Christ. He was the only one who could bring it. The world has no peace like this. You really see the scriptures come alive when the cold winds blow. "My peace I give you, not as the world gives…"
Well, that is just an abbreviated version of me. Or at least who I am so far. It's changing all the time. I don't think about why not me anymore. I don't think about it any less either. Of the seventeen closest friends I had as a youth. Sixteen are dead. Two never made it home from Viet Nam and the other fourteen died from drug related deaths. Sixteen friends and two sisters. Don't let any one tell you the 60's were all love and fun. Oh, it defined a generation all right. But not the way they tell it. One only has to look back to see the wasted lives, the unfulfilled dreams, the seeds of the problems we have today. Some one once said if you can remember the 60's, then you weren't there. And for the most part that is probably true. A lot of lives were cut short and snuffed out. I was lucky. I was given a choice. I was given a reason to live. I was given Jesus. Yes, I had to accept Him. But suppose no one had bothered to tell me. Praise God someone did.
Moses had to go through his time in the wilderness as did Elijah and Elisha, Joseph had to go through his toils and trials in Egypt. Even Jesus had to go into the wilderness and be tempted by the devil before his ministry. I do not compare myself to them by any means. I wonder however, if I would be the same person if Jesus were a part of my growing up, if He were always spoken of at the dinner table. I went through my wilderness, I had to hit rock bottom, I had to have things drive me to him. He was always there, calling. But I just couldn't hear him. The music was too loud, the drugs too strong. Like Jonah when God told him to go and preach the word. Jonah went the other way and God had to turn him around. Parent do that sort of thing for their children's own good. How many times did he block the way so I would not walk into trouble? How many times during an overdose did he make sure the ambulance got there on time? Even the miscarried son I could have had, he used to bring me to someone who would show me, he was there all the time.
Bill Gaither did a song once called "He was there all the time". It talks about all the things in life we try first. All the things we place first in our lives. And in the end He is there all the time, waiting patiently in line. I look back now and I can see how he was there with me in my many prison cells, waiting. He was there in the emergency rooms when I overdosed, waiting. He was there in the courtroom, waiting. He was with me in the snow that night, waiting. What grace, what mercy? To think how things could have turned out, but he waited. Not all listen, not all will. Not all come, some never reach out, they only reach bottom. Some never know there is someone waiting. They never will, unless we tell them. Some one told me. Someone told you. We need to tell others. Someday, when this life has ended, when my journey is over, when he has taken me as far as I can go and done all that I need to do. He will be waiting again. Waiting for me to come home. I keep hearing the words of my old director, Tony over and over in my head. He's come home. And there will then be rest, and peace, and home, and friends, and family. But most important, there will be Jesus. Waiting at the door. A large smile on his face. Open arms and a look that says, come here and give me a hug. And He'll turn to the father and say, he's come home!
Some of you know what I have been talking about; some may not have had to hit so hard. Others still, have hit harder. But you, as I know what got us here. It was Jesus. There are those that still need to know, and how will they know unless we tell them. Talk to your neighbor, your friends at work, your children, your family. They need the same Jesus you have already found. Get involved; even if only in a small way. Give out a tract, leave one in the dinner where you eat, leave a bible in a mailbox. It may be just the lifeline someone needs today.