This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. -- 1 John 5:3-5
It seems like I have always worked somewhere, whether selling donuts door-to-door, delivering cherry-limeades window-to-window, writing stories day-to-day, or sitting in staff meetings week-to-week. I've always worked somewhere doing something, just like it seems I have always gone to church, always had children, always had certain stable things by which I could measure my value and weigh my accomplishments to find some assurance I was somehow managing to stay somewhat on the right track. When life would go rickety on me, I could always either go to church, to work, or home, the things which can pull the wayward one back on line.
Of course, those are not the places we should hide when dark descends to cloak the light of life, because they too can become mere distractions designed to distance us from God. In extreme cases, we can use the church, the workplace and even the family to shield us from the truth of who we are and who He is. I was extreme.
During the same two weeks that my appeal to the church shifted from a hope for pastoral counseling to the reality of membership removal, the impact my arrest would have on my job as Oklahoma Chief of Staff for AT&T revealed itself. Twenty years of corporate ladder-climbing and employee loyalty found a formidable foe in the five-minute park conversation. Had the unraveling reached a point beyond retrieval? My well-known determination to rise above all things and emerge as a survivor was colliding head-on with my now well-known penchant for self-destruction. My senses were dulled; I was panicked; I was afraid. I was coming to grips with the reality that we are not guaranteed survival. Of all people, considering my in-the-spotlight falls in the past, I should have been prepared for the worst of consequences. Yet, somehow I had always been able to overcome my stumbling and move forward, nicked and hobbled, but whole.
I knew my supervisor, the Oklahoma president of AT&T, was an avid newspaper reader. The Saturday morning page one Daily Oklahoman story of my arrest was not going to slip his attention or that of my co-workers. My mind wavered a bit between updating my will or sending the following May 2 e-mail:
May 2, 2009
I'm writing from my personal e-mail box to advise you of a very serious issue that involves me. You have likely already heard about this and I apologize that it has taken me this long to contact you directly. I've been in a bit of shock, trying to make proper decisions.
As you may know, I was arrested Thursday during my lunch hour in a sting operation at ------- Park targeted at men who were in the park seeking sexual gratification. While I was not there for that purpose, I did engage in a conversation with an undercover officer from the window of my vehicle to his which resulted in my arrest. I exercised poor judgement.
As much as it pains me to admit it to you, I have had, in the past, a problem with same-sex attraction resulting from some issues earlier in life. That past made me too susceptible to the conversation once it began. Those issues and that problem have been dealt with through serious professional and prolonged pastoral counseling. My life has been very much in order and Lisa and I have been very happy and have a very stable marriage. However, based on my personal past and the circumstances surrounding the Thursday arrest, my situation will be viewed with great skepticism by some. Although this incident is not reflective of my present personal life, it brings great embarrassment to me, my family and to my workplace.
I am sorry to have caused this difficulty. It is important to me to have a proper work ethic and to be professional, and, while this incident did not occur during work time, as I was out for lunch, it has created a notoriety that is very harmful.
You are an excellent supervisor, -----, and have become a friend. I did not mean to cause you harm.
My thoughts at this point are that I should retire. I know we have a busy week ahead, but it might be best if I take a week of vacation to consider the options and to reduce the potential for embarassment to you, especially with Mr. ------ coming to Oklahoma. The preparations for the visit have all been made.
I appreciate your guidance here . . and I deeply apologize. I am attaching below the note I sent to my counselors yesterday. Lisa and I met with our pastor last night.
Much like my pastor, who had sped over with his tape recorder upon receiving my earlier e-mail, my boss responded quickly, within a few hours, in a way that steadied my breathing just a bit and allowed my mind to work. I have always been one to hustle around for crumbs of false hope.
I am sorry to hear about the situation, but am glad that it appears you have the support of your faith and family in dealing with this situation. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, and think your suggestion of taking the next week off is a good one. Why don't you take this week to assess the current situation and your thoughts and we'll get through this week and discuss next steps.
-----As Monday morning came, I tried to settle down, but panic set in when I saw my I.D. and key card lying motionless on the desk at home, the car in the driveway well past the morning rush hour, my briefcase sitting unopened where I left it by the chair on Friday, or when I would hope the phone would ring and then hope it would not. Lisa going about her daily routine in the house reinforced the imbalance of my not-so-routine presence as the day went by. I knew my fate was being hammered out in meetings and on phone calls of advisors behind the doors of corporate offices, just as it was in meetings of deacons and pastors. It would come down to a calculation based on "what is" and "what if." The result: "what will be."
My fate was tied up in a strange mix of prayers and gossip, fact and fiction, calculated risks, counted losses. It would not take a math genius or an imminent psychologist to know that this fall was well beyond all the king's horses, all the king's men. Only the King Himself could settle this one out.
Unfortunately, the on-line version of The Daily Oklahoman story opened an avenue for public comments posted by two of my own sons, hurt by the past, embarrassed by their father, susceptible to untruths and willing to pass them on. These too caught the eye of my supervisor, their weight magnified by them being posted by my own sons. Weeks later The Oklahoman would remove the remarks containing the false allegations even from the newspaper's archives, acknowledging they were posted in violation of The Oklahoman's policy. The untrue remarks had already done their damage.
The week flew by . . . like rocks in a race. The following Sunday, May 10, ----, my supervisor sent a brief note from his Blackberry asking if I could meet with him the next morning, to "discuss the current situation and next steps." Nine little characters on a smartphone keyboard: "next steps." Ominous.
The conversation in his office was a brief one, shared over diverted eyes, seemingly between two people who had never met, never worked together, never shared a project or a plan. I could stay . . . if I wanted to . . . but obviously not in the same job and not with the same responsibilities . . . and I would need to understand, he said, that Asset Protection would be asked to conduct an internal investigation. Vague and veiled, the suggestion was clear that this might be the best time for me myself to count the costs, close the door on the career, leave the key in the drawer. I had destroyed his sense of confidence in me and had become a liability instead of a leader. But, of course, I could stay if I wanted.
Monday afternoon, I responded:
May 11, 2009
After our discussion this morning, I have decided to retire. I'll call Benefits this afternoon and begin the process. I assume the effective date will be this Friday, 5-15-09.
I need to turn in my ID, secureID, keys, computer, Blackberry, and passwords. Do you want to schedule a time for me to come by or do you want me to leave them with -----?
I made two return visits to the place where I had spent 20 years watching Southwestern Bell become SBC and finally AT&T, a constantly-challenging, always-changing, high-octane environment where I had spent countless hours with close and respected colleagues, melding our talents and our insights into success. I met briefly one afternoon with ---- and my successor, ----. It was late afternoon . . . and most of my co-workers were gone for the day and gone from my life. A few days later I returned after hours to gather up my personal belongings and leave my laptop. I wandered the familiar halls, empty and quiet. I detected the fading smell of someone's burnt popcorn, paused at the elevator and questioned whether I should have fought for my job . . . and then realized that my being there in the cover of after-hours was evidence I knew I would never have been able to return.
Having seen the ups-and-downs of 20 years in a corporate structure, I have always known that all careers, no matter how grand, eventually come down to cardboard boxes filled with photo frames off the desk, souvenirs from projects, a book or two, a few personal items, like broken glass from my windows blown out by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, nameplates bearing various titles from past career points, a half-empty box of mints and a collection of birthday cards and assorted ataboys. Into the elevator, out the door, out of the parking space, down the oft-commuted highway and home. All over. Stunningly efficient and . . . stunning.
On May 15, 2009, I officially retired from AT&T. Twenty years of service, age 55 . . . totaling 75, the exact amount of combined time and service required for full retirement with pension, insurance and benefits. One day earlier would have been too few to qualify. May 15 was also my birthday, a quiet one for sure, but for the first time in two weeks I realized that God was in control. Life had come down to focusing on taking deep breaths, but there was a hint of possible peace in the inhaling.
Providence: God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.
By May 17, I was without church and without job, without colleagues, without children, most friends, any sense of a schedule, any idea of a future, no plans. Only Providence. And a wife who believes in Providence.
When I look back, I find myself wishing somehow that I could find greater distinctions between how my situation was handled by the church and by the corporation, both of which followed neat and final procedures to remove me. What would become of the once-reliable relationships with brothers and sisters in the church or co-workers in the company?
I have a blurry memory from when I was probably about six, playing ball in a vacant lot next to our home on Texas Street. My dad throws the ball a little harder and a little faster than my stick arms can handle and I dodge instead of catch. The ball bounces across the uneven ground and I realize that I have missed it, so I turn to run, Daddy cheering me on as I dash into the field. And then, I freeze in pain, just as I grab the ball and see that it is covered in stickers, almost as thickly as my bare feet, and now my hands. I am in the thickest sticker patch I have ever seen and cannot move, can only cry. There is no where to go, nothing I can do but absorb the pain and cry.
And Daddy, in his leftover WWII combat boots, crosses the field, picks me up and begins to pull the stickers out my hands, my feet and the ball, one by one. After I healed, we found another place to play.
It had been a very hard couple of weeks, but much lay ahead. There was a charge to be addressed, which meant there was an attorney to be hired and a plea to be made.
If God does indeed have a plan for each of us, and I believe He does, then it may be irrelevant to wonder how my life might have turned out had we never made the late-'60s move from Lewisville back to Denton. The list of things that would never have happened would have been replaced with a different list of things that would have. The confusing events set to unfold were likely not at all dependent on where I was, but just a continuation of who I was. In Houston I had given my life to Christ; in Lewisville I had learned the truth that God is always with me. In Denton I would be exposed to things that in some ways might have been easier to accept had I not believed at all in an omnipresent and unshakable God.
I'm not sure why we left Lewisville, but it was most likely because of my Mother's jobs in Denton, and her determination to, at this point in life, put her children first and provide as best she could, finally free -- we thought -- from our stepfather. Mother had ably adapted to single-parenting, even teaching me to drive at the age of 13 . . . in Lewisville. As usual, she did it her way, leaving a lasting impression.
Naturally we had the ugliest car in Lewisville . . . in the county . . . probably in the state. I remember wondering what auto designer in his right mind would have dreamed up the huge pink Buick we referred to as a boat, and what person in her right mind would have bought it. It occurred to me that the ugliest car was likely the cheapest car in the county as well, which explained why Mother would have bought it, charming some used car salesman to some how part with it. If charm hadn't worked, tears would have. On the rare occasions when Mother would take us out for a bit in the boat, we would usually duck down behind the big pink front seat, to remain unseen.
My opinion of the boat changed when Mother gave in to the notion I needed driving lessons. It was "My Buick" now as we made our way slowly around the low-traffic residential neighborhood in Lewisville. I followed the instructions to "turn right here," "slow it down," "stop behind the sign," "sit up so you can see over the steering wheel." Then came "turn left," and I encountered my first gravel road, which I put a little power into, discovering the responsiveness of a mid-60's V-8 engine.
The boat roared forward, slid left to right, skidded into the downgrade and I, of course, sitting up to see over the steering wheel, put an extra foot on the gas pedal. The boat was flying . . . at least until boat met truck, a nice shiny truck parked in front a nice home that just didn't belong on that gravel street.
"Get out," Mother said in her loud and commanding whisper, as she opened the driver-side door, pushed me out onto the gravel road, slammed the door shut, slid over behind the wheel and began to bawl hysterically, just about the time the man of the house -- who just happened to be a sheriff's deputy in uniform -- made his way from the porch, across the lawn and around to her window.
"I don't know how it happened," she said to the officer through her tears, looking back and forth from the dented front right of the boat to the crunched left door of the county's truck.
The deputy's eyes shifted from Mother in the car to me in the road to my little sister in the backseat, doing her best to mimic Mother's great sorrow. He wasn't stupid. This was more drama than he needed.
"It'll be okay, Ma'am," he said. "You go on along . . . and be careful now."
It had not taken him long to surmise the situation and realize that we probably had enough trouble just coming up with 25 cents for a gallon of gas, much less insurance, and for sure, no way to pay a ticket for an unlicensed underage driver in a boat-truck mishap. It would have to be one of those "your county taxes at work" moments.
I climbed in the backseat; we drove home and my love of cars began. Man, what an engine. Mother, to her credit, self-repaired the broken headlight, decided it was her fault after all and we never talked about it unless we laughed. Who knows, maybe that's one of the reasons we left Lewisville.
Returning to Denton brought back a rush of childhood memories, just in time to compound emerging adolescence. My father had left us in Denton. Mr. Hooten had sexually abused me in Denton. Best dogs and good friends had died there. Mother would be taking us to the same park where Daddy had come to visit us on weekends before we had moved to Shawnee and Houston and Lewisville.
But . . . I was sure all those things were behind me now. I was not my daddy's "Tombo," and I was no one's little buddy. I was God's and I was good. Even more important, I was a roller-skating car-hop dodging plastic pink monkeys on the Sonic Drive-In lot, risking my life skating between distracted drivers cruising in their souped-up cars. Following in the footsteps of my older brother who had been promoted to cook, I was delivering foot-long coneys and cherry limeades to the waiting windows of the popular kids who had cars and girlfriends and money. And I was getting paid 70 cents an hour, plus tips. Life had meaning, at least from four to midnight.
As a 14-year-old, I wanted two things: a watch and a car. For some reason, wearing a watch bought with my own money seemed like a milestone to maturity. A car of my own meant I could cruise the main drag and park at Sonic, like any other customer. I was determined that being 14 was not to be an obstacle.
Our duplex on Denison St. -- not just an apartment for once -- was about equal distance between the junior high and the Sonic and when I wasn't in school or working, I was walking to one or the other. After school, I would walk down Denison toward the Sonic and stop at the Kentucky Fried Chicken for a chicken leg and a biscuit served up by an Aunt Bee look-alike. She could have been straight out of Mayberry and I felt as normal as Opie, telling her about my dreams to own a watch. Indeed, the day I paid the last layaway payment at Zales, in the shopping center down the street, she was the first person to see my gold watch. She gave me a hug and biscuit.
Prior to junior high I had the impression that there were really only two categories of people: good and bad. Mr. Hooten and Michael were bad. Jon David and my Sonic boss, John, were good. I had not really categorized my dad; it just seemed like something I should not do. Family members deserved a pass and time to work it out, so Daddy, my mother and my brother were floaters. My sisters were good.
It was simple before the shades of gray crept in and before teachers and co-workers began to point out distinctions in everything from color to sexual preference, something I had never before considered. I preferred the simplicity of good or bad. Good people sometimes do bad things; bad people can even do good things. Yet, people, I began to learn, are more complicated than they seem. One semester of Mrs. Birchfield's junior high social studies made it clear: this world is messed up. She was a woman on a mission of confusion and my mind was a witting target.
I sat uncomfortably near the front row, not far from Keith, one of the most popular boys in the school, a junior high quarterback, class president. The son of a local up-scale clothing store owner, Keith was the sharpest-dressed kid in the school. I, on the other hand, sometimes came to school in the black pants and white shirt uniform of a carhop.
"Take Keith and Thom, for instance," said Mrs. Birchfield to the class one day. "They have something very much in common."
"No, we don't," I said to myself. "Nothing at all." Not in social studies or anywhere else social.
"Look at them," she said. And everyone did.
"See Thom's and Keith's thick lips?" The studied expression on the thirty other kids showed they clearly did see, despite my deep-red glow.
"Well," said Mrs. Birchfield in her sweet teacher voice. "That's because somewhere in their past, they inherited Negro blood."
The sixties were a confusing time for race relations . . . but that had clearly been lost on Mrs. Birchfield. Keith storming out of the classroom and my sinking behind the desk may have brought her some clarity. The kids in the class, regardless of color, were not sure whether to be mad, sad, silent or just giggle. I, for one, didn't really care what blood I had: I just didn't want people staring at my lips, and wold prefer at that point in life they not even glance in my direction. I'm sure, at some point, Mrs. Birchfield and the junior high higher authorities somehow straightened it all out, even without sensitivity training, and we moved on, but the innocence of the '60s was beginning to fade.
Looking back, I can see that a lack of awareness can be a blessing as much as a curse. I learned as much from Keith's reaction as I did from Mrs. Birchfield's revelation. People, I would find, are not only different outside, but inside as well, and sometimes the difference in heart and mind magnifies the outside differences way beyond where they should be. It was a lot to think about on that day's long walk to work. "Aunt Bee" assured me I was exactly who God had made me to be and she gave me a biscuit to boot.
At least it would be one of my last down-Denison walks. Mother's decision to teach me to drive at 13 led to my insistence that I buy a car at 14 and apply for a hardship license, which I was able to get because I was a working boy. That was something Keith and I definitely did not have in common: hardship.
Though not the car of my dreams, the 1960 Ford Falcon, which my boss helped me finance for $300 and which my tips helped me pay off at the rate of $25 a month, was at least red, which counted for something. It was also a standard with a floor-mounted stick shift, something my mother had not taught me about, but about which I soon learned on a long grinding and grueling drive across Denton. I couldn't wait to show off my car, but I was very careful for a while to pick routes that avoided every hill and stoplight.
I had my watch and I had my car and I had a feeling that life was changing. I'm not sure, as we grow up, that we realize the way change creeps in on us, inching along with varying levels of protection based on the proficiency of parenting. At that point in my life, I felt fortunate to have only minor parental interference, embracing the excitement of discovery, but doing so with a sense of foreboding, as if something might go wrong. I kept most people at arm's length as I observed and analyzed, proceeding with caution, always on alert, very observant, withholding and waiting, wanting by wondering. The more aware I became of how different people are, the more different I felt myself. Mrs. Birchfield could have learned a lot about social studies by carhopping at the Sonic.
And a lot about sex, something I was naturally curious about at the age of 14. I realized that some of the guys -- the older ones -- had inside jokes they would share with each other and ways of teasing that singled people out. Some of the jokes were about the girls that worked there; some of the jokes were about a few of the guys. Two of the girls were known for being particularly "easy," I was told, and one of the guys, I was also told, was a "homo," whatever that was. The older boys would face off against each other to give the girls a ride home after the evening shift, and they were always joking that "Mark" had to get his work finished at the Sonic so he could do his second job at the car wash. I was not interested in driving the girls home, not because I did not like girls, but because I was not too sure about the "easy" part. It also made no sense to me that anyone would work at a car wash after midnight.
Only when Mark came into work one afternoon with a wide scrape across his head and a bruise on his cheek did I hear that he had been beaten up, allegedly because he had been hanging out again . . . at the car wash, and someone apparently had been less than happy to see him there. His co-workers' under-the-breath taunts of "homo," soon led to his decision to quit his job and I never saw Mark again. Still, the awareness that he was different and the dangers of being so stayed with me and I vowed I would never be like Mark. At the same time, I would not be like Edward, who liked to call his friends back into the cooler to tell them stories of his exploits with the girls he would take home from work at night.
I asked Kevin, one of the older boys, what a "homo" was and he said, "you don't want to know." I asked Lance, another of the older boys, and he, thinking I was somehow interested, took me into his confidence and we drove out on a country road, parked on a hill above Denton and he showed me his private collection of self-produced Polaroid porn, all neatly laid out and labeled in a three-ring binder . . . just like the one I had in social studies. Why was he showing me this? I had an inquiring mind, but this I did not want to know.
Some might say that these types of incidental encounters and passing exposures comprised the sex education of the '60s for many teen boys. Maybe so, but it was something I would have wanted to ask someone about . . . someone I could trust, perhaps a dad. But I didn't have a dad. I did, however, have a car . . . and a watch . . . at least something in common with Keith, and a determination that things I did not understand really did not matter.
I liked the freedom of being a teenager in Denton with a mother who worked two jobs, but it had not taken long for life to take some unwelcome turns. Some days were dazzling in their freedom -- driving my own car to an out-of-town football game, revving at the red lights next to new-found friends who had nothing in common but a command of the clutch -- but other days were like wandering into a field of stickers and wishing someone would come and carry me out. I found myself longing for Lewisville, for Bill's butcher shop and a simple barbecue sandwich with good old Jon David. A Bible sword drill would have been fun.
Life affords little opportunity for going back, instead pursuing us and pushing us forward. The next great push would come with the return of Michael.
(Next Week: Chapter Eight.)