Archive for July, 2010

31
Jul
10

crank-off

We make our own entertainment out here.

While the less ambitious among us stage dung-beetle races and other pastimes which require little effort, others organize events. Tonight will be a potluck supper and ice cream “crank-off” at the Terlingua Ranch Lodge. Val surprised me by saying he would like us to attend it for a little while before doing another one of our movie nights.

Val has been surprising me quite a bit lately. He came by the house a couple times while our guests were here, joined us at the pool, and joined us for supper once when seven of us crowded around our small round table. I love the fact that Val has been spending so much time with us, and yet I am surprised because he is usually very shy and retiring. I had begun to flatter myself in thinking that maybe Val has been feeling more comfortable and trusting around us in particular, but now his suggestion that we attend the crank-off is telling me he’s becoming more open to being with people in general (and that we are the coincidental beneficiaries of this development).

Either way, Val is good company and is one of my best friends here, whyever or however it has come to pass.

This friendship extends to his family. A couple weeks ago, his mother Sigrid sent me The Wall, a 1962 novel by Austrian author Marlen Haushofer, a modern literary masterpiece few people know about that’s found its way onto lists of the “500 Greatest” novels written by women. Sigrid said the narrator of the story reminded her of me at Estrella Vista. Now that I have completed the book, I understand why Sigrid made the connection, and it is frankly rather flattering. If only I were up to the high standards of courage, resourcefulness, and perseverance modeled by the book’s narrator! (It is something to shoot for.)

The premise of The Wall is that some kind of catastrophe happens in the world which  kills almost everyone, and the narrator—a middle-aged woman—becomes trapped in the mountains behind an invisible wall with only a dog, a cat, and a cow for companions. The story suggests the devastation and violence people inflict on each other and the landscape, and it shows how a quiet simple life in the middle of nowhere can be filled with complexity and beauty.

I finished the book yesterday afternoon after my guests had departed, and I have a feeling its aftertaste will color my life experiences hereafter for many years to come. I recommend it highly—if you can find an affordable copy. I looked it up on the Internet and it is out-of-print and, judging from the prices used booksellers are asking for it, even a paperbound copy of The Wall now definitely falls into the “rare book” category.

I ran out of power last night and, not wanting to start up the gasoline generator, decided to move on to another novel sent to me as a gift from another friend and reader of the Diary. The book is The Overton Window, a political thriller by (OMG, am I really saying this?) Glenn Beck. The friend who sent the book withheld all information about the book and its author knowing that had I been given too much of a heads-up, my attitude may have hardened and I might not have even opened the package.

But hey, it’s entertainment and out here beggars can’t be choosers. Anyway, the friend who sent it is himself the best story-teller I know, and if he says a book is a gripping read, it is definitely so.

30
Jul
10

solitude again

As suddenly as the onslaught of visitors began, now it is ended.

Derek and Lisa left this morning, and Paul’s parents left yesterday morning and took Paul with them as far as Marathon. A week of constant activity, of flyswatters and kitchen utensils misplaced, of disconnected and competing conversations, of constantly seeing to the needs of visitors as well as the smooth functioning of the house—it has ended so suddenly and the silence is, as they say, ‘deafening.’

I have spent some time catching up with e-mails, feeding and watering the chickens, setting up power generation for our cloudy and windless conditions, washing a few stray dishes and coffee mugs—in general, switching gears back into normal and slipping into routines as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. The cats and dogs are all sleeping in their favorite places and I am now free to get some chores done I’d intended to have completed before the first guests arrived.

I’m still without transportation (Paul is returning with another part which might solve it), but I have plenty of gasoline, ice, and food leftovers to keep me comfortable for the next three days. But Paul does have new housing with refrigeration, air conditioning, an oven, and a bathroom/shower. These new assets represent a “great leap forward” for us, and will provide a wider range of options for our survivability here.

I have a lot to think about now that I’m alone.

Derek and I had some marathon discussions with lots of questions and answers flowing each way. We agreed and disagreed with one another’s views in significant ways which must (and will) be respected and accommodated. For example, even given everything he’s experienced in his life, Derek says the American justice system is “the best in the world.” I, on the other hand, have come to a radically different conclusion, in part because of what I observed happening to him. Both our views are valid. Yet which of us is more correct in understanding the objective truth of the situation, if objective truth does indeed exist? It will have to be worked out over many more hikes and late night discussions in the coming years.

29
Jul
10

jordan’s appeal

Late Tuesday Jordan’s attorneys received word from the Pennsylvania Superior Court that their petition for a hearing appealing Judge Motto’s decision to try 12-year-old Jordan Brown as an adult has been granted. The court docket has the hearing scheduled for Friday, August 13th in Pittsburgh.

Chris Brown contacted me yesterday and said, “Oddly as it may seem, this is two in a row for us. A glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.” Jordan’s attorney Dennis Elisco said he was relieved by the court order. “I can uncross my fingers now, I guess.”

Predictably, Debbie Houk complained she is growing tired of delays.

In the March hearing which resulted in the judge’s outrageous ruling, the state argued that Jordan is not amenable to rehabilitation as long as he refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit, while the defense met all statutory requirements to show that Jordan is amenable to rehabilitation and should therefore be tried as the child he is.

If Jordan is convicted of first- or second-degree murder as an adult, he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. If his case moves to juvenile court, the state could not hold him beyond his 21st birthday if he were convicted.

All of this is, of course, beside the main point that Jordan is innocent and being railroaded with tainted and misconstrued evidence.

I am not superstitious, but the Friday the 13th docket date is a reminder that the state appears determined to carry out this miscarriage of justice, and that plenty could still go wrong for Jordan.

We’re not out of the woods yet.

28
Jul
10

finally

Derek and Lisa arrived yesterday before noon while Mike and I were down at the Grub Shack picking up ice and home-made ice cream in take-out cups for everyone at Estrella Vista.

We passed Derek and Lisa on the road, but I hadn’t recognized them because I was watching for Lisa’s white Cadillac, and not the gray rental car she had rented to complete the trip after her Cadillac had suffered a mechanical breakdown in Kentucky. Lisa’s husband Mack had remained at home. He is in the building trade and, having work, decided it was best to make some hay while the sun still shined. “I’ll send Mack down here on his own when he can get away,” Lisa said. “He needs this place.”

Lisa was captivated by the spirit of the land. “You live in paradise,” she said.

No surprise, the first thing Derek wanted to do yesterday was to go to the swimming pool at the Lodge. It was a request I was happy to oblige because, because of last week’s transportation problems, we had been unable to do laundry at the Lodge and we were out of clean sheets and towels for our guests.

Lisa, Mike and I lay in the shade on recliners, talking and sipping on drinks, while Derek and Paul gave the pool a workout. Two things delighted me. The first was watching Paul and Derek interacting as affectionate brothers might, picking up their relationship after a year apart. The second was the role that Derek played as an attentive host, serving us drinks from the cooler and otherwise seeing that we elders were comfortable with our needs met. Paul had been filling this role with respect to his parents and now he had help. They were functioning as a hospitality tag-team.

The central idea of “hospitality” as we understand and practice it at Estrella Vista is recognizing the “god-ness” or spark of divinity in others and serving them as a means of serving God. It is a concept best taught by example, and Derek and Paul were thus teaching us through their examples.

As I observed Derek through the day, I saw that a change had come over him in the last year. There seems to be an inner glow about him, and an attitude of inner peacefulness which before were more nascent characteristics. The timing of his change is related to his participation in his church’s youth leadership program. “The old Derek died and a new Derek has taken his place,” he said.

I liked the “old” Derek just fine, yet I am so pleased to observe his present happiness.

Last night after everyone else had gone to sleep, we sat up talking until 1:00 a.m., mostly about religion. It was just like old times, so very frank and open and utterly comfortable. Our discussion affirmed that Derek knows what he wants from life and appears to be finding it through his spiritual life.

I’m glad Derek has finally returned. I’ve been waiting for this for a year.

27
Jul
10

money

Yesterday Paul’s dad and I were talking about the famous quote by Baron Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), the London financier and one of the founders of the international Rothschild banking dynasty which is now worth over $100 trillion and is one of the six families that owns the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank: “I care not what puppet is placed on the throne of England to rule the Empire…The man that controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire. And I control the money supply.”

“It may sound overly simplistic,” I said, “but the only way we can regain our freedom is to stop using their fiat currency.”

“You mean Federal Reserve notes,” Mike said. “But how would that be possible?”

A trend which is emerging in the US and various other countries is the appearance of alternative monetary systems. Just as during the American Civil War, the Great Depression, and other times of severe financial crises, states and communities are beginning to print their own money. There are “greens” issued by the Lettuce Patch Bank at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Northeastern Missouri. Residents from the Milwaukee neighborhoods of Riverwest and East Side are considering printing their own money. Even the state of California is so broke it has been making some of its payments in IOUs.

In Western Massachusetts one finds BerkShares, which are convertible to U.S. dollars. Susan Witt, Executive Director of the E.F. Schumacher Society (the nonprofit behind the currency) was quoted last year by Time.com as saying that more than $2 million in BerkShares have been issued through the 12 branches of five local banks.

During the 1991 recession, “Ithaca Hours” were issued to sustain Ithaca, New York’s local economy and stem the loss of jobs. “Hours” circulated within the community, moving from local shop to local artisan and back, rather than leaking out into the wider monetary system. They kept people from literally going hungry. The slogan on the Hour read: “In Ithaca We Trust.”

Alternative currencies are generally used in conjunction with conventional money, as in using local currency at the farmer’s market and regular greenbacks at the supermarket. For this reason, their use is sometimes called a “Dual Currency System.” “It doesn’t try in any way to replace cash,” says Christoph Hensch, a Swiss national and former banker now living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Rather, it offers a way “for people to share and redeem value they have in the community.”

Hensch says alternative currencies are most useful in geographical areas or social sectors where money doesn’t flow sufficiently, citing for example New Zealand’s Golden Bay, which is so remote that it sometimes nearly functions as its own economy—the same phenomenon Paul and I are seeing here where barter is commonplace.

Homegrown currency doesn’t merely fortify the local economy, it builds community. According to Susan Witt, the use of BerkShares, for example, has helped to solidify local ties. “It’s cash, so you have to pay your bills by walking into the store or dentist’s office,” she says.

People out here similarly recognize they’ve got a stake in their neighbor’s well-being because our neighbor embody both market and supply chain. One can feel more secure doing business out here because knowing the person you’re dealing with (and his family and friends) provides a kind of social collateral.

Several years ago in Minneapolis, I helped my longtime friend Kevin Ryan research a dual currency service he was developing which involved the use of a debit-type card that is swiped by local merchants. Customers received a cash rebate from merchants in their accounts, local churches and nonprofits which enrolled the customers received a portion of the rebate, and the local economy was strengthened.

Characteristically, Kevin was years ahead of his time in developing this computer-mediated system to keep track of such transactions, and the successor company to his venture is now well positioned to make a lot of money by providing a much needed service for the hard times to come.

You can read so many dire predictions about the current crisis which, like a log rolling downhill, is unstoppable. Some experts are saying it will be worse than the Great Depression. I have heard more than one prediction that we will experience hyperinflation as severe as Germany’s in the 1920s or Argentina’s in 2000. It would be so easy to despair and begin thinking all is hopeless. Take heart and stock up on food, cash, and other things you will need to survive the inevitable shortages and hyperinflation.

I believe the recession, regardless of how long or severe it turns out to be, can be the re-making of America into something very positive. There is opportunity in even the direst circumstances, if only you look for it and are ready. History shows we are an innovative and resilient people, and the emergence of the alternative currency trend is a leading indicator of American resourcefulness.

Even after the darkest night, the sun always rises the next morning and will do so for eons to come.

26
Jul
10

arbeit macht frei

It disturbed me the other day when I learned from Alex’s Larry King Live interview that he is working on a clean-up crew for the BP oil spill. It is good image but bad science. He is literally killing himself in having chosen to do this work. Almost all the oil clean-up workers from the Exxon Valdez disaster are now, two decades later, dead.

I’ve read news reports that BP is so concerned with minimizing the public perception of toxicity it is inflicting on our coastlines, it will fire any clean-up workers seen to be using respirators and other protective gear.

As the above photo suggests, even wildlife is in the same dispersed and desperate state as Katrina survivors once were and Gulf fishermen are today.  

How many other people in this economy, driven by personal desperation of some kind, are doing work—perhaps for lower wages or mere subsistence pay—which risks their lives and compromises their physical health and family’s future happiness?

If you look at every sector of the economy, you can see evidence that the interlinked leadership of the central banks, big business, and government is forcing down domestic compensation including benefits. Whereas they should be focused on increasing innovation and productivity in the economy, they continue the relentless process begun in the 1980s of squeezing profitability out of labor through a process which reminds me essentially of how fat is rendered.

This morning Paul’s dad Mike commented about how, for the last three decades, US industrial capability and investment have been relentlessly and extensively outsourced to cheaper offshore labor markets. The first step, Mike said, was convincing Americans that it was a good thing that ours should become a service economy based on “intellectual capital.” Now that Americans are dependent on cheap foreign goods and unable to produce so many essentials for themselves, our leadership is applying another turn of the screw which is aimed at lowering the American standard of living and extracting more economic value for the ultra-rich at the expense of increasingly desperate, hard-working people.

Rendering, as I say.

Through this whole process, knowledge and talent—the so-called “intellectual capital” in the economy—count for nothing. In the “New World Order” people are expendable, whether they are oil spill cleanup workers, soldiers, miners, or even bank workers. They are as expendable as the gray columns of slaves who passed through the gates of Auschwitz and the Soviet gulag camps.

I spoke recently with an earnest young man who, despite his class-A academic credentials and first-tier job performance, is being held down and exploited in a job “rolling quarters” for The Bank of New York. He’s being denied an opportunity to apply his talents in ways that would increase not only his job satisfaction but his economic value to his employer. As I asked him questions and he answered them, it became clear to me that, whereas his company states that high-performance is a corporate value and claims it is part of their culture, at this young man’s level the organization does not measure, manage for, or reward performance. I concluded that their corporate “value” is essentially pro-forma, a fraud espoused for the benefit of credulous analysts, shareholders, and new hires.

More rendering.

“Even though you’re lucky just to have a job, you’re in the wrong industry,” I told him. Bankers do not understand the concept of value creation. They only understand transactions and confiscatory interest, commissions, and fees. Their ignorance will be buttressed and compounded as governments add “value-added” taxes to most transactions. This isn’t value creation, but parasitism.

(I will never forget an encounter I had twenty years ago with a bank president who, having just acquired a smaller bank, was in the process of packaging and selling off the acquired bank’s weakest loans. In a candid moment he explained his strategy in terms of unloading the bad loans onto a “greater fool.” I thought this man to be utterly despicable. He exuded an aura of smarminess you could cut with a knife. Someone who knew him socially told me he was unethical and to have nothing to do with him. Yet he was successful in his industry. I just heard a radio report the other day saying these will be boom times for predatory lenders.)

“Look into the cooperative credit unions,” I advised the young man. “You truly care about benefiting your customers. Co-ops are owned by their customers. There’s a different spirit in co-op credit unions, and maybe some real opportunities for creating a career you’ll feel good about.”

These will be tough times for talent unless people break their chains and discover new ways to shine through their work. Paul’s dad was saying this morning that his home-based machine shop is thriving—that these will be good times for cottage industries that can deliver better goods at a cheaper price and in shorter runs than larger organizations. We’ll see, but I think he’s right.

Work can set you free.

Breakthrough innovations and performance will not come out of dinosaur corporate cultures that only know how to exploit and not nurture. They will come out of little guys like him… and me.

Yes, me. I have recently decided that we will need more money coming in if the vision for the retreat at Estrella Vista is ever to be realized. The best way for me to contribute is to begin doing writing projects for hire again.

I won’t be looking for a job, only project work for business and nonprofit organizations that need public relations and marketing communications projects researched, strategized, and written. Executive speeches, strategy white papers, marketing brochures and sales training tools, press releases, websites and direct response letters, etc.—I have done it all and am prepared to do so again to help meet our long-range goals for Estrella Vista.

So I’m putting the word out that I “will work for food” again.

If you are a regular visitor to these postings, I assume you like how I write. If you or someone you know hires writers, would you please tell them about me suggest they contact me through a comment on the blog?

If necessary, I think it would be truthful to say that I, too, am (almost) an offshore worker. Please encourage them to outsource to the border.

Thanks!

25
Jul
10

first visitors

This is the beginning of what will be a busy week. Paul’s parents arrived from Ohio past midnight last night after an extremely long drive pulling a camper trailer that they will leave for Paul to live in. At long last his bus will be going away—it came with the purchase of the property, and for nearly two years it has served Paul as a dismal and uncomfortable “bedroom”—and has been an eyesore blighting the homestead. Hallelujah.

(Dan, tell me how you really feel about Paul’s bus!)

We are not as well prepared for this visit as I would like us to have been. Paul’s folks arrived a day earlier than I’d expected and, because our vehicle has not been working, we’re short of a few food items and supplies I would have preferred to have had on hand. Yet I am sure we will get by just fine.

This morning Paul and his dad are unpacking some of Paul’s firearms his parents brought from home (and discussing them in a language all their own) while Paul’s mom sleeps in.

I need to begin preparing a pork loin roast we will have for lunch in several hours, so I’ll be keeping this post short. I didn’t get as long a night’s sleep as I’m used to, so I’m dragging and not much in the mood to write.

Our primary focus this week is hospitality, anyway.

24
Jul
10

mojave!

The deadliest snake out here is the Mojave Rattlesnake, and one of them visited us last night.

Paul’s brother urged me to see the film Food Inc. and Paul, Val, and I were screening it when there was a terrible commotion outside of Sadie barking in an insistent, accusatory way, and cats darting through the dog door to investigate. Paul heard it before I did: the rattlesnake’s distinctive, mesmerizing ssssssssssssound.

“I”ve got to find that snake!” Paul shouted as be bolted out the door. I followed him, returned inside to fetch a flashlight, and then shined its beam into a dark buttress corner where the snake had been literally cornered by Sadie.

I was all for dispatching it, and fetched my beheading spade from around the corner. But Paul had a different idea, and the next thing I knew he was carrying away that snake on a sturdy wooden yardstick we keep by the door.

“Did you see the green on his back?” Paul asked me.

“No,” I answered, not telling him that all I was doing was sizing up the snake for a beheading.

“That was a Mojave!” he said.

“Yeah, and if he’d bitten you, you’d be dead,” I answered.

“I’ve got my snakebite kit,” he said stubbornly.

“No man, you don’t understand. The antidote for the Mojave’s venom is too far away, even if they dispatched a helicopter right away. If you are bitten, you will die.”

“I’ll never die,” he said. End of discussion.

I was troubled all evening by the release of this, the most deadly of snakes, onto the property. The snake’s release is proof in and of itself that the possibility of death is ever-present all around us. Yet, had we killed the snake, would this have limited our risk to any degree whatsoever?

I don’t think so. It might have made me feel better knowing “that’s one less snake to bite you.” But how many others are out there? They might be within a few feet of our house, and probably are.

Danger and potential trouble are everywhere. I think the key is to be observant and watchful for potential problems without looking for them too much. Whatever you look for you will find.

My own experience from last night is that we so often can find what we most fear, even if it is not present. I discovered that Sadie’s eye was watering, was maybe a little swollen, and there was a fresh scratch on her face. I panicked and assumed the Mojave may have struck Sadie as she had him cornered, and that what I was observing may have been the early stages of a delayed reaction to the snakebite (which is what happened last year when Otto was bitten).

It was 11:30 and I woke up Paul, and then a few minutes later, Dr. Sam the vet. After we ran through Sadie’s condition as we could observe it, we determined it was not a snakebite, and I felt like a damn fool for having pulled the fire alarm for what turns out to have been only a whiff of cigarette smoke.

Now I owe Dr. Sam and his wife Dannie a supper for having needlessly awakened them. They didn’t suggest, I offered.

I think they’ll get a kick out of collecting on that promise.

23
Jul
10

d & a background

The visitors, interest, and questions generated by Alex King’s Wednesday night appearance on Larry King Live with Kathryn Medico, Jayne Weintraub, and Deepak Chopra has reminded me that there are many new readers who are unaware of what the Diary’s pre-blog readers already know: how I became friends with Derek and Alex King.

Derek will be arriving here next Tuesday night, and I’m sure there will be a number of Diary entries next week about his visit and the new developments in his life. So that no one need experience discomfort similar to that you might feel coming into the middle of a family discussion, I will re-tell the story so we can all be one.

This story amazes me because of all of the unlikely coincidences that happened along the way, and because of the recurring part played by the powers of mind and intuition throughout. Perhaps you, too, will conclude from the uncanny alignment of events and potential, that I was singled out by the Universe to play my particular role in this remarkable story.

(Note: I’m trying to edit this with a kitten sleeping on my keyboard and refusing to move. It’s a long entry—it spans half a decade—so if a few typos find their ways into this post, you’ll know why. Early readers, this is an updated re-telling, so please don’t think me so old that I’m repeating myself. Good grief, now the cat’s got his head on my right hand… too much! Who’s in charge here?! Not me.)

۞

In 2002 I closed up my home in Minneapolis and moved to tiny (pop. 450) Marathon, Texas, a little speck of a place that had captured my fancy during a 15 minute stop on one of my early “Forrest Gump” road trips. Marathon is a hardscrabble place ringed by some of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever seen.

Intuition drew me there.

Shortly after my arrival, the Internet and all the TV news outlets were abuzz with the story of two circus trials taking place in Pensacola, Florida. Two young boys—children really—were being tried together for the murder of their father. It was said Derek and Alex King were the youngest people in Florida, and maybe in all America, to be tried as adults for first degree murder. Alex was twelve at the time of the murder, and Derek was thirteen. In the second trial, an adult pedophile—“a friend of the family” who had designs of taking Terry King’s sons away from him—was being tried for the same crime.

The media all over the world were having a heyday with two parallel trials taking place, both being prosecuted by the same assistant state attorney before the same judge, under two different theories of the crime. “We’re going to let the juries decide who committed the crime,” said the prosecutor. Legal ethicists were dismayed.

Whether it was that I was living in a new place and still making friends, or just spending too much time with the TV and Internet, this faraway case aroused my curiosity. I even downloaded the police investigative report from the Court TV website. The evidence in the case didn’t seem to add up. I remember thinking to myself, “If I’d had those kids, none of this would have ever happened.”

Then I did something I’d never done before or since—I sent $100 to one of the defense attorneys and a box of books to the kids. I never heard back from the lawyer—neither a thank-you nor an acknowledgement. And I learned much later that the brothers never got the books.

Some time afterwards, the boys pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and were sentenced to prison through a convoluted legal process that escaped me at the time. I never heard what happened to the child molester except that the murder would never have happened if it were not for his involvement and that he may have actually performed the murder, despite whatever the juries decided (the two juries’ findings contradicted each other). As the media accounts of the story died down, I became preoccupied with other things and didn’t think about the King Brothers again.

Then, maybe a couple years later, I was browsing Yahoo listserves, and saw the “Alex and Derek King” listserve group. I decided to sign on and see what people were saying about the boys and their case. There was still intense speculation about who committed the crime, but no consensus except that the molester had gotten what he deserved and was rotting in prison for 35 years. Most of the postings were teeny-bobber “fanclub” chatter—except for one message from a woman who was seeking book contributions for Derek and Alex. So I answered her saying that I publish my late wife’s magazine about children’s books, that I give away thousands of books each year, and could easily send some good ones to the boys. And then again, I heard nothing.

Weeks later, after reading one-too-many inane postings on the listserve, I broadcast an angry message to the whole group saying something like, “You people really tick me off. These kids are in prison and probably really hurting, and you’re all treating it as entertainment.” I said I was going to unsubscribe. I also said that some credible-sounding person on the listserve had once asked for books for the kids, that I responded, and never heard back.

A few days later I heard from a Missouri architect named Lisa Drew-Alton, who said she thought I might have been writing about her. She said she was the organizer of two trust funds to help Derek and Alex get a new start in life when they completed their sentences. She told me she had replied to my earlier e-mail, though I had never received it (probably filtered out by my spam filter). She then sent me a list of books that Derek and Alex had requested and the addresses of their facilities. As Christmas was coming up soon, I got to work assembling those books. I got four big boxes into the mail in time to reach the boys’ facilities before the holiday.

In January I was surprised to receive a letter from Derek. One of his jailers had suggested he write a thank-you for the books. I called Lisa Drew-Alton to tell her about the letter’s arrival. “That’s just amazing,” she said, explaining that because of the salacious aspects of the case, every child molester and whacko in the country was trying to make contact with the boys. She said literally hundreds of letters had been round-filed by the prison authorities. Derek and Alex King were then currently among the most protected and insulated young people in the United States.

I wrote back to Derek and then, a couple weeks later, a second letter from him arrived.

As I read the letter I could scarcely believe what I was holding in my hands. While the Internet was still buzzing with intense whodunit speculation about the case, Derek had decided to tell me about his role in the crime. “If you have a problem with my past decisions I understand completely,” he said, “but I feel it’s best to be honest and open about such matters before you get the wrong impression.” He said he hoped we could continue corresponding regularly.

We could and did—that is, until his facility abruptly cut us off about five months later.

Much later I told Derek it was this second letter that had completely won me over. “What was it that made you open up to me?” I asked.

“I just had a feeling,” he replied. “Your letter was different from all the others I’d received.”

My heart went out to the kid with my reading of that letter. I admired his moral courage.

The next time I spoke with Lisa Drew-Alton, I volunteered to help her with fundraising for the trusts. Both Derek and Alex would need financial help after their releases for education, housing, transportation, maybe even therapy—all of which would be difficult to manage with their felony conviction records.

(As we have since learned through Derek’s and Alex’s experiences, it is nearly impossible for young people with felony records to get even bottom-of-the-barrel jobs like bagging groceries or washing dishes.)

However, two months later our fundraising plans were thrown into disarray when we received news that Alex, then 15, had been charged with attempting to escape from his juvenile facility in Okeechobee. Alex didn’t get very far: he and another boy spent the night in a classroom instead of their cells.

But the state’s attorney was taking a hard line and by our reckoning Alex would be looking at another two or three years in prison if the state got its way. It was bad enough that Derek and Alex were spending their formative years in prison. The prospect of spending even more time in confinement could only compound Alex’s despair. Because we wanted to keep Alex’s problem out of the public eye because of the bile and controversy it would stir up, fundraising would have to take a back seat to doing something about the escape charge.

Henry had just graduated from the University of Miami, so I called the university’s Family Law Center to get a referral to a top-notch Florida criminal defense attorney. I received two names.

The first guy told me it would cost us something in the neighborhood of $80,000 to retain him, and he didn’t seem much interested in helping anyway. The second attorney, as it turned out (another coincidence), was a member of the law firm that actress Rosie O’Donnell had hired at the time of the Pensacola trial to save the boys from living out their entire lives behind bars. He heard me out politely, and told me he would have to get back to me.

Later that afternoon I received a call from Jayne Weintraub, the principal of the firm. After some stern grilling (“What is your interest in this matter?!”), Jayne agreed to take the case pro bono if we could raise the money to cover her firm’s out-of-pocket expenses, which would be considerable. I later learned that Jayne is a mega-talent who was regularly tapped by CNN and Fox News to serve as a legal analyst and on-camera commentator.

Jayne and her colleague Steve Petolsky were brilliant and relentless in their defense of Alex. Because of Alex’s original high profile case, the prosecutor seemed determined to make an example of Alex and exact the maximum penalty possible. The case dragged on for three years, and it was not until about a month before Alex’s seven year sentence was due to be completed that the escape charge was finally resolved with a five year probation sentence. This outcome wouldn’t have been possible had Alex not become a model prisoner who earned his GED and helped his fellow inmates as a reading and academics tutor.

The most positive outcomes of the escape episode were that, first, we were briefly able to make contact with Alex and inform him that the Trust existed and was working to help him; and second, that Alex experienced a change of heart and became serious about doing something to improve his future prospects.

The key to both these outcomes was that after the escape attempt, Alex had been transferred from his juvenile facility to the county jail in Okeechobee. While there, Alex was permitted to receive mail from the outside—a window of opportunity we used immediately. Alex and I corresponded regularly for five months, during which time we established a good relationship. The high point of our correspondence was when Alex told me that, whereas he had previously been contemplating living a life of crime, he had been so affected by the consequences of his escape attempt that he resolved to turn his life over to God and make it into “an inspirational success story.”

Shortly after receiving this news, I suffered a series of three heart attacks in August of 2005. My doctor wanted to put me under the knife, but I would not hear of it. Medical malpractice had killed my mother and I have no great faith in surgeons. My doctor told me without surgery I might have only months to live. I told him I’d lived a full life and would take my chances.

One of the first things I did was to create a short list of things to do before I died.

Uppermost in my priorities was spending time with the young people in my family, and meeting Alex King was an immediate goal. Jayne and Steve were maneuvering to get Alex transferred from the county jail back to his juvenile facility, where he had been doing well with his academics. I knew that as soon as Jayne and Steve were successful, we would lose contact with Alex once again. It had already been several months since all contact with Derek had been cut off. I had no idea when or if communications would be re-established and progress resumed.

I organized a “farewell tour” to the southeast and visited my family in Savannah and Alex in Okeechobee. I was thankful that the captain of the county jail arranged for a special three-hour visit with Alex, albeit through glass. It was good to finally meet this bright and earnest young man whose thoughtful, well-reasoned letters usually required a magnifying glass to read. Within a day of my arrival home in Marathon, I received news that Alex’s hearing had gone well, and he had been transferred back to the youth facility. We were out of touch again.

It was not until the brothers reached their 18th birthdays and were transferred into Florida’s adult prison system that we were able to communicate again by mail and personal visitation. By this time, Lisa Drew-Alton had asked me to serve with her as co-trustee of the King Brothers Trusts.

I met Derek King in person for the first time in November 2006. Derek and I met in the “visitors’ park” of Lancaster Correctional Institution over three days, for about six hours each day. The park consists of a bare-bones common room with tables and chairs, vending machines, microwave ovens, a food canteen, plus a spacious open-air porch with tables and benches and more vending machines. For us to meet, Derek had to go through a strip-search and I had to empty my pockets, be photographed, fingerprinted, metal-detected and pat-searched. Once through security, however, we were able to spend our entire time seated together eating and drinking, smoking cigarettes, and walking about as we talked.

Our visit was relaxed. There was no discomfort of any kind. I found Derek to be remarkably open and forthcoming about any questions asked. He gave every indication of total frankness and complete honesty, and his answers and statements were intelligent and coherent. He answered without hesitation and illustrated his points with excellent examples, analogies, and stories. He was personable and respectful. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had ever had with an 18-year-old.

The first day focused mostly on getting-to-know-you and discerning the general state of Derek’s well-being. The second day we talked a lot about the Trust and how Derek and Alex could exercise leadership in its work. The third day we talked about adhering to absolute standards of moral integrity in everything we do between us and within the Trust.

When I asked him what he wanted to do when he was released in 2009, Derek replied, “Something that will challenge the ‘warrior’ in me.”

Some time afterwards, the thought came to me that Derek might enjoy being an adventure guide. The Big Bend region is one of the greatest wilderness adventure destinations in North America. I wrote to Derek making this suggestion, saying that I was open to the possibility of his coming to Texas to live with me. Derek answered back immediately that this was exactly the kind of thing he’d had in mind.

Since then our plans have undergone considerable change. We decided to organize an outfitter business and online hiking and camping store to serve as a platform for Derek’s work as an adventure guide. We named the business “Wandervogel” after the pre-WWI back-to-nature German youth hiking movement. The ideals of this historic movement were “Freedom, Self-Responsibility, and Adventure”—ideals that motivate most visitors to come to the Big Bend.

When I discovered that the domain name “Wandervogel.com” was available for purchase—another unlikely coincidence—I knew we had made the correct choice of name. The idea was to work together to build a successful and inspiring business that Derek can one day own.

On my last prison visit to Derek, he arranged for me to meet some of his fellow inmates and their families. It gave me an opportunity to learn how basically decent young people from dysfunctional families can end up behind bars. It also gave me an opportunity to learn about the surprising degree to which Derek had been shopping my letters and advice to his friends. Derek said this was helping his friends to become more hopeful about their futures. As I met Derek’s friends, each of them had excellent questions that showed he’d been thinking about what I’d written. Each one asked, in his own way, if he could come out to West Texas after release “for a visit.” Who knows what this could lead to?

۞

In the spring of 2009 Derek’s long wait had come to an end. His release was set for March 7th, and I was the only non-family member present.

I met Derek’s family at 7:15 a.m. on the prison’s visitor lot—Kelly Marino (Derek’s mother) and Jimmy and Lisa French (Derek’s maternal grandfather and his wife). After an all-night drive from Pensacola that had begun at 1:00 in the morning, they had arrived there about ten minutes before me.

Jimmy and Kelly went up to the window at central security with Derek’s new clothes, and returned to say that Derek could not be released until the duty officer arrived (probably in two hours, according to the guard).

Derek’s family was exhausted and hungry, and decided to use the delay to go someplace nearby for breakfast. Even though I’d already eaten, I accompanied them to be sociable. Later I wished I hadn’t, because the advice Jimmy got from the guard was bogus.

Derek could have been released almost immediately. Instead, he waited inside for our return for more than an hour. After waiting eight years for his freedom, that last unnecessary hour of confinement must have been excruciating for him. He could have been released to me had I remained behind just in case. In a way, though, it was probably better that I had not stayed behind and been the first one to greet him. That was his mother’s privilege.

When we did finally return, Kelly rushed ahead of us to meet Derek at the gate. Here you can see the two of them sharing Derek’s first moments of freedom…

Greeting his grandfather Jimmie…

…and a family picture I took a few minutes later.

Derek and his family loaded into Lisa’s van with a Chihuahua dog sticker on the rear and began the four-hour drive back to Pensacola. I followed along behind them, alone at first, and then with Jimmy as my co-pilot after a rest stop.

After we returned to Jimmy’s and Lisa’s home, and as Kelly and I had never met before (only Jimmy and Lisa had previously met and talked with me both by phone and in person), we stole a quiet moment to talk about how I became involved with her sons and what Derek’s life and opportunities in Texas would be like.

Kelly told Lisa afterwards, “I came prepared not to like him” (meaning me) “but ended up liking him.”

That night we had a wonderful meal of barbecued pork chops with all kinds of Southern fixin’s, and then each of us collapsed in exhaustion into our respective beds and sofas. It was our plan that this was to be one of only two nights in Pensacola before Derek and I returned to Texas.

I fell asleep with profound self-doubts about this adventure beginning to unfold, and about taking Derek away from this loving family so soon. These doubts were resolved in a dream in which various characters played out (including a former business partner who wanted neither Derek nor a chickens on our Marathon property), in the rubbery logic of dreams, a drama that proved to me that this unlikely role I am about to live out is indeed mine for some cosmic purpose.

I awoke the next morning with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence.

After breakfast and booking Derek’s and my flight for the following Tuesday morning, Jimmy took Derek and me out on his boat in Pensacola Bay. It was a beautiful, clear Sunday morning, and we raced across the bay to visit some of Jimmy’s favorite fishing spots. We beached the boat on a large sand island and climbed up onto the dunes where we could see the Gulf of Mexico.

It delighted me to see Derek there, shirt off in the warm sun, just taking in the air and breeze as a free person for the first time in over seven years. He seemed to relish just simply breathing in the air. I stood there quietly, listening to Derek and his grandfather reminiscing about old times and reflecting on the changes wrought by the wind and water on the sand dunes.

۞

In the afternoon, Derek, his mother and I visited a Wal-Mart where, after years of being told what to do, and when and how to do it, Derek seemed bewildered by the number of choices between toothpastes, toothbrushes, deodorants, etc. “It was easier to just let my mom decide,” Derek said later.

Afterwards, we drove to the sheriff’s department in Pensacola where Florida law required Derek to register his Florida address as a convicted felon.

The facility consisted of numerous huge buildings on a grim campus that is larger than most hospital complexes I have seen. It gave the impression that law enforcement and crime are big, outsized businesses in Pensacola, a town of only 56,225 people. It made me wonder whether crime there is the chicken or the egg.

We were kept waiting for at least an hour in a sterile, depressing reception room before a uniformed woman with a German accent could take Derek’s information. Derek and she were alone in her office, and I listened to their conversation through a slot in a one-way window.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said, as if recognizing an old acquaintance. “I remember you as a little boy!” she exclaimed. “Now you are all grown up.”

“Yes ma’am,” Derek answered flatly.

It seemed to me that, from the time we’d entered this building and begun our wait, Derek moved into a zone in which all emotions were repressed. I imagined that this zone was a state that Derek had learned to enter in prison in order to cope the numerous trials entailed in his long incarceration.

Even though Derek had been fingerprinted and photographed by the authorities many times before, this indignity was required yet again. Through this procedure, the state seemed to be saying that it mattered not that Derek had served his time in full, less nine months for good behavior. It seemed to negate the promise that he could begin living his life again as a free man.

“I hate this state,” I said to Kelly.

“I do, too,” she said. “The only reason I’m here is this is where my family is. Derek’s lucky he’s not on probation. Every time a person on probation checks in, their probation officer makes them feel like they’ve committed some new crime,” she explained.

When Derek emerged from the office, we took comfort that this was the last contact Derek would have with Florida law enforcement.

۞

Derek spent the next night with his mother and his maternal grandmother’s family, with whom I spent a brief amount of time while dropping him off there. I spent the next night with Lisa and Jimmy French, with whom I had established strong bonds of affection. After a long day of waiting for Derek’s time with his mother to be completed, we finally received a call that Derek was ready to depart for Texas.

“I’m really sorry to see you go,” Jimmy told me as we said goodbye. “Through church you meet a lot of people who turn out to be much different than they seem at first. But you’re an honest man. Lisa is crazy about you, too.”

I was choked up to say goodbye. Jimmy and I had become fast friends over the last three days. “We’ll be seeing a lot of one another in the future,” I assured him.

I met Kelly and Derek on the parking lot of a restaurant near the Interstate highway, and Derek and I finally got on the road around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. to the airport in Orlando. Our drive was, for the most part, fairly quiet. I could tell that Derek was bothered by something he wasn’t talking about.

After a couple hours, Derek finally came out with what was on his mind. “My family thinks you’re weird—you know, the way you dress and present yourself.”

He was talking about his maternal grandmother’s family, not Jimmie and Lisa. They had been close to Rick Chavis, the “friend of the family” who had caused their eight-year nightmare. They’d learned to be suspicious of all strangers professing interest in their grandsons’ “welfare.”

“I can understand how they may think that, but I really don’t care what anyone thinks of me,” I answered. “I’m involved with you and Alex because the weird way this has all unfolded has convinced me that I have been called to do this. For me it is a matter of faith that I am on the guided path.”

“Please don’t turn out to be like they say,” he pleaded.

I could see Derek was taking a brave leap of faith. What courage he has.

۞

When we got to our seats on the airplane and looked out the window, there was only a view of the jet engine—not a very good thing for Derek’s first airplane ride.

I approached the steward, a friendly looking Chinese man.

“May I ask you a big favor?” I began. “This is this young man’s first-ever time in an airplane. If there are any empty seats with a view out of the plane, do you think you could move us?”

A few minutes later, the steward had moved us to the very front of the plane to a row of three seats all to ourselves.

Derek sat through the entire flight with his eyes glued to the novel sights below. At one point I looked over to him and saw him laughing with delight. It pleased me to no end to see this, and to have had a hand in making it happen.

۞

We landed in Midland, an ugly town with oil rig equipment stored for miles along the freeway. We turned south and drove for the next three hours through a succession of dreary small flatland towns. And the farther we went, the worse the weather seemed to become.

I would have liked for there have been a sunny day so that Derek’s introduction to West Texas would have been less dismal. As the miles passed by, I sensed from Derek’s silence that he was having second and third thoughts about this whole thing.

As mountains began to appear on the horizon, his spirits seemed to lift a little.

When we arrived at Estrella Vista, daylight was fading and a cold messy house greeted us. Paul had left to do some work in Houston and left things in a way that created a negative first impression. My heart sank. I could tell from Derek’s reaction that he thought this was all a big mistake.

As we talked, there was a moment when I saw Derek as I imagined he had been as a thirteen-year-old at the time of the crime. He seemed so vulnerable. That vision hit me hard. It made me realize the huge responsibility I had taken on for his welfare. It was a warning that I had better never ever fail him in any way.

We fired up the propane space heater and were so exhausted, we both fell asleep sitting upright in the wing backed chairs. When I finally did awaken, I rolled out the hide-a-bed and made a bed for Derek to sleep in.

However, I could not convince him to use it. Derek slept fully clothed, his shoes on, in front of the space heater in a fetal position at the foot of the bed.

I climbed into my sleeping loft and had a night of troubled sleep, feeling Derek’s inner anguish as my own.

I woke up this morning before sunrise, and looked down on Derek, still curled up at the foot of the bed. What could I say to him to reassure him and help set his doubts to rest? I find myself in the weak position of only being able to offer promises.

The weather outside was not going to cooperate. In fact, I could already see it was going to make my job harder. The wind was picking up from the east and the temperature was falling. The first gray light of day was utterly depressing. Clouds and fog hung close to the ground. The outside temperature was in the 30s. Despite the space heater’s best efforts, the house was so cold we can see our breath.

As I sat at the computer catching up on my diaries, a heavy rain began to fall and the wind howled. Then there was a flash of white lightning, a zap, and the electricity failed. When the rain eased up for a few minutes, we went out to the power house to see if we could get the power inverter turned on. We could not.

I picked up the phone and it, too, was dead.

This was a real problem. Derek had been calling his mother four or five times a day to reassure her of his welfare. Now all that had ended, and she would worry.

To make matters worse, Derek soon discovered that our propane space heater was leaking and dangerous. We immediately shut it down and disconnected it. Now we were without power, heat, and communications. It couldn’t have been a worse homecoming.

Yet, it was Derek who led us through recovery. “Believe me,” he said, “I’ve been through worse winters in prison. I’m used to it. We were always cold.” Derek chopped up some firewood and began a fire in the fireplace.

We were still cold and miserable, but at least we were doing something about it.

۞

The next day we decided to drive up to Alpine to get the space heater repaired or replaced. I searched through my receipts and, wonder of wonders, I found the receipt for the space heater’s purchase right away! The owner of the hardware store agreed to replace the gas regulator while we waited, and we left there in a better frame of mind.

While we were in Alpine, we visited Allison and Mark. I had told Derek so much about Allison over the years, Derek was very impatient to meet her.

“Does she know about my past?” he asked.

“Yes she does,” I answered. “Allison was there when I received your first letter. She was my confidant back then and has been following our story ever since. You don’t have anything to worry about. I know she’s looking forward to meeting you at long last.”

When we arrived at Allison’s and Mark’s home, we sat down over coffee and Derek nervously asked her: “Dan says he’s told you about my past. How do you feel about it?”

“If Dan accepts you, that’s good enough for me. I’m going to keep an open mind,” she replied. “All that happened when you were just a kid. You’ve probably changed a lot since then.”

“What did you think of Allison?” I asked Derek as we were driving away.

“I was noticing the love between you and her,” he said.

“Yeah, but what did you think of her answer to your question about your past?” I asked.

“It was fair,” he replied.

۞

It had to happen eventually. The video had been sitting out for two or three days, pulled from its shelf by Derek and staged on top of the VCR/DVD player, ready for play… that is, whenever Derek was ready in his own time to watch it.

“The whole time I was in prison, guards and inmates would come up to me and say they saw me on American Justice. I had to act like I knew what they were talking about, but I didn’t,” Derek explained. “I’ve got to watch that program.”

Yet the tape sat on the video player, unwatched, day after day.

This morning we went to a link and watched the  Frontline program, “When Kids Get Life.” I could clearly see that, for Derek, the screening was a painful experience. Derek sat, through sheer force of willpower, squirming in his seat through the entire program. He was visibly upset at the situations of five Colorado teens who had not been as fortunate as Derek has been and are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

“You know, I forgot how strong my passion and desire are for a change in the justice system until I saw the prison compounds on the screen,” Derek said. “Seeing the compounds rekindled my desire to show them how wrong they all are. They are wrong in the way they treat us and in the way they feel about our ability to be rehabilitated. I want to contribute to changing it.”

After we’d watched Frontline, Derek pointed to American Justice and said, “Well, we might as well watch that one, too.” It would be put off no longer.

I had seen the American Justice episode “Blood Brothers” many times before, but Derek had never seen nor read anything that put his entire story together in one place with a neat bow. His jailers and their policies had always denied him this method of examining his past through the eyes of others.

It was a revelation to sit with Derek as he viewed the video.

“Aw, man, this is screwed up,” he exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that was me. I would never do that today!”

When a Pensacola detective was interviewed on the screen, Derek exclaimed, “Yeah, and you were caught lying on the stand!”

“I am shocked,” he said, “as shocked as anybody.”

I watched Derek’s reactions through the whole thing, and I know his disbelief was true and sincere. Derek was watching the story about a young boy who might as well have been someone else entirely. Only his memory of a horrific chain of events leads him back to the angry and abandoned child who was manipulated into committing a terrible act he did not understand as he does today.

“I feel like a person who has been grazed in the forehead by a bullet,” Derek told me. “I could be in prison for the rest of my life, or dead. But I’m here, outside the prison gates.” There was gratitude in his tone of voice that his fate had been nudged to the good by a hair’s width.

۞

We drove up to Alpine on April 3rd for Derek’s third and final driving test. He had passed the written test with flying colors, but had failed his first two driving tests. If Derek were to fail this one, we’d have to start from scratch all over again—written test and all.

When the roadster pulled into the parking lot of the Department of Public Safety, the conversation between Derek and the evaluator went on so long, my heart sank and I just knew he had failed again.

Yet, when Derek got out of the car, he flashed me a thumbs-up, and I knew—thankfully—that I was wrong. Derek had achieved his first Big Goal of having a driver’s license. He didn’t have to be tethered to me or anyone else anymore. “You’re a free bird now,” I said.

To celebrate his new status as a licensed Texas driver, Derek announced he would make his first solo drive into town when we got home.

“The first day I had my driver’s license,” I confided, “I totaled my mother’s car. I’m still embarrassed and regretful to this day. Please don’t follow in my footsteps.”

Most teenagers today take driving the family car for granted as if it were a birthright. Derek, on the other hand, has had to wait until the cusp of his twenty-first birthday. He has so much lost time to make up for and so many experiences foregone.

A free bird, at last. Derek had his wings.

۞

“We need to talk,” Derek said. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was dreading this discussion. “I can’t stay here any longer. It’s too isolated. I need to be around people my own age.”

I think I took the news pretty well. Yes, I was disappointed not only because I would miss Derek’s company, but because it would put our plans for the Wandervogel Adventure Store on hold. After two years of development work and investment, the primary purpose for the store was going away.

I begged off making an immediate response. I needed time to think. Soon enough I realized this was all in keeping with my vision of providing a roost for “wandering birds” who must be free to come and go as they please. Derek would be departing in a month.

Two weeks before his departure, Paul returned from Houston with his girlfriend Lucy. It was wonderful that Paul and Derek had this time together. Every day they embarked on a different adventure. One day they saved the lives of an older couple who were drowning at the Agua Fria swimming hole. (A kind of sacred symmetry was at work, I thought. If Derek were not free, two people would have died.)

Paul, Lucy, and Derek all left within the same two-day period. I took Derek to the train in Alpine, and he transferred to the airport in San Antonio. I didn’t see him again until I visited him and Alex in Jacksonville about six months later. It was wonderful seeing both brothers so happy and engaged with a supportive community of friends.

To see Derek happy, free, and independent is reward enough for everything that I and others have been doing to help.

۞

Now Derek is returning to Estrella Vista again, and I will learn in-depth what has happened in the life of this very extraordinary wandering bird.

22
Jul
10

breakdown

Small problems out here can have big consequences. The Ford Explorer has a more serious mechanical problem than I had first hoped, and so I am now without working transportation.  Paul was supposed to have returned yesterday from Marathon with parts for the repair, but he was a no-show and didn’t call until this morning to explain his change of plan. The repair parts must be ordered from Dallas and will not be here until Monday.

I just hope this fix works. We can manage without transportation for a short time by relying on the kindness of neighbors to let us ride along on their errands to town, but this cannot go on for any length of time. If there were an emergency of some kind, especially if Paul were not here, I would be in a tough spot.

Paul will be arriving here later today with building supplies for our upcoming projects which include the creation of a shower/toilet/dressing room module which will be the first of a total of six we will build—three for men and three for women. When completed, the modules will provide two spa-like “bath houses” for residents and guests.

Construction will proceed slowly, as we are committed to making all improvements at Estrella Vista on a pay-as-you-go basis. If there is a general breakdown of the economy as Paul predicts, debtors will be in the worst position and subject to any outrages which the “banksters” have already proved they are so willing to inflict on the populace.