Labyrinth 8: Boys

Labyrinth 8: Boys

After our arrest, Rick and I rode down the mountain in separate cop cars. I’d thought of him as much older than me, but he was only a few years older than me. But that made a difference. I landed in the Fresno County Juvenile Detention Facility, while the police booked him in an adult jail.
We’d headed down the winding roads in the afternoon, but by the time I made it to Detention, the skies were dark. After a repeat of fingerprint and mugshot routine I knew from Yosemite jail, two uniformed guards walked me through two monitored gates and into a long institutional corridor lit by fluorescent tubes, some of which flickered. They told me to strip, then watched as I showered. I joked, “Hey, this is the first shower I’ve had in weeks. Feels great!”
“Just hurry it up,” one said, flatly.
After I toweled they shined a blinding light at my face and ordered me to open my mouth. Then they told me to bend over and spread my butt cheeks. After the cavity search, they gave me institutional clothes and marched me into a cell walled with cinder block. Then they locked the thick steel door.
In the morning, a shaft of daylight shone through a ten-inch window of glass brick, high up on the wall. The cell opened, and I followed thirty or so boys down the corridor to a dining hall. After a breakfast of runny eggs and dry toast—no worse than trail food—the guards released us into an exercise yard the size of a basketball court. The cell block enclosed two sides; a high fence topped with razor wire walled off the others. A group of boys shot hoops. Another group sat against a wall and watched. They called me over.
As the only white kid, I was a curiosity. “Wha’d they bust you for?” I told them the story of coming out of the wilderness, needing food, stealing booze and steaks from a cop, and conspiring to rob a store. They laughed. I felt pretty good about myself.
Then I asked them the same question. “Armed robbery.” “Aggravated assault.” “Murder”. They chortled at my wide eyes. “You’re in high security, bro.” The vibe was easygoing and friendly, not threatening. But I felt anxious, even so.
A guard interrupted us, towering in front of me. “You! Meecham! Get in there and clean your cell! Now!” Huh? I was supposed to clean my cell? Why? I shrugged after the guard stomped away.
I was from a wealthy suburb. Earlier that year, when a vice principal readied to paddle me for mouthing off, I’d refused to bend over his desk. I’d been paddled before, but that was before I’d finally mustered the courage to stand up to Della. Compared to her, this guy posed no threat at all. I felt no fear and was ready to fight if he tried to force me. “You’re not hitting me. Not this time.” Red splotches formed on his cheeks. “We’ll see about that! I’m calling your father.” When my dad arrived, he told the VP he never hit me and didn’t want me hit at school, either. I grinned, which turned the guy even redder, but he couldn’t do anything right then. His revenge would come later. That day, all he could do was mete out the milquetoast punishment of suspension. As my dad drove us home, he seemed proud of me.
Why bother telling him that Della had beaten me countless times over the years? That was in the past. A year earlier I’d grabbed her arms to block her from striking me. I’d pushed her against the wall and shouted into her face. “Don’t you ever hit me again! You goddam bitch!” Then I headed out of the house.
Leaving by the front door took me past the kitchen. Behind me, Della ducked into it and came out with a butcher’s knife. She charged me, but I saw her coming. I was young, slim, and fast. She was middle-aged and heavy. She had no chance of catching me, but she chased me down the driveway, both of us screaming. If I had stumbled or not seen her coming, I am pretty sure she’d have stabbed me. A few months earlier, Della’s brother was murdered by his ex-wife’s boyfriend. The cause of death was 17 knife wounds. The loss had plunged Della into a bad state, part grief and part fury.
I didn’t return home until my dad came back from work. Della acted normal that evening, so I did too. But from then on I slept with a hunting knife under my pillow. It was an uneasy victory, but I believed my victimhood was over.
For years, the violence at home kept me submissive toward Della. But I felt free to do whatever I wanted in school. I was disruptive in class and defiant toward teachers; I defaced, broke, and stole District property. I’d been disciplined many times, but the punishments felt trivial compared to what I endured at home. Now I’d learned my dad would back me if I refused corporal punishment. I wasn’t taking any shit anymore.
So that morning in Fresno detention, I ignored the guard’s command. Of course, he returned. Standing so there was no space between his boots and my crossed legs, he said “final warning” in an expressionless voice. He pivoted and walked away.
A latino youth hissed, “don’t be stupid”, but I didn’t budge. He stared at me, shook his head, then stood. “I’ll do it.”
I hesitated, then followed him to my cell. He made my bed and mopped my floor. I felt grateful, but the anxiety I’d been feeling grew stronger. Why had this barrio kid scurried to save my ass? What had he saved me from?
Lockup in High Security didn’t fit the charges against me, and it ended after lunch. A guard led me through a series of steel doors, barred gates, and checkpoints, then down a hallway lit with fluorescent lights. He deposited me in a unit where the security was no more intimidating than a wooden door with an institutional lock. I’d arrived at the ‘home’ for minor offenders and those awaiting foster placement. The setup felt familiar, because it was a bit like camp. The boys slept together in big rooms, not alone in cells. The walls were smooth-surfaced and beige-painted rather than gray cinder block.
An easygoing guard dressed in street clothes showed me around and left me by my bed, a narrow cot with a striped mattress. Folded linens, a pillow, and a gray-green blanket sat atop it. No one told me to make my bed, but after my experience in High Security, my mode shifted from the one that rebeled to the one that placated. Shaken by what seemed like a near miss in the other block, I was anxious to show compliance. I spread out the sheets and smoothed them. I added the blanket on top, then tucked everything in place. I put the pillow in its case and set it at the head of the bed.
A group of white boys moved toward me. I’d noticed them watching and listening while the guard showed me around. Their leader was the same height as me but seemed a lot tougher. He snarled. “Aw, look how nice you did your bed. Just like a girl!” Though my skin was the same color as theirs, I felt no kinship. My shoulder length hairset me apart. So did the fact I’d been raised by a professor and spoke like it. West LA was a long ways from Fresno—culturally even more than geographically. I froze, unsure how to respond. The ringleader laughed and one of his gang shouted: “Pansy!”
I was used to making social missteps. I was used to being seen as odd. But I wasn’t used to feeling so threatened. At school, I’d been ignored but never bullied. My rare but explosive bouts of rage may have protected me. But here in juvie I felt only a gnawing dread. Fury seemed out of reach. I was too afraid.
At home, daydreams insulated me from my social stress. In one, I rode horses. In another, I sailed boats. Usually an imagined girlfriend rode or sailed with me. These were pleasant fantasies, and I remember many of them as clearly as my actual memories. But in Juvenile Hall, escaping into fantasy wasn’t an option. These kids were in my face. The best I could come up with was to turn and turned and walked away. It hid the rising color in my face, but I knew it showed weakness. I ignored the laughter behind me.
What relief I felt when, after lunch, I was summoned by the Youth Probation Officer! She was a kindly woman, motherly in her shapeless dress. She had already spoken with my dad. He must have charmed her, because she sounded almost apologetic. “You shouldn’t be here. It sounds like you were hiking with a troubled young man. It’d do you good to finish the trip you planned.”
Once again, my dad surprised me. He’d talked her into letting me go back into the mountains. She even offered to drive me to the road up to the campground.
An hour later I walked out of Detention wearing my backpack. I spotted the PO waiting by the curb, in a squat car, possibly a Pinto. When she saw me, her expression wavered. My ragged, filthy clothes and lopsided pack gave her a new picture of who I was and what I was up to. She didn’t say muchas we drove to the road that headed into the mountains. She said a quick “goodbye” after letting me out, then wheeled away. I hitchhiked up the road, back to the site of my arrest. Back in the mountains, I felt giddy. Hours before I’d been worried about an aggressive bully and his friends in Juvenile Hall. Here, I was back in mountains that felt more like home than my dad’s house.
Weeks later, back in Pacific Palisades, I met a kid who mentioned spending his weeks in juvenile detention. I told him about my stint in Fresno but glossed over its brevity. “Hah!”, he retorted: “Then you know the drill. ‘You have the right to a jar of Vaseline…’” I laughed but didn’t figure out the joke until later. In Fresno I’d worried about getting beaten. The thought of rape never occurred to me. In my world, Della was the threat; I’d given little attention to the danger of peers. That they might be equally vicious and cruel caused me to feel a new sort of uneasiness. I thought standing up to her would be the end of my problems.
Rick was waiting when I arrived at our campsite. He greeted me without warmth. We both agreed we should head back onto the trail right away, even though it was already late afternoon and we didn’t have much food. He said we could make meals using a book he carried about edible plants.
Our first night, he cooked up a plant he called ‘wild onion’. As we were eating, his dish slipped out of his hands and his meal landed in the dirt. I offered to give him some of mine. “No, it’s my problem. I’ll be OK. You go ahead.”
Later that night I awoke with cramping pain. I shifted position, which helped at first, but soon I was writhing, unable to find relief. I moaned loudly but Rick didn’t wake up. I tried to stand but was too lightheaded and nearly fainted. Then came the nausea. I’ve always hated vomiting, and I fought it as long as I could. But soon the retching started, once, then twice, then in violent waves. It felt punishing, but it eased the misery. An hour or so later the stringy stuff Rick had fed me quit coming up, and shortly after I passed out.
In the morning, I awoke to see Rick packed and getting ready to head back down the trail. I said good morning, and he grunted something. He didn’t ask how I felt. Then he explained, “I’ve got to go back for court. I’m an adult, not a juvenile, like you. Do you know what that means? I’ve got a criminal record. Because of you!” He glared at me.
I was too stunned to comment. I was standing by now and was pulling on my pants. I noticed that my back pocket was empty. I looked on the ground for my wallet, but it wasn’t in sight. I asked Rick if he’d seen it. “Nope.” He adjusted his pack and hiked away.
I found out later there’s a highly toxic plant that can be mistaken for wild onion. Did Rick know what he’d fed me? It seems possible he did, but it was years before I suspected him.
I had trouble reading people and was unusually naive, even for a sixteen-year-old. I’d seen plenty of poisonous behavior. The issue wasn’t sheltering; it was the opposite. I’d come to Della after my mother’s suicide. In need of mothering, I imagined Della cared for me despite how many times she proved she meant me harm.
I was also socially anxious, a common effect of abuse compounded—in my case—by an environment that made it hard for me to develop interpersonal skills. Della and my father had few connections with other families. They didn’t entertain in ways that brought me together with other kids. Most of their friendships were formed in bars and focused on drinking, or drinking plus sex, from which I was (thankfully) excluded. We also lived in a different town each year until I was ten, and after that, I spent school years in LA but summers in the Midwest. Relocations can help an outgoing kid grow better people skills, but I was too shy to adapt. My lifelong difficulty recognizing faces added to my social ills.
So I was an awkward adolescent, edgy around others and confused by human cues. I felt unsafe around people and preferred to stay away from them. So for much of my upbringing, I’d leaned into solitude. My time on the JMT after Fresno gave me a lot of that. Fasting while trekking solo made the experience even more powerful.
I finished the hike in the wake of two arrests, having barely escaped several perils, and all-too-aware of the harm I’d done Brad and Rick. I felt physically stronger, more sure of my camping skills, and more aware of how my behavior had consequences. I was in love with the mountains and awed by the beauty I’d lived in for six weeks. I wasn’t sure what was going to change after I returned home, but I knew something had to. The chastened young man who returned from the Sierras was not the foolish boy who set out for them.