Labyrinth 9: Boys

Labyrinth 9: 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 just two years my senior. Still, that made a difference. I landed in the Fresno County Juvenile Detention Facility, but the police booked him in an adult jail.
We’d headed down the winding roads in daylight, but by the time I made it to Detention, the cellblock was quiet; the boys were in bed. Two uniformed guards watched me shower. I joked, “Hey, this is the first shower I’ve had in weeks. Feels great!” They stayed silent. After I toweled they shined a glaring 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 a jumpsuit and pushed me into a cell walled with cinder block. They closed and locked a thick steel door behind me.
In the morning, a shaft of daylight shone through the ten-inch window. The cell door opened, and I followed thirty or so boys down the corridor to a dining hall. After a breakfast of runny eggs and toast, the guards released us into an asphalt exercise yard the size of a basketball court. The cell block enclosed two sides; a high fence topped with razor wire enclosed 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. “This is a high security block, bro.” The vibe was easygoing and friendly, so I did not feel threatened. 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 when I’d felt littler. Now I felt big enough to keep him at bay. “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 further enraged him. Eventually, this administrator would exact his revenge, but today all he could do was mete out the milquetoast punishment of suspension. As my dad drove us home, he seemed proud.
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 took the opposite stance 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 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. After that, he pivoted and walked away.
A latino youth hissed, “don’t be stupid”, but I didn’t budge. He stared at me, then 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?
The lockup in High Security didn’t fit my crime, and it ended after lunch. A guard marched 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 rough 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 scratchy blanket sat atop it. No one told me to make my bed, but after my experience in High Security, my demeanor shifted from the one I used at school to the one I’d used to placate Della for so many years. Shaken, 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 my bed. Their leader was the same height as me but a lot more menacing. He snarled. “Aw, look how nice you did your bed. Just like a girl!” Though my skin looked the same color as theirs, I felt no kinship. My shoulder length hair and the fact I’d been raised by a professor and spoke like it set me apart. Plus, LA was a long ways from Fresno—culturally even more than geographically. I froze, not sure how to respond. They all laughed, and one of them shouted “Pansy!”
I’d never felt this socially threatened. At school, I’d been shunned and sometimes mocked. But I’d never been bullied. Elaborate daydreams insulated me from feeling like an outcast. In one, I owned horses and a sailboat, which I enjoyed with an adoring girlfriend. In another, I was a star pitcher, an idea I got from watching other kids play baseball after school, as I spent my hours alone.
Habitual daydreaming helped my feelings but not my social skills. I was capable of one-on-one friendships but stumbled in groups. Before now, that hadn’t seemed like a big problem. Here in Juvenile Hall, it left me feeling vulnerable and afraid.
Getting released from this pit seemed my only hope. Luckily, after lunch I was summoned by the Youth Probation Officer. A motherly type in a drab dress, she had already spoken with my dad. He must have impressed her, because she sounded almost apologetic. I shouldn’t be here. It was clear the young man I was with had committed the real crimes. It would be good for me to finish the impressive backpacking trip I’d planned. She even offered to drive me partway up the mountain.
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 sense of who I was and what I was up to. She stayed silent as we drove to the road that headed into the mountains. She said a curt “goodbye” after letting me out, then wheeled away. I hitchhiked back to the site of my arrest.
Weeks later, back in Pacific Palisades, I met a kid who mentioned he’d spent time in Juvenile Hall. 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 at the joke but didn’t understand it until later. In Fresno I’d worried about getting beaten, not raped. That degree of violation had been unthinkable. In my world, Della was the threat; I’d given little attention to the danger of peers.
Rick was waiting when I arrived at our campsite. He greeted me, but 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 and medicinal plants of California.
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 a little at first, but soon I was writhing, unable to find relief. I moaned loudly but Rick didn’t say anything. 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 nothing more was coming up, and eventually I passed out.
In the morning, I awoke to see Rick packed and ready to head back down the trail. “I’ve got to appear in court. I’m an adult, not a juvenile. I’ve got a criminal record. Because of you!” He practically spit the last words at me.
I had put on my pants by this point and noticed my wallet was missing. I asked him if he’d seen it. “Nope.” He glared at me in challenge, then 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 obviously 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. Most of their friendships were formed in bars and focused on drinking, or drinking plus sex. They often ended in blow-ups. We also lived in a different town each year until I was ten. 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 to so much change. My lifelong difficulty recognizing faces also hampered my socialization.
I was an awkward adolescent, edgy around others and confused by human cues. But while my outward connections felt sparse and unsafe, I leaned comfortably into solitude, and my time on the JMT after Fresno gave me a lot of that. My state of fasting made it even more powerful. I finished the hike in the wake of two arrests, knowing the harm I’d done Brad and Rick, and having barely escaped several perils. I felt physically stronger, more sure of my camping skills, and awed by the mountainous beauty I’d lived in for six weeks. The boy who returned from the Sierras differed from the one who set out for them.