My mom and dad tried fifteen times to have a girl baby, but ended up with fifteen boys. We lived in a back house, just off Crooks Street, close to the dry river. A colorless, gray, two small-roomed, square, cement shack. One tiny bathroom and closet, and another closet-sized impression of a kitchen. We bathed in an old round tin tub in bath water that had been boiled.

My dad worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. He and my mom came from Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas. My dad left the South first after he got into a conflict with a white man and punched him, which was a hanging event for a black man in the 1940s. So he left, traveling as far away as he could, landing in Barstow, California, in the Mojave Desert.

There were hardly any fences on the river bottom where we lived. The soft sands rolled under and past Blacks Bridge. Blacks Bridge was all steel with bolts like small biscuits. When I lay under the bridge, and a train ran across, I felt its power like a herd of elephants or bison stampeding across the sky. I watched the different shapes the train’s shadows created on the white sands. Usually I wore no shoes so that I could feel the sands of the river as my feet sunk into them.

When I stepped out of our house on Crooks Street, the purple and red clay mountains that surrounded me seemed to hold the whole world. I thought that up must be the only way out, so I had a habit of walking with my head held back, my eyes looking upwards. I often ran into things: trees, doors, and fences. Still, I kept my head up. Somehow I knew the universe was limitless. I looked for hours into the sky, while lying on a sand dune along the dry river bottom. I had a secret spot beside the river, and sometimes I would whistle and semi-wild dogs would come running from all directions. When all the stars were out, I felt there was something hidden behind each one, as if the stars played hide-and-seek, off and on, like fireflies.

Whenever I saw a rainbow strung across the sky from B Hill to the mountains, I thought of a series of brilliantly colored sidewalks, each one leading into a new adventure, each one having its own mystery. Other times, I saw the rainbow as a gateway into a dream, a new dimension, something everlasting. Life seemed to go on forever. The stars, like the semi-wild dogs, were loyal to themselves, and they always shone together, even on the darkest night.

We had domestic animals on our land: chickens, rabbits, pigeons, turkeys, greyhounds and hogs, I could sit for hours, for an entire day sometimes, watching them. I often crossed the dry river, a half-mile or so from the back of our house, and watched the road-runners, lizards, rattle snakes, jack and cottontail rabbits, and all the assorted desert birds.

Yet I always longed to see more exotic creatures, the kinds I had read about and had seen in picture books at school. I wanted to see pythons, elephants, bears, whales and zebras. I wanted to see the large birds of prey, even vultures and buzzards. I wanted to see crocodiles and black panthers. I wanted to see the big cats, the lions and tigers that inhabited far away places.

So I was very excited about my first field trip. The Parks and Recreation Department ran a summer enrichment program to give children things to do – sporting events and excursions. One trip was to the San Diego Zoo, and I couldn’t wait. The night before, I didn’t get any sleep; I was up and dressed by three a.m., waiting.

We were to embark on this adventure from the Catholic school. Everyone gathered around the huge yellow school buses as we were loaded on to them. I ran to get a window seat so I could view the passing land as we traveled.

I sat looking out of the window, thinking of all the animals I would get to see. Then another boy came and sat beside me. I wanted to be alone, in a set to myself, to observe. So when the kid would not leave, I beat him up. Nothing bloody or long.

I was immediately kicked off the bus by one of the adults. As I stood there watching the yellow vehicles pull away from the sidewalk, one by one, a part of my heart pulled away with each bus. My heart dropped like a sparrow that had been shot. I sat down on the curb in the early morning sunshine, and watched the wagons full of smiling children go on their way. I would have preferred a paddling instead of missing this field trip.

At least my mom and dad were not around, so they did not know the reason I was bounced off the bus. For the home beatings stung far worse than the paddlings I got at school. Sometimes my dad caught me with the extension cord in the bath tub. An extension cord on a wet, naked body, stings like a whip. Dogs, cats, coyotes and other howlers would have envied how loudly I bellowed. When the beating was over, my skin was afire, puffed up in places, as though lashed with a whip. Other times, when I thought I had gotten away with something, I lay sleeping in bed, on the floor, or on the couch, only to be awakened by a water hose, tree branch or extension cord. The only safe place was my place under the house, a place only dogs, snakes and spiders lived. I never went that far under, and I had to come out for food, school, church and even—eventually—the whipping.

Unlike the beatings at school, though, my mom and dad beat me for a reason, when I knew myself that I had done something wrong or had broken a family rule or sin. I am sure my parents based their whippings on the Bible, some verse about sparing the rod. Although I had no concept of God, Jesus or sin, I understood these whippings for stealing, staying out late, or sneaking out of church services.

People at school never spoke with me about why they paddled or slapped me. No one at school ever showed me they cared. Whereas, after a beating at home, my mom was still there, breakfast and dinner still served. My mom never failed to accept me no matter what law of society I had broken. When I got older, and the cops took me to the police station, my mom would pick me up as soon as she could or she’d have the cops drop me off at home. Sure, I would get another whipping for truancy or shoplifting or whatever I’d done, but my mom and dad left no doubt that I was part of a family.

My hopes, my dreams, my desires—the whole world, everything around me—seemed violent. Society, school, and church. The pigeons, chickens, hogs and dogs we raised at home.

I stood at the pigeon coop and watched the birds that battled over box houses, trying to peck each other’s eyes and beaks out. They slapped each other upside the head with their wings, and then turned around in a circle dance. The winner got the love and the female. When the dogs fought, especially the semi-wild ones, their fights were long, vicious, and sometimes to the death.

My father moved to California due to the racial violence of the time. My father hit my mom, and they both hit me. I fought at school, fought with my brothers, and fought with Crooks Street friends. The teachers gave beatings. I broke my brother Jimmy’s arm with a two-by-four when he threatened to take my money. My brother Jerry went off to war in Vietnam. My brother Arthur was scalded with hot water and stabbed by one of his many girlfriends. Even the Wizard of Oz was violence-filled.

All of the whippings, at home and at school, only toughened my ass, my resolve, and my resentment. I grew numb. The beatings did not hurt anymore, they made me angry, empty, and sad, and further reinforced my wayward ways. They showed me that power, pain, and perhaps even gain, were the way of things and the way of life. All of us tough guys, most of us from Crooks Street, hung out together, stealing and fighting each other and kicking the not-so-tough guys’ asses, taking their lunches or lunch money. I felt nothing inside when we took from others. My sense of compassion was put to sleep, along with my desire to learn and to balance my darker side with my lighter side.

There were no hugs in my family that I can remember, no one ever said the words “I love you.” Sometimes in the summer, though, my mom sat under a tree with me at her knees. She rubbed my head and pondered whatever it was she thought about on shady, warm days. These moments were blessed, even without the words “I love you.” During the summer, she also gathered all of her ice cream making tools and sat on the porch, overlooking the field, the long bridge, the railroad station, and B Hill. No matter where I was, I would come out to be near her and hang out with her. It seemed like whenever she cooked, snapped snap beans or made ice cream, I would be the only one there, sharing a silence filled with the making of food. My mom put a little box of powder, some salt and some ice around the churner. I loved watching her turn a magic wheel until everything thickened. At just the right moment, Mom would look away so that I could playfully sneak a taste.

My oldest brothers—ten to twenty years older than I—were like legends: heard about, but rarely seen. My brother Rob was the Hercules of the family, big and muscle-bound like an alpha-male lion. Early Jr. sometimes backed his car onto our land and turned on his eight-track player, blasting Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, and Otis Redding. When I caught Rob or Early Jr. on pay day, they would give me some change, and I would run off to the river bottom store for soda pop or peanut patties.

Another older brother, Jerry, left Crooks Street and became a soldier. When he came back from Vietnam, he dreaded his hair, took up with his old sweetheart, packed up all his belongings and moved up to northern California. Brother Arthur was too cool. Bow-legged, pimped out, and laid back, Arthur was a player who lived off the ladies and eventually moved to the big city. Garland also went into the service and was stationed in Germany for awhile before coming back home with a bunch of fancy musical gadgets. Abe left to go to college in a place called Bakersfield. Not long after I broke Jimmy’s arm, he became a self-made preacher. He hexed me. Terry, Bishop and Garland were all still at the house, but the rest of my brothers I knew from the family portrait hanging next to the metal bird cage that had a yellow canary in it.

And there were also my three half-brothers and four half-sisters. Pops rolled around a lot. He never loved Mom, although she loved him and never took up with another man. When I saw my Pops out on the town with other women, he smiled as if he had hit a homerun with a corked bat. I would never tell my mom, though. Her already broken heart did not deserve the enhanced misery.

The summer before junior high blessed me with more height and bulk. So the first time I was sent to the vice principal’s office, and the man boasted of the paddle with holes that he threatened to use on me, I threatened him back.

History, science, math, language: I could not absorb anything from my classes in junior high, and believed that it was impossible to learn anything in school. I gave up, remaining silent in class and never raising my hand. I was a teenager, mad, and disliking authority. Teachers understood that I would not accept any beatings without a fight. When I stepped into the vice principal’s office, both of my hands were coiled into fists. I was too big for whippings now—at school or at home.

By this time, my parents had gone their separate ways. Despite everything else, each of my parents had a strong work ethic that they instilled in their boys. I loaded and hauled junk to junk yards, and with the Crooks Street boys went up and down the long roads and highways collecting soda pop bottles to redeem. We sold Desert Dispatch newspapers for a dime up and down Main Street and at the railroad station.

But we also stole—soda pop bottles and items from unattended cars, rail cars and trucks. Anything that had value and was not tied down, we sold to get dope and drinking money. I stole in the daylight on the way to school, and at night in the darkness of the desert. I stole from anyone, even family and neighbors. I had no conscious idea of conscience, no sense that I hurt the people I stole from. I did have feelings, but they were aloneness, anger and rage.

The deeper I got into my teenage years, the more disillusioned and alone I became. I had always liked being alone, but now I thought I was supposed to be like everyone else. I never felt accepted by anyone during my teenage years, because I did not or could not accept myself. I had no idea who I was or what I was doing on this, or any, planet. I did not realize that the objects I stole could never fill the dark pit in my lost soul.

I often hung out with white friends listening to the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, and smoking weed, popping purple haze, orange sunshine, and window pane acid. I lived on the backside of life, caring about nothing but the next party. I knew I would not be able to make things work in regular high school, as I did not understand any teacher or subject. Besides, they kicked me out when I got in a fight with a white guy who’d just called me a nigger. I picked up a desk to smash him, but something stopped me. I did not quit school, though, because school is where I could find girls. Plus the words of my elementary principal echoed in my soul. I could not let those words—“Boy, you’ll never graduate from high school” come true.

So I went to continuation high school, and though I learned nearly nothing, I did discover Jack London’s books, White Fang and The Call of the Wild. These little books were the first, and only, ones I read in any school. I couldn’t believe there were books about dogs, books I could read and understand.

That year was probably my best year. I had a series of jobs: temporary food service on the graveyard shift at Fort Irwin Military Base, a summer job working for CalTrans, and then a gig at Yellow Freight Trucking Company. I bought my first car even before receiving my license. In this small community, where I was expected to live my whole life, my car and good jobs were considered a success. The older folks sat on their stoops and porches praising, “Look at that Jackson boy.” Inside, however, I was still a robot thinking I was a living being.

Despite Mr. Chavez’s prediction, I did graduate from high school. I graduated without knowing how to build a complete sentence, without knowing how to do simple fractions, without knowing how to read beyond a sixth grade level, and without knowing how to communicate with my fellow human beings. I graduated without ceremony, but I was pleased to see the joy in my mom’s face. A joy that was short lived.

Not long after graduation, I was on one of my runs. I got caught up and was shot, and then I killed someone. The killing was not premeditated, but it was totally my fault. In the depths of my heart and soul I felt what I did was wrong. I did not set out to kill anyone that night, but the fact is I did. The night I was arrested, I saw in my heart and soul that my mom knew something big was wrong. I did not tell her what happened, but the silence that fell upon the moment was sorrowful and life-changing.

I was supposed to come to prison; I deserved to do some time and make amends. I was ready to be judged and convicted for the killing I had done. But I did not expect the inherently racist judicial system that inflated my charges and determined my trial and conviction.

The day of my arrest, I had signed up with the Marines. I was nineteen and wanted to enlarge my world. Instead my world shrank to an isolated cell on the corner of the city jail. All I could do was to pace, and to try to drown out the cheers I could hear from the football games at the high school near by.

During my trial, my mom and dad came to visit me. It was sad, but good to see them together, in the same room, with a common goal and bond. I could see in their eyes that something bad changed. This environment did not fit them any more than it suited cattle to live in trees. Perhaps it was the first time I had really looked at my parents. It was certainly the first time I recognized that no one could get me out of the trouble I was in now. There were no magic sidewalks in the sky over the purple and red clay mountains to lead me away from this mess I had created. This trouble made all the fights with my brothers, all the problems in school, and all the mean words irrelevant. This trouble left a cut, a big open wound, in our family. I could see in my parents’ eyes that one of their own had fallen. My mom’s eyes held a million words. My dad said one of the longest sentences I’d ever heard him speak—“Boy, you better pray!”

And I did pray that night, and for many nights after. Incarceration brought the fact that my parents truly did want the best for me into full bloom in my heart, mind, and soul. From then on, I never lost sight of this truth. We were family, and when one falls, the others are there to pick him up. Before, I could not see the family unity due to my own uselessness, ignorance, and lack of feeling. I could not feel the unity through the beatings, fights and mean words. I could not see from the way my dad treated my mother hitting and abusing her how he cared for her, though he never loved her.

I sat across the table, looking at my parents who had come to this place that for them, as for me, was alien, dark and one step away from hell. They could only reach out with their hearts and souls, but this was enough. Now my own soul and heart had eyes to see and ears to hear my parents’ silence. I realized that my mom had always told me things that could help me, and that although my dad had rough ways and many women, he had never been in trouble with the law. He, too, had wanted the best for me. Both wanted me out of trouble, jail, and hell. Now I wondered, when I was young and my dad warned me to “never let darkness catch you not at home,” did he mean only our home on Crooks Street, or perhaps home in other ways too.

Now I could see and feel so clearly what it meant to be part of a family, to be part of Crooks Street and the river bottom. I had new eyes, new ears, and mind. I knew now how, in one moment, life can change on you like a twister. I had been sleep-walking for nineteen years, and now I had awakened. But to what?

It was like I’d had blinders on during my first nineteen years on earth. My ears had ear plugs. Even my heart was hidden. Hearing the guilty verdict, I felt disgust for the jury. Those twelve white folks were not my peers, did not know me, and had no human right to judge me. I felt that since my victim was white and my jury was all white, I had been railroaded. So I stood up and yelled out at them in court, calling them a bunch of racist white muthafuckers. At the same time, I heard my mom and aunt cry out in pain, as the sheriff rushed me to the floor and carried me out of the courtroom.

After they found me guilty of the murder, I awaited the sentencing of Life Without Possibility of Parole or Death. The jury could not choose between the two, so the judge gave me Life Without Parole.

At nineteen, one cannot grasp the depth of a no-parole life sentence. There is nothing to compare it to, other than death. At nineteen, one does not think he will do a life sentence. A life sentence does not sink in immediately. It can take seven to ten years to begin to understand. Life without parole is too big to grasp, or come to grips with, in the moment.

I sat down to breakfast my first morning in prison in a dining hall stuffed with prisoners. The noise and the mood of the place was maddening, like stepping into a huge, dark cave full of hungry bats. I could not find any familiar spot inside of myself able to relate to the bars, the concrete, and the steel, to the guns, and the guards barking out orders to hurry and eat.

I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from the desert, the natural world—purple and red clay mountains, open spaces and there was nothing natural about cells. Even the air was tainted, and twisted with unrealness, fleeting hope, and violent unrest. I was naïve, and also unconnected to any inner spirit. But my will to survive took over. I learned quickly to keep my laughter, smiles, and feelings inside and hidden behind a mask. Silence and dead-eyed frowns kept the strangers and guards at bay.

Besides, what cause was there for smiles or laughter? I had killed someone. There was nothing to talk about and no one to talk to, no one to hold my hand, nothing to dream or hope for. Never had I been so alone in a crowd. I felt I walked among bodies in one dimension while I strolled in another.

What could I compare this new life to? Perhaps the flood control tunnels under the railroad station we roamed in as kids, the way those tunnels shrunk and grew darker and more suffocating the deeper we descended. Could I compare my life in prison to Campy, the greyhound that caught five rabbits, but died slowly at home under the shade tree never catching his breath?

Or could I compare this existence to hiding under our green house? I watched everything, then, a completely unseen little boy. As though I was invisible, which I wanted to be.