*The following is a true account. Everything actually took place at the end of summer of 1982.

On July 8, 1982, I turned fourteen years old. It was the middle of summer, I’d completed the 7th grade and had grown 3 or 4 inches. My mother now had to look up to meet my eyes. But my fourteenth birthday was not a joyous occasion, in fact, it marked a serious turning point in my life. The most significant factor, that summer so long ago, was the legal separation of my parents. Mom got a new apartment, the car and us three kids. I was the oldest and therefore my memory of that crucial summer is sharp.

Right away, the first thing I noticed was that money was tight. I could easily see the strain and concern on my mother’s face. My father was an E-7, Sgt. 1st Class in the Army, and he lived alone on base. I guess we were what you would call “middle class.” I didn’t grow up in the ghetto or the projects, but I had relatives born and raised in such places. But my point is that, not to sound arrogant in any way, I never really knew poverty or being poor or not having common articles.

I was soon to be given a rude awakening to the vicissitudes of life. I would learn how things can abruptly change, taking a turn for the worse. And it all transpired in less than an hour.

However, dear reader, before I revisit that momentous incident you need to know the person I was; a fourteen-year old kid, a military brat, naïve to the realities of life.

You see, all these years later, I can attest to the surprises that life can spring on you. And that, sometimes, sheltering children from the harshness and all the ugliness of life is not altogether a good thing. Experience and observation has taught me a veritable lesion: the “real” world is not a sitcom where all the problems in life are solved in 30 minutes.

At fourteen, I knew almost nothing about the “real” world. My “world” was “governed” by my mother and “financed” by my father. I didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol at that time; however, within six months I would be doing both, smoking pot (marijuana) on a regular basis. At fourteen, I didn’t need to steal or shoplift, and I wasn’t involved in a gang. For the most part, my friends were other military brats just like myself.

I was still a virgin at 14 and could not tell you what circumcised meant. In fact, I had no idea what an orgasm was; however, at 14, I was perpetually “horny.”

In essence, I was ignorant to more unknown fear than I have time to enumerate. Yet on the other hand, I was no angel! I had my share of fights, even provoking a few; and if it was to my advantage I would lie faster than a “New York second.”

But growing up a military brat had sheltered me from the oftentimes cold realities of life, and in a real sense, this left me unprepared to deal with those “realities.” So I had to learn the hard way, by trial and error. Now let us return to the moment of when I had to make a “decision” which altered me as a person and changed my life for the worst.

First, there came a storm straight out of a Stephen King novel. It was the end of summer, and it “snowed”! Not only did a freak storm bring cold weather and snow, but it snowed thick and non-stop, blanketing all the trees, streets and lands in pure white. Of course, at 14 I loved it! As did all the other kids. Now years later, I view that snowstorm that summer’s end as a bad omen. Yet at the time I saw it as, well, as something truly miraculous!

On the very last day of summer I went home about 8:00 or 8:15 that evening. Off and on all during that day, however, I wondered about new school clothes for me, my brother and sister. I wasn’t too concerned, not enough to panic; but here it was the last day of summer and tomorrow would be the first day of school.

When I entered out three-bedroom apartment, my mother wasn’t there. “Where’s Mom?” I asked my two younger siblings, who were seated on the couch watching television. “She’s probably getting our school clothes,” my sister responded. I nodded in agreement and went to my room to “chill.”

About ten minutes later I heard my mother enter the apartment. I could also hear shopping bags, and so I shot up and into the living room. My mother was giving clothes to my younger sister, who was 12, and to my younger brother, who was 10. I quickly scanned the area and saw no new clothes for me.

So I asked, “Mom, where are my school clothes?” 

She clearly heard me, and I knew she did, because I saw the quick wince upon her face. But what turned my soul to stone was that my own mother couldn’t look at me and couldn’t answer her son.

I was momentarily paralyzed, unable to move or speak. So I just stood there, staring in utter shock at my mother and petrified by her silence. My mother kept her head down, assisting my little brother with his new clothes, refusing or unable to acknowledge her oldest son. A sadness so intense, so heavy, quickly enveloped me and made me “numb.” I wouldn’t cry and I wouldn’t demand an answer from my mother. It was obvious that she didn’t have enough money to buy me any clothes, nor shoes.

Inexplicably, something came over me that propelled me into decisive action. My mother’s silence told me that I would have to fend for myself. I had no money, but something possessed me at that instant and without uttering a word I knew what I had to do.

I glanced at the wall clock and saw that it was 8:30 p.m. The major department stores closed at 9:00 p.m. So I had thirty minutes! Plenty of time. Our apartment complex was less than 5 minutes away from a clothing store.

Like an NFL running back I burst through the front door, running as fast as my legs would carry me. It was still snowing and cold, but I felt nothing as I sprinted to the department store. I had on no jacket, no gloves and not a dime in my pocket; however, I went inside the clothing store like I had every right in the world to do so.

But I was “possessed” in a real sense. My mind was single-pointed and my eyes saw no one. Like a zombie I went to the pants section for men.

Calmly I picked out two pairs of pants and then three new shirts. Next I went inside the dressing room and then put on both pairs of pants under the original old pair I already had on. Then I put on all three new shirts. I left the stall oblivious to how I looked. Still zombie-like, I went over to the men’s shoe department and picked out a pair (slightly too big) and put them on, placing my old pair onto the shelf as if it were practically the normal thing to do.

Finally, I slowly walked to the front entrance, my heart beating frantically and my mind in a zone. If anyone were to attempt to prevent my leaving the store they would have encountered a Tasmanian Devil. I would of fought that person to my death! The new clothes and shoes were mine. I made it to the entrance without incident and exited the store.

Once outside I took off like a bat out of hell, sprinting as fast as possible. It was snowing still, and the falling flakes softly pelted my face and arms. The snow-covered ground caused me to falter and stumble in my mad rush home. But I did not fall down. Not once did I look back to see if I was being pursued. I ran wildly, as if death himself was chasing me.

I busted inside our apartment and went straight to my bedroom. No one spoke to me as I sat upon my bed, looking down at my wet new shoes.

Unable to sleep, I stayed awake all night staring at the ceiling, my mind a raging inferno. But I’m not going to cry, I assured myself. However, the drastic new circumstance turned my heart stone cold. And my mother’s silence conveyed a very hard message: son, you gotta be a man now. At 14, I knew that things would never be the same. And they never were. And the change within me was drastic. Within 6 months I was using drugs regularly. By 15 I was a gang member and quite a prolific thief. And by the age of 18 I was in State Prison.

Now, nearly 25 years later than that fateful summer of 1982, I lay on another bed, a prison bunk, unable to sleep as memories irritate my peace of mind. I now can empathize with my brothers and sisters in the ghetto, with my Hispanic brothers and sisters in similar straits, with my Native American brothers and sisters in likewise circumstances and with my poor white brothers and sisters: we all made decisions to try and “make it” in a world that isn’t always fair or right.

In 1982, at 14, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to school in clothes too small and shoes with holes. My friends would of surely made jokes. So I decided to steal. In fact, I had to shoplift for clothes for the next seven years. I became very good at it and I never got caught.

But as I stare at the ceiling on my prison cell, I only have one wish: I wish that I could go back to that summer of 1982, when I was just 14. I would of went to school in those old clothes with the gratitude for all the things I did have!