The Huffy and the Whatchamacallit

Huffy and Whatch


She was beautiful. I could hardly believe it. Was I dreaming? I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stared in wonder. She was still there, in all her splendor, leaning against her kickstand, a vision of beauty, standing beside the Christmas tree. I reached out, tentatively, and caressed her handlebars, feeling the cool metal beneath my fingertips. I ran my hand over her black, faux leather seat, over the red Christmas bow stuck to her chassis, down her yellow frame, across the name Huffy emblazoned on her side. I smelled the new rubber, felt the tread of her thick tires. She was real, and she was mine, in all her bicycle beauty. I had longed for her, desired her, the way only a ten-year-old boy could understand, never believing I would have her. Yet here she was. I stood there in a long, white undershirt and wrinkled blue jeans, my bare feet buried in the shag of the living room carpet, admiring the greatest Christmas present I had ever received. The greatest I ever would receive.

My stepfather, Roger, and my mother, Helen, could have had their own reality television show, had such a thing existed in 1981. A few cameramen following them around, documenting the normal activities of Roger and Helen, would have kept America enthralled, glued to their television sets, their collective fingers covered in the orange dust of cheeseballs, their jaws slack and eyes wide at the theatrical antics of the Roger and Helen Show. The neighbors on Highland Street, especially the quiet family occupying the unit in the duplex connecting to ours, experienced a sort of audible version of the Roger and Helen Show, as Roger’s high, nasally voice, weighed heavily by a Missouri accent, pierced the night and carried down the street, arguing with my mother, or yelling at me or one of my brothers. He was not always angry when he yelled or argued. He simply spoke that way, apparently wanting to be heard above all other speakers in his vicinity. This was not isolated to when we were at home. The rare times we went out to a restaurant as a family, my memories are of Roger arguing loudly with my mother over the prices on the menu, the waitress or waiter staring at him in shocked incredulity as Roger’s nasally voice informed the entire restaurant that,

“The boys have to share a plate, Helen. I ain’t got a lot of money. For crying out loud.”

“For crying out loud” was Roger’s favorite phrase. “Cotton picking” was a close second. My mother would invariably offer to share a plate with Roger, allowing us to have our own individual meals. And they would continue to argue back and forth, a spectacle to the stunned wait staff and the sorry people sitting in the tables around our family. My brothers, my sisters and I waited quietly, used to the frequent outbursts and nasally voiced frustrations and outrages coming from Roger, whose round face grew red while his voice ascended to higher octaves with each passing moment, and the voice of my mother, so often in our defense, as she tried to calm him down and enjoy a meal in public. And Roger would have steak. To Roger, eating a steak was the epitome of his existence. To him, it meant all was right in his world. We ate whatever the cheapest item was on the menu, and Roger had a steak with all the trimmings.

One of my clearest memories of Roger was a time when my Aunt Esther was giving us a ride home from church. My brothers and my sister, Beverly, were in the back seat of Aunt Esther’s car. Roger was in the front passenger seat, next to my mother.

“Hey, Esther, can you pull into Farrell’s real quick? I want to get me a malt,” Roger said.

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor was heaven to a boy my age. A veritable wonder trove of candies and ice cream, malts, shakes and food, glorious food. The staff, dressed like members of a 1940s barber shop quartet, would break into boisterous announcements, beating drums, sounding sirens and flashing lights with every purchase of a large trough of ice cream. And Roger loved their malts.

My Aunt Esther parked in front of Farrell’s, and Roger went inside, returning shortly with a large malt in an oversized glass. He got back in the car and sat, silently drinking his malt through a straw, while we children sat quietly in the back seat. I watched as Roger drank the malt. I saw the cool condensation running down the oversized glass and smelled the sweet aroma of the brownish mixture of genuine malt and real ice cream. And I wanted some.

Want. Want is a feeling deep down in the pit of one’s stomach, a desire, a hunger. Nearly every memory of my childhood contains that feeling. I wanted. Others had. I remember being hungry and opening the refrigerator to find old parsley and a dried-up block of government issued cheese. Nothing more. Once, for several months, we had nothing to eat except a bag of white flour and a large bag of beans, also provided by the government. My mother made tortillas from the flour and we ate tortillas and beans until even looking at a tortilla would nauseate me. My only hope for variety of menu was in the free lunch provided at school. Other children turned their noses up at the food served in the school cafeteria. To me, it was a very fine meal. Even to this day, I remember with fondness the rectangular pepperoni pizza and the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and a dinner roll. Compared to the food served at home, these were meals fit for a king. And, as I watched Roger drinking his malt, that feeling of want grew inside of me until I could hold it no more. I broke the silence in the car, my voice low, hungry. I swallowed hard to disperse the growing saliva in my mouth.

“Is it good, Roger?” I said.

He looked back at me, his round face flushing scarlet, his voice high and exasperated at my breach of etiquette.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Ricky!” He said, looking at me over his shoulder. He turned back to his shake, mumbling around the straw as he sipped his malt again. “Cotton picking…”

Christmas was my favorite time of year, but it was also a yearly reminder of our poverty. The excitement of decorating the Christmas tree in early December and watching presents appear with my name on them routinely turned to disappointment. And, on Christmas mornings, I excitedly unwrapped presents only to find a bag of socks, a pair of mittens, or, the worst, underwear. And this Christmas had promised nothing more. I had become something of an expert in discovering the contents of a present, the Sherlock Holmes of Christmas, using carefully honed powers of deduction to learn the contents of each of my presents long before Christmas Day. One squeeze of a paper wrapped parcel let me know if it was an article of clothing, a boxed toy, or something more interesting. A strategically placed tear on a boxed present might reveal a brand name. A knock on the side let me know if it was metal, wood or plastic. Shaking it gave clues of its internal makeup. Was it heavy, in pieces, dense or light? And when I went to bed on Christmas Eve, in the room I shared with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary, I had a pretty good idea what I was getting; more of the same. I lay awake between my sleeping brothers, on a mattress on the floor of our room, the feeling of bitter disappointment growing inside me, knowing that none of the gifts under the tree this year could be the Huffy dirt bike I so desired.

I first saw her in the local K Mart. My mother was in the clothing section with my three younger sisters. Roger was somewhere else in the store. I wandered off with my brothers to the toy section. The toy aisles were filled with shoppers. Christmas music played through the store speakers, interrupted by occasional announcements about blue light specials and reminders about the K Mart layaway program. Tonka Trucks, GI Joes, evil Knievel on a motorcycle, lined the shelves. I looked at the cornucopia of possible gifts with that familiar, sharp hunger, knowing that most of my gifts this year would come from the clothing section. I followed my brothers out of the toy section to sporting goods, my thoughts on Christmas day. I cared little for sports and wandered off while my brothers looked at footballs and basketballs. I ignored the displays of tents and outdoor equipment, the hunting and fishing gear, lawn darts, bows and arrows. Finally, I arrived at the racks of bicycles.

And there she was.

I was in love. Real love; aching love. It was love at first sight. I saw her, standing, fastened by her tires in one of the bike racks, a price tag with the words Huffy Dirt Bike fastened to her glistening, yellow frame. I knew instantly what I wanted, what I needed, for Christmas. I saw myself perched on her seat, feeling the wind in my face as I rode, flew, along the highways and byways of my neighborhood. I would ride to school like the other boys who rode their bicycles and lock her up with a chain and master lock to the bike rack in front of the school, next to all the other bikes. There she would wait for me. She was more than a bicycle. She was freedom. I could go anywhere on that bike. I could do anything. My revelry was ended by the arrival of my two brothers.

“It’s just a Huffy,” Brian said. He saw me staring at the dirt bike and recognized the look of sheer desire on my face. He pointed to where the far more expensive bikes were. “What you want is one of them Schwinn’s.” I glanced over at the Schwinn’s. They were sleek and aerodynamic bicycles, but they did not compare to the beauty in front of me. I looked at the price tag. It read seventy-five dollars, less than half of what the Schwinn’s went for. More money than I had ever seen in one place. My heart fell. Seventy-five dollars. I stood there in clothes too big for me, a hole in the top of one of my tennis shoes, hand me downs from my older brothers, my dreams of freedom, of flying above the blacktop streets of my neighborhood, of being the equal of the other boys with bikes, were crushed by reality. I would never own this bicycle. We simply could not afford it. The feeling of want grew inside me. The sound of someone moving behind me caught my attention.

“Oh, there you boys are,” my mother said, “we have to go. Roger wants to leave.” She glanced at the rows of bicycles. I turned to the Huffy and touched one of the handlebars. Subconsciously, perhaps, I was saying goodbye.

We all piled into our old, faded green sedan. Roger was driving. My mother was in the passenger seat, and we six children filled the rest of the car. I sat in the back seat, sandwiched by my brothers. One of the smaller girls sat on my lap. I watched my mother place the items she purchased into the trunk. Her attempts at discretion let me know she had gifts in there. She had spent all her time in the clothes section. Once again, Christmas would be another, bitter, disappointment.

And, yet, on this Christmas morning, there she was, leaning against her kickstand, next to the Christmas tree. I stood before her in awe, still not believing my eyes.

“Was that the one you wanted?” My mother said. I nodded, turning to my mother.

“How,” I said, “how did you know?”

“There’s a chain for it and a lock,” she said. “Make sure you lock it up, or someone will steal it…”

“Nobody better steal it,” Roger said. He looked at me as though I had already left the bike unlocked and someone had stolen it. “That thing cost a lot of money.”

“I bought it with my own money,” my mother said, “on layaway.”

“Well,” Roger said, “he had still better not lose it.”

Ten minutes later, I was flying above the streets around my neighborhood, the new rubber of the tires humming on the blacktop, feeling the wind in my face as I pedaled that Huffy bike as fast as it would go. It was better than I had imagined. It was a dirt bike, and I deliberately rode in any dirt I could find, exulting in the deep tread marks left by the tires of the bike. My bike. Mine. I rode for hours, before finally returning, exhausted, but happy, to our duplex. I washed the Huffy with a wet cloth, restoring her earlier shine, before bringing her inside. I fell asleep that night, smiling, content, the Huffy leaning against her kickstand. I dreamed of riding, soaring, on the seat of my brand new, yellow Huffy dirt bike. School was out for another week after Christmas, and I spent every day riding my bike. I covered miles of black top, exploring the areas around my neighborhood, riding bikes with the neighborhood children, and riding the trails in a wooded area near my family’s home.

After Christmas break, I rode my bike to school. I stopped next to the bike racks. I placed the Huffy’s front tire into one of the racks and wrapped the chain through the spokes, securing it to the rack. Three other boys were locking their bikes to the rack. They were all Schwinn’s. One of the boys looked at me. He was a stocky redheaded boy with freckles, wearing a Led Zeppelin tee shirt.

“You got a new bike?” he said, eying my Huffy with an appraising look.

“Yeah,” I said.

He looked at my new, yellow Huffy and shrugged.

“Nice enough, I guess.”

I spent the entire day in anticipation of the moment I would get to ride my bike again. Finally, the bell rang, and school was out. I made my way to the bike rack, through the gathering throng of the other kids who were busy unlocking their bikes. And there was my Huffy, waiting for me. I knelt down, unlocked the lock and removed the chain. I wrapped the chain around the seat post. The three boys who were there earlier were unlocking their bikes. The stocky redheaded boy who had spoken to me earlier nodded at me.

“We’re doing an Albertson’s run,” he said. “You wanna come?”

“Me?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “If you can keep up.”

“What’s an Albertson’s run?”

The boys got on their bikes, grinning at each other.

“You will see when we get there. You worried?”

I was worried, but the idea of being part of a group on a “run,” whatever it was, excited me. Not only was I the proud owner of a brand-new dirt bike, but I was part of a group of bike owners. I got on the Huffy.

“I’m not worried,” I said, “let’s go.”

Albertson’s grocery store was located about two miles from the school. The boys looked back at me from atop their Schwinn bicycles. I pedaled as hard as I could, until the Huffy caught up to them. The redheaded boy’s face broke into a grin and he gave my bike an admiring nod. The feel of the new rubber tires on the road, the wind in my hair, the excitement of newly found friends, lifted my emotions to a point of pure ecstasy. This was freedom like I had never known. I looked down at the glistening yellow frame of my bike, feeling the grips of the handlebars in my hands. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. We reached the store and pulled our bikes up to a couple of poles located near the entrance. The boys got off their bikes and began chaining them to the poles. I got off the Huffy and removed the bike chain from around the seat. I threaded the chain through the bike frame and around a pole, fastening the chain with the lock.

“What do we do now?” I said.

“This is where it gets fun,” the redheaded boy said. He motioned to the other boys, and they headed into the store. I followed. The redheaded boy led the way, passing the checkout lanes, to the candy aisle. He motioned to the other boys. “Cover me,” he said. The older boys moved into position, blocking the view of the redheaded boy, who knelt and picked up several candy bars from the shelf. He placed the candy bars into the pocket of his jacket. He stood up and blocked the view of one of the other boys who did the same. The boy bent down, took candy bars from the shelf, and deposited them into his pocket. The third boy did the same. The redheaded boy looked at me. “Your turn,” he said. My mouth went dry. I looked around us. No one appeared to notice the four of us huddled around the candy aisle.

“You’re stealing?” I said. The redheaded boy shrugged.

“Yeah, so what?” He said, “You a chicken or something?”

Stealing. As poor as my family was, stealing from a store had never once crossed my mind. The commandments taught to me in Sunday School included the age-old tenet “Thou shalt not steal,” and, for the most part, I had kept those commandments. One of the other boys looked disdainfully at me.

“Yeah, he’s a chicken,” he pronounced. The third boy frowned up at me.

“You gonna snitch?” He said.

I bit my lip and looked at the boys, at the bulge of the candy bars protruding from their pockets.

“What if we get caught?” I said.

“We do this all the time,” the red headed boy said. “Come on. Get one, man. I will show you how it’s done.”

Thou shalt not steal. The thought, the command, reverberated through my being, but I pushed the thought down. I knelt in front of the rows of candy bars, the other boys blocking my view. I picked up a Whatchamacallit candy bar, a rectangular candy bar in a tan wrapper, and placed it into my coat pocket.

“Okay,” the red headed boy said, “Now follow me.” I expected him to head to the store exit, but he went to the restroom area located near the front of the store. We entered the men’s room together. The boys removed the candy bars from their pockets, knelt down, lifted their pant legs and placed the candy bars into their socks. The red headed boy grinned up at me. “Go ahead,” he said. I pulled the Whatchamacallit from my coat pocket, knelt down, lifted my right pantleg, and placed the candy bar into the elastic of my sock. I pulled the pant leg over the bulge in my sock. Thou shalt not steal. The commandment came to the forefront of my mind again. I looked at the boys who were now nodding their approval of me. I pushed the thought down until it became little more than a whisper.

“What now?” I said.

“Now we leave,” the red headed boy said, “but not together. I will leave first, then come out one by one. Meet up at the bikes.”

With that, the red headed boy left the restroom. A minute or so later, one of the other boys left, soon followed by the last boy, leaving me alone. I felt the Whatchamacallit against the skin of my right ankle. I could take it out. I could leave it in the restroom. It wasn’t stealing, I thought, until I left the store with it. But what if the other boys wanted proof? What if they wouldn’t let me ride with them again? I had just met the boys, but the recent thrill, the freedom, the exultation that came with being accepted, was fresh in my memory. I did not want to lose it. I opened the door to the men’s room and looked out at the store. There were no policemen, no swat team taking the boys into custody. They had made it outside. Taking a deep breath to steady my nerves, I stepped anxiously out of the restroom and walked toward the exit. Through the front store windows, I saw the other boys outside, already sitting on the seats of their bicycles. I saw my Huffy, still chained to the pole. I headed out through the automatic door. Suddenly, a large hand gripped my right shoulder.

“Hold on a minute, Son,” a man said. I stopped and turned. The store manager, a large man in his forties, wearing a white dress shirt and khaki slacks, stared down at me.

“Yes, Sir?” I said. My voice came out in a squeak, just above a whisper. The commandment returned, keeping rhythm with the pounding of my heart. Thou…shalt not…steal…thou…shalt not…steal…

“Where are you going with that candy bar?”

I looked down at the floor.

“What candy bar?” I asked.

“The one you brought into the restroom,” he said. “Did you eat it?”

“No, sir,” I said, my heart pounding in my chest. Thou…shalt…not…steal… Thou…shalt…not…steal…

“Empty out your pockets,” the manager ordered. I put my hands in my coat pocket and pulled them inside out, showing them empty. I did the same with my pant pockets. The manager towered over me. “Did you leave it in the restroom?” He asked.

“No, Sir,” I said again.

“Come with me,” he ordered. I followed him toward the restrooms. I looked outside, through the front windows and saw the other boys leaving on their bicycles. The manager held the restroom door open and I entered. He started searching the restroom, looking in the stalls and the trash bin. The wrapper of the Whatchamacallit seemed to grow hot against the skin of my right ankle, as the manager slowly and methodically searched the restroom. I stood, watching quietly. Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was surely only minutes, the manager gave up. He looked at me and scratched his head.

“Well, young man,” he said, “maybe I was wrong.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Can I go now?”

The manager looked around the restroom once more and reluctantly nodded. He held the door to the men’s room open. I walked out, heading for the exit door. The automatic doors opened with a swoosh and closed behind me. I let out a sigh of relief and walked to my bicycle. I removed the chain from the pole and wrapped it around the seat post of the Huffy. I was home free. Focused on the bike, I barely heard the footsteps behind me. The manager’s voice jolted me from my reverie.

“Lift your pant legs,” he ordered.

“M-my pant legs?”

“Yes. Lift your pant legs.”

I bent down and lifted my left pant leg. Of course, there was nothing there. I stood up and looked dumbly at the manager, who towered over me. He pointed to my right pant leg. The wrapper of the Whatchamacallit felt hot against my skin. Could I roll up my pant leg and still hide the bulge of the offending candy bar inside my sock? Slowly, kneeling down, I lifted my pant leg.

“There it is,” the manager said. “Give it to me.”

Caught. In my guilt, I could not so much as look at the manager. I kept my eyes focused on the ground in front of me, as I removed the Whatchamacallit candy bar from my sock and gave it to him. My mouth went dry. I tried to speak. My voice was barely audible.

I’m sorry,” I said.

The manager stared down at me, shaking his head.

“Sorry doesn’t quite cut it, Son. You have to come with me now.”

He led and I followed him to his small office, where he told me to sit down in one of the chairs. I sat down, obediently. A yellow phone sat on his desk. He picked up the receiver.

“What’s your home phone number?”

I looked at the phone in his hand. I thought about my mother at home. A deep feeling of shame took hold of me. I could not let my mother know. I did not want her to know what I had done, after she had scrimped and saved to purchase my bike on layaway. I also imagined Roger’s reaction. Roger never showed mercy. If he knew what I had done, the terrible thing that I had done, the punishment would far exceed the crime. I would never live it down. My mother would know I was a thief, and Roger would never let her forget it.

“I don’t remember my phone number,” I lied. “We just moved there.”

“You don’t remember your phone number?”

“No, Sir,” I said. The manager studied me, weighing whether I was lying or telling the truth. It was not uncommon for a boy my age not to know his phone number. He placed the phone back in its cradle.

“Then where do you live?” He asked. I pointed vaguely in the opposite direction of Highland Avenue. The manager shook his head and sighed. “You don’t know your address, either?”

“No, Sir,” I lied. The manager stared at me, rubbing his chin.

“I need to speak to your parents,” he said. “If I can’t call them and you don’t know your address, how am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” I said, “I could tell them to call you when I get home. I can promise you, Sir.”

“You could promise?” He said. “I should let you leave and trust you will return with your parents? Do I look stupid to you?”

“No, Sir.”

“And how do I know you would keep your promise?” He held up the Whatchamacallit. “I already know you’re a thief. I bet you’re a liar, too.”

Now, I had no intention of keeping that promise. I would have said or done anything to get out of there without my mother and Roger finding out what I had done. Having already broken the seventh of the ten commandments, I was ready to break the eighth. I tried to look as innocent, as honest, as I could. I met the manager’s stare, and I lied.

“I promise, Sir. I will tell my parents. A promise is a promise.”

“Is that right?” The manger considered my words. “A promise is a promise?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He studied me for a long moment. Finally, he nodded to himself.

“Alright, young man,” he said, “I accept your promise.” He stood up from his desk chair, walked to his office door and opened it. “You’re free to go, but I expect to hear from your parents by the end of the day. You’re going to tell them, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir,” I lied, stepping out of the office. I looked at the exit from the store. I was mere steps away from freedom. I would leave, get on my Huffy and pedal off into the sunset, never to be seen at Albertson’s again.

“Fine, then,” the manager said. He motioned to the exit. “You’re free to go.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I said. I turned toward the exit and had to stop myself from running. I exited the store through the automatic doors, feeling relieved when they closed behind me. I walked to where my Huffy sat alone, chained to the pole where I had left it. My newfound acquaintances were nowhere to be seen. I unlocked the chain and removed it from the pole. I could hardly believe my luck. I was actually getting away with it! My mother would never know. I bent over and wrapped the chain around the seat post, securing it with the lock. I thought about my situation. I realized I could never show my face at Albertson’s again. It was a small price to pay. My mother shopped there from time to time, but even if the manager saw her, there was no way he could know who she was. Deep in thought, I had not noticed the Albertson’s manager until he stepped up behind me. He placed his hand on the handlebars of my Huffy.

“Why don’t you leave your bike with me,” he said, “until I have that talk with your parents.”

“But I need my bike to get home, Sir,” I said.

“You’ll get it back, just as soon as I talk with your parents. After all, you’re the thief, not me. You have two choices.” He said. “You can call your parents and have them meet you here, or you can walk home.”

I looked down at my beautiful bike. My heart sank. My Huffy. I thought about my mother and how she would feel when she learned I was a thief. It would break her heart. But my bike, the greatest Christmas present I ever had, was in the manager’s hand. The bike, or my mother’s heart? Was the bike worth my mother knowing what I had done? How would she feel when she learned her youngest son was a criminal, a thief and a liar? I looked up at the manager. My eyes were brimming with tears of desperation.

“Please,” I said.

I walked the three miles from Albertson’s to our duplex, torn between two decisions. Would I tell my mother the truth, or would I tell my mother a lie? The walk was mostly uphill and difficult. I was tired and the sun was setting when I finally reached my front door. The moment had come; the moment of truth, or the moment of lies.

I was twenty-seven when I finally told my mother what had really happened to my beautiful Huffy dirt bike. Faced with two decisions, I chose deceit. The story I told my mother was that I had ridden my bike to my friend’s house and left it outside. Someone had stolen it. I remember riding in the car, as my mother drove me around the nearby neighborhoods, searching for my bike. I remember Roger’s scolding about how much that bike cost and how he had told my mother I had better not lose it, and how I could not be trusted with nice things. For crying out loud, dagnabbit, and cotton picking…

For months, whenever my mother went to Albertson’s with my brothers and sisters, I found an excuse to wait in the car. Dread gripped my heart as I imagined her seeing my Huffy bike in the manager’s office, or, worse, on display with a sign on it announcing that it belonged to a candy bar thief and a liar. But that never happened. After a while, my mother forgot about the bike, and life returned to normal. My beautiful, yellow Huffy dirt bike was lost to me. It was the first and the last new bike of my childhood. I wonder to this day what happened to it. Did it become an after Christmas present for the manager’s son? Probably. If it did, I hope he enjoyed it.

As I sit at my writing desk, sharing this memory with you, it is Christmas time. The beeping of a car horn sounding in front of my house disturbs my quiet solitude and returns me from that day in 1981 to the present day. I stand up, leave my office, and walk into the living room, where my wife and teenage son are.

“Who’s honking?” I ask. My son grins. My wife says,

“Who else do you think would pull up in the driveway and honk their horn?”

I open the front door and look outside. The white Toyota sedan belonging to Roger and my mother is parked halfway in my driveway, behind my own car. Roger is in the passenger seat. My mother is behind the wheel. Roger rolls down the window. My mother calls to me.

“Hey, Ricky, come out here. I have something for you guys.”

I step outside with my wife and son. We walk to the Toyota. My mother hands Roger a large trash bag filled with, what I know from experience, are Christmas presents. This scenario plays out every year at Christmas time. My mother never forgets to bring us presents. I walk to her side of the car, open the car door and kiss her cheek, as my wife takes the bag from Roger.

“Thank you, Mom,” I say. “Thank you, Roger,” I say. Roger mumbles something that could be “you’re welcome” or “cotton picking.”

We carry the trash bag inside and remove the gifts. They are individually wrapped, and there is a gift for every family member. It has become our tradition to unwrap my mother’s gifts whenever we get them. Gifts range from such unique items as bottles of Juice to a rainbow colored, furry, stuffed piggy bank with a roll of quarters. This year, we get winter boot socks. My son laughs and my wife smiles knowingly.

“Everyone needs socks,” I say.

We have learned that it is not the gift that matters, so much as it is the thought behind it. And, now, when I remember my Huffy dirt bike, the greatest and best Christmas present of my childhood, it is not the bike that matters to me. What matters most to me is knowing that my mother, in her extreme poverty, knew I wanted that bike, and did what she could to get it for me. Because she loved me and wanted me to be happy. That Huffy was more than just a bike. It was the gift of a mother’s love. And it is that love I remember, and always will remember. For, on Christmas, and on every other day, love is, and always will be, the greatest gift of all.

For crying out loud.


Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at:









We are living in extraordinary times. It seems we are at a crossroads as a nation where two factions are at war over the future of our country. Everything about our country, from its founding articles, the constitution, its history, its morals and Judeo-Christian ideals are being attacked by the left and defended by the right. This is nothing new. This divide has been growing for more than fifty years, a simmering cauldron that has become a boiling pot. The factions on either side used to be able to get along, to agree to disagree, but that seems to have changed. We have come to the climax. The opponents of the founding ideals of this country are meeting the conservatives of this nation head on. The anger on both sides has reached i’s final crescendo. This will not end until one side claims victory.

I have watched the fight mostly from the sidelines, wading into the issues only when something reached close to home, but now I feel the need to engage, to stand up. Because now evil has truly shown its face. Evil is in our midst. And, let there be no mistake, it is evil. I watched as the New York governor and the New York legislators cheered, smiled and congratulated themselves as they signed into law a bill that would allow the abortion of unborn babies up to the very moment of birth. My friend, if you support the termination of the life of an unborn baby just before birth, I say, without equivocation, there is something wrong with your soul. It is not only wrong to believe in and support such a heinous act, the systematic destruction of a life so innocent, so pure, so utterly helpless, but it is evil. I cannot imagine a more vile, egregious act so against the laws of human nature, compassion and motherly love, and the laws of God.

And that leads to the very heart of my point. There is one major difference between the left and the right in this country and throughout the world. Those on the right, for the most part, believe in God. They believe that God is the final arbiter, the very basis for morality. He is the one who holds in his hands the balance of what is good and what is evil. He is the one who separated light from darkness, righteousness from unrighteousness. Those on the left reject the notion of God, for the most part denying the existence of a creator, a supreme judge of their actions. They do not believe in a final reckoning, a time when they must stand before the creator and give an account for their actions.

And it all boils down to this.

If there is no God, there is nothing to measure what is inherently evil, or what is inherently good. Ask yourself this question: What is good? What is evil? Then ask yourself, if there is no God, how do we know evil is evil and good is good? Who decides? What I think is good, another may consider to be evil. What I consider to be evil, the systematic murder of innocent life, the New York legislature and governor celebrated with cheers and applause as they signed it into law.

Is law, then, the supreme arbiter of what is right or what is wrong? Laws chosen by the majority of the people, for instance? If the majority of the people conclude and agree that something is good, and should be lawful, or a thing is evil, and should not be lawful, does that make it so? Are we the final authority on righteousness and unrighteousness? Are all laws inherently good?

Let us consider a man most believe was evil; a monster, a blight on the history of all mankind. Let us examine Adolph Hitler. This man was responsible for the murder of millions, men, women and children. His Nazi party regularly ripped babies from the arms of their mothers and executed them. But, I challenge you, prove to me that he was evil, without the existence of God.

You may answer that he was a tyrant, a man who ordered the extermination of some thirteen million people, including six million Jews. And he certainly did. But prove to me that what Adolph Hitler did was wrong. Prove to me that Adolph Hitler’s actions were evil. He violated no laws of Germany, after all. In fact, he was placed in authority by a majority of the people and given supreme dictatorial powers. He was, in effect, himself, the law. In his opinion, as the supreme law of the land, the systematic extermination of thirteen million people was the right thing to do. He did what was right in his own eyes. He had legal authority in Germany to sentence anyone to death that he chose. Was he wrong? Was he right? He did not break the law of the land. He believed the extermination of thirteen million people for their race, for their political views, for their religion, was the right thing to do. And I challenge you: If there is no God, prove to me that his actions were evil.

Without God, there is no absolute right or wrong. There is no true good, and there is no true evil. Every man does whatever he feels is right. Society simply decides what is wrong and what is right, good and evil, by a consensus, a majority. And why not? If there is no God, why should we, ourselves, not decide what is good and evil? Whatever makes us happy, whatever is convenient, whatever causes the least amount of suffering in the world should be good.

If a woman becomes pregnant and finds having a child to be inconvenient, she should simply have an abortion. She should simply exterminate the growing life inside her. Why shouldn’t she? It is simply a choice, reproductive freedom, the termination of a mass of growing tissue. And it makes sense, does it not, to prevent any possible future suffering of a child born to a life of financial hardship, or parents too young to raise a child? It is good to prevent suffering. Why should a young woman take on the responsibility of children when she is not prepared to do so? Why should she have to give up her life to raise a child? Why should she have to be inconvenienced?

It makes perfect sense, after all. If there is no God.

The continuing, systematic termination of innocent children, ripped from their mother’s wombs, mothers who, by nature, should be protecting them, makes perfect sense, if there is no God. It should be done, without question. And it is done, to the tune of millions of babies, millions of heartbeats, children that belong to God and are a gift from God. And why not? If there is no God?

And, to follow that line of thinking, to prevent all future suffering, for convenience sake, we should be permitted to terminate the lives of all who were born with disabilities, who may be a burden to society (for convenience sake), or their family members, anyone born with a developmental disability, any child born into poverty. If there is no God, who is to say that would be wrong? After all, once we decided it was acceptable to terminate one life for convenience sake, or to prevent future suffering, why should terminating any other life be different, if there is no God? And isn’t removing suffering from the world a noble desire?

Adolph Hitler would agree.

You see, without God, all things are permissible. If there is no God, it makes perfect sense that people should do whatever makes them feel good. Whatever it is. Why not? Who is there to judge them? Who is the arbiter of right and wrong? Whatever desire a person has should be fulfilled without regard for what others may think. After all, who is there to judge us if there is no God? A man should be able to have as many partners as he wishes. The bonds of marriage, after all, are only as strong as one decides they are. A man is not bound to his wife, nor a wife to her husband, if there is no God to bind them to their oaths.

A man should be allowed to have a partner regardless of their gender. If he desires a man, he should be allowed to marry a man. If a woman desires a woman, she should be allowed to marry a woman. I mean, love is love, right? No one dictates what love should be. There is no absolute measurement of what love is supposed to be. We should decide, by what we want, and how we feel. After all, who gets to decide what is right and wrong, if there is no God? And, if something is considered wrong in society, we should manipulate the beliefs of the population until the majority accepts that evil thing as good, or that thing once considered to be good as evil. And that changes the good from the evil and the evil from the good, because the majority now agrees on it.

If there is no God. Who gets to decide the roles of male and female, anyways? If a man chooses to be a woman, then he should be allowed to change his sex. If a woman chooses to be a man, who is to stop her? Nobody. That’s who. There are, after all, no absolutes.

And who says a person should have to be of a certain age to be in a relationship? What is so wrong with an adult loving a child? Think about it. You may not like it, you may think it’s evil, but who are we to judge? The marriage of grown men to eight and nine-year old girls is common in the Middle East. We heard recently about the frequent molestation of boys among the Muslim military troops we call allies. An American soldier used force against one of them to free a fifteen-year-old boy who was chained to a bed, because he grew tired of his screams in the night. The military kicked the soldier out of the military for protecting the boy. And they should have, I suppose. After all, who is that soldier to decide it is wrong to kidnap and chain a boy to the bed and continuously rape him? Who is that soldier to impose his own morality, his own Judeo-Christian values on another culture? I mean why is it wrong? Their laws permit it, after all. There is no absolute right or wrong.

And who says love is any better than hate? If we can love who we want, then we can hate who we want. Hate to your heart’s content. Hate other races other than your own. Hate anyone you please. It will make no difference in the end, If there is no God.

If there is no God, then life is nothing but a cosmic accident. We will all be dead and forgotten. The very universe itself will be dead and forgotten with time, and there will be no one left to remember us. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing we have done, or will ever do, matters. It will make no difference if you chose to help the poor, feed the hungry and relieve the pain of suffering humanity, or if you chose to be a serial killer, a monster, a mass murderer. It makes no difference if you were Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Mother Theresa or Florence Nightingale.

If there is no God.

Do whatever you want to do. Decide for yourself how you should live. After all, it is your life, and, once it is over, you will cease to exist. There will not be judgment. There will not be a memory of your past wrongs. Hurt as many as you wish, hate to your hearts content. Manipulate, scheme. Step on anyone it takes to get whatever it is you want. Nothing really matters. There are no consequences. If there is no God.

You will die. All will cease to be, but at least you got what you wanted while you were living. And, really, what you want is the only thing that really matters, isn’t it?


But wait a minute, you say. You are taking this too far. You are being foolish. Perhaps you think so, but who’s to say, If there is no God? Stop pushing your individual morality onto me. There is no good, there is no evil. There are no absolutes, there is no limit to depravity. There are no true morals, because there is no true standard to compare morals to. Because God is the final arbiter, the plumb line, the ultimate measurement of morality, decency, goodness, purity and, yes, evil.

And that is what is happening in America right now. The media and the left broke into cheers and applause over a young boy dressing as a girl and dancing provocatively in front of men at a gay bar, who tossed dollar bills at him. Teenagers at a Catholic school, supporting the right to life for unborn babies were cursed, threatened and jeered at by an unruly mob of adults, but the media and the left ridiculed and screamed for the physical harm and even the death of the teenagers. The left rejoiced, the New York legislature voted for the right to kill babies moments before birth and to terminate the lives of the babies who survive the attempt to abort them. This is evil.

I understand where the left is coming from. I was once an atheist, not only denying the existence of God, but actively recruiting others to my way of thinking. I would have fit right in with the leftists today. Because, without God, there is only yourself. What you feel, what you think, is the most important thing. You are the final arbiter between what is good and what is evil. There is no external measuring stick, no plumb line, no compass to guide you, no map to follow. And, without a map, without a compass, I was helplessly lost. America must find her compass again. She must dust off the road map, the articles which founded her very existence. She must remember her creator. It is he, after all, who endowed us with certain inalienable rights; the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is upon his word that we based the laws of our nation, the idea that all men are created equal. Without him, we are not the nation our forefathers envisioned. Without him, we have no boundaries, no moral compass, no righteousness, no inherent goodness.

The United States is lost, if there is no God.

-Ricky Taylor

My Bethel

Lord, here I am. Here, where it all happened, so long ago. I am alone in the sanctuary of what is now called the “old church” by the new church members. This building, nothing more than a small sanctuary and a few rooms, is as holy to me as the Temple Mount is to the Jewish people. To most, it is an auxiliary building, the classes used for Sunday School, the rooms used for youth group functions or as a prayer room. To me, it is Bethel, the House of God. A strip of sanctuary floor in an old white building located at 631 12th Street in Imperial Beach, California, is holy ground. And I am anything but alone. As I sit on a padded, brown chair where the old orange pews used to be, I feel your presence. I Came here for Monday night prayer meeting, but no one showed. Faithful men, who rarely miss prayer meeting, yet, somehow, not one of them arrived. Is this your doing, Lord? Did you orchestrate this meeting?

The sun is nearly down. The sanctuary is growing dark. And here you are, in the darkness. I am in awe of your presence. You are the God who spoke to Abraham, who called to Moses from a burning bush, who appeared to the nation of Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. I feel your enormous power and realize this is what the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle must have felt like; your presence dwelling between the two cherubim on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. I am acutely aware that you are God, the eternal God, who made the Heavens and the Earth for your pleasure. I am in your holy presence. And I know you. You are my God. You are my master. You are my father. You are my friend. Me, an unclean man with unclean lips, allowed to be in your presence. Hide me in the Cross, Oh, Lord.

As I sit here before you, flood gates open in the recesses of my mind, and, one by one, the memories flow. I remember this place, this holy ground, my Bethel.

I was young, sixteen years old, when first I heard your voice; here in this very sanctuary. A declared atheist, I did not believe in you. I was born and raised in church. I received your Holy Spirit as a child. Yet, I no longer believed. Many don’t understand how this could be. But it was true. I was spiritually blinded. The stories of the Bible were, to me, on an equal standing with Roman and Greek mythology. How you created the world, spoke with the patriarchs, punished the gods of Egypt, parted the Red Sea. To me, it was a fairytale. The Christian religion was for gullible, weak-minded people, manipulated by money-hungry preachers. The idea that you robed yourself in a human body and walked this Earth, healing the sick, opening blinded eyes, walking on water, dying at Calvary and rising again the third day, was a fiction written by ancient people ruled by superstition, and believed by modern people of unsound mind. I believed in Science. I preached the doctrine of Evolution. On the advanced debate team in high school, I debated against your existence with the passion and fervor of a Pentecostal evangelist. I did so with all sincerity of heart, truly believing you did not exist. I was blind. I could not believe in you any more than a blind man can see the beauty of the world around him.

My parents were divorced, and I lived in San Antonio, Texas, with my father and stepmother. Though, outwardly, I was animated against God, inwardly I was miserable. For, though I was still very young, I had weighed much of what the world had to offer and found it wanting. I was slowly realizing the truth that if there is no God, there is no meaning. Still, I did not believe. Through a series of events that I now see were orchestrated by you, I left a middle-class family and a home in a respectable neighborhood to live in a single-wide trailer in a rundown trailer park with my mother, stepfather and my sisters. I questioned the whole time why I chose to leave my home in Texas to live in such a place. Yet, there I was. And the first conversation I remember having with my mother was about church.

“You need to go to church, Ricky. You still love God, don’t you?” She said. You know her, Lord. There are few people with the innocence and purity of heart she possesses. And I did not want to hurt her. I explained to her as kindly as I could that, no, I did not love something that did not exist. But, little by little, my mother’s unrelenting pleas and cajoling began to weigh on me. I finally relented and entered this building for the first time in many years. I wish I could say that I submitted to you immediately, but I did not. I felt your presence, but I did not allow it to move me. I remember watching the people, clapping hands, moving to the music, lifting hands in worship to you. And I refused to worship. Yet it dawned on me that I had never given you a chance. I believed Science. I believed in Evolution. Yet, I had never given you a chance to prove your existence to me. And I decided that I would. And here, in this place, I said a prayer to you.

“If you will prove to me that you are real, I will serve you every day of my life.”

It pains me, My Lord, when I recall the promise I made to you. How many times have I broken that oath? How many times have I failed you, ignored the leading and calling of your Spirit? Forgive me, Lord, for my unfaithfulness. Create in me a clean heart, oh, God.

Still, I began to seek you. I bargained with you in a way that I would hesitate to do now. I told you that I would try to keep myself from the sins I regularly committed and would continue to go to church. I did this on the agreement you would prove your existence to me. And this went on for a short time. Finally, someone told me I needed to spend regular time in prayer. I remember going to bed one night, considering prayer.

“Lord,” I said, “If you are real, wake me up at 4:30 am and I will walk to the church and pray to you.” And, with those words, I fell asleep. The next morning, the sound of my mother’s voice woke me up. She was talking to my stepfather.

“Roger, wake up. You’re going to be late. It’s 4:31!”

I opened my eyes and sat up in bed. It had worked! I asked you to wake me up at 4:30 am, and it worked. But as I sat in bed, the doubts came. It had not worked. After all, if there is a God, is he ever late? Is he even a minute late? No. It had to be coincidence. Still, I got up and went into the kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table for a few minutes. The idea that a bona fide miracle had almost happened puzzled me. One minute late. How could this be? I stared at the clock on our old, green microwave.

“Mom,” I said, “what clock did you look at this morning when you woke Roger up?”

“Huh?” She said.

“The clock. What clock did you look at this morning?”

“The one on the microwave,” she said.

In those days, you could check the accuracy of a clock by calling time on the telephone. I picked up the telephone receiver and dialed the number for time. Somehow, I already knew what the recorded woman’s voice on the other end of the line was going to say. The phone rang. I held the receiver to my ear and the familiar woman’s voice began to speak,

“At the tone,” she said, “Pacific standard time will be…” One minute fast. The microwave clock was one minute fast! I was awakened that morning by the sound of my mother’s voice at 4:30 am. The right time. Not the time of the microwave clock, which was one minute fast, but right on time. You are always on time, Lord!

True to my promise, I walked in the dark about two miles to this church. My mother had given me the key, and I entered through the back door. I made my way down to the front of this sanctuary and sat in one of the pews. The idea of kneeling to pray never entered my mind. I could not deny something had happened. I had given you a challenge, and you had met my challenge. But I wasn’t convinced. I needed more. Already, the fogs of doubt, the demons of atheism, were working overtime to deny your small miracle. Maybe it had been all in my mind. Maybe I had just dreamed that I asked God to wake me up. You know, the mind is very powerful, after all. I mean, think about it. Do you really believe some invisible, all powerful being exists, and if he did exist, would take time out of his busy schedule to engineer a situation where a sixteen-year-old boy would be woken up at 4:30 am? I needed more. I sat there on the front pew and issued yet another challenge.

“Lord,” I said, “If you’re real, talk to me. I know you spoke to several people in the Bible. That means you have a voice. Moses heard your voice. Abraham heard your voice. I want to hear your voice.”

I waited. Nothing happened. I waited more, and more of nothing happened. Finally, I left this sanctuary and went to school.

For several weeks, I returned to this holy place, early in the morning and late at night. I sat in a pew and challenged you. I waited to see if you would speak to me. I left day after day, night after night, not having heard your voice. Finally, I grew desperate. I came into this place, Lord. I had made up my mind. I stood in the front of the sanctuary, in the altar, facing the pews. I called out to you, in desperation.

“Lord,” I said, “tomorrow, there will be church here. There will be a preacher here. I believe that if you are real, you can tell that preacher what to preach. If you will tell the preacher to preach on faith, then I will know that you are real. If the preacher preaches on faith, then I will serve you as long as I live. If not, then I will never return to this place. This will be the last time I come.”

I meant every word. And, suddenly, while I was yet speaking, your presence filled this sanctuary. I was terrified. I felt the enormity of your power. My body was covered in goosebumps. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I felt your presence emanating from the back of the pews on my right side. Something in me knew that the one whose presence I felt could speak and the universe would roll up like a scroll at his word. Matter would simply cease being. Time would end at his command. I knew I was in the presence of the living God. I was in your presence, Lord. And, as suddenly as your presence arrived, I heard your voice. I heard the audible voice of God. It was not a booming, loud voice. It was not deep or thunderous. It was the voice I believe Elijah heard when he sought you. It was the still, small voice. I heard your voice with my ears, I heard it in my spirit, I heard it in my soul. It seemed to enter me, to permeate every aspect of my being. I believe it was the voice that commanded blind eyes to open, demons to flee, the storms to calm, the voice you used to deliver the sermon on the mount, the voice that told Lazarus to come forth from the grave. The most beautiful, the most powerful voice the universe has ever known.

“You be here at seven o’ clock tomorrow.”

I trembled, Lord, at your word. I heard your voice, and no demon in or out of Hell could tell me different. The clouds of doubt and atheism were lifted at your word. Yet, I was terrified in your presence. I ran from this place. Having entered through the back door, I knew I had to pass by the spot where your voice had come from. As I ran by, I felt your awesome power, emanating from that spot.

“If that is you, Lord, I will be here tomorrow.” I ran out of this sanctuary and closed the door behind me. Shaking with a mixture of awe and holy terror, I locked the door with my mother’s key.

I returned the following evening, arriving here at seven o’ clock. The church holding services that night was not the regular church. They were renting the building. Normally, weekday services started at seven thirty. Their church service started at seven o’ clock. The sanctuary was filled with a mixed congregation, mostly Hispanic. They began to sing. And your presence was here, as powerful in that service as it was the night before. The church began to worship. I wanted to worship with them, but I stopped myself. We had a deal. I would worship when the deal was done. But, oh, how they worshiped! People were shouting. Some were dancing in your presence. Some were weeping. They sang songs about faith.

“Faith can move mountains…mountains of fear and of doubt…Faith can move mountains…so why don’t you try your faith now?”

For over an hour, they sang. They clapped. They shouted. They wept. They danced. They sang in Spanish. They sang in English.

“Faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…you don’t need a whole lot…just use what you’ve got…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith!”

I held the back of the pew in front of me with a tight grip. I was getting excited. It seemed every song was about faith. Surely, the preacher was going to get up behind that pulpit and preach about faith. I just knew it. And I could barely believe it was happening. You were real. This proved it. The mind may be powerful enough to play tricks on a person, but it couldn’t control the actions of this church filled with people I had never met before.

And, finally, the song service died down. The pastor introduced the guest speaker, a man named Brother Palacios. He stood behind the pulpit and began to talk, rambling from one subject to the next. He did not take a text and he did not open his bible. He explained that he was a missionary in Mexico and had travelled most of that day to get here. He apologized that he had no time to prepare a message. As he spoke, my heart began to fail. A dark, wet, cloud of doubt settled over me. Of course, the preacher won’t preach on faith. And do you know why? Because there is no God. That’s why. But the faith songs, the presence of the Lord, the fact that church started at seven o’ clock. How could this be? Brother Palacios continued to talk. He seemed to be winding the service down. It was growing late. I couldn’t imagine that he would preach a sermon after talking for such a long time. But I had heard the voice of God. Hadn’t I?

Finally, the old preacher’s soliloquy came to a halt. He looked out at the congregation over dark-rimmed glasses. I knew in my heart his next words would be our dismissal. I would return home, empty-handed. A fool, but a wiser fool. Never again would my shadow darken the door of a church. Never again would I seek after a God who did not exist.

“While I was up here,” Brother Palacios said, “the Holy Spirit spoke to me.” I sat up in my seat, my heart jumped a beat. I clutched the back of the pew in front of me and held my breath. “Tonight,” he continued, “I have to preach on faith.”

Thank you, Lord!

I don’t remember the message being particularly awe inspiring or exceptionally well taught. I am sure others who were there that night were dismayed that this man of God would speak for so long, then decide to preach a message. But you, Lord, were in control. You were working a miracle they knew nothing about. Bless old Brother Palacios, who listened to your voice and obeyed your word. I sat in that pew, stunned, numb. I knew you were real. I knew you existed. Everything I thought I knew about the world around me changed. You are real! My God is real! Your presence is real! Thank you, Jesus!

And, Lord, as I sit here before you in this sanctuary, I remember. This small sanctuary holds so many memories. I preached my first message here. I was in the altar one night after a weekday service. A woman in a wheelchair was being prayed for. She had come several times wanting to be healed. In times past, I would have mocked the idea of divine healing, but I knew then that you were real. I watched as ministers prayed for the woman, and I wondered why she was not healed. I asked you,

“Lord, I know you can heal her. Why isn’t she healed?”

I felt your presence again, and, though I did not hear your voice with my ears, I felt your word enter me in every other way, my mind, my soul, my spirit. And, suddenly, I was looking through your eyes and feeling what you felt. Love! Love like I have never known, never felt since. An all-consuming love, a vacuum longing to be filled. I looked out at your people who were standing and sitting in the pews. I no longer saw them as people I knew, but as people you loved; your children, your people your very heart, the apple of your eye. Then, mingled with this torrent of pure unadulterated love, was sorrow. And you spoke to me.

“They are my people and I love them. But they don’t trust me.” I looked around at your people, feeling your great compassion. “Preach this,” you said.

“But, Lord,” I said, “I don’t preach.”

Moments later, the youth leader walked up to me.

“You’re preaching this Friday,” he said.

And, on Friday night, I stood behind the pulpit for the first time, wearing a secondhand suit and navy work boots. Back then, the entire church attended Friday night service and the sanctuary was filled with people. My pastor sat behind me, looking down at my boots and shaking his head with a smile. For the first time, I preached your word. I felt your presence again, like fire deep in my belly, rising in power as the anointing grew, threatening to consume me. I preached what you had given me, declaring your limitless love. Oh, the Love of God, so rich and pure, so measureless and strong. It shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song!

Then, as I stood behind the pulpit, your word came to me again.

“Tell Sister Helen I am going to save her son.”

“Sister Helen,” I said to one of the church matriarchs, “God is going to save your son.”

You spoke again,

“Tell Sister Castleman I know what she is going through and everything will be alright.”

But I faltered. Sister Castleman? Who am I to say that to Sister Castleman? I am only a teenager in a secondhand suit. I don’t even own a pair of dress shoes. In my moment of doubt, I failed to speak your word. Still, your Spirit moved in this place. The altar was filled with your people, weeping and seeking after God. It was beautiful. I stood, watching, basking in the remaining glow of your presence, your anointing. I watched as your people continued to seek you in the altar. Finally, I stepped into the vestibule, where I saw Sister Castleman waiting to talk with the pastor. It turned out that her life was in chaos. She was under a heavy burden, a burden I could have helped to lift. I learned the lesson.

And here I am, Lord. I have returned to Bethel. Thirty years have gone by. I have seen miraculous moves of your Spirit. I have been a man after your heart, and I have been a Pharisee, forgetting that you, yourself, are love. I have obeyed you, and I have disobeyed you. I have been on high mountains and I have been in places so low I thought I might be in Hell. Somewhere along the way, I became more of a politician than a preacher. I became disillusioned with my religion, the organization I fellowshipped with, because I placed my trust in men, rather than in you. But here I am, Lord. I am home. And here you are. You are here, in this sanctuary. You were waiting for me when I walked in. I am not trembling in terror at the enormity of your presence. I am not running away. I sit before you in admiration, in adoration, in love. I will remember, Lord. I will hear your voice. I will obey. There is nothing in this world more important than you. Your presence, Lord.

My Bethel.B26B9E91-62BF-425A-A24A-72B35686D15E



It was all about a girl.

I was in love. Young love. The kind of love only a teenage boy can know; a sweet, abiding, all-encompassing obsession, innocent and pure, beyond mere physical attraction. I loved her warm, brown eyes, the softness of her skin, her heart-shaped face and the beautiful sadness of her smile; her Mona Lisa smile. I loved her long, brown hair, which she wore down, parted in the middle, her halo of glory, flowing loosely to a point just above her lovely waist. She was my first thought every morning, and my last, aching thought every night. And, though I loved her outer beauty, she was also my best friend, my closest confidante. I would have given my everlasting soul for her.

And I nearly did.

I attended James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary. Though a freshman, I had none of the awkward moments of not fitting in. Brian and Gary were already something of high school royalty, though not part of the “in crowd.” They were the patriarchs and protectors of the misfits, the ones who did not fit into the proscribed roles of Jocks, Stoners or Kickers. Brian and I, with our brown hair and blue eyes, resembled our father. A surgery Gary had as a young boy to repair two holes in his heart had left him with a long scar on his chest, and his body never seemed to fully recover. Brian and I were thick boned and sturdy. Gary was gaunt, tall and thin. Where Brian and I were sanguine and gregarious, Gary was quiet and serious.

The Pullman boys were the twin terrors of James Madison High. They were six and a half feet tall, wore their hair long, and, though teenagers, had full beards. They walked the halls, wearing dark tee shirts of the Metallica or Iron Maiden variety, denim jeans and motorcycle boots. They had once been wrestlers on the high school team until they were kicked off for sheer meanness and excessive violence. They were kings of the hill, lions among the sheep of James Madison High. Until they cornered my brother Gary, that is.

I was still in the eighth grade when it happened, not yet a member of high school. My brother Gary, so the legend goes, was walking from one class to another and happened upon the Pullman brothers and one of their friends. I was never sure of the details. One of the Pullmans, or Gary, either by accident or design, brushed up against the other in the hallway. Whatever the details were, what happened was the Pullman brothers and their friend decided to follow my brother Gary, pushing him from the back as he walked. Other students, wanting to watch a fight, followed the procession. the Pullmans and their friend pushed my tall, skinny brother until they maneuvered him into a corner with no way of escape. Gary was helpless, alone. He had no way out. And that was the Pullman brothers’ mistake. Gary was always quiet and of few words. The friend of the Pullman brothers was just the opposite. He puffed out his chest and taunted Gary, confident in his strength and the strength of the Pullman brothers standing behind him. Gary simply hit him. Hard. In mid-sentence, a half-formed taunt still on his lips. The witnesses said Gary’s fists were lightning, hitting him three times before his limp body could even start falling. And, boy, did it fall, hard, all the way to the ground, a knockout punch. Then two things happened. A teacher passing by stopped the fight, and Gary became an instant legend. In the sort of logic only high school students understand, because Gary was a legend, a fighter with lightning fists, Brian, who was Gary’s bigger, older brother was considered a legend, as well. After all, everyone knew Brian could take Gary in a fight. Brian had a couple encounters of his own that launched the Taylor brothers further into legendary status at James Madison High School, and their reputation for not being trifled with earned me an immediate umbrella of protection. Far from being alone in high school, I was instantly part of the group, and, as the youngest of the Taylor boys, I was awarded a small part of the respect they had earned.

Our group was a myriad of different personalities. We had good students, we had students who were close to dropping out. We had poor students and wealthy ones, the nerds, the geeks, all mixed in with others who could have been Jocks, Stoners or Kickers, but simply enjoyed the variety and acceptance of our group. I don’t remember them all. Some came and went. But I remember the leaders of the group. There was Joe, a short-haired boy of seventeen, whose cigarette smoking, cowboy boots and willingness to fight, put him on equal standing with Brian and Gary. There was Bob, who drove a brown Volkswagen bug, and appeared to be in his early twenties. There was Alex, a Mexican-American boy, there was James, a tall, lengthy lover of all things guitar and Rock N Roll. He was my best friend at the time. There was Shawn, a country boy, Andrea, a diminutive girl we all considered one of the boys. There was Kristen, a religious girl who loved all things Jesus. And there was the girl that I loved.

I loved her the moment I met her. I know that sounds foolish, juvenile even, and my only defense is that I was, in fact, a foolish juvenile. But I loved her the moment I laid eyes on her. Brian introduced me to the group on my first day at the school. I felt an instant connection to them, an acceptance closer to family than to friendship. But, for her, I felt more. It was electric. She was sitting on a bench, laughing at something someone said. She looked up at me, and I looked down at her. And that was all it took. I am no expert on the vagaries of the heart. It is not logical. Some call it chemical, but I believe that to be a tawdry definition of love. It is more like the knitting of two souls, an occurrence that can happen over a lifetime, or in the space of a few precious moments. There was something in her eyes, in the way she laughed, the way she smiled up at me. And something else, a sadness just below the surface, below the smile. I asked Brian about her, and learned she was off limits. She and Joe were in an on and off again relationship, part of the reason for her sadness. But the timeless code of honor followed by high school boys from time immemorial meant we could be no more than friends.

Over the next year, I loved her in the only way I could, spending time with her, surrounded by the rest of the group. Every day after school, at four-thirty, she called me. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, watching the clock, waiting for the yellow wall phone to ring. I remember the pure agony I felt the few times when, for whatever reason, it did not ring. We talked about life, about her dreams, about her heartache, about Joe. I helped her through her many breakups with Joe, and, despite my heartache, celebrated with her when they got back together again. Never once did I tell her how I felt. Joe was my friend, part of the group, and I was loyal. I hoped that one day she would see, that she would realize the one who truly loved her was the same one she wept with when her heart was broken and laughed with when her heart was glad.

Railroad tracks ran behind my neighborhood, surrounded by trees and bushes. Large green junction boxes with red and green lights stood to one side of the tracks. These became a regular hangout for our group during summer, when we needed a place to drink. School was out for the summer, and one night, Brian, Gary and I told our parents we were going to see the late show, but spent our movie money on booze instead, Joe or Brian purchasing it at the local Kroger, hoping not to get carded. The group met up at Judson Road, and walked the tracks late at night, carrying cheap bottles of wine, six packs of beer and Jack Daniels. Darkness surrounded us, the green and red lights from the junction boxes shone in the distance and pale moonlight guided our steps as we opened cans of beer and unscrewed the tops of wine bottles. We walked, drinking and talking, until we reached the soft green and red glow of the junction boxes. There we sat, our backs against the metal walls of the box, feeling the electric hum coming from inside. We sat and drank, laughing and joking. James talked about the guitar, our favorite bands, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin. James said something about wanting to play the guitar like Led Zeppelin.

“I would sell my soul to play like that,” he said.

“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” I said. James took a long drink from the bottle of wine. He looked at me, the green and red light from the junction box painted his face in an eerie glow. He was a tall boy, two years older than me, with brown hair reaching just passed his collar, wearing a Levi jacket like a few others in the group liked to wear.

“Yeah. So what?”

“I didn’t know Mormons believed in the Devil,” I said.

“We believe in the Devil,” he said, “and if he was here right now, I would sell my soul to play like that. Like the bluesman at the crossroads, Man. I mean it. I would sell my soul.” He looked down at his hands, as if picturing the Devil blessing them that very minute.

“And you would go to Hell,” Brian said. He had downed a couple too many beers and stared at James, bleary-eyed. Would you go to Hell just to play like Led Zeppelin? That’s stupid, Man.”

“Mormons don’t believe in Hell, do you, James?” Joe said. He preferred Jack and Coke and was drinking from a plastic cup. He was wearing a ballcap and a Levi jacket like James was.

“Not like you do,” James said, shrugging.

“Well, Hell is real, damn it,” Brian said, pointing an admonishing finger at James, “and if you sell your soul, that’s where you’re going.”

“What bluesman at the crossroads?” I said, “what does that even mean?”

James looked at me like I didn’t know anything at all.

“What bluesman? What bluesman?” he said. “Just the greatest guitar player that ever lived, Man, Robert Johnson! You know, Crossroads Blues.”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

James shook his head. crumpling his empty beer can, he threw it on the ground a few feet away. He grabbed a full can from one of the six packs and cracked it open.

“Never heard of Robert Johnson? You never heard of Robert Johnson?” The look he gave me was a mixture of incredulity and shock. James and I worshiped at different altars. I loved books and authors. He loved guitars and musicians. His realization that I knew nothing about one of his guitar gods affected him more than the fact I knew little, and cared even less, about Mormonism. He had once explained to me that, whether I became a Mormon or not, someday, somewhere, somebody would be baptized in my place in one of their temples. I would wake from the dead and find myself in Mormon Heaven. He was drinking at the time, but I got the impression good Mormons would be on a higher plane, with white clouds, white suits, all living in clean, white mansions. The unwashed throng, my self included, would be on a lower plane with the drinkers, smokers, gamblers and loose women.

“You don’t have to tell me anymore,” I had answered. “That sounds like a good enough Heaven for me.”

“Robert Johnson was the greatest guitarist to ever live, man,” James continued. “They say he met the Devil at the crossroads and made a deal. He sold his soul to be the greatest.” He looked down at his hands again, his face filled with longing.

“What crossroads?” I said.

“I don’t know what Crossroads. Crossroads in Alabama or Mississippi, Man, but that’s not the point. They say if you go looking for the Devil at the crossroads, any crossroads, he will make a deal with you.”

Brian looked up, bleary-eyed, nursing another beer.

“And you’ll go to Hell for it,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t believe in Hell, and I don’t believe in the Devil.”

“Don’t believe in Hell? Don’t believe in the Devil?” Brian said. He was suffering from the acute deafness that seems to affect the inebriated everywhere. He spoke loudly, just below a shout, slurring his words. “You know better than that. You were raised better than that. You believe in God, so you have to believe in the Devil.”

“I don’t believe in God, either,” I said.

Brian looked at me, concerned. He wasn’t what you would call religious, but he had a strong belief in the existence of God.

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

“Like Hell I don’t,” I said. “I’ve never seen God and I’ve never seen the Devil, so I don’t believe in either one.”

“Then what do you believe?” James asked.

“I believe,” I said, reaching for a six pack, “I will have another beer.”

That’s when I heard her voice and turned to see her walking with Kristen and Andrea on the tracks, making their way to where we were gathered around the junction box. I felt the familiar flutter in my chest when I saw her, her face becoming more visible in the soft red and green glow of the junction box lights. She smiled and waved at me, and I waved back. She walked to where Joe was standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. She said something to him, and he answered, unsmiling. The smile on her face turned to a frown. Even in the dim light, I saw sadness in her eyes. Joe took a long drag from his cigarette and blew out smoke. He walked over to where Gary was standing with Bob, Shawn and Alex. He opened a can of beer, his back turned toward the girl that I loved. I stood up.

“Can I get you all a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got beer, wine and Jack.” Andrea had already grabbed a beer from the cache and was drinking it down. Kristen looked at the alcohol with disgust and righteous indignation. “Maybe some wine?” I offered. “Jesus turned water into wine, after all.”

“No thank you,” she said, sounding more offended than thankful.

“I’ll have some wine,” said the girl that I loved. I poured wine from the large, green bottle into a plastic cup and handed it to her. My hand brushed hers, and I wanted to let it linger, to hold her hand, to comfort her. I didn’t know what Joe had said to her, but, at that moment, whatever it was, I hated him for it.

“Thank you,” she said. I nodded and sat back down, leaning against the junction box. She sat next to me, her arm touching mine. She looked to where Joe was standing, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and talking with the other boys. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Are you okay?” I said. She shook her head. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“He wants to break up again,” she said.

“He told you that?”

She looked at Joe. He was laughing at something Gary said.

“No, but I can tell by the way he’s acting.”

We sat the rest of the time in silence, her arm touching mine. I wished I could take away her pain, her hurt feelings, and replace them with good feelings. Hers was a face made for laughter, hers was a heart made for love. She watched Joe as he stood, drinking, laughing and smoking. He never glanced her way, and he never came over. After a while, she told me goodbye and left, walking on the tracks towards Judson Road with Kristen and Andrea. James joined me, offering me a beer, and we sat, drinking in silence. Finally, we all began walking the tracks towards Judson Road. We were about a hundred yards from where the railroad tracks and Judson Road met, when I realized we were at a kind of crossroads.

“Alright, James,” I said, “now’s your chance. We’re at a crossroads.”

James looked around us. There were trees on one side of the tracks and a tall fence wrapping around my neighborhood on the other side. The railroad tracks crossed Judson Road. A crossing signal with an automatic gate waited for a coming train. A white and black railroad crossing sign at the side of the road formed a diagonal cross.

“I guess this is a crossroads,” he said. “Never saw that before.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s no time like the present. Call the Devil and deal your way to glory.”

James hesitated.

“You’d better not,” Brian said.

“I think you have to be alone,” James said.

“A bunch of B S,” Gary said.

I looked at Joe, who was smoking another cigarette. I loved him like an older brother, despite the fact his actions were hurting the girl I loved. I wondered what he would want if the Devil appeared in front of us, ready to make a deal. Here was the guy who already had everything I wanted. He had the heart, the love, of the only one I would have given my soul for.

“Come on,” Brian said, “You’re talking crazy. No one’s summoning the Devil while I’m around.”

James shook his head, grinning.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I really do think you have to be alone.”

We continued onto Judson Road. Brian, Gary and I parted from the others and walked to our house on Kissing Oak Street. I had trouble sleeping that night. My thoughts were on the girl that I loved. When I finally fell asleep, my dreams were of her.

Two weeks passed. As predicted, Joe broke up with the girl I loved. I helped her through her heartache, talking with her on the phone as we regularly did, even when school was out. She told me it was over. This was the final time. She could not continue breaking up with Joe and getting back together again. And, as her heart began to heal, I was coming to my own decision. I decided to tell her, to bare my heart, to reveal my soul, my longing, my desire, my love for her. When the timing was right, when her heart was fully healed, I would let her know how I felt. Then, suddenly, the phone calls stopped coming. I figured she needed time, and the daily phone calls were a little more sporadic during the summer, when we had other things to do. I wasn’t overly troubled by it. The phone would ring again when she was ready to talk. And it did ring. I answered it, relieved when I heard her voice after so long a time.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said. She sounded nervous. I felt my heart stop. Was this it? Was this the time to finally tell her how I felt?

“There’s something I need to tell you, as well,” I said. “You go first.”

“Well,” she said, “you know Joe and I aren’t together anymore.”

Yes,” I said. I felt a lump growing in the center of my chest.

“I’m ready to move on.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do you have anyone in mind?” Let it be me. God, if you exist, let it be me.

She laughed nervously.

“I don’t know how to say this,” she said.

“Just say it,” I said. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to tell her she was my everything. I wanted to be hers and for her to be mine. I held my breath.

“Well,” she said, “I have been seeing your brother, Brian. He asked me out and I said yes. I just want to make sure you’re okay with that. He was worried it might be weird for you, since you and I are so close.”

My heart came to a full stop. I listened further, numb, answering by rote. Sure, I’m okay. Yes, I want you to be happy. Sure, we will still be best friends. Some time later, the conversation ended, and I hung up the phone. I went to my room and fell onto my bed. Lying on my back, I stared up at the ceiling. Tears ran down my face as the shock dissipated and I felt my heart break. I wept for over an hour, until, finally, no more tears would come. A knock came at my bedroom door.  I sat up and dried my eyes.

“Who is it?” I said, doing all I could to stop my voice from trembling.

“It’s Brian,” came the answer.

“Just a minute,” I said. I wiped my face on the blanket of my bed and looked in the mirror. My eyes were red, but he might think I had been sleeping. I opened the door.

“What’s up?” I said.

“I just want to talk to you,” he said. He looked at me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said, “just tired.”

Brian sat on my bed. He told me he was dating the girl I loved. He wanted me to know he wouldn’t interfere with the friendship I had with her. He told me he had always liked her, but because she was with Joe, he could never make a move. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate. He finally left my room, closing the door behind him. I looked around my room, wanting to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be away. I wanted to be alone. I left my room and exited the house through the garage, walking up Kissing Oak Street to Judson Road. I reached the railroad tracks and turned left, walking on the tracks, away from my neighborhood. It was twilight time. The sun was setting, and dusk was fast approaching. I thought of all that had happened. I remembered with sharp clarity the telephone conversation with the girl I loved. I remembered Brian’s words. The tears came again, and I walked alone, weeping, as dusk fell on the tracks before me. I turned toward the trees lining the sides of the tracks, and shouted, not thinking about what words I said, not caring.

“I will sell my soul for her!” I heard myself shout. “If you’re real, Devil, I will sell my soul for her!”

I stood, motionless, looking into the wooded area. No devil appeared there. I shook my head, and continued walking. I looked up and saw the figure of a man walking on the tracks ahead of me. He had not been there just moments before. I was sure of it. It was dusk, but I could tell even in the failing light he was dressed all in red. I laughed to myself. Yeah, right. The Devil in a red suit. He continued walking away from me, not toward me. He moved slowly, and I realized after several minutes that I was catching up to him. He looked back at me a couple of times, but continued walking toward O’Connor Road. Finally, where O’Connor Road crossed the railroad tracks, he stopped. He turned and looked at me, waiting. I was about fifty yards away. His image solidified as I drew closer. He was a young, black man, wearing some type of uniform, a red hat, red shirt and red pants. He beckoned toward me, and a feeling of unease and trepidation washed over me. I shook it off and walked to him. He was wearing a Taco Cabana uniform. The name tag above his right breast pocket said Carlos. I felt like a complete fool. My crossroads Devil was a fast food worker. I nodded at him.

“Hey,” I said.

Carlos smiled at me, a wicked smile, parting his lips, showing teeth that, though human, were entirely too sharp; the smile of a predator.

“What the Hell?” I said, realizing immediately that might be the wrong phrase to use. Carlos grinned again, and I was filled with a deep revulsion. Whoever he was, I wanted to get away from him, but my feet would not move. He met my eyes with his own. They looked black in the falling darkness. He spoke in the accented tones of an islander. His voice was low and hoarse.

“Meet me at six o’ clock tomorrow at the Taco Cabana.”

I tried to look away from his gaze, but I stood, staring, unable to move.

“What?” I managed to say. His face hardened. He appeared to be growing angry. He answered again, reluctantly, spitting out each syllable as he spoke.

“Meet me tomorrow at six o’ clock at the Taco Cabana.”

He turned from me and began walking, crossing O’Connor Road to the other side of the tracks. He stopped and looked at me, leering at me, showing again the teeth that were far too sharp. He spoke, and his voice was mocking, low and guttural.

“God bless you,” he said. Then he turned from me, walking on the tracks, disappearing into the darkness of night. I walked home, taking the road instead of the tracks.

Had I met the Devil at the crossroads? I do not know. I did not meet our appointment at Taco Cabana the following day. I remember like yesterday, sitting in the living room. The clock on the wall showed six o’clock. It was June 6, 1986. Part of me wanted to go, but I remembered Brian’s admonition about going to Hell. I think, though, what finally decided it for me was love. I wanted to be loved. But, more importantly, I wanted to show love. Perhaps the Devil could have given her to me. I doubt it. I doubt, even, that he was the Devil. Perhaps he was an eccentric Taco Cabana employee simply wanting a friend. But, if he was the Devil, and he could give me the desire of my heart, that would relegate the girl I loved to nothing more than a possession. I did not want to own her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to know love.

A few months later, I would leave San Antonio for San Diego, to live with my mother. I would leave my brothers, my friends, the girl that I loved. The relationship between Brian and her ended rather quickly, each of them deciding they were not ready for anything too serious. On my last night in San Antonio, I told her the truth. I told her I loved her and kissed her softly on the lips.

More than three decades have passed. And I wonder still, what would have changed had I met Carlos, my crossroads Devil at the Taco Cabana? Perhaps I will never know.

Maybe it’s better that way.

Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at:


Typhoon Omar hit the island of Guam in August of 1992. Winds reaching speeds of up to one-hundred-fifty miles per hour blew the roofs off buildings, toppled houses and devastated the Chamorro population, the natives of the island. I was twenty-one years old, a navy corpsman, flown out as part of a medical relief party. Our mission was to assist U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, which had received a huge influx of patients due to the typhoon. Naval hospitals were built for the medical needs of active and retired military personnel and their immediate families. On the island of Guam, the idea of immediate family was stretched to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant relatives. Few seeking medical treatment were turned away, regardless of their military affiliation, and the hospital was heavily populated with the island natives.

Typhoon Omar was brutal, but the island had recovered quickly. When I arrived, the worst part of the crisis was over. The winds had subsided, and our presence was no longer needed. Instead of being part of a relief crew, I ended up spending much of my time exploring the island alone. I visited Two Lovers Point, a cliff situated high above treacherous ocean waters, where, according to legend, a lovely maiden and her one true love, forbidden to marry, leapt to their deaths in the waters below. I hiked the densely forested Boonies and swam in the clear, warm waters of the white, coral beaches.

I quickly developed an admiration for the Chamorro people, their history and culture; intrigued by their resolute belief in the Taotaomona, the spirit of the island. If one respected the island, the Taotaomona was thought to help and bless them. If one disrespected the island, the spirit became angry and worked against them, hindering them in every way imaginable. The Chamorro people were as much a part of Guam as the land and the surrounding ocean, believing they would become part of the Taotaomona when they died, their spirits forever entwined with spirit of the island, as were their ancestors before them.

“You must ask permission of the Taotaomona before entering the forest,” an elderly Chamorro man told me. I was getting ready to enter the Boonies for a short hike. “You must ask permission before cutting down a tree or hunting an animal. If you do not, you will anger the spirit of the island.” He shook his head sadly. His ancient eyes scanned the horizon. “That is why there was a typhoon. So many do not believe, and their actions have angered the Taotaomona.”

My time on Guam was not all fun and games, however. It was a paid vacation, interrupted by spurts of work on a few of the hospital wards. It was on one of the hospital wards where I would learn a valuable lesson. A lesson about life, and a lesson about death.

I happened, one morning, to walk by one of the hospital rooms. A young doctor, a navy lieutenant in his early thirties, wearing a white doctor’s smock over his khaki officer’s uniform, saw me passing by and motioned for me to join him.

“Corpsman,” he said, “Could you help me in here, please?”

“Sure, Doc,” I said, stepping into the room. A diminutive Chamorro woman in her late seventies sat on the edge of the bed, wearing a hospital gown. She looked up at the doctor, a deep frown wrinkling her dark, determined face.  I sensed I had entered the room in the middle of an argument.

“Mrs. Khalida,” The young doctor said, “I assure you, you are not dying.” He ran his fingers through his brown hair and looked at the patient in frustration. “Please,” he said, “we ran every test we could, and they all came back normal. You’re in perfect health.”

“No, Doctor. It is my time to die,” Mrs. Khalida said. Her small hands gripped the front of her gray hospital gown. “I will not be going home. I will not be going home, ever. I will be joining my husband today.”

The young doctor glanced at my uniform name tag and motioned to me.

“Mr. Taylor will help you get dressed and pack your things,” he said, sliding the phone on the bedside table closer to her. “Please call your family. Have them pick you up.”

Mrs. Khalida ignored the phone. She rubbed her hands together and looked pleadingly up at me.

“Make him understand,” she said. “I will die today. I know that it is time. Please do not send me home.”

The doctor shook his head.

“Mr. Taylor,” he said, “help Mrs. Khalida get dressed and pack her things. She has been discharged and needs to leave.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida as if to say something, decided against it, nodded at me and left the room, leaving me alone with the patient.

“Ma’am,” I said, “can I help you get dressed?”

“I can dress myself, young man,” she said. “I may be dying, but I am not sick.”

“Please,” I said, “will you get dressed for me? I can help get your things together.”

She sighed resignedly.

“If I must, then I must. Will you bring me my clothes? They’re in the closet.”

I got her clothes, a pair of white pants and a cool, light blue shirt, from the closet and brought them to her. I pulled the curtain around her bed to give her privacy and began putting her other items into a hospital bag.

“The doctor is wrong,” she said through the curtain. “He does not understand my people. He does not understand it is my time to die.”

“He said you’re healthy, Ma’am. He can only go by the test results. Would you like me to call your family?”

Mrs. Khalida pulled the curtain back. She was wearing her street clothes and hospital socks.

“Where are your shoes, Ma’am?” I said.

“I will not need my shoes,” she said.  “The dead do not need shoes.” She sat down on the bed and picked up the phone. “I will call my family now.”

While Mrs. Khalida called her family, I continued putting her items into a bag. I heard the faint sound of ringing through the receiver she held to her ear. A muffled voice answered.

“I am in the hospital,” Mrs. Khalida said. “I am dying. I want you to come. Tell the others. My time has come, and I want to say goodbye.” She told the person on the other line the room number and hung up the phone. The doctor stepped into the room. He saw Mrs. Khalida dressed in her street clothes, sitting on the edge of the bed. He smiled at me.

“Ah, good. I see you got her dressed,” he said. “Did she notify her family?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “She just called them.”

He turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“You will see this is for the best. You have a lot of years ahead of you. You’re a very healthy woman.”

Mrs. Khalida did not answer. Her eyes studied the white linoleum tiled floor. The doctor grinned at me, nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him. Mrs. Khalida looked up at me.

“Healthy,” she said, a disgusted look on her face. “Healthy has nothing to do with it. Healthy people die every day. It is not about health or about sickness. It is about time. There is a time to die, and it is now my time.”

I placed the bag containing her personal items at the foot of the bed and sat down in one of the chairs, facing her.

“Why now?” I said. “The doctor said you’re healthy, but you believe it’s your time to die. Why?”

“You would not believe me, even if I told you,” she said.

“Try me,” I said. “I really want to know. You seem to be very sure about it.”

She turned from me and looked out the window.

“My husband let me know it is my time,” she said, “my husband and the Taotaomona.”

Mrs. Khalida said it happened when Typhoon Omar first hit the island. The small home she had lived in with her husband, and where she had lived alone after his death a few years earlier, was hit hard by the typhoon. Half the roof was blown off and one of the walls had fallen in. The powerful gales of wind had shattered the windows and the power was out. She hid under the relative safety of her bed while the storm raged against her house. Her home was near a cusp of woods at the edge of the Boonies. When the storm passed, she climbed out from underneath her bed, and entered her living room. She looked out through the glassless windows at the cusp of woods where her property ended, and the Boonies began. There was a creature standing there. He was extremely tall, above eight feet. He looked human, but she knew he was not a human being.

“It was the Taotaomona,” she said. “And standing next to the Taotaomona was a young man, a Chamorro. He was wearing a marine corps uniform. His dress uniform; the one he was buried in. He waved for me to come to him.” Her eyes glistened with tears. She turned away from me to stare out the window. “He was my husband, not old, but young, like he was when we married. But I was afraid. I did not go to him, though I knew my time had come. He was there, standing next to the Taotaomona. He kept waving for me, beckoning me, but I would not go. He was sad. He turned away from me and walked into the Boonies with the Taotaomona. It was my time, but I did not go.”

“But you’re still alive,” I said. “Maybe it wasn’t your time.”

“It was my time, and I did not go. I must go today. I must, or terrible things will happen. The spirit of the island is about balance. If I am alive when I should be dead, then everything is out of balance. No. I must go with the Taotaomona. I must join my husband.”

About half an hour later, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several people, all Chamorros. Mrs. Khalida called to them in her native language. They entered the room and surrounded her as she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears. Though I could not understand the language, I knew she was saying her goodbyes. They began to weep, hugging her and speaking with her, one by one. More family members began arriving, and soon the hospital room was filled with people, men, women and children. More arrived, squeezing into the room and spilling out into the hallway. I did not count them, but I am sure there were above fifty people. Many were weeping, and the sounds of their grief carried out to the rest of the hospital ward. I stood by the window, trying to make room for the family.

The doctor entered the room, making his way through the throng. He stood at the side of the bed, turning to the weeping family members.

“Please, please,” he said, gesturing with his hands to calm them, “Mrs. Khalida is not dying. She has been discharged from the hospital. She’s very healthy, let me assure you. You can take her home now.”

Mrs. Khalida said something in her language, and the weeping grew louder. A woman sitting next to her on the bed let out a great, mournful wail. The doctor looked at me, questioning. I shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing I could do but watch. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“Ma’am, you really must leave. You’re upsetting your family.”

Mrs. Khalida spoke to the woman sitting next to her. The woman stood up and Mrs. Khalida lifted her legs onto the bed, lying down.

“I told you, Doctor,” she said. “It is my time to die.”

The weeping intensified. The woman standing nearby began wailing again. The family members in the hallway also began weeping. The doctor looked helplessly around him, and imploringly at me. I shook my head. I could not help him. Mrs. Khalida reached out and held the hand of the wailing woman. She smiled up at her family and said a few words in her native tongue. Then she simply closed her eyes.

I watched as her steady, rhythmic breathing became more and more shallow, becoming erratic as minutes passed by, the muscles of her diaphragm moving in and out, her lungs barely drawing in air. This was Cheyne Stokes breathing, almost always present at the natural end of life. The heart would continue to beat, pumping air from the lungs to the body for as long as it could, but the oxygen in her lungs was not enough to sustain life.  I pulled her socks off and saw the tell-tale signs of mottling, purple and edematous ankles, a pooling of blood and body fluids; another sign that death was near. I looked up at the doctor. He stared down at the tiny Chamorro woman who was in the middle of Cheyne Stokes breathing. His face was pale. He looked up at me with wide eyes. I pointed to her ankles. He looked down at the mottling in her ankles and shook his head in bewilderment. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart, looking up at me as he did.

“Is she DNR?” I said. DNR or Do Not Resuscitate was an order to not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event of death.

The doctor nodded.

“She signed one when she was admitted. I tried to talk her out of it.”

We watched, the family weeping around us, the doctor, a man of science, baffled by what he was seeing, until Mrs. Khalida took one final gasp of air and relinquished it, a rattling sound coming from deep within her lungs. The doctor placed the end of his stethoscope above Mrs. Khalida’s heart and listened to her apical pulse, his eyes on his wrist watch to mark the exact time of death. Moments later, he nodded. Mrs. Khalida’s time had come.

I visited the Boonies once more before leaving the island. I placed a hand on one of the trees at the edge of the forest, and asked permission to enter from the Taotaomona. There was no answer, save the rustling of leaves in the tree above me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the rustling of leaves as permission.

I stepped out into the forest, feeling much safer, having asked and received permission from the spirit of the island. After all, if I had learned anything, it was that science did not have all the answers. Perhaps much could be learned from the natives of the island of Guam, whose ancestors had lived there from time before recorded history. Perhaps there are some things about life that science does not have an answer for. Things about life, and, as Mrs. Khalida had proved to me and the young doctor, things about death.

Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at:




“It really happened, Taylor,” Kellogg said. He sat behind his desk in the Facility Three Yard program office of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He wore the bravo class uniform of a correctional sergeant, khaki shirt with three stripes on each arm, depicting his rank, and a black uniform ball cap to cover his brown, thinning hair. I sat across from him, leaning back in a chair, one booted foot on the desk. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was there. I saw him with my own eyes.”

It was first watch, the graveyard shift. The inmates were locked up for the night, and the prison was staffed by a skeleton crew. What better time was there to tell ghost stories?

Prisons are replete with tales of supernatural apparitions, purported to be the spirits of murdered inmates, or officers who spend their lives after death eternally haunting the halls of their former places of employment. During my academy training as a correctional officer cadet, I worked a short time at Old Folsom, the second oldest prison in the state. The stories there revolved around the spirits of inmates hanged for murder. A warehouse stands now where the gallows used to be. Officers on first watch were required to conduct security checks of the facility. New officers often reported they heard men weeping and wailing in the old warehouse. Experienced officers either stopped reporting the sounds or stopped entering the warehouse altogether. Another tale at Old Folsom prison had to do with a certain housing unit. Officers routinely counted inmates and grew accustomed to the idea that, in that housing unit, they were never alone during count. They felt the presence of an unseen officer walking the tiers with them, and even heard the jingling of his keys.

“I don’t know, Kellogg,” I said. “I’m not calling you a liar, but this place can do funny things to a man’s senses. And you did say you were sleeping.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping, “Kellogg said, “but I was awake when I saw him. He was there, as real as you are, standing on the second tier, looking down at the dayroom floor.”

“What did he look like?”

“He looked like an inmate. He was a white guy, covered in tattoos. Even on his face. He was wearing his blues. I thought he had gotten out of his cell somehow. I’m just glad I didn’t think to notify central control. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”

As the story went, it happened when Kellogg was still an officer, working overtime in the control booth of housing unit seventeen on Facility Four. The control booth was a large room in the second story of the housing unit, with thick, unbreakable windows. The control booth officer provided gun coverage for the yard from his back window, and coverage for the officers inside the housing unit through slots in his front windows. He also controlled the opening and closing of the housing unit and cell doors from a panel on his desk. During the day, it was a busy job, but at night, when the inmates were locked in their cells, it was one of the easiest jobs in the prison. And an officer, especially an officer on overtime, could find himself struggling to stay awake. Kellogg had succumbed to the struggle that night, and was fast asleep.

“Something woke me up,” Kellogg said, “I felt like someone was up in the control booth with me. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt it. I got up and looked around, but no one was there. I looked out at the dayroom, and there he was, clear as day, leaning against the second tier railing, just staring down at the dayroom floor. I shouted at him, but he ignored me. I called down to the officers, but they were sleeping in their office. They wouldn’t wake up. The inmate started walking toward cell 217, and I started shouting at him again. He never even looked at me. He got to the cell door, but didn’t stop walking. Taylor, man, I’m telling you, he walked right through the cell door like it wasn’t even there. I don’t know what to think of it, but I know it happened.”

“And you don’t think it was a dream?” I said.

“No dream,” Kellogg said. “When my shift was over in the morning, I left the control booth and went to cell 217. There were two inmates locked up in there. I talked to them.”

“What did they say?”

“That’s the thing,” Kellogg said. “At first they didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I would think they were crazy. When they did talk, they told me they woke up and saw an inmate, the same inmate, standing in their cell, staring out their back window. And, just like that, he was gone. He was there one second, and gone the next.”

I took Sergeant Kellogg’s story with the proverbial grain of salt. I did not dismiss it outright. Who am I, after all, to judge another man’s ghost story? But to say I believed it would not be entirely true. I had witnessed many unexplainable events in my life, and tried to keep my mind open to possibilities, but I also nurtured a healthy cynicism.

Another strange event happened in the prison infirmary. I wasn’t a witness to it, but I talked to the doctor and nurses involved, who swore to me that it happened. Inmates with severe medical issues were kept in cells that were basically hospital rooms, equipped with medical beds and televisions. A man convicted of serial rape was dying. He was a belligerent old inmate, rude and caustic, especially to the female staff members. He was in the last few minutes of life, and was still conscious. He looked up at the television from where he was lying in bed, and cried out in fear. Scrolling on the bottom of the screen were the words, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The Doctor was in the room with two nurses. They changed the channel, but the words remained on the bottom of the screen. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The inmate took his final breath, staring up at the television screen. Perhaps the story was true. Perhaps not. I kept an open mind.

It wasn’t until I had an experience of my own that I decided Sergeant Kellogg may have really seen a ghost. It happened to me. It happened when the clerk came to work.

There were many jobs in prison for inmates. Inmates were cooks, they worked in the laundry, as porters in the housing units and a variety of other positions. Being an inmate clerk required intelligence. To be the lieutenant’s clerk required even greater intelligence. The lieutenant’s clerk had to be knowledgeable of yard procedures, and had to be able to read and write well. When a yard discovered an inmate with these capabilities they held on to them. Most lieutenant’s clerks had long sentences, and many held the same job for ten years or more. The Facility One lieutenant’s clerk, Inmate Jensen, had been the clerk for at least fifteen years. He was an older man with gray hair, a pale complexion and bifocals. He was quiet and unobtrusive, never out of line with the officers, but was always professional and courteous. He became part of the furniture, so to speak, his presence so common in the program office that he often went unnoticed. He had been convicted at the age of thirty for murdering his wife’s lover after catching them together in his bed. He was in his sixties, and had spent more time in prison than he had lived outside prison. His life inside the wall was routine. He got up every morning, put on a clean, pressed inmate uniform, waited for the control booth officer to open his cell, then headed to the program office. Five days a week, every week for more than fifteen years. He never talked about paroling. Like many lifers, I am sure he hoped to one day be free. But Inmate Jenkins would spend the rest of his life in prison.

The rest of his life. And one more day.

It was early on a Monday morning. I entered the Facility One Program office. I was scheduled to work as one of the yard officers, and grabbed my equipment, baton, pepper spray, radio, keys, from the equipment locker. I barely noticed when Inmate Jenkins entered. He looked around, and seemed a bit confused. I was too busy donning my equipment to pay much attention. He headed back to his work station, an alcove just down the hallway with an electric typewriter on a large wooden desk. I finished cinching up my duty belt and keying the microphone on my radio to make sure the battery was charged. Inmate Jenkins left his work area, the same look of vague confusion on his pale face. He walked to the front door of the program, which was propped open for the officers to come and go, and stepped out onto the yard. I checked the schedule of duties, which was posted to the wall, to see what extra duties I had to perform.

I heard shouting from one of the first watch officers at the back of the program.

“No freaking way!” he yelled.

I stepped out into the hallway to see what was going on. The officer, a middle-aged Hispanic man, was staring from where he stood at the end of the hallway, out through the open door. His eyes were wide with surprise, and not a little fear. I followed his gaze to the empty yard.

“What’s happening?” I said.

“Jenkins, man. I just saw Jenkins!”

“Doing what?” I said. I looked out at the yard, but did not see inmate Jenkins.

“You don’t get it! He’s not supposed to be doing anything.”

I scanned the yard again. No inmate Jenkins. Where could he have gone?

“I don’t see him at all,” I said.

“Taylor,” the officer said, exasperated, “Jenkins is dead. He died at the infirmary last night!”

I looked at the officer, sure he was messing with me. I grinned.

“Okay,” I said, “Jenkins is dead. Go on. I just saw him a minute ago.”

The officer stepped out onto the yard, looking around. He shook his head.

“I don’t get it, man,” he said. “They told me he was dead.”

“Well,” I said, “they told you wrong. Maybe it was another Jenkins.”

He thought about it, looking at the empty yard. He nodded to himself.

“Yeah. I guess so. That has to be it…”

“Here,” I said, “come with me.”

I entered the program office and he followed. Sitting down at the computer, I put in my password and logged onto SOMS, the information system for officers. I searched for Inmate Jenkins on Facility One. His information flashed on my screen, his housing unit and photo identification. I checked his status. It showed he had discharged from prison the day before. I looked up at the officer, who stared over my shoulder at the computer screen. His mouth was open. His eyes were wide. There, directly under Inmate Jenkin’s photo were the following words: Status- Discharged. Cause- Death. Location- Office of the Coroner, San Diego County. Inmate Jenkins was not only dead, he was discharged to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office.

His body was in the morgue.

Occasionally, I read articles in the newspaper or watch news stories about people convicted of heinous crimes. Some are sentenced to life, some to life plus fifty years. I worked with inmates who were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. We all assumed they would leave the prison when their first life sentence was over. After all, a man has only one life to give. But now I wonder whether that is entirely true. How many inmates served their sentences of life, only to find they had a lot more time to do?

Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at:



My first experience with Doctor Teitelbaum was at the Hub in the Correctional Treatment Center of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. I stood in front of the wrap-around desk that contained the daily sign-in sheets for the MTAs, chatting with the officer on duty, when I heard a voice behind me. The voice was a warbled mix of falsetto and feminine baritone.

“I wish to be escorted to the Facility One Clinic. I was told to meet MTA Taylor here.”

I turned to get a view of the speaker. She was a heavyset woman in her early fifties with a shocking amount of frizzy, dyed red hair, sticking crazily out from under a wide-brimmed, magenta hat. She was wearing what might have been a workout suit of a shiny material in two different shades of purple. Her shoes were yellow sneakers and she carried a large, red leather bag. Small, beady eyes peered back and forth between the officer on duty and me, through large glasses on her pale, moon-shaped face. Taken aback by the sharp disparity of her appearance among the uniformed officers and scrub-wearing medical staff, I would not have been entirely surprised if she had told me she was there to don a bright red nose and make balloon animals for the inmates.  I was the MTA assigned to Facility one clinic. An MTA, or Medical Technical Assistant, was a position unique to the California Department of Corrections. It was both a medical position and a peace officer position. MTAs responded to all medical emergencies and ran the day to day of the clinics on the yard. The department would soon do away with the position, and we would be given the choice of being either nurses or correctional officers. I would later choose to become a correctional officer.

“I’m MTA Taylor,” I said, “I don’t believe we’ve met before. Can I ask what your business is at the clinic?”

She made a dramatic flourish with her left hand and raised her odd warble of a voice, affecting the style of a Shakespearean actor.

“I am Doctor Teitelbaum,” she announced not only to me, but to every person in the nearby area, “I am the new Psychiatrist.”

Five minutes later, I was escorting Dr. Teitelbaum across the plaza to the Facility One Clinic. We reached the Facility One gate, and the gate officer checked our identification.

“Are you new to the prison system, Dr. Teitelbaum?” I asked. I knew entering a prison yard for the first time could be an overwhelming and frightening experience.

“I am new to the prison system, Mr. Taylor, but not new to those imprisoned by mental illness.” Her eyes took on a fevered, dreamy, faraway look. “I am here to help men escape their prison.”

The gate officer, a black man in his late forties, looked at her, then looked questioningly at me. Talk of helping inmates escape was not something taken lightly. I assured the officer that Dr. Teitelbaum was using a euphemism.

“It’s Just talk,” I said. “Dr. Teitelbaum doesn’t mean escape from the actual prison, but the prison of mental illness.”

Dr. Teitelbaum looked wordlessly up at the officer through her large glasses. The gate officer frowned but opened the gate. He looked Dr. Teitelbaum up and down, taking in the full oddity of her attire. He grimaced and rolled his eyes.

“It’s on you, Taylor,” he said. “It’s all on you.”

We stepped onto Facility One Yard. The prison yard was a large, oval strip of land surrounded by a track a third of a mile long. Inmates wearing blue CDC uniforms walked around the track, returning to their housing units from morning chow. They walked counter clockwise in the same direction, with occasional reminders over the loudspeaker to “Keep moving on the track.” Prison is nothing if not redundant.  Inmates see the same colors every day; blue and gray inmate uniforms, green and khaki officer uniforms, gray prison walls. You can imagine, then, the reaction among the inmates when they saw Dr. Teitelbaum entering the yard in her purple ensemble, magenta hat, red hair, yellow sneakers and a large red bag. Inmates stopped on the track, pointing.  Inmates standing in the pill line in front of the clinic stared. Some appeared hopeful, no doubt thinking, as I had earlier, that she might be some form of entertainment. Others laughed, and I heard a few jeers.

Inmates were lining up in front of the clinic for pill line. They were allowed medicine in their cells, but psychiatric medicine had to be administered at the clinic. Much of what occurs inside a prison is in reaction to lawsuits filed by inmates. The California Department of Corrections had settled or lost several lawsuits filed by inmates who suffered due to poor medical standards and nonexistent or inadequate psychiatric treatment. The courts ordered the department to remedy the problem, and the department struggled to hire physicians, psychiatrists and other medical personnel. Because of this, hiring was the priority. Anyone with a medical license could obtain a contract position working in the prison. The standards were quite low. Over the years, I have worked with fine psychiatrists and physicians. I have known and respected dedicated psychologists. I have also known the ones who, in the departments rush to fill positions, fell through the cracks of the screening process. To meet the requirements ordered by the courts, Inmates were screened for mental health related issues. This was appropriate and necessary, but it also had a tremendous impact on prisons. Suddenly, inmates were being diagnosed with bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis and antisocial behaviors. They were placed on psychiatric medications, which required follow-up appointments with the psychiatrists. Soon, thousands of inmates were on medication, and more psychiatrists were required to meet the need for follow-up appointments. The increased numbers of psychiatrists resulted in even more inmates being placed on medication, which required even more psychiatrists and psychologists. The day Dr. Teitelbaum first walked into Facility One Clinic, the cost of psychiatric medication at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility had exploded to well over one and a half million dollars per month. This did not include regular, physician-prescribed medication.

Psychiatric medication can be divided into three categories: Anti-seizure medication, uppers and downers. If you pull back the curtain of psychiatric and psychological jargon, you soon realize that psychiatric medications are drugs, plain and simple. I remember a conversation with one of the contract psychiatrists. He was a in his late forties, an agreeable man without the typical airs psychiatrists are known to have. We were having lunch in the MTA office in the clinic. The inmates were locked up in their cells for count, and we were alone.

“Do you know what I do for a living, Taylor?” He asked.

I smiled at him across the desk over my lunch.

“As far as I can tell,” I said, “you’re a psychiatrist.”

“Well, of course I’m a psychiatrist,” he said,” but I’m not talking about my title or license. I’m talking about what I actually do.”

“Well, Doc,” I said, swallowing a bite of a tuna sandwich, “I may be crazy, and you’re better suited than I am to make that determination, but it seems to me you talk to inmates about their issues, then come up with a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Does that about cover it?”

“Well, that’s certainly how we phrase it, but that’s not the heart of it,” he said. “What I really am is a licensed drug dealer.”

“Do I need to get my handcuffs out?” I said. “Is this a confession?”

He grinned.

“I did say licensed, Taylor. But licensed or not, that’s what I am. Have you ever really thought about what psychiatric medication is? Drugs, Taylor. That’s what they are. They’re uppers and downers, and I prescribe them to drug addicts in a correctional facility. If I wasn’t licensed to do it, I would be sitting in a cell instead of sitting here having lunch with you.”

“Now, Doc,” I said. “I think you might be selling yourself short.  I’m sure you’re doing a lot of good. There’s a big difference between what you do and what drug dealers do.”

“A difference in motivation, I agree. But not in what I do. When I first started, I opened an office in the city, and advertised for clients. I wanted to help people, I really did. But you know what kind of clients I got?” I shook my head and motioned for him to continue. “People started coming into my office with memorized symptoms. I knew they were just telling me symptoms, so I would prescribe them specific medications. It was obvious. But I had a lease and bills to pay. You know what I did, Taylor? I prescribed the medications they wanted. After that, word spread, and clients kept making appointments. Over half were drug addicts wanting legal drugs.” He pointed to the nearby medication cart. “That’s what they are. Drugs, man, drugs.”

I had experienced the effects of the medication myself about a year before, when someone handed me a bottle of liquid risperidone, a medication prescribed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the liquid had spilled and was on the side of the bottle. I touched the liquid with my bare hand. The medicine seeped through my skin and entered my bloodstream. For a good hour, I was euphoric, laughing and extremely talkative. My voice seemed to reverberate back to me in stereo. Though the medication never touched my lips, part of my upper lip went numb. Even today, whenever I recall the incident, that part of my lip turns numb. Like the good doctor said, “Drugs, man, drugs.”

The pill line was very long, reaching from the pill line window to the track about fifty yards away. Close to a thousand inmates were incarcerated on Facility One Yard, and half of them were on psychiatric medication. An MTA stood inside the medication room window, handing inmates their medication through a rectangular slot. The MTA, a balding pale-skinned man by the name of Ford, looked at Doctor Teitelbaum as she passed by. He smiled at me and shook his head. Several inmates looked at the new psychiatrist, then looked questioningly at me. I ignored the questioning looks and made my way to the clinic. I opened the clinic door and led Dr. Teitelbaum to an office in the back.

“This is your office, Dr. Teitelbaum,” I said, opening the door and switching on the lights, illuminating a small office with two chairs facing each other across a wooden desk. Dr. Teitelbaum entered the office and sat heavily in the desk chair, plopping her large red bag down on the desktop. “I will bring a schedule of inmates and inmate medical charts in a little bit.”

“Patients, Mr. Taylor,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “They are not just inmates. They are my patients, and I cannot wait to see them.” She looked up at me through her large glasses, the faraway gleam returning to her eyes. “I assure you they have never seen the likes of me.”

“Yes, Doctor. I believe that may be the case,” I said. Despite her decidedly odd appearance, I fully intended to give the new psychiatrist the benefit of any doubt. Part of my philosophy was, and still is, not to judge a book by its cover. “Would you like the door closed or open?”

“Please close it,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “It is time for my calming ritual.”

I nodded and exited the office, closing the door behind me. I had a busy day in front of me and had to prepare for it. Leaving Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the already brewed pot in the treatment room, sat down at the desk, and began organizing the inmate medical charts, dividing them between medical and psychiatric patients, making sure each chart had fresh doctor’s notes to write new prescriptions on. I was absorbed in the ritual, when I heard Dr. Teitelbaum singing opera in what I thought might be Italian, as loud as she possibly could. I stepped out of the treatment room. MTA Ford was coming out of the medication room.

“What the heck is going on, Taylor?” He asked. I stood outside Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. The opera continued in her warbled voice. Inmates peered through the clinic windows, wondering why the pill line had stopped, hearing the Italian opera coming from inside the clinic. I shook my head and knocked softly on the office door. The Italian opera continued inside. I knocked louder.

“Dr. Teitelbaum?” I called. The opera persisted. I shrugged at MTA Ford and opened the door. Dr. Teitelbaum was sitting behind her desk. Her eyes were closed, her hands lifted above her head, moving dramatically back and forth, conducting an orchestra which only she could hear. Seeming unaware of my presence, she continued her performance, her voice straining to reach soprano levels, then falling to baritone lows, all at the top of her lungs. All I could do was wait for her to stop. For several minutes, the opera continued. Then, with one final crescendo of screeching soprano and faltering baritone, the performance came to an abrupt end. Slowly, she lowered her hands and opened her eyes, blinking in the light of the office. She stared up at me through her large glasses, acknowledging me for the first time since I entered.

“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Taylor?” She asked.

“Well…” I said, “Uhm…What I mean is…”

“My singing, Mr. Taylor. Is that why you are here?”

“Well, yes, Doctor,” I said. “It was a little surprising.”

“I find opera to be calming, Mr. Taylor. It is part of my morning ritual. It lowers my stress level and prepares me for the rest of the day. Now, if you will excuse me, my routine is not yet complete.”

“Will you be singing again?” I asked.

“No, Mr. Taylor,” she said, “I will be meditating. Close the door, please. Let me know when the first patient arrives.”

I left Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office. MTA Ford had overheard the conversation.

“She’s crazy, man,” he said.

“What can we do about it?” I said.

“We need to tell somebody. I mean, she’s a real mad hatter.”

“I’m not in for telling,” I said, a phrase used by both inmates and officers.  It meant you were not a snitch. Snitches were equally hated by inmates and officers.

“This is different, Taylor. Somebody has to know.”

“Let’s just see how it plays out,” I said. “What’s it going to hurt?”

Ford agreed reluctantly and returned to the pill line. I continued to get ready for the medical and psychiatric appointments. Dr. Wong, the physician, a diminutive Asian man with thinning hair, wearing a doctor’s smock over slacks and a dress shirt, arrived. He knocked on the clinic door and I opened it. He entered the clinic.

“Good morning, MTA Taylor,” he said.

“Good morning, Doctor,” I said.

“Is it a good morning?” He said. I opened the door to his office, letting him in. He asked me the same questions every day.

“A fine morning, Doc.” I said.

“A fine American morning?”

“Yes, Doctor,” I said, “It’s a fine American morning. There’s coffee in the back. Want a cup?”

The doctor smiled, nodding.

“Is it American coffee?”

“It was purchased in America,” I said.

“Then yes,” he said. “I want an American cup of coffee.”

This routine had played out five days a week for nearly a year. Doctor Wong, a transplant from Asia, who had lived much of his childhood struggling to feed himself, who somehow not only made it to the United States, but became a medical doctor, loved America with a fervency bordering on insanity. It wasn’t a fine day unless it was an “American” day. He had a headache once, and I brought him a Motrin. He asked if it was “American” Motrin, taking it only after I assured him that it was.

“Good, Doc,” I said. “I will bring it to you.”

I returned to the treatment room to get the doctor a cup of coffee. I heard low humming coming from underneath Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. I ignored it. She said she would be meditating, which was fine with me if she did it quietly. I poured Dr. Wong a cup of coffee and brought it to him, placing a schedule of inmate patients on his desk. He took the cup of coffee from me and sipped it.

“Thank you, MTA Taylor,” he said. “That is a good American cup of coffee.”

“You’re welcome, Doc,” I said.

The pill line ended about half an hour later. Inmates began arriving for their medical and psychiatric appointments. I let them in, checking their identification and medical ducats to the schedule, patting them down for weapons and contraband. I checked their blood pressures and told them to stand on a scale to check their weight. Afterwards, they waited together on a long, wooden bench in the clinic area. I opened Dr. Wong’s desk and placed the first inmate’s medical file on his desk. I opened Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door to hand her the file of her first patient. She was still humming lowly to herself, her eyes closed.

“Your patients are arriving,” I said, placing the file on her desk.

“Five minutes more, Mr. Taylor. I am not quite done with my calming ritual.”

“Fine,” I said, “let me know when you’re ready.”

She closed her eyes again and began humming to herself. I left her there, closing the door behind me. Ten minutes later, her office door opened. She was holding the file I had given her. She looked at the inmates who were waiting on the bench.

“Mr. Williams?” She called. A black inmate in his mid-thirties stood up. He looked at the psychiatrist, then looked at me. He raised an eyebrow.

“For real, Taylor?” He said.

“This way, Mr. Williams,” Dr. Teitelbaum said.

The inmate shrugged and entered the office. Dr. Teitelbaum closed the door. I opened it again.

“Doctor” I said, “the door has to be open at least enough for me to hear what’s going on. For your protection.”

“That is unacceptable,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “There is a such thing as patient confidentiality.”

“This is a prison,” I said. I motioned toward Inmate Williams. “He is an inmate, and I can’t leave you alone with him.”

Her face turned a bright shade of pink, but she took her seat behind the desk.

“Very well, then,” she said. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let us continue.”

I exited the office, leaving the door open about a quarter of the way. More inmates were arriving for the medical and psychiatric lines, and some already seen by Dr. Wong were wanting to leave. I patted down a couple inmates to make sure they left with only what they had arrived with, and let a couple more inmates in. I entered the treatment room where MTA Ford was busy transcribing new orders from the medical charts.

“How’s the Mad Hatter doing?” He asked.

“Just seeing the first inmate now. I guess we have to wait and see,” I said.

It did not take long to learn how Dr. Teitelbaum was faring with the inmate. I heard Inmate Williams cussing loudly and Dr. Teitelbaum shouting in her unmistakable voice. The inmate shouted back. Dr. Teitelbaum released a hysterical scream. MTA Ford and I ran from the room, ordering the inmates in the clinic to get down. They lowered their selves to the floor. I pulled a canister of pepper spray from my duty belt and entered the office, shouting for Inmate Williams to get down. He complied, immediately leaving his chair and sitting on the office floor. Dr. Teitelbaum was standing behind her desk. Her face was red and glistening with perspiration. Her magenta hat was in her hand, and her red hair was in disarray.

“Are you alright, Doctor?” I asked.

Dr. Teitelbaum stared up at me. Her lips trembled. Her round face quivered with indignation.

“What is the meaning of this, Mr. Taylor?” She shouted. “I will not be interrupted during a therapy session!”

“You were screaming at each other,” I said.

“This is therapy, Mr. Taylor,” she said. Her entire body was shaking. “Do you not understand? This is therapy!”

Inmate Williams held up his hands.

“I didn’t do anything to her, Taylor. I swear it, man. She’s a crazy lady.”

Dr. Teitelbaum twisted her hat in her hands, staring angrily down at the inmate.

“I am not a crazy lady,” she shouted. “I am the psychiatrist!”

Leaving his office, Dr. Wong walked up behind me. He looked at Dr. Teitelbaum. He saw the inmate on the office floor and examined the psychiatrist, who stood, shaking visibly, clutching the magenta hat in both hands. Dr. Wong shook his head.

“This,” he announced gravely, “is simply unamerican.” He turned from us, entered his office and closed the door behind him.

Dr. Teitelbaum lasted a month or so longer, the need of the department to fill medical positions outweighing the need for competent providers. She never got any better, though her shouting “therapy” was ended by order of the chief psychiatrist. I was in the clinic on her last day. She was wearing her now infamous magenta hat and was attired in yellow and orange, rather than purple. We made it to the end of the shift without major incident, and I was sitting in the MTAs office. She stuck her head into my office.

“Mr. Taylor,” she said, “as you probably already know, today is my last day. The establishment was just not ready for my special brand of treatment.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doctor Teitelbaum,” I said, not meaning it in the least.

“Yes, well,” she said, “I am going into business for myself.” She handed me a purple business card. The card read, DR. Teitelbaum, Psychiatrist extraordinaire, and included her phone number. “If you are ever in need of psychiatric care, call me.” She looked at me through her glasses, that dreamy, faraway look in her beady eyes. “I am not cheap,” she said, “but I am the best…”

Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at:


Capitol-DramaticSmallI sat in relative darkness in a compartment located within the sides of the hovercraft, surrounded by marines, some in olive drab green uniforms, others in casual civilian clothes. My own attire, a black suit, white dress shirt and blue tie, was incongruous even in the dim light. No one spoke. Marines were accustomed to odd ways of travel and most were already settling down for the short ride in the dim light to the USS Essex, a United States Navy ship anchored in the Pacific Ocean a few miles out from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. We waited expectantly for the large engines of the hovercraft to come to life, lifting the large craft on currents of air, above the sand and ocean water, to the waiting ship. The hovercraft was very large, capable of carrying full size, five-ton trucks parked in several rows, plus tanks and other heavy military gear. A knock sounded on the metal hatch and a marine corps staff sergeant opened it from the outside. Sunlight flooded the compartment.

“Is there a United States congressman down here?” The staff sergeant asked. He looked at me, taking in my suit and tie. “Sir, are you a United States congressman?”

“That would be me,” I said.

“Your presence is requested by the commodore, Sir. Will you please come with me?”

I exited the compartment, blinking in the bright sunlight, and followed the staff sergeant along the gray metal deck of the craft, up a short flight of stairs to the cockpit of the hovercraft. The staff sergeant opened the hatch and motioned for me to enter. A navy captain sat in one of two seats behind the two pilots. A marine corps captain sat next to him. Now, a navy captain and a marine corps captain are not the same rank. For some reason known to military historians, but which I never fully grasped, navy and coast guard officers have a different rank structure than the other armed services. A lieutenant in the navy is equal to a captain in the marine corps and share the same silver double-bar rank insignia. A colonel in the marine corps is equal in rank to a captain in the navy, and they share the same silver eagle insignia. In this case, the grizzled, white-haired navy captain in his khaki uniform, with the silver eagles on his collars and cover, outranked the young marine corps captain by three ranks. At the time, a navy captain with the responsibilities of an admiral was called a commodore. The commodore was the commander, or flag officer, of not only the USS Essex, but of all the ships in the area. I entered the cockpit. The staff sergeant announced my presence.

“Commodore, the United States congressman, as you ordered, Sir.” His duty performed, the staff sergeant turned and headed down to join his marines. The Commodore turned in his seat and looked me over. He motioned to the marine corps captain sitting next to him.

“Captain, there is a United States congressman on board. Give him your seat, please.”

The marine corps captain was also looking at me. I was a young man, just shy of twenty-four years old. My brown hair was longer than the marines wore it. Truth be told, it was longer than even navy regulations allowed for. I was wearing a civilian suit, as I had been ordered to. The marine corps captain frowned.

“But he’s not a real congressman, Commodore. This is just an exercise,” he said.

The commodore turned hard eyes on the marine corps captain.

“That’s true, Captain. He is not a real congressman.”  He spoke slowly, punctuating every word. “But…I…am…a…real…commodore.”

The marine corps captain turned from me, hearing the sudden coolness in the commodore’s voice. He looked at the commodore, dropping his eyes immediately when he saw his intense stare. He stood up from his seat and came to the position of attention, arms at his side.

“Yes, Commodore,” he said. He turned and exited the cockpit through the hatch without another word, making his way to the compartments below. The commodore watched him as he went, before turning his attention back to me. He nodded toward the vacant seat.

“Please join me, if you will, Mister Congressman,” he said. I sat down next to him, looking out the window of the cockpit at the beach, and the silhouette of the USS Essex on the ocean’s horizon. “You’re not a marine, I think,” he said, “not with that haircut, anyway. Navy, I take it?”

“Yes, Sir. I’m a corpsman, attached to the marines.”

“Ah, a field medic. Great group of folks. Well, Doc,” he said, breaking into a grin, “today you’re not a corpsman. You’re a congressman.”

Moments later, the great engines sprang to life, throwing sand in every direction, lifting the hovercraft on powerful currents of air. The pilots turned the vehicle toward the USS Essex, and it glided forward, off the beach, large fans at the rear of the craft propelling it forward and out into the ocean. It hovered several feet above the water, headed toward the ship. The commodore turned to me again, raising his voice to be heard above the cacophony of the engines and ocean spray.

“I’ll bet you’ve had a heck of a day, young man.”

“Yes, Commodore,” I said, “I certainly have.”

“It’s about to get even more interesting.” He called up to the pilots. “Radio the USS Essex. Inform them the flag officer is boarding with a United States congressman.”

I listened as one of the pilots obediently radioed the USS Essex, informing them the flag officer would soon be boarding with a United States congressman. I knew from experience the message would be relayed over speakers to every part of the ship. They would be ready for the flag officer to board with a United States congressman; the real flag officer and, they would presume, a real congressman. Either event, the arrival of the flag officer, or the arrival of a high ranking political figure, was important. Both events would send much of the ship into a flurry of preparation and expectation. As the silhouette of the ship grew nearer, I thought over the events that had led me to where I was, sitting next to the commodore, being hailed as a United States congressman. It certainly had been a heck of a day.

It all started the day before. I had returned from Somalia in July of 1994 with the USS Peleliu and the Eleventh Marine Expeditionary Unit a week earlier. A hundred or more marines were pulled from my command to help train the unit which would be headed to Somalia in about five months.  A marine corps first lieutenant, the name R. Bramble stitched in black on the name-strip above the right pocket of his uniform, handpicked several marines from my unit. He wore the typical camouflage uniform of a marine, but a band of white tape encircled the border of his cover. He was much older than his rank suggested. He was tan, in his late thirties, with a small beer belly, something rarely seen on marines. He was what we called a “mustang,” an officer who began his career as an enlisted man, rising through the ranks to become an officer. He held a clipboard with a list in front of him and made marks on the list with a pen. He pointed to several marines.

“You will be American civilians,” he said. He looked down at the clipboard. “I need members of the press.” He studied the marines, pointing to two of them standing nearby. “You and you,” he said. “Make sure to come looking like members of the press.” He looked down at the clipboard again. “Okay. I need a United States congressman.” He scanned the marines around me, then looked me over. “Doc,” he said, “you have the hair for it. You got a suit and tie?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“Good. Then you’ve just been elected. Congratulations, Mr. Congressman.” He raised his voice and spoke to the gathered marines. “Remember, zero-seven-hundred tomorrow. Come dressed to fit your parts.” He pointed to the white band of tape encircling his cover. “The monitors will be wearing white bands. They’re in charge. What they say goes. Remember, we train as true to real life as we possibly can. With that said, you’re dismissed until tomorrow morning.”

He turned to me as the others started leaving.

“Hold on a minute, Doc.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“You won the lottery, Doc,” he said. “You have the most important part to play. You up to it?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I believe so.”

“Good.” He said. “I’ll tell you more tomorrow, but for now just know you’re in the role of an arrogant, military hating United States congressman with a diva complex. You understand? I want you to be demanding, and I want you to be rude to pretty much everyone, regardless of rank. You think you can pull that off?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said, grinning at the thought of how fun that might be. “I will give it my best.”

I spent much of that evening ironing my shirt, polishing my dress shoes, and getting the wrinkles out of my only suit. I have to admit, though, when I arrived early the following morning at the headquarters of the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit, an older white building left over from around the days of World War Two, as hard as I had tried, I simply looked too young to be a congressman. Lieutenant Bramble saw me getting out of my car. He waved to me from a large group of marines, most in civilian dress. The two marines he had designated to be members of the press wore dress shirts, slacks and ties. One held a microphone and the other carried a large television camera. Several other monitors, most officers, the white strips of tape encircling their covers, were busy giving instructions to the other pretend civilians.

“Over here, Mr. Congressman,” the lieutenant called, already falling into the pretense of the training. He examined my suit and tie and smiled. “You really look the part, Doc. A regular member of the Kennedy family. You ready to go?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“Let’s go, then.” He stepped onto a small platform near the headquarters entrance and raised his voice. “Listen up!” He waited for the chatter around us to die down. “Alright, marines,” he said once he had their attention, “you should all know your roles by now. If you do not, get with one of the monitors. The scenario is simple. You are American civilians in a war-torn foreign country. The United States has deemed that all Americans are in danger and are providing transportation out of the area. This is an evacuation of civilians. The rules are simple. Do whatever the monitors tell you to do. If they tell you a bomb went off next to you, then lie down and die. If they tell you you’re a secret terrorist, then terrorize. Are there any questions?”

A few murmurs of “no, Sir,” and “no, Lieutenant” answered him.

“Good,” he said, nodding to one of the other monitors, “then let the war games begin.”

The exercise started. Marines from the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit exited the building, accompanied by a gaggle of monitors. The Executive officer, the officer second in position to the commanding officer, a dignified looking major, stood on the small platform and gave a short speech and instructions, informing the “civilians” of the danger of staying in a war-torn country, and the process by which they would be evacuated. The plan, he said, was to transport the civilians by buses to hovercrafts, which would then carry them to the USS Essex. He explained that, for the protection of everyone, all persons were subject to search, and would be guarded until they were deemed safe.  Until that time, they would be kept in a holding area. Lieutenant Bramble, who was standing behind the major, whispered something in his ear. The major looked at me.

“We have a United States congressman with us,” he said. “Sir, would you care to say a few words?”

I looked up at Lieutenant Bramble, who grinned widely at me, motioning to the platform. I joined the major on the platform and smiled my best politician smile at the “civilians” and the “news team,” who aimed their camera up at me. I gave a short impromptu speech, encouraging the “civilians,” who were going through such a difficult and frightening experience, and thanking the American Embassy and the United States Marine Corps for their service and help. I ended my speech as I had seen politicians end speeches on television,

“Thank you,” I said. “May God bless you, and may God bless America.” The “civilians” clapped after my speech, and I heard a couple of whistles, no doubt from marines who knew me personally. The major gave instructions to his marines, who began rounding up the “civilians.” He turned to me.

“Mr. Congressman, please come with me, Sir. The colonel is waiting to meet you.” I followed him, along with marines armed with M-16 rifles, the “news team,” and the monitors, into the headquarters building. Lieutenant Bramble put his hand on my shoulder and spoke conspiratorially in my ear.

“Good job so far, Doc. But remember, you’re rude and you hate the military.”

“Got it, Sir,” I said.

The major led me into a foyer and asked me to wait while he notified the colonel I was there. Moments later, the colonel exited his office with the major, and joined me in the foyer. The colonel was a stately man, near retirement age. His close-cropped hair was more gray than brown. His green, bravo class uniform was impeccably pressed and the silver eagles on his collars and shoulders were brightly polished. The left side of his chest was covered with ribbons, depicting the campaigns and accomplishments of his long career. He was a “full bird” colonel, a term used because of the existence of the lieutenant colonel rank, a rank lower than colonel, depicted by silver maple leaves instead of silver eagles, or “birds.” This was a man whose very presence, not to mention military discipline, commanded respect. One discipline ingrained in me at the time was to never turn my back on a “full bird” colonel. Never. The major motioned to me and, by way of introduction, said,

“Colonel Blackman, this is Congressman Taylor.” He turned toward me. “Mr. Congressman, please meet Colonel Blackman, the commanding officer of the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit.” The colonel held out his hand for me to shake. I turned my back to him. I felt him grow tense behind me. A marine corps sergeant was standing nearby. His name-tape identified him as Sergeant Barnes. He was a stocky marine in his late twenties. I learned later his men called him Tex. He was dressed in his camouflage uniform.

“Corporal Barnes,” I said, purposely demoting him in rank, “I need a cup of coffee.”

The sergeant turned red in the face.

“I am a sergeant of marines,” he said. His voice was deep and somnolent. He spoke with a southern accent. “I’m not a corporal.”

“I am not interested in your rank,” I said. “I don’t know anything about the army.” Being associated with the army seemed to agitate him more than being called a corporal. “And I don’t care to learn,” I said.  I looked menacingly at the sergeant, speaking through clinched teeth. “What I do want is a cup…of…coffee.”

The sergeant looked like he was preparing to have a seizure. His hands clenched in fists at his sides. He shook visibly, struggling to maintain military discipline. Perhaps to protect me from being assaulted, one of the monitors stepped forward.

“Do it, Sergeant,” he said. “Get the congressman a cup of coffee.”

The sergeant nodded curtly. He collected what remained of his bearing and turned stiffly on his heels, walking away. I heard him tell a junior marine to brew a pot of coffee. I turned back to the colonel whose hand was still waiting to shake mine. I looked down at his outstretched hand, and, ignoring it, decided to push my luck.

“Colonel,” I said, “I require an office and a phone that can reach Washington. Your office will do just fine.”

The colonel was a study in composure. He simply nodded his head in acquiescence.

“Absolutely, Mr. Congressman. Please make yourself welcome.” Beckoning me to follow him, he led me to his office, and opened the door. His office was large, decorated with photos and memorials of his long career in the marines. Photos of his family stood atop his wooden desk. “There’s the telephone,” he said, pointing to the phone. “Dial nine to call out.” I sat down in his chair, leaning back as far as it would recline, and placed a foot on the colonel’s desk. “My office is your office,” the colonel continued, unruffled, “I’m sure the sergeant will have coffee for you soon, and if there is anything else you need, please notify any member of my staff. My senior staff and I are preparing for your evacuation, and I will inform you of the details as soon as possible.”

I picked up the phone.

“Thank you, Colonel,” I said, nodding toward the door, “you’re dismissed. Close the door on your way out. I have an important call to make.”

The colonel turned and left, joining the monitors and marines in the hallway. He closed the door, leaving me alone in the office. I placed my other foot on the desk and looked around me, thinking about how one could get used to this kind of treatment. I put the phone down, having no one to actually call. The door opened, and Lieutenant Bramble stuck his head in. He grinned at me.

“You enjoying yourself yet, Doc?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I hope I didn’t overdo it with the colonel.”

Lieutenant Bramble shook his head.

“Don’t you worry about that. You’re doing fine, just fine.” He entered the office and closed the door behind him. “I think it’s time to ramp it up a bit. The colonel’s going to meet with you in the conference room. He’ll tell you his plan to get you out of the country. But, Doc, whatever he tells you, you’re going to disagree with. Got it?’ I nodded. “Good,” he said. “Now what you’re going to do is demand a van to transport you.  You will also demand two light armored infantry vehicles to accompany you as escorts. Tell the colonel you don’t want to wait in traffic, and he has to close down all the roads from here to Del Mar. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“And add to it if you want. Don’t make it easy for him.”

“Got it, Sir,” I said.

He opened the door to leave. Sergeant Barnes entered carrying a Styrofoam cup of black coffee. He placed it on the desk and turned to leave without saying a word. “Corporal,” I said, stopping him, “I take my coffee with cream and sugar.”

The sergeant grew red in the face. He looked at Lieutenant Bramble, who simply nodded at him.

“Yes, Sir,” the sergeant said. He picked up the cup of coffee and left. Lieutenant Bramble gave me a wink and followed him out, closing the door behind him. I sat alone in the office for a few minutes before the door opened again. A private entered, carrying a Styrofoam cup with my coffee, now made with cream and sugar. He placed it on the desk and turned to leave.

“And where is Corporal Barnes? He was supposed to bring my coffee,” I said.

“He ordered me to bring it to you, Sir,” the young marine said, “and he’s a sergeant, Sir, not a corporal.” The private, a tall lanky young man with a “high and tight” haircut, kept his eyes down to the ground. I wondered if he realized I was only playing at being a congressman.

“Is that right? Well, do me a favor and let the sergeant know I’m displeased.”

“Yes, Sir,” he said, leaving.

I dipped a finger in the cup.

“And this coffee is lukewarm, Marine. I will need another one.”

“Yes, Sir,” he said, “right away.”

Before the private could return with the coffee, the major entered the office with two monitors.

“Mr. Congressman,” the major said, “Colonel Blackman is ready to meet with you in the conference room.” Ignoring the major, I leaned back in the colonel’s desk chair and placed both of my feet on the wooden desk. I picked up the phone and pretended to make a call, my fingers hitting random numbers. “Mr. Congressman…” the major started again. I held up a hand to silence him, pretending to reach someone on the phone.

“Yes, this is Senator Taylor (if I were a pretend congressman, I may as well be a senator). I need to speak directly to the Joint Chief of Staff. What’s it about? Well, it’s about certain army personnel under his command who don’t seem to understand that I am a very important person. Yes. I will wait.”

I sat for around thirty seconds, my ear pressed to the phone. The major stood quietly, looking intermittently between me and the monitors. To his credit, he kept his cool admirably.

“Yes, hello, General,” I said into the phone, addressing the imaginary Joint Chief of Staff, “this is Senator Taylor. I want to talk to you about some of your personnel. Yes, General, Oh, doing fine, just fine…and how are you? Are the wife and kids well? Good. Good to hear. Yes, well, I’m at the US Embassy in this God forsaken country. I’m surrounded by members of the army. Well, okay, marines then…”

I looked up at the marines standing patiently in the office.

“I can’t tell the difference, General. But my issue is they seem to think I’m just a common person. I haven’t even been able to get a cup of coffee without them complaining. Yes… complaining about giving a United States congressman a cup of coffee. Can you believe that? And it’s not only that…it’s just that…well…they’re just so militant…uh huh…yes…I know they are military…yes, General…you will talk to them? Okay. I appreciate your help. I will see you in a month at the gala…Bye now…”

I hung up the phone and turned to the major.

“Major,” I said. “I am ready to meet the colonel in the conference room.”

I followed the major and the monitors out of the colonel’s office to the conference room. Colonel Blackman sat at the middle of the long, wooden conference table, with several officers to each side of him. The monitors hovered nearby, as I entered. The “news team” stood to one side of the room, their camera aimed at the conference table. The seat at the head of the table was empty, and I took it without waiting to be invited. The colonel nodded at me,

“Mr. Congressman…” he began. I held up my hand, and he stopped talking.

“A cup of coffee, Colonel,” I said. “I’ve been here all morning and have not been able to get a decent cup of coffee. Just what kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running here?”

The colonel turned to one of his officers.

“Get the congressman a cup of coffee,” he said. The officer he spoke to stood up and headed out the door.

“Cream and two sugars,” I called to the officer.

“Mr. Congressman,” the colonel said, “if I may go over the evacuation plans with you…”

I looked at the colonel.

“Certainly, you may, Colonel,” I said, “just as soon as I have my cup of coffee.” I waited, looking at the door. The colonel looked up at the monitors, as if asking for help. One of the monitors shrugged his shoulders. After a couple minutes, the officer returned and placed a Styrofoam cup of coffee on the table in front of me.

“Mr. Congressman… if we can now…” the colonel began.

I held up a finger, focusing on the cup in front of me. With all the bravado I could muster, I held my finger above the coffee. The colonel looked befuddled. The officer who had delivered my coffee waited in pregnant silence. Slowly, dramatically, I dipped my forefinger in the coffee. Satisfied with the temperature, I lifted the cup to my lips and took a sip.

“This,” I announced to the waiting officer and everyone else in the room, “is a spectacular cup of coffee.” The officer looked relieved. The colonel shook his head.

“Then perhaps we can get down to business, Mr. Congressman?” The colonel said.

“Absolutely, Colonel,” I said. “Let’s get down to business.”

The colonel laid a map of Camp Pendleton and the surrounding areas in front of me.

“As you know, Sir, we are in a dangerous area, and we need to evacuate you.” He placed a finger on the map near our location. “We have a bus leaving in about an hour or so. The bus will take you and other evacuees from here,” his finger trailed along the map from our location to the beach, “to a waiting hovercraft. You will board the hovercraft, which will transport you to the USS Essex.”

I took a sip of coffee.

“A bus?” I said. “Let me get this straight, Colonel. Your plan is to put a United States congressman on a bus with…” I sniffed as if smelling something bad, “with common people?”

“Well, yes, Mr. Congressman,” the Colonel said.

“Well, no, Colonel,” I said. The colonel stared at me. For the first time his unflappable facade began to crack. His face turned a light shade of pink. “That is unless you want to come to Washington with me to explain why you treated a very important person, such as myself, like any other evacuee.”

“Now you listen to me…” he said.

“No, Colonel,” I said, “you listen to me. This is what you’re going to do. I want my own private vehicle. A van will do. I want American flags on the front of the vehicle and I want it to be nice and cool inside. Oh, and I want refreshments.”

“But…” the colonel sputtered.

“I’m not finished, Colonel,” I said, overriding his protests. “I will need security befitting someone of my political status. What do you call the armored vehicles that look like tanks? Light armored infantry something or another…”

“Light armored infantry vehicles?” The colonel said, staring at me in disbelief.

“That’s it,” I said. “I want two of those, one to guard my front and the other to guard my back.” I pointed to the map. “You will also have to close down the roads all the way to the beach,” I said. “That, Colonel, is what you’re going to do.”

The colonel stared at me, speechless. I stared back. He turned to the monitors with a questioning look.  Lieutenant Bramble whispered something to the colonel. The colonel looked back at me.

“Yes, Mr. Congressman,” he said, suddenly resigned to my demands, “but this will take more than an hour.”

I stood up.

“Then I’ll be in your office, Colonel,” I said. I took a last long sip of coffee and placed the cup on the table. “And I will need another cup of coffee.”

I returned to the colonel’s office and waited. Every fifteen minutes or so, I stuck my head out the door and asked whatever marine happened to be close by to bring me a cup of coffee. Soon, several cups of coffee, many untouched, littered the colonel’s desk. Finally, after a couple hours passed, Sergeant Barnes opened the office door and stuck his head in.

“Mr. Congressman,” he said, “your transportation will be here in fifteen minutes.”

I propped a foot on the colonel’s desk, and leaned back, clasping my fingers behind my head.

“Good, Barnes,” I said, “that means you have time to get me another cup of coffee.”

The sergeant’s face turned red again.

“Yes, Sir,” he said, reluctantly. He turned and closed the door just a bit too hard.  I heard him cursing to himself through the wooden door.

Ten minutes later, the door opened again. Sergeant Barnes entered first, proffering a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He was followed immediately by the colonel, a couple of his officers, Lieutenant Bramble and a few other monitors. I motioned to the coffee cups littering the colonel’s desk and addressed Sergeant Barnes,

“Put it with the others,” I said. Barnes placed the coffee cup on the desk.

“Mr. Congressman,” the colonel said, “your transportation is here, Sir.”

I stood up from his desk chair.

“Good,” I said. “You will probably want your office back, then.”

“Yes, Mr. Congressman,” he said, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

I waved a hand toward his desk.

“You should probably get someone in here to clean up this mess,” I said.

I followed the colonel and his entourage to the front of the headquarters building. Around fifty or so marines, some in uniform, others pretending to be civilians, were standing nearby, watching as we exited the building. A white van waited outside, flags mounted to each side of the hood. A marine sat in the driver’s seat, the engine still running. Two green light armored infantry vehicles accompanied the van, one in front of the van and one behind. They were large, green tank-like vehicles with mounted fifty caliber machine guns. The van driver exited the van when he saw us. He opened the sliding side door. Cool air escaped the inside of the van. He must have dropped by a convenience store, because the rear of the vehicle was loaded with snacks, bags of chips, and cool drinks. Soft jazz was playing through the speakers. The news crew aimed a camera at me, and I decided to give a speech. I stood at the side of the van, facing the camera, the colonel and his entourage of marines. I raised my voice to be heard by the entire throng of marines, trying my best to sound like a typical pontificating politician.

“I want to take a moment to thank the colonel for the use of his office,” I said. “I will be sure to mention his hospitality to the Joint Chief of Staff when I return to Washington. I want to thank you all for making me feel at home. You are a fine group of marines.” I looked at Sergeant Barnes, “Even Corporal Barnes,” I said, “who finally learned to make a good cup of coffee. Thank you all for your service to this country.” I gave them my best slick politician smile. “God bless you,” I said, “and may God bless America.” Several marines clapped. The colonel smiled, looking decidedly pleased I was leaving.

Turning from the applause, I entered the back seat of the van. The driver was a marine from the base motor pool who recognized me from my many interactions with different groups of marines. He was Hispanic, in a Charlie class uniform.

“I hope you know where were going,” I said.

“I got you, Doc. We’re headed to Del Mar. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” He shook his head.  “They even shut down all the roads for us. Crazy.”

The light armored infantry vehicle in front of us pulled out. My driver followed. The second light armored infantry vehicle followed behind us. The procession was slow going, the tank-like vehicles not being built for speed. I opened a soda and a bag of chips. Del Mar, a part of the base close to the beach, was about twelve miles away. We entered Rattle Snake Canyon Road. Military police vehicles were parked at the entrance to the road. A military policeman was standing outside, holding up traffic for us. The sight of my small procession of light armored infantry vehicles and a white van, flying American flags, was a real spectacle. Drivers, stopped in their vehicles, were staring, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was so important he needed such protection even on a military base. Not wanting to let anyone down, I began waving my best politician wave and smiling as we passed by. The drivers craned their necks trying to see who I was. A few returned my wave. Some honked their horns. We turned off Rattlesnake Canyon Road to Vandegrift Boulevard, which led several miles toward the main gate and Del Mar area. Vandegrift Boulevard was also shut completely down. Military police vehicles blocked traffic in both directions. I smiled and waved at the halted vehicles which numbered in the hundreds, Vandegrift Boulevard being an extremely busy street. Finally, we reached Del Mar area. Field Medical Service School, one of the two schools for training corpsman to serve with the marines, was located at Del Mar. Being a graduate of the school, I was very familiar with the area. One of the buses the colonel had originally planned to put me on was parked near the entrance to Del Mar. Still playing the game, the civilian-dressed marines were walking. I learned later that their part of the story involved the bus running over a landmine, and they had to walk the last mile and a half or so to the hovercraft. I smiled and waved at the walking marines. None returned my wave.  Following the light armored infantry vehicle in front of us, we passed Field Medical Service School and pulled of the paved street to a dirt road, leading down to the beach. Several gray metal hovercrafts waited for us near the beach, their engines shut down. Navy personnel were searching the arriving “civilians” for weapons and guiding them to one of the several hovercrafts. The light armored infantry vehicle pulled up to one of the hovercrafts. My driver parked, exited the vehicle and opened my door to let me out.

“Mr. Congressman,” he said.

“Not anymore,” I said. “I think the games pretty well over, don’t you?”

I walked toward the waiting hovercraft. My driver walked with me. One of the navy men, a low ranking, young enlisted man in blue coveralls, guided me to an area where others were being searched for weapons. He started the procedure to search me for weapons. My driver stopped him.

“You can’t search a United States Congressman,” he said. “Don’t you know who this is?”

The young sailor looked up at me. He appeared confused, unsure of the procedure for dealing with someone of my purported, pretend political stature. I made it easy for him.

“If you lay one hand on me,” I said, “you will have to give an answer why. And it might be difficult to explain why you chose to manhandle a member of the United States congress.”

“I guess…” he said.

“You guess right,” my driver answered.

“Okay then,” the young sailor said, “follow me.” He led me to the rear of the hovercraft, and to the lower compartment half-filled with marines. “Take a seat in there. We should be leaving soon.”

Pretty well done with playing a congressman, I acquiesced and took a seat in the compartment with the marines. I settled down for the ride. Over the next half an hour, the hatch opened several times, and marines entered, most from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit. One of them was Sergeant Barnes, who took a seat. He did not seem to notice my presence in the darkness. A few minutes after Barnes entered, the staff sergeant opened the hatch, looking for a United States Congressman.

I never did learn how the commodore knew I was playing the part of a congressman, or why he chose to play along. But I am glad he did. Life is a series of events, some good, others not so good. It is a book filled with chapters, plots, twists and turns, highs and lows. I would have enjoyed the memory of that day had it ended in the dim light of the hovercraft compartment below, and would have eagerly regaled my friends with the tale, but I will never forget the reception I received from the navy personnel on board the USS Essex.

It was thrilling to be in the cockpit of the hovercraft, next to the commodore, watching the USS Essex grow closer as we sped along, slowing as we neared the ship. It was not my first time in a hovercraft, but the few times I had been a passenger in one I had sat in one of the dim compartments. This was nothing short of exhilarating. We drew close to the Essex. The rear of the ship was open, ready to receive us. Docking the hovercraft aboard the ship was an exercise of skill and patience on the part of the pilots. The ship was designed to receive the hovercraft, but there was little room for error. The pilots expertly guided the large craft aboard the ship. Though they slowed the engines, it felt and sounded like we were in the midst of a hurricane, the engines grumbling and grinding in lower gear, the wind generated by the engines causing a vortex inside the metal cocoon of the ship. Slowly, we pulled into position, the hovercraft settling on the metal deck, inside the cargo area. The pilots stopped the engines.  All grew quiet. A few minutes later, the marines were being let out of the compartments. The commodore and I disembarked first, exiting at the rear of the hovercraft. The commodore carried a sea bag. Navy personnel stood in formation, standing at the position of attention.

“Come with me, Mr. Congressman,” the commodore said.

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

We headed toward the formation of sailors. A master chief stood in front of the formation. He was a tall man with a neatly trimmed mustache. He wore the khaki working uniform of navy chiefs and officers. The gold colored badge of a command master chief, the highest ranking enlisted man on board the ship, was pinned to the left side of his shirt below his ribbons. He saluted when we approached. The Commodore returned the salute.

“Welcome aboard, Commodore,” the master chief said. “I’m Master Chief Azevedo, the master chief of the command, Sir. The commanding officer is waiting for you and the congressman in his stateroom.” He motioned to a third-class petty officer in the front of the formation. “Take the commodore’s bag, petty officer.”

“I can carry my own bag,” the commodore said to the petty officer. “Just show me the way.” He turned to me and the master chief. “Give the congressman a tour of the ship, and then bring him to the commanding officer’s stateroom.” He held his hand out to me, and I shook it. “Enjoy yourself, Mr. Congressman,” he said with a wink. He turned and followed the petty officer.

“Please come with me, Mr. Congressman,” the master chief said.

I followed the master chief up a flight of stairs. We entered a long passageway filled with sailors, most in blue denim dungarees and light blue shirts. They stood in line, waiting to enter the large chow hall. The master chief raised his voice, announcing my presence.

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

The sailors in the passageway looked around and saw me in my black suit, standing next to their command master chief. They moved quickly to the position of attention, standing erect, arms at their sides, feet together, pointing out at forty-five-degree angles. The master chief motioned to the chow hall entrance. I walked toward the chow hall, inadvertently brushing up against a second-class petty officer. He cringed away from me, as though afraid to touch me. Although I was the one who brushed up against him, he apologized to me, his voice cracking as he did.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” he said.

Relax, Sailor,” I said, “it was my fault.”

“Thank you, Sir,” he said.

I entered the chow hall. The master chief called out,

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

More than two hundred sailors, most who had been seated at tables in the middle of their meals, jumped to attention. The murmur of conversations came to a sudden stop. Though the position of attention required one to look forward, eyes turned toward me and the master chief. I felt awkward, especially since I was only a pretend congressman. Of course, the sailors believed I was a congressman. I am not entirely sure why I did it, but it seemed natural to me that I should give some sort of speech, rather than stand there, the wordless center of attention.

“Please, relax,” I said, “at ease, sailors.” Released from the position of attention, they relaxed. “Take a seat if you want.” Several returned to their tables. Their eyes remained on me. “On behalf of congress,” I said in my pretend politician voice, “I want to tell you what a fine job you are doing. I am scheduled to meet with the Joint Chief of Staff in Washington next week, and I will be sure to tell him what a tight ship you all run.” I noticed movement at the entrance to the chow hall. Marines from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit were entering. Sergeant Barnes was among them, no doubt intending to grab a quick bite before heading back to Camp Pendleton on a hovercraft. They stopped when they saw me in the middle of giving a speech. “You are part of the greatest volunteer military in the world,” I continued, “and I, on behalf of the country, am grateful for your service. I am personally honored to be in the presence of the finest navy the world has ever known.” I ended my speech with my now perfunctory, “May God bless you, and may God bless America!”

The sailors stood and clapped for me. Sergeant Barnes looked at me, frowning thoughtfully to himself. I turned to the master chief.

“Heck of a speech, Mr. Congressman,” he said. “Shall we continue?”

“Lead on, Master Chief,” I said.

We exited the chow hall, to the master chief’s departing announcement of “Attention on deck! United States Congressman!” Once again, the men in the chow hall jumped to attention at my departure. I looked at Sergeant Barnes on the way out. He was at attention, his eyes on me as I exited.

For the next hour, I followed the master chief, entering every room and passageway to the announcement,

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

We entered the medical bay, where I gave a short speech to the medical staff. I was shown the quarterdeck, walked countless passageways and ladders. I toured the flight deck and the aircraft, finally ending up at the commanding officer’s stateroom. The master chief knocked on the door of the stateroom and entered without waiting for an answer. The stateroom was basically a shipboard condominium with a bedroom, sitting room and office.  The captain exited his office when we entered. He was a dignified man in his late forties, wearing the khaki uniform with silver eagles on his collars. The name tag on his uniform read J. Cassidy.

“Captain,” the master chief said, “this is Congressman Taylor.” He turned to me. “Mr. Congressman, this is Captain Cassidy, the commanding officer of the USS Essex.”

The captain held out his hand. I shook it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Congressman,” the commanding officer said. “Is there anything I can get you? I have diet coke.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Diet Coke is fine.” He reached into a small refrigerator and handed me a diet coke. “Master Chief, please excuse us.”

“Yes, Captain,” the master chief said. He turned and exited the door, leaving me alone with the captain. The captain gave me a tour of his small, but comfortable stateroom. He pointed to a red telephone and told me if he picked up the receiver someone at the Pentagon would answer within seconds. Finally, after several minutes, he turned to me.

“Young man,” the captain smiled. “I know you’re actually a corpsman. I had a chat with the commodore. I bet it’s been a pretty crazy day for you.”

“Yes, Sir.” I said.

“I also heard you did an excellent job playing a congressman. Maybe one day you will enter politics. Who knows?”

“Maybe, Sir,” I said. “I never thought about it before.”

“Tell me something,” he said. “Now that you know how a United States congressman is treated, did you learn anything?”

“Learn anything, Sir?”

“Yes. Think about it. If you were treated the way you were treated today, what would you do or say to hold onto that kind of power? What would you do to not lose that special status?”

I thought about.

“I suppose,” I said, “I might be tempted to say or do anything to keep that kind of power.”

The captain grinned.

“Now you know everything you will ever need to know about politicians,” he said.

Forty-five minutes later, I stood, leaning against a bulkhead in the cargo area, waiting to board one of the hovercrafts which would transport me back to Camp Pendleton. Marines from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit began to gather, also waiting to board. Sergeant Barnes entered the storage area alone. When he saw me, he stopped walking and appeared to be thinking hard about something. Finally, he walked over to me.

“Can I talk to you?’ He said.

“Sure, Sergeant,” I said, calling him by his actual rank.

He bit his lip, and looked down at the deck as he spoke.

“Well, Sir. You know, today was a big training day for us, you see. I kind of got caught up in the training. That’s how we marines are.”

“I noticed,” I said.

“Yes, Sir.” Barnes said. “But…well, I guess I just want you to know that I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“Disrespect?” I said.

“Yes, Sir. It looks to me like I made a very grave mistake. You see, everyone else was pretending to be someone else, you know?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to understand exactly what Barnes was trying to say.

Barnes looked up at me.

“What I mean to say is, I’m sorry, Sir. I thought you were just pretending. I didn’t realize until we got on board the ship that you were a real United States congressman.”

Author Notes: Ricky Taylor wears a lot of hats. He has been a combat corpsman, a California correctional officer, a published author and a private investigator. He is currently the owner of the Taylor Group located at: