From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.
It was like taking kids out to the jungles of Vietnam and dropping them off, knowing they were going to be shot at. It was as if winning was a foreign thing to them. It's as if it had been bred into them that they could never, ever win.
What we're talking about here is football-- high school football. After two seasons, this fall Leo Paur stepped down as head coach of the team at Carbon High School, a couple hours outside Salt Lake City. They have the longest losing streak in the state of Utah. 25 games, nearly three full years of losses. This year they scored only three touchdowns. Last year half the team quit during the season. The team's so bad they're mocked in the hallways of their own school.
Yeah. We're definitely-- we got a joke every day, every day in class.
Yeah. We're not, like, looked upon. We're more like--
Running back Andrew Salazar, linebacker Damien Olson, and defensive guard Max Meisner have all played on the team three years. That is, they've all been there on the worst team in the state though this entire losing streak.
There's a lot of kids out there that think it's funny to make fun of the team instead of support us.
Yeah, they tease us.
They tease you, what do they say?
Just joking around against our rivals and saying, like, how many points are you going to beat us by and stuff.
Why do you guys even try, because you're going to lose, no matter what you do.
Makes you kind of feel like an outcast. I don't know. Just because you get picked on.
Just so I have a sense of what they were like to watch on the field, tell me about some of their worst moments. Tell me about a particularly bad player, bad moment that you remember.
Last year against [? Althemont ?] School. Much smaller than Carbon. We would punt the ball. The wind took it naturally. it landed behind my punter. I mean, we lost yardage on a punt.
Against Juan Diego last year, we had played ten minutes. And Juan Diego, who were the state champions that year, had not scored against us. That was a great time. And my brother, who was helping me coach at the time, came up and said, this would be the first time we've gone an entire quarter without being scored on. And I said, well, there's two minutes left.
They went and they scored four touchdowns in two minutes. It was very disheartening.
Four. Yep. Two offensive and two intersections. Ran back. So I told my brother not to open his mouth again when that happens.
The real question when you're down this far is, how to keep getting up and going out there, game after game? What do you say to yourself? How do you keep going? How do you keep a team going?
For Coach Paur, the answer could not be more straightforward.
I always, always had to make them believe the they could win. It was hard. Especially after two years of losing every game. But yeah. I had to make them believe that miracles do happen. That the movies you watch where the young man or the young woman overcomes all of the odds, that that is possible. Even though it's a long shot.
Wouldn't it be better, I asked the coach, in a game where the team is totally outmatched, to set a goal that they could actually make? Like let's just get one touchdown on the board in the first half. Something like that.
That made no sense to him at all. You have to believe you'll win, he said.
And teams do come from behind. Impossible miracle victories happen. Like remember last year's Kentucky Derby? The horse that won was such a long shot that the Sports Illustrated writer assigned to the race never even bothered to find out about him before the race. He'd lost 31 of his previous 32 races. At 50 to 1 odd, he was the longest long shot ever to win the Derby in over a century. Newsday published a preview of the race where it told this horse to just stay in the barn.
As the field turns for home, top of the stretch, it's still Join In The Dance with a tenuous lead--
If you watch this race on YouTube-- and you should, it's incredible-- the horse that's going to win is called Mine That Bird. And he is so far behind that halfway through the race, you see all the other horses-- they're in a pack-- and then this huge empty space, and then way behind that space is Mine That Bird. Then he picks up speed, he catches up to the pack, and it's not until the final stretch that he passes every other horse and gets out in front. It all happens so fast that the announcer doesn't even have time to say his name until it's nearly over.
Mine That Bird now comes out to take the lead as they come down to the finish. And it's spectacular! Spectacular upset! Mine That Bird has won the Kentucky Derby, that impossible result here!
That's how he did it. The jockey, Calvin Borel, said, I road him like a good horse. Coach Paur believes in that, too.
Well, that is very applicable. You have to make the kids believe that they can win.
So when you do that, and you tell the team that they can win, and then they lose, is the disappointment worse, because they had--?
Absolutely not. I mean, what should I tell them? Look, go out and do a good job losing? Go on out, lose, and then you'll feel happier when the game's over? Absolutely not. I'd never do that. I'd be a fool to do it.
It works so well, Couch Paur even convinces himself. At the start of his second season he told a reporter, quote, "This is going to be an outrageous thing for me to say, and I'm really cautious, because we lost every game by an average of 37 points last year, and the year before that we only won two games, and the year before that, I don't even know that they won any games. But I think I can contend for the region championship. I really do."
Yep. I said that. I believed it at the time.
Would you go into each game thinking, like, OK, this could be the one where we would turn it around?
Yeah, I've always thought that.
And did you guys have in your head this fantasy of, like, here's what it would be, like, if you would win a game, and here's what would happen?
Every day, every day.
I actually had one about ALA, when we went into the half.
Going into halftime against ALA, Carbon was having their best game of the season. They were just one touchdown behind.
You know, I pictured it, you know, we're going to come out fired up, and we're just going to kick the ball, and we'll go down there and stop them, probably cause a fumble down there at our, like, 20, and I'm running it in, you know? And then kicking it off again, and stopping them, forcing a punt. Throwing a nice long ball to somebody down in the end zone, and give a 30 yard pass for a touchdown, and then we'd be up, so then we'd go for two, and we'd get it, and then we'd just keep increasing the points like that.
I've always pictured, like, the students walking in the halls, you know, patting you on the back, being like hey, you know, nice win.
Yeah, good game.
Saying good job, you know, or whatever.
Today on our show, stories of long shots. We have two stories where somebody is up against very bad odds. And each of these stories raises the question, are you really better off believing that you're the miracle team who's going to come out from behind, that you're going to defy all predictions, that you are Mind That Bird?
Act one is about somebody battling the biggest state in the country and its governor. Act two is about somebody battling a house and his own father, which in a certain way is a lot harder. Stay with us.
Act One: Hasta La Vista, Maybe
I met Don Cronk inside San Quentin State Prison. He was serving 25 years to life with the possibility of parole for first degree murder. By the time I met him, Don had been in prison for 27 years, and had already gone before the parole board six times. Each time the board turned him down and declared that he was unsuitable for parole because of the seriousness of his crime. The commissioners even commended him for his accomplishments and his perfect record in prison, but they denied him parole. That was until his seventh parole hearing.
OK, Commissioner Eng, we're back on record.
This is tape from Don's parole board hearing. On November 18, 2007, the commissioners found Don suitable for parole.
--is suitable for parole, and was not--
I didn't know that she had said it.
Don Cronk was stunned.
That's right where they usually say "not suitable." And when she said it so quickly, I didn't hear that she said "suitable." And she's reading on and on, and no indication in it. So I looked at my attorney to see if-- you know, I expected to look at him and he'd have thumbs up and smiling, and he was flabbergasted. And so I couldn't get any indication from him what she said. And so she went on to read for several minutes. And then when she got done with that part, she went on to speak about my suitability and what was going to happen next.
And that's when it hit me, and I just broke down. I just sobbed. The officers got me a box of Kleenex. You know, for almost 27 years, I've been waiting for this. And it's kind of unbelievable.
So I was in shock, essentially. I didn't really hear anything else she said. And then it was over, and I was leaving. I was walking out the door. Almost a free man.
The operative word here being "almost." In California, after the parole board recommends for release, there's a 120 day period. During that time, the parole board staff in the state capital verifies everything in the inmate's record, their behavior while they've been in prison, and where they would work and life if they get out on parole.
On the 121st day, their file goes to the governor's desk. The governor then has 30 days to either approve or overturn the board's recommendation. For Don, that meant he would learn his fate on April 11, 2008.
It was hard to get a read on Don's chances. On the one hand, he'd been the very definition of a model prisoner. He'd taken college classes and earned an associate's degree. He was enrolled in a program to become a certified drug and alcohol abuse counselor. He worked in the chapel and didn't have any writeups from violence or bad behavior, and he had a positive psychiatric report. Even one writeup for smoking a cigarette just one time in three decades can keep you from getting parole in California.
On the other hand, the statistics we're not on Don's side, and he knew it, Of the 6,000 lifers that go before the parole board each year, Don was one of only 3%, about 200 prisoners, found suitable for parole. Of those 200, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would reverse 75% of the parole board decisions. So in the end, only 50 prisoners a year would actually be released.
Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Governor Gray Davis, was even more severe. He overturned 99% of all paroles recommended by the board.
Don had seen other lifers who had been found suitable by the parole board, guys whose records were as clean as his, get their hopes up only to have their parole denied on the last day by the governor.
I recorded this next conversation inside San Quentin in early January, two months after the parole board found him suitable to be released. Don's a white guy in his earl 50s, neatly kept with a close-cropped beard, receding hairline, and wire-rimmed glasses.
I'm fully aware that the governor, you know, this doesn't mean I'm going in April. And I'm aware of that. And so you, again, it's kind of like going to the hearings. You keep that hope, you keep that prayer, but you temper it with reality. You look at the statistics, and they're not good. They're not good. And so you're trying to balance all that, and then carry on your normal routine, your normal life.
The first maybe even two weeks, it hadn't even sunk in. But I'd be in my cell now, and I'd be watching television, and I wouldn't be having a thought about it, really. And then I'd see something, and it would trigger that, and it was almost like I was given a shock. And I was like, oh. I could be doing that. I could be doing that soon.
Does it make it any more difficult to be incarcerated once you know somebody's found you suitable?
What I've noticed, the biggest thing I've noticed is, and it was almost like turning on a light-- I've become intolerant now. For some reason, the meals I've been eating for all these years, and the noise, and the smell, and the lines, and all that-- suddenly, I've just become aware that this is crap. This is no way to-- how in the hell have I been doing this all these years?
Some of the things that happen in prison is just mean or ridiculous, doesn't make sense. Terrible. It's terrible. I don't know how I've lived like this. And it's not over yet.
I understand that if the governor denies me, it's not personal. He doesn't know me. He himself isn't saying, well, that Don Cronk, I'm not letting him go. It's not. I'm just a number and a statistics on a piece of paper. And whatever the political wind is that day, I'm either denying him or I'm letting him go. That's really it. And even if it's a denial, he doesn't know. It's, I'm a life inmate. I committed a murder. We're either releasing him today, or we're not.
Justice Peter Siggins
The governor assesses each of these cases individually.
This is Justice Peter Siggins. He was Governor Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary from 2003 three to 2005, and he counseled the governor on hundreds of these parole decisions. I ran past him Don's theory that these decisions have nothing to do with the merits of the cases, that they're political decisions.
Justice Peter Siggins
When I was legal affairs secretary, and people used to say to me, well, the governor is responding politically, and you are being political about a decision to keep a prisoner in prison-- part of a governor's job is to be responsive to the constituents who elected him. The fact that the governor thinks a lot of people would be upset if this person got out of prison-- it is a governor paying attention to the preference of a large constituency of California. And that's what governors do.
We generally did parole consideration matters every couple of weeks. I'd meet with him once every couple of weeks for that purpose. And a typical calendar would be anywhere between 12 and 20 cases at each sitting. And he and I would sit down and discuss every case, yes.
I can say that I don't think Governor Schwarzenegger, and certainly I didn't, I don't think we entered upon the responsibility with a predetermined inclination to go one way or the other with these decisions.
The governor was given the power to overturn parole board decisions in 1988 by California voters. It was the same year as the Willy Horton controversy, where the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, was blamed for a convicted murderer getting out of prison on a furlough program and committing assault, armed robbery, and rape.
California's law was intended to hold the governor accountable in this kind of high profile case. It later became a constitutional amendment, though no one knew how often the governor would reverse a parole order.
I don't know that anybody gave that much thought, seriously. I don't remember a huge concern over the passage of the law at the time.
Jeanne Woodford worked at San Quentin when the law went into effect, and became warden of the prison in 1999. In 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger made her the head of the California prison system, which she did for two years.
You know, I don't know that inmates believed, or even practitioners believed, that the governor would reject as many cases as they did when it initially passed. I remember some concern, but still people believing that there would be a fair process.
It just didn't turn out that way. It ended up where governors were turning down just every case.
Woodford agrees with the prisoners on this issue. She thinks the governor should listen to his parole board. It costs the state over $100 million a year for the parole board to thoroughly review each case, and it finds very few lifers suitable for release.
So should we be afraid of Don Cronk? How bad was his crime?
In 1980, Don was 25 years old, and a pretty normal guy. He was living in Sacramento and working as a service manager in a furniture store.
What I did-- I was a young man and I was introduced to cocaine. And I liked it a lot. I liked it a real lot.
Now, I say that because I had tried almost every other kind of drug. I'm allergic to marijuana. I don't like alcohol. I'll drink it, a few beers, but I do not like that drunk feeling. Crank is too intense. Heroin makes you sick. LSD is a recreational thing once in a while when you were a kid going to concerts with Mickey Mouse ears. Other than that, I didn't really have any fascination with addiction, so I thought I was fine.
When I was introduced to cocaine, I instantly fell in love with it. And, because at that time, cocaine was very expensive, and guess who was doing it the most? Wealthy people. So I associated it with the Porsches and the people like my boss, millionaires, doctors. That's who was doing it. And so I thought, this is great. Then I was told it wasn't addicting.
Then I started dealing it, and getting deeper away from the beautiful people into the ugly people. And I met some associates, like-minded. Two of them were ex-felons. I wasn't an ex-felon. But they were charismatic. They were just not bad guys, really.
Long story short, we ended up using more than we were selling. Now we owe the connections and the dealers. And that's not good. And so my new found friends had done armed robberies in the past, and so hey, we could do some robberies. So we did a couple robberies. And no one was hurt. We got some money and all that.
And then the night of the crime that I'm here for, it was to be a robbery. And we had some inside information, there would be a lot of money and jewels.
And long story short is, we were going to this man's home. Wait for him. He would come in. We'd tie him up, take his briefcase and the money and leave. We had the masks, we had the tape, we had the whole nine yards.
Well, we were going to have the element of surprise and surprised him as he came in. But it didn't work that way. He got in, and when I walked out of the kitchen and saw Mr. Allen standing in the open door, my mind was going, how the hell did he get in here? Because we had a warning system that was supposed to give us the alert so we could hide and get in position.
He's standing there, and while my mind is like-- I'm shot. It was that he emptied the gun that quickly. And next thing I know, I'm on the floor. I'm in the corner. And I reached in my pocket, and shot right through my coat. He died instantly.
Unbelievable. I couldn't do that again. I couldn't re-enact that. Seconds. it all took place in a few seconds. And you can't undo it.
It's just horrible, addicted thinking, immature thinking, selfish thinking, greedy thinking. Nobody else mattered but us. But was the intent or in my mind to murder somebody? No. Even in that state, I wouldn't have willfully or deliberately gone that far.
And so it's just a horribly unfortunate turn of events that I'm responsible for. I caused it.
I'd love to have the governor's ear for 20 minutes. I really think if he sat down across from me and we could just talk, and he could question me, and he could see the change-- you know, they look at us on paper, black and white. Well, it's just like reading the newspaper.
You wake up this morning, you look at the news, and there was a crime committed. Oh, a shooting in Oakland, someone died. And it may tell about it, and you think, oh, that's horrible. That's terrible. They ought to catch that guy and put him away.
Well, that's what my newspaper read 27 years ago, but today they're reading it and it's just like it just happened. Oh, this guy did that thing. Oh, he shouldn't be released.
But it was 27 years ago. I've paid. I've done all I can. I can't change those facts.
As the 150 days of review pass and Don gets closer to his April 11 date, his anxiety grows. He tells me he has hallucination-like dreams where he wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of a phone ringing, imagining it's the phone call telling him he's been approved for release. He sees it as just another sign from the universe that he's getting out. He tries relaxation and breathing techniques to fight the constant tension.
Throughout all of this, Don's main support is his girlfriend, Kathleen.
We started out as friends, and it evolved into a deeper, deeper, deeper relationship.
Kathleen met Don 18 years ago while visiting a friend in San Quentin. Since then, her continuous presence in Don's life actually strengthens Don's case as a candidate for parole. The review process takes into account stable relationships, and Kathleen has even written a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger on Don's behalf to show he has a place to live and emotional support if paroled
Like everyone in Don's life' Kathleen knows the odds are against the governor letting him out. But she can't stop herself from imagining what his first week on the outside would be like.
I'm going to have a bunch of food. I'm going to ask him many questions. I'm saying, dinner's ready, whatever. You know? Did you have a particular thing you want to eat fine? Otherwise-- in other words, I think he's going to be so overwhelmed that I'm not really giving-- I'm not asking him what do you want to eat, or what do you want to do. I'm just telling him. That way it's one less thing that he has to do. He's going to be overwhelmed enough. I'm going to say-- you know, it's like somebody's on rote. I'm going to say, OK, no. You sit here. Come on. We're having this.
And then as he calms down and gets used to everything, then he can say, you know, I really want some barbecued chicken. Great!
On Don's 149th day of waiting, the day before the governor issues his decision about Don's parole, I visit Don in the chapel. He's visibly excited and nervous.
27 plus years of prison could be just over with the signing of a pen. Just like that. So you go from here, and they just-- now you're there. That quick.
You know, there was like a 12 year period when no one was going. No one was going. Didn't matter who you were, what you were.
But now this last, I'd say, 18 months, almost every guy I know is gone. I don't know. I'm spiritual. I believe God's hand has been on all this. And this is, I don't know. This is, I think it's going to happen. I just think it's going to happen. It's just this sense that I'm going to go. And we'll find out tomorrow.
The next day, Friday, April 11, 2008, I drive to San Quentin. An assistant to the warden, Lieutenant Sam Robinson, is the one who gets the faxes from the governor's office, and he's the one who delivers the news to the prisoners, good or bad. He's waiting for me in the warden's office, and I notice some papers turned face-down on his desk.
How you doing? You want to know or you want to be surprised?
Oh my God. You got it. Did it just come?
About an hour ago we received the notification from the warden in regards to Mr. Cronk's board parole hearing in which the board granted him parole. The governor has reversed the board's decision, and at this time we'll be going inside and delivering the news to Mr. Cronk.
God. I don't know. My face is not a good face. I don't lie well. I know.
That's why I was saying. Do you want me to let you know, or?
Well, first just your voice sounded a little optimistic, and I thought maybe, maybe. that there was something in the tone of your voice.
Think they're all listening and waiting?
Yeah. The guys were calling me earlier today saying, hey, you heard any word on Cronk? You know, with the hope that one of their brethren is going home.
We're walking down to 371 North, which is Mr. Cronk's cell.
Hello? Mr. Cronk?
How are you?
Well, I don't know. I've been sick to my stomach all day.
Well, here's the word.
I can tell because it's too thick.
I can tell because it's too thick, he says. If he were to be released, Lieutenant Robinson would just be holding one sheet of paper, not a half dozen, like he is.
Yeah. What can you do, you know? But I thank you for coming by.
Nancy, how are you?
I'm all right. How are you?
I'm disappointed. Very disappointed. But what are you going to do. You know? It's just been-- if I'd have found out early this morning it would have been-- but we've just been all but throwing up all day. You know? And the later it got, the worse they knew the news was, so.
But it's been, I'm exhausted. I'm drained. And I just got to shut down for a minute. I just want to be left alone, you know? Yeah. Yeah, I really just want to be left alone.
A week later, I ask to go back inside San Quentin to see how Don is doing. He no longer looks like a man about to be free. He looks like a man in prison. He's gray, deflated. He tells me he can't believe how high he let his hopes get in the last few weeks against his better judgment.
I was feeling almost giddy. Like, hey, this may really happen. This could really-- it should happen. You know? There's no reason why it shouldn't happen.
You know. Then you add the governor. It's his last go-around. The state's in budget crisis. You know, overcrowding, the Feds are knocking on the door. I mean, you look at all these elements and you think, you'd be a fool not to let a guy go that the board's saying go! You know, save them 40 grand a year, or whatever.
But so I talked myself into it, that I was going home. I knew better. But I set myself probably the last three weeks. I wanted to believe it that I felt that I was going to go.
And then Kathleen. You know, I just-- my main concern was her. And so even though, like, she wanted to go buy things and get things prepared and ready, I would always say, well, you know, maybe we shouldn't do that yet. Let's wait and see. You know, the odds are way against me.
So she didn't go too far out there. But in her heart, of course, she was already seeing the next day, you know, in our future.
But when we were able to get together and see each other-- I called the visiting room and I told the visiting room officer what had happened. I had said, you know, listen, by the way, I was denied parole by the governor. And I said, look. If Kathleen comes, if she breaks down, or if I break down, if we're crying or if she's a little clingy for a few minutes, there's nothing wrong. It's just this news.
And sure enough, when Kathleen came, as soon as she got in, as soon as I took her in my arms, she just, I had to hold her up. She just broke. She just sobbed.
But I really thought that was a kind act. They could've said, well, we don't care. The rules are the rules and you get two seconds and that's it.
Don says that back in 1984, when he first got to San Quentin, he could barely hold it together. San Quentin, he says, was like Vietnam back then. It was violent, with stabbings and shotguns going off all the time, and he didn't see how he'd last.
But emotionally, he says, this year was harder. it wasn't easy for him to get and keep a perfect disciplinary record, never to have one fight, or even one incident, in 27 years. He followed the rules. He did everything they said he should. Why put him through the charade of doing that, he asked? Why put him in front of a parole board over and over, having them examine his record, if this is where it leads?
Why have the board? Why have those experts trained in law enforcement and all different sectors put their best effort forward? They don't grant parole often. So for them to do so, this must be an exceptional case. And then the governor takes it and denies it.
So what's the point? You know? Well, then, what was all that about? Why don't we just go to the governor?
Normally for lifers like Don, the next step is simply to wait, go before the parole board again, and hope for a better outcome the next time.
But Don got amazingly lucky. In August 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of another lifer, Sandra Lawrence, saying that the governor could not deny parole to someone simply because his or her original crime was so terrible. Life with the possibility of parole, the court said, means exactly that. There has to be a real possibility for parole if a prisoner can show he or she has been rehabilitated.
Don's case was like Sandra Lawrence's. The governor had written that he was reversing Don's parole because of the seriousness of his crime.
In January of 2009, Don was brought to a courthouse in Sacramento, the county of his original crime, where a superior court judge said his case was exactly like the Lawrence case.
She read the law and said, "This man fits this perfectly." And then the attorney general just said, the woman, Heather Heckler's her name, and she just started to make a case, and she just said, "We don't have anything."
The attorney general admitted, had to admit to her, we don't have anything. The governor had nothing and we don't have anything either. And the judge said, well, why are we here then? Because we just disagree with Lawrence. And she goes, so you're here because you disagree with current law. And she said, yes. The judge said, well, I'd like to close this hearing. It was over! It was over. And we won.
Three months later, April 13, 2009, a year and two days after the governor reversed the parole board decision, Don was released from San Quentin.
In January 2010, Don's been out for eight months. He and Kathleen are living together and seem happy. He was doing construction work at a mausoleum near San Quentin and his commute every day took him over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. At a certain point at the top of the arched bridge, he could see the prison where he lived more than half of his life. It was always emotional. "My family in there," he told me one day when we took the drive together. "They're still in there."
Nancy Mullane. She's writing a book called Life After Murder and putting together a two-hour radio documentary on other lifers in Don's situation. Her reporting was funded by the Soros Justice Media Fellowship. She and we repeatedly contacted Governor Schwarzenegger's office, inviting his comments for this story, but didn't get a response.
Coming up-- a story where no one is going to mention the Vietnam War in some random, passing reference. I know we're two for two stories so far. We've got one more shot in today's show. We can do it! We can do a Vietnam reference-free story, I swear.
That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: House Dutiful
Several years ago, while I was walking through my father's kitchen, I noticed a beetle dying on the countertop. "Hey," I said to my father, who was sitting a few feet away at the kitchen table, doing something on his computer, "there's a beetle dying here. "Mmhm," he said, without taking his eyes off the screen.
I walked by again later and noticed that ants were streaming out of a dark little groove in the windowsill above the kitchen sink. "Hey, it looks like you've got some ants living in your windowsill," I said. "Might want to caulk that up or something." "Yep," he said again.
A few hours passed, and then I noticed that the ants were trooping down past the sink and over the Formica to where the dead beetle lay. Before long, the ants had dismantled it entirely and were carrying the beetle piecemeal back into the windowsill "OK Dad," I said. "Now the ants have chopped up the beetle and they're toting it into your wall." "See?" he said, without looking up. "The system works."
In the years my father has owned this house, a small brick ranch in central North Carolina with small, lightless rooms, entropy has been his handyman and groundskeeper. When my family first moved here 30 years ago, the surrounding acres held a horse pasture, a flourishing orchard, a scuppernong arbor, a vegetable garden, and a large, healthy lawn.
The average person would have been pleased to luck into a piece of land so well-tended. But according to my father's philosophy, the garden and the rest of it were troublesome. They required mowing, pruning, fertilizing.
So my father worked his "system" on these difficulties, And in time vines strangled the fruit trees, the grape arbor rotted and collapsed, and the pasture became a forest of scrub saplings. The burden of their maintenance was unshouldered for good.
My father's campaign of deliberate neglect got into full swing after my parents divorced when I was six years old. He stopped mowing the lawn. He cancelled garbage collection, preferring to burn the household refuse in the driveway. Nonflammable junk, derelict hibachis, spent brake shoes, crates of rusted wood screws filled the garage so densely that you wouldn't want to set foot in there without knowing the date of your most recent tetanus booster.
On summers home from college, my brother and I would try living in the house, usually with girlfriends, in the hope of making the place feel like a home. Our relationships usually ended after these little experiments in cohabitation, and Dan and I learned that it was fruitless to hope too grandly about transforming the place. And also that it was best to be careful about whom we exposed to the house.
After Dan and I left home for good, the house decayed speedily. The brush grew denser. The furnace broke and my father declined to repair it for the better part of a decade. Year round, a stack of pine logs stood in the center of the living room floor, shedding bark and teeming with insect life. I stored a couch at the house one time, and when I went back to retrieve it nine months later, a skein of ivy had crept in through the window and wrapped itself around the armrest. Once I stopped by the place and saw what appeared to be a family of minnows swimming in the toilet.
The house's decline was so depressing to my brother and me we began avoiding the place entirely.
In my 31st year, after a decade of moving from place to place, I decided to go back to live in my hometown. For years I'd nourished a fantasy of building a home of my own, and my mother, who owned a couple dozen acres across town, had agreed to sell me a sizable plot.
It was to be the opposite of my father's house. A timber frame post and beam house with cathedral ceilings, plenty of windows and skylights, and a minimum of interior walls. But it would be many months in the building, and my father, who was teaching in Europe at the time, suggested that I move into his house in the interim.
My father had remarried and for the last five years, he'd been living with my stepmother 45 minutes away. I didn't relish the idea of living at the old house, but it would only be for a few months. "And when you get back," I told my father, "maybe we can work on fixing up the house." "Yes," he said. "I'd like that."
I'd seen the place in worse shape. The wood pile was now gone from the living room and the furnace had been replaced, though the garage was still impassable. My first week back, I ventured out there, and a possum spring from behind a pile of garbage and hissed at me. I scampered back into the house. The first time I ran the bathroom faucet, a moth fluttered from the drain.
The grass needed mowing though the yard was a good deal smaller than it used to be. Much of what had once been lawn had become a young forest of junk trees-- sweetgum and rangy loblolly pines-- were, in turn, being choked to death by a rapacious wisteria infestation that spanned a good half acre. The weeds rose past my knee. The'd evidently gotten the best of my father's lawnmower, which was resting in the shade of a holly bush.
I went to the hardware store bought a new one, a shiny Briggs & Stratton with an earnest red finish. Mowing was slow, unrewarding work. I could make only a foot or two of progress at a time before the weeds wound around the blade and choked the engine off. Rotten tree limbs lay buried in the thatch. I plunged the mower into tussocks of thistle, hip-high. I tangled with great bullwarks of honeysuckle.
Sometimes the mower would shriek and shutter, which meant I'd found some forgotten artifact in the lawn. I laid bare bricks, axe heads, an old rusted ratchet set, a rotting telephone pole, shreds of T-shirts, shards of a jelly jar I remembered drinking from as a kid. The lower blades flung a constant hail of found object shrapnel in my face. I shut my eyes and loathed the lawn and loathed myself for coming back to this place.
A few days later, my brother stopped by the house to show me his new pickup truck. "It's a bad ass truck," he said. "Four wheel drive. It's got a carriage-welded class four trailer hitch." He repeated this phrase like an incantation. "Carriage-welded, class four, trailer hitch."
We opened a couple of beers and walked around the house. I was already slipping into the old trap of imagining the house's potential, and I made the mistake of mentioning this to my brother. "Think about what you could do with this place," I said. "All you would have to do is knock down about 60% of the walls and put in some new windows. Maybe make an addition out of the garage. This could be a fantastic place to live."
My brother nodded. "Yep," he said. "I guess the first thing you probably want to do is go ahead and drop a nuclear bomb on it, for starters. You know, when dad dies, we're going to have to haul a huge dumpster out here and basically throw the whole place away. What you really need to do is bulldoze it, subdivided it, run a cul-de-sac through here. It'd be a cash cow."
Then we went and sat in my brother's old bedroom, which was crowded with mail crates full of extension cords and dead tennis balls. He said, "I sure do hate this place, but I guess, in a way, that's a good thing. I mean, it was hating this house so much that made me go out and get houses of my own."
My brother is a real estate lawyer. He owns a nice craftsman bungalow in an adjacent town. He also owns a big Edwardian mansion with leaded glass windows and a slate roof. He also owns a couple dozen other houses, and he's always buying more.
He talked a while longer about how much he disliked the house, then he paused and looked up at the ceiling, which was covered with adhesive, glow-in-the-dark stars. "I put those there," he said, as though it surprised him that there'd ever been a time when he cared enough about this house to lavish glow-in-the-dark stars on it. He got a contemplative look, and I waited for him to say something heartfelt or hopeful. But he looked me in the eye and said, "I just don't think anybody has any business owning a vehicle that doesn't have a carriage-welded class four trailer hitch."
Strange that my brother should've mentioned the possibility of my father's dying, because five days after he stopped by, I got a grim email from my father, who was still in Europe. The subject line read, "The cancer appears to be back."
Four years earlier, my father had learned he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which he had been able to beat into remission after six unpleasant months of chemotherapy. We'd been hoping he was rid of it forever, but the day before I got the email, he checked himself into a hospital in Croatia because he was vomiting blood, and the doctor noticed a suspicious obstruction in his stomach.
At the house, spring was deepening into summer, and this was already a bumper year for bugs. I was pulling deer ticks off me about as often as I was brushing my teeth. I was funding them between my toes, behind my ears, all over my head, and worse places. I feared for my father's weakened immune system, and I thought the yard would need more beating back if you wanted to walk across it without risking a snake bite or Lyme disease.
I decided to hold a work day. I called up my stepfather. We used to fight a good deal in my teenage days, sometimes physically and spectacularly, but since then we've come to understand each other better, and now he's someone I love and respect as much as anyone in the world. He's the kind of person who doesn't think twice about helping somebody out, even if that person happens to be his wife's ex-husband. When I asked him if he'd come and spend a day hacking vines at my father's house, he said, "Sure. What time?"
Then I called my brother "Man, I really hate going over there," he said. "I'll just have one of my guys do it." I said, "OK." But then he said, "no, I'll be there. But let's start early. Like 7 AM."
My stepdad showed up first, at few minutes after eight o'clock. He got to work scraping the ivy off the house with a putty knife.
My brother arrived at 2 PM, seven hours late. First he filled the chainsaw's oil tank with gasoline, and it took another hour to flush the engine out and get it running again. Then he sawed into a ruined 40-foot cherry tree so firmly swaddled in the vine canopy that even when he'd severed the trunk, the tree just hung there like a toothpick in a spider's web. He hooked a rope to it and tied the other end to his carriage-welded class four trailer hitch. The tree came down with a satisfying thud.
I fired up my weed eater, which I'd outfitted with a big metal blade and charged to the vines. Some grew in braids as big around as my waist. I slashed at them. I hacked into rooms of vine, hearts of vine, giant, ventricular chambers, and then I hacked my way back out. The complexes of vine and leafage were huge, and I was tiny in their midst. I felt like a one-man cancer waging a vicious assault against this mammoth organism.
My father had returned to town a few days earlier, but I'd explained that the house wasn't quite safe for him to visit. I went out that night to meet him and his wife for dinner. He was leaving the following morning to begin treatment at a hospital in Houston. I told them about the battle we'd waged on his yard that day, and he said, "Don't do anything too drastic with those vines. They provide a nice buffer from the road."
Then my stepmother, who grew up in the Midwest, said, "I know that for Southern men, the home place is a big deal. Do you think of a house that way? As your home place?"
I'd had a few beers at this point, and I permitted myself to say, "I don't see as a home place as much as a kind of mausoleum of embalmed grief over my parents' failed marriage." It was a cruel, self-serving thing to say, and hardly true, seeing as both my mother and father considered the divorce to be one of the best things that ever happened to them.
My father looked very sad when I said it. But I wasn't sorry. I was simply angry at his house and at his illness, because now that the cancer was back, the dream of the two of us fixing up the place was pretty much wrecked.
Here's a superficial inventory of repairs and improvements I undertook at my father's house.
Replaced mailbox. Scattered fresh gravel on driveway. Replaced toilet. Replaced stove. Fixed refrigerator. Replumbed waste drain under kitchen sink. Bought large pickup truck and hauled about 35 truckloads of garbage to the landfill. Purged garage entirely, washed everything off, and then put everything back that wasn't broken junk. Paid over the ground laminate walls in the living room. Installed two small skylights. Chased black snake from attic. Killed black widow spider. Dragged enormous gob of hair from bath drain. Chopped a cherry tree into firewood. Chased bird from living room. Cleaned gutters. Caulked hole in the windowsill where the ants had stashed the beetle parts years back.
My girlfriend at the time called me one day to ask what I was up to, and I talked to her about my father's house. The walls I wanted to rip down, the plan I had for raising the ceilings, and how tinted stucco would probably be a nice way to cover up the ugly brick exterior.
She said she got the whole project was a bad idea. Then she got sort of angry and said, "What about the house you were going to build? I think it's unhealthy for you to be putting all this energy into a house that's not even yours. That house is making you crazy."
Then I got angry in return, and I said that unless she'd grown up in a house like this one, she couldn't possibly understand what working on it meant to me. Nobody had ever cared about the house. It was a dead place. And if I could bring it back to life, it would mean vanquishing a sorrow I'd carried with me for a long time. This, I told her, was way more important to me than building a house of my own. I got fierce and sincere about it, and finally she said, OK, OK, I understand.
I flew to Houston to take care of my father for a couple of weeks. He was well into a six month chemotherapy regimen. His hair and eyebrows had fallen out, and he walked very slowly because the cancer was eating his bones.
I helped him move into the apartment where he was to live between hospital stays. One afternoon, he asked me how things had been going in my life. I told him I'd been getting a lot of satisfaction out of working on his house, that there was a great deal more I'd like to do. He nodded. "Perhaps the sensible thing would simply be for you take it over," he said.
I thought he might say this, and when he did, I felt a warmth in my chest. I told him that I hoped he'd get better soon, and that we'd still have many years together working on the place.
The idea seemed to cheer him. He rose gingerly and walked to the window. A storm was just departing, and rumpled, greenish clouds were sliding east over the Houston skyline. He watched them go and said absently, "Being alive sure beats being dead."
After I got back from Houston, I had a carpenter friend over, and together we walked the premises while dreamed to him about the house. "What if we put in exposed beams and then a sunroom off the garage, fruit trees in the yard, a new tin roof, wrap-around around porches, throw in a patio, put up a grape arbor for shade?" He said, "Yeah. This place could be a little palace if somebody wanted to give a damn about it."
I called my brother and told him what Dad and I had in mind. My taking over the house and fixing it up right. He went silent for a long time, and he said, "Yeah, I don't really see myself letting you do that." He said the house was his, too, his birthright. He reminded me that the house was on valuable land, and he couldn't comprehend why I wanted to ruin a perfectly good investment opportunity. I said I didn't want an investment opportunity. I wanted a place to live. Then I pleaded with him, then I shouted at him, then we both hung up.
He called a week later and said, "The only thing I've been able to think about for about the past week is how good it would feel to beat your face in with a baseball bat." I told him I'd been having thoughts along the same lines, only mine involved a machete. He said, "Look. I thought it over, and if you want the house, it's yours. Take it. It's just not worth it to me. I'd rather have a brother than a piece of property."
I asked him if he meant it, and he said he did. "But before you start throwing yourself into fixing it up," he said, "I do think you ought to ask yourself, if Dad passes on, do you really want to be in that house, living with all that old junk, trapped in the house you grew up in?"
I rocked back in my chair and looked out the window. I'd washed it only last week, but already, hammocks of spiderweb were drooping in the corners of the pane. The dusk was coming on. Outside the sunlight sifted through the walls of vine and lay on the lawn in a million golden shards.
"Just talking to you as a friend," he said. "Take the house if you want to. But I'd think you'd be a lot happier if you just got out of there. If you started fresh in your own place." My room was going dark, and I felt a sadness rise, because I knew my brother was probably right.
On a frigid morning four days into my father's bone marrow transplant, some appraisers came by to assess the value of Dad's house for the purpose of squaring away estate in the event of his death. There were two of them-- a short, pudgy man with glasses wearing an Australian bush hat and a woman with a kind, dithering manner.
I followed them around the house as they tapped the walls and jotted down the vintages of the appliances. The woman noted the wisteria jungle, which was now a brittle, leafless tangle. "It's a constant battle with that stuff, isn't it?" she said.
The man gazed up at the gable end, where paint was flaking off. "Well," he said in a tone of forced optimism, "it's a great location, at least."
They tried to take a few more measurements, which was impossible in this particular spot, because a line of scrub bushes was growing against the wall.
"So what are they going to do with it?" the man asked me, as though my father were already dead. "Sell it, I guess? Split it up? The land's sure worth something." I had a strong temptation to say something unpleasant to the man, but instead I said, "We'll see."
I stood and watched the appraisers leave. On his way back to the driveway, the man stopped in his tracks to examine something half-buried in the lawn-- a rusted tire iron stuck in the frozen soil. "Will you look at that," he said to his colleague. He bent over and started trying to pry it loose with his pink fingers, attempting a little improvement of his own.
The moment gave off a rather excessive sort of significance, the wind rustling the dry vines, the winter sky the color of old bone, and the appraiser, whose valuation would come in surprisingly low, straining and grunting over this piece of humble treasure.
The tire iron wasn't coming free easily, and the sight of the appraiser's efforts wearied me, so I headed back inside and left him to his work.
Wells Tower. A version of his enjoy ran in the Washington Post a couple of years back. He's the author of the book of short stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It;s out in hardcover and comes out in paperback next month.
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I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.