Faith in the Land of Make-Believe
- Wednesday, March 30, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Faith in the Land of Make-Believe by Lee Stanley (Zondervan).
THIS IS NO HONOR FARM
Camp David Gonzales—Los Angeles County Probation Department
I’d driven past this small wooden sign in Malibu Canyon dozens of times on the way down to our sailboat in Marina del Rey. I thought it was an honor farm, a minimum-security detention facility, tucked beneath the rocky peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu and surrounded by sprawling horse ranches and multimillion-dollar estates.
I turned my four-wheel-drive truck down the short, tree-lined lane and realized the massive compound before me was no “honor farm,” but a maximum-security juvenile prison. Behind the two-story wall, an eighty-foot metal pole supported a small cluster of powerful floodlights.
I turned into the empty, unkempt visitor parking lot and looked around for some signs of life. A screeching red-tailed hawk circled in the distance. I rolled up my window, climbed out of my truck, and locked all the doors. Invisible surveillance cameras tracked my every move as I walked self-consciously along the narrow concrete path to the prison entrance. A small sign below a dime-sized electronic button told me to “ring bell.” I looked up to see the red-tailed hawk, now circling directly overhead, when a loud buzzer startled me, releasing an invisible steel bolt. I pushed against the double-plated bulletproof glass door and entered the prison.
The year was 1981.
“I’m here to see Chaplain Fox,” I told the male guard behind the counter.
Chaplain Fox had found my film company’s name in the Yellow Pages earlier that morning and asked if I would splice a film that the camp projector had damaged the night before. Why not? I was “between projects,” as filmmakers like to say. Besides, I was curious to see what Camp David Gonzales was really all about.
“What’s your name?”
The guard checked the handwritten entries in the dog-eared ledger chained to the countertop.
“Wait right there,” he ordered before disappearing down a bleak hallway.
The poorly lit, hospital-green front office smelled like a wet dog.
“You a cop?”
I turned to see a teen in baggy jeans and a crisp white T-shirt gripping a push broom, staring at me through half-closed eyes. He was medium height, with pockmarked, pasty skin. Tattoos marked his bare, muscular arms and thick neck, while his shaved head was a hockey rink of scars.
“Nope,” I replied.
He kept his menacing eyes on me.
“You look like a cop — I hate cops!”
“Chaplain’s on the phone,” announced the guard as he returned to the front office. He eyeballed his one-man cleaning crew. “Mr. Rhodes, give Mr. Stanley a tour.”
The teen prisoner, Mr. Rhodes, looking away from me, leaned the broom against the scuffed green wall and pushed open the heavy door that led to the camp’s enclosed compound. I grabbed the door just before it slammed shut. Mr. Rhodes stayed a pace or two ahead, walking with a strange, limping gait.
The grassy “yard,” which was about the size of an oval football field, was surrounded by a high wall. One-story cinder block buildings topped with rusty cyclone fencing and barbwire were integrated into the wall. We walked in uncomfortable silence past the shabby softball diamond and weight-lifting pit, then across a cracked and bumpy asphalt basketball court where chain nets hung from bent hoops. In front of us, a squad of twenty-five sullen juveniles, hands clasped behind their backs, moved toward a nearby building under the watchful eye of a powerfully built probation officer.
“How many kids are here?” I asked Mr. Rhodes.
“One-twenty,” he said without turning, his voice flat and cold.
As the silent squad of prisoners neared, my tour guide’s strange gait amplified, and he purposefully worked his baggy jeans lower and lower until his butt crack was in plain sight.
“You’re saggin’, Rhodes!”
A voice bellowed over the yard’s loudspeaker. Rhodes pulled up his baggy jeans with one hand, slowly.
“And stop strollin’!”
My escort cursed under his breath and continued walking, minus the strange gait. He spat, not quite clearing his chin, and wiped it off with the back of his scarred fist.
Trying to ease the tension, I pointed to a building that was obviously a gym and asked, “What’s that over there?”
“Can I ask you something else?”
Mr. Rhodes slowed to a stop, his mad-dog stare trying to bore holes in my head.
“How old are you,” I continued, “seventeen, eighteen?”
“I’ll be eighteen in a minute,” he claimed, puffing up his chest and sneaking an admiring glance at his muscled arms.
I thought I was about to get coldcocked, so I quickly continued. “I don’t know why you’re locked up, but to my understanding, they cut you loose when you’re eighteen. You got a whole life ahead of you. What are you going to do with it?”
His eyes squinted as if he’d never considered a future.
“You can be anything you want to be — doctor, welder, probation officer, even a filmmaker.” I watched as curiosity began to creep onto his face. “Juvenile records are confidential, right?” He nodded, almost childlike. “No one ever has to know that you messed up.”
I felt like I was talking at myself.
At age nineteen, I hopped a twin-engine commercial “tail dragger” out to the West Coast via Chicago after “messing up.” I arrived in Burbank, California, on a foggy May morning with fifty-five bucks in my pocket, a small tattered suitcase stuffed with a -couple pairs of Levis, T-shirts, fins, mask, snorkel, and scuba regulator — and no plans. I’d left Connecticut after taking a smack in the face from my mother and being told to go to hell. I was trying to escape my reputation: You’re a damn bum, and everybody knows you’re a damn bum!
I’d already dropped out of college, and I had no plans. I realized that no one ever taught me how to be a man, a husband, or a father, and I was scared to death that somebody would find out.
“What you doing in California?”
An elderly black man, sucking on a well-worn pipe, was emptying trash cans at the Burbank Airport where I was waiting for a Greyhound bus. He had a peaceful way about him.
“Do some scuba diving, write articles for adventure magazines. Stuff like that.”
The answer sounded good to my ears — in California I could pretend to be anybody I wanted to be. I could escape my past.
“Well, son,” said the man, tapping his old pipe on his calloused hand. “If you can’t make it in California, you can’t make it anywhere.”
“Mr. Stanley, return to the front office!” the camp loudspeaker echoed across the compound.
I extended my hand to inmate Rhodes. He looked at it and then took it limply.
“When you shake a man’s hand,” I said, “grab on to it.” He quickly squeezed my hand. “And look me in the eye!” He did. “Thanks for the tour” — then I headed toward the front office.
“Mr. Stanley!” I turned back. “Will you — will you come back and visit me? Sir?”
I thought for a long moment. “I don’t know.”
I collected the tattered film reel from Chaplain Fox and left the facility. Once back on the outside of the brick wall, I took a deep breath. I felt numb, unsure where to put all that I had just experienced.
“Line up and shut up!” the camp loudspeaker bellowed from inside the prison. I turned and looked up at the shiny gray loudspeakers bolted to the tall light pole. “Hands behind your back! Move it out! On quiet!”
I wandered back to my truck, climbed in, and sat behind the wheel.
I don’t know why, but I cried.
That first “up-front and personal” encounter with “killer kids” at Camp David Gonzales was an alarming wake-up call. Within moments, I sensed those hostile teen predators had me locked in their invisible crosshairs; they knew who I was (and I’m not talking about my name), what they thought of me and why.
Killer kids can read your eyes, your body language, your muscle tone, your gait, your hairstyle, your clothes, and the tone of your voice, even your choice of words. To them you represent an “opportunity,” a walking billboard, a living testament of your net worth. They gauge your strengths and weaknesses. In the flick of a switchblade they know if they should play you, when they should play you, and how they should play you.
If you do get “the nod,” please know that you have been handpicked for one or all of the above reasons, and your chances of survival are slim to none.
I got the nod — and it changed every area of my life.
My custom-built cedar home was in the same Santa Monica Mountains as Camp Gonzales, but three miles farther west and overlooking picturesque Malibu Lake. I was a documentary filmmaker obsessed with doing things “my way” and thus always scrambling for work to feed my blended family of five. I’d been married and divorced twice and had a five-year-old son, Shane, when I met Linda, my third wife. I also had a nine-year-old daughter whom I had never met from my first marriage. Linda brought two sons to the party, ages nine and twelve. We added Wiley the goat and Star the dog shortly thereafter. So far, we’d survived four bumpy years.
We couldn’t see the lake from our home because of the thick stand of pines and leafy sycamores between us and the water. In our garage we maintained our off-road motorcycles, organized our sailing and camping gear, and worked out with our boxing equipment. My private studio was perched over the garage, its high ceiling and windows creating the perfect setting for filmmaking — and wrestling matches with my kids.
Another short flight of stairs led to the main house. While not large, it was romantic and always smelled of fresh air, pine trees, and Linda’s home cooking. At nighttime, we could hear the coyotes and sometimes the screech of an owl. Our distant neighbors were quiet and friendly and always smiled and waved when we drove past or took out our trash barrels.
Nobody ever mentioned Camp David Gonzales.
“Chaplain Fox called while you were out,” my wife announced as she entered the studio and placed a tray of iced lemonade and Fig Newtons on my cluttered desk.
“She’s very nice.” Linda poured the lemonade. “I set up a screening of Mountain Tops for next Saturday at Sylmar Juvenile Hall.”
“You did what?”
“Chaplain Fox asked if you had any films that would inspire the prison kids. When I told her about Mountain Tops, she got all excited.” Linda leaned down and kissed me and then headed for the door. “I already talked to Rick. He and Esther will meet us there.”
My friend Rick and his fiancée, Esther, were the subject of the documentary.
Faith in the Land of Make-Believe
Copyright © 2011 by Lee Stanley
This title is also available as a Zondervan ebook.
This title is also available in a Zondervan audio edition.
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
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