Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six
By Michael Wayne Hunter
As one gets older, and I´m nearing sixty, you start to reflect on the past while relentlessly marching toward entropy.
Like a wild plant refusing cultivation, I grew in Sunnyvale, a suburb near San Jose. My parents divorced, and my mother had to overcome challenges to find her way. Although she had degrees in microbiology and math earned in the 1940s, she was unable in the 1970s to find work in her fields of study. As a middle aged woman she returned to school and learned computer programming, and then worked at NASA´s Ames research writing code to interpret environmental data radioed back to earth from the Viking Mars Lander. My mother had just been accepted to the Venus Project when she passed away from cancer.
My mother did not have an enemy in the world, freed from a dismal marriage she was just coming into her own personally and professionally when she was taken away.
I was twenty and in the Navy serving as an air crewman operating various avionics systems from the backseat of an aircraft carrier based jet. After my mother´s memorial service, I returned to my squadron aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the South China Sea. I was not coping well, I was self-mediating with drugs and alcohol.
In a brief moment of clarity, I asked a chaplain about drug rehab, and he discourage the idea since it would jeopardize my flight crew status. Increasingly alienated, my behavior became so erratic I was removed from flying duties and assigned during the midnight hours to a desk to watch a phone that rarely rang. I remember reading an article in the middle of the night, thinking my mother would want to see it, but when I went to address the envelope, reality crashed in and I felt desolate.
Despite my poor performance over my last few months, I was honorably discharged. As I was processed out, I felt hopeful. I thought if I could find a special girl, decent job, a white powder bench with a pumping surf break, I´d be happy. Fairly quickly I found all three but I was using more substances than ever and felt empty.
I went to the funeral of someone, who like my mother, died of cancer. My mind disengaged as I internally raged much like Job 3: 24-26.
“Instead of eating, I mourn and I never stop groaning. Everything I fear and dread comes true. I have no peace, no rest, and my troubles never end.”
At the time of the funeral, I´d been accused by my father and his second wife of entering their house when they were gone, drinking all their alcohol, and stealing several inexpensive items. All true. In my alcohol/drugged mind I thought my actions a malicious prank, a screw you, not criminal behavior. But of course, it was. We exchanged threats, the police were investigating me, emotion was running high.
My father who I thought evil was alive, my mother who was good was dead and I could not reconcile this in my head.
The next day my father and his wife were dead, and subsequently I was sent to San Quentin´s Death Row for their murders.
On death Row, I went daily to an exercise yard with other condemned men. Drugs/alcohol were available, and I chased chemical bliss.
Years passed as my appeal wended its way through the courts, and one day mother Teresa, the Catholic Saint, came to visit. My life was so numb, I was indifferent at least until I met her. I felt her warm spirit flow through me, and I watched in wonder when she said to a sergeant, “What you do to these men you do to God.”
Still, I was not ready to embrace any sort of Higher Power. I lived in a place where my friends died by suicide or execution.
One day I was locked in the hole, charged with battery on an inmate with a weapon. My right hand was broken. While my hand swelled and turned black and blue, I clung to the notion my actions had been righteous. Hands had been placed on me, so I handled him. Case closed.
In the early morning hours, as the pain really hit, I started pondering all the opportunities I had passed on to avoid conflict. My actions had made violence inevitable. I had an epiphany, a moment of profound insight, and realized for the very first time my choices were leading me to violence again and again. I made a resolution that night to do better, just simply do better, something I knew would not be possible if my thinking continued to be distorted by substances.
My hand was nearly healed when I went to my hearing. The battery and weapon charges were dropped, and I plead guilty to fighting.
At first, I was welcomed back to the Death Row yard, but as it became clear to the fellas that I was no longer using they cut me loose. No one invites a sober man to a party. I was a buzz kill.
I started to take advantage of the opportunity to attend church in a fenced-in area of death row. The service´s main message seemed to proclaim: “Our Mythology Rules!” Kicks ass on all other myths/legends.” Cynically I watched the condemned men who had littered the landscape with scores of corpses smugly boast that Jesus loved and forgave them their sins. The unstated, but clear subtext was the State of California needed to get religion, see the light, and open the doors of Death Row and set them free. I never drank the Kool-Aid, but the Bible study exposed me to concepts worth contemplating, lent me insight , as my mind free of substances began to clear.
The California Supreme Court denied my appeal. I was served an execution order, and housed in a Death Watch cell. The chaplain came to see me, and I politely asked him to leave me alone.
The Federal Court accepted my appeal, stopped my execution, and eight years later ordered a new trial where I received life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Eventually, I was transferred to another prison where I had the opportunity to attend college and receive a degree.
I no longer attended church or studied the Bible, but I had remained substance free and disciplinary free since I´d broken my hand and made my resolution to do better.
I went to work as a clerk for The Sergeant. The sergeant was not soft, far from it, a career marine corp sergeant until he retired and joined the Department of Corrections. He loved to talk about the corp.
“Marines are in the department of the Navy,” I scoffed.
“Men´s Department”, he shot back.
As I moved over the next six years from sergeant’s to lieutenant´s and finally the captain´s clerk, I watched the sergeant closely. Highly respected by staff and prisoners, anyone could approach him with a problem, he´d patiently listen and usually find a solution. A devout Christian.
I flipped on my TV to the local news one evening, and the sergeant sitting on a couch in his living room appeared. The sergeant´s son, a marine serving in Afghanistan had been killed.
After taking time off to take care of his family, the sergeant returned to work, and it seemed that everyone, prisoners and staff, welcomed him.
In a private moment, I expressed how sorry I was for his loss. Without a hint of anger or bitterness, he told me how much he loved his son and how proud he was that his son had served the United States.
Listening, I could not understand his sense of peace. My mother and his son had lived good lives, and they were both taken too soon. How could the sergeant´s loss strengthen his connection to family, community, country, God, while mine had broken every single link.
I asked the sergeant, shouldn´t one reap what they sow? If so, why did our loved ones reap death?
Tilting his head one way and then another, the sergeant finally answered softly but firmly, “Sometime suffering is not the result of personal sin, but a consequence of living in a fallen world where God has blessed us with free will. We are not privy to God´s mind, so we must lean on our faith to stand firm and trust God´s plan.”
The sergeant told me to read Job 23:10:
“He knows the way that I take when He has tested me, I will come forth as Gold.”
The way the sergeant lived his life every single day is what connected with me and made me seek out his words. Our conversation took place several years ago, he´s a lieutenant now, and I´ve moved onto another prison.
I spend my days in a sewing factory assembling California Transportation vests and overalls, and in my spare time I go to devotion, church, veteran´s group and various self-help groups such as Communication, Anger Management, and recovery.
James 1:2 says:
“My friends, consider yourself fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way.”
When trials came my way, I did not come through as gold. I was an angry young man, full of grievances and my actions profoundly hurt people and destroyed God´s gift of life.
I do know I have honored my resolution made more than two decades ago to do better. Clarity of mind is a gift, and I´m grateful for what it´s brought to my life.
|Michael Hunter C83600|
Sierra Conservation Center
5150 O'Byrnes Ferry Road 5L-238
Jamestown, CA 95327