Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Freedom Day: The First Day of Parole and the Incoming Tide

On the beach, he found himself looking at the waves crashing onto the clean sand.  Seagulls flew by and landed in a group, just above the incoming tide.  The skies were clearing from yesterday's storm, and the air was fresh, clean, and free.

He was alone, except for the waves, and the gulls, and me, a hundred yards away, watching, watching over him, this first day of freedom.

I saw him gulp the cool, salty air, and then, another gulp, until finally his chest relaxed and he let it all go, released.

Released.  Let go from prison this morning, after six and a half years.  He knew the exact number of days, and had been counting down each one of them for as long as I'd known him.  

The gate swung behind us and clanged shut.  A familiar sound to me, after all the visits here with him and other young men, but a new, and final sound for him.  Other young men had brought all his belongings from six years behind bars, filling my car, readying us for his trip today to his new life, his new beginning.  

We drove away and he could only say "Man, oh, man."

I honked the horn at the empty road ahead, and offered a shouted "hooray", and he laughed, finally.  

He fell silent, after all the good byes and handshakes and hugs with all the other young men, and the prison staff.  Bittersweet, after months of anticipation, almost afraid to go, and move on with his life, from the known and the routine, into new places, new routines, and a new, fresh life.

The waves kept crashing onto the beach, and he had to run back a bit, when a wave moved up farther, almost soaking his shoes.  It was a good dance, turning into a bit of a jig, as he became a part of the incoming tide, a part of the morning at the beach, joining the world.

He'd sat down at our breakfast table, laughing at the big plate of eggs and bacon and sausage and the plate of biscuits fresh out of the oven, everything he'd ordered for this day.  A real fork and a real knife, not the plastic of the last six and a half years.  

I'd thought the event warranted breaking out my mother's silverware, and candlesticks, and china. Placemats, and all his favorites cooked to order, served on a china platter, and strawberries in a dish.

I refilled his coffee, and waited on him, hand and foot.  I thought he needed that, after all these years.

His birthday was tomorrow, and we only had this morning to spoil him.   I'd baked him a cake, and I slipped back into the kitchen, ready for a party.

I slipped back into the dining room, with blazing candles, and we broke out into a rousing "Happy Birthday".  

He laughed and nearly cried, and gave a lusty blow out to the candles, as we applauded.  I bet his wish was already granted: freedom.

He laughed again, the thought of birthday cake, and now, ice cream, for breakfast.  He said his grandmother wouldn't approve, but then, he laughed again, and said today was probably a good reason for an exception to the rule.  We laughed at him being the rule breaker, the scofflaw, not even an hour into his parole.

The sky got lighter and he spotted the neighbor's horse in the field, and the pink of the dawn.  It was a new view, after all.  Six and a half years in the same fenced compound, and now everything was new.  

He had a second piece of cake, and a bit more ice cream, and then opened up his card, and his presents.  Wonder sparkled in his eye, sitting here, in our house, and not where we'd always visited, behind that gate, that gate that clanged for him today, for the last time.  It was all new, and it was all delicious, sweet.

It was all about him today, all about getting out and making a fresh start, and moving on with his life.

Soon, we'd be in the car, and driving south, a big day.  A lot of miles to cover, and a lot of time to catch up on.  

First the beach, and then, along a bay, and then a river, and through the forest, then farmers' fields, and a city.  He stared out the window, not saying much at times, and on we went.  

He asked me about the trees, what they were called, and what about the salmon in the river, and what kind of logs were on that log truck.  

We came to a place where we could go one way, or the other.  Both roads led to where we were going, so it didn't matter, and he told me which way to go.  He chuckled then, at the choosing of which way to go, which road looked better.  He's made a decision; it was not a big deal, but then, maybe it was.  

In the city, we met up with his good friend, a guy who had gotten out of the same place a week earlier, and was doing fine.  He'd settled into his new home, a halfway house.  He had a seven p.m. curfew, and laughed when others there thought that was too confining.  In a month, he could be out until eleven, more freedom than he'd ever thought could be.

I took the two young men to a steak house, so they could eat their fill of meat.  They'd both been craving barbeque, and big, greasy ribs, for quite a while, and ordered the big plates of beef, and chicken, and a mound of fries.   Menus and ordering and making decisions on all the food was new to them, and when the attractive waitress joked around with them, they didn't quite know what to do, at least for a minute.

All too soon, the big plates were clean, and bellies were full, and smiles were seen all around.  

We said good bye to the young man we'd picked up, and headed off, heading to where home was six and a half years ago.  We laughed about lunch and all that he could eat, and the extra slice of birthday cake I'd packed for him before we left my house.

He got quiet then, when the freeway sign told us how many miles it was to home.   All this freedom was getting to him, finally, getting right into his heart.

Off to the side of the freeway, there was a beautiful field, shining in the sun with that first bright green that comes with the two or three springlike days of February.  Those days are always a tease, making us think spring is here, but it isn't.  
The green was real, though, and worthy of mention.

So were the sheep, grazing on the grass.  An entire flock of ewes, and their newborn lambs.  The  woolly babies were running and jumping, celebrating the newness of their lives and sunshine and green grass and promise of spring.
"I'm free," he whispered then.  "I'm finally free."

Fresh tears flowed then, from all the eyes in the car, and we didn't speak for quite a while, caught up in that moment.

We were both free, that day, even if the promised spring was not yet here. There was freedom in the air, in the rush of the incoming tide, in the color of the sky at dawn, in the light on his face from all the birthday candles, and the dance of the lambs on the fresh green grass of a new spring.

Neal Lemery 2/26/2013

Friday, February 1, 2013

Searching for Potential

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Searching for Potential

(from Ruralite Magagine, February, 2013)

Neal Lemery spends Sunday afternoons demonstrating ‘normal’ to young inmates
Searching for Potential
Neal Lemery plans to continue his volunteer work at the Tillamook Youth Correction Facility now that he is retired. He wants to help break the cycle of violence.
Every Sunday, cup of coffee in hand, Neal Lemery and a few buddies sit at a table in a small canteen swapping stories. Sometimes they play guitar or a game of cards. Mostly they talk about their future goals, trips they would like to take, dreams.
Other times, the conversation gets deeper and one of the buddies opens up about his childhood: his addict parents, the homelessness and sexual abuse that were what he understood to be a normal childhood.

Neal’s buddies are among the 50 inmates serving sentences for some type of sexual offense at the Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.

Neal visits several times weekly. The task both gives him joy and mentally exhausts him.

“It’s pretty draining,” Neal says of his visits. “When I come home Sunday afternoon maybe all I’ve been doing is sitting at a table having coffee and playing a game. But this ‘normalcy time,’ is such a new thing for them and they drain you. They’ve never had it before and so they just absorb it. You have to monitor yourself.”

Neal has spent his life working with Oregon’s judicial system. He retired January 2 after 12 years as the Tillamook County Justice of the Peace. He was an Oregon lawyer for 32 years, served as a defense attorney and judge and has spent his entire career in Tillamook—the town where he was raised.

“I’ve sat in all the seats in the criminal justice system here,” he says.
As the Justice of the Peace, Neal officiated nearly 1,800 civil marriages and doled out traffic and fish and wildlife fines.

He says he has always tried to be fair-minded. Rather than locking people away, Neal values educating them. He asked drunk drivers to attend classes—and then report to him after the class with an essay about what they learned.

His biggest challenge as a judge was enforcing mandatory sentencing laws.
“We used to give judges discretion to do the right thing,” he says. “Certainly we’ve taken that away in criminal court. I think you need to consider the person and their circumstances and what’s best for the community.

“We have our own unique values and my job is to reflect the community’s values. The way to fix it is one person at a time, one day at a time. I think if you can change one person, it’s a good day.”

Two years ago, Neal took a call from a friend asking if he could mentor a young sexual offender whose father had died when he was only 15, and whose drug-addict mother would visit her son stoned. Since then, he has made regular visits.
These young men are locked away for a reason, he says. They committed a crime. But the truth is, their behavior was learned. Most were sexually abused as young children.

“People want to blame the ‘neighborhood pervert,’ but really, for nearly everyone there, it was a family member that abused them,” Neal says. “From them, they learned to victimize people.”

Some inmates will never recover from their own trauma, he believes, but he says others can and will, with the correct guidance and can be shown how to break the violent cycle they have known.

“We’re trying to figure out who they are, because they don’t know,” says Neal. “I come, we play Scrabble, have a nice Sunday afternoon like ‘normal’ people would. They’ve never had that. They’ve never gotten mail or a birthday card in their lives. 
“One kid freaked out because we gave him a birthday party. He’d never had one. Can you imagine that? There’s been so much sexual abuse and violence; they just don’t know who they are as people.”

Neal’s wife, Karen Keltz, a retired high school English teacher, comes for many visits, too. Karen helps the young men finish high school paperwork and mentors them through college courses.

“She loves it,” says Neal. “They need a mom figure—a sober, decent mom that cares about them, too.”

There is one inmate who Neal has especially enjoyed mentoring. Perhaps it is because the young man is a gifted musician, learning the guitar from Neal in just a few weeks, or perhaps it is because he took the initiative to finish high school, is enrolled in college online and has nearly a 4.0 GPA.

“He writes songs, jazz, blues, rock and he wrote one about me,” says Neal. “It makes me cry every time he plays it for me. The lyrics say something like, ‘You never yelled at me, or gave up on me; you showed up and changed my life.’”

One of the ways Neal pledges to help is by being there when the inmates are released. As part of their terms of release, each needs to spend the first six months in the town where he committed his crime.

Neal sees them settled, enrolls them in college, takes them camping—a longtime wish of one inmate—and gives each every chance to succeed.
Neal plans to learn new hobbies and travel during his retirement. He also will continue to volunteer and mentor and will draft new legislation.

“I want to work on something systemwide around the state for better and more transition services,” he says.

Neal has roughed out a book about mentoring young men.

“There really isn’t a book out there that talks about the crisis in our country of growing up without a father,” he says. “The message I got at home from both my parents, and especially my dad, was ‘You have a brain and a body. You are a child of God, go out and do something!’ A lot of people don’t have someone in their lives to tell them that.

“That’s where I came in—in court as a judge and now, as a mentor. I say, ‘You have potential. You need to use it.’ And I will follow through the next time we meet and ask you, ‘Now tell me, what have you done to reach your potential?’” 
Posted January 30th

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