By: Raymond Greiner
Chicago’s government housing project was built in the mid sixties. Aging has taken its toll, diminishing original intent of quality housing for those economically oppressed. Only one elevator is in working order and used infrequently from fear of entrapment caused by mechanical failure. No maintenance personal on the premises but a few male residents crudely perform routine repairs. Walls covered with graffiti; hallways littered with trash, discarded clothing and furniture. It’s a squalid place forming a sense of hopelessness. Few living in this project have jobs most are welfare recipients spending days watching hours of mindless television and drug and alcohol use are commonplace.
Martha Jamison is a single mother attempting to raise her 14-year-old son Mark in this environment. Martha is a housekeeper traveling daily by bus to an affluent suburban area working for a lawyer and his wife to maintain their spacious home. Mark is exposed to ongoing dysfunctional peer interaction. The school Mark attends offers little educational benefit with teachers serving as wardens to maintain some sense of order and discipline; this school resembles a corral more than a learning institution.
After school Mark is most vulnerable to hazards of his environment. Groups of youths wander about, some play basketball on the project’s court and others mingle aimlessly. Mark began collecting discarded aluminum cans as a means of making a few dollars. He had several large trash bags filled with crushed cans stored in an inconspicuous place. One day two older youths approached him.
“Hey dude, hear you have a stash of cans. How about sharing with your brothers. We can find some crack and get high together.”
“No way man, I worked hard collecting those cans and I am keeping the location a secret.”
“Look asshole, we will beat the shit out of you if you don’t tell us where those cans are.”
“I’m not telling.”
The beating was severe. Mark survived making it back to the project. His eyes were swollen and he was bleeding from cuts on his face. He was unable to attend school for a few days. Martha was terribly distraught, wondering how she could improve her son’s life. She feared he would succumb to his environment. Most young, inner city, black males drift toward crime leading to prison. This place is void of opportunity. The national economy is unstable and government programs offer little worth. For a young, black male to find positive direction and enter the work force is nearly impossible.
A week later at school Mark was called to the principles office. In the office sitting near the principle’s desk was a policeman and a well-dressed young woman with a brief case. The principle asked Mark to have a seat. The young woman spoke:
“Mark, I am Susan Williams from the department of social services and child welfare. I have terrible news. Your mother had a heart attack at work, was rushed to the hospital where she has died.”
Mark was speechless. He sat in silence, disoriented then began to cry, sobbing deeply with his hands over his face. Here was a child on the cusp of adulthood; his mother was his source of strength and the only meaningful person in his life.
“Mark, we are required by law to assume responsibility for your welfare. This is such a terrible shock and we share your grief. Officer Jones and I will accompany you to your apartment where you must gather personal belongings and come with us to a holding center until our department can assign you to a foster home. I will personally oversee every function in your life until you are settled in your foster home. I will drive you to and from school each day.”
The school principle touched Mark’s shoulder: “Son, this is the only choice you have. Your mother was your sole supporter and now she is gone.”
The holding center was bleak, a barracks type facility, a step above prison with an armed guard occupying a desk near the entrance. Mark felt anguish beyond what he ever could have imagined. His mind flashing memories of his mother, how loving and considerate she was, her dedication to offer him the best life she possibly could. To think he would never see her again caused intense emotional pain. This dismal place escalated his anxiety. His future was dark, filled with apprehension and fear, void of love falling into an abyss of futility.
Ms Williams did as promised promptly arriving to drive Mark to school each day discussing her progress locating a foster home. She told him one foster home expressed interest and they would visit this weekend to evaluate the situation. The Marshals’ had been foster parents for over 10 years with several children passing through their home reaching adulthood. Ms Williams entered the home making introductions and inspecting what would be Mark’s assigned room. Annette Marshall was the primary figure since her husband George worked at a nearby steel mill. Annette seemed a kindly person and did most of the talking. George nodded, grunting an occasional “OK that will work.” Both were obese and frumpish; although, the house was orderly and another foster child was living at the home. Her name was Joyce and she was 12 years old. Her parents died in an auto accident and family members refused her residency. She was a very attractive young girl.
On their return drive to the holding center Ms Williams asked Mark what he thought of this home.
“I don’t have feelings one way or another. My life has been lost. I feel empty, with no future. I have nothing since my mother died. The kids I know in the project will likely become drug dealers, looking forward to a life of crime and welfare checks. It doesn’t matter to me what you decide.”
It was decided by the welfare board to place Mark with the Marshalls’. Mark moved into his small room with no window, more of a large closet than an appropriate room for a teenager. Mark’s despair escalated, he was at this place only because of money paid to the foster parents. No feelings of caring apparent. It was nearing time for the evening meal. George Marshall postured as a dominating figure in the household. He ignored Mark totally, as if he were not present. He spoke to his wife.
“The nigger will eat in the kitchen.”
Mark was shocked; he was trapped in a racist home. Ms Williams won’t check on him for a month. Mark felt isolated, and fear overcame him. That night he could not sleep wondering what would become of him, if he would die as a teenager. As he lay sleepless in his bed he heard quiet sobbing coming from Joyce’s room. He listened at the door and heard her bed squeaking loudly, and a moaning male voice. He realized George was having sex with Joyce. He opened the door.
“What the hell are you doing? I am reporting this to the welfare agency. You are a scumbag, piece of shit.”
George leaped from the bed grabbing Mark.
“You little motherfucker. Who do you think they will believe a worthless nigger or me? You report me and I will kill you. That’s a promise.”
Mark retreated to his small room. He was shaking and completely overtaken by escalating fear and uncertainty. He saved 200 dollars from his can-recycling project, hidden among his belongings. He knew he had to escape this place. After ogre George was asleep Mark crept into the kitchen filling his book pack with as much food as he could. He then exited the back door becoming a homeless waif with no plan or direction. He knew he had to leave and a calm strength came over him.
Mark’s initial thought was he must leave the city. He was a fugitive from the system and his photo would be distributed among police and displayed in public places as a runaway child. He had an approximate idea where he was, calculating if he walked all night he could reach the Greyhound Bus Station. He developed a reading habit in school and during library time enjoyed reading of remote and beautiful places. He was especially attracted to the Ozark Mountains a low range running east and west in Northern Arkansas and Southern Missouri. He felt necessity to relocate far away from Chicago or any other large metropolis. He would soon be 15 and could pass for older. The plan was filled with doubt but this had little effect, he felt his life was so far down the hole that even a faint glow of light was most welcome. It surprised him how he was without fear or apprehension, it didn’t matter what challenges were ahead, thoughts of living with that monster as a foster child was far worse than anything he could imagine.
Arriving at the bus station just after daylight he immediately studied the Greyhound routes running through Arkansas. He chose the small town of Johnsonville on the fringe of the mountains as his destination. He paid 100 dollars for a one way ticked and the bus would depart at 9:00AM. He had a pack full of food and 100 dollars and welcomed the opportunity to be far away from Chicago.
Mark slept on the bus arriving at Johnsonville. Johnsonville is a very small town. One grocery store and gas station combined. Post office and volunteer fire department, population 700 with modest houses and an elementary school. He walked to the store and purchased a quart of milk. An old pick up truck pulled up and parked in front of the store. An elderly woman emerged from the driver’s seat. She smiled greeting Mark.
“Hi there, what’s your name? I haven’t seen you around here.”
“I am Mark Jamison, just arrived on the Greyhound from Chicago and am considering relocating here. My mother died and I have no family.”
“Nice to meet you Mark. I am Bernice a retired teacher and have lived in the area for a long time. Do you want a small job today? I have been contending with arthritis and have some difficulty lifting and moving things. If you help me with my groceries and carry firewood from my woodpile into the house I will pay you 10 dollars.”
“Sure, I would be happy to help.”
Mark felt a surge of joy meeting this elderly woman. He sensed she was one of quality and substance. They arrived at Bernice’s home, a hewn log cabin far off a gravel road nestled among a grove of pine trees. Mark had never seen such a place, quite an opposite dwelling from the project in Chicago. He unloaded the groceries and then filled the wood rack inside near the stove. Bernice was an immaculate housekeeper; her cabin was orderly with several bookshelves filled with books on a variety of subjects, a desk, typewriter and filing cabinets. Bernice paid Mark 10 dollars.
“How about some tea? I baked scones yesterday.”
“Thanks Bernice, I am a bit hungry.”
Bernice put on the teakettle, inviting Mark to take a seat at the kitchen table.
“So, are you a runaway?”
Mark was surprised she read him so clearly. He then explained in detail his life in the project, his mother’s death and his horrid experience at the foster home. Bernice listened intently.
“What are your plans now that you have arrived in the Ozarks?”
“I don’t know exactly what I will do or where I will go but I knew if I were to remain alive I had to escape my situation in Chicago. It was horrible and my decision was based upon no matter what happens I would find a better place. I have never known anyplace except inner city Chicago. I studied various places, far away from cities, and was drawn to the Ozarks.”
“That is quite a story Mark. My husband of 40 years died last summer. We were professors at the university, retired and bought this land and cabin with ambition to embrace nature more directly. We were both writers and felt this time of our lives offered opportunity to express our thoughts on the importance of humanity re-connecting with nature as a means of discovering more peaceful social balance and direction. Your confinement in a large city and the dysfunctional human behavior you experienced exemplifies problematic social structure inundating global society.”
“I live alone and struggle with physical chores this place requires. From the description of your life to this point it’s clear you cannot return to Chicago and in the meantime while you adjust you are welcome to live here. I have a spare room that is never used and I can assist you finding new direction with your life. Problems exist in the Ozarks also; many are racist and will view you with suspicion. Living with me will offer sanctuary and an opportunity to gain positive momentum forward. “
Mark was in disbelief. He felt as if a miracle had descended on him. Thinking just 24 hours ago he was in as bad a place as he could be. He thought of poor Joyce trapped in that horrid place living with a person without compassion and she had no means of escape. He would write the welfare agency explaining why he ran away hoping they would investigate George Marshall and send him to prison for rape. He desperately needed Bernice, far more than she needed him. Her body is reacting to age but Mark’s entire being was at risk; nearly destroyed at a very young age by social horrors he was born into. The experience of a chance meeting with Bernice had a feel of divine intervention. Destiny has lead Mark to this place.
“Thanks Bernice. I will help as much as I can. I would never imagine living in such a place. I love your cabin and feel fortunate to be offered this opportunity. I will do my best.”
“Mark, I value education and from your description of life thus far I fear you have been greatly deprived. My cabin is a place of learning. I learn each day. I study nature surrounding my home. As a teacher I can assist with your education, which is a necessary element for life’s pursuits and social acceptance.”
Mark’s life in Chicago offered no positive direction or understanding life outside his fixed environment of buildings, noise and clutter combining with a sense of fear, emotional stress and an absence of contentment.
Bernice was an exceptional woman in every manner. She was an early riser filling each day with planned activities. Mark entering her life opened comfort and tapping his youthful energy allowed her to continue living at her cabin looking forward to each day, writing and observing animals and plants surrounding her beautiful residence. She became Mark’s legal guardian determined to add dimension to his life as he does to hers. She homeschooled Mark, establishing a daily curriculum and he responded with enthusiasm displaying natural thirst for knowledge. Mark felt as if he had been displaced to another planet. His life in the project had no comparison to his life with Bernice. He learned to use a chainsaw cutting and hauling firewood. Bernice had a small garden and Mark was drawn to the idea of growing food and the joyful feeling attaching to the earth directly, extracting sustenance offering a feeling of independence. He went for long walks in the forest with Bernice and she taught him to recognize the many varieties of plants. Explaining how ancient cultures used plants for food and medicinal use. The May apple, ginseng and sassafras have healing powers used today in modern medicine. Mark became a master gardener tutored by Bernice. He has now lived with Bernice for two years, helping her with physical chores. They became intensely bonded and the joy of living in such a natural place erased memories of Chicago.
One morning during breakfast Bernice expressed her thoughts.
“Mark, I struggled to grasp reasons humanity has fallen out of balance with Earth’s rhythms, grading itself as the dominant species, the most powerful; yet seeking separation from nature’s tides. As you described your surroundings in Chicago it struck me that your description vividly reflects results of this imbalance. Those with very little or nothing are in a quagmire created by society placing materialistic wealth above all else as those living in your project are hopelessly attempting to gain social traction where it does not exist. Despair overcomes them giving in to the void created. In nature is found balance, embracing life simplistically, viewing basic needs as a position of prominence. Modern humanity’s order forms standards, selecting social slots, displaying subtle domination as those placed higher on the communal pedestal control those assigned to lesser standards. This condition has been in place for thousands of years.”
“Bernice, I don’t see how this will ever change. The separation continues to develop as those floundering on the low end of society are unable to climb to a higher position, whereas those maintaining positions of power guard against intrusion fearing loss of social influence and domination.”
“I believe change can occur through expanding human consciousness, in an effort toward learning and applying knowledge. It’s a matter of understanding limits and boundaries with nature as a mentor. In nature narcissism is non-existent. Beauty abounds with purpose, wildflowers blossom to attract pollinators. As a species we can rise above self-imposed dysfunction discovering social equilibrium. Russian writer Andre Chekhov said: ‘One cannot escape from prison if they are unaware of being in prison.’ As a modern species we are imprisoned within ourselves and recognition of this will serve as a beginning. Balance and harmony existed among early human cultures. The ancients had distinct advantage because of lower populations. The present challenge is greater but through connecting spiritually, embracing Earth less intrusively, we can grow beyond our attachment to non-essential consumption and desire to dominate. Sage Mildred Norman, also known as Peace Pilgrim said: ‘It’s those that have enough, but not too much that are the happiest.’ This is so very true.”
Mark never had such a discussion or thought of humanity’s missteps, accepting his fate in the project without the slightest conception of life as a pathway evolving from influential complexities over centuries of time. Bernice opens stimulation, magnifying worldly social issues brought forth from a lifetime of philosophical thought, studying nature’s demonstration of distinct unification among Earth’s myriad of cycles.
“Mark you are showing exceptional academic ability. It is my plan to soon have you tested by the state education board a process home schooled children must adhere to, establishing qualification for a certified high school diploma. I feel you are ready for this test. You are nearing your 18th birthday and it is my intension to sponsor you to attend the University of Arkansas when this time arrives. My husband Phil and I never had children, and I am gaining the rewards I missed through guiding you and am pleased with your response. I feel you have great potential based upon our time together and much of this development is attached to your difficulties as a child in that impoverished place. This early life struggle strengthened you.”
Mark entered the University as Bernice planned. He excelled achieving a degree in biological science. The National Wildlife Institute employed him to write papers on animal and plant studies. Also writing proposals for grants to fund a project designed with Bernice’s assistance to educate the importance of preservation and social need to unify with Earth’s natural functions. Mark continued to live with Bernice, traveling to accommodate work demands.
Epilogue: Bernice lived to the age of 92. She willed everything to Mark including savings she and her husband accumulated. Mark never left the cabin, building a summer camp on the property inviting 20 young men and women each summer from inner city locations to stay at the camp for weeklong seminars with hands on experiences teaching the importance of nature and values it offers. Mark married Kathryn, a fellow biology student. Kathryn added great strength and meaning to Mark’s life and purpose. This partnership was one of great love and devotion to each other and the cause they shared.
Often Mark would reflect on his life. He remembered especially that fateful day when he was drinking that quart of milk and Bernice drove up in her old pick up truck. As he reminisced this event tears would appear in his eyes. Bernice offered transformation and Mark responded. Mark and Kathryn are now on a mission to transform others to a better place and understanding, feeling rhythms of the Earth.
During Mark and Kathryn’s promotional speeches they distributed printed excerpts of Bernice’s journal:
“Thoreau imposed that simplicity opens the door to contentment discovering life’s inner joys. How true this logic is, in every sense of living. The human experience has fallen adrift of simplistic elements seeking a more complex route. Some argue this new age reflects change of permanence and alternatives cannot intervene with current social designs. My debate is in opposition to this view. Civilization as we know it today formed thousands of years ago in the Mesopotamian region as cities formed and monetary systems were infused as a necessity of survival. This structure has expanded and is solidly in place today. The power of wealth produces ability to control and manipulate; this condition will likely remain but change and improvement can evolve from the human heart and an ability as a species to rise above selfishness finding ultimate gratification in altruism.”
“Lessons abound in nature. Life existing outside modern human design offers stability, longevity and an intrinsic ability to adjust, flowing harmoniously with Earth’s patterns of ever changing and challenging conditions. In nature there is opportunity for life to flourish, embracing perfection and strength to reproduce and advance attaching to Earthly offerings.
“Humanity can reflect nature by leveling favorable elements seeking life’s qualities. We should not have widespread poverty. We should not have extreme contrast in educational systems. Thoreau’s simplistic logic applies. Equality is not complex.” Bernice McCarthy