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From Chapter 8 - The Never-Ending Story
The next spring, while several of us were reminiscing about our times at DCI, Andrew Webster (formerly Psycho) asked Malcolm and me if we had heard anything about Larry Brown and Bubba Sanders. Malcolm said Larry had relapsed on drugs, but had admitted himself to a state recovery center in Mandeville and was, for the time being, doing well. I had kept up with Bubba for about a year after he left Hope House in Baton Rouge. He had been arrested for possession and use of marijuana, but he was also charged with being in a car with another convicted felon. After six months or so in the parish jail, he left Baton Rouge to live with his grandmother near Lafayette. The last time I had spoken with him, he was going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly and had a good sponsor and a decent job. But I had no recent news. The last time I'd called his grandmother's number to check on Bubba, the service had been disconnected with no forwarding number.
Since we'd heard nothing from either of them for awhile, we agreed that Malcolm would look up Larry and I would find Bubba. I remembered that Bubba's full name was Hardy Sanders Jr., so I began an Internet search for his father. Mr. Sanders remembered me and was glad to give me Bubba's number. It was about 7:30 in the evening when I called Bubba. His voice sounded terrible as he asked me to hang on while he took the cordless phone outside so we could talk in private. He began crying in disbelief that I had called on this of all nights, the night he intended to commit suicide by overdosing on cocaine. The woman he lived with was a cocaine dealer from whom he could get enough dope to kill himself. He explained that he had fallen deep into debt to someone whom he could not repay. Apparently, this person said that if Bubba would help him burglarize a tobacco store, he would forgive the debt. In doing so, however, they had set off the alarm and were caught, leaving Bubba to face another prison term of five years.
Sobbing, Bubba added, "And, Bob, I think I have AIDS." I asked him why he thought so. He said he had slept with a woman who later told him she was HIV-positive. Bubba had gone to Charity Hospital in Baton Rouge and was tested, but the results would be a month in coming back. He said, "Bob, I go for sentencing next week. There ain't time to find out. An' Bob, I don't want to die in prison. I don't want to die there."
That's every prisoner's worst nightmare, I thought. I told Bubba that if he could catch a bus to New Orleans the next morning, I would have him tested at Tulane's blood lab and find out the results the next afternoon. Then he and I made a contract that he would not overdose, at least until after the test result was in. The next morning, his father drove him down for the test. Afterward, I took them to lunch and Bubba filled me in on events surrounding the burglary charge.
Bubba had already confessed to the crime. All that remained was to get the judge to agree to give him a shorter sentence and avoid a trial. The problem, however, was that the court could not find a public defender who could take the case and bargain for him, since they were already overloaded with cases. A black lawyer who overheard the proceedings in the courtroom had "nobly" volunteered to take the case for free. However, when he found out that Bubba really had no money, he made himself scarce. The prosecutor had set five dates for a meeting to bargain Bubba's sentence, but the lawyer had kept none of them. Finally, the prosecutor told Bubba that, by law, he had to be represented by a lawyer when deciding the length of sentence, but if Bubba would cooperate with him, he would go easy on him. Together, they agreed on five years, which was truly a bargain, because this was Bubba's fourth offense, and the district attorney had the option to bill him as a habitual offender and send him to prison for life. Since there was no way to sentence him in court without the presence of a legal representative, the judge issued a bench warrant for the lawyer's arrest to get him in court on the day of Bubba's sentencing.
I told Bubba and his father that I would call them the next afternoon when I got the results of his blood test. I also told them that I would try and talk to the judge.
The next morning I had to leave for a two-day conference at the University of Chicago that focused on Project Return. Since the conference did not start until that evening, and two of my sons lived in Chicago at that time, I met them for lunch at Berghof's, a well-known German restaurant. After ordering, I went to the pay phone and called the lab for the test results. Since my name was on the slip as the person who had ordered the test, the technician was able to tell me the resultsnegative for HIV. I immediately hung up and called Bubba with the good news. We agreed that he would continue to hang in there until I could talk with the judge about his case. When I reached the judge that afternoon, he told me that I could talk to him early on the day of the hearing.
I arrived very early that morning, hoping to see the judge in his chambers rather than in the courtroom. Judge Richard Arnaud was a pleasant, balding man in his mid-forties who looked dreadfully burned out. He graciously gave me enough time to put forward a synopsis of Bubba's story, of how he had been institutionalized and mistreated since the age of six. I finished by telling him what I could do for Bubba at Project Return.
Judge Arnaud said, "You know, I like this young man, and you know whybecause he's so honest. I've had him in my court before and he's always respectful, he always tells the truth and he's always so sorry for screwing up again. And I'd like to help him out. But he's already pled guilty and plea-bargained his sentence with the prosecutorand he made out pretty well, given his record. So, right now, this whole thing is in the prosecutor's hands. You can talk to him, but it's awfully late in the game to be trying to change his mind."
At this point, Bubba's lawyer, Floyd Jackson, sheepishly walked in and sat down. Judge Arnaud introduced him to me and told him why I was there. The judge then agreed to invite the prosecutor in so I could take my best shot with him. I quickly went out into the hallway of the courtroom where Bubba was waiting and brought him up-to-date. As I turned to go back into the judge's chambers, Bubba's prosecutor, Stan Brock, stepped off the elevator. When Floyd saw Brock, he blurted out, "Say, I hear we're gonna get my client off." At this point, Stan started yelling at the man, sounding for all the world like a barking dog, "Don't even think for one goddamn second you're gonna waltz in here an' . . ."
This tirade continued all the way into Judge Arnaud's office, and I figured we were dead in the water. I waited for the prosecutor to stop yelling before I joined them. Judge Arnaud introduced me to Stan, who was sitting on a couch to the judge's right, his eyes red with anger. I remembered a rule of conflict from the Aikido martial arts that one should try to see his enemy's point of view. I took my seat next to the young prosecutor so that we would be looking at the room from the same perspective.
When Judge Arnaud and I told the prosecutor Bubba's story, he looked over at me and asked, "And what do you think you can do with this guy?" I told him that if I could get him into Project Return for ninety days, I believed I could stabilize him enough to get him a job on an offshore oil rig. When Stan looked back at me, his eyes were still red, but now they were also wet. He said, "You know, I actually like this kid. He has never tried to bullshit me and he's been so apologetic that I've wanted to help him."
Stan then turned to Judge Arnaud and said, "You know, Judge, Mr. Sanders and I bargained this sentence without legal representation. If Bubba chose to appeal that, he would win. So I'm willing to drop the felony charge if we can charge him with something else to get him on probation so he'll have to go with Dr. Roberts and stay with him. What can we use?"
With a slight grin on his face, Judge Arnaud said, "Well, we've never used bear wrestling before." The room fell apart with laughter.
"Great," Stan said. "What else have you got?"
"Well, there's actually a law that specifically prohibits the theft of crawfish," said the judge.
The joking and laughter continued, but suddenly it hit me that the system had actually begun to function the way in which it was intended. Bubba had never harmed anyone, so the public's safety was not an issue. What would five more years in a Louisiana prison do for him? Everyone knew he would emerge even more crippled than he already was.
I thought for a moment about what Malidoma had told me happens when taboos are broken in the indigenous world. The elders would have said to Bubba, "You have separated yourself from the ways of our village and, if you have to leave, then you will take away the gift you brought with you, and the village will be less than it was. Therefore, what can we do that will help you to rejoin our village and fulfill your purpose in coming to us?" So, Bubba was not being sent away.
As my thoughts came back to the room, the laughter was subsidingthe final charge mentioned had something to do with donut holes. Then Judge Arnaud turned to me and asked if I thought I could talk Bubba into accepting the new charges and pleading guilty to them. He was serious!
Moments later, I was choking back the laughter as I sat in the courtroom listening to the black-robed Judge Arnaud read the charges as soberly as any man could.
"Mr. Sanders, you've been duly charged with bear wrestling within the city limits of Baton Rouge. How do you plead?"
"Guilty, Your Honor," Bubba replied.
"Mr. Sanders, you've also been charged with the misdemeanor theft of crawfish. How do you plead?" And so it went. Judge Arnaud told Bubba that he would have to go to New Orleans and remain under my supervision until graduation from Project Return. He would remain under my supervision for the next two years. If at any time . . . , etc., etc., etc. Moments later, Bubba and I were headed for New Orleans to find him a place to stay.
The next morning when I walked into the office with Bubba, Malcolm congratulated me on "winning my first case." Since then, I have been amazed at how many judges have released people into my custody, or simply let them out of jail when I gave them reason to do so. I have found there are many judges who are sick of sending people to jail over and over, and they are desperately looking for anyone who will offer viable options. That was a crucial factor I had added to the equation in Bubba's case that is all too often missinga sentencing alternative.
Though Bubba continued to hit every bump in the road, he finished the program and graduated. We discovered that his weakness for getting high was equaled only by his weakness for women in distress. He has managed to stay off drugs but has tried to rescue half a dozen women who were living through the same crises that Bubba experienced, and they have taken his money every time. That next September, I took him with me to the Minnesota Men's Conference to give him the experience of hanging out with serious, eloquent, positive, wounded and zany older men. While there, he wrote a poem that astonished everyone with its eloquence.
Angelsseem to be always within distance.
They hear when I weep and can sense the danger around the corner
Even when I am blind to it.
What are their names?
I want to know so much about them.
Time after time they rescue me from the steel jaws of death,
Even when his teeth are in the very mirror of my existence.
Who am I to deserve such guardians,
After creating so much chaos and living in so much deceit?
I have lived with that question hanging from the cobwebs of
My mind for so long, hardly even giving thanks.
I live in so much fear of it because I never could grasp an
Understanding of it.
But today I have no choice but to know it exists and is at work
Carrying me through life and loving me even when I am hating
Yet today, I can no longer take it with a grain of salt.
Today, I want to know my angels so I can talk with them, embrace
Them, sing to them, and give them thanks. So much thanks!
Hardy Sanders Jr.
Following his graduation, we were not able to get Bubba the job on the oil rig, as I had promised Judge Arnaud. A previous injury to his neck prevented him from passing the physical exam. I was disappointed. The job would have offered him benefits far beyond the usual ones, such as a structured, calm environment (being over the water). With clothing, entertainment, room and board, good pay, drug testing, and ample time ashore, it would have provided him with the perfect halfway house. Concerned that an ordinary job on the streets did not offer him the structure he still needed, Judge Arnaud permitted Bubba to leave the state and enroll in a "recovery" farm in Georgia. The farm work, done in the mornings, was followed by addictions recovery work in the afternoon and evening.
Before long, Bubba called to tell me that he had become one of the counselors. The last time he called, he said that his life was going better than it ever had. He completed his course at the farm and moved up to North Carolina to be near his brother Troy, an auto mechanic. Bubba found a good job loading trucks and had his own apartment, his own telephone and an old Ford that Troy fixed up for him. "But," he told me, "I'm scared to death. I'm so scared I'm gonna screw it up and lose it all, because that's what I've always done before."
"What do you think could be lying underneath this recurring fear?" I asked.
He answered, "The toughest thing for me to believe is that I deserve all this." For Bubba, the road will still have its bumps and potholes, but for the time being, a sad and troubling story has ended well.
¬2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted from My Soul Said To Me by Bob Roberts. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.