In 1923 I almost died.
In 1923 I almost died.
Allow me to explain ...
On the day of my parole from Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution, I walked out of the entrance of the prison and my grandfather was waiting for me at the gate.
The last time I’d seen him was in 1967. Today was 1969.
He looked older and I must have looked much skinnier.
I opened the door and climbed into the front passenger side.
There were no seat belts back then.
Jack Avery Hybarger was a private man, very shy about looking into anyone’s eyes.
He bottled up his emotions. We weren’t a family that hugs or says “I love you.”
We lived like animals in a kennel; familiar but not too close - or risk a bark or scratch!
I don’t remember what we said or - how we greeted. It was always a bit uncomfortable. Formal. What do you say to an ex-con?
“How does it feel to be free?”
My head was filled with absolutely nothing but an exploding feeling of something I couldn’t define. I just wanted to get home. To BE home and reconnect with the “real” world.
That’s when my Paw Paw (my childish name for grandfather) started talking as though he were telling me a story. He had chosen this very odd moment to reveal a deep dark secret.
It struck me odd and bowled me over. I sat stunned...listening.
He took me back to a moment in his life in the year 1919 when he was 29 years old.
My Grandfather, Jack Hybarger, told me he had stood with tears running down his cheeks and a small-caliber pistol in his right hand atop a building in New Orleans.
"I was going to shoot myself in the head."...
(All I could manage to speak was one word: "Why?")
"I felt your grandmother (my wife) was going to leave me. She met somebody else. Went out dancing with him every weekend. I followed her. I saw. I knew. I climbed a ladder outside a dance hall and watched them. I climbed back down and bought a snub-nose pistol at a pawn shop and returned. I walked in straight over to the table where they sat."
We suddenly turned off the freeway to a barbecue stand where we used to go for lunch way back before prison.
He fell quiet for a while, lost in memories. Was he even aware he had said what he'd said out loud?.
I bowed my head for silent prayer before our meal. (A brand new habit I’d picked up.)
When I finally looked up, I could see he was embarrassed. This, in turn, caused my self-awareness and I too was embarrassed.
(I never prayed like that ever afterward.)
We ate in silence and returned to the car and the trip back to the house.
We'd be 'home' in another twenty minutes.
I was often uncomfortable being in his presence. In fact - there was an entire year when I was in Jr. High School, Paw Paw wouldn’t say one word to me. He’d drive me to school but we sat silent. It was like swallowing acid.
He carried secrets, never met my gaze, and sometimes gave in to tempestuous fits of anger.
At other times, he was generous, fun-loving, and upbeat. He taught me how to teach myself things.
“There’s not anything you can’t teach yourself.” He’d admonish. I assumed that excluded brain surgery.
He was a climate unto himself.
I learned early on to keep an eye out for brewing storm fronts.
We rode along the turnpike between Dallas and Ft. Worth with our windows down in his ‘66 Ford Falcon. I had so many emotions to sort on my release day--I couldn't really put two thoughts together about my future.
I stared at the OUTSIDE WORLD but no longer viewed from the INSIDE of prison.
On top of that - next to me a seventy-nine-year-old man blurted out his deep secret, then left it hanging in the air!
I waited silently until he finally continued.
"I pulled the pistol out of my pocket and stood in front of them. Until that moment, I really had no plan--it was all anger and adrenaline. I thumbed back the hammer and found myself pointing it--not at HIM--but HER. I told her to choose between the two of us.. I was in a fog. Sad, confused, desperate. I said whatever I said and walked out. Murder wasn’t in me when I needed it.”
I could only listen. What was there to say to any of this - and the timing of it all?
“I wandered around the French Quarter for about an hour. We were living in New Orleans at that time. Then, I climbed the fire escape to the top of a men's store called Maison Blanche.
I needed to look out at the city and at the world; at life itself a final time.
At the top, I walked to the edge and looked down. Barely breathing.
That's when I saw it.
I bent down and picked up a stray paper under my foot.
I read it and immediately decided to live.
It was just an advertisement--a handbill blown on top of a building."
By then we’d taken the highway back to Fort Worth again and making good time.
We were turning down the final few streets before the driveway of the house where, before prison, I'd spent 20 years of my life. I couldn't wait to see it and rush inside and experience the passionate thrill of security in my own home.
Inside the prison, the outside was dreamlike and vague. Now, the reverse occurred.
The experience of prison seemed like it was somebody else’s memory.
As we turned into the long driveway, I saw my cat, Cynthia, perched alert on the front porch swing, her tail snaking nervously at the car's approach. Did she know? Is that possible?
We drove past trees I had climbed as a boy, the pecan tree, pear tree, and I could smell honeysuckle. The gorgeous purple four o'clock flowers my grandmother planted all those years ago swept over me like a gust of perfumed happiness!
This house, new-mown grass, and my cat! Sweet life I'd left behind to serve the fearsome God Jehovah---it was all too much to bear! I felt tears welling up and I didn’t want that!
My grandfather pulled into the overhang of the garage and switched off the motor. He was lost in his own feelings of 'overwhelm' at that moment. Memory can be kind, or cruel, or punishing.
He finished his thoughts out loud. My hand on the door handle paused, waited; I listened.
"The handbill was an advertisement for Art School correspondence course.
I discovered in that moment’s pause between life and death--I wanted to be an artist of some kind! I’d have a new purpose in life no matter what. I felt a deep conviction - somehow - I knew...I AM an Artist!
I climbed back down the fire escape, off the building-- never again thought about what I'd almost done. Not till I saw you walk out of the prison. It struck me. I had almost killed you back then and not just me."
Engine off and radiator burbling. The free world rushed into my heart.
And ... I'd just been told a dark secret about - my own existence.
I sat stunned.
What strange mystery runs in our blood? I cannot say.
Art saved my life twice!
First: the day my grandfather chose to live. His attitude changed. He forgave his wife’s indiscretion. They had three daughters and a son and moved to Texas. His career consisted of creating artistic window dressing back in an era Post-WWII when large department stores decorated outside windows with fanciful, captivating tableaus to entice customers inside.
He hand-lettered signs for the store, dressed mannequins, and won many awards as the President of the Southern Display Association. He did one more thing - he started a Mail Order business. He had printed up handbills advertising ART SCHOOL just like the one that saved his life.
As a boy, I’d watch him open all those envelopes that came in stacks of mail each day. The dollar bill would fall out and he’d hand it to me. Every day was Christmas.
That’s how his life was saved and made meaningful, and consequently allowed me to be born - a grandson - in 1947 when he was 57 years old.
I had grown up to be a Jehovah’s Witness facing prison for Conscientious Objection to the Viet Nam war. I was sentenced to six years but received parole (1967-’69).
The second time Art saved my life came the day I abandoned Ft. Worth escaping with my wife and three children to start a new life in California - speculating I’d become an Artist there.
For three years I’d been unable to support my family working lousy part-time jobs as a janitor, sign painter, laborer for $1.60 an hour.
My life seemed incredibly meaningless. Out of one prison into another one.
I was experiencing a kind of nervous breakdown spending 100+ hours a month in door-to-door ministry, attending religious meetings, and trying to feel life had any meaning at all.
My task was to keep it together until THE END (1975).
1974 we arrived in California. After a few false starts, I landed a job at a large industrial art business where statuary, paintings, framed art, etc. was created.
A fresh start, fresh attitude, new friends - LIFE became real suddenly.
The feelings of worthlessness dropped away.
The End of six thousand years of human existence (predicted by Jehovah’s Witness leaders) became a fart in an elevator and nothing more.
The discovery that LIFE is something that comes down to decisions that turns everything dramatically ON or OFF and by choosing ART I was choosing a creative existence - that saved me. All those years of preaching THE END I hadn’t taken the time to begin anything. It had been an eternal deathwatch...
The day of my parole my grandfather watched me walk out of Seagoville prison - it struck him for the first time:
Standing on top of a building with a loaded pistol - he had come close to murdering himself, three daughters, a son, two grandchildren. Seven great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren!
In 1923 I almost died.