86: Rules of Engagement

86: Rules of Engagement

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Rules of Engagement

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.

~Ambrose Redmoon

Growing up in a small, North Carolina tobacco town in the 1970s and ’80s, I developed a few personal rules of engagement, by which — yes — I mean rules for becoming as attractive as possible, so that Mike Watson (whose Camaro was of that enviable species sporting a painted spread eagle on the hood) might someday, somehow find me worthy of a two-keg rehearsal dinner. Rule One: If your perm gets “ruint,” get another one before anyone remembers that your hair was, at one time, pretty darn straight. Rule Two: If you know someone whose mom runs a beauty salon in the basement of their home, be friends with her. And Rule Three: If you plan on winning the Queen of the County Fair pageant, you are probably going to need a bigger perm.

It was a simple life. People tended not to lock their doors.

Now, my father happened to be the District Attorney of the region, which spanned three counties including ours. So he saw some things. There were drug dealers in Kinston. There was a small arson ring in Goldsboro. Within my own rural school community, a science teacher was murdered after a domestic dispute. But to me, these seemed like peculiar events, happening in isolated homes. Even when I overheard my father talking on the phone, using words like “assault” and “larceny” and “homicide,” I was not afraid. Those were courtroom terms, used by men in suits to impose order in the shadows. As far as I could tell, the lawyers shook their papers and the bad people went to jail.

I also came to understand, pretty early in life, that my father was an excellent prosecutor. He was absolutely, unshakably honest, both inside and outside of our home, and he poured himself into every case, no matter how small. His brand of fighting crime was, very plainly, to run at it hard with the truth. He almost always won. In some sense, the more I learned about his cases, the safer I felt.

Until.

In 1976, my dad received a call from an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, the S.B.I. It seemed that a notorious drug lord in New York City had — for years — been using partners to smuggle his premium “Blue Magic” heroin supply from Thailand into the United States through military airports and post offices, all in our section of eastern North Carolina. Hundreds of kilos of heroin traveling through our little district every year.

Today, we know that kingpin as Denzel Washington’s character in the movie American Gangster. Back then, he was known as Frank Lucas. His heroin was ultra-cheap and ultra-potent, and many of its users were dying, sometimes right in the street. At the height of his empire, Lucas claims to have made one million dollars per day in sales of Blue Magic. The secret to his success, the particularly “American” aspect of this gangster’s operation, was that he had a competitive advantage: sourcing the drugs directly from the fields of Southeast Asia. He had a gushing pipeline of heroin — one that was ultimately crippling whole sections of New York City — and it was being managed by forty of Lucas’s North Carolina relatives and associates. My father would be responsible for prosecuting every single one of them. The series of trials would take years.

Now, like I said, my father was an exceptional attorney. Already in his career he had prosecuted more than one hundred people in our three-county district on drug charges, with virtually all of them ending in convictions. But this was one of the largest heroin operations our country had ever seen. Frank Lucas and his associates were the stuff of movies. For them, murder was a business strategy. When the S.B.I. began taking steps to try to protect my father’s life, I knew that everything had changed.

Over the next five years, between Love Boat specials and Happy Days reruns, I watched my father. He was constantly reading and writing. He was traveling to New York City to interview Frank Lucas, now on Rikers Island, offering evidence. My father also began starting his car from inside our house, to detonate any bombs that might have been planted. He kept a gun in his bedside drawer. Sometimes when I was trying to fall asleep, I would notice an S.B.I. agent parked outside, near my bedroom, in an unmarked car. It didn’t make me feel safer. And I will never forget one night, before the opening day of the lead trial, when I saw my dad hunched on our small brown couch, his leg shaking.

During that five-year odyssey, our family did a lot of praying. My father was in the fight of his life, both in the courtroom, against vices that he could articulate, and in our home, late at night, against demons that he could not. Together, my parents prayed for assistance and protection, wisdom and peace. They also prayed for the young men and women in New York who were dying. My own prayers were fairly simple: Dear God, please stick with my daddy today. And please, please, please, don’t let his car blow up.

In the end, my father emerged safely, with thirty-four convictions to his credit. Suddenly, the world felt inflated again, as if we had finally slipped out from under a wall. We took a trip to Disney World. Just a few years later, I moved out of our farming community to go to college. And if you must know — yes — I still had one of the biggest perms going. But my old rules of engagement were not built for the real world, and I knew it. There were plenty of things around me that could never be fixed in a beauty shop. By the time I left North Carolina for, of all places, New York City, my hair was straight and my values were straightening.

These days, there are plenty of things that I miss about my hometown. I miss my best friend, who taught me how to jump a ditch and shinny up a television antenna on the side of a house. I miss riding my bike to Westover’s Store for hot fries and Dr. Pepper and penny candy. I miss the people who worried just as much about adequate rainfall as about excellent SAT preparation. And lastly: I never did marry Mike Watson. Although on that score, thank goodness. I’m pretty sure you can’t fit three car seats into the back of a Camaro.

Still, there are plenty of things from North Carolina that I carry with me, wherever I go. In particular, I cherish the new rules of engagement for life that I was learning, however slowly, during those years of watching my father — rules which, on my very best days as an adult, I sometimes come close to following. Rule One: Don’t lie, even when you are afraid. Rule Two: Stand up for people who, literally and emotionally, are dying in the streets. And Rule Three: Try to understand the real meaning of the phrase so help me God.

For these things, I thank my dad.

~Jill Olson

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