My son turned nine years old this past November and so my family all went to the Columbia County Fair to celebrate. We had a great time. Toward the end of the evening, as the sun faded and the fairgrounds really came alive, I looked out at my wife and kids standing in the shadow of the towering Ferris Wheel behind them. My family is beautiful—every one of them—and seeing them there washed in neon light brought me back to another time and place. It made me think back about the man I used to be before they came along and how a Ferris Wheel—and a really good book—changed my life.

I know that some of you out there may find this hard to believe, but when I was seventeen, I was what most people would call a top-notch screw-up. Some folks might be polite and say I was a “lost soul” but if we’re being honest here, back in the late 80s, I don’t mind admitting, that I was a total disaster waiting to happen. And in 1988, the wrecking ball came down full swing.

A good buddy and I hatched a brilliant scheme to earn some quick unearned cash. The plan was to heist a gas station air-machine to get at the wealth of quarters it held inside. We’d be living like kings for at least a few hours after this brilliant caper. Sheer genius—or so we thought.

Undercover of streetlight, we pulled a ‘79 Pontiac into the parking lot of a closed-for-the-night Gas-N-Go nestled right in the middle of nowhere and wrapped a tow chain around the steel post cementing the yellow air compressor to the ground. Once we looped the chain around the back bumper, we got in the car and punched the gas. That air compressor didn’t budge, but the back bumper of that old Pontiac sure did. The steel bumper ripped right off the tail end of the car and hit the asphalt with an impressive boom—waking up the owner of the Gas-N-Go that happened to live upstairs—and then the engine died.

Seriously, Mark Twain’s Tom and Huck, we were not.

Oh, and did I mention all the cop cars parked less then 50 yards away at a Winn Dixie sub station?

The bounty of quarters stayed right where it belonged and the only thing my friend and I accomplished was getting both of us locked up in county jail.

Like I said—brilliant.

I was held in county lock-up for almost a week, charged with reckless conduct and misdemeanor vandalism. My bail wasn’t that bad, but my father thought it might be a good idea to let me sit in there for a while. Looking back, I’m glad he did, because during those miserable few days, I had a little time to evaluate my then-current life trajectory.

My cell had a tiny slit of a window that faced the fairgrounds and since this tomfoolery happened in late October, the County Fair was still in town. So, during that first and second evening of incarceration, I would stare out at the lights of the Ferris Wheel and wonder just where exactly my life was headed. During the third and forth day—after the Ferris Wheel came down and there was nothing but darkness to stare at out the window—I picked up a well-worn paperback off the book cart that came around once a day after lunch. The book was called The Second Son by Charles Sailor and I grabbed it on a whim with zero intention of ever reading it. But after one more night of pitch black boredom, I finally peeled open the cover and ended up spending the next two days reading a fantastic story about a man who fell from a skyscraper and survived to go on and become one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read about. I read that book twice, cover to cover.

When my stretch of “hard time” finally came to an end, and after I got home and promised my dad that the money spent on bail and fines wasn’t in vain, I searched for that book at our local library and every bookstore in town with no luck. Amazon or Ebay weren’t options back then, but I never gave up the search. A full year later I happened upon another edition of The Second Son at Goodwill. I literally “sqweed” with excitement.

Armed with that novel as a reminder of where I was headed and possibly my first inspiration to become a writer, I decided from that point forward to walk a more righteous path. I never wanted to end up in a locked room again staring out at a Ferris Wheel I couldn’t get on. I wanted more. I didn’t know what that was back then, but more than 30 years later, standing out in a field, staring at my happy and healthy family, it’s pretty clear now. I rode that ride all the way to the top, looked out over my town and made another decision—to write all this down and make it available for any other “lost soul” who may need to read it. So maybe, in another 30 years, someone else will get the chance to see what I see now.

Illustration by Kat McCall

Article appears in the January 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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