In 1964, in the western hills of Maryland, a boy was born into a relatively poor family and was immediately taken away from that family by the Welfare Department in the county. Assuming that the boy had a life laid out ahead of him that was similar to that of his siblings (or at least some of them), this action on the part of the County Welfare Department was the first decision made that changed the direction of his life. The question I pose here, and you’ll understand it better as you read through, is this: how much did that decision / change in his life’s path really affect the ultimate direction of his personal and professional development?
The myriad choices of forks in the road – each fork and branch presenting an endless potential for variation – has always fascinated me. A few years back I had a quite heated conversation with my brother-in-law about free choice. The conversation was based on the Christian belief that God grants man free will: the ability to choose our own path for ourselves. My contention was that “God knows everything.” Well, my question is this: if God knows what I will do before I do it, then do I really have free choice? or do I simply have the illusion of it?
My brother-in-law maintained that we do indeed have free choice. For the sake of the argument, I maintained that, if God knew what my choice was going to be before I made it, then I only had one choice: the one he knew I’d make. Therefore, free choice was an illusion. Reality was that we must do what God already knows we’ll do. To believe that my bro-in-law said, was to believe that our entire life was planned and mapped out for us before we were ever born. Yeah… that’s the general idea. This article isn’t meant as a discussion about whether God has our lives planned for us. It’s not about whether God preordains our path. In this particular case, it’s about how circumstances have led me to believe that he at least has a general plan and gives us some leeway in getting there… but we seem to get there just the same.
That boy born in Cumberland, Maryland in 1964 is me. I was taken away from my birth mother within a few minutes of being born. The family I was born into was on welfare and I was the eighth of nine children. I was the youngest son and ended up with a younger sister. Seven boys and two girls in all. I spent the first three years of my life living in a foster home in Alleghany County – in or around Cumberland – and then was transferred to Prince George’s County, Maryland – near Washington DC – the week after my third birthday.
Certainly, having grown up in the same community where my birth family lived, I had the opportunity to develop similar values. It was (and is still) a somewhat economically challenged city with an agricultural community that has tried to support a failing industrial commercial industry for decades. Agriculture remains the backbone of Cumberland and Alleghany County today, while other industries operate around it.
When I was two – and unknowingly living with a foster family – my birth mother gave birth to her last child: a little girl. The county welfare department tried to take that child away too but failed for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that my mother was no longer on welfare. When the country tried to take the little girl due to outstanding hospital bills, relatives stepped in and paid the bills. Still, on the day my mother was to be discharged, the county was still coming to take the little girl. The only reason that the county didn’t get her was because my mother’s doctor brought the baby to her and ushered her out the backdoor of the hospital as the welfare department was coming in the front. Possession is still nine-tenths of the law.
Across the next several months, my birth mother fought a battle with the county over custody of that little girl – my baby sister. Eventually she won. And on the heels of winning, she filed a suit with the County and State to get me back. The date she filed the paperwork was the last week of February 1967. During the first week of March in that same year I was taken from the foster family who had cared for me for three years and transferred halfway across the state to what became my adopted family. A couple of things need to be noted about the County Welfare Department of Alleghany County in 1967:
1) They had lied to my birth mom. They had told her that I was adopted the day after I was born and that she could never get me back.
2) They told my birth mom that I would never know I was adopted.
3) The told my birth mom that all records were sealed and would be forever sealed and therefore, as far as all records were concerned, she never even gave birth to a little boy in February of 1964.
4) The foster family that had cared for me for three years, having taken me in the day after I was born, filed paperwork to adopt me in January of 1967. They were rejected for “being too old”… they were in their forties.
5) My adopted family took me in as a foster child in March of 1967. They were approved to adopt me in August of 1967. The adoption was filed but not finalized until September of 1968 when I was 4.5 years old. I’ve always known I was adopted. See lies #1 and #2 above.
Life goes on…
My adopted family was my dad, a lawyer who became a District Court Judge; my mom who was one of the first female cancer researchers at the National Institute of Health; and my older sister who was quite the precocious eight-year-old when I was born. When I was eight years old, my adopted parents added another little girl to the family in the traditional way.
I was sent to a mix of public and private schools, and it was very clear that my adopted parents always had plans for me: I was going to go to college and become “a professional” – a lawyer, doctor, etc. I seemed to have other plans. One of my favorite stories is the story I’ve been told repeatedly about the day my adoption was finalized:
I was four years and seven months old. I was with my adopted family in the courtroom before the Judge who had to sign the adoption order making my foster family my “real” family. The judge looked down at me afterward and asked, “So, are you going to be a lawyer like your daddy when you grow up?”
My answer, as I’ve been told by both parents and a couple of relatives who were present was, “No, sir. I’m going to be a policeman and really help people.”
All my life I wanted to be a cop. Once I became a cop, I wanted to be an instructor; an FTO; one of those guys who help the young new cops find their way to do right and not get killed in the process. It was an on-going battle with my adopted family… kind of like the Cold War. You wouldn’t see it at the dinner table, but if you paid attention to the conversations, it was clear that my plans didn’t coincide with those of my adopted parents and neither of us was backing down.
When I graduated from High School, I had to make some choices. There are those branches in the road I mentioned at the beginning of the article. A Fork In The Road. Which way to go? College? Service? Something else?
I knew I wanted to be a cop. I also knew that I had been wearing glasses since I was eleven. At that time, most police departments wouldn’t hire you if your uncorrected vision was worse than 20/70. Mine was already about 20/100 at that time, so I knew I’d have to have something to offer that the average police recruit wouldn’t. I knew what it would be: it would be three years of service as a military policeman. I made the decision and enlisted in the delayed entry program. My adopted parents were less than pleased.
Throughout Basic Training, MP School and at my duty station(s) my adopted dad continued to let me know how much of a disappointment I was. He always told me how proud he was… but he also made it a point to talk about how people go in the service or become a cop because they can’t do anything else. In his mind, from his background and upbringing, people worked with their hands or did “civil service” jobs because they couldn’t get jobs doing something else… usually because of a limited education.
When I got out of the Army – Honorable Discharge in hand – my dad asked me if I was finally going to go to college and make something of myself. Um… no. I immediately went into civilian law enforcement. It was another branch… another choice… A Fork In The Road. Once again, I made the “wrong” decision from his point of view. So be it. I was who I was and was doing what I felt driven to do. It would be almost another twenty years before I’d find any reason why…
I was dating a girl that my dad liked a lot. Why? Because she acted “the way a woman is supposed to.” She didn’t speak a lot. She was very subservient. She was well built (voluptuous is a good word). Her parents were Brazilian and German… she had been taught to find a man that she could love and then do her job by taking care of him, children he and she would have, and their home. That was her place. My dad loved that outlook. The relationship between she and I eventually became strained because English was her third language and communication was often very difficult.
Then I met my first wife. When we announced that we were getting married… another branch in the path of life… we were both told very quickly that it was a bad decision. A Fork In The Road.
My first marriage, to be kind, wasn’t a blessing for either of us. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t much of a husband because I focused on work (full and part time) and fully expected her to take care of the home. I don’t think she was much into the “take care of the home” outlook, and I grew to resent that. We were both young. We had two children together and to this day I consider them the blessings of that marriage. We lasted about five years… When we got divorced, I was lectured about the bad decision I was making. Another branch… A Fork In The Road.
I got out of police work for a while, and worked in the private security industry. I excelled at it but didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t look back at the end of a day and feel like I’d accomplished anything besides lining another man’s pockets with money. Sure, I’d earned my paycheck, but I didn’t feel like I was really doing any good. I re-entered police work within two years. Again, it was a decision I was told I’d regret. Another branch… A Fork In The Road.
In 1994 I married to my wife. In our almost thirty years of marriage, we’ve made a few decisions that our parents disagreed with – all branches of life – all Forks In The Road.
What shocked me was the day that I looked back and realized that had I not made any one of those “bad” decisions, where I am today might be drastically different. If I had never enlisted, what would have happened? If I had stayed in the Army and made a career of it, I would have been eligible to retire a couple years ago, but what would have happened? If I had married that girl that my dad approved of so much, what would have happened? If I hadn’t gotten divorced? If I hadn’t gone back to police work? If I hadn’t gotten married the second time? So many branches… what if I’d take the OTHER Fork In The Road?
In 2000, my adopted dad died. I had talked with him about finding my birth family several years before that. In essence he told me that I shouldn’t do it. That I should “let sleeping dogs lie.” He added that, if I were to go find my birth family, he’d feel insulted. He told me that to him it would be the same as being told that he was insufficient as a parent. Fair enough. Out of respect for him I didn’t go looking until after he died.
In 2002 I went looking and I looked hard. It was actually easy. I found a woman who worked for the (now) Department of Social Services in Alleghany County. Her sole purpose was to help adopted children find out information about their original families for medical or other purposes. Those records that the Welfare Department had told my mom would forever be sealed? They weren’t. After several months of exchanges with her, and plenty of research on my own, I had a fair idea of how to find my birth family. I felt I knew their last name, and I was confident that at least some of them still lived in Cumberland. Some additional information I found led me to believe that my birth mother’s second husband was in a nursing home on the edge of death. There just aren’t that many nursing homes in Alleghany County (2 in fact) and with just one phone call I knew what I needed to know.
By pure chance I shared a lunch table with some cops from Cumberland at a SWAT Seminar I had been invited to. I started talking to the Lieutenant at the table and told him about my family history there; what I knew, what I guessed and what I was sure I was looking for. To my amazement he told me that he knew one of my brothers and that he could set up a meeting if I wanted. Did I want it? Another branch… A Fork In The Road.
I put together my “evidence package” and headed up to Cumberland. The LT was as good as his word, and I found myself in a private room with my brother. Now this brother, as I found out, was a former Marine and retired Cumberland City cop. He and I had served in the same National Guard unit and didn’t even know each other. I laid out my whole story for him and then waited for his answers. His response was, to me, phenomenal. He said, “I believe you are my brother… you look just like [brother #2] and [brother #6].” He clearly remembered when mom had gone to the hospital to have me and had come home without a baby. Ashamed of having lost a child to the welfare department, she had told the older brothers that the baby had been stillborn. Nothing more was ever said. Only my Aunt Margaret (my mom’s sister) knew the truth.
Things progressed from there until I eventually met all my brothers and sisters. What I found gave me some insight as to who I am and at least one possible explanation for why I am the way I am:
I found six older brothers: four of whom served in the Marine Corps; two of those made careers of the Corps, having retired as senior NCOs. One of the former Marines had gotten out after Vietnam and become a Cumberland City cop. My life and his life have a great many parallels. Spending time with them – even after just meeting them – was quite comfortable. I was welcomed with no hesitation. I was treated like a brother in arms and then a real brother. I was a fellow service veteran – albeit an “Army puke” instead of a Marine. I was and am a cop. I wasn’t some piece of sh*t that had done nothing with his life. From their point of view, I had done everything that a man should do. I was married – albeit the second time – and had a healthy happy family. My oldest son has announced his enlistment in the Marine Corps and at the last family reunion all his former-Marine uncles gave him a ration of grief about it… and then they all told him how proud they are.
So, out of a family of seven brothers and two sisters – nine children – five of us, almost two thirds, served in the military. Two of us made a career of it. Two of us made a career of civilian law enforcement. One of my other brothers who didn’t serve, TRIED to. He enlisted in the Air Force but, due to epilepsy, had a seizure in his third week of Basic Training and was medically discharged. And as I sat with my second oldest brother at last year’s family reunion, he asked me a question that really blew me away: “So, just how different do you think your life would have been if you’d never been taken away from us?”
I’ve given that a lot of thought. There is an old debate about “nature versus nurture”; how much of what we believe, and value is a result of heredity? genetics? learned behavior?
As I said closer to the beginning, I may have learned the values of service in the community where I spent my first three years of life. That said, I spent the next fifteen years in a household being taught NOT to go in the service; to go to college and “make something of myself”. Truth be told, once I had enlisted, I never felt 100% comfortable in the presence of my adopted dad again. I always felt like I was a disappointment to him, and I knew he’d never truly be proud of me until I stopped “playing around with life” and became a “professional”.
And yet, I think about what might have been: I was put on a path the day I was born. The family I was born into was and is a family predominantly of warriors. My two sisters didn’t serve. I have a brother who is an epileptic and couldn’t serve even though he tried – his heart was and is in the right place. That leaves six of us brothers who could. Five of us did. After thinking about it quite a bit, the only thing I can come up with that might have been different is this: If I had known that I had four older brothers who were all Marines, I’d have probably enlisted in the Corps instead of the Army.
Certainly I wouldn’t have known that girl my adopted dad thought I should have married. Certainly, I wouldn’t have met my first wife and, as a result, I wouldn’t have those two children. Certainly, I wouldn’t have met the wife I have now, and as a result, wouldn’t have my stepdaughter or my youngest son. But would I still have served? Would I still have made a career out of civilian law enforcement? I must think the chances are pretty good that I would have.
So, I find myself on my current path… not far off that original path that had been laid for me – if you believe that God has a plan for us all. Despite all that my adopted parents did, I still ended up in uniformed service. I still pursued a career that has made my birth family proud. I have much in common with my brothers. I even live almost dead center in between where my two oldest brothers have settled and where the rest still reside. And I look at my children: my oldest son, an honorably discharged Marine (along with being a husband and father); my oldest daughter who is an honorably discharged soldier (along with being a wife and mom); and my youngest son who is soon to be married. That will be, for him, A Fork In The Road.