Seventeen-year-old Joe sits hunched in a dark closet rocking back and forth in a puddle of pee as his stepfather terrorizes his brothers and sisters trying to find out where Joe is hiding. He then turns to his wife and decides to beat an answer out of her. Joe, frozen in fear, covers his ears to muffle the screams from his mother and siblings.
Joe waits for his stepfather to leave the house. When he comes out, he finds his bloodied mother curled up in a corner. As he tends to her, calmness takes hold. He resolves never to let his stepfather hurt them again. He takes a dull butcher knife to his bedroom and waits. Sometime later that night, Joe is startled awake as the bedroom door is kicked off its hinges. The rage of battle between the two burns hot before Joe runs out of the house hoping to have killed his stepfather. Joe runs to a vineyard close by and hides under the canopy of vines for three days.
With increasing thirst and hunger affecting his mental state, Joe, the oldest of eleven children, vividly relives his life through a colorful series of flashbacks and memories, both good and bad. He reflects on a childhood of migrant farm work, traumas of family abuse and trips into foster care. Thoughts of the times his stepfather sold him to an older woman for beer money haunt him. Anger over his stepfather's cruelty towards his mother, a school bus driver, and more tragically, to an unsuspecting black man who stopped in a bar for a drink, grips him. Tears subside as he recalls his first sweet kiss from Trish to singing country songs with his sister Judy while waiting for the mailman and the welfare check. He finds out he has three daddies.
Joe finally gathers enough courage and leaves the vineyard to seek help. He finishes his senior year of high school in foster care. After graduation, Joe boards a greyhound bus for a one-way trip out of town, hopeful and determined to find purpose in life.
"Writing a memoir takes more motivation than being voted 'most likely to succeed as a writer' by your high school classmates."
As an adolescent, I poured an abundance of sadness, pain, hopes and dreams into poems and short stories. I wrote to give words to feelings, but tore them into tiny pieces once I had penciled them onto the backs of used paper sacks. Just the expression was enough.
As an educator, I wrote daily lessons for my students. As a public school principal and later as head of an independent private school, I wrote to lead and inspire my teachers, parents, and our community to reinvent the notion of what constitutes education, teaching and learning. I wrote a lot, but I don't think I was ever labeled or recognized as a "writer" by anyone.
My wife encouraged me to write about what I knew. She often said my life sounded like a country western song of struggle, love, heartbreak, longing, drinking, fighting, getting even, double-crossing, lying and cheating. Although I'd admit it would be interesting to write songs like this, I felt I needed to write a book.
I began to write "Not Your Ordinary Joe" after an article about me appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser entitled "Life of Misery Becomes a Valuable Lesson," by Lee Cataluna.
After a rural public school teacher read the article and shared it with her students she invited me to visit her class. Her reluctant and slightly hostile group of middle schoolers had seen and heard many stories about how life was a peach waiting for them to pick and enjoy. Few, if any, bought into this vision of the future. It didn't help that I drove into their school in my fairly new Lexus right as they filed by into the library for a miraculous dose of inspiration. I felt the hostility as soon as I was introduced by the teacher and turned to greet the class. I introduced myself as President and CEO of Mid-Pacific Institute, a highly influential independent private school with nearly 1500 students.
A few days after my visit to the school, I received a large envelope with thank-you cards stuffed inside. There were notes that said, "Please write a book about your life so other kids can read it. It will help them to know that it is possible to start with nothing, but end with something, if you believe you can and are willing to take help when it's offered."
I thought about it, and began to write my own story.