Thursday, July 29, 2010


San Diego Union, June 3, 1967: Evidence at the scene caused the police to throw a curtain of secrecy around the case. And within an hour, Lt. Ed Stevens of the police homicide squad was rushed to the scene—an unusual procedure in cases where death is by accident.

The curtain that the police threw was not just around the case, it was around our house, and around all of us who lived in it. Each of us was taken aside and privately interviewed about the death of the little boy that the paper described as the “blue-eyed, brown-haired” first grader whose mourning father, Richard Sr. had been quoted as saying, “We loved him very much.”

I had been there when they found his naked, scratched body slumped on top of his damp clothes in an old latch-handled refrigerator in our back yard, so had Mama. Still stunned and reeling from what we had seen, we had been rushed into our house as the first police act of “throwing a curtain of secrecy” around the case.

Immediately each of us were grilled privately about our whereabouts on the tragic afternoon of June 2nd— even Mama who still had been at work when Ricky took his last gasping breaths. And even 6 year-old Mary, his sometime playmate, was interviewed alone, without Mama or Daddy, my 10th grade sister Melody, or me present. It was a searing experience for my “baby sister” and her memory of it has never become fuzzy or faded or less intense over the span of more than four decades.

She remembers that the police were very kind to her, but the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her family and was all by herself as they questioned her cut very deeply. She clearly remembers telling her interrogators that from inside her room that had a window to the back yard, she heard Ricky call repeatedly. She remembers that she kept telling him she was changing her school clothes and would be there shortly. She remembers going to the yard and not finding him anywhere and then going with me to the bank.

But of everything she remembers about that time, the most profound experience was the sudden recognition that there was “someone” standing beside her with his arm around her offering her the comfort and assurance that she was not alone. She believed without a doubt (and still does) that it was Jesus wrapping her in the eternal embrace of God’s steadfast love and mercy. It was saving grace to her in the bleak darkness of her short life.

I did not know about her experience of divine presence until several years ago. Ricky’s death and the great sorrow and shame for our family were not things we talked about or ever worked through to a sense of healing. Instead, we did what we always did by silently shoveling it onto the family mountain of sorrow and shame: Daddy’s alcoholism and violence; the continuous displacement we had experienced even before Daddy became a U.S. Navy Chaplain; the financial chaos of Daddy’s get-rich-quick schemes gone to pot; the inability of Mama to seek safety or get help for herself or her four girls from the six-foot-four man she had spent 26 years trying to change.

My 20 year-old sister, Becky, had already left the family. She had married two years before and remained in Georgia with her husband and daughter. But she was the first of the “Vernon Girls” to learn how to cover up shame and sorrow with a thin patina of normalcy and respectability. We all learned it well for Daddy was a minister who had preached love, peace, and forgiveness since he had felt a “call” to pastor a church at 19 years of age.

Mama met Al Vernon at the Christian college they both attended in Eugene, Oregon. She went there because she had been determined to marry a minister; she thought it would ensure that her childhood family nightmare of alcoholism and poverty would be a thing of the past. She found out about his violent behavior three weeks after she married him in 1943, but she felt she could not go back to her parents. (Indeed, in 1962, when she finally mustered enough courage to take her four girls to Seattle and seek help from her mother, my grandmother told her, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”)

The violence of their marriage stayed in the background of their children’s lives until Daddy joined the Navy in Great Lakes, Illinois to try to make a living that the small churches he pastored could not provide. Suddenly he was exposed to alcohol and to the military expectations of cocktail parties and “schmoozing” at the Officers’ Club. But, it wasn’t until after he returned from spending a tour of duty in “Gitmo” during the Cuban Missile Crisis that I realized Daddy's strange behavior was because he was drunk.

We were living in Quonset Point, Rhode Island when we began to know, when I first began to know, the terrors of an alcoholic parent with an “enabling” spouse: violent, drunken rages (even while driving with us in the back seat); midnight awakenings by slamming doors, thudding walls, broken cutlery; black eyes and battered spirits.

By the time I was 12, I began to join in the fray, with the intention of keeping Daddy from killing Mama (which, in fact I did a time or two. By then, I was taller than her 5 feet 5 inches and was younger and stronger. My other sisters never felt the need to join us because I represented us all. They were the silent watchers. Daddy didn’t mind having two targets and quickly found reasons to vent his rage on me. And by the time I was 13, and we were living in Beaufort, South Carolina, I found reasons to provoke him.

My therapist says it is normal in families like mine: feeling the build-up of an explosion, I provoked him to get the inevitable blow up over a lot more quickly. It saved hours of looming agony. Years later, Daddy and I talked a little (very little) about those epic battles. That’s when I learned that he actually had no memory of them—for him they were “black outs.” The brain cells destroyed from the alcohol kept him totally unaware of what he did. And the dysfunction of our family kept us from telling him when he was sober what he did when he was drunk. We also acted “normal” the next day—a situation for which the word “irony” was coined.

Daddy eventually did stop drinking (he met his third wife in an AA meeting), but he never did the painful job of truly-and-ceaselessly working the 12 Steps, so his making amends came in the form of bringing pies and jellies to our family reunions we had for several years before he died. So, he never did the “fearless inventory” or the “making amends” that is essential for true recovery. Consequently, he never actually apologized to me and I never had the opportunity to forgive him while he was alive. Confession was a step he could preach but not enact.

I had heard about confession every Sunday of my life. I had heard about “divine presence” and “saving grace,” and I had prayed for it unceasingly, but it was to little Mary who had never known a life without violence and fear—it was to my sweet little Mary, that God came the day that Ricky died within her hearing and reassured her with a sense of comfort and love that still abides within her today.

For me, the body-blow of the tragedy and the intense investigation into our family life, was truly a plunge into the shadow of the valley of death. Mary had been the last one to hear little Ricky. I had been the last one to see him alive. He had flitted in and out of my sight that day like a mosquito, and the guilt and the shame of my “responsibility” were unbearable. I really was too tired and worn-down to try to bear it, so I decided to end it all.

NEXT: Suicide

Will you pray with me?

O Abiding Love,
Our quest as human beings is to find meaning and redemption in the face of tragedy and evil. We believe that you assume responsibility for the world as it is, but even as we proclaim You to be the Source and Power of all things--we question why You would allow the world and all its creatures to suffer in agonizing and unimaginable ways. Even as we proclaim You to exist as Eternal Steadfast Love and Mercy--we dare to wrestle with You. We wrestle and wrestle, and come away limping. It is not for us to know, only to accept that we are helpless and that You are our only hope.

Accept as prayer all broken hearts and trampled spirits--Love, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all drowning doubt and engulfing anger--Grace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all groaning grief and stony thoughts--Peace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer, O Blessing Goodness. . .
. . .our rooted despair and feeble faith
. . .our splintered minds and blurry vision
. . .our limping humility and tethered patience

I pray today for Ricky's family--his parents and sisters and extended family who lost their dear loved one in such a tragic way. And I pray for all of those persons and families who are now wrestling with You in the abyss of wrenching loss and despair. Give them the spiritual eyes to see that there is “someone” standing beside them and grant them the comfort and assurance that they are not alone. In their bleak darkness, be their light and saving grace, and bring them--and us all--to that promised time when we shall know as we are known.

In Your holy name I pray. Amen

Friday, July 23, 2010


Through my seminary training and years as a pastor, I have learned the value of documentation. It is vital for the integrity of a theological paper: list your sources. It is vital for a sermon shaped to challenge and inspire those listening for God’s Word: cite your sources to give credit where credit is due. It is vital in effective pastoral care: help yourself remember the significant people and events of individuals and families, and protect yourself professionally, by keeping a record of some sort. Documentation is a vital tool of integrity, this I have learned well.

So why have I never tried to document my own life? To hunt down the sources that have contributed to who I am? To give credit where credit is due? To keep a record of significant events and people? The short answer: too busy. The long answer: too painful.

But early retirement and the sudden death of Juan, my husband and best friend of 40 years, had provided both the time and the impelling force to learn to become my own best friend.

That was why I found myself in June 2010 sitting in front of a microfilm machine in the downtown public library of San Diego, California with my youngest sister Mary, diving into my first deep excursion of personal documentation. Together, we were trailing the sources of a long-buried tragedy that had seared us both with guilt and shame since June 2, 1967.

It didn’t take much searching to find the newspaper accounts for the three days following the event. Under a school photo of first-grader Ricky, the front page headline in the national news section for June 3rd read, “Slaying Hinted in S.D. Boy’s Icebox Death.” The June 4th headline in the local news was, “Boy’s Death in Icebox Shakes Area: Clairemont Neighbors Stunned; Fatality Believed Accidental.” And the final account on June 5 stated, “Game Blamed in Refrigerator Death of Boy.”

We started with the June 3rd account. It related the massive search that “first centered in the canyons that lace the area,” by “about 40 policemen,” neighbors and the Boy Scouts of Troup 246 after his worried mother first reported to her husband, and then later to the police that little Ricky had failed to come home from school. I also said that eventually the search narrowed to our house.

What it didn’t say was that it had narrowed down to our house because as soon as I heard of the search from a Boy Scout who had come to our door asking if we’d seen him, I said “yes.” I told the young man to go get the police and waited in front of the house for them to come. Fear was gripping my 18 year-old heart. What if Ricky had decided to swim in a backyard pool kitty-corner to our yard? What had happened to him after he went through the door from our garage that went into the back yard? Fear, fear, fear.

I had just moved back home the day before, running away from fear. During my second semester of college, I had tried living in an apartment with a good friend. But her invitation to some marijuana-toting stevedores to join us after dinner one night sent me scuttling back home in fear as soon as my lease ran out. Home was also full of fears for me, but at least they were familiar fears and terrors that wouldn’t lead to a felony offense for possession and several years of jail time. (This in the state that now boasts of legal “medical marijuana” clinics!)

So, my new plan was to live at home, get a job to pay for some much longed-for braces, and continue my journalism studies in night school. I had my plans and a little pipsqueak friend of Mary’s was certainly not part of them, no more than the pot-smoking dock workers were.

What I did remember as I was waiting to show the police into our backyard, was that I had been busy painting my desk and listening to my favorite Rock and Roll radio station when Ricky rode up to me on his little bicycle. He said that he wanted to play with Mary, but I told him that Mary was changing from her school clothes. Perhaps he had told me that he would wait for her in our back yard. I may have hollered into the house to Mary that he was waiting for her, but his search for her barely registered with me, so that later I couldn’t even remember if I had looked up at him.

What Mary remembers is hearing him call her name several times as she was in her room changing her clothes. She considered him somewhat of a pest and it bugged her that he was bugging her. She yelled out that she would go out there when she had finished changing her clothes, which is what she did. It certainly did not strike her six-year-old mind to wonder why his bike was there but he wasn’t. It didn’t strike my 18 year-old mind either.

That paper says that Mary Beth, 6, had been playing with Ricky earlier in the day. Mary Beth, in fact, set out on a bicycle to search for Ricky after telling her sister, Fay, 18, that ‘I can’t find Ricky.’ She had NOT been playing with him earlier, but not finding him in the backyard, she had searched for him. His family (his parents, an older sister and a younger sister) lived five doors down us. Had Mary gone to his house or her other playmates’ and friends’ houses? We don’t know. Neither one of us even remembered that part until we read it. All she and I remember is that she gave up looking for him, then hopped in my car with me to go to the bank before it closed.

Why hadn’t the searchers come to our door in the intervening hours? Daddy was home sick with the flu that day. Was he also drunk? My 14 year-old sister, Melody, had walked Mary home from school and was in the house somewhere. Had someone knocked but nobody heard? Why had it taken our family so long to hear about his disappearance? What difference would it have made had we known sooner?

I don’t know what time it was when I sent the scout to the police with the news that Ihad seen Ricky, but it was June 2, only 21 days away from the longest-day of the year. I remember that it was mostly dark in that driveway and while I was waiting for the police, I was telling Mama the sequence of events because she had not come home from her job as a lab technician until 5:30.

I tried to give her a clear accounting of what I remembered, but it was such a non-event, my memory of it was already unclear. But what I told her and what I suspected about the pool sent Mama into a panic.

Two officers and some other searchers finally came and we led them through the gate at the side of the house. As best as I could, I was relating to the them my encounter with Ricky and my fears about the pool. Mama had moved ahead of me, anxiously leaning toward the fence that blocked our view of the neighbor’s pool. One of the searchers noticed the refrigerator that was parked next the sliding-glass door of our living room. He shone his powerful flashlight on the old appliance that my alcoholic father had bought six months earlier to keep beer cold in case he ever had a patio party. The man pulled back the long-handled lever and opened the door.

At the sound of the lever snapping open, I looked over, Mama looked over, the policemen looked over, and everything went over into slow motion: the searcher immediately closed the door; Mama’s legs gave way and she screamed as she rolled over and over in the grass; I stood stock-still, trying to figure out what it was that I had just seen; and the policemen went into action. One of them headed toward the vicinity of the refrigerator while the other scooped Mama up and ushered us both back through the side gate and into the house via the front door.

Ricky had been found and life as we knew it was over.

NEXT: Suspects

Will you pray with me?

O Life-Force of All that Is,
Darkness is as light to You, and night as bright as the day. But You are God and we are not. You share Your Life with us for a time, and you bring us to a world--a world of Your own making!--where silent tsunamis can knock us off our feet, toss us into the sea, and deposit us in a strange land. And we find ourselves on paths fraught with perils and traps that we cannot see. And we are lost.

Have mercy, O Brightness of Day, have mercy. Where darkness is suffocating and light seems to flicker, let Your Face shine. Where fear leads the way, give us self-confidence and courage. Help us to remember, O Life, that our plans are written in sand and that we live, and we die, in You. May we always remember that as Your creatures, we have our being and our non-being in You, and as Your children, we never walk alone.

In Your Holy Hope I pray. Amen

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Although I am twelve years her senior, my youngest sister, Mary, and I are at a very similar stages in our journeys. Through personal crises in both of our lives, we have been doing the difficult work of examining our inner lives, our relationships, our past, our present, and our expectations and hopes for the future. We each have been tracking down facts, making time-lines and charts, combing through our memories and impressions, and working hard to come through our personal catastrophes as more integrated and self-aware women.

Our investigations merged this June when we both realized that we needed to find out everything we could about Ricky, and if possible, put the ghosts and inner accusations of guilt and shame to rest. So, I flew out to Southern California to spend some time with Mary and another younger sister, Melody, and to investigate the wounds and scars of an event that in ways known and unknown, had effected every day of our lives since it had happened. And now the day of discovery had come.

Mary and I drove to San Diego from Los Angeles in the morning, found a $10-an-hour parking lot (and felt lucky at that!). We already had been in the bowels of one of the downtown courthouses for several hours, finding, focusing, framing and copying the 88 pages of microfilmed court records concerning the wrongful death suit that had been filed against our parents by the parents of a neighbor playmate of Mary's, six-year-old Ricky, who had died in our backyard on June 2, 1967.

We had also visited the San Diego Police Department just 11 blocks up Broadway from the courthouse, in order to see if there were any remaining files on the intensive police investigation of that horrific event 43 years previously. We had hoped that since it had been initially investigated as a homicide, they still might have their findings concerning the discovery of little Ricky's nude body in an old, unused refrigerator on our back patio.

But it was not to be. The very helpful and compassionate police officers at the information desk gave us the direct number to homicide records if we wanted to pursue the matter further with them, but since Ricky's death had been deemed an accident, they were quite certain that all records had been destroyed seven years after the tragedy.

So now my sister and I were on the second floor of another downtown building--this time the Public Library--where once again we were fighting with a behemoth microfilm machine that we hoped would help us finally, finally find out exactly what had happened that day the changed life as we knew it forever. We were searching now for clues to what had occurred, since our parents had not only never let us see news reports, through the years they had given us different accounts that incurred more questions than answers.

Al and Thelma (may they rest in peace), had been dysfunctional on their best days and in the best of times. In the worst of times they were mentally and emotionally unable to function in any way close to "healthy" (to put it mildly). And Ricky's death was certainly in the "worst of times" category.

Reporters had taken up residence in front of our house for the duration, curiosity seekers had stood outside our doors and pointed to us whenever we ventured outside, and poisonous letters had come through the mail and the mail-slot in the days following the gruesome discovery.

Our parents could not deal with the enormity of this tragedy in their own lives, let alone give any psychological, emotional, or spiritual guidance to their three youngest daughters who, with them, had been in free-fall during the discovery of Ricky's body, the days-long investigation by the police, and the unrelenting press coverage. Within two months we had moved to another San Diego neighborhood, and within two months, we no longer talked about it. At all. It was as submerged, stuffed down, and silenced as well as Al and Thelma could do it. Although they never personally expressed responsibility for the tragedy, as children in alcoholic families are prone to do, Mary and I had quietly born a heavy burden of guilt and shame through the decades.

But all of that was about to change as now we found the front page for June 3, 1967 and focused in on the headline, "Slaying Hinted in S.D. Boy's Icebox Death." I gasped and Mary started crying; we had not expected the school picture of a gap-toothed, smiling Ricky to greet us as if he had been waiting for us to find him. It was going to be really, really hard.

Next: Diving Deep and Resurfacing

Will you pray with me?

Give us Your vision, O God, that we may see Your Face in our darkness. Cause us to live as those grateful for the gift of life, no matter what circumstances and tragedies make us stumble and fall. Give us the resolve and courage to examine our lives, that we may discover Your hidden presence and offer to You our heartfelt gratitude and love.

Fill us with compassion and mercy for all who suffer, that we may reach out and touch their lives with love and hope. Shape our lives into a living prayer, to the end that the earth and all its people may find in life and in death, that we all belong to You, our Source and our Joy. May it be so.