When I Was A Prodigal Son

At 17, I found myself sitting in a jail cell wondering how things could have gone so wrong in my life. I didn't know it then, but looking back, I felt a lot like
the Prodigal Son in the Bible.

By Don Hall as told to Nanette Thorsen-Snipes

It was two days after Thanksgiving. Clouds were slung low across the sky and pregnant with rain that cold day in 1983. My mom, my step dad, Jim, and my younger brother and sister had gone to the grocery store. Before they got home, the phone rang and I answered it.

After asking for my mother, the person on the phone said, "Tell her that Benny hanged himself." It felt as though someone stuck me in the gut with a knife. Benny was my father.

"Is he dead?" I asked, holding my breath, hoping it wasn’t true. I couldn’t cry. But the pain left an empty hole in me because I didn’t know him. When the answer came back "Yes," I sat down to absorb what had happened.

A flood of memories came back. It seemed like a rerun of one of those unbelievable, yet true, stories. My own mother had faced my father’s rage one weekend—at the business end of a gun. She finally talked him into putting the weapon down. After he went to work, she packed our bags and moved us out. My brother was 7 and I was only 4, but I vividly remember being in that motel room where we hid for a week. I had on my cowboy outfit that day, and Mom was crying.

The only thing I could do to make things better was to pull out my little gun and say, "Don’t cry, Mama. Me shoot Daddy."

Maybe that’s one reason why I stayed angry all those years. I was angry at my father for trying to hurt Mom. Later, I was angry because he died before I could get to know him.

Nothing ever went right for me after my dad died. I couldn’t concentrate or learn. I finally quit school in the 10th grade. I went to work as a roofer, carpet cleaner, or anything to earn money.

My anger grew. There were days I made life miserable for Mom and Jim by drinking. But the alcohol brought on more anger, which caused me to lose my temper a lot. I would put my fist through the living room wall or kick in the bathroom door. I was arrested several times for driving under the influence.

One day, I became angry because the bike I’d bought with my hard-earned money wouldn’t work right. I picked the 10-speed cycle up over my head and began screaming obscenities. I slammed it repeatedly into the ground until it lay in a crumbled heap.

Mom and Jim became alarmed at my uncontrollable rage and took me to see a counselor, but I didn’t want to talk with him. I just sat there and waited for him to quit speaking. After the third session, he gave up and told Mom he couldn’t help me if I wouldn’t communicate, which suited me just fine.

My drinking worsened and I had bouts with depression, staying in bed for days. I also started hanging out with bad company, and earned myself some dangerous enemies. One day a bullet hit my car as I drove down the highway. I think it was some kids from a rival school. When someone kicked down the basement door where my bedroom was, I too became alarmed. I guess that’s why I took the gun from my parents’ closet that day. I never kept it loaded but its presence made me feel safe.

The next evening I drove to the hotel where my brother worked. After parking my car, I went straight toward the bar.

Inside, a strong, burly man said, "Son, I need to see your ID." Because I didn’t have one, I tried to muscle my way past the guy. He became angry and shoved me. I shoved back. The next thing I knew he smacked me in the jaw and I hit the floor. I jumped up waving the gun in his face. Someone had already called the police and in a split second I heard, "Freeze!" I turned to my left where three policemen stood in a firing stance, their guns drawn and aimed directly at me. To my right, I looked down the barrel of another officer’s pistol. The scene was chaotic. The police were shouting, "Drop your weapon! Get your hands up on the wall!" I stood frozen in time. Then an inner voice gently prompted me to go to the wall. I did and was handcuffed and taken to jail.

So for the fourth or fifth time, I sat in the county jail with the stench of bodily fluids and sweaty men surrounding me. I didn’t worry. Whenever I was caught driving under the influence of alcohol, my parents always posted bail for me. I was shocked when I called for them to get me out and Mom said no.

I didn’t realize at the time that they had been on their knees in prayer for me. Finally, they let go and entrusted me to God. Meanwhile, all I could see was the bars on that jail cell and no way out. I knew I was in trouble, and I said a simple prayer, "God, please help me. All I want is a decent life."

A few days later, a friend and his father posted bail for me. Angrily, I went home and packed my things, never once speaking to my parents. Then I moved in with my friend. One night another friend from church dropped by and through our conversation, I ended up asking Christ into my heart.

Within a year, I met a beautiful young woman named Jennifer at the package store where I worked. We later married and now have two great children. In fact, I have spent many evenings witnessing to men in state prisons in Alabama—where I easily could have ended up.

I still regret all the pain I’ve caused my parents. One recent Christmas, Jim and I went to the grocery store for my mother. While in the cab of the truck with music softly playing in the background, I said, "Jim, can you ever forgive me for all the pain I put you through?"

The man I knew as my dad looked at me and smiled. "I’ve already forgiven you, Donnie," he said. Then he put his arm around me. I couldn’t help thinking of the story of the Prodigal Son in the bible and how our heavenly Father always welcomes us home, too.