By Charles McGuigan
On an endless summer night in Falls Church, Virginia some fifty years ago, a group of ten teenage boys made their way into King David Memorial Cemetery on West Street. Each one of them carried a single, neatly folded pillowcase fresh from a family linen closet. They had a plan, and the eternity of the early morning hours to carry it out. With voices hushed to whispers, they crept across the close-cropped grass of the cemetery moving toward their objective—a silver rectangle of water with a fountain sprouting from its center. Half of the boys flanked one side of the pond, standing steady on its bank, pillowcases unfurled and open. The other five stood on the opposite bank, and silently stepped into the water, then began walking forward in a straight, steady line. Thirty or forty ducks awakened and swam ahead of the moving flank of teens. The stationary column manning the other shore waited as the ducks paddled toward them. Then the boys scooped them up, and stuffed them in the pillowcases. Chris Brown and his friends flung the squirming, duck-heavy sacks over their shoulders, and skulked through the streets of the small, sleeping Northern Virginia town, a band of beardless Santas with more mischief than merry on their minds. They released ducks in motel swimming pools, or in lobbies. They checked front doors of homes in their own neighborhoods, and if unlocked, the boys released a duck or two in the foyer. They moved from house to house. Some ducks ended up in backyards. As day broke gray on the horizon, about twenty-four ducks had found new and temporary homes, and some of the lawns of Falls Church were strewn with duck feathers like an improbable summer snow.
If you’re lucky enough, life comes full circle.
Chris Carlton Brown and his friends were never caught or charged for the prank they pulled half a century ago. But not long after that escapade, Chris would be caught and charged with another crime, and his life would change forever.
Chris and his wife, Sue, live in what may be the last unmolested chunk of land along Broad Street in Henrico’s west end, not far from the Goochland County line. It is a heavily wooded tract on a series of rolling hills, an enclave of several homes accessed by a narrow gravel drive. A branch of Little Tuckahoe Creek carves a winding ravine through the property. The Brown’s home, which the couple built almost thirty years ago, is surrounded by woods and overlooks a pond that is luminescent green with algae and duckweed. A cool, spring rain filters through the canopy of trees, and mingles with the petals of cherry blossoms which are falling constantly in the front yard.
We sit at the kitchen table, where Chris does the majority of his writing. His laptop is shut, and he wears a blue-plaid flannel shirt. His face is lean with sharp-cut features, and he sports a thin beard, and heavy black-rimmed glasses.
‘What people say about me is none of my business,” says Chris Brown. “’Hoppergrass’ (the novel Chris penned more than a decade ago) is a lot about that. The protagonist at the beginning thinks he’s a piece of s**t at the very center of the universe. So the problem is not the piece of s**t part. The problem is the center of the universe part. He is tormented because everything is focused on his problems. That’s all he can think about. And then as soon as he has to help somebody else, then he doesn’t have time to be center of the universe anymore.”
Now that he is a teacher who holds a master’s in special education, Chris can look back on his own childhood with a diagnostic scrutiny. “I had some sort of a very pronounced learning limitation and a difficulty relating socially to other people,” he says. “In my case, it was ADHD, I think. My biggest memory is sitting outside in the school hall, but I swear, for the life of me, I can’t remember a single infraction that put me there. It was probably due to impulse control. I was so disruptive that they would just put me out there and forget about me.”
Chris remembers two incidents of skylarking that both occurred in seventh grade. The first was during a French class. “I was daydreaming and looking out the window and right into my own story,” he says. “And it was like coming out of the influence of morphine. And there was my French teacher with her face about an inch away from me. She’d been trying to get me to repeat a line in French, and I wasn’t even aware of her presence. So they transferred me into a special education class where all they did was remedial reading.”
The other incident occurred in that special ed class. “The same thing happened again,” says Chris. “As I was daydreaming, this woman, my teacher, who was really ferocious, screamed in my face.”
The following year, the family moved from Silver Spring, Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia. “By then, I was given the label juvenile delinquent,” Chris says. “That was my solid identity. That I’m not going to do well in school, try as hard as I can, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be hard for me to make friends, so I sought an outside group that I could belong to, because we were all outsiders.”
As both a special ed teacher and a wordsmith, Chris has come up with his share of aphorisms. “If a kid is bad at being good, he will want to be good at being bad,” says Chris. “That’s almost a universal paradigm.”
In Falls Church he attended George Mason High School, and though he never stole, or intentionally damaged property, or seriously injured anyone, he did get into his share of fights. “I got into fair fights, though” Chris says. “Sometimes at inappropriate times, but I wouldn’t hit anyone with a two-by-four when they weren’t watching.”
He developed two strong friendships in Falls Church, and both friends shared qualities that Chris admired. “They were highly intellectual, they read a lot, they had really interesting ideas,” he says. “And they were outsiders. And those were the people I think I most liked. They were smart and really enthusiastic about what they liked. But they also couldn’t fit into the mainstream.”
One of those two friends would play a role in what led to Chris’s incarceration. He had purchased a bag of off-white powder from this friend, and was told it was synthetic mescaline. Chris would cap the powder and sell it for two or three dollars a tab. His intent was not to make money, but to share the drug. Turns out it wasn’t mescaline at all, but DMT (dimethyltryptamine).
Chris, who was just fifteen at the time, met a young man named Charlie, six years his senior, at the lunch counter of a drug store on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church. Chris didn’t know this man very well, but they would periodically hang out, kill a Friday evening cruising for burgers. One night they were parked in front of The Pizza Box, where the crust was thin and the pies rectangular. They were planning to ride around Falls Church, pop a few pills, smoke some weed, and then go spelunking in caves along the palisades of the Potomac River. There were two things Chris didn’t know about the driver, but he would find out in short order. Before they could pull out of their parking space, two cars with their headlights off pulled into the lot and blocked their way. And then the headlights came on, and the beam of a flashlight came through the windshield, and Chris and his friend heard a man bark out: “Get out, and put your hands up.”
As Chris tells the story, he slowly shakes his head, and a wry smile creeps up his face. “The drugs in the car were not hard to find,” he says. “One thing I didn’t know is that Charlie had a 50-caliber tripod machine gun in the trunk of his car.” The other thing he didn’t know about Charlie would be splashed across of the front page of The Washington Post in the morning.
They were taken to the nearby Falls Church Police Station and processed separately. Chris, still a minor, would end up at Fairfax County Jail because there was no room for him at the local detention center. Charlie was probably released on his own recognizance, because, as it turns out, he was the son of D.C.’s chief of detectives, according to Chris.
Three days after Chris was arrested his father bailed him out.
“You got yourself in a heck of a mess, didn’t you son?” his father said.
“Well now we have to concentrate on how to get you out.”
His father was a good man, but did not understand the legal justice system. He hired a real estate attorney, the only lawyer he knew, to defend his son.
The case went badly. Chris would ultimately be charged with possession and sale of a stimulant or depressant, and possession of marijuana. The judge was a mean-spirited man, rotten to the core, who decided to throw the book at Chris. “The judge gave a little bit of a talk about what a juvenile delinquent I was,” Chris says. “By the time I got to trial, there was no trial.” In the meantime, Charlie’s case had already gone to trial, and he had walked on all charges, Chris tells me.
But there is karmic justice in the universe. “Later, I found out the judge was thrown off the bench for criminal corruption,” says Chris. “Falls Church was a good old boy network at that time.”
The judge turned Chris over to state custody until his eighteenth birthday. Chris finished out the year at a private school in D.C., and then on an early June morning, alone, carrying a small duffle bag, he turned himself over to authorities at the police station. “I didn’t feel any great sense of injustice,” Chris tells me. “So going there alone seemed perfectly natural to me.”
A man drove him to a place called the Diagnostic Center in Goochland County. “That’s where they determine what facility best suits your needs,” says Chris. “They give you a bunch of tests. And with a lot of help from me, a similarity between me and Bowser (the protagonist of his novel), I figured the quickest way I was going to get out of there is if they thought I was stark-raving mad. I told the psychologist that I have sixteen souls and half of them are an Army for Jesus Christ, and the other half are an Army for Satan.”
They couldn’t quite figure out where to send him, but while at the Diagnostic Center, Chris spent his days reading. He read all the Herman Hesse novels, Dante’s “Inferno”, a book by Joan Baez called “Daybreak”.
Ultimately, he was sent to the worst facility in the state—Beaumont up in Northern Virginia. His first day there he received a buzz-cut, and pants and a shirt the color of a brown paper bag. Chris was lucky, though. Instead of being sent to one of the numerous shops to learn a trade, he was assigned to the library, where he read even more. “I got to pick out the books for the library and order any books I wanted,” he says. “And the librarian didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother her. I basically just sat there and read.” All the while he was collecting details and incidents that would help him years later create “Hoppergrass”, grist for the mill, as they say.
He spent a total of four months at Beaumont, and then something kind of wondrous happened. “There were several adults there that really thought I was an okay kid, and that I wasn’t really a delinquent, and didn’t really try to hurt people, and that I read and made good use of my time, and was generally kind to the other people around me. So they were willing to go out of their way to help me out. One was my probation officer, and the other was a counsellor at Beaumont.”
Unbeknownst to Chris, they had struck a deal with the judge who had sentenced him. One evening on his way to the showers, Chris’s counsellor walked up to him and said, “Get your street clothes on.” And beyond the walls and razor wire, his father was waiting for him.
Chris finished his high school education at the private school in D.C. and then his father moved the family to Richmond. Chris worked labor and began taking English and Chinese classes as a special student at VCU. He excelled academically, and was invited to become a full-time student. “Right away I was recognized by my professors for my writing, so I started getting a lot of encouragement,” says Chris. “Gary Sange was the first one who started me off writing poetry.”
Somewhere in there, a woman driving under the influence broadsided Chris who was on a motorcycle at the time. His leg was bent up like a pretzel, and the femoral artery was severed. A chunk of his femur lay on the sidewalk. Had it not been for a passerby who happened to be a medical student, Chris would have bled to death at the corner of Grace and Meadow streets in the heart of the Fan. The medical student pressed the spurting artery to stop the bleeding until the ambulance arrived and carried Chris to Johnston-Willis Hospital, then located on Sheppard, just off the Boulevard. Ordinarily, the leg would have just been amputated, the injury was so severe, but the orthopedic surgeon on call at that time was fighter. He worked on the leg all day and all through night. He later told Chris, “It was the worst day of my life.”
To further his education in Chinese, which had become a passion for Chris, he applied to Georgetown University and was accepted with a full scholarship. He graduated from Georgetown two years later, and was selected to become a member of Phi Betta Kappa. “That’s the only thing I ever won,” says Chris.
He then moved to Taizhong, China where he studied Mandarin at Fudan University. “I lived in dorm room with five Chinese guys and none of them spoke English, so I learned the language quickly,” Chris says.
Upon returning stateside, Chris landed a job as a senior staff writer for Washington Business Review in D.C., and then took a job in Richmond with The News Leader as business editor. He also met Sue D’Angelo, his wife now of 34 years.
Shortly after the pair were married, Chris took a job with National Council for United States-China Trade, and became their director of China operations. The couple spent years living in China, absorbing its culture.
By the early 1990s they returned to Virginia, and Chris went to work for AMF in Mechanicsville. Toward the end of that decade and into the first few years of the new millennium, life dealt the Browns a one-two-three punch.
“My wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer and it was very advanced,” Chris says. “She had a very slim chance of survival.” But Sue pulled through, beating all odds.
A few years later, however, the cancer returned. “The first time I was able to tough it out, but the second time it was just devastating,” Chris recalls. “It was as if the entire universe had betrayed me. The cancer had cleared up and we had gotten through this trial. We held on by our fingernails, and then the other boot drops. That just sent me into a deep, deep depression. And that second time there was even less a chance for her survival.”
Sue, though, pulled through again, and has been cancer-free ever since.
During that same period Chris would also develop cancer, a very rare form of the disease. His tonsils were infected with naso-pharyngeal cancer. “This cancer is exquisitely sensitive to radiation,” says Chris. “The radiation literally disintegrated my tonsils.” But there were side effects to the treatment. “I now have dysphasia which means I can’t swallow,” Chris explains. “And there’s silent aspiration meaning stuff that goes into my mouth, goes into my lungs, and causes infections like pneumonia. There are also some complicated mechanics affecting my vocal chords that are supposed to close up, but they stay open. There’s no sensation down there, which is why I have this speech impediment.”
Amid all those trials, Chris had returned to school. This time he earned a master’s in special education from VCU. He also began work on his novel. He remembers the moment he decided to write the book. He was on a jet returning from China, and a series of words lodged themselves in his brain, words that would become the two opening line of “Hoppergrass”.
“It’s always a clean white car—this time a Ford. It’s always a young man who drives it, a student of social work or corrections,” Chris says. “On that stone I was going to build the book.”
Eight years after he wrote those first two lines, “Hoppergrass” was published. It is a book that vibrates with the acts of self-discovery only adolescents can ever really know, and it speaks to the relationships that develop between outsiders who seem unlikely to ever become friends. More than anything else though, the novel traces the emergence of a moral conscience. When Bowser reaches this moment in his young life, his heart, soul and mind finally merge, and all is clear and coherent. His rational mind works with Sherlockian expertise to solve a crime that will punish the real offenders and set his friend free.
Chris has also spent a lot of time in the classroom working with adolescents on the cusp of adulthood. He did his residency at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, and had his first teaching position at Short Pump Middle School. He also taught at Oakland School in Fluvanna, and Lucille Brown Middle School in Richmond.
But his favorite post by far was at Dominion Academy on Richmond’s North Side, a position he had to resign from earlier this year because of health problems.
“I had been there for four years,” says Chris. “I was so gratified when they said, ‘Anytime you want to come back the door is always opened.’ And if I were to get better I would do that, but I think this is irreversible.”
He mentions the principal at Dominion Academy, Joshua Lutz. “Beyond being a nice guy, he just knows what he’s doing, and he focuses on what the school should focus on, which is, ‘Are these kids learning?’” Chris says. “And Josh has a very strong philosophy about therapeutics, which I find absolutely sound.”
When I ask if he misses teaching at Dominion, he nods vigorously. “Every day,” he says. “One of the big surprises is that you would expect that there would be slow incremental changes. I was finding that the changes were like lightning from the sky. Some kid would be affected by getting good grades on his writing. So some days I would come in and say, ‘I just can’t believe that a person can turn around like that.’ But the kids do, if they’re encouraged, not discouraged.”
Chris is putting the finishing touches on his next novel—“And the Bones Begin to Rise.”
”The weirdness of my past never ceases to amaze me,” says Chris Brown. “I know I’ve had a very strange life. I’m pretty amazed by it all and I never lost the sense of how the hell I got from Point A to Point B.”
If you’d like to contact Chris visit www.chriscarltonbrown.com his novel “Hoppergrass” is available at amazon.com