Joe graduated from Austin’s Travis High School with the class of 1970 as the Vietnam War festered on the other side of the world. As luck would have it, he ended up with a high number in the draft lottery, and besides, that next fall he began studies in business administration at the University of Texas. He wouldn’t go to Southeast Asia to fight in the divisive and, ultimately, unwinnable war.
He married while at UT, but soon divorced. After dropping out of school, he landed a job at Bealls on South Congress Avenue. A few years later, he was recognized as the top salesman in the men’s clothing department. But an event on November 4, 1979 in the western part of Asia – Tehran, Iran – compelled him to enlist in the US Army.
“It was very simple for me. The Iranians captured our consulate in Tehran, and I thought we were going to war. The next day I showed up at Camp Mabry and said, ‘Sign me up.'” He was 28 years old.
Sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for training, Joe eventually learned he wouldn’t be going to Iran, but to Wiesbaden, West Germany. His battalion’s duty was to maintain and service a Lance missile system – a short-range nuclear weapon – aimed squarely east toward the Soviet empire. Joe loved his work. He and his battalion trained hard, running up to five miles a day in rain, shine, or snow. Even though he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, he was in great shape. Joe says all of his army mates smoked – “Everyone was stressed out” – in the high adrenaline atmosphere of the base. The commissary-supplied French and German cigarettes, Joe also says, were better than Marlboros and Winstons.
During night exercises in the winter of 1988, Joe had to dismount from a tank to the ground. A snowdrift, unbeknown to him, concealed a wall at his intended landing area. His left knee hit first and fragmented upon the sturdy brick wall. It was the end of his military career. His honorable discharge included a small compensation component and lifetime health insurance coverage. Prior to his mishap, the US Army had recognized Joe seven times with medals of service and accomplishment.
Even so, Joe’s life as a civilian spiraled downward, and quickly. He drank too much. He was arrested, more than once. He landed in jail and was sent to prison – his record and person stained by the word “felon.” Two decades of darkness – alcoholism; a diagnosis of emphysema; and the loss of the only two family member who meant anything to him, his grandmother and mother – took their toll.
Joe’s father-to-be, a Pennsylvanian, came to Camp Swift, just outside of Bastrop, in the late 1940s. He met Joe’s mother-to-be, Thelma. They fell in love and married, and moved to Pennsylvania. Joe was born in 1950, but soon enough, the young couple’s honeymoon was over. Joe’s dad drank and physically abused Thelma. She left him for good when Joe was four – they moved back to Texas. Joe hardly ever saw his dad again, as he was raised in Austin by his mom and maternal grandmother.
When Joe was at Fulmore Middle School and Travis High School, he played clarinet and oboe in the band and served – each of those six years – on the student council. An Eagle Scout, he had the confidence and support of his teachers, which helped compensate for the absence of his father. He had high hopes.
During Joe’s two decades of darkness, he had trouble landing good work because of his felony conviction. The only jobs available to him – even though he was a US Army veteran – provided no stability: day labor, pizza delivery, construction clean up, and the like. For years, he lived in a run-down apartment complex in Southeast Austin.
About five years ago, he looked out the window of his apartment toward the parking lot of a nearby church. He saw a large truck trailer emblazoned with the words “Food and Hope to Central Texans” surrounded by images of oversized red strawberries, yellow peppers, and green pea pods. He saw people gathered around the truck. Leaving his apartment, he ventured over to the parking lot and heard the good news: Bread For All Food Pantry and the Central Texas Food Bank invited him to get in line and receive groceries and produce at no cost. He was invited to come by the Monday evening distribution of Bread For All, also at the same church.
“It was wonderful. I was, and still am, on such a tight budget. To this day, I don’t know what I’d do without Bread For All. It’s a means to help me make ends meet.”
Going through alcohol rehab and attending A.A. meetings helped Joe emerge from his dark decades. He also has learned to rely on the faith that his grandmother and mom passed onto him. He worships at St. Ignatius Catholic Church on Oltorf and S. Congress Avenue.
“For me, drinking was a spiritual malady. I had a hole where my faith should have been. As a result, I was powerless over alcohol.” He says now that his faith has given him the power he lacked and needed. He’s been reading Pastor Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. Joe says that he knows that God has put him here on earth for a reason.
His emphysema slows him down considerably, and he lost vision in his right eye toward the end of the past year – a VA doctor told him that his optic nerve had detached from his retina. Even so, he’s committed to doing his part at Bread For All. When he feels good, he plans to come early on Mondays and help set up tables at BFA.
“I’m happier now. I’m more calm. I’m more in control. I’m living smack dab in the middle of a miracle.”