Ron Kokish

Opinion by Ron Kokish

My son and 10-year-old grandson were skiing expert terrain on an unfamiliar mountain. When they arrived at a particularly risky slope dad said, “Wait here until I get to the bottom, then follow my line down.” Dad descended and turned to wave his son forward only to see the boy already well down a completely different line. Surprised and annoyed, dad said, “What were you thinking? I told you to wait and follow my line.” Then came the reply, “Dad, that was your line. I skied my line.” Dad caught on quickly and nodded, appreciating what his son had just taught him.

In 1971, I was supervising a county child-welfare unit in California. Among other things, a handful of social workers and I were legally responsible for managing the lives of a few hundred children under the juvenile court’s authority. Fourteen-year-old Carol never knew her father and knew her troubled mother far too well. A pleasant, sensitive young woman who got on well with adults until they told her what to do, Carol was happy to stay in any foster home where rule following was optional. After months of burning through a string of frustrated, well-meaning adults, we miraculously found foster parents who could relate to Carol in ways she could live with. She stayed put, didn’t behave too outrageously, and even started attending school almost regularly. A year went by, and she even started relearning trust. And then…

Late one evening, Carol’s foster mother, “Mama Jane,” called to tell me Carol had absconded. She had fallen in love with Jane’s 55-year-old brother, Billy, a rancher who was equally in love with Carol. She was at his ranch and refusing to leave. Their relationship was weeks old. Mama Jane hadn’t told me, hoping her brother and maybe even Carol would come to their senses but with Carol refusing to leave the ranch and Billy not exactly insisting, Jane knew her jig was up. 

I checked a jeep out of the county garage and headed for the remote little ranch to talk with the young and not-so-young lovers. Billy confessed. He loved Carol. She wanted to stay. He was the luckiest man on earth. What could he do? I talked to Carol alone. Yes, she was in love with Billy. She was happy and wasn’t going anywhere. We all talked together. I told them I understood (I really did) but as a representative of the government, I couldn’t just leave her there. Billy could go to prison. I could go to prison. She would go to Juvenile Hall. Mama Jane would at best, lose her license. 

The star-crossed lovers understood too. Carol agreed to return if I didn’t make her promise to stop seeing Billy. I took this as a good sign in terms of Carol’s development. She cared enough about Billy and her foster mother to not want them in serious trouble. She cared enough about me to not make a false promise. On the other hand, I knew serious laws had been broken. Carol was clearly not sleeping on the couch and unless I reported Billy (AKA ratted them out), I would be an accessory to whatever Billy might be charged with. But the situation wasn’t all bad. Aside from this almost naïve peccadillo, Billy was a decent guy. He was a hard worker with no criminal record, he didn’t abuse substances, he wouldn’t let Carol do that either (substantial improvement for her) and he insisted that she finish high school. Billy and I had our differences, but we also shared some goals. I took Carol’s deal. 

I retrieved Carol twice more during the next few weeks. Unprepared to continue for three years and unwilling to let the situation end in tragedy, I asked our very understanding judge if we could talk about Carol off the record. He said yes, assigning judicial procedure to the dust bin and joining me as a felonious accessory. Thankfully, he had an idea. In neighboring Oregon, the marital age of consent was fourteen with parental permission. I called Carol’s mother. She filled out the necessary forms (without even talking to Carol), the judge signed an order allowing Mama Jane to transport her foster-daughter out-of-state…and wedding bells rang.

Carol stayed out of trouble and married to Billy long enough to finish High School, after which they divorced amicably and went their own ways. Mama Jane fostered many more teenagers. I had a long, satisfying and, at times, legally risky career. Our unorthodox judge eventually gained 10 minutes of fame when he issued a ruling making marijuana legal in California. An appeals court overruled him within hours, but he easily survived the recall election. 

My son and grandson each skied their own lines. Carol skied hers. So did Mama Jane, Billy, the judge and I. People who could have interfered, wisely didn’t. None of us broke anything on our risky runs and we all looked back up our triple-diamond slopes with increased confidence. I leave it to you dear reader, to ascertain the moral of these entirely true stories. 

Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI).