Diggin up the truth
An Investigative Reporter Turns His Skills on His Own Life, Searching for Answers About a Man Who Tormented Him for Years.
By Don Ray (Copyright, 2000, Don Ray)
When I stepped off the plane I actually did kiss the ground. Then I headed home to surprise my folks. I had fibbed to them about the actual day I would return from Vietnam. First stop, Genio’s Restaurant in Burbank. My Mom was the harried, lunch-time hostess returning from the back dining room – and I was just some impatient G.I. who wouldn’t "Wait To Be Seated." She shook her head in frustration—she didn’t really focus on my face until she got within about 15 feet of me. I think my marginal attempt at a mustache threw her off for an instant, but then she looked me in the eye. She gasped, she screamed and started running. She flung the menus she was carrying into the air and catapulted herself into my arms. It took the customers a beat or two to piece together what was happening—then they all stood up and applauded.
As memorable as that was, it would be my encounter with my stepfather that would remain in my mind as vividly as Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. What I would learn that day would trouble me for the next 30 years.
"Surprise! I’m home!" He looked up at me from his recliner with those penetrating, grayish-blue eyes–eyes that had sent chills through me so many times in the decade he had been in our lives. He gave me that silent stare. I’m sure I sort of expected something akin to "welcome home," but instead he greeted me with one of those questions that was really his way of picking a fight.
"When are you going to cut off that goddamn mustache?" Now I was the one who was surprised–add to that incredulous and downright hurt. I tried not to react but he kept on poking at me with more cutting insults. It was when I asked him if I could use the car that he pushed me over the top. "Do you think you’re grown up enough to borrow the car?" For the first time in my life I faced him off. You see, from the time he had married my mom when I was 10, he reigned as the undisputed power. I addressed him as "Sir"–or else. And he was always bigger (sic) enough that I wouldn’t dare challenge him. Those eyes alone could make me buckle in fear. But not this time.
"I don’t need this crap," I told him, in words a bit more graphic. "I’ve just spent a year dodging mortars and rockets and snipers’ bullets and putting up with jungle rot, monster mosquitoes, cold showers and outdoor latrines. I’ve already been through hell and I’m not going to put up with it here." Zowie! For about three seconds I was the king. Then he not only dethroned me, he chopped my head off–at least his words did.
"You don’t know what hell is," he said. Those eyes now seemed to cut right through me. "You don’t know what it’s like to follow some older idiots and end up in prison for fifteen years. Don’t tell me about hell!"
Any details he provided were lost to the shocked daze I was now in. I seem to recall him saying something about teenagers knocking over a gas station, but I’m not sure. I am sure that I spent the next 30 years imagining what he must have gone through and how it might have accounted for the way he had treated me. It certainly could account for his two crooked fingers–maybe broken in prison and not properly set.. It explained why he would never vote and why guns were taboo in our house And maybe I could even understand why he would become almost enraged if I blindly followed any group. And then there was his homophobia. It all seemed to make sense. In retrospect, I’ve always believed that I’d have been better off if he had told the truth from the start. Maybe I wouldn’t have joined the Army and gone to Vietnam—just to get away from him.
We never talked about it again. He died five years later. Strangely, it’s been in the 25 years since then I’ve felt the need to talk with him – to tap into his life experiences and his street wisdom. To tell him how angry he made me. A couple of times I’ve awakened in a sweat after being face-to-face with him in a troubling dream. I couldn’t seem to escape those eyes.
It wasn’t fair the way he treated me. And I’m sure it was my reaction to the that unfairness that eventually lead me to investigative journalism—a profession that empowers me to root out unfairness and injustice. How does it go, "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?"
When I wasn’t tracking down dirt on politicians and other shady characters, I would spend my free time using my skills to help people—anyone—to find their long-lost parents, friends and lovers. I think I was vicariously following an unconscious desire to find a father figure for myself. Over the years I’ve reunited enough people to fill a large bingo parlor.
But it was not until this year that I decided to steer my investigative skills in the direction of my own life. My mother recently passed away, so there was no real risk of hurting anyone by probing into my stepfather’s past. A trusted psychologist cautioned me it could be overwhelming, but I knew I had to do it.
All I had known was his name, Edward C. Ripley, and his date of birth in 1910. I was pretty sure he was from Illinois. My mother was his second wife—or so I thought. Seems like I once saw a picture of a son from his first marriage, but my stepfather never spoke about him. It took a while, but I tracked down his prison file at the Illinois State Archives and had the archivist send me a copy of it: Edward C. Ripley, Inmate B-442.
It was a bit overwhelming. The first thing I saw was the mug shots of a 20-year-old kid in a coat and tie and little round spectacles. When I looked at his profile and I knew it was my stepfather. Then I looked at the full face and chills swept over my body. Those eyes were looking through me again. I had to catch my breath. Really. Then a strange realization hit me—we had done a reversal in ages. I was now the 50-year-old looking at the 20-year-old.
And as I explored the file, I felt the urge to reach out to him—that I was the father figure he had needed.
With each page I turned I learned more shocking things about the man who had reared me. It wasn’t a handful of teenagers at a gas station—it was three grown men and 19-year-old Edward C. Ripley pulling off what, today, we’d call a home invasion robbery, of a farmhouse in Evansville, IL. And it was my stepfather who tied up the couple, the grandparents and even the grandchildren and held a loaded revolver on them while the other men ransacked the house. They fled with $40,000 in negotiable bonds—a fortune in 1930 dollars.
And that wasn’t all. Before this heist, he had embezzled $10,000 from a bank in St. Louis and was a suspect in at least one bank robbery. This was the guy who’d occasionally use his belt to paint red stripes on my bare backside—the guy who one time even punched me in the face and decked me when I came home late for dinner. Good thing I never seriously challenged him, I thought.
But there were also lots of details that somewhat mitigated his violence—the file chronicled his early life. He quit high school at age 15 and went to work at a bank so he could support his alcoholic, abusive father, his dying mother and two younger brothers. When the bank collapsed in 1929, he went to work at another bank—just long enough to steal the $10,000. It was while he was on the lam that he got involved with the robbers.
The file showed he served 11 years of hard time. They let him out on parole in September of 1941. At the time of his final release in 1945, the file had a most interesting entry: "He was divorced in 1944 and then married Pauline, his present wife. He has one son, David, age three years." Another marriage? Another son? I had to find him.
When I eventually made the call to Bismarck, ND, a man answered. "I’m looking for the David Peter Ripley who was born in Illinois to an Edward C. Ripley," I said. There was silence. He nervously cleared his throat. I could feel the electricity over the phone.
"Uh, yes, that’s me," he said almost in the form of a question. I told him that I was pretty sure his father had brought me up and that he had passed away 25 years ago. David’s voice quivered slightly as he said, "I’ve been looking for him for 50 years."
He had known about the prison time—his mother had told him the gas station story. And he knew his father had left them for another woman. He thought maybe he had a half brother. We talked for hours over the next couple of days and decided we had to find that boy from the second marriage. My sister agreed that his name was probably Dick and that maybe he had gone off to college at Texas A&M. The university confirmed that Richard Ray Ripley graduated back in the 1960s, and he last reported he was living in Port Lavaca, Texas. He, too, was listed.
He was equally shocked to hear from me. He had known about the previous marriage and the possible half brother, but he knew nothing about the prison time. I quickly put him in touch with David and they soon announced they were flying to Los Angeles to meet each other, my sister and me for the first time. It happened early this month.
When I looked at Richard, it was if I was looking at my stepfather. The same mouth, the same chin, the same nose, the same posture. But David had the eyes. He was smiling when we met, but those eyes could see right through me. At least that’s what I thought. My sister and I felt compelled to study their every feature.
I had to conduct some training classes in Sacramento for state investigators—on how to find people—so the two brothers made the long drive with me. We had lots of time to get to know each other, share stories and coincidences. They sat in the back of the class as I told the story—ironically, to a room full of prison correction officers—of the most dramatic search of my life. The surprise was when I introduced them as my brothers. The entire class broke into applause. Many had tears in their eyes. I know I did.
It took three days for me to not flinch each time David looked at me with his father’s eyes and to not get nervous when Richard would quietly take everything in the way my stepfather would. I was so nervous they felt compelled to remind me that they were not my stepfather. We dropped David off at a relative’s house in San Francisco. He gave me the hug neither of us ever remember getting from Edward C. Ripley. We vowed to be brothers forever. All of a sudden those penetrating eyes took on a new meaning—they were now so loving and accepting. I wanted to study them more, but my own eyes were filling with tears.
Then Richard and I drove back to Burbank. Like his father, he didn’t say much, but took everything in. When he spoke, it was words of wisdom—words of advice—words of encouragement. The next morning I took him to the airport. He waited till the very last minute to board. We hugged and patted and both avoided eye contact as he turned and walked away. I stood on the roof of the parking garage and watched his plane disappear into the haze. When I got home I looked again at the mug shots of Edward C. Ripley. I can now see only the warm eyes and friendly faces of my two stepbrothers.
I’ve stopped looking for someone to be my father. And I tell people today not to mess with me "or my two older brothers will come here and kick your butt."
Don Ray is a multi-media journalist and the author of The California Investigator’s Handbook, Checking Out Lawyers and Diggin’ Up Gold on the Old Paper Trail; A Workbook for Investigatin’ Folks. He’s a contributor to The Times.
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