That was my name from the time I was five years old. In the beginning, I really thought I had a happy childhood. I lived with my mom and dad and two brothers. Then on my fifth birthday, everything changed. I was told we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for my birthday party. But Dad didn’t come with us. We never went back home. For the next twelve years their house was our new normal, but never home. There are several memories that stick out in my mind that together defined our childhood quest for survival.
My earliest poignant memory took place when I was six and in first grade. I had a friend over after school. My dad stopped in. When my dad was around, everyone else faded away.. I idolized that man. He just stopped by to drop off a package of things to my mom. I had no idea what was in that box. That year he had been dropping things off on a regular basis. I later learned he was having my mom hold the things he was stealing. Then he was gone and I went back to playing on the boat that was always sitting in our side yard. Suddenly five police cars pulled up in front of the house. I was thrilled, until I heard my Dad’s voice coming from the back seat of the middle car. I knew that only bad guys were supposed to be in the back seat of a police car, but this was my dad. ‘Danny, get your mother.’ But by the time I got to the back door, the police were there and wouldn’t let me in. Mom came to the door, started to cry and let the cops in. ‘DANNY, GET YOUR MOTHER!’ I ran to the window where my dad sat. The window was half down and his hands were behind his back. I told him that mom was inside crying and the police won’t let me in. But Dad wouldn’t have it. He told me to find a way, and to bring back my mother. But as hard as a six year old could try, I still couldn’t get in. ‘Danny, get your mother!’ The police took out bags and boxes and left with my dad in the back seat, smiling at me. I don’t remember how my friend got home, but that was the last friend I had over. He went to school and told everyone. No parent wanted their child playing with me after that. After Dad went to jail, Mom seemed to give up and everything went downhill. So the house closed. No one outside of family was allowed in. Things got too out of hand.
Grandpa was a drinker and a mean drunk. He spent his days sitting on a stool in the kitchen — drinking. I remember one day I was reading the funny papers, and I tore it as I opened it too fast. He was furious and banned me from the living room. Another time, he got on my mother to be a better mother and take care of me. That was grandpas way of saying he wanted her to beat the ‘Worthless Bastard’ out of me. So he berated her into having me take off my shirt and lie on the bed so she could beat me with the belt as he supervised. I still have scars on my back from that beating.
We always entered the house through the kitchen. After I got past Grandpa on the stool, I continued walking the gauntlet by passing Grandma who would be sitting or sleeping on the couch. That is where she always was. She was often naked or in a slip. This is one of the many reasons we never let anyone in the house. She was the house instigator. She knew how to get anyone mad and did not seem to be happy unless there was drama in the house. I do not know if she had a problem or was just being mean, but as soon as grandpa kicked her permanently out of the bedroom she started peeing on the couch and on Grandpa’s chair. She also had a habit of sticking chewed Nicorette gum to his chair. The couch finally rotted beneath her so they got another one and it started all over. The house had a constant smell of mold, mildew, sheet rock dust and urine. In my high school years I usually avoided the drama by using my bedroom window as my private entrance.
My Mom was a sweet woman, but she was lost. With dad gone, she gave up and spent her time with drugs and alcohol. She typically went through three or four pints of $1.99 Vodka each day. It only took fifteen years to kill her. One day while I was still in grade school, the bus pulled up in front of my house. The kids rushed to one side of the bus and started pointing and laughing. My mom was passed out in the bushes, butt up. I walked over to help her, but I heard my grandfather yell emphatically from the door; “Leave her alone!” The school changed the bus stop after that day. I was dropped off a few blocks away but I still went home to the same crazed house.
Mom seemed to be on every government program known to man. When it came to working the system, she had a great work ethic. But she also had ways to use these funds to support her addictions. There were food stamps, but we were always hungry and dirty. The local store on the corner would give her fifty to seventy cents on the dollar for food stamp. When I got a bit older, I would go down and cash them in. The people in the store knew me. I would walk in with the books of food stamps and slide them over the counter. They would count them and hand me cash without a word being said. Shoes were the rarest thing in my house. I remember shopping for shoes in the nurse’s office at school.
My older brother found a way to minimize his time at home by keeping himself busy in sports. When he came home at night, the drama had usually calmed down and everyone was close to being passed out. I took note of his strategy, but instead of sports, I cut classes at school. No one seemed to notice so I walked into my guidance counselor’s office and told him what I had done. He looked at me like I was crazy. He said; “How would a week of after school detention be?” I told him I thought that was fair. And on it went; skipping classes was my key to detention. Finally my guidance counselor had talked to enough people to figure out my home situation and gave me permanent detention so I would stop skipping classes.
I went to Wednesday night youth group at Island Church for the same reason. They had basketball, pizza and girls. But the biggest reason I looked forward to Wednesday night was that I was out of that house. I did hear truth at those meetings. But I was not ready for truth; I didn’t even know what truth meant. I was called Danny there, not Worthless Bastard so I was willing to listen, but I was not ready. The key to my ears was my name; Danny. I was also intrigued by the way I was treated. I had the feeling that they assigned one adult to me just to watch to make sure I did not get into any trouble. I remember going to the store to pick some snacks with one of the leaders when we were all at a camp for the weekend. It was warmer out; so, I did not have my puffy coat. I walked out of the store looking like I had six large belly buttons. She asked me what I had under my shirt. “Nothing!” I insisted. She did not believe me and when we got back to the camp, she went and told the pastor. But while she was gone, I ran to the woods and threw it as far as I could. The pastor had a talk with me. I stuck to my story and I knew they knew the truth, but they did not berate me. They calmly talked to me, sharing why stealing was wrong. I did not really get the concept of right and wrong any more than truth, just that after I did something “wrong” I did not turn into the Worthless Bastard in her eyes. I was still Danny. It made an impact.
When I was eleven, my dad came home. He did not live with us, but he came around from time to time. When he did, I was there. I made sure I was there. He had his jail body and was powerfully built. I was proud of him and respected him. He taught me how to lift weights and take care of myself. I remember a day he took me and his girlfriend into the city. It was a trip with my dad and I was excited. I did not know why we were going to the city, but I did not care either. I just wanted to be with him. We went to the diamond district. My dad pulled out a bag of jewels. We went from jewelry store to jewelry story selling the items. Here I was twelve years old learning how to fence jewels. One respectable looking jeweler offered my dad a certain amount of money for a bracelet, and said he would throw in the girl who was sitting with him behind the counter. My dad thought that was a low thing to say in front of his girlfriend and me.
But those few years where my dad was out were good years for me. I was a great student. I started in three sports at school. I was working out and studying. I was happy.
Then came the day I walked into the house and my older brother was crying. “Dad did it again.” He was back in jail. That was it for me. I went crazy. I decided I was going to be with my dad. Of course, I wasn’t thinking about the age difference. I just wanted to be near him. So I did what Dad did. I robbed. I figured it was the quickest way of being near my dad. That year I dropped out of all sports. My football coach saw me in the gym and told me I was going out for football. I responded by asking; ‘Why, there will be no one in the stands for me.’
I got a cigarette business going. They did not put the cigarettes behind the counter in those days. They were open in the aisle. So I wore the puffy coat my dad had bought me. I could put three cartons in each sleeve and walk out. The kids in detention were my main customers. I actually took orders and brought in what was wanted the next day. I really did very well.
I am a police detective now. I know that sounds like a strange, big leap. I believe those early years have given me a great compassion for kids who live under the knuckleheads I have to arrest. It has also given me a great desire to be a good husband to my wife and good father to my three beautiful, well-adjusted kids. Clearly, I don’t have a road map to follow from my own life.
I know that statement begs the question, how did I get to where I am without a road map? I spend my days arresting people who are lost like I was. They have no map either. I was once asked a question whose answer points to this issue.
I was asked if I think it is important for a Christian to mentor children who are fatherless or orphaned.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he looked away searching for the right words.
Our mission as Christians is to share Christ’s message.
Here are kids who are looking for time and patience from adults while they learn and grow up. They have asked for a Christian to mentor them and they wait. They are longing for a respite in their storm that should be called their childhood. How could this not be important? I got where I am today without a roadmap from my own family because of mentors in my life. They were my map. I followed them. When I went to basketball night at the church, I watched Pete Janson with his son. I was really interested. I was amazed to see how it was supposed to be done.
Somewhere along the way, my mom heard about Long Island Youth Mentoring. It was called Youth Guidance back then. I got matched to Ed Fallen. Ed was no nonsense – at all. Ed was Ed. There is no other way to say it. He is unique. He was always there and I knew he would always be there. After twenty five years, he is still in my life. I screwed up around Ed too. But he would sit me down and tell me how things were going to be from now on. I listened to him because Ed was Ed. I heard truth from Ed, all the time too, but I was not ready. But Ed is Family. He stuck with me.
When Ed started having children, I watched him. The Bible verse that says we need to be quick to listen and slow to anger comes to mind when I think of Ed as a dad. I really want to be a good dad. I work at it. I don’t want to destroy my children emotionally just because I am reacting out of my past and doing something stupid. There were difficult incidents that happened between me and Ed that taught me a lot. One time I got really mad at Ed while we were in his car. I remember I swung at him. I was surprised with how he dealt with me. He just grabbed my arms and wrapped me up and talked to me quietly until I calmed down. He did not berate me or try to hurt or destroy me. But I do remember that he made it clear that this would not happen again, and it didn’t. I just had too much respect for the man to ever let that happen again.
Another time we were on a Youth Mentoring trip. We were on a snow hill. Everyone was having a good time going down the hill on tubes. I guess I was just a bit heavier or I just had a faster tube, because when I went down, I went over the snow bank at the end of the hill and into field of briar bushes. My arms and legs were flailing to get out and I was screaming. Some of the other kids stood there and laughed. I was embarrassed and stormed off. Ed followed me. As he patched me up, we talked. I really do not know what he said. I just remember a calm conversation that imparted to me that it was all ok and I was ok. This is just a part of life and he was my friend. But when we returned to the hill, the kids started teasing again. Ed would not have it. He made it clear that all teasing was done. It felt so good to have someone in my corner for once. At home my grandparents would tell me they loved me and then a minute later they would call me a foul name and let me know I was no good. Ed was a constant. It is hard to explain how important this was to me. When I was home, drama always happened, but I never knew when it would break out. It could happen when I woke up or when I came home from school or in the grocery store; so, I was always on guard. Ed was my respite. I could relax and feel safe. Don’t get me wrong. Ed can be one of the most annoying humans on earth. Ed is Ed. But I knew I was loved by him. I knew that whatever happened, he would respond with my best interest in mind. That is why he is family to this day.
I also learned to have fun in a positive way. Ed had a zest for life. He could make a game out of anything. One time we were on another Youth Mentoring event in the mountains. It was a down time where we were waiting to continue our hike. He grabbed a few of us boys and pointed out three white birch trees a long way down the hill. He said that anyone who could hit one of those trees with a rock was a member of the White Birch Society. We all decided to change the name of the club, but we all wanted to be in it. You would think we were major leaguers at Yankee stadium. When anyone hit a tree we all cheered. It was exciting. Ed brought fun everywhere we went.
Another thing I saw and learned to emulate was Ed’s work ethic. The man has a huge work ethic. Not only did I see it, I worked for him from time to time and was motivated to meet his expectations which were great. One time he got me a job working in a paint store that he was working in at the time. I had to sort and organize color samples. It was a pain; a job no one wanted. He said I should be done in forty-five minutes. Every so often he would come back and encourage me. He taught me to work smarter, not necessarily harder. That is what he said, but he wanted me to work harder too and to not take so many breaks.
I believe Ed’s friendship, care and direction protected me from many mistakes and self-inflicted hardships. But the real breakthrough took place when all the truth that had been planted in my life came to the forefront and I was ready to receive it. I surrendered to the one who motivated and empowered Ed. I met my mentor’s Lord. The one Lord he had spoken of so often.
I was 22. I was still friends with Ed, but I was out with a group of a different kind of friends — drinking. As usual, after around fourteen beers I started into shots. Then I wanted to fight every man in the bar. My friends held me back and finally put me in a cab with money and instructed the Cabbie to take me home. But I had other plans. I was hungry. I saw a White Castle and told the driver to let me off. I walked up to the door only to find it locked. I was furious. I staggered down the street literally screaming at the world. I glanced to my right, only to see my reflection in the window of a rattan furniture store. Rage rose up in me at the sight and I punched the face of my reflection yelling %#@#%*. The huge pane of glass shattered and the top half came down like a guillotine cutting my left hand pretty badly. I ran. I do not remember getting home. I do remember waking up and going into a fetal position hoping and wishing it was a dream. But I knew it was not. I was a mess and I knew it. All the teaching I heard and saw flooded back to me. I dropped to my knees on the side of the bed. “God, I am making a mess of my life. Will you take over and lead?”
The next day, I went back to the store owner and told him what I had done and told him I was sorry and wanted to pay for it. He was angry, but glad I was willing to pay. God did take over and has led since that day. He led me through AA and back to church. He was there all the time. He led me to a recovery support group in my church. He led me as I finished the police academy, and he led me to the great blessing in my life, my wife.
I remember a little over a year after I accepted the Lord, Pastor Lee Hamblin told me I was to teach the six year-old Sunday school class. Notice he did not ask me. He told me I was the new six year-olds’ teacher. I took it seriously. As I studied the Word to make it simple for these children, it went deep within me. God really used that time.
God has used His body, the Church, to reach out to a hurting angry boy to bring me to Himself. He used a youth group, even though my reason for being there and my attitudes were all wrong. He used the words of Bible stories but it seems to me that what went the deepest into my life were the things that took place at unplanned critical moments. When I saw Godly Fathers with their sons and saw God’s plan for that relationship; truth was planted. It went deep when I was hurt both emotionally and physically, and I received Godly care for both. It went deep when I was caught stealing, and the Christian leaders cared more about me than what I had done. It went deep when a Godly man pursued me by getting together with me on a regular basis over years and I was able to see the consistency of the love of God in his tangible life.
The destructive sin that has destroyed my family members for generations has ended in this generation. I praise God.
Note to the reader. This story was written by John Cragg after two-three hour interviews with Dan Castronova. It was written in the first person because that is how Dan told his story to me. I took notes and when I was able to quote him word for word, I did. When I was not, I wrote what he said in my words. Then the story was sent to Dan for his review and edit. He changed any inaccuracies. This is his story and it is God’s story of His redemptive love. Danny is now a NYC Police Detective, he is married and has three young children.