Music, Drugs, and Drink Were My Life
I AM a Native American. Father, who died four years ago, was Chippewa, from Sugar Island, Michigan, U.S.A. My mother, from Ontario, Canada, is of the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indian nations. Through my father I am a member of the Sault Sainte Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. Because of the influence of the Catholic mission and boarding schools, we were raised Catholic, which meant attendance at Mass every Sunday.
My childhood on the Indian reservation was simple and happy. From a child’s viewpoint, the summers were long, lazy, and peaceful. We lived in a remote area—we had no running water and no indoor toilets, and we bathed in the lake or in a washtub. Our playground was the outdoors. Horses, cattle, and other farm animals were our toys. At the time, I wished the whole world could be like that forever.
The Challenges of Growing Up
When I grew older and went to public school, my visits to the reservation were infrequent. School, sports, and music began to occupy most of my time. As a teenager in the 1960’s, I was shaped by the spirit of the times. By the time I turned 13, drugs and alcohol were a regular part of my life. Rebellion against society was the fashion, and I hated everything that the system stood for. I couldn’t understand why people did inhumane things to one another.
About this time, I got my first guitar. Ours was a musical family. My father was a piano player and a tap dancer, and his brothers were also musically inclined. So when Dad and my uncles got together, we played jigs and had hoedowns till the early morning hours. I loved it. Soon, I learned to play the guitar and joined a rock-and-roll band. We performed at school dances and other events. That led to bars and nightclubs, which naturally meant more alcohol and drugs. Marijuana and methamphetamine (speed) were part of my life-style.
Military Service in Vietnam
By the time I was 19, I was married and an expectant father. At that same age, I was inducted into the U.S. Marines. It was all too much pressure for me. In order to handle it, I stayed stoned on drugs and alcohol 24 hours a day.
I was assigned to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, and then to advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California. I became a trained field wire and radio operator. This was at the end of 1969. Now, the real test was to come—service in Vietnam. Thus, at the age of 19, a few months out of high school, I found myself standing in the red dirt of Vietnam. As was true of so many Native Americans, patriotism had moved me to serve in spite of the injustices society had committed against us as members of a minority.
My first assignment was to the 1st Marine Air Wing, just outside Da Nang. About 50 men—boys, really—were responsible for maintaining the communications systems for the military compound. We covered the area from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North Vietnam and South Vietnam to about 50 miles [80 km] south of Da Nang.
Refugees were flocking to Da Nang, and shantytowns were springing up all around. There were also many orphanages. Seeing the young children, many maimed, had a deep impact on me. It struck me as strange that they were nearly all girls or small boys. I soon found out why. The boys from 11 years old and up were fighting in the war. Later, I met a young Vietnamese soldier, and I asked him how old he was. “Fourteen” was the answer. He had already been in combat for three years! This staggered me. He reminded me of my 14-year-old brother, except that my brother’s preoccupation was not killing but Little League baseball.
During my service in the marines, I began to have questions that needed answers. One night, I went to the church in our compound. The Catholic chaplain gave a sermon on Jesus, peace, and love! I wanted to scream. His sermon was contrary to everything that was happening there. After the ceremony I asked him how he could justify being a Christian and at the same time fighting in this war. His answer? “Well, Private, this is how we do our fighting for the Lord.” I walked out and said to myself that I never wanted to have anything to do with the church again.
When my tour of duty ended, I knew I was fortunate to be alive; but mentally and morally I had suffered a great deal. Hearing, seeing, and smelling war and death on a daily basis left a deep impression on my young mind and heart. Even though it all happened over 25 years ago, the memories seem to be only a day old.
Struggle to Adapt to Civilian Life
On returning home, I started to put my heart into my music career. My personal life was a mess—I was married and had a child, and I was still consuming large quantities of drugs and alcohol. My relationship with my wife became tense, and the result was a divorce. That was probably the lowest point of my life. I started to isolate myself and found solace outdoors, trout fishing in remote areas of Minnesota and Upper Michigan.
In 1974, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, with the aim of advancing my music career as a guitarist and singer. I played in many nightclubs, always hoping to break into the mainstream of music. But it was a tough challenge—there were so many talented guitar players, all trying to make it to the big time.
However, just when it got to the point where things were really beginning to go my way and I smelled the possibility of professional success, something happened that shook me up.
I went to visit an old acquaintance with whom I had had drug dealings. He greeted me at the door with a 12-gauge shotgun. He was in a partial body cast, and his mouth was wired shut because of a broken jaw. Speaking through his clenched teeth, he told me what had happened. Unknown to me, he was involved with a drug cartel in Nashville, and a large quantity of cocaine had disappeared. The drug barons pointed the finger at him. They sent enforcers, or thugs, to beat him up. They told him to return the cocaine or pay its $20,000 street value. Not only was he threatened but his wife and child were in jeopardy. He told me that it was not safe for me to be seen with him and that maybe I should leave. I took the hint and left.
This incident made me a little fearful for my life. Without realizing it, I had become part of a violent world. The majority of the people I knew in my music and drug circle carried a handgun. I had almost bought a .38 revolver for my own protection. I realized that the closer I got to the mainstream of the music industry, the higher the price to be paid. So, then, I decided to quit Nashville and was planning to go to Brazil to study Latin-American music.
Many Questions, Few Answers
In spite of my negative experiences with religion, I had a strong desire to worship God. And I still had unanswered questions. So I started my search for the truth. I attended various nondenominational church groups but remained dissatisfied. I recall one church I attended in Minnesota. The pastor cut the sermon short because the Minnesota Vikings football team was playing that day. He encouraged all of us to go home and pray for victory for the Vikings! I got up and walked out. Shallow thinking that relates God to superficial sports activities annoys me to this day.
While I was working in Duluth, Minnesota, a friend left a Watchtower magazine in my apartment. I read its discussion of Matthew chapter 24, and it all rang true. It made me think, ‘Who are these Jehovah’s Witnesses? Who is Jehovah?’ I did not get the answers until 1975. That same friend left me the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life* and a Bible.
That night I read the book. By the end of the first chapter, I knew that I had found the truth. It was as if a veil had been removed from my mind. I completed the book, and the next day I went across the street to some Witness neighbors and asked them to study the Bible with me.
I abandoned my plans to travel to Brazil and started to attend the meetings at the Kingdom Hall. With Jehovah’s help, I quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey, breaking free after 12 years of dependence. Within a few months, I was participating in the house-to-house ministry.
However, there was a problem I had to face. I had never held a steady job, and the very idea of being tied down to a schedule was repugnant to me. Now I had to become a responsible person, since Debi had again entered my life. I had been dating her earlier; but she went on to college to study to be a teacher, and I was going to be a musician. Now she too accepted the Bible truth, and we were drawn to each other again. We got married and then were baptized as Witnesses in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada, in 1976. In time, we had four children—three boys and a girl.
To provide for my family, I opened up a music store and taught jazz improvisation and guitar. I also ran a small recording studio and occasionally played in supper clubs. Then, of all things, opportunities came my way to get back into the big-time professional music world. I was approached three times to play backup for famous recording artists. Here was my big chance—in fact, my third in two years. I was offered the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, California, to play with a well-known jazz group. But I knew it would mean going back to frequent travel, concerts, and recording sessions. I thought about the offer for about five seconds and respectfully said, “No thanks.” Just remembering my past life of drugs, alcohol, and danger from thugs made me realize that it just wasn’t worth it. My new Christian life with my wife and children meant much more to me.
For several years I worked as a broadcast engineer for educational and documentary programs that were shown on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) television. In my present work, I coordinate video communication to the Hopi Reservation for a university in northern Arizona.
Back With My Own People
Twenty years have passed since I made my dedication to Jehovah God. I have also had twenty years of happy marriage. Debi, our son Dylan, aged 19, and our daughter, Leslie, aged 16, are all in full-time service. In fact, Dylan is now serving at the Watchtower Society’s printing and farm complex at Wallkill, New York. Our two younger boys, Casey, aged 12, and Marshall, 14, made their dedication to Jehovah and were baptized recently.
Three years ago we accepted the invitation to move where the need for Christian preaching was greater and came to Keams Canyon, Arizona, to serve among the Navajo and Hopi Indians. I am an elder in the congregation. It is a pleasure to be living once again among Native Americans. Because of the contrast between culture and living conditions here and those in typical American suburbia, we get the sense of being in missionary work. We left a large, comfortable home to come to live—six of us—in a much smaller mobile home. Life here is harder. Many homes have no indoor plumbing, only outdoor toilets. Some families travel miles in the winter just to get wood and coal. Water is hauled from community wells. Many roads are just dirt and are not marked on a map. As a child on the reservation, I took all of that in my stride. Now, my family and I appreciate how much hard work and energy are required just to do the necessary chores of daily life.
Even though Indians have their own jurisdiction on the reservations, they are still faced with the same problems that afflict all governments—internal conflicts, favoritism, lack of funds, misappropriated spending, and even crime among their officials and leaders. Indians face the scourges of alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, domestic abuse, and marriage and family problems. Some still blame the white man for their present situation, but the white man is afflicted with the same plagues. However, in spite of pressure from family, friends, and fellow clansmen, many Native Americans are responding to the Bible educational work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They see that friendship with God is worth any price. Many travel more than 75 miles [120 km] each way to attend Christian meetings. We are happy to be sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom with the Navajo and the Hopi.
I look forward to the day when Jehovah’s rule will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth” and when all obedient mankind will live together in peace and harmony as one united family. Then life will be as I wished it to be as a Chippewa boy in Canada. (Revelation 11:18; 21:1-4)—As told by Burton McKerchie.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.; now out of print.
[Picture on page 13]
I was searching for the answers to my questions about God
[Pictures on page 15]
Top: My family and, at left, a Navajo friend
Bottom: Our mobile home near the Kingdom Hall