A Deserter’s Long Way Home
by Bruce Roberts
At 18 years of age, I was awaiting a court martial on charges of both AWOL and desertion. Life was crashing in on me. Desperate, I was thinking of taking my life. Then I noticed a book lying on the table next to my jail bunk. The message in the little book, Peace with God by Billy Graham, came alive to me. For the first time in my life, I realized I was condemned by God and in need of a Savior.
At Home with Abuse
In 1960, I was born in Jackson, Michigan, into an average American family. My dad worked at various factory jobs, and my two brothers and I never went to bed hungry. But when Dad drank, he would have violent outbursts of temper and beat my mother and us boys as well. Once, my brothers and I were kept home from school for several days so that school authorities wouldn’t see our bruised bodies. I still have a lump on my lower lip from the time Dad punched me in the mouth with his fist wrapped around a beer can. When I was 15, my parents finally divorced after my dad threatened to kill us all with a shotgun. He ended up in jail. After his release, he headed for Florida, leaving my mother to support us on her own. We boys earned money helping area farmers, and my grandparents helped out financially when they could.
A Teenage Airman
At age 17, I was rebellious, using alcohol (ironic, after seeing what alcohol did to my dad!) and dabbling in the occult. I quit school, took a GED test, and joined the Air Force, thinking I would finally be “somebody.” But I quickly got entangled with the wrong crowd, my troubles mounted, and I considered taking my life. Stationed in North Dakota, I was put in a mental health ward and went AWOL several times. I was classified as a deserter.
With two undesirable friends from my school days, I began burglarizing homes. But our crime spree didn’t last long. I soon found myself in jail with several felony charges and the possibility of doing prison time. Bonding out of jail was impossible, as military officials had learned of my whereabouts and placed a hold on me. I spent nearly a year in the Jackson County jail, a very fearful and humbling experience.
Finally, I was sentenced to a lengthy probationary period and ordered to pay restitution and court costs. The Security Police (SPs) from a nearby Air Force base transported me to North Dakota for the court-martial trial. Fortunately, my court-appointed military lawyer pled my case, and I miraculously avoided a court-martial. I was discharged from the Air Force with a “less than honorable” discharge.
On the Run as a Civilian
Back home in Michigan, I reported to a probation officer and made monthly payments to the court whenever I could. Then, in trouble again, I foolishly fled the state, violating the conditions of my probation. I ended up in Seymour, Indiana, where I worked for four months at a canning factory before I thumbed my way south to Florida.
Finding my dad was a miracle! It had been years, and we hardly recognized each other. After the divorce, Dad was emotionally and financially devastated and had moved to Florida with little more than the clothes on his back. He landed a job as a fernery worker and lived in a small one-bedroom trailer in a field. I stayed with him about three months, helping him in the fernery, and we picked oranges together.
Once a week, Dad and I hitchhiked 13 miles into Deland, Florida, for supplies. One particular day, a fellow in an old Southern Bell truck stopped to offer us ride. We climbed in and immediately the man popped a question I had never heard anyone ask before: “If you died today, do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?” He went on to explain God's simple plan of salvation. Dad later said to me: “I hope you don't believe any of that religious stuff!” Actually, I was hoping to talk to the man again. My mind drifted back to the little paperback book I had read in the jail cell in North Dakota.
Angel of Mercy
I left my Dad’s place and returned to Indiana for six months before trouble there made me decide to return to Florida. I set out for the interstate, hitchhiking, but couldn't get a ride going south. As darkness fell, I became discouraged and sat down on the side of the highway with my suitcase in one hand and my guitar in the other. I was cold, lonely, and scared. Feeling completely at the end of myself, my thoughts turned to God. I really didn't know Him, but I decided to pray anyway.
Suddenly, I felt impressed to cross over the median to the interstate’s northbound lanes. I had my heart set on Florida, but I gave in and crossed over to the northbound lanes of I-75. Before I even had a chance to put my thumb up, a late-model automobile bearing a Michigan license plate pulled up next to me. The man inside asked, “You need a ride, don't you?” Whether he was a man or an angel, I believe God sent him. In minutes, I was asleep in the back seat of this mysterious car, going home to Michigan!
Just after daybreak, the man tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “This is where you get out.” He handed me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to find something to eat. With that, he pulled away and was gone. I scurried up under the overpass, opened my bag, and put on as many shirts as I could. It was freezing cold. I walked a short distance to a truck stop, ate some breakfast then called the local Greyhound Bus Station. The price of the bus ticket to Jackson was exactly the amount of money I had left over from breakfast—to the penny!
Moment of Decision
Walking up the driveway to my mother’s house, I was surprised to see both of my brothers and two of their friends loading up the car. Someone hollered, “Hey, Bruce, you’re just in time! We're going to Florida!” In no time, we were on our way. Arriving in Deland, Florida, we noticed a sign advertising a furnished upstairs apartment. We liked it, rented it, and moved our things in.
Later that evening, I saw the old Southern Bell work truck that had picked up my dad and me pull into the driveway! The man remembered me! I was surprised to find out that he, his wife, and their two small children lived right next door to us, and that we actually rented the apartment from his parents, who lived on the other side of us! What were the odds of such a precise move—right next to the man whom I so much wanted to meet again? God’s hand in all this was amazing!
This man, Don Shaw, invited me to church, and it wasn’t long before he and the pastor stopped by for a visit. They had come to speak with us concerning our souls. We heard a crystal-clear presentation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. My brother Dave and I got down on our knees to pray and ask the Lord to save us. My life changed that night. I didn't understand it all, but I knew that I was born again! God had planted the seed of faith in that jail cell in North Dakota and had led me to where I was this day. What a God! What a Savior!
My dad was indifferent about my becoming a Christian. Once, while walking together down the street, we came upon a dead animal that lay rotting. He said, “That's what happens to you when you die—the maggots eat you! There's no Heaven, and there’s no Hell.” I was very sad to hear my dad speak these words. I wanted him to be saved too and have a home in Heaven one day.
Not long afterwards, two officers from the Deland police department approached the construction site where I was working. One of them asked if I could identify a wallet. Recognizing it at once, I affirmed that it was my dad's. They told me that he had been killed in an accident the night before. I was stunned! I thought of the conversation I just had with him only days before! Every person reading this should think of their own soul! Where would you go right now if you were to drop dead? Where would you spend eternity? It's a sobering thought! You must trust Jesus today. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.
A Wife, A Baby, and More Trouble
In 1980, I got married, and my wife and I became the proud parents of a beautiful baby girl. We moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where I began working at a small, family-owned restaurant. Always fearful of being picked up on the warrant, one day the inevitable happened. While at work, I received a frantic phone call from my wife. Sheriff’s deputies had arrived at our home with a warrant for my arrest and were on their way to the restaurant where I worked. I found myself fighting the urge to run. When the deputies arrived, however, I cooperated fully. They read me my rights, cuffed me, and took me downtown. The scenario seemed all too familiar. But now I had a wife and a baby daughter!
Detectives arrived to transport me back to Jackson to face charges of violation of probation. When I was escorted to the courthouse, I told the judge that I was truly sorry I had left the state and violated my probation. I told him that I had been saved and now had a wife and daughter. To my surprise, the judge wished me well in my new life as a Christian husband and father. But before I left the courtroom, he sternly warned me that I had better not appear in his courtroom again. If I ever did, he assured me that I would be sent to prison to serve time on the original felony charges.
Back home with my family in Traverse City, Michigan, I went back to work for the same restaurant. Everything was going well until a state HRS investigator showed up at our home! I was at work at the time, and my wife had to handle them alone. Evidently someone had a suspicion that some form of abuse was going on with our infant daughter! My wife refused them entrance into our home. They promised to return the following day with a counselor from the state to do whatever they deemed necessary. Their tactics seemed Gestapo-like. The whole thing was bizarre. Why this? Why now?
On the Run Again
We had a decision to make. We could either pack up and flee to Florida or face the state. I was literally ripped in two—afraid to lose our daughter to the state for whatever reasons, and afraid to leave the state again, violating my probation and the judge's orders. I knew the next time I would go to prison. My instincts to flee were overpowering, motivated by fear. We left hurriedly for Florida.
We rented a small apartment in the same area as before. No one knew the situation we had left behind in Michigan. We began attending church, made some Christian friends, and were excited about serving God. But I was tormented inside—weary from running and fearing going to prison. Then, one day, I felt led to tell my friend, Pastor Bob Neale, about my situation. Instead of criticizing me, he showed great concern and told me I needed to get this cleared up once and for all. He explained that I could not have liberty in serving God with this dark cloud over me—and that once this thing was settled, I would be able to serve God unhindered.
For the next three days, I was so convicted that I did not eat or sleep. I finally decided I could face whatever I had coming to me, by the grace of God. The peace of God flooded my soul, and I knew that I had made the right decision. I truly surrendered all.
Pastor Neale and I drove to Michigan, praying and singing all the way. When we pulled into my mother’s driveway, close to midnight, the lights were on. She nearly fainted from the shock of seeing me. She told us that she was usually in bed at this time but for some unknown reason had decided to stay up and bake some homemade bread. So, here we were in my mother's kitchen eating hot bread from the oven!
After prayer and Bible reading the next morning, Pastor Neale and I headed for the courthouse. My probation officer recognized me, and the two of them disappeared into an inner office for what seemed like forever, while I sat nervously in the outer office. I was released into Pastor Neale’s custody until we could see the judge, who was out of town.
While we waited, believing God would somehow intervene, Pastor Neale spoke with my mother concerning her salvation. Raised with a Christian Science background, she didn't feel she needed to make any hasty decisions concerning church and God. On Wednesday night, we headed out to church, when my brother Brad, who still lived with my mother, asked if he could come along. In my eyes, my brother, a long-haired biker type who smoked marijuana, was the least likely candidate for becoming a Christian. But God used the message that night to touch Brad’s heart. During the invitation, he went to the altar and got saved! Brad served as a missionary in France until his death from cancer in 2013.
The Great Deliverance
The probation office decided not to wait for the judge. I was told to come down, fill out some papers, and then I would be free to leave for Florida. Grateful that through this whole mess my brother Brad had gotten saved, I was concerned that my mother had not trusted Christ as her personal Savior. A few days later, my mother called Pastor Neale to say that she had been in much turmoil of soul since we had left, unable to eat or sleep. She wanted to know if she could be saved “over the telephone.” She prayed and trusted Christ as her Savior!
And God has done so many more wonderful things in my life since those landmark early days when He delivered me!