Two centuries ago, the poet William Wordsworth wrote something true then and certainly true now: “The child is father of the man.”
That was his arcane way of saying the good or bad things that happen in our early lives shape the adults we become. I offer proof of that by introducing Cole Ahlquist to you.
Cole, 28, is skateboarding down an Oceanside street with his 4½-year-old son perched on his shoulders. The boy, named Marley, clings with trust and laughter. Faith in his father shows on his happy face.
And love for his son is the most constant thing in Cole’s life. Actually, it’s the only constant thing. He wants Marley to have the boyhood he was denied. However, because of Cole’s own adolescence, that’s going to be a skate uphill.
On days when Cole isn’t working, they take the bus to the Oceanside Public Library and spend hours reading children’s books. Then they head for the beach, but not without stopping at a convenience store along the way where Marley gets to pick out a treat.
For two years, Cole and Marley have bounced around North County. They have shifted from rooms found on Craigslist, rented for a few weeks and stayed in the homes of friends “I met on the street.”
On Christmas Eve, they took possession of their own apartment in Vista, which Cole found with the help of Interfaith Community Services. His rent will be $535 per month.
Cole has had trouble finding a foothold in society. He works on and off at a construction job that pays him $100 per day under the table, and in February he plans to start training to become a security guard. He also gets help from those won over by his friendliness and his love for his son.
From day one, Cole was denied most things by which a kid needs to sink an anchor into life. Both of his parents were drug abusers. He never knew his father, and only found out much later from a third party that the man had died of an overdose.
Cole’s mother died when he was 7. When he talks of her, his voice catches and he takes heavy breaths to tamp down his emotions, even though her face is a faded and torn picture in his memory.
On a predawn February morning in 1994, Cole’s mother, 33-year-old Star Marie, was killed by a hit-and-run driver who was never found. Cole believes she was murdered by an ex-boyfriend.
As an orphan, he went to live with an uncle for three years. “I’m 7 years old. I mean, he’s doing some crazy drugs, and he treats me really bad and hits me. Then one day at school, the police come and check for bruises on me because I got beat pretty bad.”
The uncle has convictions for theft and drug use. He could not be found for comment in this column.
Finally, Child Protective Services stepped in and placed Cole in a group home. He has half-siblings, but they’ve gone separate ways.
Child Protective Services can be a lifesaver to an abused or abandoned child, but it can’t provide the building blocks that are foundational to every young person — love and belonging.
Christmas, birthdays, even Halloween meant something far different to other children than to Cole. To them, they were something real, something to look forward to. To Cole, holidays were often what he heard other kids describe.
Of those years, he says, “I don’t remember it all, but I know I have really bad trust issues. It’s hard to trust people. But I’ve had a good life, though, and I’m strong and healthy.”
Cole made his way through multiple group homes until he graduated from San Pasqual Academy in Escondido, which is a live-in high school for kids with nowhere to go but foster care. He was a good student, both in his studies and in sports. He made the U-T all-academic team for basketball in 2004.
A great recovery for a kid with an unfortunate start, right? Well, you would hope so, but for an orphan like Cole, “hope” is a verb that often lacks a direct object.
Cole joined the Navy right out of high school and served for 2½ years before he got the bright idea of taking a “selfie” — a picture of himself — pointing his pistol at his head while on guard duty. He says it was a joke, but the ship’s captain was not amused, and Cole was given a less-than-honorable discharge.
“I thought it was cool to have a gun. I grew up in a group home where there was this rap artist that I liked, and on one of his albums he holds a gun to his head. I was basically just mimicking him. I mean, I didn’t know it was going to cause so much trouble. I’m working right now to get my discharge changed to honorable.”
He landed on the street with back-pay in hand, so he bought a car. That he had never learned to drive and did not have a license were not obstacles to him. However, the police thought they should be, and a series of tickets began a marathon of traffic-court appearances and some jail time.
(Cole looks back on those missteps and realizes how stupid he was, and vows to not get behind a wheel again until he is licensed.)
He spent a couple of semesters at community college, but the Navy money had been spent on the car and he was soon broke, so he dropped out. He never was taught the importance of acquiring life skills, not in the same way that a caring parent can provide over the years of growing up.
He drifted from odd job to odd job. He somehow, miraculously, avoided getting ensnared by the illegal-drug culture. He was evicted from an apartment for nonpayment, but a lot of good people have had that happen.
He became involved with a woman who he says was into drugs. This was not a relationship from a Disney movie. After they fought their way to a permanent parting of the ways, Cole was left with responsibility for Marley, their child.
Do you have legal custody, Cole?
“I don’t know what that means. I don’t need to take her to court because she knows her son’s better off with me.”
In an interview, Cole’s 29-year-old ex-girlfriend and Marley’s mother acknowledged that her son is in better hands with Cole. She also admitted to being no stranger to the criminal-justice system. Court records show convictions for theft and drug use.
What is your own drug experience, Cole?
“I’ve only ever used marijuana, and I’ve actually had a medical card prescribed to me in San Diego. I mean, I would use it to go to sleep or during an anxiety attack. Marley’s mom was pretty crazy, like, and there’s a lot of other crazy stuff in this world. I didn’t use a lot, that’s for sure, and I haven’t used it for seven months.”
What’s your mental condition?
“My mental condition? Pretty good. They always try to diagnose you with something in orphanages. You see doctors and therapists every day, but I did pretty good for myself. The therapists and psychiatrists thought I had a pretty good head on my shoulders.”
What’s the difficulty in getting a job?
“That’s never a difficulty for me. I mean, it was hard to get a job for three years because I didn’t have no one to watch my son. I couldn’t trust his mom, and my parents are both dead, so he doesn’t have a grandma and grandpa to watch him. I didn’t really want to trust him in a day care and have someone else raise my son.”
That might seem strange to middle-class parents all over San Diego who drop off their children every morning, but to Cole, it was reminiscent of his own institutional child care.
A few months ago, a woman at the Oceanside library told him about the Head Start program, so he enrolled Marley. He says that when he drops off the boy, he is the only child who cries every morning at the separation.
Cole seems to be projecting his own childhood onto Marley, and that probably sounds bad. But when you consider children whose parents give them only casual attention and try to make up for it with expensive toys, Marley does not suffer by comparison.
There’s little to inspire in the dossier of Cole’s life. He has sort of stumbled along, and he may continue to do so. The more severe among us might think he has no excuse.
They can think that, but we have centuries of evidence showing screwed-up parents and orphanages turning out kids who have no sea legs and stumble on the pitching deck of society. Ask any jailer about that.
In words more clinical than poet Wordsworth’s, a psychologist wrote: “The wounds (of abandonment) are struck deep in young hearts and minds. … The pain will stay with them, becoming a driving force in their adult lives.”
Parents are a child’s first book.
Cole has his ambition, and it’s not all about him.
“I hope to really do something good for the world, like helping a lot of people. I really don’t know what it will be. One day I hope to own my own house, that’s for sure. I think my background is what helps me want to help others, because, I mean, if I went through what I went through, someone else must be going through something worse.”
You can build a castle in the air, Cole, but then, as Henry David Thoreau advised, you have to figure out how to put a foundation under it.
Materially, Christmas for Marley was slim, just as it had been for Cole — with one huge difference. Marley has a steadfast parent at his side, a gift Cole was never given.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org