A foster child who didn’t belong until he found a home in community

Larry Mason

Larry Mason 1943–2014

Growing up on the streets of New York City, with an alcoholic mother and a father he only met once, Larry embarked on a life of crime by stealing milk and pastries. He cycled in and out of reform schools, where he was subjected to physical and sexual abuse. As a teenager, he began committing more serious crimes. “You name it, I’ve done it.” At seventeen, he fathered a child. Marriage followed, and a second child, but the marriage didn’t last. “I was no angel.”

In 1967, at twenty-four, Larry was drafted, and the US Army defined the next six years of his life. He spent three of them in Vietnam, on the front lines of the war. “I killed, and saw people killed.” Remembering a friend who died in combat, he said, “All that was left to send home was his boots.” 

When the war was over, Larry found himself a stranger in his own country. Honorably discharged but declared “mentally unfit for assimilation,” Larry had no real home to go to. Nor did “normal” society hold any attractions for him. He told a group of young people: 

When I came back to the USA and I got to the airport, there was no appreciation for what I’d done. Not that I was in favor of the war. Most of the guys over there were actually against it – we felt we were just fighting somebody else’s civil war. But still: I was called a baby killer, and one guy actually spat at me. So I did what I knew best: I set up camp on Staten Island with a bunch of other vets, just like in Vietnam. No one went anywhere without a weapon. Meanwhile, I survived as a dealer until I was arrested in 1977 for robbery and attempted murder. I spent the next several years upstate, in prison, including Attica.

After being released in 1981, Larry soon found himself right back where he had left off: 

I was a good narcotics salesman: I had ­connections from New York to Singapore. But I soon became my own best customer. At one point I was doing enough drugs to kill a bull elephant. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was dead, and often felt like blowing my head off, but I knew that a true soldier dies with his boots on and never by his own hand.

I still suffer the effects of PTSD and my exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. But God has given me real freedom from isolation and the bondage of evil and despair.

One day, in desperation, I went to my parole officer, laid the pistol I was carrying on his desk, and begged him to lock me up again. By law, he should have. Instead, he directed me to The Bowery Mission, a Bible-based program on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that helps the homeless and addicts. I was skeptical at first but then decided to give it a chance. 

He gave me money for a taxi downtown, and I promptly used it to buy a bottle of wine. But then I began walking. On the way down Fifth Avenue, I stopped at a small church. I don’t know why. But sitting in that chapel I was suddenly overcome and wept tears of pain and remorse – for the first time since I was a child. 

I had never been religious, but I had always believed in God and Jesus and this guy called the Holy Ghost. So I just started talking to God. I said, “Look, I’ll tell you what: I’ve made a lot of deals with the devil. I’ve danced with the devil and never came out a winner. But if you can take my life and do something with it, I’ll give you what’s left.” 

As I left the building, I felt something, like a weight had been taken off me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But the sun was brighter, the air clear.

“Huck Finn” in the school play waits backstage for his cue.

Larry stayed seven years at The Bowery Mission and became a pillar of its ministry to the poor. While there, he also learned about the Bruderhof, which he joined in 1991. Tragically, his old demons – flashbacks, nightmares, and addictive behavior – kept him from finding the new life he was after. He left a few years later. 

Then, in December 2001, I got a Christmas card from Carolyn, an old friend at the Bruderhof, inviting me back, and I said to myself and my cat, “Indiana, we’re going home.” 

I had been reading in the Bible again, and thinking about James 5, which talks about the church using the “laying on of hands” in order to free someone from demons and sickness. On returning to the community, I asked for this, and it was granted. I still suffer the effects of PTSD and my exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. But God has given me real freedom from isolation and the bondage of evil and despair. 

Larry lived at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in upstate New York, for the next thirteen years, until his death from cancer. Jason Landsel, a younger friend who counted him as a mentor, recalls: “Larry was a hard worker in our factory and loved assembling equipment for people with disabilities. He was also active in our church, assisting at baptisms and weddings. He was known for his free-spirited renditions of ‘Amazing Grace’ and for showing up in war paint and a kilt. Off-hours, he mentored teens and young men, and involved them in efforts like a yearlong project to renovate an abandoned chapel. Along the way he gave them lessons in work ethics, survival skills, and – most importantly to him – Bible study.”

Talking to youth groups about his years in Vietnam and about his own personal war, Larry was always brutally honest. But he was never sorry for himself. Noting that there was never a victory that wasn’t preceded by a fight, he liked to quote the old army slogan, “Freedom has a taste the protected shall never know.”

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