Why you should care
Because family values sometimes means lots of different things.
At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Rod Harrison was not a person you’d ever want to fuck with. People literally crossed the street when they saw his hulking figure walking up the sidewalk. He stepped into my life when I was 7, looming larger than life. My mom often recounted the first time she saw him back in high school, delivering a lightning-fast round kick to the temple of a classmate who dared challenge him.
He was a highly gifted martial artist and an accomplished street thug, mostly defending his turf from rival drug dealers. He took on all comers, from a pack of Hells Angels to swarms of angry cops trying to cuff him. Being a father to two young children was the last thing you’d imagine Rod doing, and yet, there he was, sitting on the kitchen floor with my little sis and me, showing us how to color inside the lines.
He had a movie-star smile, a quick wit and a contagious laugh that drew people to him effortlessly. He was frighteningly charismatic, with a brilliant, sharp mind, a dangerous combination for a criminal. Rod organized a small crew of outlaws and began home-invasion robberies of drug dealers. He and his crew didn’t hesitate to resort to violence, pistol-whipping their victims to shake the drugs and money loose. Soon, they graduated to hitting banks, jewelry stores and pharmacies, with my mom often driving the getaway car. Later, she’d collect newspaper clippings of their exploits for our family scrapbook.
Rod got stabbed in the stomach while we were at a movie theater; later, someone decapitated our Doberman.
More than once, we cased a jewelry store as a family; the next day, the crew would hit it. Other times, Rod would have me case a place, then I’d wait in the car while he took care of business. At some point, the cops began to close in. Rod divvied up the proceeds and disbanded his crew.
Our family moved up to the Santa Cruz Mountains to hide out, and just like that, everything calmed down. Rod drilled my sister and me to never, ever, tell anyone our “family secrets.” He told us that he was pulling crimes to put food on our table. If we “snitched” or told the wrong person, he and our mom could go away to prison for a long time. To this day, I’m not sure how much he actually cared for us, and how much he needed our family unit to provide cover for him.
The respite didn’t last long. I was playing in the backyard one day when Rod rushed up, handed me a pillowcase filled with loaded guns and told me, “Don’t touch them, or else.” He instructed me to walk across the street to the store, go around back and slide the pillowcase under the back porch. Heading back to the house, I saw six unmarked cop cars pulling onto our property. They searched the house and came up empty. We loaded our belongings into a moving truck, Rod retrieved his guns and we headed down the road.
The next two years were helter-skelter: Cops raided our house with guns drawn, but missed the 500 kilos of marijuana stashed in our attic. Rod got stabbed in the stomach while we were at a movie theater; later, someone decapitated our Doberman. Rod attempted to rob a bakery, but nine guys stomped the living shit out of him; my mom donned scrubs and sneaked him out in a wheelchair under the noses of the San Jose police … and on and on.
The end began at the local Renaissance fair, Aug. 22, 1976. Rod noticed two undercover cops following us and devised a plan to give them the slip. Mom told us to sit tight, that our uncle would come get us. Then they were gone. Within minutes, we were surrounded by dozens of cops. A helicopter appeared overhead and squad cars descended on the parking lot. A cop kneeled down to ask me what kind of car my parents were driving and I told him, “A green station wagon!” It went out quickly over the radio. It wouldn’t help the cops, though, since my mom and Rod were actually in an orange MG.
We didn’t hear from my mom for a week. Then, one night, she called my uncle and told him to turn on the 6 o’clock news. We gathered around the TV to watch the cops pull my stepdad out of a smashed car on the side of the freeway. When Rod looked directly at the camera, my cousin Gene blurted out, “I wanna be just like him!” I shook my head and said, “No, no, you don’t.”
Rod was locked away for eight years. I sent him two letters, but then ran out of things to say. A heavy burden had been lifted and we were glad to be free of it. We settled back into our hometown and did our best to lick our wounds. My mom met a new guy and had two more kids. My younger sister adapted quicker than I did, easily finishing high school and getting married. I lasted a single year of high school and then raised a little hell of my own. Many would write me off as a lost cause. But eventually I got my shit together and made a decent man of myself. Hell, I’m even respectable now.
Rod died of lung cancer four short years after being released from prison.