By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By then Tony and Sharon had purchased a nice bungalow in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in northeast Denver. But the city was changing. Crime seemed to be coming closer. They were hearing stories about troubled teenagers that they might have expected in Los Angeles or New York. But Denver?
Maybe it was time to start turning their dreams of a farm into reality.
Tony began reading books about crops and livestock, including The Shepherd's Guide Book, quietly giving thanks for his mother's determination that he learn how to use a library. He and Sharon traveled to various operations and talked to farmers and ranchers. Eventually they settled on a chicken farm, which seemed like a good business they could learn quickly. Besides, Tony already knew the retail and marketing end of the business. But they'd still need $25,000 just to build a barn and get the equipment to raise brooder hens. They started saving.
It soon became apparent that they needed to move faster. One evening in 1988 a young black man riding his bicycle in the Park Hill area was shot in the back and killed. According to police reports, the man didn't belong to a gang but had been shot by gang members because he was wearing clothing with the trademark colors of a rival gang.
Tony and Sharon watched the television news reports in horror. What kind of insanity was this? What was happening to kids...especially black kids...that they would kill other kids because of their clothes? Elijah was twelve; how long would it be before they had to worry about the color clothing he wore to school?
Over the next two years drive-by shootings and gang-related crime became so commonplace that they often didn't rate the front page of the papers. Although the Browns' immediate neighborhood seemed safe, the high-crime areas were only blocks away, and gunfire occasionally punctuated the night. They heard that gangs were recruiting younger and younger members, and they worried about Elijah and Ali, as well as the boys' teenage cousins. They insisted their children avoid certain areas and be home well before dark.
Then in late 1989, time ran out. Eighth-grader Elijah came home from school with his clothes torn and lips bloodied. He wouldn't talk much about it, and at first his parents thought maybe it was normal kid stuff. But when it happened day after day, they insisted Elijah tell them what was going on. It turned out one of his childhood friends had joined a gang, and now the pressure was on Elijah to join, too. He had to fight his way into and out of the school.
Angry and frightened for his son, Tony left the house intending to track the tormentors down and beat them with his own hands. But partway down the sidewalk he stopped. What am I doing? he asked himself. Am I going to fight with a child? What will that do, except make things worse?
Slowly, he felt his anger recede. These children weren't his enemies. It was the city, with all its frustrations and dead-ends, that made kids go bad. It was the destruction of the family that made them turn to gangs for support.
He turned around and went back into his house. That night he and Sharon decided to leave Denver as soon as possible. There wasn't time to build a bigger nest egg. They'd take out a second mortgage on their home and be gone before some cop showed up on their doorstep one evening to tell them that one of their sons was in jail or at the morgue.
They had to leave Denver now if they were going to save their children.
A month later, in January 1990, Tony and Sharon were driving through the San Luis Valley. Luqman and Kareem were with them, doing all the talking; their parents were lost in their thoughts. So far the search for a farm they could afford had been discouraging. As Sharon stared morosely out the window, Tony drove and prayed for a sign.
They had already traveled to a small town in Kansas, prepared to buy a farm there. A local realtor had sent a picture of the property with what appeared to be a nice home. Perfect, they thought, the farmlands of Kansas were about as far away from gangs as they could get. But when they actually saw the place, it looked nothing like the photograph. The house was a broken-down shack and the property in such disrepair that it would cost more money to fix up than it would ever be worth...more money than they had, anyway.
They were back in Denver, wondering what to do next, when Tony saw an ad for cheap farm land in southern Colorado. So they hopped in the car and drove four hours south to the San Luis Valley, a part of the state they'd never seen before.
Since they'd gone over Poncha Pass, the valley had been blanketed in gray clouds that stretched from the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east to the San Juan range to the west. The land between the two ranges looked harsh and inhospitable. Here and there, old cabins of weathered wood stood alone on the prairie, their splintered roofs open to the weather. Tony wondered what had become of the settlers. Were they running away from something or to something when they came to this high valley?