[More on the Spanish Castle, a youth center in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond, Virginia, circa 1969 – 1974.]

I’ve already painted a rather  stereotyped portrait of most of the teens who had hung around the Spanish Castle when it opened 40 years ago this summer. I called them “hippies,” though technically-speaking they weren’t. They may have dressed like them, and sometimes acted like them, but authentic hippie-dom wouldn’t have let them in. As the place grew in popularity among the local youth for whom the house was designed, the kids represented a broad cross-section of the community.

The youngest in the crowd was Eric, who was a year too young to be legal there. But he was such a straight kid (and more mature than some of the older teens) that no one blocked his coming to the Castle. Great personality, and a member of my church. Liz was one of the older girls, tall, long-haired, blue-jeaned, and artistic. She provided some of the early leadership of the house, and was enthusiastic about helping create some large collage murals for the Castle’s empty walls. Steven and Dori were the first “couple” in the house, both full of personality and laughs. They had to be watched, unable to keep their hands off each other! I would later perform their wedding ceremony, and they must be well past their 30th anniversary by now.

Robert was like a puppy, looking for someone to hang with, not particularly part of a group, but always willing to please. He helped with some radio interviews, was glad to assist with house details, and was a great conversationalist. He later went in the Service and wrote me several times before we eventually lost touch. To this day, when his name comes up in our home my wife laughs. She will always remember the day we moved from an apartment into our first house, and Robert, bless his willing heart, offered to help us. I carried some heavy boxes of books, and Joan began with an arm-load of clothes from a second floor closet. Robert began by carrying a handful of clothes hangers from the apartment to the rental truck. Must have had eight or ten of  ’em in all. Joan knew at that point that we should have asked more kids to help!

I remember one boy from the neighborhood, just a block or so away from the Castle. His name was Lee. His older brother had shown up a few times in the Castle’s early days, but he was usually pretty spaced-out, high on something, maybe acid. Lee, though, projected an image of innocence, not an angel, but burdened by a sadness he never tried to explain. Until one night when he knocked at the locked door of the closed house.

By this time, the Castle program had developed beyond a mere drop-in center. We had a drama group that wanted to put on a couple of one-act plays. We had a free-wheeling discussion group that met weekly. And there was, thanks to the “Jesus Revolution” of the early 70s, a teen-initiated Wednesday night prayer meeting. It was held after-hours, so that 1) no one would feel we were imposing a religious agenda on them, but more, 2) it was quiet once the pool players and rowdies had left.  The kids who valued the prayer time would come before closing, those who weren’t into that would leave, and once the door was locked no one else would be admitted.

We would gather, sitting in a circle on the floor of one of the second story rooms, and I would usually lead brief devotional to get us started on things spiritual. Then we’d do a personal “check in” with anyone who wanted to share something chiming in. At some point that particular evening, there was a knock at the front door. I sent one of the kids down to tell whoever it was that we were closed for the night. My envoy reported back to us saying, “It’s Lee, and he wants to come up. He looks like he’s been crying.  Should I let him in?”

Of course. Lee came upstairs and with little invitation spilled out his story. His mother was drunk. His brother was high. We already knew his father hadn’t been in the picture for years. Lee began to cry. “I’m only fourteen and I’m too young to be the head of my family! I can’t do this anymore.” The kids sitting near him reached out to him, and the others in the circle offered words of empathy. There were many tears. We prayed. Nothing very profound, but full of love and compassion. I guess that was  profound. I was thinking, this is exactly what we had hoped this house would become: a refuge, a community of youth who cared about and for one another.  Everything we had done to open and keep open this place was worth the effort.

Then a splash of reality, surprisingly cold. When our time that night had come to an end, with Lee comforted and strengthened by the voiced and visible love of his Castle friends, one teenage girl, new to the prayer group, took me aside and asked if that night’s experience was typical of what she might expect in the future. “Because, if it’s always going to be like this, I’m not coming back. It’s so depressing.”  Yes. Cold.

Different strokes for different folks. —Sly Stone

Next…the death of one of the Castle teenagers.