Jack Runnels / by Michael Falco

Who is Jack Runnels?

Jack Runnels was born in a small religious and segregated town in East Texas and “hated it.” His father – a “bigoted, racist, misogynistic” alcoholic died at age 56. Runnels, an aspiring biochemist, got out of the small town on a college scholarship to study biochemistry and ended up in computers. He, along with his [ex] wife and children moved around a lot. While living in Brussels, “doing lots of pot and psychedelics, seeing the world anew through [the eyes of his young children], and being in an environment that was totally different,” he became more spiritual and critical of the US. They moved to Cheyenne because he was “in desperate need of a job [and] nobody wanted to take a job [in Cheyenne},” because of its location so it was easier to get. First impressions of the city were overwhelmingly negative – conservative, small minded, racially segregated. Jack still finds it “weird” that he can “go weeks without seeing a black person.” He has struggled with how to talk to his daughters about race in Cheyenne, especially after living in diverse cities like Atlanta. Runnels “had a nervous breakdown” in 2015, is divorced from his wife, estranged from one daughter and regularly attends extended Buddhist retreats. He’s currently working at the Geek Garage in Cheyenne.   

Excerpt from interview with Jack Runnels by Kristin Murphy, 2018

Runnels: [00:19:22] Firstborn male. My name is the same as my father's, Jack Cruse Runnels, not junior interestingly. I'm the second and I— I did a lot of self-exploration when I had my mental breakdown a few years ago and also thinking about my issues of low self-esteem and low self-worth and massive abuse of alcohol at the time. My dad was an alcoholic. I have bipolar disorder, bipolar II [disorder]. I suspect my dad did too. And so, really going deep and examining myself and then also thinking about my father, my gut feeling is that my being named the second is not just a quirk instead of Junior. That it was sort of like a second chance. He wanted me to be the man he couldn’t be, and I could be wrong.

Q: I hadn't thought of that distinction, but that is kind of—like I thought of “Second” as an elitist thing, like Charles I and Charles II but no. This makes a lot of sense.

Runnels: [00:20:50] And I don’t know if that was conscious. I mean, unfortunately, my dad died probably—I think he died in 2002.

Q: How old was he at the time?

Runnels: [00:21:01] He was fifty-six. Yes. He smoked very heavily, two to three packs a day. And this is not an exaggeration, he drank pretty much twenty-four hours a day. He would go to bed, and if he woke up to go to the bathroom, he would drink another beer before he went back to bed. He was in a stupor most of the time.

Q: Was this true before his injury?

Runnels:—he drank a lot. I remember growing up—you know as a young child, I remember knowing that my dad drank more than most people I knew. Now, of course, back then, you didn’t have the internet. All you had was the ABC Afterschool Special.

Q: [Laughs]

Runnels: There's an alcoholic in my family, you know? And so, you watched this like, Hey I'm not alone, but then you still assume you're alone. You're never going to talk to anybody in school about this. Nowadays, especially as an adult when I talk to people about this, "Oh, yes, I've got a problem, my dad has got a problem, my sister got a problem," whatever. Where it really became—it got to the point where he was drinking twenty-four hours a day though.

When I hit puberty, and especially after I announced that I was no longer going to be going to church, and finally got to an age where I felt—I mean I was just angry. I was really angry at my dad. Most of the time growing up, my dad would say, "Why are you doing this? That's what girls do. Or why are you playing with this or reading that? You're eight. That's more like what a five- year-old group would read or play with." I didn’t know enough to say, "You're wrong." I thought, [sighs] I'm doing this wrong. What have I got to do? Okay, so I love doing this thing. This is who I am, but I'm going to put it aside and never do it again because that's not what you do.

And I spent the rest of the time up until I was junior high, high-school age in constant fear of being judged as different, not doing things the right way. To the point where even when I rebelled and said, "You know what, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to do that, you're wrong about this," I still secretly was very careful about what I chose to do. And in a lot of cases didn’t know what I wanted to do because I had spent my entire life, up until that point, worried about what not to do, not thinking about what do I really want to do.

So, back to my dad. When he really got to the point where he was drinking twenty-four hours a day, that was it, when I finally one day said, "No, you're wrong. People do wear this to school every day, and so I'm going to wear it, too." And he yelled at me, and I yelled at him, and over the course of the next three or four years, some of these yelling matches would end with him hitting me, and I didn’t give a shit. I stuck to my guns.

Some of it was natural teenage rebellion, and some of it was me just pissed off that I had put up with it for so long. And from that point on—and I didn’t—again, I didn’t realize this until I looked back on it within the last few years. That's really when I started where I don’t think I ever saw him after that when he was sober.

I saw him a few months before he died back in 2002, and he told me that he wanted to apologize for all the stuff that he'd ever done while I was growing up. And over the years, we—I would have this on-again-off-again relationship with him where I would give him a chance and then he would do something really stupid. Especially after I had kids, he and my mom were supposed to watching them. I come home, he's drunk, stuff like that, so. Where I'd have a relationship with him and then I'd say, "You know what, that's it, we're done." I wouldn't talk to him for six months and then slowly I would say, "Okay, he's my dad. He's my kids' granddad, I'll give him another chance." And I'd give him a chance and then something bad would happen again.

And every time one of those things happened, I would talk to him on the phone. When I would first talk to him on the phone after we hadn't talked for a while, I would still be angry, and I would express that anger. He would say, "Well, I don’t know what you want me to do. I can't change the past." And I always said, "That's true, you can't change the past, but you can change your behavior going forward in the future, and you could, at least, apologize for the past." And he usually didn’t have much to say. So, shortly before he died, he said, "I would like to apologize for everything that I've done."

Q: I'm sorry. Did he know he was dying? Did you know he was dying?

Runnels: Yes, he had cancer. Yes, he had head and neck cancer from the—

Q: Three packs a day.

Runnels: [00:26:37]—three packs a day. And yes, if you consumed a lot of alcohol and smoked a lot of cigarettes, your likelihood of getting head and throat cancer goes through the roof. So, he said he wanted to apologize, and I'm sitting there thinking, "Oh my God, I cannot believe this. This is all I've ever asked for." His eyes started to tear up a little bit, and he said, "But I can't because I don’t remember any of it."

Q: Oh.

Runnels: [00:27:08] And I just remember seeing the look on his face of—you know like he's about to cry. I went from like elation thinking, "Here it is, it's about to come," to supreme disappointment and sadness. It was centered on me. I was disappointed, and I was sad.

He died not long after that, and I remember thinking that I had empathy for him, but looking back on it, I think it was more pity or, at most, compassion. When I reexamined it in the last few years, and I think about the look in his eyes, and the fact that my dad for my—his entire life would never admit that he was wrong, would never risk looking stupid in front of people, I mean wouldn’t risk anything in his life. He wouldn’t risk anything. I recognize now that that was probably the most courageous thing my father ever did was to admit to me that he wanted to do some basic human, decent thing and apologize, but that he couldn’t because he was so fucking drunk all the time. And he never admitted that either while we're—"Oh, maybe I had a little bit," or whatever. That was the most raw and vulnerable I ever saw my father and—

Interview Transcript