By Lisa Love
Merle Temple is a man who has seen it all, both demons and angels. He has seen the best of human nature with its love and compassion, and the worst of mankind’s depravity toward one another, with the sole intent of causing pain and destruction. It was the latter that entangled him, ending his law enforcement career, and quite nearly his life.
That particular career began for him in the early ’70s, and it was launched with the best of intentions. With the dawning of the Woodstock generation, a battle was brewing between the powers that be and the emerging counterculture for the very heart and soul of America. In response, President Nixon declared his “War on Drugs” in June 1971 targeting dealers, suppliers and users by dramatically increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushing through mandatory sentencing.
Temple, a Tupelo, Mississippi native, was one of the agents on the front line of this war. As the first captain in the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Temple witnessed the devastation that the drugs and their handlers brought to the region. Little did he know, when he began his fight, that he would be betrayed by those he trusted and would end up on the other side of the law, serving serious prison time.
Now, released from prison, Temple has brilliantly recounted this time in our history, sharing his firsthand knowledge of fighting in the trenches of America’s drug war in an action-packed trilogy of tales of betrayal, corruption, murder—and yes, eventually, redemption.
In “A Ghostly Shade of Pale”—the first book in the trilogy—Temple introduced his protagonist alter ego, Michael Parker, an agent with an unabashed respect for God, duty and his country. Within the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Parker is an idealist, fighting on the side of the angels, and he is obsessed with bringing to justice the evildoers profiting from the evolving drug culture.
However, the organized crime figures that Parker fights in “A Ghostly Shade of Pale” are amateurs compared to the political criminals and Dixie Mafia types he encounters in “A Rented World”—the second of Temple’s trilogy. In this novel, Michael Parker travels through an unholy trinity of politics, crime, and business on a winding road that leads him from the Mississippi Bureau to the private business sector. He then finds himself navigating a crooked trail which leads all the way to Congress and the White House.
Finally, in “The Redeemed”—the last saga in his trilogy—Temple paints a gut-wrenching tale of the hellish depths to which Parker descends. He is unfairly sentenced to prison for the crimes of others—the result of government corruption, cronyism, and the betrayal by a much-trusted mentor. He is brought full circle in a nightmare from which there seems to be no awakening. It is a nightmare where his faith is pushed beyond what he can humanly bear, and he finds himself spinning downward into a spiral of despair from which only Jesus can save him.
Temple writes about Parker’s walk down a prison corridor: “He was jeered and mocked, called names that would make even a veteran cop wince. It was a total absence of humanity. It was…hell.”
As for Merle Temple, the man, you can’t miss being struck by the earnestness, integrity and the passion for life that radiates from him. Oddly enough, there is also an innate innocence and naïveté to his personality that helps explain why it was so easy for him to be betrayed by those who hid evil behind smiles of friendship. Temple ended up being surrounded by affable lawmakers and politicians, with one hand on his shoulder, as the other hand twisted the knife in his back, fulfilling their own personal agendas and sacrificing him on the altar of expediency for professional and financial gain.
Michael Parker’s narrative is truly Merle Temple’s story; Temple serves up his heart, his life, and his own failings on a platter to his readers. It’s an unflinchingly honest, unseemly glimpse behind the tattered veil of personal and government greed, corruption, betrayal, but ultimately, redemption. When asked how he felt when he finally came to the realization that he had placed his faith in the wrong people and had been so badly double-crossed, Merle pauses to think a moment.
“Despite the betrayals of trust and the illusion of truth while I was a foot soldier in the first drug wars,” he explained, “I left the Bureau still searching for a better and more perfect practice of the flawed and fragile template I labored within…Don Quixote and his windmills, dragons to slay. I wanted to be the hero, to rescue damsels in distress, to right wrongs, to save the day. The Cross was nowhere on my radar, and I forgot that the world already had a Savior, and it wasn’t me.”
He continued, “I was suspicious of the world and the hollow players within it, but still shocked and surprised when they attacked me for playing by what I thought were the rules…good vs. evil, chivalry, and the golden rule.
“The first breach was when I chaired the campaign to defeat the corrupt incumbent, and the threatening calls came from him and a prominent newspaper editor, followed by my company telling me that, because of me, no corporate legislation would move in the legislature until I was punished, and that right and wrong didn’t matter…that I must cease to be who I thought I was all of my life and become…like them.”
Merle went on, “When I left that company in the aftermath of that and moved to Atlanta to work for a government agency, I was still trying to reconstruct the old paradigm and fix it, make it right, but the dragons were bigger and nastier than ever. The whole of government, the political parties, and most of the major media made up one giant, incestuous toxic stew. Innocence was nowhere to be found, but I still tried to overlay that old template over a game that I did not fully comprehend. The temporal elevated, while any thoughts of the eternal seemed beyond my comprehension or grasp. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I tried to make six and six equal two.
“I tried to make these or those political players the good guys, and I tried to make my boss the damsel in distress. In trying to force my flawed template on that world and to save the day, my ideals were lost. I began to confront my own imperfections, along with my own sin, and my disillusionment and contempt was no longer with the world, but rather, with myself. A battle was raging between God and the devil. I realized—too late—that the battlefield was in my heart and for my heart. Far off on some distant horizon was that thunderstorm, that nagging question growing louder as it drew near to me: ‘Who is wining this battle for my soul?’
“When I was indicted, I tried to speak to my accusers in old-speak, to borrow a term from Orwell, but it was a foreign language to them, because they were conversing in the new-speak of a fallen world. All the clocks were striking thirteen, and it dawned on me what a dinosaur I was. In the end, everything I believed in crumbled. The paradigm was gone, shattered. I was in free fall into a consuming pit of darkness. There was nothing and no one there to catch me—no one but the Hound of Heaven, Who never gave up on me. In the long dark days and nights ahead of me in prison, trust was restored, not in the temporal, but in the eternal. A peace that I had never known came to live in me.”
In “The Redeemed,” with unimaginable circumstances that would destroy most—despite opposition and unjust punishment meted out daily—Temple’s protagonist Parker not only survives behind bars, but against all worldly odds, spiritually thrives and makes a difference within the corrupt prison system, bringing hope to the hopeless and humanity to the forgotten.
Merle explained, “In the long, dark days and nights in prison, when I was livin “The Redeemed,” I was listening to a distant radio broadcast late one night, tiny earbuds wedged into my ears. A woman told her tragic story of abuse and despair that led her to become suicidal. She explained how she was committed to an asylum, and locked in a padded room. One night, she crawled into the corner of the room, curling into a fetal position of hopelessness. Suddenly, she said, the pitch black of the room was pierced by a sudden and brief light. Then it was gone, but she felt someone in the room. She peeked from beneath her knees where her head was buried, and as her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could see a figure moving toward her in the gloom. He finally stood before her, and she realized that he was not one of the attendants, but rather, a stranger. He held something in his hand, a stuffed animal. He offered it to her…it was a lamb. Then the man, whom she had never seen before—and never saw again—told her, ‘The Lamb knows where you are.’ Tears overflowed the wells of my eyes that night. She left her prison and became an evangelist, and so did I. Do not despair. The Lamb knows where you are.”
That’s when Merle Temple started writing.
He explained, “Writing allowed me to go to another place, to leave the harsh reality I was in…to search my heart for coherence, for meaning, to eventually crawl to the foot of the Cross, and cry out, ‘Master, I have ruined this life. May I have another?’ Divine love and mercy poured out on me from His wounded side, burned away the chaff around my heart, and broke me. I met Him on my own roads to Damascus and Emmaus, and picked up my cross to follow Him. I was finding myself, making sense of it all in my writing, and the Holy Spirit was guiding me, as I took future readers on a journey that I was just beginning to understand myself. He showed me that I was to write three books, written as fiction, but drawn from my life, to tell my story and His story of second chances and redemption. One would not be enough. From the books, doors would be opened, and a whole new timeline of service and modeling the servant image of Christ would appear.
“There were countless hours in the prison library, searching for just the right words for ‘A Ghostly Shade of Pale.’ While others played cards or walked the track, I wrote and rewrote. It was usually late at night with just a tiny penlight after lights out…writing for Christ. The first, first, first draft was flat and lifeless, but the Holy Spirit showed me what to do, and I began to go through it and add descriptors. When I did, the characters came to life and began to pop up off the pages. You could see what they saw, hear what they heard, smell what they smelled, and feel what they felt. God gave a drowning man a life preserver, just as the Lifeguard saved the Pilgrim in Progress to the shores of the Celestial City.”
It was also in prison that Merle found not only the eternal, unconditional love of his Heavenly Father, but also the personal love that quenched his soul after years of drought. Merle was blessed to reconnect with Judy, a special woman who had been a childhood friend from his hometown in Mississippi. In fact, he and Judy had been in each other’s wedding party many years ago, but sadly, both of their spouses had died years earlier.
When Judy learned of his incarceration, she immediately reached out to him through notes of encouragement and friendship. Merle began to live for mail call. Their friendship was rekindled, and love began to bloom. Despite all odds, they were able to marry inside that very prison. Today, they are each other’s best friend, partner and cheerleader; God turned their brokenness into wholeness and restoration. Love’s redemption abounds.
Here is an excerpt of their first meeting in that stale smelling prison visiting room, as seen through the eye’s of Temple’s trilogy protagonist, Michael Parker:
Saturday finally rolled around. Michael ate a hearty breakfast, and then showered, shaved, and primped. He had shined his government shoes till they were gleaming. Mr. Moulder had pressed his best government greens and gave them so much starch that the pants could practically walk around on their own.
Michael paced back and forth in his room like a caged panther, waiting for the call to come up front to visitation. Today was the day that Judy Brown, his old classmate and Susan’s best friend, was coming to see him. He had exchanged emails with her on the newly-installed, heavily-monitored email system, and they’d caught up on old times.
“What’s wrong with you? You’re like a kid on a first date,” Andrew teased.
Others walked by to sing-song in their very best schoolyard imitations, “Michael’s got a da-ate, Michael’s got a da-ate!”
He finally checked his hair once more in his mirror and eased down through the hall connecting the breezeway to the visiting-room doors to catch a glimpse of her. It was forbidden, but it was a special day. Other inmates followed him to get a glimpse of this woman that was coming to see Michael.
He carefully sneaked a peek into the visiting room just as she was checking in with the officer. She turned to sit near the front and looked toward the doors he would walk through. He watched her for a moment as she waited for him.
She was older, like he was, but there was no mistaking who the woman was he saw waiting for him. There was clarity and strength in her face, the clear complexion promised to women by all of those old ivory soap commercials and thick, glossy brown hair that looked like silk.
She wasn’t the girl on the school bus any longer, but she appeared to be a first-class lady.
At a distance, the huge eyes seemed to be anxious, just as his were, and long, dark lashes rapidly fanned her eyes. She had a certain way of carrying herself…a woman who had endured much.
Any visit was a prize in prison, but Michael sensed that this was something different—one of those hold-your-breath moments. Though he tried to tamp it down, it felt as if someone was slowly thumping him on his skull, and his heart suddenly felt like he’d been running a marathon.
Don’t be silly, he told himself. This is your friend and Susan’s friend, Judy. What is the matter with you?
Yet, there was this feeling…this warning from above—Don’t blow this, Michael.
She looked younger than her years, with a touch of sun on her cheeks or the blush of meticulous makeup. In a burst of insecurity, he wondered how he might appear to her. He was underweight. His face was strained from years of stress, abuse, bad nutrition, and too little sun. He wasn’t dressed in one of the suits he wore in his corporate days. All he had was the ugly green prison garb and boots that made his size thirteen-feet look like sixteens.
They called his name, “Michael Parker to visitation. Michael Parker to visitation.”
When he came into the anteroom to sign in and receive a pat-down, Mr. Stack, a soft-spoken veteran officer with graying hair, was on duty.
He was a kind man, one of the best, and treated everyone with respect.
“Got anything on you, Michael?” he asked.
“No, just some Kleenex in case I cry,” Michael said with a nervous laugh.
“Is she someone special?” he asked.
“I think so, yes,” Michael answered.
Michael walked into the room, and Judy rose to greet him. Her dark brown hair was cut to frame her face. Her eyes were a rich shade of green, and the prominent eyebrows above them just made those eyes pop and sparkle. She had a big, ripe smile that was warm and genuine.
She was the same girl from high school, the one who sat in front of him on the school bus that rumbled through Parker Grove…yet different. Her face was alive and curious. So much there…a book that begged to be read, he thought.
There was depth in those bottomless green pools, and a zest for life. This wasn’t a woman he could slink up to like any old Jim Dandy and make some glib remark.
She affirmatively bobbed her head in what appeared to be genuine joy to see him, and graced him with a sweet smile at his approach. She seemed as nervous as he was. He had wiped the sweat from his palms before he entered the room, and felt weak in the knees and a tad wobbly.
“Hi, Judy,” Michael said, as he embraced her briefly.
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” he quipped.
She smiled a big smile and laughed—gently and genuinely. The ice was broken, and both were relieved as some tension went out of the moment—tension that could have ruined a perfectly wonderful reunion.
“Well, Michael, I came looking for an old friend to ask him what he’s doing in a place like this,” she said in a soft voice with a shy, little-girl lilt.
These days, Merle, the real-life Michael Parker, spends a lot of time on the road, telling his story of the redemption at the end of his own road of near destruction. By his side is his beloved real life, real wife, Judy. There are book signings, speaking engagements and television and radio interviews. So, how does manage to keep doing it?
Merle answers the question with a story. “I speak at a shelter called ‘Broken Lives,’ a last stop for men who have lost everything,” he says, softly. “The first time I spoke there, several men accepted Christ. They have my books for the men. They asked me to return, and the night I was scheduled to go, I was very sick and could barely stand, but I went. My voice was gone, and I prayed up to the moment they called me to the podium—for my voice to return. It did, and if anything, it was a better night than before. I was exhausted after my message, and I had told the men to stay back in case I was contagious, but over 50 men came forward, as I collapsed into my chair, and they began to lay hands on me and pray over me. To hear men who have lost everything pleading the blood of Christ over my life…well, it doesn’t get any better than that. Thank you, Jesus!”
And so, Merle Temple’s journey continues…from Mississippi to Atlanta, from prison to redemption, and from the road to eternity.
Lisa Love is an Atlanta-based writer and regular columnist to SouthernReader.com. For more information about Merle Temple, his books and his ministry, check out his website at http://merletemple.com.