SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA --Ronald W. Cram sat in his yellow jail-issued jumpsuit Friday (4/20/97), looking at the ground as he listened to the words of his teenage son being read.
At every turn, he denied assertions made in the letter--that his drinking had ruined his family, that he was home, drunk, while his son underwent open-heart surgery and when the boy graduated from junior high school--but wasn't surprised by them. Then, halfway through the letter, the 52-year-old construction worker, who has been arrested more than a dozen times on suspicion of drunk driving, calmly put down the telephone receiver and walked away, descending a flight of stairs to go back to his jail cell.
"I'm not going to answer any more questions," Ronald Cram said in an interview from the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana. He also asserts that it was his estranged wife, Kay Cram, who was behind the letter, not his son. He stated last week, after his arrest, that he does not have a drinking problem and that he could quit drinking any time. He said he went camping and fishing with his son, whom he said was 17, although he could not remember what grade he was in.
The son, who is 16, said he wrote the letter Tuesday, after reading a news account of an interview in which Ronald Cram said his drinking hasn't caused any problems for his family. His mother confirmed the contents of the letter.
The high school sophomore said he wrote partly out of anger at his father for minimizing the pain that he and his mother have lived through. And he wrote partly to express in words what he has tried to tell his father in person.
"Through all of this, I still love my dad and all," the teen said in an interview. "I just don't understand why he does what he does, and I don't understand what enjoyment he gets out of it."
Ronald Cram was arrested twice this year by Santa Ana police in a pilot project to catch the most egregious among suspected drunk drivers. Such projects address the public safety side of alcoholism, but the problem cannot help but reach into the private lives of children.
The lanky teenager was born with a hole in his heart, but said the real void of his life was losing his father to alcoholism.
While the 16-year-old was suffering from what's known as aortic valvular disease, he watched his father drink himself to unconsciousness and repeatedly be carted off to jail for driving drunk.
As his son was undergoing open-heart surgery, Ronald Cram was home drinking with a buddy, said the teen's mother, Kay Cram. Ronald Cram was reeking of alcohol when he arrived at the hospital after the surgery was over, she said.
"I hate him. I hate him," Kay Cram recalled her son saying afterward.
Ronald Cram denied that ever happened. In Friday's interview, he said, "I was there. I was there the whole time. The only time I went home was to check the mail and make sure the animals were all right."
He also denied being home drunk during his son's junior high school graduation ceremony, which the boy alleged.
"I was at work," Cram said.
And similarly, the reason he showed up at a camping trip five hours late was because of work, not his drinking, he said.
Alcoholism is recognized as a disease by medical authorities, who said Cram's case is a classic example of an alcoholic who is in denial.
The teen and his mother said they have been trying to help him, thinking that if he realizes the extent of his problem, he will change and become a husband and father again. But every time either of them tries to talk to him, he either walks away or "closes it out with a beer," Kay Cram said.
Last May, the mother and son left Cram, taking only a few bags of clothes and other essentials. They slept in her car for two nights while looking for an apartment. They later decorated their new home with odds and ends, some of which the mother took from trash bins because she couldn't afford furniture.
On Christmas, the teen said, his father arrived saying he was sorry that he couldn't afford a present. Yet, the man was holding a 12-pack of beer in his hand, the son said. Then on his son's 16th birthday, Ronald Cram promised to visit but never showed up.
Her son "had cooked spaghetti and made his own birthday cake," said Kay Cram, a part-time bus driver.
For the most part, the teen said, he has tried to forget about the past. He began competitive swimming and improved his time by 30 seconds within a month, his coach Famous Hooks said.
"He's worked really, really hard. He's a super kid. He gives you 100% all the time," said Hooks, who suffered from asthma as a child and said he is constantly watching the boy to make sure he's not overdoing it.
"I had to back him off because I was afraid that he would get sick out there. . . . But apparently, swimming has helped him. He's doing better."
On weekends, Kay Cram and her son pack up their fishing poles and head out to Irvine Lake or the Huntington Beach Pier to fish, the boy's favorite pastime. And just the other night, he hugged his mother and told her that he feels as though he "can breathe better now."