ALBION -- Chet Waters steps out onto the back porch and lights a cigarette. It's late afternoon and he's been here all day, hunkered into a small, dark log cabin perched precariously close to a tight elbow in the highway. Tall and solid as two yards of hickory stump, he leans against the railing and takes a long drag. The sunlight is blazing hot.
There was a time when seeing Waters on any porch of any house in Albion, Pangburn, McRae or one of a hundred little farmhouses in bends and hollers throughout White County sent a message. Go back a decade or so, and the mere sight of him was searing neon, ample notice to what lay inside. If you partied, you looked for him; if you patrolled, you kept an eye on him.
If you're just looking for trouble, well, you found him.
"I was a fighter. It's what I was good at. I had a reputation," he said, arms folded across his chest. "My dad always told me. 'One of these days you're going to hurt somebody.' One time, this guy gives me this get-out-of-my-face kind of jab and I punched him, shattered his face. They had to do reconstructive surgery and stuff."
It's one of the tamer stories Waters has about his life as an addict, pusher, convict and all-around hell-raiser; one he tells casually, as if describing someone else. And in many important ways, that's exactly what he's doing, talking about his former self and the life he left behind, if only by a step or two.
Thanks to a new outlook and the structure of Restore Hope, a prison diversion program which has recently helped him get his life back on track, the sight of Waters is more hopeful than it's ever been. The inside of the log cabin is a job site where he's hanging sheetrock, cutting trim, painting walls. The clutter of construction makes the space faintly reminiscent of the vacant-building drug dens of his past, but these days he's building instead of destroying.
"I was a junkie. I was a shooter and it was the rush. That's why I lived my life the way I did, the adrenaline. Once the rush was gone, let's just do some more dope," he said. "I was the life of the party. I mean, life was a party. It was all what you see on TV. That's how I lived my life, for years."
"Then something changed. I didn't want to be a drug addict no more. But it didn't come overnight. It came with a lot of hard fights, a lot of hard knocks and lot of wanting to go get high again."
Waters paused. His ice-blue eyes fixed on a far wall.
"To be honest, I was having a bad day the day they called me to do this interview. I was battling wanting to go get high that day. I really was. But then they called and asked me to tell my story and I'm like, there's my reason to stay sober. Sometimes you just need a reason."
Waters' story begins in McRae where he was born into a tempestuous household riddled with drugs and dysfunction. His parents, both over-the-road truck drivers, split up early in his life. Seemingly everyone in his orbit was directly or indirectly laced into the drug scene, particularly his mother who, Waters said, died in a shootout with police in Arizona in 1995. His own drug use started with pot and methamphetamine when he was barely a teenager.
"My dad told me my whole life that my mom was a drug dealer and a drug addict and I didn't believe him because my mom maintained a really normal-looking lifestyle," he said. "I didn't like my dad and wanted to be with my mom. When I moved in with her at 14, she was honest with me about what she did.
"I was a mama's boy but she didn't know how to be a mom. For her, it was just be my best friend. When I moved in with her, she's like, 'Here's an ounce of weed. Here's a hundred bucks, a pack of cigarettes. Don't be selling this s---.'"
Despite good grades and a voracious appetite for reading, Waters bristled at almost every authority figure he'd ever run up against, leading him to drop out of high school. Yet he'd always dreamed of joining the Army and from October 1996 to May 1998, he reveled in the structure and discipline of the service. Then, while stationed in Oklahoma, a felony hot check warrant back home would knock him so far off course it would take decades to right himself.
"I get arrested while in the military. They called White County and White County's like, here's what we'll do. If he gives us $2,500 in one lump sum, we'll drop the charges, time served," he said. "Well, the only way I knew how to make $2,500 real quick was to cook dope. I just got caught up in the game."
His military dream evaporated, Waters came home. As a teenager, he'd give dope away, reveling in the endless circle of friends it attracted. Now in the risk-reward-repeat life of a pusher, he was again the center of attention, alternating between life of the party and menacing badass, one not very far apart from the other.
"I used to tell my boys all these stories about how tough I was," he said. "And I have a son in prison now and all I think about is all those stories I told, how I made it look cool. I never meant to, that wasn't why I was doing those things. It was just the life I had lived for so long, 22 years of actual addiction."
Dancing with the devil gave Waters a familiar addict mentality: delusions of control crumbling into helplessness for want of a fix. Self-respect was a scarce commodity, so he grasped whatever he could.
"I wouldn't smoke crack because I did not want the stigma of being on crack," he said, his face scrunching. "You could call me a meth head all you wanted, but there was a stigma with being called a crack head. I did not want society to look at me that way."
A shrug, "And they looked at me that way anyways, you know what I mean?"
Jail time came standard with the life he'd chosen. Waters reckons he's done "six or seven" stretches in prison, time that would barely dent his attitude or his deepening habit.
"I remember hiding at the dope man's house when my kids were at the door saying, 'Hey, I want my dad! Tell him to come out here and see me,'" he said. "I didn't even have the guts to go outside and face a six-year-old kid, I was so strung out."
"I had doors kicked in. I wasn't a good dad; I was a deadbeat dad for years. It just got to be where I didn't care no more. There at the end I was down on a dirt road, drunk, needle, junkie. That's what I had gotten down to."
As night follows day, parties increasingly yielded to suffocating darkness, taking most of the people in his life with it. The only ones around were there to get high and when it got heavy, even they split. Caught between sporadic attempts to start over and the overpowering temptations surrounding him, death often seemed the only plausible option.
"Suicide by cop? Yeah, I thought about that. I tried overdosing," he said. "But as far as putting a gun in my mouth, I could never face that one. I don't know how God would deal with that one, you know?"
In 2011, during his last prison stretch, something went off in his head. Waters was tired. It wasn't the first time he'd promised himself things, but this felt different. And he was down to one place left to start over.
"My grandma was the only person who has never turned her back, never gave up on me. I could go to Grandma's three sheets to the wind, and Grandma would still say, 'Come on in, baby. Let your grandma feed you.'
"When I was in prison, I didn't have a way to come home and I wrote my grandma and told her I really wanted to change. She was like, 'Let me pray about this.' She prayed about it and she said God woke her up in the middle of the night and said, 'Give him a chance. I think he's changed.'"
Dana Baker has heard the addict's line about wanting to go straight so many times she can spot the repenters from the pretenders with her eyes closed. It's what makes her effective in her job, which is pointing people on a good path after a lifetime of bad decisions and helping them learn to see the difference.
"My personal philosophy in what I do every day is that every person deserves the very best I can offer them. Everybody deserves a really good opportunity," said Baker. "I have right now four or five males and females who are taking advantage of every opportunity we provide them. There are others who are a few steps behind them and some are a few miles behind them, but they're continuing to work that path."
Baker is the White County coordinator for The 100 Families Initiative, a sprawling program that seeks to remove barriers for people trying to get their lives back on track from addiction, foster care, incarceration and other challenges. For two-plus years before that, she worked for Restore Hope, a cousin to 100 Families, which offers those landing in district court the option of counseling and education over fines, community service or jail time. Which is exactly how she entered Waters' life.
"What I saw in him was, he was absolutely at the lowest point he had ever been in his life," she said. "He had a case that was being investigated with his children and he knew that [Restore Hope] could help him strengthen his relationship with his kids, get clean, strengthen his marriage, even. His motivator was keeping his family intact."
"He is a very people-oriented person, so the fact that someone was in the courtroom and offering him an opportunity to connect was really appealing to him. He knew he needed therapy and connection, but it had never been offered to him without obstacles."
Waters found Restore Hope's strategy a refreshing change from the other programs he'd attempted dating back to middle school.
"I used to do alcohol and drug counseling. I went through lots of programs, did lots of stuff, but I never felt like I was more than just a paycheck to them. I never felt like I was more than just a number," he said. "That's what I like about Restore Hope. We're not paychecks, we're people.
"You're liable to get a phone call out of nowhere just to see how you're doing. 'We just want to check on you. Man, does your family have food? Are your bills paid? Are you needing help with this or you needing help with that? Is there anything we can do?' They just care."
Restore Hope helped Waters replace negative influences with therapy and people who provided accountability. More than that, the group helped clear the obstacles that often derail people's progress and land them back inside.
"In a normal year, 11,000 Arkansans leave prison and come back to the community. Four years and 11 months is the average time served, then you're starting all over again," said Paul Chapman, Restore Hope CEO. "You've got to get a job, but you don't have a car, you don't have a driver's license. If you were able to get a car, you don't have insurance. How do you start from zero? It's very difficult. Most of them will be back in prison within three years.
"Our goal is to put this partnership and framework together so that the only thing standing in the way of our client and success are their decisions. Individual will is a substantial factor; what we're trying to do is remove all barriers other than will."
Baker doesn't use words like "cured" when talking about Waters; there is no such thing in the world of addiction. But she doesn't use words like "hopeless" either.
"Chester really is unique. He's so proud of everything he's done," she said. "He's got a drive, it's contagious. It's contagious for me. It's contagious for his therapist. It's contagious for his wife and for his kids.
"Do I expect setbacks? Sure. But he knows he can keep coming back to us and we're going to keep referring him to support him in the hard times. We're not going to give up. We've never given up on anyone, we just keep reconnecting them. That's what we'll continue to do."
Over the past year, Waters has demonstrated the will to make important changes in his life and as a result, found a whole new legion of people in his corner. Some of them even helped him launch his own business, Blood Bought Construction, where each board is a buttress shoring up the self-esteem drugs leached out of him.
Still, sobriety is a fragile state, as he is the first to tell you, and slippery underfoot. He's cut ties with two of his longest-standing friends -- one who's kin and one who goes back to elementary school -- placing his life instead in the hands of his loving God, Project Hope and his take-no-excuses wife, Amy, a person tougher than he ever was.
"I have a strong backboned wife that my family does not like because she will stand up to them," he said. "She stood up to me. She's like, 'Take this s--- somewhere else and you bring your ass home when you want to be a dad again.' She put up with it because she loved me. Then it came to a point where she couldn't put up with it no more and she put her foot down and I got clean."
Waters, 41, acknowledges a couple of setbacks, demonstrating how wide and deep the scar of drugs runs down the middle of him. Yet he moves forward, each step another six inches away from where he was.
"I remember when I first got clean, I had this friend who was clean eight years and I'm thinking man, I could never. Eight years? I don't imagine eight years. Not getting high for eight years? Oh my God! Then today I look back and I'm like man, it's almost six years."
"Every success story starts with Day One. I'm going to tell you honestly, what keeps me from going back and getting high a thousand times is I don't want to do Day One again. Day One is the hardest. Day One is the day you have to decide this can be make-or-break. Day One is the day where you have to fight and bite the bullet. Day Two gets a little easier. Then Day Three is a little easier. I never want to do another Day One."
Info: Restore Hope, restorehopear.org, (501) 404-9865