Bob’s Christmas Surprise

Bob’s Christmas Surprise
It was Christmas time in 1976 and we were preparing for the big day and the inevitable parties that we were famous for holding. Fort Richardson, Alaska’s Army base was a pleasant enough place and spirits were running high among our tight-knit group of air traffic controllers; we were a big unrelated family.
 
My second in command on my crew was a college educated, older than average (older than me) man, who had just recently joined the Army. Bob had spent years touring with jazz great Chick Corea as his bass guitar player, living the wild life associated with music groups on the road. That lifestyle had provided him with periods of modest wealth and times where he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from.
 
His first wife had been excited early on by the fame and wealth, but quickly grew jealous and distrustful and while Bob was on tour in Germany, filed for divorce. Unable to leave the tour, he was not there to defend himself and got taken to the cleaners losing his house, everything in his joint bank accounts and most of his possessions. The only tangible asset that remained was his Cadillac Seville, because his wife hated the car. He says it was because she couldn’t park it… personally I think it had more to do with the purple paint job.
 
While in Germany, Bob met an American girl from Chicago named Heidi who had just completed her college degree and was visiting the town her grandparents had immigrated from. Heidi was a cousin of the club owner and to be nice to his American relative, he introduced her to the band. In college she had majored in English but had a minor in music. She and Bob had a long conversation about classical music’s influence on modern jazz after the performance that night. The band moved on to the next city the next day and Heidi finished her vacation and went back to Chicago; life went on for everyone.
 
Upon returning from the European tour, Bob was informed that the band would be taking a four month (at least) hiatus, which meant he had no job and nothing to do since he was now single and homeless. His ex-wife had put his car in storage in New Jersey, so after he picked it up and found all of his clothes stuffed inside of it, he decided on a whim to drive to Chicago to look up the girl that he couldn’t get out of his mind.
 
He found her right away, they hit it off really well, and in a few short weeks they got married. Bob tried playing with house bands in Chicago while they waited for teaching jobs to materialize for both of them (Bob had a degree in music) but it was going to take months as there were no openings. Living with her parents was not working out too well as they didn’t consider being a musician a “decent” profession and told them so.
 
When Heidi became pregnant, they made a choice to get away from her parents and the sure harassment that was coming. Bob joined the army under a program that let him come in at an E-5 pay grade and have medical benefits for his wife and their baby on the way.
 
Fort Richardson, Alaska was his first assignment out of air traffic control school and they were happy to be far away from their old life. Heidi was enjoying being the queen of her own house and no longer being told how to live her life. Our air traffic controller family had made them welcome and life was good for everyone.
 
Heidi was an only child who had been brought up by career professional, ultra organized, clean freak parents who had her late in life. She wasn’t allowed to get dirty, or play outside growing up in a condo in an upper crust area of Chicago. Life was controlled and sterile until she broke free and moved to Alaska.
 
A couple of months went by and their baby girl Estelle was born and there was joy and cigars all around, but something was still missing.
 
There was one thing in life that she had always wanted and never thought that she would have. She confessed it to Bob one night as they sat in their living room looking out at the northern lights dancing across the sky. He was determined to give it to her for Christmas and just as dedicated to keeping it a secret from “H.” Therein lay the problem for yours truly, his best friend.
 
Bob was a secret keeping conspirator straight out of a James Bond movie, he wouldn’t tell any of us what the big surprise was, even me, from whom he had extracted a promise of help to pull off this big coup. There were several hushed telephone calls from the tower (he didn’t dare call from home) on the evening shift to make arrangements, after which he would giggle like a deranged lunatic for several minutes.
 
I began to wonder if it was something illegal that he was having smuggled in by rogue Russians who would land a zodiac on the shoreline and we would sneak down there all dressed in black at midnight to pick up. No, that couldn’t be it; “H” didn’t like caviar, calling it stinky fish bait when we put some out at a party. Strangely enough, I did get that stuff from Russian friends who I knew, but it definitely wasn’t smuggled. That would have been cheaper! I was at a loss as to what he was doing and what I had gotten into by agreeing to help without knowing the details.
 
Three days before Christmas, Bob asked to take off from work to go meet someone and pay half of the money to hold the item he was getting for his wife. I was too busy to hold his feet to the fire about what it was and against my better judgment let him go for an hour to take care of business.
 
We were slammed with traffic working an operation that was a surprise to everyone. The base executive officer, (who was the acting officer-in-charge due to the commanding officer being in Washington state for the holidays), had stuck his neck out for the troops and was bringing everyone home early from field training exercises that the C.O. had sent them on. The original plan had the troops coming back in stages during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
 
The X.O. decided that this plan was not in the best interest of troop morale (we all agreed) and ordered that the entire division be brought home in time to be with their families and friends on Christmas.
 
In a rare diplomatic moment, the enlisted men were given the choice of how the division was to return to base and they decided that those with families would be flown back by helicopter, and those who lived in the barracks would drive the trucks back.
 
I was proud to be a part of such a great humanitarian action, but at the time I was talking as fast as my lips would move and wishing that I had more space on the ramps to put aircraft. As it was, we worked well past closing time and into the small hours of the morning recovering aircraft and happy soldiers.
 
So there we were on Christmas Eve day, hauling in supplies for the party at my house (a three level unit in an 8-plex base housing structure) and trying to get all of the food and drink ready. Bob was helping me unload the cases of beer and alcohol from the base “class six” (liquor) store. As we carried them inside the scoundrel was giggling like a man possessed. I still did not know what he was giving Heidi that I had to help with. I told him that time was running out; he just giggled more.
 
The day shift crew that normally worked 06:00 to 14:00 was closing the tower down at 18:00 (6 p.m.) so that no one else had to come in to work, as their gift to the rest of us. After they shut down they would be coming to my house along with their families and nearly everyone else. It was going to be really busy soon.
 
Finally, Bob tells me that he has called the lady who has the “gift” and will be picking it up right after he drops Heidi and the baby off at my house so that he can get this “thing” and take it to their house and thus make it a great big surprise.
 
“OK,” I thought, this was a pretty good plan and it looked like all I had to do was keep “H” busy while Bob made his run. I could do this and we would all get through it looking like good husbands and everyone would be happy.
 
It was now 6:30 p.m. and I had a house full of guests and more coming, when Bob pulled up without Heidi and the baby. I went out to the car and Bob told me that the baby was crying and Heidi wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea to bring her to the party and disturb everyone and she was at home crying too.
 
He was beside himself with stress over his big surprise and how it would never work unless he could get her out of the house and what was going to do now, etc. I went back into the house, told my wife what was going on and asked her and one of my female soldiers who knows kids (she has seven younger siblings) to take my International Scout to Bob’s house and get “H” and the baby and bring them to our house. It began snowing like the white Christmas that everyone wanted.
 
Bob then popped the next surprise on me, the location had changed and he wasn’t familiar with the area of town that his pick up was in; he needed me to go with him. I finally had the leverage I needed and told him that we were not going anywhere, especially in a snow storm on Christmas Eve, unless he told me what we were picking up.
 
“A little baby puppy,” were his exact words, and I could have smacked him for keepingthat such a big secret from me for so long. He told me the address that he needed to go to and he was right. He would never find it. The streets in that rundown section of Anchorage were not laid out in a logical fashion and many didn’t even have proper street signs. This was a part of town that didn’t have police patrols, it had responses… I had to go with him.
 
Bob had long since retired the purple caddy and bought a Toyota which was great for a family car and got twice the miles per gallon that the old battleship got, but I had no idea how well it handled on ice and snow. My friend drove, shall we say, haphazardly, often not looking in front of him while he talked to his passengers and looked around. It was so disconcerting that I understood why Heidi drove most of the time. We bombed through the base at such a rate of speed that I was amazed that we weren’t pulled over before we got through the front gate. Out onto the main highway to town and it was getting slick and hard to see. I was wishing that we had sent the girls in Bob’s car and we had taken the Scout, but that option was gone.
 
Once in town we navigated slowly (finally) through the neighborhoods as I struggled to find the landmarks to make the correct turns and get down what I remembered was a dead end street that was very narrow and slightly downhill. That last tidbit of information is important when you are in a two-wheel drive vehicle with no weight. This had gotten ugly, especially since it was dark and below zero outside.
 
We located the house in question and it looked like a very bad place to be without armed back up. There was a loud, drunken card game going on in the front room, being played by the largest five men I had ever seen. As I peered through the front plate glass window I could see handguns. Whoa, what kind of Christmas Eve party was this?
 
A large and unpleasant smelling woman, who looked and sounded like Ma Kettle’s twin (for those of you old enough to know who I mean), opened the front door and asked, “What the Hell do you as&&oles (gentlemen) want?”
 
Bob was unfazed and stepped forward smiling at her and identified himself and informed her that he has been doing “business” with her daughter. That could have been interpreted in a way that would have brought the gun toting men on the run.
 
I was ready to jump back in the still running car and drive us out of there after that last comment, but she just stared at him and asked, “Do you have the rest of my money?”
 
He said, “I do, but I want to see the goods first.”
 
I had the feeling that I was in the middle of a drug buy and that Bob had reverted to the old days of high living on the road. He HAD told us those stories as we worked long, quiet shifts on dark winter nights.
 
Ma Kettle said, “Go around back and knock on the door twice, Annie will open it and has what you want.” With that she slammed the door in my friend’s face and went back into the loud and rowdy room behind her.
 
Usually, you don’t need to take a gun with you to buy a “little baby puppy,” but I was wishing that I had brought one of mine with me. Taking a moment to dig my watch out of the layers of long johns, long sleeved shirt, and winter coat I could see that it was now 7:30 p.m. and we hadn’t even seen the puppy yet.
 
The space between the house and the fence was over knee deep in snow and had not seen a shovel, ever. Since I had boots on, and my indoor living musician buddy was wearing dress shoes, naturally, I had to go first and break trail for him. It was unlighted and ridiculously hard going. The water was dripping off of the overheated house as we walked, managing to hit me on the back of my neck and right down my back, irritating me to no end at Bob for getting me into this mess.
 
At the only door that I could see, which was in the side of an added-on section of house, I made Bob do the knocking and stepped off to one side, just in case something wasn’t right. The door opened right away and a plain looking girl wearing a flowered dress over long johns and logging boots, stepped into the glaring light. Her hair was Norwegian blond and in a long, thick braid that she flipped around as we talked.
 
Inside of the house but off to one side of the room, was a piece of plywood blocking the bottom half of a doorway, which we figured lead to the main part of the house. Coming from just behind that chunk of wood we could hear the whining and scratching of a dog trying to get out. The girl’s face lit up as she asked if we were there for “her” puppy.
 
Bob was eager to get his hands on the present that he had promised himself would be the best gift that Heidi could ever get — the dog that she was never allowed to have. He had his remaining payment in his hand as we went forward to the doorway to see the creature that we were there to pick up.
 
When we got to the plywood the “little baby puppy” stood up and put his paws on the board, looking out, instead of up, at us. This little baby puppy Old English sheepdog was at least three or four months old and huge! Well, compared to the picture in my mind of what we were there to pick up it was.
 
It was also in need of a bath as the area that it had been confined to was soiled with his waste and the puppy had been lying in it. His breath smelled like poop too. This was a little bit disgusting… OK, a lot!
 
I was dumbfounded to say the least and Bob just stood there with his mouth open. He had paid half of his hard earned money, in cash, to a woman who would NEVER give any of it back, plus he had no other big gift for his wife.  He was well and truly stuck with this dog. It was a sure bet that any fuss that we would have put up would have brought the large, drunk, armed men crashing in from the front room, which would not be good.
 
Bob had brought along a little baby blanket to wrap the new “little baby puppy” in, and had it in his hands. It looked woefully inadequate at that moment, comparing the smelly beast to the tiny cloth, but at least we had something.
 
“Give her the money and grab the mutt,” I said, as it was getting later and colder and we were in a no-win situation. I wanted to leave. Bob still had the dazed look on his face but reacted to what I said and extended his hand with the cash.
 
The girl snatched it from him like she was afraid that he would pull it back, and quickly peeled one of the bills off and shoved it down the top of her dress. She was keeping a wary eye towards the door to the main part of the house like she expected company any second, and that made me nervous.
 
“Let’s go Bob!” I said, watching for that door to open myself and moving towards the outside exit.
 
He used both hands covered with the blanket to pick up the squirming puppy, which promptly let loose with a stream of pee that hit the wall.
 
“Sorry,” he said to the girl who was not paying any attention to the puppy, but rather concentrating on the bills in her hand. She didn’t react to his words at all.
 
I had this nasty feeling that we were about to be played. The mother would burst in, count the money and find it short the amount that the daughter had stuffed down her clothes. The daughter would innocently deny that she had received anything more than was in her hands. If we said that the daughter had put it inside her clothes we would be accused of: attempting to cheat them, trying to get her daughter’s clothes off, or otherwise making advances to her, etc. The ensuing noise would bring the hulks crashing forward to defend her honor and we would end up giving up more money just to get out of there with our skin.
 
Bob was struggling to keep a grip on the wiggling puppy as I grabbed his coat and drug him out the door into the now howling blizzard. The snow storm was welcome at this point because the people inside were less likely to follow us if my suspicions were correct.
 
As we passed the window where we could see into the lighted front room, I could see that Ma Kettle was making her way around the table and heading for the back of the house. I made Bob give me his keys and shoved him and the dog into the back seat. There was no more time to waste. The goons would have been bursting out the front door soon.
 
I put the car into gear and eased the gas pedal down feeling for the traction. As I looked back at the house in the mirror I could see the front door bang open and a man with a shotgun filling the doorway completely. He just stood there looking out as the snow blew in his face and in the doorway. We were slowly pulling away and he started to raise the gun, and then stopped, waving his hand in a gesture of futility at the weather and effort required, then he ducked his head under the door frame and went back inside shutting the door behind him.
 
The Toyota slid back and forth a little but I kept the car in low gear and made use of the snow on the edges of the narrow lane to get better traction.  I knew that we had to have enough speed up to crest the incline at the top of the small hill or we would spin out and get stuck. This was not a road that you wanted to be stuck on.
 
There was no such thing as cell phones in those days, so we would have had to find a phone to even call for help. At least in my Scout we had a CB radio, not so in Bob’s car.
 
I had luck with me and had enough speed to pop up over the hill, but hit a clear patch of ice and spun in a circle in the intersection. It wasn’t a big deal. No cars were coming, but it was enough to make the puppy start barking as we spun.
 
Bob spoke to the puppy to calm it down and got a wet kiss right in the mouth for his efforts. His words afterwards seemed to prove my suspicions as to what the puppy had been eating. He was spitting and sputtering and cussing like crazy as he sought to get the flavor out of his mouth. He was moaning about needing a drink all the way back to the base.
 
By then it was 8:30 p.m. and we were both certainly in trouble with our wives, neither of which had any idea what we were doing, or where we had been for the last two hours.
 
I had wanted him to drop me off at my house and take the puppy on home by himself, but it was pretty clear that the dog had never been in a car before and might cause him to have an accident jumping around. So, on we went to his house and what I thought would be a quick stop. Ha, that didn’t happen.
 
Upon arriving at Bob’s house, two things were apparent: that puppy smelled bad and needed a bath, and he had no dog kennel or secure area to put it in while he was gone. This was no Chihuahua sized puppy that we could wash in the sink; it had to get in the bath tub. I had washed enough dogs to know that when the dog had to get in the tub, you were both taking a bath.
 
I reminded Bob that it was his dog and his bright idea to do this without Heidi knowing, so he was the one doing the honors. He whined to me that he didn’t know how to wash a dog. I handed him a bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo and said, “Learn!” and backed out of the bathroom shutting the door. He hollered through the door, “Find some place to secure the puppy when I’m done.”
 
Looking around the house for a room that had a door that could be shut or a hall that could be blocked, I eliminated the baby’s room right away as not a good choice. The living room was too big, as was the dining room. The kitchen was a “maybe” but had too many things down low that the dog would surely chew on.
 
I walked into the master bedroom and saw a note written in lipstick on the mirror from Heidi to Bob that nearly made me blush as she described what she had planned for him that night. On the bed were articles of lingerie and other items that I was positive that “H” would NOT want others to be looking at. I quickly exited the bedroom and shut the door. This room would not work.
 
The bathroom seemed to be the only place that the dog could be shut into and have any reasonable expectation of containment. I had that bad feeling of impending doom again as I opened the door and saw soap suds and dirt stains all over Heidi’s ALWAYS spotless bathroom. This was not going to end well.
 
Bob changed clothes and came back red faced, asking me if I had checked his bedroom. I lied and said “no, I didn’t think that would be a good option so I didn’t bother.” He was visibly relieved and quickly agreed with me.
 
He thought the bathroom would be the best place since it was already a mess from the bathing operation. Bob said, “Wait a minute,” and went into the kitchen to pull a roll of tape from a drawer. I jokingly told him that I didn’t think duct taping the puppy to the floor would work. He stopped and thought about that for a moment, then shook his head no. I wasn’t serious!
 
Bob set about taping the linen closet shut and the cabinet door under the sink shut, then folding the shower curtain up over the rod and taping it in place. Neither of us thought about the toilet paper or brush or that the rug wouldn’t be just fine as a spot for the puppy to nap. We were a bit naïve I guess.
 
It was 9:45 p.m. by then and it would take us at least fifteen minutes (or longer) to get to my house in the snow. Bob finally conceded that we had to get going. He wanted to tie a big red ribbon around the dog’s neck, but I convinced him that it would never stay on and the pup might choke itself somehow.
 
We had a fight to do so, but we finally got the door closed with the fast and agile “little baby puppy” on the inside of the bathroom. No sooner had we closed the door and started walking to the outside door to leave, than the barking commenced. It was loud and it was frequent, and every so often a keening howl was thrown in for good measure.
 
Bob lived in a duplex unit in what was a mixed neighborhood of officers and enlisted personnel. Typically the neighbors are much less tolerant in these communities as everyone is trying to impress the others with their power and rule-obeying “qualities.” In other words they were a pain in the posterior.
 
This would never do. I asked Bob if his next door neighbors were cool, or if they would be a problem. He said that they were away for the holidays and their dog was at a boarding kennel for the two weeks, so everything should be OK. “Famous last words,” I said to myself as we walked out the door.
 
My friend was excited to reach his wife and begin teasing her with hints of what her Christmas present was and insisted upon driving his own car. I couldn’t force the issue, even though I really didn’t want to experience his version of driving again.
 
We hadn’t even reached the car when a particularly loud howl was heard from his house and Bob stopped and looked around at the house across the street where the front porch light had just come on.
 
I asked him, “Do you have an alarm clock… the wind up kind?”
 
“Yes, I do. I use it for traveling.” He replied.
 
“Let’s get it, wrap it up in a towel and stick it in the bathroom with the puppy, it will keep him company and maybe he will stop barking.” I said, hoping that it would work.
 
So back inside we went and I got on the telephone to attempt to explain where we were to MY wife at least. One of the intoxicated guests answered the call, and through the noise of loud music and people singing told me that my wife was busy dancing on the coffee table with Heidi doing a “go-go” routine. He didn’t know who I was but said, “Weren’t you invited? You should come over man, it is a great party,” and hung up on me.
 
Meanwhile Bob had retrieved the clock and wrapped it in one of Heidi’s special Christmas kitchen dishtowels meant more for decoration than use and then wrapped duct tape around the whole thing to hold it in place. Taking this to the bathroom he opened the door just a little, and the puppy shot through like a greased pig at a barbeque before Bob could even think to stop him. The rodeo was definitely on then.
 
We chased that puppy through the house and I swear I could hear it laughing at us as we flailed around trying to head it off and diving trying to catch it. If that had been caught on tape we would have been laughed out of town. Eventually I had stopped and asked Bob if he had any hotdogs. He stood up from where he had fallen down and said, “We don’t have time to cook hotdogs now man, we have to catch the dog.” I then went to the refrigerator and found the meat.
 
Taking one out of the package and tossing the rest back inside the drawer I sat down on the floor where the puppy could see, and smell, what I had. In a matter of sixty seconds that puppy was my new best friend because I fed it chunks of raw hot dog and petted him.
 
Bob just stood there with his mouth open — something he seemed to do a lot of. I grabbed the dog and said, “Right! Get the door to the bathroom ready and make sure that the clock is inside and the light is on.” He rushed off down the hall and I stood up with what proved to be twenty-five pounds of wiggle when they took him to the vet after Christmas. We did a coordinated toss the puppy in, and shut the door evolution. We felt proud of ourselves.
 
Walking back to the kitchen to retrieve our jackets we saw that it was now 10:30 p.m. “We are dead meat!” I said as we hurried out the door.
 
Hearing no barking this time we quickly got inside and Bob gunned it backwards, with me saying, “Easy!” It proved to be too little, too late.
 
Bob had launched the Toyota backwards into a slide on the polished ice of the parking area and we went right up onto the concrete curb coming to rest on the gas tank with the rear wheels no longer making contact with the ground. We just sat there for a few moments, not saying a word. What was there to say?
 
We got out of the car and got down on our hands and knees to check for damage and more specifically, any gasoline leakage. The car had suffered a little mashing of the tailpipe, but everything else seemed to be OK.
 
A couple of the neighbors had come out when they saw and heard, (I have no idea how loud the bang was) the car climbing the curb. It was no big deal in Alaska — stuff like this happened all the time in the winter. People just came outside and helped each other put things right again. I had done this many times for my neighbors.
 
It took a few minutes to rock the car off of the curb and push it into line with the exit so we could just drive forward without having to turn, but we got it done and headed out one more time after thanking everybody for helping.
 
I looked at my watch and just groaned. It was 11:00 p.m. I thought, “Were we ever going to get back to my house?”
 
Bob was much more careful as we drove through the base and we nearly made it all the way to my house without further incident, but that would have been too much to ask for.
 
The snowplows ran 24 hours when we had storms and they worked on a priority system with the major roads getting cleared first, and then secondary streets like base housing next. This was logical and we understood the plan. What was making our drive difficult was their habit of making long runs on the main roads which put up an ice and snow berm across the side streets that only a four wheel drive vehicle could get over. It was too high and rough for the Toyota to navigate. We had to back up and turn around and drive around looking for breaks in the berm. They were there, made by trucks or the plows themselves when they crossed. We just had to find one.
 
Mission accomplished. We got all the way to my neighborhood and into my street and found that there was no place left to park. You had to be very careful where you parked your vehicle when the plows were running or your car could get buried or blocked in by four-foot high solid ice berms, or even hit by the plow, and then towed away. As we were circling the block looking for any place to park, one of my guests pulled out from right next to my door and we were able to pull right into the best spot in the area.
 
It was 11:30 p.m. when I took off my jacket and boots at the door and one of my helpful (and inebriated) friends immediately tossed them down the stairs to my basement saying, “Nobody can trip over them that way.” Who was I to argue?
 
There were people everywhere dancing, people were singing, and some were trying to carry on conversations in spite of the cacophony of sounds drowning them out.
 
Bob hadn’t even slowed down to remove his shoes, tracking snow and water in all the way to the living room. He found Heidi and my wife sitting on the couch talking, with drinks in their hands and scarves around their upper bodies.
 
The scarves were supposed to be gifts for all of the ladies who attended this party. They were “Dance of the seven veils” type of material and large enough to be worn as a sarong, albeit a see-through one. I had traded a Levi brand denim jacket for a bundle of equal weight of these beauties in the Middle East, where denim was more sought after than gold. There were at least fifty of them and each one was so light that you could toss it in the air and it would float to the ground like a butterfly.
 
Our wives were mad at us for being gone and decided to turn the party up a notch to make us sorry for missing it. It worked out even better than they thought!
 
There was a pile of blouses and bras in one corner of the stairway landing. What had I missed out on going on this wild puppy chase?
 
A cursory glance around the room showed that indeed, ALL of the females still there had scarves covering their bodies above the waist, and only scarves. Some of them had the scarf around their neck and then crossed over their chest and tied in the back, some had them tied around them like a tube top. A couple of them just had their scarves around their necks and hanging down in front of them, covering the “essentials.”
 
The girls were all still drinking, but most of the guys were glassy eyed or nodding off in corners… and after only five hours of non-stop drinking. What a bunch of light weights!
 
One of the girls from my crew came up and told me about my wife and Heidi doing the topless go-go dancing on the table and how all of the other girls copied them. Then one of girls suggested a “scarf dance” like in the movies and all of the women agreed, (after a few shots of peppermint schnapps). They were so pleased with their efforts that they did repeat performances and kept their scarves ready to do it again.
 
The guys, being guys, tried to show off how macho they were and did flaming shots of 151 Rum. Until one of them singed his mustache off and they decided to stop lighting them before they burned the place down.
 
Somebody got my miniature schnauzer drunk again (she had no self-control) and she went downstairs to the basement and got into her crate to sleep it off.
 
The crowd was mostly in their twenties and feeling the power and invincibility of their age that night. They were full of energy and partied hard, happy to be alive.
 
I reminded myself to apologize to, and thank, my neighbors in the morning. They had to have suffered from the noise, unless of course they came over and participated. That had happened before.
 
The dumpster outside on the curb was brimming with empty bottles of liquor, wine, and beer, plus a huge stack of pizza boxes and who knows what else.
 
This had to be the best party that I had ever thrown… and I didn’t even get to attend.
Bob was trying to tease “H” about her Christmas present but she wasn’t listening. She was trying to tell him about making tassels spin in opposite directions (she brought her own) and he wasn’t hearing it either.
 
I spotted my daughter sitting on the steps leading upstairs to the bedrooms watching this circus and waved at her. She waved back with her little hand. Since my wife was busy in conversation with another controller’s wife and everything seemed stable, I went upstairs to check on my daughter and Bob and Heidi’s baby.
 
The baby was asleep on my bed with a wall of pillows surrounding her on all sides and my daughter had several of her books and crayons in there. She had been watching the baby sleep, just in case she got fussy and needed something. I asked her if her mommy and Miss Heidi had been checking on the baby and she said yes, every few minutes one of them would come up and ask her if everything was alright. Some of the other ladies had come up to peek at the baby and “talk funny” to her, she said. She thought that they sounded very silly. We didn’t do baby talk in our house.
 
My daughter was often described as a twenty-one year old in a little kid body. She especially loved to mess with the minds of those who had been drinking. At the time of this story she was three years old. She had a better grip on what was going on than most of the adults.
 
When I went back downstairs several of the people were getting ready to go, putting on coats and boots that one of the single guys had been running back and forth on the basement stairs retrieving for them. Every last one of the women refused to put their blouses and bras back on, instead putting on their coats over their scarves and all singing the Janis Joplin “Mercedes Benz” song in harmony. I wanted to choke Bob for making me miss this party!
 
Bob was frustrated to the point that he was red in the face. He could not get Heidi to guess at the hints he was giving her about what he had gotten her for Christmas. She was still drinking wine and when I walked back in from the kitchen, “H” was bouncing on the couch trying to make her scarf flip up.
 
Bob finally blurted out, “I got you an Old English sheepdog puppy!”
 
She stopped bouncing and looked at him and said, “What did you say?”
 
“I got you a dog,” he said, happy that she was now paying attention to him.
 
Heidi jumped off the couch and straddled his lap on the chair and started kissing him so passionately that everyone else stopped what they were doing to watch them. She started squealing that she wanted her puppy right now, right now, right now! Bob told her that it was at home.
 
She took off for the door, stopped, turned and ran upstairs to get the baby. A few minutes later she bounced down the stairs (definitely making her scarf fly now) squealing that she wanted her puppy! Bob could hardly get her to slow down long enough to put her coat and boots on. He had a huge grin on his face as he followed her out to the car and she got in with the baby. She was too wasted to drive and didn’t even attempt to get the keys from Bob.
 
I fired up my Scout and loaded up those too drunk to drive who needed to go home, while the rest prepared the bedrolls and cots for the traditional sleep over. We didn’t allow drunk driving and always either had designated drivers or plans for sleeping at my house. There were three floors; we always had room to roll out sleeping bags for everyone who needed it.
 
There were simple rules of conduct at the parties at our house too, no touching anyone without their consent, no harassment and no meanness. No means no and stop means stop.
 
I am proud to say that I only had to enforce the rules one time. That guy got the message the first time and never overstepped the boundaries again. He claims that he misunderstood the “signals,” which was why he got “handsy” with an unattached girl. The truth was he was just a jerk trying to push his luck.
 
The aftermath
 
The next day when we went to Bob and Heidi’s house for Christmas day dinner, we got to hear the rest of the story.
 
The puppy now named “Baron Nottingham” had not been idle during the hour and a half he was alone. After Heidi put the baby in her crib and closed the bedroom door, she opened the bathroom door to see her new puppy. She was immediately jumped on by this bundle of energy that was so happy to see her that he peed all over her. Heidi fell backwards on her butt, bruising her tailbone and started crying. The puppy crawled up on her and started licking the tears away, endearing the dog to his new mistress forever. It was a good thing that he did that.
 
When Bob got Heidi up off the floor and to the couch in the living room, he went back to the bathroom to get a towel from the linen closet to wrap some ice in for her bruised back side. The destruction he found in that bathroom stopped him in his tracks in pure disbelief.
 
The shower curtain that he had so carefully taped up had been pulled down and ripped to shreds. The hose to the hand held shower was chewed completely through. The small throw-rug had a giant hole in the middle of it.
 
The tape that he had put across the cabinet door under the sink had apparently been used to pull the door open. Everything under the sink, including many feminine hygiene products, were scattered and chewed. The linen cabinet door was also pulled open. All of the towels and sheets, etc. were now on the floor and one shelf was pulled completely down.
 
Remember the toilet brush–chewed up, the toilet paper — all pulled off the roll and soggy from slobber and the hose end from the shower leaking on it. The toilet seat, gnawed like a giant rodent tried to eat it. The linoleum floor next to the door was pulled up and the corner chewed off of it. The back of the door had been clawed at until a hole formed in the hollow core door. That was probably what he was working on when his new owners got home.
 
I truly don’t think that a stick of TNT would have done more damage than that puppy had in an hour and a half.
 
Bob was afraid that Miss hyper-clean and organized Heidi was going to have a mental melt-down over the mess. Instead she told Bob that it was his fault because he didn’t leave any food in there for the puppy and he was hungry. She snuggled with the puppy all night and Bob went to bed by himself — the notes on the mirror apparently completely forgotten now.
 
When we arrived, Heidi went off on me for keeping Bob out all night and not giving him time to feed her puppy. She said that he had explained that picking the dog up so late on Christmas Eve had been all my idea and that he tried to get me to do it earlier. My wife, not knowing any better, took this all in as the truth and set very cold eyes on me for messing everything up.
 
I didn’t correct Heidi and let the blame fall on me until I got back home and explained to my wife the circumstances and events. I didn’t do any more favors for Bob after that as I wasn’t sure that I could take the heat he generated for me. I was also aware that he continued to blame his late nights (he played cards with the guys in the barracks) on me making him work late. There were undoubtedly other things that I didn’t hear about.
 
Baron got a big crate to sleep in as soon as the base exchanged opened back up after Christmas. He grew up to be a nice dog and was pretty well mannered, although he still ate poop from time to time and I would never let him kiss me. Heidi loved him until the day he died of old age.
 
P.S.
 
After I left Alaska in 1978 Bob applied for an officer program and successfully completed it becoming Lieutenant Bob. He never mended his ways and I understand that Heidi divorced him and moved back to Chicago.
 
Merry Christmas!
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Growing up… different

Growing up… different

 

I would say that I was a normal enough looking boy growing up, perhaps a bit on the small and puny side, partially caused by genetics (my parents weren’t large people) and some of which I attribute to being sick a lot.  Really, I was just the kid who lived in the house on the corner.

 

One of the things that made me different from others was my insatiable thirst for knowledge. Just knowing something wasn’t good enough, I had to know the why behind it all.

 

That desire got an unexpected boost from the somewhat self-serving desire (she got a commission) of my first grade teacher to sell my parents a set of World Book encyclopedias. Her efforts worked well to fuel my need for an input fix. How could anyone not want books!

It was the way that she convinced my parents and what happened afterwards, that dropped me squarely into the category of “different.”

 

Being too smart

 

I was at school long enough in the beginning of first grade to take several batteries of tests, (many more than my classmates who only took two) and the results of each test seemed to be that I had to take another. I thought that there was something wrong with me and that I was in trouble somehow… what did I know, I was six years old!

 

Before any of the test results could be explained to me, or I could do anything other than have to read out loud to the class every day, I got sick with bronchial pneumonia and nearly died. My temperature stayed around 105 for so long that they thought that I would burn my brain to a cinder.

 

Surprise! I didn’t die! But I did miss six weeks of school (that time) and my older brother was terrifying me with suggestions that I was going to be held back for missing class. So when my teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, showed up at the house, I just knew that I was doomed. Because in little kid minds, anything unexplainable is ALWAYS doom.

 

When I was called into the living room to sit quietly and witness what was to take place I could see my brother’s face (who was at school) saying, “You are going to get it now!” It was a rare thing to have my father at home during the day, so I was sure something bad was waiting to fall on my head.

 

My teacher brought in two items: a manila envelope with my name on it, which she placed beside her on the couch, and a folder full of shiny papers about World Book encyclopedias that she laid out on the coffee table so that my parents could see it all. I really had no idea what selling encyclopedias was about so it was all just “stuff” to me.

 

In 1959 you did not question anything that an adult did, so I sat quietly and watched, waiting for one of them to say something to me and hoping that it penetrated my drifting thoughts so that I didn’t get into trouble for not paying attention when they spoke. My mind never slowed down and I could be anywhere, which proved to be a problem when what was going on around me was boring; and it usually was.

 

My mother’s voice brought me back to the present as she was looking at me, but speaking to the teacher. I finally processed her question and nearly swallowed my tongue as she asked, “does that mean that Kenneth (she always used my full name) will have to be held back a year?”

 

Mrs. Reynolds looked at me and laughed, possibly because I had the look of a boy about to wet himself, or maybe because she was dealing with parents who didn’t know what a strange child they had.

 

“No ma’am,” she said, “If anything, he should probably be advanced a year.”

 

As that news sank in to my parents brains, (and I sat there still unsure of my fate), she reached for the package of kryptonite on the couch beside her. It was to launch me on my career of always being different.

 

She could see that my parents were clearly not going to spend the small fortune on the set of books that they had no use for. If it wasn’t a decorating or gardening magazine, my mother wasn’t interested. For my father it had to be a technical manual for work, or the newspaper; nothing else mattered. To spend so much money on a set of reference books which could be found in any school or public library was a ridiculous expense to them. This was a time when one dollar could buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and a gallon of gasoline… with change left over.

 

I could see that my teacher was truly in her element, (although to me it just looked like her happy face) as she opened the envelope while saying to my parents, “Before you decide, I think that you need to know about these test results…”

 

It has been impossible to forget my father’s words as Mrs. Reynolds explained each set of papers to them which showed me to be far ahead of my classmates in every area tested. He said, “So now what are we supposed to do with him?” Yes, it was true, I had mental leprosy…

 

My cunning teacher knew that she had them at that point and eased the shiny papers back in front of my parents saying, “He must have the proper resources to realize his potential…” and other such mind twisting platitudes and clichés which she skillfully employed in her part time occupation of book peddler. The woman had talents obviously underutilized as a first grade teacher; she could have sold sand to a Bedouin.

 

When she used the “G” word (genius) my father told me to go to my room and shut the door. It was apparently harmful for a child to know that they were smart, or something. I just went to my room… I liked it better in there anyway.

 

She had them caught in that mixed moment of uncertainty where pride; and fear of not doing enough for their child, met. They wanted a certain degree of parental bragging rights, but without any large commitments of cash if they could help it. It was a dilemma to be sure.

 

“Yeah, our son is a genius… we keep him in a cardboard box and shoot grapes to him with a slingshot so he doesn’t contaminate our other children. He will outgrow it before he reaches college age… I hope.”

 

They signed the papers and the set of 1960 World Book encyclopedias plus the 1961 yearbook were on their way. My father was grumpy for a week as he grumbled about the money being spent on books.

 

I was as happy as a pig in mud, I finally had something new to read and read them I did. For six weeks plus (while I was at home sick) I read until I fell asleep and then began again when I awoke. I read every book of the twenty-one piece set in order and then my favorite sections again and again. I soaked up so much information that my brothers and older sister would pick on me for “thinking that I knew everything.” I was fairly exploding with information and even though I was a sick little kid who had a tough time breathing between coughing spells, my fun meter was pegged!

 

Having an eidetic memory with a more than 90% retention rate made life interesting as I quoted them page and paragraph when they challenged what I said about things. I had the information, but lacked the wisdom needed to not be seen as arrogant or offensive, at least in my sibling’s eyes. I wasn’t trying to be a know-it-all, I just wouldn’t back down if I was right about something; a problem that I still have today.

 

The next year I was healthier and doing better in a room with two female classmates who were well above average academically helping take the heat off of me; until the IQ tests were administered.

 

The book check out rule at our school library was two books at a time, per library visit… for everyone except me. The librarian was the coolest lady at the school, without exception. She was super smart and appreciated my love of reading and books in general. I had no limit on how many books I could check out or how many times I could visit the library. I was there at least twice a day, every day; usually three times unless the teacher wouldn’t let me go at lunch time. I carried a stack of books home every afternoon and never, ever damaged or lost one.

 

Yes, I was a full blown book-a-holic by then, reading everything that I could get hold of and challenging everyone and everything that was wrong. I was definitely a problem child, being described frequently as “different” in public, and “not-right-in-the-head” behind closed doors that didn’t block sound quite as well as the adults thought.

 

Uh-oh, IQ Testing

 

When we were given IQ tests administered by a company which did so as their business (and usually at colleges) the trouble started in earnest. The school had conducted its own testing prior to this year and the older teachers resented anyone else holding court in their classrooms where their rule had always been absolute. It didn’t seem to matter (to my teacher) that the young man in our classroom had PhD after his name. In fact after I asked him what it meant and said “wow!” at his answer, my teacher was fairly scowling at both of us.

 

My second grade teacher, Miss Wright (not related), was a crotchety older woman well past retirement age, but she had nothing else to do, so she refused to leave. I think the administrators were too afraid of her to force the issue. Our principal had been one of her students when he was in second grade.

 

This was my educational guide, my teacher, who, upon looking at my score blurted out, “This can’t be right, he must have cheated somehow, it can’t be this high.”

 

My face turned red as a tomato because I had never been accused of something so heinous in my short life. I wouldn’t have known how to cheat IF it would have ever occurred to me to do so, which it never did. I didn’t need to cheat on anything.

 

The test proctor saw my face and went off on Miss Wright, in a quiet and dignified way which I admired him for (I hated yelling). Without ever raising his voice, he had the much older woman backed down and quiet in short order. Relatively quiet anyway, she was muttering things under her breath.

 

He took me to the back of the classroom and administered a second battery of tests, sporting a red glow on his face as he tried to work through his apparent anger, which now as an adult I can truly appreciate.

 

Upon completion of my test scoring, which had taken us well into recess (I wasn’t allowed to leave lest I be accused of doing something wrong), he got nose to nose with my teacher and said, “Well, well Miss Wright, you were correct about his score…” which upon hearing she got a smug look on her face and glared at me, “his score is actually five points higher!” and he called out the two scores (which I won’t state here). He also called my house and told my mother, just in case my teacher didn’t.

 

That night at dinner I heard the “G” word whispered from my mother to my father and both looked at me like I had done something wrong. My older brother picked up on it and called me a weirdo. I guess that I really felt like one too. But I had no idea why being smart was a bad thing; I still don’t.

 

After that testing incident my teacher switched gears, parading me around like a side show freak along with my two female classmates who were the other members of my reading group in her class. She delighted in making us read for every class in the school. Collectively we were reading three grades ahead of everyone else, I tested out at tenth grade (10.7) level, but wasn’t allowed to have a curriculum past grade five for a reason that was unknown to me then. I have since had it explained to me that most likely my teacher was not certified to teach beyond the K-6 level, thus my restriction.

 

That moment of glory for her as the teacher “responsible”, translated into a non-stop series of battles for me. Because of my reading ability the older kids, boys especially, felt like I was making fun of them or putting them down in some way. They had been made to feel inferior or inadequate and it made them angry. That anger was directed at me and they missed no opportunity to convey that message with their fists and feet. I had more fights than Joe Louis, just while I was in elementary school.

 

Was I different? Apparently I was the freak that my brother teased me about being. But while I acknowledged being different, I never saw myself as being wrong in the way I thought or acted. I fought back punch for punch and sometimes I got beat up, but not often, because I could out think my opponents. I often got reported to my principal and/or my mother for being a trouble maker. I just didn’t have a reverse gear and wouldn’t back up when I knew that I was right.

 

While the world around me was living in the very white 1950’s and ‘60’s, red was not only associated with Russians and communism, but the necks of those that I was “supposed” to associate with.

 

We had our “kind” I was told by the preacher and Sunday school teacher; our white, protestant, straight, carefully non-ethnic kind. Like the Baptist preacher before him, this Methodist minister made it clear that it also had to be people who prayed and believed in exactly the same way as the interpretation of the bible that his church promoted. It seemed that their chosen version of God hated all of the same people that they did… how convenient I thought. I smelled a rat in organized religion even then, and life kept handing me more proof as I got older.

 

Kids who looked like me but weren’t as smart made up the group surrounding me in elementary school (K-6 for my international readers) this lead me to joining a gang (at ten years old) comprised of older boys who could handle my intelligence easier, but still were rednecks. Being involved with them lead me to such sterling achievements as stealing the light bar off of the top of a cop car while they were taking an unauthorized meal break, breaking into a school and moving a teacher’s desk to the roof, and numerous gang fights at the high school football stadium at night. They were also no stranger to drugs and alcohol use. I did the drinking but wouldn’t touch the drugs as I had already witnessed an overdose death and bizarre behavior. The kids pushing me to try drugs actually saved me… the more someone pushed, the less likely I would ever do what they wanted. Being different saved my butt; again!

 

After I met some Cuban kids my life took a turn for the better, as their family didn’t care that I was smart, or white. Then I some Italians from New York moved in next door and a Jewish family, also from New York started sending their son to my school instead of private school.

 

Junior High School

 

By the time we entered the seventh grade our group looked like the United Nations. My Seminole Indian brothers and sisters, joined the black kids and our old gang (not really a gang, I got out of that) and we got along incredibly well. We represented all religions and no religion, it didn’t matter to us what anyone believed. We looked more like a group found on Ellis Island than kids from Hollywood, Florida.

 

We had our own language made up of words from multiple languages like Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, Miccosukee, Swahili, and some that we just plain made up, all to confuse those who made fun of us or would do us harm in one fashion or another. The local police officers really didn’t like us speaking our cobbled together language and harassed us at every opportunity, calling us “commies” and would not allow us to gather together at any fast food place or convenience store, etc. saying that we were unruly troublemakers that would drive business away. For the record, we never once caused trouble, stole anything, or even littered! We were extremely careful about what we did, as some of us did have “experience” with the law and didn’t want any trouble.

 

My friends didn’t care that I was probably smarter than they were, nor did they care that I was white; in the same way that their color, ethnicity, or religious beliefs were unimportant to me. We had something very powerful in common… we were all different. We were the outcasts of the local societal norms; we did not fit the mold of what “should” be.

 

I started getting visits from the Methodist church youth group leaders who were all high school age. They had heard about my association with all of these people of different colors and religions and decided that they had to intervene and save my soul from eternal damnation (their exact words). I made it as clear as I could that I did not need, nor did I want their salvation. They came back again and were going to take me to church by force and pray over me.

 

As you know by now, I never have taken kindly to being pushed into something, so when the youth group leader grabbed my arm I hit him as hard as I could and broke his nose. Having the element of surprise in my favor, I ran before they could all jump on me. They tried again, this time with all girls, knowing that I wouldn’t hit them. But I saw them and slipped out the backdoor and up onto the roof of our house where no one knew where I was. My mother had to tell them that she didn’t know where I was, which was the truth. She didn’t see me go outside. They waited for over an hour before they left.

 

My mother never would admit to calling the pastor, (who in turn sent the teenagers to see me), but a girl I knew was good friends with his daughter and she told me that it was true. I told my mother that I was never going back to that church ever again, and I didn’t. The youth group kids never came back.

 

My adopted families all treated me like their son, even though I was obviously different; they truly didn’t care. They also didn’t hold the fact that I was white kid in a white dominated society which was very hard on all of them against me. They shared their cultures with me, fed me, hugged me and showed me what love and hospitality was all about. Different felt really good to me about then.

 

It was during this time period that I experienced one of the lowest forms of humanity that I have ever known. I went with my Seminole brothers to secretly observe a KKK rally, which you can read about in “The Truth about the KKK”. I was never so proud of being different in my life. If those fools were normal, I didn’t (and don’t) want any of it (being normal).

 

High School

 

My first high school was a logistical nightmare as multiple schools were shut down in our area, and they all dumped students into our school. We had five staggered starting times, plus a whole village of portable modular classrooms set up in rows A through Z and numbered outward from the main school buildings, there were literally thousands of students on campus.

 

My World History class was held in the auditorium and had 750 students in it with five teachers. One lectured while the other four patrolled trying to keep order. The teacher in our section told us that he wouldn’t report us if we skipped class, as there was no way to keep the room cool enough. Every human body that wasn’t there putting off heat helped the cause.

 

The local drug dealers were having the most profitable days of their lives with so many customers in the now nearly uncontrollable student body. We had gangs in the halls of both white and black varieties. I knew representatives from all of the local gangs but the kids from the other schools were new to me. That got me into trouble as I was deemed a problem because I wouldn’t side with anyone against the others. This earned me an ice pick in the back while in the crowded halls at class changing time. Fortunately for me it didn’t hit anything vital as my shoulder blade stopped it. No one ever took credit for the attack.

 

In an unrelated action; I got suspended for punching my biology teacher for putting his hands on me. Yes, he was a very effeminate, short, hairy, gay man that we all knew was gay, but it had nothing to do with sexual behavior. I was late coming from my previous class (Physical Education) due to our coach keeping us out on the field longer than he should have. It was an excused “tardy” situation, even announced over the school P.A. system, which unfortunately the portable classroom I was entering still did not have installed.

 

I entered the classroom, apologizing for my tardiness (and interrupting) as I tried to go to my assigned seat. Mr. “P.” was a “shoulder grabber” and I had asked him not to put his hands on me previously.

 

As I walked past him he latched onto my shoulder in his version of the “Vulcan neck pinch”, which caused the very quiet girl in the first seat to utter an “Oh shit”. She was right to anticipate trouble; I spun on my heel, turned and punched the teacher square in the face, knocking him out the still open door and down the three steps to the asphalt sidewalk below. I followed him out and as I stepped over him, said. “I am going to the principal’s office now Mr. P. You really shouldn’t have touched me again.”

 

I went directly to the administrative building, walked up to the receptionist and told her that I had just punched a teacher and needed to see the principal. Said principal just happened to be my father’s football coach from his high school days at a different school. I fully expected to be shot at sunrise.

 

The sentence was just three days suspension, largely due to the stack of statements in my behalf from other students who had witnessed not only the altercation, but the previous occasions where I had repeatedly asked the teacher to keep his hands off of me. He never did anything overtly sexual; it was just the physical contact of being grabbed that I didn’t like. There was also a stack of complaints from other students who had problems with him for one reason or another. None of which was enough to get him removed as he had tenure and there was a shortage of qualified teachers willing to subject themselves to the horrendous conditions of overcrowding that we were experiencing.

 

We (my parents and I) elected to change schools instead to fighting with that mess any longer.

 

It was at this point that I decided to give up on traditional team sports. I still rodeoed and surfed, but didn’t care about football, baseball, track, or wrestling. The truth is, I never cared about them but had to compete to be accepted. I preferred to wander the swamp with my Seminole friends or just my dog. Animals were more interesting to me than cars, which drove my brothers crazy.

That “different” label emerged again and again; I didn’t care what others thought was important and no longer tried to fit their mold of whom or what I should be.

 

My second high school brought conflict between social groups like cowboys and hippies, and more racial tensions between whites and blacks, including a riot at school engineered by outsiders who were causing unrest for their own agendas. I was caught in the crossfire as I had friends on both sides and didn’t think that any of what they were yelling about was enough reason to hurt people. I rodeoed with the cowboys and listened to Santana, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead with the hippies; and I didn’t care who smoked weed… I didn’t smoke, but that just wasn’t important to me.

 

Once again I was different and on the outside, shaking my head at what the “normal” people were doing.

 

We moved as my senior year was about to begin and I went to a school (my third high school) where I was Albert Einstein reincarnated if you looked at GPAs or test scores. I also didn’t play golf and wasn’t a devotee of NASCAR. They could hardly believe that I was white when I played Motown and James Brown (along with my regular rock and roll music) instead of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, etc.

 

There were two classes that worked for me (and I could scarcely believe were even offered in such a backwards place), those being psychology and English Literature (as in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, etc.). They were understandably small classes and only offered because of teacher availability. The basic level classes of English, Mathematics and Biology 1 were bursting at the seams and kids were graduating from high school with an embarrassing lack of ability in any of them.

 

My participation in the aforementioned classes, as well as teaching general math to half of my class (read about it in my story: “What don’t you understand?”) labeled me as different, to put it nicely.

 

These people were mostly bigoted, blissfully ignorant, and proud of it. They made up a strange collage of high society cultural behaviors like cotillion’s and horse show jumping, mixed with Masters Golf Tournament devotees, and some of the poorest, least educated throwbacks to plowing behind a mule that it boggled the mind to contemplate.

 

I had never been so happy to be different in my life.

 

And so it was that my entire young lifetime of being different had prepared me for the adventures I would undertake as adult, and I believe far better than I could ever have planned.

 

The simple acceptance of other cultures as equal and valid to that of stereotypical white America has undoubtedly saved my life at least once, and has made breaking bread with people of many ethnicities and lifestyles around the globe an easy and natural thing.

 

My life has been rich precisely because of being different and I heartily recommend it to everyone.

 

If anyone dares to call you “normal,” take off your clothes and dance in a fountain, or howl at the full moon on a starry night. Dance to your own drummer and color outside the lines if you want to. Greatness doesn’t come in a plain brown wrapper and the only limitations on your life are the ones placed there by you.

 

Dare to be different.

Ghosts in the Hall

Ghosts in the Hall
 
I recommend that anyone reading this story first read the previous one titled “Herbert”, and ideally all three of the “Looney Bin” stories to give you better understanding of this one.
 
It was a lot for a high school psychology student to grasp, even one as intelligent and sophisticated as I thought that I was. If only youth included the wisdom and experience of past generations in our DNA. Experience really is the best teacher, but I wish that she wouldn’t slap me around quite as much.
 
I had been drawn into the story of a schizophrenic individual and found myself more qualified to be admitted, than to help treat him.
 
I was a bundle of mixed emotions after the incident with Joshua and nearly didn’t write my report, which would have been catastrophic to my semester grade. My teacher, Mrs. B., ever the cool lady, convinced me that I had something valuable to contribute and I did it, gaining another “A” for my efforts.
 
We had a long talk about what Joshua had said was going on in the hospital regarding electroshock and other scary types of treatments and to my horror Mrs. B. confirmed that it was true. It was 1971 and I felt like I had just glimpsed the methods of the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. I really, really didn’t like it.
 
With approximately twelve thousand patients of many different categories and ailments and a doctor to patient ratio of more than 100:1, it was nearly beyond human capability to treat anyone. They appeared to be doing their best to take care of everyone’s physical needs, but as far as effective treatment for mentally ill people; I had my doubts.
 
My fellow student Barbara and I had only been to two of the nearly one hundred buildings on that sprawling property. It more resembled a college campus with grand red brick buildings surrounding a domed majestic white main building that looked like a government capitol office. The grounds were covered with pecan trees and farmed areas that once independently supported the huge hospital’s needs.
 
I was hesitant to go back to the hospital for the last project available for the school year, but I wanted to pursue something that I had heard about from staffers in the cafeteria there. I just couldn’t let it go for some reason.
 
The Inspiration
 
Some people would talk about the many sightings of “the people who aren’t there,” as they were called in whispered conversations, and many would not. Ghosts are not something lightly discussed among the largely under-educated and highly religious population that makes up the work force at this huge mental hospital. Some even fear being admitted as patients if they admit to seeing those that still inhabit the old buildings that are shuttered and abandoned.
 
While visiting the staff cafeteria I happened to sit close to the kitchen door and serving line, thereby being in a position to overhear a conversation between two employees.
 
The language is as accurate as I can recall it, and took place between two middle aged African-American women as they worked.
 
“I saw her again last night when I was walking home past that building,” said one lady to her friend.
 
“You can’t be talking about that or they will lock you up,” replied her co-worker. “We daren’t talk about haints (ghosts) or Mr. Jim (their white supervisor) will do something bad. He don’t believe in them and gets mad when anyone speaks of them who ain’t there!”
 
I was curious about the woman seeing a ghost on more than one occasion, and about why they were so afraid of reprisal for speaking about it. I also knew that as a young white boy outsider, they would never open up to me when they were already afraid of speaking about the subject.
 
It was indeed fortunate that I had made friends with an older black man named Leone who not only worked there, but was a fourth generation employee. He seemed elderly to me at the time, but thinking back, he was probably in his fifties. His gray hair and dignified manner gave him the air of a man of wisdom and years.
 
His wife Sarah, and now his son Joseph, who, thanks to his parents saving their wages and helping him, had just graduated from medical school, also worked there.
 
Leone was in a great position to know things about the hospital having lived his entire life there, and being the keeper of the keys for the main building. He was responsible for other buildings too, but the main building was the most important and was where you could find him most of the time.
 
Sarah was in charge of the cleaning staff for the main building after having spent twenty years responsible for the same thing in the women’s dormitory building, which was considered a less important job and not as “visible.”
 
She was not bitter about anything, but Joseph and I had more than one conversation about how white women would be hired for the management jobs right out of high school if they were a daughter or niece of a board member, etc., but it took twenty years or more for any of the black staff to reach such a position.
 
Joseph was doing his internship in a very rough spot; the maximum security wing. This set of buildings occupies what used to be the African-American dormitories and treatment facilities during the not so distant past period when the hospital was segregated by race, as well as gender and type of medical problem. Now it was full of often violent and always unpredictable patients who frequently assaulted the staff and each other. It was the hospital prison essentially.
 
Even with him being six feet tall and looking like the athlete that he was, Joseph still had problems. The young, white female doctor who preceded him only lasted two weeks before she asked for either reassignment or termination. It seemed like getting rid of new doctors was sport for the inmates.
 
The Project
 
It must seem odd to most people that we even had this opportunity to visit the mental hospital, being high school students. I can only offer two bits of explanation: five students in this class scored higher than first year college students on course specific tests, and our teacher was either a former colleague or fellow college alumni of several staff doctors there. Additionally, two of us scored “off the charts” (teacher’s words) on aptitude tests for the field of psychology. We were her pet freaks.
 
For my last project of the school year, (and my senior year), I again faced the options: a chance to write another report from a visit to the state mental hospital, or spend hours in the library either at school or downtown researching some mental health ailment or issue to attempt to write about. It only took one prompt from Mrs. B. and I went for the field trip again. She really knew how to push my buttons! I was also going alone this time as Barbara was at a music competition playing her cello.
 
My challenge was how to relate ghost stories to psychology more than to prove or disprove their existence. I was glad of that, because I didn’t think that I could get an interview with a ghost!
 
Getting to the source
 
Making good time on my trip I arrived a little bit earlier than planned and went directly to the main building (after checking in) and walked what seemed to me to be miles hunting for Leone. You have to remember that this was before cell phones existed and the administration seriously frowned upon paging anyone below the rank of doctor.
 
I wondered in my own mind if that was only for white doctors or would they page Joseph for me. It might have been 1971 but it still felt like 1950 to me most of the time that I was at that hospital.
 
Trying to keep my worst enemy, my own mouth, in check, I elected to just go back to the reception desk to wait for my appointment time. It was the right thing to do as I spotted Leone at the desk as I rounded the corner. I should have just waited there instead of chasing my own tail around the property.
 
I had made the appointment under the guise of talking to him about the history of the hospital grounds. The administrative staff was happy to not have to bother with that, as let’s face it; I was a “nobody.” To them, any “underling” employee was good enough for me. I was completely happy with talking to Leone, as I didn’t think that I would get a straight answer out of any of the rest of them.
 
Previous conversations had taught me not to bring up the subject of ghosts or “the people who aren’t there” in the presence of the bosses, so I waited until we were all the way outside in the fresh air before I told Leone what I really wanted. This is what I learned from him.
 
The History
 
Over the history of the hospital, which was originally called a Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum, between twenty and thirty thousand people had died there (1842-1971).
 
Many of the original patients were Confederate soldiers or slaves with either mental or physical problems, or in some cases, just nowhere else to go. A large percentage of patients were people with no families or means of support. Many were simply dropped off and abandoned there. The end result in almost all of these cases was the same, a grave marked with a metal post and a numbered tag.
 
In one burial spot some two thousand African-Americans were interred over the years, until the board of directors decided to build a new dormitory building on the very spot where they were resting. They unceremoniously dug them all up and buried them all together in a pit grave. A horrific deed that even today, is still trying to be rectified and the bones identified and reburied.
 
It is that building which was erected over these violated resting places that is the first specific location of this tale.
 
The Ghosts in the Hall
This story is just one dandelion seed floating on the wind, compared to the thousands of untold tales of woe that live in this old place.
 
Leone told me of many sightings in buildings both occupied and not, with more in the abandoned ones. Some had been investigated in those days before “ghost hunting” was a popular past-time, with the hopes of finding a squatter or vagrant as the culprit.
 
Only once did they find someone; a poor old man sleeping in the very building which was built over the souls of those who had passed on. He claimed that he wanted to be close to his beloved Mary Rose, who had been a nurse there. The old man insisted that he spoke with her on many occasions.
 
A few days after the man was quietly removed and taken away by the police, a worker passing by that same building after their shift spotted a figure carrying a candle walking past an upstairs window. They were not part of the investigation and had no way of knowing that they had just reported activity in the same room where Mary Rose “lives.”
 
This report was checked out the next day, (after it got light outside), and no evidence was found of anyone being there. After two more reports in the same exact location, Leone was ordered to board and nail the door to that room; but the sightings continued.
 
During the day there were reports of laughter heard by those who got near the building and the sheriff from town was called to investigate. He drove up in his car along with two deputies carrying shotguns and acting very brave. The three of them went inside the old structure to check it out.
 
The lawmen ordered two of the hospital maintenance crew to go inside with them to remove the boards over the door to Mary Rose’s room, but they refused to even enter the building. The exact expression from Leone was “those two black men turned nearly white and ran away as fast as their legs would carry them.”
 
By the time the police officers came back out they were no longer swaggering and quickly climbed into the car and sped off.
 
When questioned by the hospital administrator later in town they said that they found no one inside, but felt like they were being watched and followed everywhere they walked. The sheriff declared this to be a state problem and would not have anything more to do with it. Leone said that they (the three lawmen) refused to ever speak of it again. Everyone knew that they were scared, but didn’t dare say so to them.
 
The man who wanted to be close to Mary Rose was brought back to the hospital as a patient because the judge didn’t know what else to do with him, and thought that he was crazy. He was assigned a locked room (cell) in the main building dormitory wing.
 
We joined Sarah for lunch in a small, quiet dining room at the back of the main building which used to be a “blacks only” (the sign was still there but painted over with white paint) eating facility and largely still was, although not “officially”. I got some strange looks from African-American employees who were leaving as we came in.
 
Smiling at me and nodding his head towards his wife, Leone asked Sarah to tell me what she had seen and heard. It took some convincing as Sarah was very reluctant to speak and pulled the cross hanging around her neck out to hold as she began the story.
 
The man who loved Mary Rose was named Abraham and was in his eighties, possibly nineties, he wasn’t sure himself. They guessed at the time that he was born in the late 1880’s from what he described, when he bothered to talk at all.
 
He would quite often sit for hours and not speak a word, regardless of whether anyone spoke to him or not. Without any outward warning sign, he would turn his head as if to look at someone speaking to him and nod his head and reply to this unseen person.
 
It scared the life out of the young black orderlies and cleaning staff assigned to his section as they tried to see or hear who he was conversing with. Finally one of the braver girls approached Sarah to ask what to do as they were afraid that “haints” were among them and would do them harm.
 
Sarah said that she chastised the girl and quoted scriptures to her and told her that there were no haints or ghosts in that building.
 
She hung her head a little and said that even then she wasn’t sure about the building where Mary Rose lived. Leone spoke up and said, “You wouldn’t go near that building in the daylight!” Sarah admitted that what he said was true and that it wasn’t right to build on that graveyard and disturb all those souls like that.
 
One night when a girl (employee) was out sick and she had to fill in, Sarah herself was working near Abraham’s door and heard him speaking in his room. As she opened the flap on his door to look in she thought that she saw candle light and smelled hot wax.
 
Looking me in the eyes Sarah said,“Mister Ken, I know what candle wax smells like!” She was visibly shaking a little as she watched me for a reaction. I just sat there with my mouth hanging open, entranced as I almost smelled it (hot wax) myself.
 
“What did you do then,” I asked getting a strange feeling in my stomach.
 
“I opened his door to make sure that he didn’t have a candle as they were not allowed. Patients could catch their clothes or bedding on fire. I went inside, watching him as he sat on his bed, ready to run for my life if he moved. Mister Ken, I smelled candle wax like it was under my nose in my own hand! But there was no candle there, anywhere!” She said, still obviously very disturbed.
 
“But that wasn’t the worst thing,” she continued. “I took his water pitcher out because it wasn’t supposed to be left in the room overnight. The male patients would sometimes pee in them and the bosses got really upset if they did that. As I backed out of the room, keeping my eyes on Mister Abraham, I felt like I was backing into an icehouse it was so cold on my back!” said the woman with sweat rolling down her face as she told me this.
 
“Mister Ken, I locked that door with the keys I carried hooked to my belt with a chain and put that pitcher down on a table across the hall and two doors down. When the morning girl came to relieve me that pitcher was gone! I ran to Mister Abraham’s door and opened the flap and that pitcher was in his room again on his table.” She said shaking her head in disbelief as she relived that troubling event.
 
Sarah raised the cross to her lips and kissed it and said that she couldn’t talk about it anymore. Leone patted her on the back as he too, remembered that morning.
 
When we went back outside Leone said that a woman in what appeared to be a Victorian period nurses uniform, like in some of the old photos hanging on the wall in the administrative offices, had been sighted in the hall outside of Abraham’s room several times by different people, both white and black. When the staff attempted to catch up with her she was nowhere to be found.
 
The worst was yet to come: the sightings in the shuttered building continued and a wheel came off of the car of a white staff member who made fun of the story of Mary Rose and Abraham; right in front of the hall where Mary Rose “lived.” Try as they might, no one was able to assign blame for that event to any particular cause.
 
The crushing blow came when after yet another nighttime sighting of the Victorian nurse in the hallway, the following morning Abraham was not in his locked room. All three sets of keys were accounted for and each key holder had witnesses as to their whereabouts all night.
 
It was obvious that the man was not in his room, yet no one could account for his physical location. The grounds were searched as a matter of routine, but they kept coming back to the fact that the door could not be opened from the inside when locked and it had not been unlocked from the outside until the morning bed check.
 
There was also the matter of the odor of candle wax in his room, smelled by everyone who checked (including Sarah and Leone). It is worth noting that there were no candles used there, the building was fully equipped with electric lights.
 
The very next day the remaining few patients in the main building were relocated to other buildings, away from the administrative offices. No patients were ever housed there again.
 
Abraham was “discharged” (in absentia), dated the day before his disappearance and the case was closed. Having no relatives or anyone else to notify, there was no one to say a word in protest. He was never seen again.
 
The main building was shut down and abandoned in 1974 and lies in ruin, but like the fated building built upon a graveyard full of troubled souls, still has those who aren’t there walking the halls.
 
Ghost hunters now call that hospital and especially those two buildings, the most haunted place in America.
 
Epilogue
 
A new Administration building was built far away from the original one and people rarely go near the old crumbling halls. Sightings of the “people who aren’t there” occur frequently in many of the abandoned structures and ghost hunters all now agree that the place is haunted by the souls of the departed.
 
I wrote my report on the power of pain and suffering to influence belief in what we want to believe is true, like ghosts. I got my “A” grade and concluded that I had enough of psychology and didn’t want to immerse myself in the suffering of others full time. I found that it was just too hard to deal with as I felt what they felt and it distressed me greatly.
 
Mary Rose, Abraham, if you are listening; I never said that I didn’t believe in you. Does anyone smell something burning, like… candle wax?

Progress may be our worst enemy

 

To quote Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Our high speed lives are moving faster than our minds can process fully.

 

We no longer have adequate time in our lives to think about what we see, hear, or feel.

 

That goes for nearly every age group, but is especially true as you get to the younger people in the school and early work years.

 

I believe that we are progressing technologically, faster than we are able to adjust our behavior to retain our humanity and sense of propriety.

 

Children just starting school have instant gratification devices in their hands, like cell phones and i-pads. For them, as for those who have grown up connected to electronics, e-mail is too slow, waiting to make a telephone call is unthinkable, texting is their life-blood. Even that is getting to be too slow and the swipe method is speeding things up.

 

Language skills are suffering whether spoken or written. I mean OMG, U no?

 

I see a correlation between the attention deficit disorders (and shorter attention spans in general), and the instant gratification world we have become.

 

Patience has become a word found in the dictionary, but seldom in the human make up.

 

We can’t wait for a movie to come to a theater near us, or even to arrive in the mail, we must have it streamed to our computers immediately.

 

Film camera, are you kidding me? Polaroid, HA, that takes 60 seconds… I want to see my picture now, not wait!

 

Fast food is not healthy, but anything else takes too long. Cooking takes too much time and then requires the extra work of preparing and cleaning up, which all takes away from our instant gratification time. Facebook and twitter wait for no one to update!

 

Driving somewhere on vacation is too slow and time consuming, we must fly there.

 

Taking turns doing something is passé, we must be able to all do it at once, and quickly.

 

I notice too, that the child who has to have something or do something right now, is the first one to become unsatisfied and bored with what he/she got. It wasn’t the thing or activity that they actually wanted; it was the rush of getting their gratification fix.

 

If you look at what people are reading most, it is the twitterverse with its 140 character bites and short blurbs on Facebook that get the most action. Anything longer than a couple of paragraphs gets scanned briefly and dumped as you move to the next one.

 

People want more input, not better writing or deeper meaning. Video games that sell are faster paced with more action; there are no moral-to-the-story games that are hits.

 

Our population acts like we are all junkies on heroin pumps where we can push the button and get a fix, and then another and another… and have no consequences for our actions.

 

Walking hand in hand with our “I want it all, now!” mindset is the problem of what is acceptable.

 

Image is everything, and there are no limits upon what is allowable when it comes to boosting your own “brand.” Children tell me, “cheating and lying are part of “real” life; everyone does it.” “You have to be cool or you get hated on,” is another statement that worries me.

 

Kids kill other children over sneakers, not because they don’t have any shoes and their feet are freezing, or even because their families are starving and they need to sell the sneakers to buy food. Not that any of those reasons are acceptable, but you could at least see where desperation drove them to drastic acts. They are committing this most vile deed; to get something that they want and believe will boost their own status.

 

Homeless people, persons of different color, ethnicity, lifestyle, and some for no discernible reason, are set upon and attacked, lit on fire, shot… why? Because the perpetrators need an adrenalin (or gratification) rush. They want to be seen by peers as “badass” and make the news to gain fame, and in their own eyes, status.

 

We have forgotten in this hyper-speed life we lead, how to be angry without becoming violent, how to discuss and argue without inviting in rage. The “pursuit of happiness” bit does not mean that you can never be unhappy about anything.

 

Somewhere it has become a belief that there cannot be two opinions without combat, that all arguments must be settled. And that we have some right to never be unsatisfied without lashing out in anger. One form of problem resolution is that both sides agree to disagree.

 

We have lost the ability to respect others, and respect the value of life, be it human or other species.

 

We need to slow down, step back and learn what is really important again.

 

Perhaps it is time to do more, with less. By that I mean, give up on having every “thing” that comes out on the market or is available, and do more with what we already have, our family and friends.

 

We should talk to each other face to face about ideas, read real books, get outside and go for walks with friends and family. Paint pictures, build sand castles, do whatever it takes to slow down the input barrage on our brains and give ourselves time to process.

 

I really believe that it is imperative for our young people to be given guidance and assistance in pacing themselves to meet life in balanced and sustainable way.

 

Right now humanity is hurtling forward like a rocketship on re-entry and our heatshield may not hold up.

 

We must all do our part to not go the way of the dinosaur by our own hands. Reach out to someone today and make a difference. Peace upon you brothers and sisters.

 

 

By strtwlkr

The hardest thing about PTSD

Many of us who served the country in the armed forces have a condition called PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not exclusive to the military; anyone can have it thrust into their lives. Police officers, fire fighters, EMT’s, rescue workers, and others, commonly endure it too.

The hardest thing about PTSD in my opinion, is that it is invisible. No one can see it like a missing limb or visible scar, and like a vampire, it doesn’t show up in the mirror. And, like a vampire it can suck the life out of you. 

It can manifest itself as depression, or irrational actions, or even aggressive behavior, or in other ways. You may have one or all of these problems riding around inside you, not only unseen by others, but it can be unknown to you why you do things or feel angry or sad. 

Those of us who have taken human lives and/or had injuries to our physical bodies can at least point to that as a possible reason as we try to rationalize why we behave or think as we do. But it can just be exposure to sights, sounds, smells, or even knowledge of things so horrific that our minds do not want to accept them as any part of who we are.

The internal battle of trying to either live with, or expel, these memories can change how we think and behave. Passive, gentle people can be a ticking bomb of emotional TNT, exploding for no apparent reason to those around them, even lashing out at those they love.

It is like the learned “automatic” response to catch or block something (like a ball) thrown in your direction. The “ball” in this case is unseen because it is a memory and the automatic response is a form of self-preservation. You lash out either verbally or physically to try and prevent that bad memory from getting into your head again. People around you have a hard time comprehending what is going on, which is understandable, because you may not either.

For many of us, PTSD can manifest itself as depression. Nothing ever seems right in your world any more. Years may pass before it hits you, or you may experience years of suffering from nightmares where you live out the bad experiences over and over again. We are all unique individuals in our body chemistry, as well as mental make up. You are who and what you are.

There are programs offered by the VA and others to help those who suffer from PTSD and if you are a person who can talk to the social worker or shrink types without getting even angrier or more depressed, then go for it. Some of us get worse instead of better in that scenario.

For me, peace with what I did and lived through, is coming from something quite unexpected, at least to me.

Many had suggested going to church and praying, etc., but I found that too hypocritical and full of BS. The chaplains always blessed the missions as we went out to kill other human beings. Really? Organized religion has always seemed to be a scam to me… I mean come on, I have to pay (tithing) to belong to a group that tells me how to think and act according to their own made up set of rules, and I am supposed to not trust and actually dislike anyone who doesn’t agree with those rules? Nope, not buying it. It just makes me angrier.

So finding my way to becoming whole again by following the Buddhist path was a complete surprise to me. Here is a teaching where: you do not pray to a deity or god creature, you don’t pay to belong, the teacher says to question everything including him, and the only thing you have to do is work on making yourself a better person. And we are completely cool with anyone believing what they want around us. It is all good. So why does this work for me?

I have learned through the teachings of Buddha, to look inward and accept what has been done in the past as lessons and experiences. I can work on improving my own thoughts, words and actions each day, to make me a better person. This means that I can let go of the bad things.

So I have found a way to help myself. Will this work for everyone who has PTSD? I have no idea, as like I said, we are all unique individuals. But it works for me and other people I know.

What can you do if you have PTSD or are having depression or anger issues since coming home, and don’t know what to do or where to turn?

Talk to someone you trust in a quiet setting and preferably without alcohol involved. I have nothing against appropriate drinking, but I have seen many discussions go the wrong way when booze made the brain disconnect from common sense. Talk to me if you need to, I’ll listen.

What if someone close to you has diagnosed PTSD, or you think that they may be suffering from it?

See the above advice. Don’t blast them with questions that can be controversial or embarrassing in the middle of a party or family dinner, etc. Don’t fuel the discussion with alcohol to get them to “loosen up.” It may turn ugly in a flash.

Don’t ask “How many people did you kill?” That is rude and unkind.

Do ask leading questions like, “What were the people like there?” or was the weather really hot and dry, or cold and wet, etc. Let the memories flow on their time table and energy. 

Listening and reassuring your friends or loved ones that you care about them and know that they did their best is important to healing. Heavy on the listening part. The more that you can get the bad stuff out in a non-judgmental setting, the more the burden lifts. 

Be kind, be compassionate, and be understanding. Until you have walked, (to paraphrase this a bit) their miles in their moccasins, you have no idea what kind of load is riding on their shoulders.

Am I a doctor or a counselor licensed and/or credentialed to talk about this subject?

NO. I am a veteran who served from Viet Nam to Beiruit and has been there, done that and understands personally how hard life can be when the black cloud lives inside your head.

My only goal for writing this, is to promote understanding and compassion. Peace to all, brothers and sisters.

Dealing with Aging

Time stops for no one, not even me.Image

The more I have to deal with the problems of my aging father-in-law, the more I see my own frailties exposed. It would be easy to overlook the decreasing vision and subtle hearing losses I am experiencing if I didn’t have to constantly repeat myself when speaking to the old man, or try to make him see things right in front of him.

The worst part is his now barely 30 second memory retention. Because when I forget what I am doing, I instantly flash to the memory of dealing with his forgetfulness and I see myself like that.

We have been dealing with old age problems and nursing homes for so long now, that I am truly afraid that we will never get away from it. When the old man finally passes, it will be time for us to check in. I really don’t like that idea.

Truthfully, I never believed that I would live to retire; so I didn’t spend any time or effort thinking about what I would do or how I would live. Now that the unthinkable has become reality I have been teased with the freedom of available time.

Just as our commitments to other things have ceased and we might be able to have fun, we had to spend the money we had to save a parent’s house and deal with their problems. Now we are tied to elder care and its associated problems 24/7. We were so close to freedom…

Another issue that I didn’t expect was to have difficulty understanding and negotiating medical insurance paperwork. Or needing to, for that matter. I am not stupid, (in fact I am a member of Mensa), so I should reasonably expect to be able to look at reports and claim forms, or check into or out of hospitals or clinics without being stressed out by confusion over what I just read or signed.

I do not want to have the attitude that life sucks and it is Hell getting old. Life is what you make of it and happiness is the journey, not a destination.

When you reach the point in your time allotment on this planet, when you know that there is less left to go than you have already lived, quality of life becomes more important. You find that you don’t want to have regrets about the things that you didn’t do (more so than what you did wrong). The saddest point in your life is when you give up trying to live and just exist.

Herbert

I wish to convey a message that I respect the mental health profession and in no way mean to make fun of anyone of different mental abilities or conditions. I use humor and story telling as a means to bring a smile to anyone who reads my writing, never to hurt feelings.

Let me state clearly that I have never been a staff member at any mental hospital, nor have I been a patient… yet. 

My usefulness to the hospital in this story was my ability to communicate with and relate to the people, not some “Doogie Howser” gift of medical prowess. Perhaps it was my youth, or simply that I reminded them of someone that they remembered, that made it work. I don’t know. It could be that I respected the people and listened to them, that has always seemed to work.

Please read and enjoy, and if you like the story or have feedback or questions, let me know.

Note: If there are grammatical or punctuation errors, they are not the fault of my volunteer editor, I can make mistakes faster than she can correct them. 

Herbert
 
I was doing very well in my high school psychology class (highest GPA); so well, that the teacher was speaking with colleagues at the university about my ability to communicate with patients at the state hospital, trying to “grease” my way into their program.
 
She had her own personal visions of me going to her alma mater and becoming a shrink. I was being lead into the idea with promises that I could help people and make a difference. So, I was entertaining the career choice, without really thinking about having to spend many years more in school. You might say that I was in the “dream phase” of future planning. I have been told that psychology classes are rare in high school, but having gone to three different schools (two in FL, one in GA) and been in psych classes in all of them, I didn’t know that.
 
Getting to go to the state hospital on a special (no bus) field trip was a treat for me for multiple reasons: it happened on a school day, required a road trip, and allowed me to operate on my own with a sense of both purpose and importance. It was that rare occasion where a high school student feels like they matter.
 
I was feeling pretty special as my teacher even allowed me to use her own private automobile to make the trip. My parents had two cars but were not interested in being without their wheels all day for whatever reason. They also were very skeptical of this choice of career fields, alternately seeing it as “voodoo medicine” (mother) or something that I would never stick with (father). Regardless of their feelings, they still signed the papers allowing me to go unsupervised once my teacher called them and assured them it was for real and I wasn’t just looking for a “free” day off. I was a senior with more credits than I needed to graduate (I needed 18, I had 24); it really would not have mattered what I did, I couldn’t fail.
 
On the day of this visit there were supposed to be three of us going, but at “go time” there was only myself and a girl named Barbara. The third person being absent was not really a problem to me; in fact I didn’t care if I went alone, as long as I got to go. Barbara was upset as the other girl was a friend and she was worried about why she didn’t show up. There were no cell phones in those days so you couldn’t just text or call and see what was up.
 
Later we found out that Ashley (the missing girl) had used the opportunity to skip school with her boyfriend, believing that everyone would think that she was on the field trip and not question her absence. That would have worked IF she had bothered to sign out at the main office like we were required to do when leaving school grounds. She was found out and lost her field trip privileges for the rest of the year.
 
Barbara and I stopped at the gas station to fill up the teacher’s VW bug and then hit the convenience store for munchies and cold drinks before setting out across the state. Hey, we were teenagers and we all know that kids that age eat constantly!
   
We conversed on many topics during that drive, the first of which was why our teacher who had a PhD in psychology would drive a VW and teach at a high school. I happened to know that Mrs. B. had practiced her profession in the state’s largest city after graduation from college, but then married a military man and elected to move with him as he was reassigned. Teaching high school allowed her to move anywhere (like their assignments to Germany and Panama.) In some locations she was even able to pick up college teaching jobs. The VW was simple economics; teachers and military men do not make much money. The dark green bug was new (1970) and had an automatic transmission and an air-conditioner plus an AM/FM radio; we thought that it was very cool!
 
Our teacher, Mrs. “B”, was a walking, talking contradiction; she was a hippie married to a military man! At school she dressed in conservative, even “frumpy” looking dresses that our grandmothers would have worn: drab colors, lace around the neck and no shape to them. Her clunky black old lady shoes with three inch stacked heels (which made her stand 5’5”) were the only shoes she ever wore to work, and her hair was always put up in a bun on the back of her head with a hair net over it. She looked the part of a teacher from thirty years (or more) in the past. It made the administrators feel all warm inside like their grandma was there to take care of them again.
 
Under that façade was a totally different person, secretly (a few of us were in her confidence) being proud of always being braless under those dresses (It was 1970-71) and having a “scandalous” tattoo on her chest of a heart with her husband’s name across it (very “not done” in those days!)
 
If you ever saw her away from school (she lived on the nearby military base) you would scarcely believe that the little 5’2”, one hundred pound, pony tail wearing woman was the same person. She was perpetually dressed in a tank top and cutoffs, usually barefoot or wearing flip-flops, and always wearing a peace sign pendant around her neck (which she tucked inside of her shirt while on the base).
 
Mrs. B. was a civil and human rights crusader living and working among some of the worst rednecks on the planet. She played her part so well at school that she was accepted by them all as one of their own. This was my mentor and a breath of fresh air in the ultra conservative climate of where I lived.
 
I asked Barbara if she wanted to stop at the diner for coffee or tea, (as I mentally counted the funds in my wallet) but she was happy to just drive straight into the lion’s den and get to it.
 
We both had assignments which were on-going: Barbara’s was a female patient who was suffering from severe depression and repeatedly tried to harm herself which she was chronicling, mine was a male who was schizophrenic and was unable to communicate effectively or interact with others.
 
I had established a rapport with Joshua (the male patient I was assigned) on my last visit and the doctor who was treating him had asked Mrs. B. if I would please come back to talk to him as he had improved since having contact with me. If there was ever a way to make a guy’s head swell or his ego inflate, having something like this happen was it. Mrs. B. was quick to point that out to me when we talked about the request and whether I would take this project on.
 
These visits required huge amounts of note taking and then a report to be written which counted for the majority of a grading period score. It could make or break your report card grade for that class in one shot. We had a big exam every grading period to show what we had learned in class, but it was the projects we took on that carried the main weight. You could elect to write numerous lengthy reports on other topics which required countless hours in the library researching and had exacting citation requirements to meet, but I always opted for the riskier and decidedly more fun field trip choice.
 
After having my balloon burst by my very honest and direct teacher, I was actually more comfortable taking on the assignment as I didn’t feel like I had to be a miracle worker. Just go there, talk with Joshua and work some questions in that the doctor wanted answers to, and then try to remember and write down everything that transpired. The last part has never been difficult with my crazy memory abilities.
 
We got the car parked and locked as per hospital rules which had been stepped up since the incident “that shall never be spoken of” (see “Tales from the Looney Bin”) and made our way to reception to pick up our visitor badges and get a briefing on our respective assignments.
 
Barbara’s assigned patient, Geraldine, was worse and wearing restraints due to tearing out chunks of her own hair the day before. This earned her a wide belt around her middle to which her wrists were strapped. She also had just had her finger nails trimmed very close as she started to claw at herself once strapped into the belt. I was feeling a little bit guilty because I was very glad that I did not have to deal with her very sad problems; it felt somewhat “chicken” on my part.
 
My guy Joshua had been improving. And, and even though he wasn’t wearing any restraints, he wasn’t exactly free to walk out the door either. In his present state it didn’t look like that would happen any time soon.
 
His strange ramblings and odd speech patterns had become the usual method of communication for him since a breakdown a few years earlier. Only since my last visit, had he put a few words together in logical or acceptable sequence. I didn’t know why; they didn’t know why; we just wanted to help Joshua get better. So, here I was.
 
Joshua was brought to me in a visiting room that had a choice of comfortable chairs or a rectangular table that sat six. We always sat at the table with Joshua sitting at the head and me at his immediate right. This was by his choice and it made him happy to be in this arrangement. Since he was formerly a corporate business man, it (the seating arrangement) must have made him feel like he was in control of “something” in his life.
 
There was a steady stream of babble coming from the man until the orderly who brought him exited, shaking his head at the situation. Once the door closed, Joshua turned his head to look all around the room to make sure that no one was in there but us chickens.
 
You could have knocked me over with a feather when Joshua turned back to me and said, “You’re not from around here are you?”
 
It was the first sentence that I had ever heard from him that made any sense. Fact was that it was the first coherent sentence he had uttered since being brought to the hospital. I was unsure of whether to celebrate, run and tell the doctor, or what?
 
Before I could decide what to do, the orderly came back in to tell me that the doctor would be unable to join us due to other problems and for me to just do what I could. Joshua was babbling like a tape recorder eating tape and turning his head back and forth while he did it. Now I began doubting that I had really heard him speak those words, so I said nothing to the orderly about it. I was wondering if I was losing my marbles by exposure.
 
The door closed behind the orderly and Joshua once again looked around the room for other people and looked back at me. “You know that they spy on you twenty-four hours a day in here and mess with your thoughts if you don’t keep them confused, right?” said the man who no one believed could talk intelligently any more.
 
I had to speak to claim my own sanity at this point and I said, “Tell me more Joshua,” which was about all that I could muster at that moment. But, I was getting a grip, slowly.
 
He said that his friend Herbert had clued him in to the way things worked in the hospital and he and his pal were working hard to not become part of any of the treatment experiments. That got my attention after what I had seen at other hospitals with the scary rooms and mean orderlies. I guess that I was already on his side from the beginning but now he had me hooked.
 
If Joshua heard anyone in the hall outside of the door he would babble and say words that didn’t go together at all until he was sure that the coast was clear. He told me how the staff read all of his mail and that he never got any of the money sent to him. I asked him if they didn’t just put it into an account for him or something. He said that his friend Herbert had contacts in the kitchen and staff lounge who had heard the talk about using patient’s money to buy their beer on Saturday nights.
 
I was dreaming of a big report exposing corruption in state mental hospitals and seeing a bright future as a reformer and etc… I was a teenager; reality was often far away.
 
The orderly once again interrupted us and said that it was lunch time and Joshua had to keep to his schedule and that required him to eat and get his medication now, but that we could resume our “talk” (said in a very sarcastic way) afterwards. My friend did his imitation of a pinball machine and looked everywhere but at anyone, and was lead away.
 
I watched the seemingly nice staffer walk Joshua down the hall and just like he told me, the man grabbed him roughly and yanked him sideways at the corner. Maybe he wasn’t crazy after all; maybe it was a big mess like he said.
 
Barbara joined me in the staff cafeteria and we went through the line and got some fried chicken and French fries to go with our sweet tea. I must say that the food was excellent if nothing else was right.
 
I asked her about Geraldine and she nearly burst into tears. The woman was so miserable and tortured that Barbara was in agony herself just talking with her. In spite of the torment, my classmate had written twelve full pages of comprehensive notes that were part clinical terms and part description of emotions. I was totally impressed and would have feared for my number one position in the class, if it were not for the bombshell that I was sitting on.
 
I wasn’t sure what to choose to report from what was happening in my room: would it be the coherent speech from Joshua, or the story blowing the doors off the building about corruption? I didn’t really get the opportunity as Barbara launched into a whining, worrying jag about her friend Ashley and what might have happened to her to make her miss the trip and that took up the rest of our lunch period.
 
Lunch over, the two of us separated, heading back for our second sessions. I walked along the cold, stone corridor thinking that I really had to get to Joshua’s friend Herbert to talk to me so that I could verify what I had been told. Just like the rules for our reports, we had to have more than one source to make it stand. If I was going to take on the establishment over the maltreatment of patients, I had better have my ducks in a row. I had a real David taking on Goliath mindset happening and not enough common sense to even realize what I was doing. Youth is a powerful weapon indeed!
 
Joshua was brought back into the visiting room where I waited and he had a different shirt on. I asked the orderly why and he said that as usual, Joshua had spit his lunch all over his shirt “talking” (again, sarcastically) as they fed him. My friend was mumbling and making noises the entire time, as if to punctuate what the man said. The orderly left the room without a look back and slammed the door a little bit, like it was all exasperating to him.
 
My man, Joshua, did his look around the room and said, “The bastard poured hot soup on me.” I was totally in his camp by then and made notes in my notebook of the time and what was said. This was taking on Crusade status with me and I was getting my facts in order.
 
“Joshua,” I said, “I need to speak with Herbert about what he knows so that I can expose these slime balls for what they are– thieving pigs who abuse their patients!”
 
He looked at me for a moment and then got up and walked around the table and sat back down in exactly the same spot. I just waited for his response. He got up again and walked the opposite way around the table and once again, sat down in his chair. I figured that it must help him think, or something– no big deal, people pace, right?
 
I wasn’t getting a response so I asked again, and made it clear that it was absolutely necessary to speak with Herbert so we had more than one witness, more than one story, to support our claims. Gone was my simple claim to success of just getting Joshua to speak, I was committed to going for the big score.
 
Finally Joshua gave a big sigh and said, “OK, but the staff can’t know where you got your information until the big showdown or Herbert will be in great danger. They might set a trap for him, or poison him to keep him from talking and getting them all in trouble.”
 
“Absolutely,” I said in all honesty and gleefully grinned at how we were going to bring the bad guys to their knees.
 
I left Joshua for moment and stepped out into the hall where the orderly was quickly at my side expecting trouble of some sort. “Can I take Joshua for walk around the inside of the hospital,” I asked, smiling and adding that it might give the orderly a chance to take a smoke break or use the restroom in peace. That was certainly to his liking and he said that he didn’t think that it would break any rules.
 
I stepped back inside and told Joshua that he had to be on his best behavior for us to make it through the building without attracting attention, but I was sure that we could get to Herbert without getting caught if he would just be good.
 
Joshua said, “Don’t worry. I deal with these guys every day, I know how to get around them. They aren’t too bright, if you know what I mean.”
 
Out the door we went and walked along with Joshua making noises like a two year old with a mouthful of marbles. I would ask him which way to turn when we hit an intersection of hallways and he would nod the direction without ever speaking the words.
 
Now, I wasn’t as lost in the hospital as you might think; I had learned it fairly well on my previous visit and knew that Joshua was playing games with me. The second time he directed me into a repeat pattern I said that we were done and he would be taken back to his room if he didn’t take me to Herbert right away.
 
He nodded yes and this time directed me right to his own room. “Great,” I thought. He misunderstood what I said to him and now I have to start all over again. Time was running out for this visit at the hospital; Barbara and I would have to hit the road soon to get back to school.
 
Joshua shut his door and looked around the room for a minute to be sure that we weren’t followed or something. Once that was done he said, “The rendezvous place is right here.” That got my attention and I thought that maybe I was back in the game after all.
 
He stood with his back to me as he talked to the shelf where his few books and a photo of his family sat and acted like he was listening. I was getting impatient and asked him when Herbert was coming to meet us.
 
I should have known immediately that there was a problem when he said, “What are you talking about?” but I was a little slow.
 
I said again, “When is Herbert joining us? I have to leave soon.”
 
Joshua laughed and said that Herbert had been there the entire time. Who did I think that he had been talking to? I had to have had a surprised look on my face and I must admit that I did look around the room in a complete 360 degree turn before I answered him.
 
“Where is he Joshua? I don’t see him anywhere.”
 
It was then that he turned to me and held out his hand with a little brown mouse sitting on it.
“Here he is, right here. Herbert this is Ken; Ken, may I introduce Herbert.”
 
I confess to having automatically said, “Nice to meet you,” before I could stop myself.
 
He brought his hand back until the mouse was a few inches from his face and “listened” for a few moments, before turning to me to say, “Herbert says that your friend Barbara is in trouble.”
 
I don’t know how long I stood there with my mouth hanging open; it is impossible to tell. The mention of Barbara being in trouble woke me up a little, and I asked him how he knew that.
 
“Herbert has friends in the kitchen and they sent word that she was in trouble,” said Joshua with a straight and sincere face. I asked if Herbert knew what kind of trouble and Joshua listened again for a few seconds and said that there was screaming and someone was injured.
 
To nearly anyone, psychology professional or not, it should be apparent that I had reached the end of the Wonderland Express and it was time to get off the train. However, I was still caught up in the conspiracy of bad treatment and robbing the poor that had so enthralled me as the tale went on, and was desperately trying to make sense out of what was going on. The nagging possibility that my friend Barbara was somehow really in trouble is what finally allowed me to break free and leave Joshua talking to Herbert in his room.
 
I went directly to the kitchen by the staff cafeteria (I didn’t know where else it could be) as quickly as I could walk without raising alarm or calling undue attention to myself. I already felt like everyone in the hospital knew that I had just been fooled by a Looney tune and was looking at me.
 
When I turned the last corner I found a small crowd of staff persons gathered around Barbara as she sat in a chair at a table. Her face was streaked with tears and damaged make up. She was looking overwhelmed as I pushed through, excusing myself as I did. Once in front of her, I knelt down and took her hands in mine and made her look at me as I asked if she was hurt. No, she was not hurt, but there was blood on her skirt. I asked where it came from and everyone started talking at once.
 
It seemed that Geraldine had gotten a pencil from Barbara’s notebook and managed to hide it for a while. When the moment seemed right to her troubled mind she plunged the pencil into her own leg trying to hit the femoral artery, but fortunately missed it. Barbara had wrestled the pencil away from her before she could try again.  Geraldine was still wailing and carrying on down the hall in the infirmary where they had taken her to provide immediate first aid. The cries of “I just want to die” were very distressing and had us all squirming as we listened, unable to do anything to help her.
 
I said that I thought that it was time to leave, and we would be in touch if any further statements were necessary, and that we would be on our way back to school. I grabbed Barbara’s hand and lead her out of the building, by way of the reception desk to hand in our visitor badges. We didn’t want to do anything that might start another escaped inmate rumor in that armed and dangerous community.
 
All the way back to school Barbara was writing in that notebook of hers; she had more than thirty pages by the time she was done. Her report was exceptional and earned a well deserved A+ for the grading period.
 
As for me, I spent a lot of time on the drive back pondering just how Herbert knew that Barbara was in trouble– yes, really. It is a good thing that the doctors at the hospital didn’t know that or I would have gotten my very own room next to Joshua and they wouldn’t have let me out.
 
My dreams of pursuing a career in psychology were fading as I had doubts of being able to help others when I could be so easily fooled myself.
 
For what it is worth; I also got an A+ for my report on Schizophrenia and how overwhelming it can be.
 
P.S.
 
Barbara did go on to become a very successful doctor who helped many depressed women learn to cope (her specialty). She is now retired and living in Hawaii, which has to be one of the best ways to deal with life’s frustrations.
 
Mrs. B. had her wishes come true when her husband retired and they moved back to the town where her alma mater is and she got a teaching job at her old university– no more granny disguise for her. Rock on Mrs. B!
 
The state hospital was still operating the last time I was in the area and I have no doubts that it is still a Looney Bin. You can bet that I won’t be going through the doors to find out; I am not sure that they would let me out.

Getting Inside

These Tales from the Looney Bin stories are not in any historically chronological sequence, but rather as I remember them and write them down, so we will bounce around in the time frame of 1968-1971. This was a strange time of a very straight-laced “establishment” and reaching for new ideas among young people. Please enjoy.

Getting Inside the “Bin”
 
My first visit to a State Mental Hospital was an eye opener for sure.
 
It started simply enough with permission forms requiring parental signatures, which in my case was accompanied by the question, “Did you do something wrong?” from my mother.
 
I did have a history of rebellion and doing things my own way at school, which often lead to papers being sent home for signatures, so I could not even feign indignation with a straight face; something that my own children mastered and believed that I was not on to them.
 
My mother did make the wise crack, “Be careful or they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.” She was referring to my habit of correcting teachers and other adults if they said or did something that I knew to be wrong — tact never being my strong suit.
 
That first trip to the hospital was taken in a school bus with two teachers as escorts; our Psychology teacher, and a football coach who happened to have free time and the administration thought would be a good addition for safety. It was never quite clear who the coach was protecting, the students from the hospital patients, or the hospital patients from us.
 
There were only twenty students total in the decidedly nerdy class (Psychology was not required for graduation.) And of those, five could not get permission to go — four girls whose parent(s) thought it too unsafe for them, and one boy who was apparently already in therapy and was very afraid of being kept inside should he pass through the gates.
 
Of those who got on the bus, probably only five of us were actually interested in the how and why of mental illness treatment; the others were there simply to get out of school and/or away from home.
 
Keep in mind that this all took place before the era of cell phones, computers and the Internet.
 
I had read everything that I could find in our school library, as well as our limited textbook descriptions of various kinds of illness that required institutionalization. Care and treatment of these illnesses as described in the textbooks we had (which were written in the early 1960’s) were dubious at best, even to me as a teenager. Such things as electroshock therapy and cold water “treatments” were standard and often applied “cures”.
 
I was concerned that I would find something akin to Bedlam (the infamously storiedLondon mental hospital) or Blackwell’s Island in New York City and would be moved to action, which would most certainly get me into trouble.
 
It was my objection to these “tortures” as I referred to the treatments in class, which earned me a front seat next to the coach on the bus. I was told when we got on the bus, and again when we arrived to keep my opinions to myself.
 
Of course I agreed, and just as certainly had no possible chance of stopping my mouth if I saw something wrong. I knew it, and so did my psychology teacher. The coach, well, there was a reason that he majored in physical education and went to school on a football scholarship, but he was happy in his world.
 
Getting through the outer gates was our first big challenge. As soon as we stopped the bus was boarded by security officers searching for weapons and contraband. Meanwhile, our documents were reviewed by the lead officer and we had to respond to the roll call by that man who appeared to have no sense of humor and only wanted to hear, “Here Sir!”
 
I was looking out the bus window to make sure the sign said “Hospital” and not “Prison” with our somewhat chilly reception. We were all feeling oppressed and dominated and hadn’t even left the bus yet; I was already sympathizing with the “inmates.”
 
As I peered out the glass, a man carrying a clipboard and wearing a security jacket and bus driver style hat, and what appeared to be hospital pajama bottoms and slippers, climbed into a van inside of the compound. This van went past the bus on my side as the grinning individual used the automatic opener to activate the gate and drive through, waving at me as he passed by.
 
I had the feeling that I was watching an escape in progress. But, after the Gestapo tactics I had just experienced, I just waved back and said nothing.
 
Once through the front gate, we had to sign in at the admitting desk and have a large plastic coated VISITOR badge hung on our clothing with little metal clips. I got the feeling that they would have preferred to brand it on our foreheads instead. So far the place was pretty scary and we had only met the security people.
 
We were taken into a waiting room and lectured on safety precautions like not letting a patient touch us, and not touching anything or anyone — no wandering away from the group, no asking questions of patients or staff not assigned to our tour, no opening doors unless we asked first, no drinking or eating anything. I wanted to ask just what it was that we were allowed to do, but decided against it as futile.
 
When the briefing was completed we were abandoned by the last security officer we should have to deal with and no one was sad. They seemed rather mean and sadistic, which we all supposed was required by their duties and we concluded that we did not want their jobs.
 
Several minutes went by and finally a bright and cheerful young man in his twenties, wearing a tweed coat and colorful tie popped into the room with an emphatic hello and a big smile. He said that his name was David and explained that he would be leading the tour and would gladly answer any questions that we might have.
 
As he spoke he continuously fiddled with his black framed glasses and occasionally tapped them on his clipboard, which strangely enough didn’t have any papers on it. He also did not appear to have a pen to write with, or a name tag. Looking down I could see that he had on PF Flyers sneakers, something that would be cool in today’s world, but just was not done in those days of polished leather shoes (and military looking haircuts and skinny black ties).
 
I made my observations quietly and waited for a moment to speak to the psychology teacher or the coach, but when I tried to get a word in they shushed me, both intently listening to David talk. I thought, “Well. OK. Let’s see where this party takes us.”
 
When we started to move forward with the tour of the facility we encountered a locked door and surprise, David didn’t have a set of keys. He was however very resourceful and said, “Wait a minute. I have to get the door opened,” and went back through the door he originally entered from. The smiling man wasn’t gone a full minute before he reappeared with a large key ring and started going through them to find the right one. “Well, I might have been wrong,” I thought, “Maybe they were more lax in their dress code here and I was just too suspicious.”
 
David was explaining how the routine went for the patients in the open ward, which was what we were approaching. There were two wire walls with gates and locks between us and the ward dayroom and on the other side was a very large black man dressed all in white, with a large key ring that had many keys on it secured to his belt, sitting at a table reading a newspaper.
 
As we waited for David to find the right key to open the first gate, two things happened: the huge black man stood up and started moving quickly toward us and another smaller black man, (also dressed all in white, but missing his keys) burst through the door behind us yelling STOP!
 
The girls in our group started to scream, which set off the patients in the ward and they all started to scream too. David put his hands up like he was under arrest and dropped the keys on the floor. I thought that it was all hysterically funny and started to laugh which made everyone look at me like I was crazy.
 
David was not an employee at all; he was a patient with identity problems and assumed the role of anyone that he saw that caught his interest. He was very good at his “job” and I personally was sad to have him taken away from us. They did so rather roughly, I thought, binding his hands and placing a belt like strap around his body trapping his arms against his sides like he was violent, which we saw no evidence of.
 
Our adults had been thoroughly duped and were not in a good mood when the nurse from Hell showed up to lead our tour and promptly chastised us all for leaving the waiting area with a patient. The two black men who grabbed and manhandled David came back and reported to our nurse saying that they had put him in the “icebox” to cool off and laughed at what we hoped had been a bad joke. They were ordered to remain with the tour so that we didn’t cause any more disruption.
 
The large orderly stared at us without speaking and made the skin crawl on the back of my neck with his unblinking eyes, one of which was gray all over and possibly blind. The smaller man was fidgety and picked at unseen things on his arms or on the wall and couldn’t be still. They were decidedly creepy.
 
Nasty Nurse led us away from the open ward where we had been headed and into a corridor with individual rooms (which looked more like cells to me) where people who were not yet ready to mingle with others were kept. Some were apparently sedated and some were restrained, even while inside their rooms.
 
As I lifted the flap and looked into the little window on the first door by the entrance hall I noticed the stare of both orderlies was focused upon me. So I took my time and took a good long look, knowing that I was pushing their buttons.
 
I nearly started laughing but managed to check my impulse before making any sound. At a casual glance nothing appeared amiss as you took in the body of a person strapped to a bed, other than I did not like to see anyone restrained in such a fashion personally believing it to be cruel.
 
As I was fully intending to irritate my escorts, I had taken a much longer look than I might have. By doing so, I noticed that the patient appeared to be wearing black combat boots and possibly blue trousers under the edge of the sheet covering his body. I don’t believe that would be the standard uniform of a patient undergoing such treatment, but hey, this was not my problem.
 
I dropped the flap on the window, smiling as I thought about what I had just seen and rejoined the group as we were shown the treatment rooms next. I can tell you that these rooms were the stuff nightmares are made of.
 
There was no one in the rooms which pleased me immensely, and the nurse would not answer any questions about the electrical equipment lining one wall, or why there was a chair with straps on it that obviously went into a tile pool of sorts. Or why there was a motel ice machine in the room.
 
I got really nervous when the two orderlies kept staring at me and grinning, as my mother’s words came back to haunt me, “…they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.”
 
Next up was the dayroom for non-violent (translation, severely medicated) patients.
 
We were supposed to be allowed to speak to this group, according to the paper from the hospital administrator that we had all read at school. It took a reminder comment to the teacher and then her insistence with the Gestapo Nurse to get this to happen.
 
Our cantankerous leader was not happy allowing us to speak directly with her “prisoners” and tried to monitor every conversation and stare down anyone that dared to speak. We countered this by making a concerted effort to spread our group to all ends of the room. By this time the entire group of kids was in on the underlying resentment and control issues and how crazy mean the “keepers” were to the patients.
 
I watched an elderly Asian man folding paper into swans and setting them on the table, only to have another, brown skinned man unfold them and smooth them out again and place the papers in a neat pile next to the first man; they had a smooth cycle going on. The orderlies observing this said that they were crazy and ignored them.
 
I got it and appreciated what they had going on. I sat down next to them and watched for a while before saying quietly to them, “It is good to be creative and productive and keep the mind and hands busy, isn’t it.” They looked at me and smiled, waiting for the orderlies to walk to the other end of the room before daring to speak.
 
The Japanese man said, “If we remain quiet and do this, they do not force more medication on us.” To which his Hispanic friend said, “Bah, those pills make you pee in the bed and then you have to sleep in it and they take you to the ice baths for treatment; the sick bastards!”
 
There were those in the room who had not found a way past the Thorazine or similar mind-numbing drugs and they sat and drooled as we tried to talk to them. At the time it was those poor souls who we felt the most pity for; now I wonder if those who still had their marbles had it worse. They knew what was going on.
 
We were invited to lunch with the patients but having spent hours watching them sputter and drool, it was more than we were capable of enduring on our first day.
 
As we were rounded up and herded down the hall to the exit point I noticed an emergency evacuation chart which I had not seen previously. On this chart I figured out that the door marked “towel supply” which was right next to the first patient room (the one I looked into), had an outside exit.
 
I asked a couple of the students to slow down the group so that I could check something out. They were definitely up for mischief by this point, having dealt with the true loonies (the staff) all day. I was able to zip on ahead as a couple of the girls asked to use the bathroom and took off back towards the ward we had just left, causing the orderlies and the nurse to follow them.
 
Just as I thought, the towel supply door was unlocked and on the shelf was a box full of new clipboards. I gently pushed on the outer door fearing an alarm would sound but none did. It pushed right on open and inside the hole where the latch bolt should go was a wad of paper, just like you would make swans out of. I laughed and eased the door back closed so it was ready for someone who had gone outside.
 
I hurried back to the group so as to not give up the secret, making sure that no one saw me. Fortunately, there were no video cameras or motion sensors in place in those days.
 
A huge deal was made out of turning in our VISITOR badges and accounting for each metal clip because a patient might use the little bit of flimsy metal to tunnel out with or something.
 
As we were loading up on the bus our security officer made sure that everyone who got off the bus, was now back aboard. Our driver was waiting on permission to start the bus and depart the area. But, our two adults were deep in discussion about missing their lunch and ignored him, so there we sat.
 
Coming down the long and lonesome road to this singularly unpleasant destination was the very hospital van we had seen pulling out when we first arrived. Our smiling driver was still at the wheel and he pulled up to the gate and again used the remote control to open the gate and drove inside.
 
The man got out, (still dressed in a security hat and jacket, with non-matching pajama bottoms and slippers), opened a side door and got several McDonalds bags out of the van. With a wave to us he went to the very door that I had checked out and pulled it open and pausing to pull out the paper plug, shut the door behind him.
 
What an amazing, resourceful, and considerate guy; he had made a McDonald’s run for his friends! And outsmarted all of the professional keepers while he did it!
 
We had no doubt whatsoever that he would find a way to get each one of them a cheeseburger and fries without them being busted by the angry men and women in white.
 
This only furthered the decision (made by a consensus of the students on the tour) that the really crazy dangerous inmates were the ones with the keys. The patients only needed compassion and seemed infinitely saner than their keepers.

Outside of the Fence

Tales from the Looney Bin

 

Twice before the age of eighteen I ventured inside the walls of care facilities for the mentally ill. Both instances were for education (psychology classes), and not for the purpose of “curing” me from what “ailed me”, namely being a too-smart-for-his-own-good teenager.

 

I will not individually identify either the Florida or the Georgia hospitals, which then operated under the less politically correct titles of State Mental Hospital, as they were practically identical in operation and clientele.

I will attempt to convey what I learned, heard, and observed from these visits to the “other side”.

 

Outside of the Fence

 

The surrounding communities were scary in their similarities: in both locations the employees lived close at hand but not on the hospital grounds; in the coffee shops and eateries of both places the locals referred to the hospitals as the “Looney Bin”; and in both there was a constant fear that a “crazed lunatic” would escape and rape and murder his way through the community.

 

Even at my young age and experience level it seemed less than likely that any tortured soul who wandered away from the hospital would stand a chance against the armed and ready population surrounding them. Every man had a handgun on him, evident in either a holster or visible in their pockets. Every pickup truck had at least one shotgun in the window rack. I would not at all be surprised to learn that the women had pistols in their purses as well.

 

Stopping at a local eatery for lunch before my one o’clock appointment, and being curious about all of the armed citizens, I was primed for trouble; and it found me.

 

Being an outsider to their community I made the faux pas of asking, “Just when the last time was, that anyone had escaped from the hospital?”

 

This caused a flurry of tobacco spitting and unintelligible grumbling, culminating in a fat finger being pointed in my face as a red faced man in overalls shouted, “One time is three times too many!” And to emphasize his words he spat tobacco juice on the floor at my feet. As I looked around the diner it appeared as if I had wandered into a bobble-head convention with all of the heads going up and down.

 

I was quickly getting the impression that I had worn out my welcome; it could have been the odd way everyone turned so they were facing away from me, or it could have been the way that the large angry man who yelled at me was playing with his pistol. Either way, I finished my tea and went to pay my bill and leave before a lynching party was formed.

 

The waitress who served me also rang me up at the register and seemed less nuts than the rest of the people in the diner. I was obviously afraid to say anything else, lest I get shot; seeing this she took pity on me and said, “Meet me around back.” I just nodded my head and went out the front door.

 

The middle-aged woman was sucking on a cigarette and gulping down coffee by the time I walked around the building and found her.

 

She said that there had only been one escape in the ten years she had been at the diner, and that one was a woman who had “gone off her rocker” (now known as dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s). I asked if the woman had harmed anyone during her escape and she replied, no.

 

I was now really curious, and asked, “So why all of the guns and fear?”

 

The old woman had embarrassed the director of the hospital by just walking out the unlocked door and away from the facility with no one noticing.

 

A call to the local sheriff had been exaggerated to say that an extremely “agitated” patient had “broken out” (to save face) and that an armed man-hunt was needed immediately.

 

The sheriff having only two deputies (and a total of three cars) went to the diner to round up a search posse. Needing to inspire the usually less than enthusiastic crowd to help him, he told the men to arm themselves and lock the women and children up in the house to prevent the “deranged and dangerous lunatic” from hiding in their homes.

 

The ploy worked, possibly a bit too well, and the party-lines were buzzing before the sheriff got back into his car and fear was running through the community like a wild fire. A bloodthirsty murdering rapist was in their midst and the death toll was sure to be high!

 

Men with guns converged on the mental hospital grounds and dogs were loosed to flush out the mad man as the search was conducted in a fury. Every home, shed, and bush was being checked.

 

Every person of color in the area was terrified because it looked like the Klan was out in force, in the daylight, and without their sheets! I can’t say that they were wrong.

 

The search resulted in the shooting of one dog who resented the intrusion of strangers onto its property and the demise of one black & white (Holstein) calf which had the misfortune of scaring an already nervous armed searcher as it bolted from an out building.

 

As the search party reached the far end of the sheriff’s jurisdiction he called the state police to report the situation as he saw it; namely that an armed and dangerous escapee was now their problem.

 

It seems that the Troopers had been notified by the hospital personnel already as they were both state agencies and that was standard operating procedure, so the response that the sheriff got was laughter; they were not about to call for a statewide armed response for one confused elderly woman.

 

This greatly upset the sheriff, who had visions of ridicule by all and an end to his career, so he said nothing to the still searching posse of armed vigilantes.

 

I had to ask at this point, “So did they ever find the poor woman?”

 

My waitress friend actually cracked a smile for a brief moment, as she continued the tale.

 

The old lady was sitting on the sheriff’s front porch the entire time, naked as the day she was born, and no one ever came by.

 

She had taken off her all-purpose cotton nightgown as she left the hospital building and an employee had found it; not knowing where it came from, she picked it up and put it in the laundry.

 

The old lady had walked the two miles to the sheriff’s house, where she had lived many years before the sheriff, in the predawn darkness and took up her position on the front porch swing with an old cat.

 

No one bothered to search the sheriff’s house because; he started out there, and well, he was the sheriff! Nobody in their right mind would hide there!

 

In all fairness, with the typical plantings surrounding an old porch in country where rainfall is sufficient to make things grow, you would have had to stop right in front of the house to see her sitting there.

 

I can just imagine the shock and surprise the sheriff felt as he stopped in front of his house, (rather than pulling into his carport around back as usual), and found this elderly naked woman sitting in his porch swing with a stray cat. He knew right away that she had to be the missing woman and he also knew that he had to get her out of there before anyone else came by and saw her.

 

The man grabbed his own large monogrammed bathrobe and wrapped her up in it and put her in his personal pickup truck to drive her back to the hospital. As it was now dark it was easier to sneak her through the still searching few men who had not gone home to protect their families.

 

The next morning the sheriff held a meeting with the volunteers to thank and dismiss them, saying that the escapee was no longer considered a threat to their community and would be dealt with elsewhere.

 

It was never made public that it was a woman from their own community who escaped, and her being returned was also not common knowledge, even among employees of the hospital. The community was essentially still on alert, ten years later.

 

Our waitress had been the only one at the diner when a newly hired (and promptly fired) hospital orderly brought the sheriff’s robe by there because he didn’t know where the sheriff’s house was and he had been told not to take it to the police station. Not knowing any better, the orderly spilled the entire story, (as he overheard it), to the woman over a cup of coffee.

 

The wise young woman took possession of the robe and called the sheriff to come and get it, knowing that she would never get a ticket for the rest of her days in that town if she kept her mouth shut.

 

Her disgust over the treatment that I received made her tell me, but even at that she was still keeping her mouth shut around the locals as she now owned the diner and wanted to stay in business.

By strtwlkr

Greetings friends!

I am a Buddhist, a veteran, a world traveler and the guy next door. I am unique, just like you.

Who is strtwlkr (streetwalker)?

I am a retired USPS letter carrier that walked the streets for 21 years. That combined with my wicked sense of humor lead to my “name”. I use that in my email address and I am known on the playa at Burning Man as strtwlkr. In the early days of e-mail we did not use vowels in order to shorten words. It just stuck.

That explains the name, but who am I?

I am a Buddhist, a veteran of both the Army and the Navy, a former Air Traffic Controller, a life member of Mensa and have traveled the world. I was raised in the South, but now live in the West. I claim affiliation with very few organization, but do belong to the Reno Herpetological Society and recently became a volunteer Solar System Ambassador for NASA/JPL. I am married with three grown children and three grandchildren.

For years I have resisted the requests and demands of friends and family to start a blog. From 1998 until 2008 I wrote a daily email newsletter called the Desert Home Companion which had a following that amazed me, with readers in 25 states and 5 foreign countries. In that correspondence I offered jokes, current events, educational information, but day after day it was my personal accounts of what was happening in my life that gained the most interest.

It was during the production of the DHC and by request of its readers that I began writing stories about my life. I have produced more than 75 short stories. If I get enough requests from readers of this blog to do so, I will release one each week in either random order, or in the case of sequential story segments, in the order written.

My wife Anna and I are being held captive by a loving, female Border Collie. Eleven year old Mikki who was known in the DHC days as Colour Sgt Mikki of the Highland Regiment of the Border Patrol due to her tireless defense of her yard against all dogs, cats, birds, leaves and other “floatie” things which “might” land in her domain. Also in the house are three cuddly constrictors named Victoria, Albert and Scaramouche, who are the favorites of our grandchildren.

Also in our “pack” is Anna’s 87 year old dad who fortunately for my sanity lives at a local assisted living place with a bunch of people his own age and just as deaf and forgetful. They can tell each other the same stories over and over and they just keep nodding and grinning. Life is good for them and they are safe, warm and well cared for. Many others are not as fortunate. We see to his wants and needs for shopping, medical appointments and going out to eat, as well as manage his bills, etc., so he doesn’t have to worry and won’t get taken advantage of by predators.

The future of this blog depends upon your interest as readers and how much positive feedback I get. I like to write, but it is much easier to keep at it if I know people want to read my posts.

By strtwlkr