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.