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Lessons from My Boyhood
In 1949, the County Judge of Sarasota sentenced me to be incarcerated at the Florida Industrial School for boys in Marianna. I was barely twelve years old. After a grueling all day ride in a 49 Ford Sheriff's car, I was happy to finally get there. That relief didn’t last long. Within 15 minutes of my arrival I was told, "The judge did not send you here to be rehabilitated, he sent you here to be punished and that is damn well what we are going to do." This person proved to be a prophet, I guess, because that is damn well what they did. The next 2 years were to set the direction of my life for the next 60 years.
It did not take long to receive my first introduction to the "White House" though at that time, we referred to it as the "Ice Cream Plant". On a beautiful sunny Saturday, following the noon meal, my name was called, along with others, to assemble on the mess hall porch.
(Lesson #1), anytime your name is "called out", you are in serious trouble. About six of us were then led next door to the Ice Cream Plant. (White House) As the small door was swung open, we were stunned by the putrid odor and by the darkness and gloom of this place. My first thought was, this must be exactly what the death chamber at Raiford must be like. We were forced into a very small room and ordered to face the wall. What seemed to be a faceless voice monotone us that we were there to be “serviced.” He told us, that when our name was called, we were to quietly go across the hall to the “cot room”. We would lie on the cot, grab the iron bar and turn our head toward the wall. He told us that if we cried, screamed, made a sound of any kind or resisted, that the "spanking" would be started all over again. He said, "Don't worry; we have all day if we need it".
By now, everything seemed surreal. I wasn't sure if this was really happening. It seemed as if my mind had drifted off into a stupor or some kind of coma. And then, my name was called. Instant terror set in. Mr. Dozier was standing in the door with a blank, emotionless stare. Mr. Hatton was standing by the cot and in his hand he had the most terrifying instrument of torture I have ever seen. And when I saw the cot, I was near passing out from the fear and terror. I noticed the mattress was folded under about halfway down. When I lay down, this fold elevated my buttocks and thighs for what, I figured, would make a better target. I grabbed the bar and faced the wall. No way out now, so I did the only thing left for my defense, I set my will that I would not give these vile sub humans the enjoyment of my crying or begging. I would remain unmoving and totally silent. Thank God that helped and so I felt, if only for a moment, that I got back at them and their system. I took away a little of their perverse pleasure.
What followed was the loudest noise I can recall and the most searing, crushing pain I had ever known. I felt as though they had poured gasoline on me and set me ablaze. My body cried out but I never made a sound. I was terrified and I thought they were going to kill me. I just laid there and thought of my parents. After twenty lashes I stopped counting. When the beating finally stopped, I could not hear them tell me to get up. The noise of their handiwork had been too much. They had to shake my shoulders to get me up. Once I was on my feet, I was forced to look Mr. Hatton in the face so he could be sure I wasn't crying. His eyes were very cold and hard, yet, they had a certain gleam to them. So, I knew he enjoyed my pain and torture and his part in it. When I looked at his face, it seemed to me as though I was face to face with Satan. It would be years later before I put it all together and decided that what I saw in those vile, distorted faces must have been a vulgar, disgusting look of perverted sexual release. I still believe that.
When our "punishment" was over, we were led out and sent back to our cottages. It was then that we realized that the faceless voice never told any of us why we had been punished. It is still a mystery even today, 60 years later. I still don't know the reason.
When I returned to Jefferson Cottage, the only thing I wanted was a shower. I had to do something to remove the filthy stench from me and to clean up the blood that had come from my buttocks and thighs. After my shower I found a mirror and saw that from my hips, down the back of both thighs, to the back of my knees was all black. This color and the pain took weeks to go away. As with most of us, other beatings and punishments would follow. One such event gave me a valuable lesson in trusting others. One "friend" had crafted for himself a very sharp 4" knife. Rumor had it that they knew of the knife and were going to search him. I took the knife just before two guards grabbed and searched him. When he talked to them and then pointed to me, I knew I was being set up. I quickly tried to throw the knife into some nearby shrubs, but as luck would have it, it stuck into one of those little wooden signs in front of the office. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out where we went from there.
Another thing I got involved in was "taking it to the court". There was a policy that any disagreement between two inmates could be settled by a challenge to a fight. We gathered on the basketball court surrounded by inmates, so neither of us could run. The issue was settled by a bloody bare knuckles fist fight. Only when one of us gave up or could not go anymore, would it be stopped. The staff greatly enjoyed these, cheering loudly for their favorite. They also had money bet on these sordid events.
I wound up on the "grub crew" several times. There was two things that happened on that crew that I still think of today. One was the nasty old man who controlled the "grub crew" telling us that he hoped we would try to run so he could shoot and kill us. Another memory involved the "White House". We were cleaning the grounds in that area when we received a rare 5 minute break. We had just sat down and leaned against the back of the building when the large fan suddenly started. That fan alone could scare the hell out of you, but then we heard Mr. Hatton ask someone if he felt "like killing a nigger today". He then began the beating and the young boy was pleading and begging. We quickly moved away because we knew if anyone saw us we would go down. The young black boy, who looked about 10 years old, wasn't killed but he was quite bloody when they left.
One evening I was called out by a man I had never seen before. I was told to go with him, I figured to the "White House". I was trying to prepare my mind for that when we went on past the place. We ended up at the infirmary where I was given a gown. I was then told that they were going to remove my tonsils. I asked if there was a problem with my tonsils as they had never checked me out before. Their answer floored me. They pulled my tonsils that night, they said, because they needed the practice and they had a new inmate assistant that wanted to see how it was done. Later, when I was able to talk, I told the inmate assistant that I was awake during the surgery. He said that was impossible, but I told him what they were talking about and who said what. He ran and got the old decrepit doctor who told me, "Don't worry about it, at least you didn't bleed to death".
While in the infirmary, a fellow I knew was in the bed next to me. When no one was around, we talked. I knew he had stolen one of the State’s cars and tried to escape. But it was what happened after he was caught, that remains with me till this very day. He was caught by a Florida Highway patrolman, who brought him back. He was taken straight to the "White House" In 1949 and 1950; escapees were beaten with a wooden paddle instead of the strap. After a few lashes he got up and kicked Mr. Dozier in the testicles. (Hooray!) They had the patrolman block the door with his car and had a couple of deputies to help hold him down. He was given 150 lashes including beating him in the head to slow him down as he was putting up a good fight. [He was an older boy and pretty good size]. He looked like someone who had tangled with a bear. After I left the infirmary I never saw him again. There were three or four other boys in the infirmary at this same time, recovering from their "spanking".
I only remember one thing in all my time there that made me feel good. For the first six or eight months, I worked in the sewing room in the laundry.
Early one morning, while sorting shirts, I was looking out the window facing the highway. I saw an inmate run around the corner of the building and hunker down behind a little engine cover and the building. A few minutes later, I saw a car coming up the highway. It stopped directly in line with where the inmate was hiding and the rear door flew open. He ran and jumped in the car and away they went. I watched until they were out of sight. I knew that this one got "clean away". He would never be back. They would run all through the woods looking for him, but they would never see him again. He was free! And then a warm and happy feeling came over me because I felt like I had helped him escape. I could have pointed him out, but I didn't and I am so glad. Where ever he is today, let me thank him for letting me share a few minutes of his freedom. But I had to keep it to myself and stop smiling; a smile there would earn you a "White House" visit.
The staff use to brag about being a school and I suppose they were. And I must admit that they did teach me lessons that became part of me and a part of my life for 60 years after I left. They taught me to hate, lie, be a loner, don't let anyone become close. They taught me to disrespect others and especially any one or anything that has to do with authority; to be argumentative, uncooperative and violent. Their teachings led to a long list of failures and disappointments in life.
Where am I today? Well, I still have bad dreams of the Florida Industrial School. I have night terrors and panic attacks. I have had psychological consultation and that has helped me refocus. I have come to see, that for 60 years, I was unsure of who I really am. Now I have self respect and learned that I am not an animal or lower. My question is---Was all of this the intent of the State of Florida? Was torture the purpose? Is that the State’s view on how to treat its children? I hope not.