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Lorenzo H. Rehberg
Before I start with a summary of the events at the Okeechobee FSSFB, I wanted to give some background on my childhood up to that point. I was born and raised in the little town of Vero Beach, on the east coast of Florida. We were a family of five, me as the only boy. My sisters were both older, one six years and the other three. Donít figure my folks were sophisticated enough to plan that so it must have just been coincidence. Looking back I can tell you, that up until I hit my teens, I had a wonderful childhood. Free as a bird, I would spend my days playing in the woods and running the streets with my friends. Church and family gatherings on Sunday was the rule. Grandma and Grandpa, aunts uncles, cousins, we were all together, seemed like all the time. A very religious family, which might account for why my family was sort of pushed to the side when my fatherís drinking, became a problem. Never seemed to be a problem to us kids, we loved him and never gave it a second thought. Things were different back then; life was much more structured in the 50ís and 60ís.
At the age of 14 things changed, seems like everything I did was wrong. I was failing in school so I didnít go much. Both my parents worked so it was easy to skip. I would slip off with friends and be gone all day. I finally just dropped out. Didnít matter, I wasnít learning anything anyway, so I thought. I went in front of the juvenile judge several times. I was convicted of auto theft, breaking and entry, skipping school and a host of other misdemeanor things. I was what was referred to at that time as a juvenile delinquent. Compared to todayís youths, I was a saint. I never sassed my elders and was considered a well-mannered and respectful child. Perhaps thatís why I was able to endure all I went through. I always thought I was the one that was wrong.
When I was fourteen I was sent to the Florida State School for Boys at Okechobee, I guess they had had enough. I remember riding in a station wagon and when we arrived at the front entrance it appeared as though we were entering a college campus, not a jail or prison. The yards and grounds were kept up by black boys who were also sent there. They were kept segregated in another area of the school. We did not interact with them at all. I think they had it a lot worst than we did.
When we arrived at the admin building I was turned over to the school staff who assigned me to Roosevelt Cottage. Boys were assigned to cottages according to their ages. I was 14 and the boys in Roosevelt were all about my age. I was given a choice of where I wanted to work. I volunteered for the kitchen because you could earn time off your sentence there. If I remember correctly, it was 1 Ĺ days per week off what was expected to be a one-year stay. I found out later why! Kitchen work started at 5:00 am and got out at 7:00 pm. Those were long days. I started out with pot and pans and after a month or so moved up to other jobs that were not so hard. I finally got one of the cushy jobs making salads and then became the faculty staff orderly. You know, the one they call Fetchit. That job had its privileges; I could steal cigarette butts out of the ashtrays when they were all gone and it was great trading material. Smoking was strictly forbidden and if you were caught, you would get you a trip to the Library, and that wasnít to check out a book. Iím surprised the cottage did not burn to the ground or that no one got killed. The boys would wait until the Cottage Father would go to bed and then using a comb; stick a bent paper clip with toilet paper on it, into one of the electrical outlets. The resulting short would arch and catch the toilet paper on fire. Usually long enough to light one or two stubbies. They really wanted a cigarette pretty bad to take that much of a chance.
The accommodations were good. We all slept on Army type bunks in a large dormitory. Lights were turned out at 9:00 PM.
The Cottage father and his family lived in an apartment attached to the cottage. We seldom saw his family. I consider myself lucky; our cottage father was a pretty good guy; a fellow in his late thirties to early forties, probably a veteran of the Korean conflict. I think this might have been true for most of the staff. They were very strict and everything was like being in the Army. We were put into formations and marched everywhere we went.
I had been at the school for about two or three months when two other boys and I came up with this brilliant idea on how to escape. It was called running; I guess because you had to try and outrun the whole staff once you decided to try and escape. Our idea was fool proof, we would hide in the walk-in cooler and wait for everyone to leave the mess hall, then force the cooler door open, slip out one of the windows and make our way into the woods. We knew we were pretty close to some sort of city because we could see light shining on the horizon on a clear night, we didnít take into consideration that Florida is a flat state and light can be seen for many, many miles. Our plan worked flawlessly. We were on our way to freedom. We ran through swamp and briars, and encountered every imaginable type of animal. Itís amazing how the sight of an alligator at night wasnít as scary as the prospect of being caught by the people chasing us.
It was true what they had told us. ďBoys, itís a waste of time to try and run from here.Ē They had horses, vans and tracking dogs. However, we did pretty well. We were able to evade them for three long days. Tired, hungry and exhausted we lay down in a palmetto thicket long enough to take a nap. Next thing I knew, I had a big burly man hovering over me with what appeared to be a nightstick in his hand. He shouted for me to get up and as I stood he grabbed the back of my jeans lifting me partially of the ground. His other hand had a death hold on the back of my neck, pushing, and sort of lifting me toward the van they came in. There were several men around us, most I had never seen before; some on horseback and others in vans and cars. We were in big trouble and we knew it. Not a word was said as we rode back to the school.
I lost my shirt and shoes during the great escape. I remember walking up to the superintendentís office thinking what I must look like. His office was across from the school classrooms, and the rooms were full of boys attending class. I could see them staring at us as the men guided us by the arm into the double doors of the office. We were taken immediately to the superís office. He must have been waiting for us. All three standing in front of his desk, looking down at the floor, knowing we were going to get punished, just not how.
A large well dressed man - the super towered over us like a giant. He sat behind his desk; hands folded in front of him. He asked if we had thought we could escape. No answer. He said he was tired of boys trying to get away and that he had a new experimental treatment for us. He sent two of us into the hall and told us to have a seat. We were under the watchful eye of one of the staff while we sat there and waited. The first boy was led to the library which was adjacent to the superís office, separated by a door. Everything was deathly silent, for what seemed like an eternity. Then, as though it came out of nowhere I could hear the explosion of the first lick. Like thunder, the sound pierced the silence. The boy in the library made no sound, not even a whimper. I was totally confused, scared to death, and trying to imagine what was happening. I had heard that there was an old Army cot in the library and that is where the beatings took place. All kinds of crazy stuff raced through my mind. The beating continued for several minutes then silence. I could hear talking in the other room, then the door opened and I was called into the superís office. I remember standing in front of his desk, holding my head down just looking at the floor. ďWe called your mother,Ē he said. ďTold her we found you and not to worry, weíre going to take care of youĒ. With that he pointed toward the door.
Inside the Library I saw a single Army bunk pushed against one wall, bare mattress with a pillow at the head. This was my first time inside this room; donít think it was ever used as a library. One the men were standing in front of the cot holding a long leather paddle in one hand; a god-awful looking thing, about three feet long and eight inches wide. I was instructed to lie down on the bed, face down looking towards the wall. ďStretch your arms out and grab that rail, donít let goĒ. ďYou can bite into that pillow if you need to but any sound out of you will increase the countĒ. I did as I was told. I lay there with my eyes shut and my teeth biting the pillow as hard as I could. I will never forget the stench and taste of that nasty pillow. Too this day, I donít remember ever feeling the way I felt at that moment. Mental torment followed with physical pain so bad that I have suppressed it for years. I would compare the first lick to hitting your finger with a hammer. The next sixteen were progressively worse. I tried to tighten my butt cheeks, thinking that might make it not hurt so much, but that didnít work. The pain was unbearable, but there was nothing I could do. The men beating me were twice my size and had the law on their side.
After they were finished, I was told to get up and get into the other room. I never shed a tear; I was too scared and proud to cry. I walked with difficulty back into the room where the other two boys were waiting. The third boy was taken into the room, and I remember he did some complaining and had to be threatened. I heard him being told that they would have him held down and double the licks if he didnít shut up. I think he got eighteen or more licks.
I remember other boys visiting the Library and coming back to the cottage. Everyone would bunch up around them and want to see their backsides. Sort of like our badge of honor. I figured we would be the next on display and proudly showing our fellow inmates just how tough we were. I knew my butt would look bad, I could feel the tingle of what later appeared to be breaks in the skin.
When the third boy returned we were told to come back inside the superís office. He told us he had a special punishment for us, sort of an experiment. He then directed we be taken to another building and put into what they called solitary. Not really solitary, all three of us were put into a small room together. No cots, just three mattresses on the floor. There was one sink and one toilet, nothing else. We were locked in this room for days. There was a small opening, covered with a metal plate built into the doorway. That is where we would get our food. Three times a day we could hear the outside doors open and keys opening the smaller door. Food, about all we had to look forward to each day. At noon on the third day, we heard the keys but it wasnít the little door that opened, it was the large door and one of the inmates told us to come with him. The super wanted to see us get out of this hellhole, thank God.
Again the super was sitting behind his desk; hands folded in front of him. He looked at us and asked if we had had time to think about running away and if we might do that again. He then said ďWeíre going to give youíll another paddling. Which one of you wants to be first?Ē He knew we were not going to volunteer. I canít remember who went first, just the feeling of total despair; an empty feeling that can not be described.
Another beating? How could this be happening! I had looked at my butt after the first beating and it was as black as a piece of coal. It had just begun to heal, still sore to the touch, but a little better than the first day. I didnít know what to do; I would have taken my own life if it were possible.
We knew better than to plea or beg, it would do no good, just make things worse. There was no nonsense about these guys, cold as ice. I lay on the bed, arms stretched out above my head. I held onto the rail as hard as I could, my teeth biting that stinking pillow. The first lick hit like a bolt of lightning, The pain rushed into my mind and before it registered the second, third, fourth and on and on. I got eighteen that day I think, but it could have been a hundred. I vaguely remember them snatching me up off the bed and pushing me toward the door. I must have passed out sometime during the ordeal; my memory faded after the first few blows.
We were sent back to solitary lock up. I thought it was all over but they had a plan for us. I think they were using psychology to break our will. Little did they know that we were already broken.
We heard the keys in the locks. Every few hours we would hear someone enter the hall and the sound of keys opening the door. Like clockwork every day at the same times.
At noon on the third day, the large door opens and again we were escorted over to the superintendentís office. There were two men in the room. The deputy superintendent, whose name was Frank A. Zych, and the superintendent whose name was W.M. Sult, then, for the third time, another beating. How could this be, we had already been beaten so badly that one of the boys was bleeding through his jeans. I saw his butt, mine was bad but his was terrible. One of the men only had one arm (either the superintendent or the deputy superintendent, I canít remember). The one armed man paddled him last time. He was known for his double stroke, one down and then across with another.
The same routine - lie down, face the wall and hold on for dear life. I drew the one armed man this time. This guy must have weighed at least 250 lbs. I was all of 110 lbs and skinny as a rail. The power behind his stroke was enough to bring a grown man down. I got sixteen lashes that day (actually 32). My butt was busted open in several places. My underwear was red with blood and I could hardy walk without help. I kept my mouth shut so it wasnít as bad as it could have been. One of the other two boys wasnít so lucky, I heard him screaming and begging them to stop. I counted over fifty stokes. I never saw him after that. I heard he was taken to the dispensary but didnít hear anything else. We were returned to our cottages after that last beating.
One other instance happened after I had been at the school for about five months. I was working in the mess hall cleaning the terrazzo marble floors. I was washing the floors with another boy. He called me a name; I called him something back and he hit me in the face. I slipped on the wet floor and fell hitting my mouth on the floor. My front teeth went through my bottom lip and broke off. I was in excruciating pain. I was taken to the dispensary where an orderly held me down on a table. A female nurse then stitched my mouth closed without using any anesthetic. The orderly kept telling me that he was sorry that he had to do this. Afterwards I was given aspirin for pain and the next day was sent to a dentist who removed my broken front teeth. I still have the scar below my bottom lip.
I spent another five months at the school and went home after only 8 months and 9 days, with time off for good behavior and working in the mess hall.
Lorenzo H. Rehberg firstname.lastname@example.org