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My name then was Michael Babarksy, the name from my Polish-Lithuanian
step-father, Jim, who entered my life when I was five. We were living
in my native home of Miami, Florida. He was a floor layer – a infantry
veteran of WWII Pacific theatre, the step-son of an alcoholic coal
miner from Scranton, PA. His step-mother came at an early age and all I
knew of her was that she beat him and his siblings with a poker iron.
He was alcoholic and a rage alcoholic.
My Edna mother was an alcoholic and addicted to Miltown given to her
post her second caesarian birth to me and my step-brother Joe. She came
from a large Georgia dirt-farm family and her father was alcoholic, a
wife and child beater.
The two of them fought constantly. Their violence reached murderous
suicidal levels when he would take out his hunting weapons, shoot into
the ceiling of the house and threaten to kill everyone including
My response was to begin to run away and drink alcohol at age 14 from
our home in the Florida Keys. At age 15 I was on probation for running
away from home, drinking under age. I was on suspended sentence to FSB
for a juvenile mischievous prank when, while drunk, a friend and I lit
candles used for the Sunday Catholic Church service in the Old Coast
Guard Building and one of the candles fell against a wooden door
I was sentenced to Mariana for violating that probation by purchasing
alcohol, providing alcohol to a minor (my friends,) and having sex with
a sixteen year old girl.
From the first day Mariana was a nightmare of verbal abuse and physical
threats from the adults and the institutionalized culture of
teen-on-teen culture. The senior boys ambushed new kids in private with
soap-in-sock weapons, or sheeted them without redress. I was forced to
view the back, buttocks and legs of a kid who had been beaten in the
I did what I had learned to do to get away from the violence: I ran
away. The following is what was done to me when I was captured and
returned to the Florida “School” for Boys at Mariana under the color of
state law. The following is my narrative story then published under my
birth name, Michael Burt McCarthy. Today my literary name, nom de
plume, if you will, is Michael O’McCarthy.
A VISIT TO THE WHITE HOUSE
Michael McCarthy (*)
First published in SOUTHERN EXPOSURE 1980 – anthologized in GROWING UP
, PANTHEON, 1981
It was typical 0f Southern jails in the 1950s: a concrete and brick,
two-story building with the first floor housing the sheriffs offices,
jail booking office and small kitchen; the second floor, a hollow shell
with a steel-barred cage set about four feet from the surrounding green
walls and three feet below the dimly lit ceiling. There were segregated
cells, each with two flat, metal-slatted bunks and an encrusted toilet
bowl-wash basin com¬bination. The floor, unpainted, grey-grouted
cement, sloped towards drain-holes to facilitate a monthly hosing and
to accommodate the inevitable flooding by a rampaging prisoner.
The two fifteen-year-old boys occupying the front cells by the security
door were typical, too. Except they were clothed in State-issued, white
cotton boxer shorts, dirty with road clay, torn by briars and thistles.
They were runaways from what was called, by some, The Florida School
for Boys, and by others, The Florida Industrial School at Marianna.
Whatever. It all meant the same thing in the end. They were juvenile
escapees from Florida’s one reform school for boys. And that’s why both
boys had that look of cold, infantiliz¬ing terror about them. They knew
what awaited runaways.
At a little past three o’clock in the afternoon, the security door
swung open, and the county jailer came in, dressed in the gaudy green,
grey and gold patch uniform, keys clanking and clin
king against the
hollow silence. Then came the two Statemen in the casual dress of the
boys’ school informality: white solid or thin-striped, short-sleeved
shirts: brown or black slacks; white cotton or black argyle socks;
black or brown laced shoes. These were the men with taut grins and
white Baptist faces, men off the broken farms of north Florida,
southern Georgia and Alabama, men in the benevolent tradition 0f the
South¬ern paternal order. Hard Christian men serving the State, steeped
in the doctrine of original sin and the swift application of salvation
The jailer keyed the lock, and told the boys in a not unkindly way to
back up against the cell door with their hands behind them. A Stateman
manacled first one, then the other boy. He asked each if the cuffs were
too tight; they in turn mumbled their no s. They were motioned out of
the cell — the slimmer 0f the two, Mike, moving lamely on his left leg.
His knee, ankle and foot were encrusted with blood and dirt.
The jailer led them down the hollow concrete steps, into the book¬ing
room, and the Statemen motioned the boys to the wooden bench by the
wall as they signed them out. The officials exchanged their good-byes,
then the boys were led squinting into the orange-white sun of the
parking lot. The omnipresent grey Statecar sat waiting, a well-used
transport for State supplies and runaway boys.
Statecar headed northwest out of Apalachicola on Highway 98; the
boys were seated in the rear, the window and door handles removed.
Fifty miles per hour along the golden Gulf Coast where the sun splashed
on white beaches, green-brown saw grass, the sparse northern Florida
pines. Then north on 71 out 0f Port St. Joe, through Wewahitchka, along
the Dead Lake.
Little was said. What was there to say? They were taking them back to
Marianna. Going to Hell in the “Sun¬shine State” of Yankee tourists and
The Statecar moved along the three-hour trip through the small towns of
Blountsville and Altha, through the open grazing land of the humid
Florida Panhandle. The road signs marked the distance as they drew
nearer and nearer to Marianna. At the 20-mile sign, cold sweat began to
film on the bottom of the boys’ feet, in the palms 0f their hands, in
their armpits; it trickled through the hair of their groins, down and
around their testicles to the vinyl seats, soaking their asses. The
near-naked boys sat. manacled arms behind their backs, on the elevated
rear seat 0f the State station wagon, gawked at by pedes¬trians from
curbsides and passengers in faster vehicles, Images conjured of
Southern times past, of other runa¬ways, their black bodies manacled,
clothing torn and tattered, seated in the rear of a wagon.
The Statecar passed through the rock portals and up the road lead
the central offices 0f the school: it swung left and stopped in front
of the Director’s office, Mr. Dennis, the school’s Boy Scout leader,
got out the passenger seat and walked to the office door: he said
something to the inside. Then, hack at the car, he waited. Soon a tall,
angular man, the Director, came out. He had a slight, right-legged limp
born with a sternness he seemed to pride. He neither looked at nor
spoke to the boys, but motioned to the driver with a long, gaunt arm.
Pointing towards the dining room and kitchen, and he said something to
Dennis said.” Okay," and got back into the car. They drove the short,
pine tree-lined road past the kitchen, and stopped before a one-story,
white cement, windowless building. “You boys just sit there for a
minute.” Dragging some keys from his pocket. Dennis unlocked the
buildings heavy wooden door, and disappeared into the darkness. The
boys could hear the clamor and din from the dining room as nearly 400
boys sat down to their evening meal.
Shortly, the Director appeared at the right side 0f the car and reached
through the front window to unlock the rear door. “You can get out now,
he said to Mike. Dennis reappeared through the doorway and opened the
car’s left rear door, telling the other buy, Woody, to get out.
Motion¬ing toward the building, the Director said, “You boys get
there.” Dennis led them out of the late afternoon Florida sunlight into
the near-darkness of the building known as the White House.
The boys were led into a dank. whitewashed corridor six feet wide,
eight feet high. The aged walls were lit only by a single wire-encased
bulb glaring against the musty ceiling.
Three quarters of the way down the corridor were two identical rooms,
one on either side, both lit with bulbs encased in the rusty wire mesh.
The boys were directed to the one on the left-the Colored Boys room it
was called-equal and identical, separate by law. Word had it the only
difference was in the number of strokes given blacks.
The room held nothing but a rusting, GI-green army cot, with an
uncovered, striped mattress and pillow, dark with the liquid stains of
human miser. The two runaways were uncuffed and ordered to sit on the
cot. The two Statemen stood over them, silent, watching as the terror
began to tremble their bodies. A third state man stood waiting in the
corridor. The director began to question them:
Why did you boys run? … Don’t you know you cant get away from here? You
boys are lucky; farmers hereabouts shoot runaways. Either that or the
swamps get them. What’s your excuse? … if you’ve got one, I want to
Woody began to cry softly, the director’s voice signaling the
inevitable emotional buildup
to the beating.
Mike crying too, tried to speak: “I don’t know … I could take anymore …
I just wanted to get away … I …”
Dennis said nothing; the director slowly tapped his game right foot.
Finally, Mike gave up, his head bowed.
“All right,” the director said.
“Which of you will go first?”
Neither answered. The director pointed to Mike.
“You then, let’s go---into the other room. And giving a nod to Dennis,
the directotor led Mike in the White Boys room.
Pointing to the army cot, the director gave the instructions:
“All right now, son, it’ll go easier on you if you do as I tell you.
You’re to lay down on the cot on your belly; turn your face to the
wall. If I were you, I’d stuff the corner of that pillow in your mouth.
Once we begin, don’t turn your head. Don’t cry out or scream if you
doe, we start all over again. Place both hands on the cot frame and
keep hold of it. Do not try to get up or try to stop us. If you do,
we’ll send for some kitchen boys to hold you down. I’d try to stay as
relaxed as you can; you’re less likely to be hurt.”
The mask of sternness began to slip. Something---remorse
perhaps---began to flow down the long lines of his face.
“Now get this straight in your head. Every boy is t
old about running
away. You knew the punishment; you’ve seen boys brought back to your
cottage from here. You knew what to expect when you were caught. So you
asked for this.”
The new mask melted into place: two hundred years old; seen from a
thousand Protestant pulpits; from a multitude of Southern court benches
at sentencing time; before the cringing figure of a michevious child;
at the hanging of a good slave gone bad; before the daughter being sent
away from the unacceptable lover.
The patriarch stood towering before Mike. A long pause followed as he
turned the show of his flawed right leg on the cement floor. Then he
spoke the formula: “Let me tell you something son, this is going to
hurt me more than it will you.”
Have said his piece, the director pulled himself erect, the tone of
self-pitying condescension gone from his face.
“All right now, lay on down there, turn your head and get a’hold of the
The boy, visibly shaken, did as he was told.
The director spoke again:
“You best do as I said and stick the corner of that pillow in your
Mike caught the pillow corner in his mouth, turned his head flat on its
side, shut his eyes, and waited. Seconds, minutes of clenched waiting.
His body trembled. Sweat ran under his arms; sweat ran down the crack
of his ass, the white-cotton shorts turning
damp, clinging to the skin
of his buttocks. He lay there in the silence, waiting for it to begin.
He heard Dennis’ footsteps return. The director step halfway out the
door and tell him to “hit the fan.” And then heard the awful roar of
the huge exhaust fan at the corridor’s end. The whole of the White
House seemed to shudder under its force. It filled the room until no
sound but the fan was possible.
Half in fear, reacting to the shock of the fan, Mike turned his head
toward the director. In a glimpse of terror, he saw it. Pushing his
head back toward the wall, he took the pillow again in his mouth; his
hands squeezed the bed frame; he clamped his eyes shut.
The first stroke exploded. The sound like the booming Ka-Pow of a
shotgun slammed into his ears as the impact of the blow penetrated into
the tissues of his ass. The second stroke was higher, cutting just
across the top elastic of his shorts.
Crack-Pow. The boom echoed louder off the barren walls; the shock of
pain cracked into his lower back. He was driven deeper into the
The mattress and springs pushed his body up to meet the third stroke:
Crack-Pow. The skin on the back of his thighs was ripped upward with
the stroke’s completing.
Crack-Pow. Two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. … The pain
began to turn a deep, bright red as it ran through him.
He saw it clearly. Swinging in an arc over the director’s head,
slapping in the cheeks of his ass.
THE PADDLE. an innocuous schoolroom term givenit by the director. The
Paddle. Two strips of quarter-inch polished leather, two feet long,
over two inches wide, separated by a sixteenth-inch piece of taut,
pliant sheet metal. Attached to a four-inch round hand grip, the
leather was perforated on either side midway down, with one-eighth-inch
holes, ending in a half-inch long taper. The effect brought the
whipping weapon down in a cracking slap that drove through the thinness
of the cotton shorts, into the upper tissues of the skin. Halfway
through the beating, the holes were filled with blood-covered flesh.
The Paddle began to pull and suck to the side and away. Finally, with
each stroke, the tapered end snapped the flesh, cracking it wherever it
had grown taut and swollen.
Crack-Pow. The strokes were coming in a marked rhythm now.
As the director began each stroke the foot of his twisted right leg
slid on the cement floor, making a terse rasping sound. Then as the
paddle was swung up and over the director’s head, it scraped against
the ceiling just before it came down against the flesh. Between the
eighth and twelfth blows the boy, now crying softly into the pillow,
began to try different measures to ease the blows.
First he waited the split second between the scrape on the ceiling and
at the impact, tightened his lower back, ass, and legs, and just as the
blow landed, he would force himself to go limp.
Between the sixteenth and twentieth, he tried just the opposite. Just
as the blow was to land, he would go rigid; as it ended, he went loose.
Somewhere between the twenty-third and twenty-sixth, he succumbed to
deep guttural moaning, biting the pillow deeply so it was tight against
his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He knew nothing would ease the
pain as the Director, in his practiced, method¬ical manner, alternated
the strokes first to the middle buttocks, then to the back of the legs,
then to the small of the back, then hit just one cheek, the tapered end
snatching and tearing at the inside of the crevice.
At the thirty-first stroke, the boy went into a state of semi-shock.
The roar of the fan, the lunging breathing of the Director, the
scraping foot, the paddle catching at the ceiling — all became surreal.
The blows passed into his body, sending a numbing wave into his groin,
on into the mattress, pushing him deep into the springs. At the
thirty-sixth stroke the boy lost track of numbers. Then, without
apparent reason, after ten or twelve more, it ended.
For the first time since the begin¬ning, the Director spoke: “All right
now, get up.”
The boy tried, but nothing moved.
“I said, get on up.”
The boy again tri
ed to move his legs, to turn, but nothing worked. “If
you don’t get up off that cot like I told you, we’re going to start all
over again. Now get up.”
Pulling against the bed frame, Mike moved his body from the cot.
Pushing, he turned toward the Director who was already looking out the
door to the Colored Boys’ Room where Woody was waiting; the long strap
hung hot and ready in his hand. An image of a hard-hewn woodcutter
awaiting the next load of logs filled the boy’s mind. Crying, he
finally managed to sit upright on the sagging cot, as Dennis re-entered
“Alright boy, stand up, drop your shorts, bend over, and let’s have a
look at you.” Mike finally struggled to his feet as Dennis moved
closer. He turned his back to the Statemen, pulled slowly at the
waistband, and drew the shorts to his knees as he bent.
“That ain’t too bad.., some bleeding,” the Director motioned with his
hand, talking to Dennis. The boy, head down, looked through his knees.
The already mud-smudged, tattered shorts were now blotted with blood.
“Okay, you can pull them up. Go with Mr. Dennis and do as he tells
you”; the Director turned and went into the Colored Boys’ Room.
Dennis motioned to Mike to fol¬low him down the corridor. Limping
stiff-legged, the boy obeyed. “Now you just stand over there in the
corner with your face to the wall and wait. Don’t make any more noise,
or else the Director wilt have you back in that room.” It was the first
time since entering the White House that Dennis had spoken to the boy.
“We’ll take you down to the hospital after¬wards to see to your leg
wounds.” Dennis left the boy standing face towards the wall, as Woody
was taken into the White Boys’ Room.
Dennis gone, Mike leaned against the wall, gulping for air, trying to
stop the trembling. A few feet to his left, the fan roared on, covering
the voices in the White Boys’ Room. Suddenly the second round of
strokes began, the sound cracking 0ff the walls, echoing into the
corridor, breaking in the boy’s ears. He slunk to his knees, falling
against the wall, covering his eyes with his forearm.
The Director again took up his steady rhythm: Crack-Pow two thousand,
three thousand, four thou¬sand — Crack-Pow. The fifth stroke, the
The boy pushed his head harder into his arm, but the image of the
Di¬rector swinging the strap over his shoulder and down upon the prone
body would not fade. Again and again he could see it fall.
Between the sixteenth and nine¬teenth stroke the boy called Woody began
to cry out at each impact. At the twenty-third, the Director shouted at
him, “Boy, I told you to stuff the corner of that pillow i
n your mouth
and keep it there. I don’t want to have to listen to your crying and
bawling.” The strap fell upon the boy as he got the pillow back into
When the twenty-seventh stroke hit Woody, it must have cracked him
open. He screamed. A loud, deep, animal cry of agony. Again and again
he screamed. As each explosion of leather on ruptured skin broke, he
screamed. By the thirty-third, the screaming was one long, continuous
wail, rising with each stroke.
After the thirty-sixth stroke, a scuffle broke out in the White Boys’
Room. Mike heard the Director yell to the other Statemen, “Get him back
on his stomach,” and to the boy, “Boy, this is it with you. Now you lay
yourself back down there or else we’ll send for the kitchen boys. You
ain’t getting anything you don’t de-serve. Now lay back down there and
take your medicine like a man.” Woody was forced back on the cot and
the beating and the wailing began again.
An insane image began to fill Mike’s mind. He’d seen it dozens 0f times
at the movies and on the TV: Somewhere out West, a fort is surrounded.
The last remaining troops of a long siege peer over the stockade walls.
Over a not-too-distant hill, the glow from an Indian camp lights the
nocturnal horizon. The cavalry troops are waiting to see if the
volunteer sent to get relief makes it through
the encircling savages...
Suddenly, the silence is broken by a scream. A loud, deep, screaming
cry of agony as the volunteer’s white skin is ruptured.
Succumbing to hysteria, Mike’s scream mixed with those of the boy on
Finally, the beating stopped. The three Statemen came out of the White
Boys’ Room. “What is the matter with you, boy . . . do you want some
more of the same?” Mike looked up and saw the three pallid-skinned
Christians; the tall angular one swing¬ing the blood-wet weapon in his
hand. With all his force, with all the resource¬fulness he could call
upon, he shouted, “I’m praying to Jesus for forgiveness!”
After a long pause, the Director spoke again, “Well boy, you just do
that, but you’d better do your pray¬ing a lot quieter — Or else you’ll
have a lot more to pray about. Now keep quiet, hear me!”
Without waiting, he led the Statemen back into the room, and the
beating continued; through forty, forty-five, fifty. At the fifty-sixth
stroke, Mike lost count.
He slowly pulled himself to his feet as the sound 0f the exploding
crack of The Paddle, Woody’s cries, merged into the receding roar of
the fan. The pain from the wounds on his foot and leg, from the
swollen, cracked flesh of his back and but¬tocks, melted into rage. It
no longer mattered how long, how many blows
, or what manner 0f
retribution the Statemen inflicted. They had done all that was
(*) The following is the original bio at the end of the Pantheon
(McCarthy, a Florida native, has worked variously as a disc jockey,
free¬lance journalist, political editor of the Los Angeles Free Press,
and sociologist. He served time from 1963 to ‘69 in California prisons.
There, he says, “I obtained an extraordinary education in the
disciplines of social and political science, social psychology and
philoso¬phy.” Now living in Hixson, Tennessee, McCarthy is currently at
work on The Rise of the Dragons, a political history of the California
Prison Movement, as well as The South: A National History.*
-The end of the original SOUTHERN EXPOSURE PIECE-
From a memoir in proogress: THE LONG JOURNEY OF DIXIE LULLABY.
They brought us from the White House to the infirmary dressed in our
under shorts. The part time doctor from the nearby farm town of
Marianna had been called to come and examine us. After examining
Woody’s ass he dismissed him and Woody was taken back to the cottage to
dress to go to the dining room for dinner.
As I remember he first looked at my ass and said it would heal just
fine. He may or may not have cleansed the torn flesh or swabbed it with
antiseptic. I don’t remember because I was still in shock.
AI do remember next that he ordered me up on the metal examining table
and had me lie down on my back despite the terrible pain from my ass.
He began examining the thorn wounds in my left knee and ankle which I
had received when I jumped into the briars when we thought we saw a
State car coming down the road early in our escape.
There were still thorns in the wounds. Some buried deeply in and under
the skin. He took out his surgical instruments, which I remember as
being a scalpel and scissors. That is when I asked him what kind of
anesthesia he was going to use when cutting out the thorns. He flicked
away my question with a wave of his hand. The one with the scalpel.
“Boys that run away don’t get no anesthesia,” he said with his medical
degreed cracker twang and poured antiseptic on the wounds.
The pain was horrible. He then motioned to the inmate infirmary
attendants to hold my leg still and began to cut and pluck the thorns
out of the already festering wounds. I only remember pain.
I cannot recall how long he worked away on me. I may have passed out. I
only remember being taken back to the cottage and dressed to go to the
dining room to join the other boys. Woody was already there.
<*The following is an episode from Michael Burt McCarthy’s
semi-fictional autobiography, The Long Journey of Dixie Lullaby.
(*)The piece was written under
what was then my legal name.
Subsequently a birth certificate was found with the name Michael Burt
McCarthy. I adopted the nom de plume, Michael O’McCarthy in 1997.
Something happened to me the 15 year old boy, the juvenile delinguent
that was sentanced to FSB. My innocence, the essence of childhood trust
in adults and adult institution was essence was killed. More to the
point, the humanity that children bring to the world as a free gift
from nature was twisted into a rational twisted with selfishness and
cowardness and a twisted viewpoint that believed in manipulation and
connivance as the way to live. What survived was a tormented boy with a
twisted sense of what I had to do to survive in a life I neither
understood nor was capable of dealing with on life's terms. So rather
than the geographic escapes I'd chosen before Maranna, now I escaped
into the drug of alcohol. While is is clear today that the I was in all
probability an alcoholic genetically from birth, the kind of alcholic I
would become was one only partially functional, incapable of the
mature, emotional thinking at any past 14-15.
It was obvious at the end that I needed psychological help. A Dr. Curry
had begun to see me and indicated that too.
I never received it. I returned to my home a traumatized kid who had
suppressed all my natural pain and anger below the surface to survive
Mariana and to g
et out. I immediately began drinking.
I left Florida that summer for Jim’s business location in Chicago
Heights, Ill. I continued to drink but managed to stay out of legal
trouble through my senior year in high school. Upon leaving I began to
have alcoholic, psychotic breaks: when drunk I would have paranoid
episodes where I believed that people were out to get me to kill me. I
was placed in the Cook County psychiatric ward, but released and sent
back to Florida. I entered the US army only to have another
alcoholic-psychotic episode that lead to AWOL and a medical discharge.
I went to California, (yet another in what we alcoholics call
“geographics,”” where shortly thereafter I had yet another and the
worst. I was arrested while drunk for robbing a gas station of $6.37 of
gas while fleeing the country to Mexico. I was sentenced to 1 year to
Life in the California Department of Corrections and imprisoned in some
of the worst prisons in the US correctional system.
There I changed, in order to survive. I became a painter and a
published writer; I obtained a self-educated background in psychology,
sociology and political science. I emerged seven years later, a
political organizer of the first prisoner’s union in the history of the
US, a hero to those in the human rights movement.
I would go on to a career in print journalism with the Los Angeles Free
Press, a career20in movies for television; a social activist on behalf
of prisoners, citizens in Virginia facing open pit uranium mining,
become the spokesperson and negotiator to the Congress of the United
States on behalf of the Viet Nam Veteran’s Coalition; locate and
publicize the victims of the Rosewood Massacre which lead to their
recognition before the state of Florida and their compensation, the
first reparations paid to African Americans in the history of the US.
Currently I am a well published writer, editor and executive producer
in film. I am a recovered alcoholic and drug addict with over 23 years
of clean and sober living.
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