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Randall Morgan Steed









Putting these few words to paper or even talking about this period of my life is difficult as it dredges up long suppressed memories Iíve spent most of my life trying to bury. Recently I stumbled upon the Miami Herald news video article regarding the White House Boys at the Florida School for Boys, Marianna and found I was not alone in these feelings. Iíd never thought about like that--it always seemed a private experience. It was liberating to know there were others out there like myself who had spent the long years since with the same recurring nightmares of sitting on that long wooden bench waiting to go down in the White House. Mental scar tissue grows with time but never quite sufficiently to erase the trauma completely.

My own story begins with the usual juvenile mischief. At thirteen years of age a number of us neighborhood kids were arrested for having an older friend buy us a cartoon of beer for a pool party. For this we received a fifty dollar fine, six months probation and a five day suspended jail sentence. I ended up serving the five day sentence due to truancy from school. I spent my fourteenth birthday incarcerated in the hole at the Sarasota County Jail. There was no county Juvenile detention facility in those days; 1962 if memory serves. There was virtually no light and the floor was covered with putrid smelling water. Toilette and shower were an evil dark, lime encrusted affair to be avoided if at all possible. I was told the reason I was being held in this manner was that they could not put me in with the adult population. The night before my release I was transferred to a nice clean, bright twelve bunk cell complete with window view of Sarasotaís Ringling Boulevard. In later years it dawned on me that the reason I served my five days in the hole was that the judge had a serious dislike for my father who had stood up quite verbally for us kids when we first appeared before him on the underage drinking charge. This judge was dismissed from the bench in later years on corruption charges.

A couple yearsí later two friends and I broke into a small local mom & pop roadside grocery one night and stole several dozen cartons of cigarettes as well whatever change had been left overnight in the cash register. Yes, this was obviously criminally wrong and we deserved suitable punishment that fit the crime; thereís certainly no denying that. A couple weeks after the act we were caught as someone had observed Ė overheard us selling the cigarettes in the bowling alley that was our local hangout. I was promptly released into my into motherís custody until a court appearance could be scheduled. Knowing full well the judge was going to sentence me to either Okeechobee or Marianna I thought it prudent to distance myself as far away from Sarasota as possible. I managed to hitch a ride to Dallas, Texas were I found work at the Texas State fair. At the end of the state fair I traveled with the food concessionaires Iíd been working for to Phoenix to work the Arizona State fair and then on to San Bernardino, California where they stored their equipment for the winter. After three weeks of living in a rundown hotel and trying to find any kind menial work --not easy for a sixteen year old without any sort of I.D.; OK I did pick oranges for two days with the Mexican in the hills above Riverside. Those guys can work like no ethnic group Iíve ever met. It gave me tremendous respect for the Mexican people and also provided me with my first taste of Mexican food. At about this time being broke and living on oranges and peanut butter and jelly I obviously began to get homesick. Christmas was fast approaching and I thought it best to head home. I remember well walking down San Bernardinoís main street one morning and seeing the morning papers carrying the headline ďPresident Kennedy AssassinatedĒ. For the next couple weeks I rode the rails and hitchhiked across the country with stops at various Missions and Salvation Armyís to at least have a warm place to sleep and eat. Even a day trip into Juarez, Mexico to buy cheap food for the road. I made it home for Christmas and was promptly arrested on New Yearís Day.

By this time Sarasota had a new Juvenile detention facility which was a huge improvement over the county jail. My cell mate was an intelligent, articulate black kid from Bradenton. We quickly became good friends. We were transported together by car to Marianna a few days later. I naively thought Iíd at least have this new friend for company during my incarceration. How wrong I was. I never saw him again. From there on out I always realized how lucky I was to be white in that institution and not black. No matter how bad it was for us Caucasians it was much, much worse for people of color. I imagine that the Cubans and other Latinos were incarcerated with the black kids as I remember our side of the facility being lily white; or maybe the Cubans and Latinos were better at staying out of trouble. It was common knowledge that the black kids had to take two showers a day while we only had to take one. The extreme racism left a deep impression at the time.

As I was one of the older kids I was assigned to Adamís Cottage. All things considered it was quite OK. Fitted out with a television and ping pong table etc. We saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on that T.V. I also remember they let us stay up late one night to listen to the Cassius Clay Ė Sonny Liston fight on the radio. Funny the things one remembers. In the first day or so after arrival you were required to take an aptitude test to determine where you would be placed in the work system. You worked one day and went to school on the alternate days. Apparently I did well on the aptitude test and was assigned to learn to be a barber. We were also assigned with issuing new kids their uniforms in the mornings. This meant learning to operate an old foot peddle singer sewing machine as to sew each inductees name into collars and waste bands. We were allowed to listen to the radio while we worked which meant an endless background of the first Beatles tunes to reach the states. Yes I had the best job and knew that well as Iíd return to Adamís cottage each evening and see the sweat and grime on the kids who held the menial jobs around the facility. Itís the little things that made the place livable.

There seemed to be a rite of passage where you were tested early on to see what you were made of (or perhaps I said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time). This meant getting your ass kicked in the locker room by another new kid who was also being tested while your cottages mates threw work boots down at you both as they sat on top of the lockers shouting encouragement. This seemed to be completely tolerated by the cottage fathers as there was no way they could not hear the noise and commotion going on. Also the fact that one of their charges would show up on a regular basis with eyeís swollen shut, bloody lips etc. It was worse than that.

About two months into my incarceration I was approached by three of the boys with the proposition ďhow would you like to return to Mexico?Ē I was being approached to run due to my worldly experience from being on the road for several months. If only Iíd kept my mouth shut and not bragged about my adventures. Of course Iíd never told them the part about being cold and hungry and having to sleep in dingy Missions and freight cars.

So the plan was hatched. At the evening roll call weíd all put our hands up for a pass to go to the medical clinic. If only one of the other boys who were not in on the plan had also raised his hand we would probably not have run that night. Well that didnít happen so off we went with our pass in hand and instead of going direct to the hospital we quickly proceeded to the motor pool were one of our companions who worked there was supposed to be able to hot wire one of the state vehicles. He quickly proved incapable of accomplishing this cool feat. In fact in retrospect I doubt anyone of us even knew how to drive. It was now too late to turn back so off we went down the road headed to town where we planned to try again. About this time a car came down the road and we all ducked into the bushes. Four went in Ė three came out. Our fellow conspirator whoíd disappeared into the bushes quickly turned himself at the nearest filling station he could find. The rest of us found ourselves in the colored part of town on the outskirts of Marianna. We discovered a new church under construction and were able to hide in the unfinished basement. For the next three or four hours we watched as state jeeps complete with dogs cruised by. These people had been chasing rabbits (thatís what you were now known as an escapee) through the night for so many years that they knew every possible hiding place and expected to catch you in a reasonable amount time and go back to bed. Well, I guess that new church had them fooled as they were well pissed off when they finally located our hiding place several hours later. As we were ordered out Iíll never forget the superintendentís hands shaking so hard as he pointed a pearl handled 45 at me. Yes, it actually had pearl handles. One of the other boys had tried to go out a different window then thinking the better of it decided to give himself up. As he came walking around the corner of the church he was behind the man pointing the gun at me. This startled this fellow so much that as he spun around to respond to this unexpected event I thought he was going to blow the boys head off...Iím still surprised he didnítóhe was a very shaky man that night. These people were seriously pissed off and agitated at us for keeping them up all night. This was not the normal chain of advents as I was told later. We only had the long head start as we had a new cottage father who didnít know the ropes yet. We were his first rabbits. I still feel sorry for putting him on the spot as he was a very decent person. A recently retired military man who earnestly thought he was doing some good. He soon realized he was in the wrong job and resigned.

When we arrived back at the facility we were made to sit on the long wooden bench in the administration building for what seemed a long time. The wait was excruciating because you knew what was coming and just wanted to get it over with. When they finally marched us over to the white house you had someone holding on to you from behind. They sort wrapped their hand into the waist band of your trousers and frog marched you along. On the way over I asked to go first. Of course this meant they saved me till last. Upon entering the door one boy was taken directly into the room on the right; us other two were made to wait in the room on the left. I forget if there were chairs or a bed to sit on. A large, noisy fan was switched on. We could not see what was going on in the next room but when you heard that first crack of the leather you knew exactly what it was going to be like for you. It sounded exactly like a rifle shot going off in the small confines of those rooms. It was horrifying. This boy jumped right off the bed and started begging for mercy and pleading with the person beating him that his mother would pay them anything - please stop beating me. He was forced back on the bed and the next crack of leather had him off the bed and pleading again. This horrible scene was repeated at least one or two more times before he managed to stay on the bed and endure the awful flogging. I counted sixty times that leather came down on him. Then it was the next boys turn. He too came off the bed each time that crack of the leather strap came down on him. They found it too difficult to keep this boy on the bed and about this time four of five of our cottage mates showed up. Apparently they had gone to Adams cottage and woke these boys up and brought them to the White House to hold down any of us who could not stay on the bed. They were told to hold this boy down while the beating continued. I can only imagine how horrified they must have felt holding down their cottage mate while he received this torture. I remember counting approximately fifty strokes of the leather.

By this time it was obvious that the only way to reduce the number of strokes was to stay on the bed. I donít remember how freighted I felt. I imagine it was so horrifying that my mind has shut it our all these years. It was too much comprehend. When they took me and told me to lie on the bed. The superintended that had held the gun on me sat down on chair beside the head of the bed and told me to bite into the pillow. I turned my head and saw the large man who was going to administer the beating hold this leather strap that I can only describe as a long piece of wide black leather with a handle. In later years I saw something similar in the Robert Redford movie ďBrubakerĒ. Whatever the case the next thing you knew was the complete and utter shock of that first stroke hitting your ass. There are no words to possibly describe the shock and pain you feel as that explosion inside you goes off. Itís indescribable. Your mind and body just cannot comprehend that anything could possibly--letís leave it at that as it is impossible to put into words. When the second stroke hit me I defecated in my underwear. After that it was just a blur of incomprehensible pain raining down on you. The oddest thing I remember besides counting was the old superintendent sitting on the stool beside me head was speaking softly to me; sort of pep talking me threw it in a calm, quite manner. These people had done this so many times to so many boys through the years that they had their routine down to almost a habitual, set procedure. They were a team at work on you and they knew what they were doing. I counted forty strokes that I received. I donít know if I received less than the other boys because I managed to stay on the bed or perhaps the large man who was flogging me was getting tiredóperhaps a combination of both. One thing I distinctly remember was him almost coming off the floor as he brought that leather down on you with the full force and weight of his body behind it. This man wanted to hurt you to with all his being.

After the beating (beating does not accurately describe the experience; I donít know what word does except torture) we were returned to our cottage and told to shower. I remember the horrified look on our new cottage fatherís (the retired military man) face as he saw the damage inflicted on our bodies. I know I was parchment black from the top of my ass down to just above the backs of my knees. There was no blue as in black & blue-- just black. In retrospect I counted myself lucky that they had not cut me as our senior cottage father who was an older man who had been there years would sometimes boast of his proficiency or technique with the leather where he could twist it on the down stroke thereby slicing the skin open. The other and overriding factor was once again being white. The black kids never walked out of the White House. You saw them being dragged unconscious, put (put is a kind word here) into a vehicle to be returned to their side.

In regard to disappearances there was a small boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age that had just arrived and got into enough trouble (I donít remember if he ran or what) right away to be taken to the White House. Even after his first beating he made little effort to conform and was shunned by his cottage mates. On his second trip to the White House his cottage mates were brought in to hold him down on the bed. They related that even after the second flogging that he very verbally told his abusers what he thought of them in no uncertain terms. We never saw him after that. The rumor was about that he had requested to be placed in solitary confinement so as not to suffer the wrath of his cottage mates. I donít know if this was true or not. All I know is we never saw this little guy again.

From that point on I resolved to keep my mouth shut, stick my head in a book and just ride out the rest of Marianna experience flying under the radar. It must have worked as seven months later they drove me to the local bus station and dropped me at the door. Iíll never forget the taste of that first cup of coffee sitting at the lunch counter among free people. I had a smile that was frozen my face. That smile never left my face for the four-hundred mile trip back to Sarasota.

Three weeks later I was in New York Boarding the Queen Mary on my way to London to work in my fatherís small electronics firm. I could not get away from Florida fast enough. I did not return for a number of years. The fact remains that you canít outrun the nightmares. The nightmares continued well into my thirties. Three or four nights a week I ran all night in my dreams. Iíd break out of some institute or another and spend the night running but with the horrible dark dread inside of knowing it was fruitless-just a matter of time till they caught you and took you back to sit and wait for the indivertible on that long wooden bench. I always woke up at this point with an immense feeling of relief that it was just the same old dream and I was not going back into the White House.

Randall Morgan Steed randysteed@gmail.com