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"WAS I FUNNY?" (The Joseph Wells Story)


A true story of institutional abuse, written by author, Roger Dean Kiser




"Poison Ivyyyyyyyyyyy. Poison Ivyyyyyyyyyyyy," sang the Coasters from the large loud speaker of Cottage Twelve located at the Florida School for Boy Reformatory in Marianna, Florida.

The Duval County Juvenile Court sent my 13-year-old rear end to the reform school for running away from the orphanage. I just could not imagine that my young life could possibly get any worse than what it had been for the past 10 years. I found it unbelievable that anyone on the face of this earth could possibly beat or mistreat children as badly as did the Children's Home Society Orphanage in Jacksonville. But boy, was I wrong on that call.

The next morning, we lined up two abreast and marched from our dormitory to the dining hall, which was about a half-mile away. I could not get the words to that song out of my mind. Surprising myself, I began to sing again. "Poison Ivyyyyyyyyyyyy."

It amazed me that I sounded exactly like the singer(s) on the radio. This made everyone in line laugh, especially Mr. SeaLander, our house parent, who was walking at the end of the long line. God! It felt so good inside to make everyone laugh. I had never done anything like that before. There is just something about 'the laughing thing' that makes you feel accepted and that everyone really, really likes you.

I continued to imitate that singing voice on and off for several weeks, which constantly made everyone who heard it laugh. Several days later, I was called into Mr. SeaLander's study and told to immediately report to Mr. Curry's office. Mr. Curry was the head psychologist at the reform school. He never did like me very much, because I would never answer his questions about whether or not I had ever 'masturbated or played with myself.' I entered the main office and I sat down on the wooden chair outside of Mr. Currey's door.

He opened his office door and snapped, "Kiser. Get in here."

"Yes sir, Mr. Curry, sir."

I got up and walked as fast as I could into his office. I sat down in a chair, which he had placed directly in front of his large, wooden desk. As he sat down, he growled and then spun his chair to face me. He pushed his thick, black-rimmed glasses to the end of his nose and just sat there staring at me. He said not a word for more than a minute.

All at once he snarled through closed teeth, "What's this ‘Poison Ivy?crap you've been singing around the grounds?"

I swallowed and said, "Just a song that I heard on the radio, Mr. Currey, sir."

"And the purpose in that?" He pointed his pencil at me.

"It makes all the people laugh real hard," I shrugged, feeling a bit intimidated.

"No more of that. Do you hear me, young man?"

"What's wrong with laughing, Mr. Curry, sir?"

"I said, no more of it!" he screamed.

"Yes sir, Mr. Curry, sir."

I nodded as I looked down at the floor.

"Get back over to Cottage Twelve. I'll call SeaLander and tell him you're on your way," he said pointing his finger at the open door.

I left the office, closed the door behind me and walked out into the reception area. As I stepped outside, I looked at his new pink and gray Chrysler Desoto, which he had purchased several weeks before. I remembered the day that he showed off his new car and how everyone who worked at the school was standing around the automobile with him, talking and laughing.

”I guess when you're a kid, you can't laugh until you are grown up and on your own,?I thought.

I kicked a rock off the sidewalk that flew up and hit his ugly, new car on the door. I turned around and looked back at the office to see if anyone was watching. Nothing happened, so I walked back to the cottage. When I returned, I told Mr. SeaLander and the boys what Mr. Currey had said and that I was not allowed to make the funny sound any more.

After eating supper, our group marched to the football field to attend the football championships. Our cottage was in the final play-offs against Washington Cottage. We had never made it to the play-offs before, so we were very excited about winning.

At half time, we were down by two touchdowns, but by the fourth quarter, we made up much of the difference. Now Washington Cottage was just two points ahead of us. There were only about two minutes left in the game and the ball was within a foot of making another touchdown. I came off the end and positioned myself over the boy who played center position. When the ball snapped, I jumped over him. With both hands, I slammed down as hard as I could toward the football, knocking it loose from their quarterback's grip. In all the confusion, I just stood there wondering where the ball had landed. Boys were piling up all around me.

"Run! Run!" yelled several boys.

I looked down and saw that the football was in my arms, lying against my stomach. Confused, I took off and ran down the field. I pushed and I pushed, running as hard and as fast as I could, trying to make it to the goalpost. Hundreds, upon hundreds of boys were now yelling and screaming at the top of their voices, as I made my way to the end of the field for the touchdown. I will never forget the look of pride on Mr. SeaLander's face as he patted me on the back for the touchdown that allowed us to win the championship game. Even the men calling the game over the intercom were yelling in excitement about what happened.

"Do the funny thing!" yelled out one of my teammates.

"Make that funny sound!" hollered another.

"Poison Ivyyyyyyyyyy. Poison Ivyyyyyyyyyy," I screamed out in a high-pitched voice.

The boys laughed and screamed at the sound of my voice coming from the loud speaker as we passed by the table where the announcers sat. That was a very happy day in my life; a day I will never forget as long as I live.

However, there is also another day I will always remember. The next day, I was once again called into Mr. Currey's office. As I entered, I saw one of the boys from my cottage, Joseph Wells, sitting in a corner chair. His cheeks were all wet from crying.

"You don't learn very well do you, Kiser?" Mr. Currey yelled.

"Learn what? Mr. Currey, sir."

"Did you sing out ‘Poison Ivy?at the ball game last night?"

He glared at me, awaiting my response. I looked over at Joseph; he slowly shook his head back and forth.

"No sir, Mr.Currey. You said not to do that anymore."

Mr. Currey reached over and pushed the button on his desk, which made a buzzing sound.

"Yes, Mr. Currey," answered the secretary.

"Call Mr. Patton and tell him to take Joseph to lock-up for the night."

He kept his accusing gaze on me.

"Yes, sir."

"Kiser, you go back to your dormitory . . . and Joseph, you sit in the other office until Patton gets here," Mr. Currey sneered.

I walked back to the cottage and told Mr. SeaLander what happened.

"Joseph will stay in lock-up for the night. That should be the end of the matter," he assured me.

The next morning, as we rounded the corner on our march to breakfast, we saw Joseph and two men walking toward the White House. It was a small yellow building where the boys who ran away were taken. They were laid on an army cot and beaten with a split leather strap, which had a piece of sheet metal sewed in-between the two halves. I remembered the White House from several months before. I was beaten so badly that I had to be taken to the hospital and pieces of my underwear were surgically removed from my buttocks.

We stood and watched as they unlocked the door, entered the building and closed the door behind them. None of us heard a sound as we sat in the dining hall and ate our breakfast. Fifteen minutes after breakfast, we stood outside and watched as the White House door opened. The two men stepped out, pulling Joseph by his arms. He was backwards and his heels dragged on the ground. They continued until they reached the dining hall. When they saw me, they stopped and dropped Joseph on the ground at my feet.

"Here's your damn poison ivy buddy. I should have killed the bastard," one of them said, as he kicked the almost unconscious boy with his foot.

I stood there and looked at Joseph, who was unable to move or speak. As they walked away, I looked down into his face.

"Joe, are you all right?" I asked.

His eyes slowly opened and they were kind of rolled back in his head. He looked up at me and with blood coming from his mouth he said, "Roger Dean, can you kiss me?"

"I ain't never kissed no man person before, Joseph."

I felt my face flush at the request.

"I don't mean like that, stupid. Like . . . like someone would kiss you on the top of your head, when they are supposed to like you a lot. Like a real grandma would do when you're hurt real bad . . . or something."

His voice was quiet, exhausted and I wasn't sure he would finish. Slowly, I got down on my knees and gently kissed him on the forehead as he closed his eyes. As I stood up, I could see all of the boys, not one making a sound, watching us from the dining hall windows.

I turned to face the large group of boys who surrounded us, waiting with my head down for someone to holler the words, "Hey, we got us a couple of queers here." But those words were never spoken. One at a time, each and every one of the boys, some with tears in their eyes, raised their right hands into the air, pointed their thumbs toward the sky and gave their sign of approval.

"Did everyone think I was funny, Roger Dean?" Joseph said, as he tried to smile.

"You were funny, Joe. Real funny," I said, as I tried to help my best friend to his feet.