|By Max Rabinowitz|
|In September or October of 1958, I was sent to a new ward in the children's unit of that hospital. This new ward had an unlucky number, Thirteen, but it was an Honor Ward and was a helluva lot different from the ward where I had previously spent my time.
Honor Ward was where us guys could get passes from the doctors to walk around the hospital grounds on our own. I received my Honor Card on my second day in Ward Thirteen.
Having an honor card was a new and really great thing. For the very first time, I walked out of that building all by myself. I felt a little nervous and constantly looked over my shoulder to see if there was an attendant running after me to take me back inside. The pass permitted me to stay outside until eleven o'clock and then I had to come back to the building to eat. After lunch, at one o'clock, I could go out again and didn't have to return until supper at four o'clock - it was fantastic!
On the first occasion I walked about a hundred feet from the building and turned back to look at it. Somehow, with my new freedom, it looked different. The morning sun shone brightly on the tan bricks of the building and turned them almost white. The structure was long and low and had three spokes running around a common center that housed the elevators. I looked up at the windows and I could see bars on all of them, just like a movie jail. There were bars on both sides of the glass except for the windows on the first floor because that was where the doctors had their offices. The garden along the left side of the building was full of pretty flowers and the grass around the building was very green. The sun glinted on an object hidden there. I walked over and picked it up. I wasn't really surprised to see that it was an empty wine bottle. Gypsy Rose, because everyone knew that most of the attendants drank that stuff and threw away the empty bottles when they left the unit. I tossed it back on the grass and walked down the tar-covered roadway.
The hospital was laid out like a small city and I had no idea that it was so big until I started walking around. I'd been told that there were over forty buildings and eight thousand patients, but I never visualized all that. My world had encompassed only two or three buildings at the very most. The concept of eight thousand patients was too much for me to grasp.
The children's unit was Building Nine and the only other one I usually saw was Building Eight, which housed the very oldest people. I heard that some people in there were even older than my grandmother, but I only saw the outside of it and couldn't be sure.
Once outside I saw hundreds of people that looked just like anyone else in my home neighborhood. They were walking around just like me. I had not yet acquired the capacity to discern who was a patient and who was a visitor, but sometimes it was obvious. The doctors I could spot easily enough because they all had that dumb look on their faces. Nurses and attendants I could pick out by their white clothes and white shoes. Sometimes I could sport a real crazy person by the way they were acting, like talking to themselves or wearing three coats and stuff like that. Mostly they all came off like ordinary people.
As I walked I passed E Building where a bunch of nurses sat on the steps. I thought that there was something odd about them because they all wore silly capes, like Superman, except that theirs were sorta dark blue. Underneath the capes their dresses were peppermint-stripped and I smiled because they looked so funny. The way I could be sure that they were staff was because they all had on white shoes and those little white hats that nurses always wear.
One of them called to me. I knew better than to ignore her because I might get in trouble and if I did I could lose my Honor Card. I walked over to the steps and stood there like a dummy, waiting for somebody to say something.
Mostly they were pretty but there were a few that were so ugly you could get ulcers just looking at them. One of the uglier ones asked me if I was a patient. I just nodded at her. A pretty one asked my name and how old I was and stuff like that. I had to talk then and I gave her the information. Some of the nurses in the back of the group talked to one another and I caught things like, "Isn't that a shame?" and "He doesn't LOOK sick, does he?" They were okay, I guess, but I wanted to explore some more. The real ugly one must have noticed that because she told me that I could go. I was so relieved that I almost ran over myself getting away. I heard them laugh at me.
I wandered around looking at every thing until I heard a loud commotion behind me. When I looked I saw this guy running down the road toward me. He was about twenty-five years old. Seven or eight huge attendants were in hot pursuit and they were chasing him right at me. Everybody was yelling and screaming at the guy to stop, but he kept on going, down the road, around the corner of a building to my left and out of sight. I laughed until I almost had convulsions. What made it so funny was that the guy didn't have any clothes on at all. I ran around the corner to see if they had caught him and it got funnier and funnier. The guy had climbed a tree and the attendants were throwing rocks at him in an effort to make him come down. Finally, one of the attendants grabbed the boy by his foot and dragged him to the ground. Then they grabbed him by his arms and legs and carried him away.
Off to my right I saw something move and went to investigate. I came up to this great big tree and way up in the branches I saw a gray squirrel gripping onto the tree trunk. He was upside down and looking right at me. After a second or two he ran around the tree trunk in a spiral pattern and came right down near me. He wasn't scared at all and I held out my fingers for him. The squirrel jumped off the tree and landed on my arm. His boldness almost threw me into a panic. Then he crawled up my arm to my hand. He pried apart my fingers, looking for something to eat, but the cupboard was bare. I did have a small bag of cashew nuts in my pocket, but I was afraid that if I made a move for them it would scare him away. He looked right into my face and made a loud "chree chree," as if to berate me for not having some food for him. I stood very still and hoped that he would stay awhile longer.
No fear, as that squirrel wasn't about to give up so easy. He scooted back up my arm and sat on my shoulder, then onto my head where I could feel his little claws digging around in my scalp. I felt sorry for him and reached in my pocket to get him one of the cashews moving slowly so that I wouldn't scare him off. He followed my hand and scampered down my side, stuck his head inside my pocket and grabbed the bag of cashes with his teeth. He pulled it right out and jumped to the ground with it! I watched gleefully as he tore the plastic bag to shreds and attacked the nuts. He looked silly and his white face swelled up while he devoured them all. I knew that he was just stuffing most of them in his cheeks for a snack later on. It made me happy to see him eat like that. I probably felt that way because I never had a pet to play with and I liked to think that the squirrel was mine. I saw him (or another like him) several times after that and I always made sure that I brought something for the little guy to eat.
I headed back to my building for lunch and, as on the weekend visits, I had to submit to that search before I could go upstairs to the ward. I grew to hate that invasion of my privacy more than anything else that happened to me there, more than the beatings, the drugs, the electroshock therapy and the insulin shock therapy, the vicious attendants and sadistic nurses. I hated that damned search.
Lunch was supposed to be the biggest and best meal of the day. In reality it was nothing much. This day the main course consisted of something called Pig Tails & Beans. . It was really bad. How could a couple of pieces of hairy pig tails swimming around in some kind of boiled lima beans be anything else? The taste was disgusting, but the thinking of the staff was that crazy people paid no attention to the flavor anyway. In time I learned to just gobble down any food without paying any attention to what I was eating or what it tasted like - it was safer that way. Sometimes I saw bugs and mice in the food that we were served and I once observed a guy that was preparing stew actually piss into the kettle. I sure didn't eat any of it, but wonder how many times something like that happened that I wasn't aware of . . .
Besides the pig tails and beans we also were graced with a salad that looked and tasted like limp green paper. There was a portion of something they called rice pudding, which was more like moldy bread with rice ground into it. All our meals were accompanied by a cup of coffee that was so heavily laced with chicory; you'd almost gag trying to get it down - it was that bitter. The bread was about the only thing you could eat without any problems. Although it was made from a strange flour and sliced about a half inch thick it was filling and didn't taste like anything but what it was. I usually traded something off my tray for another guy's four slices of bread. Sometimes I'd even steal bread off of a really crazy guy's tray - they never knew what they were eating anyway.
Our only eating utensil was a spoon. I have never seen that type of spoon except in hospitals like this one. They were almost perfectly round on the bowl part and the stems were very, very short, an inch at the most. Eating with them was difficult, but most of us just used our fingers and let it go at that. It was impossible to hurt anyone with those piss-poor spoons and whoever it was that designed them sure did a bang-up job because they met with every safety requirement, only you couldn't eat with them.
The mess hall was simply a large room filled with long tables in three separate rows. These tables were specially made so that even a guy having a fit wasn't supposed to be able to pick one up and throw it. My guess was that they weighed somewhere around two hundred and fifty pounds apiece. I once saw some guys cleaning the dining room and it took four of them to lift one off the floor. Along both sides of these tables were chairs of a special design. They were extremely light and you could pick one up with just your pinkie. It wouldn't do much good to hit a guy with one either because they'd just bust into a million pieces. Once I got blasted right in the face with one of them and the result was simply a bloody nose.
In themes hall we lined up along one wall, picked up our trays and then filed past the food counter. The idea was to never be last in line because only a certain amount of food was sent up to each respective mess hall from the main institutional kitchen, and, if the guy who did the serving gave out too much to the first part of the line, by the time your turn came around there wasn't anything left. The line always looked like we had lined up according to size, with all the biggest guys in the front. A smaller kid knew better than to stand in front of a bigger guy, cause he could get hurt real bad for doing that. My spot was sorta in the middle. In later years I became the first man in line, but before that I had to pay my dues.
The food was served in grand fashion. The serving attendant would scoop up whatever it was we were supposed to be eating and plop it on our trays. Everything went plop when it hit the tray, even the bread. We weren't allowed to ask for more either, no matter how hungry we were. Practically, all the food was served cold and all the cold food was served lukewarm. There was only one reason that we ate the stuff at all: We were so hungry we didn't care what went in our mouths! To this day I do not enjoy the taste of food. I always gobble it right down as quickly as possible. This habit was instilled in me during this period and is one that I will probably never be able to break.
After we received our food we would proceed to the tables and find our seats. We had to eat everything quickly too, because we were only allowed ten minutes to finish. And everything meant just that. If you were stupid enough to take something and then not eat it you quickly learned not to do it again. An attendant would mark our names down and at our next meal we had to sit and look at an empty tray. After that happened a few times, we learned to eat everything, even if It made us sick. Once I found a couple of cockroaches in my salad. I showed them to the attendant as an explanation why I didn't want to finish it. He looked at me and didn't say anything. That night I didn't get any supper. The next time I came across foreign matter on my tray I ate the food, roaches and all.
There were many other problems also, much more important than the food. One of those was the need to protect yourself at all times. Some of the guys there were just like me, not really crazy at all. Others, like Iron Man, were, off and on, sometimes crazy, sometimes not. There were quite a few that were one hundred percent batty and these were guys that I had to look out for. Take Bullwinkle for example . . .
Everybody liked Bullwinkle. He was fifteen and sure knew a lot of real funny stories. We could listen to him talk all day because he was one of the few people who could cheer things up on the ward. He had only on small problem - voices in his head. The reason that everyone called him Bullwinkle was because he really thought he was Bullwinkle J. Moose, a character from a television show called "Rocky the Flying Squirrel." We watched it all the time and Rocky was the character whose voice Bullwinkle always heard. The voice would tell him that people were out to get him. We always knew when Bullwinkle was going to act crazy because he would tilt his head slightly to one side, as if he was listening intently to someone. We knew that it was time to run. Bullwinkle was stronger than most guys and even though his place in the food line was behind me I wasn't about to brace him when he went batty. There's something about nutty people that makes me nervous. When they aren't acting flaky most of them are mellow. But when they go off they become much stronger than they usually are and they can't be hurt because they become oblivious to pain.
Whenever Bullwinkle blew his stack he would start throwing chairs, punching people, biting them, whatever he could to hurt somebody. He once bashed me in the back with one of the attendants' chairs, a 50-pound job, and I couldn't walk right for a week. He told me that Rocky made sure no one could hurt him because, if someone planned an attack, his friend would warn him. I tried to tell him that nobody would bother him because we all like him. Usually he just looked at me real funny and asked if I was out to get him also.
Years later, Bullwinkle would be killed by an attendant whom he attacked during one of his crazy moods. I was in another part of the hospital, but I felt sad for Bullwinkle. He sure could tell some funny stories.
Living with people like that taught me several things. The first was never to stand or sit anywhere unless I had my back to a wall. Another thing was to smash anybody that came within three feet of me for any reason, friend or not, unless I had specifically asked him to approach me. This way, I could avoid a lot of trouble for myself, since the guy who got in the first shot usually won the argument. I've got lots of scars on my knuckles from punching guys in the mouth - that was before I learned to punch them in the gut instead. Some of the older guys carried homemade knives with them and as I got older I knew that I was going to get one too. A knife could settle an argument fast, though it was useless against the crazier guys, who didn't care what you had in your hands - they came right at you anyway! Once I hit Bobo over the head with a broom handle and it didn't stop him at all. The handle was at least an inch thick and I broke it over his head. I know that I hurt him because he bled something awful, but it didn't stop him. The only reason he did stop was because I stuck him in the throat with the broken end of the broom handle. The jagged edge of it penetrated about a half inch into his neck and drew a lot of blood. The other guys had to pull me off him because when he did go down I started beating his head in with what was left of the broom handle. I felt kind of bad about the way that Bobo talked funny after that fight, but it served him right for scaring me like that. Maybe he wasn't so crazy after all because I never had much trouble with him after that.
Once I got stabbed also, I was standing in the hallway, talking to one of the attendants, when suddenly I felt this dull blow on my back. I spun around to see who had punched me, and, running away down the hallway was this little guy named Phillip. I knew that I could beat him, so I started after him, but the attendant stopped me and told me not to move an inch. I was mad, but I knew better than to disobey a direct order because there was no way I could beat an attendant. The attendant then told that Phillip had stuck me with something and that it was still in my back. I reached around and after a second of two I felt something bristly sticking out of my back. The attendant returned with four other attendants who put me on a stretcher and carried me to the operating room in another building. A doctor there immediately took a needle and shot me in the back with it. I didn't know why because I didn't feel any pain in my back. Then he probed around for a couple of minutes and finally showed me what that dumb Phillip had stuck me with - it was a toothbrush with a handle that had been sharpened to a point. The doctor said that I was lucky because the toothbrush hadn't punctured a vital organ and the damage was very slight. I didn't tell him, but it really was slight, compared to the damage I was gonna do to that bum Phillip when I caught up with him.
They kept me in the infirmary for a total of nine days. I spent all that time thinking about Phillip and how I was going to get even with him. When I returned to my ward on the tenth day the first thing I did was borrow Iron Man's knife. I looked for Phillip all over the place. He wasn't anywhere around and, finally I asked an attendant, who told me that Phillip had been moved to an adult building because of what he had done to me. There wasn't any way to get back at him because those adult building were far beyond my reach. I didn't see him again for five years, but when I did, I remembered.
Soon after that I made the mistake of sitting in a chair with my back exposed. There was a guy we called Bite Yourself. I never knew him by any other name, but he stood at six four and weighted about two hundred and fifty pounds. He was one of the craziest guys at the hospital and no one could communicate with him because he couldn't, or wouldn't, talk at all. Instead he made only silly sounds like "Uuuuhhh" and "Unggg"; never anything coherent. His arms were covered with scars and scabs, self-inflicted by this habit he had of biting himself whenever he got mad or frustrated about something. One of our favorite pastimes was to surround him with a group of guys and yell real loud at him "bite yourself," over and over, until he became so upset that he would bite himself viciously on his arm. Then he would scream loudly and try to grab someone. If he got his hands on anybody he would bite them too! It was fun to get him mad and then run because he was so slow that almost anyone could get away. One day I didn't move fast enough and he managed to grab me. I punched him in the face before he could do much damage and then I ran.
In another incident with Bite Yourself, I had just gotten my hands on a brand new Superman comic book and was reclining in one of those state chairs in the dayroom. I was so absorbed in the comic that I had failed to turn the chair around so that my back was to the wall. Some of the guys were amusing themselves by teasing Bite Yourself and I vaguely heard them in the background, but Superman was being threatened with Kryptonite and I was too engrossed. As usual, Bite Yourself got mad and bit himself, then he went after some of the guys that were tormenting him. They scattered and, in his frustration, he picked up the state chair. These dayroom chairs were not the flimsy kind like in the mess hall, but heavy armchairs that weighed a lot. I wasn't ready for anything! I sat there like a catatonic, reading about my hero, and then POW!! I woke up in the first-aid room, with an attendant sewing up my head. It took seven stitches to close the cut and I had to stay in bed for a whole day to make sure there was no concussion. I even lost my damn comic book! From then on I kept my back to the wall!