Childhood Lost 15
Mt. View Hospital, before the advent of effective medication, was originally constructed as a Tuberculosis Sanitarium. A four story brown brick building, it sprawled in all directions on a landscaped grassy knoll overlooking Pacific Avenue, the main road south out of town.
I had expected to be locked in some special cell or other secure area which I assumed most hospitals utilized when treating dangerous criminals such as myself. My notoriety had, however, apparently, not caught up with me; or if it had, they ignored it. These health care professionals went about the risky business of examination and diagnosis as if I were as harmless as a thirteen year old child.
I was then wheeled into an elevator, taken up to the third floor, settled in a large ward, and cheerfully informed that if I needed anything, all I had to do was call a nurse. I'd just turned thirteen four days earlier. I had perused the National Geographic for as long as I could remember. Many of the nurses in evidence were, to my salacious eye at any rate, strikingly beautiful. Nevertheless I did not request that which I felt I needed most, suspecting as I did that the term "anything" was inherently qualified by many of society's more obnoxious constraints.
The culture of hospital life was alien to me. I'd never been in one. Having grown up among the called and chosen and heavily indoctrinated from an early age against the evils of hospitals and human medical interventions (which tread on the toes, while trampling on the prerogatives of Almighty God), I was totally unprepared for the care, concern and, best of all, the attention I was receiving. It was as if life had been one long nightmare from which I'd suddenly awakened.
The doctors examined me again that evening. After palpating my abdomen and finding no evidence of swelling, they decided to postpone surgery for day or so and keep me under observation. The pain, although bothersome, was abating. "Just my luck," I thought. "The damn thing will probably get better on its own, they'll discharge me in a day or so and I'll get sent back to jail. The knowledge that I would soon have to leave this gentle oasis for the bleak vistas of Remann Hall was horribly depressing. I would have done anything to avoid it.
By the evening of my third day in Eden, all traces of pain had vanished. No matter how I poked, prodded, and probed it was a no show. The doctor believed that the pain had probably due to all the non-stop walking I'd been doing in my cell. The comfort of life around me began to recede in a gray mist of utter despair and it was as if, life as it should be, was visible only from afar... Through a glass and darkly.
At three p.m. a ward nurse informed me I had a visitor and asked if I wanted one. Curiosity more than anything else prompted me to say yes.
Dad walked towards me hesitantly, as if unsure whether to scrap the whole idea or not. He sat down in the bone gray chair next to my bed, handed me a small brown paper sack he'd been carrying and said, "Son, I'm sorry." I eyed him warily and, not knowing what to say, said nothing. After a few awkward moments had passed, he stood up, cleared his throat uncomfortably, and said in a subdued voice, "Well, anyway, I brought you some things." He gestured towards the sack I'd placed on the cart near my bed. "I thought you might enjoy them. I'm really sorry, kid. I never wanted your life or mine to turn out this way."
"Me neither," I regretfully replied. "It's okay, Dad. You did what you thought you had to do. Let's just forget it okay?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "Sure."
After a few more exchanges of civilized nothings, he left. I opened the sack a few minutes after he'd gone. Inside I found a note which said, "Forgive me," signed, "Dad," a fully fueled Scripto Vue lighter, three packs of Camel cigarettes and, best of all, a five dollar bill. I stuffed the plunder in my jacket pocket and was about to head for the hospital canteen when Dr. Edmund came by on afternoon rounds. "We'll probably be discharging you tomorrow," he said. "I think you're going to be fine." I thanked him for taking care of me. We shook hands. He left to care for other patients, and I wandered down to the first floor. After buying a couple of candy bars and a Coke, I sat in the lobby staring vacantly out the window.
A city bus dieseled its way up Pacific Avenue, paused at the bus stop in front of the hospital, then continued south, out of the city. Within an hour I knew it would be in Spanaway, only a handful of miles, if not from home then certainly, from lands that I knew. "Tomorrow at this time, I'll be staring once more out of cell 304," I reflected.
I had no idea what Herbert had in mind for me. On previous visits to his cozy little domain he'd threatened me with Fort Worden, a roughly run facility for juvenile offenders sentenced to one or more years of incarceration in a medium security institution. On others he would dangle the prospect of involuntary enrollment in a Juvenile forestry camp; where I might spend the better part of my youth learning "discipline" and some measure of "respect for my elders." On one such occasion, when I remarked that it might be helpful if my elders behaved in such a manner to demonstrate some small degree of worthiness for that respect, the prospect of eternal life at Green Hill was wrathfully wielded; as of a club over my head.
Green Hill was, reputedly, not the place to squander one's youth. Located at Chehalis, Washington, it was the juvenile justice system's private version of Hell. Only those considered utterly beyond redemption were sent there, and there most remained until the stroke of midnight on their twenty-first birthday.
At this point, they magically became adults (no doubt imbued with all the wisdom and integrity they'd lacked at 11:59 PM) and were, thus, now worthy recipients of the respect and reverence which both Church and State implied were due from all those younger than themselves. As such, they were then released to society, conclusively reborn and fully rehabilitated.
All things considered, the travel brochure of the juvenile justice system, as laid out by Herbert, had no itinerary in it which fit my plans. And the prospect of spending anymore time than I already had in solitary confinement, although benign, when stacked up against forestry camps, Fort Worden, or Green Hill was totally unacceptable.
I sauntered over to the newspaper rack and picked up a copy of that August publication, The Tacoma News Tribune. Holding it up to my face as if I was so engrossed in its captivating revelations that I was unaware of the world around me, I strolled out through the main door, walked casually down the sixty or so concrete steps to Pacific Avenue and, collapsed wearily on the bus stop bench. My exhaustion was not feigned either. From the moment I'd walked out that door my pulse had at least doubled and I was having trouble breathing normally. I looked warily, yet surreptitiously around. There was no sign of the fuzz, no plain clothes detectives or hospital security guards, nothing. I had fully expected to get pounced on the moment I'd set foot outside which is why I settled on the newspaper ploy. At the least, I could claim some sort of temporary amnesia, a situational distraction, something. The fact that I was sitting at a bus stop was to my devious mind easily laundered. I was tired. Worn and frayed from the manifold rigors of hospital life, I had wandered out there aimlessly with no particular destination in mind and it was not my fault that City Transit had seen fit to build a bus stop in front of this particular hospital. I was resting. That's all I was doing. And no one could prove otherwise unless a bus stopped and I actually got on one.
I continued to scope the environment for signs of surveillance or pursuit, there were none. Within half and hour another bus struggled up the long hill out of Tacoma, the familiar blue plume of unburned diesel trailing in its wake as its driver kept the pedal to the floor. Grinding commodiously to a halt, its pneumatic doors hissed open in my face. I took a last look around, saw nothing alarming, casually folded the paper up, stepped aboard.
It seemed like half the cops in the city decided to tag along after that particular bus that particular afternoon. Every time I glanced out the rear window, I spotted a black and white either a few cars back or a green sheriffs cruiser somewhere nearby. It was a nerve wracking trip. Quite apart from the hordes of cops which seemed to be dogging that bus, half the citizenry of Pierce County seemed to have decided that this was the perfect day for a bus ride. The bus stops were full and the driver dutifully stopped at every one, which is to say, on damn near every block. By the time we crossed the city limit's line, I was exhausted. The strain of attempting to appear outwardly normal when every rational instinct advised one to rush to the front of the bus and tell the driver to either learn how to drive that friggin' heap or turn the controls over to someone more motivated was almost overwhelming.
Once past the city limits, the topography became progressively rural with each passing mile. I did some quick mental calculations. The bus was now about ten miles south of Tacoma and five miles from the end of its route. The last stop, at Spanaway, was the nearest the bus ever came to my home and, therefore, the most logical place for me to disembark. But if my presence had been missed, a search, no doubt, was already underway. And if they'd surmised I'd hopped a bus, they would undoubtedly suspect that I'd chosen this route if not to go home then at least to take cover in the heavily wooded areas I knew quite well. They might even be waiting for me at the end of the line. I glanced around; there were deep woods on either side and very few cars on the highway. I pulled the cord. The bus lurched to a halt and I exited through the rear door. As soon as it dwindled in the early autumn haze, I fled across the road and vanished into the woods running southeast through the trees.
After several miles, I collapsed against a giant fir and lit up a Camel. I was, I told myself between painful drags, probably suffering from the debilitating effects of rampant oxygen inhalation. Copious amounts of nicotine and carbon monoxide would, I felt sure, correct this imbalance.
By late afternoon I was home. The house looked much the same. For some reason I was surprised. My brothers, with the exception of Bruce who was probably nose deep in the latest installment of Herbert's Correspondence Course, were tidying up the yard, divesting it of pine cones, limbs, and other such flotsam as the wind and trees had seen fit to deposit on it over the course of the now faded summer. Mom's disembodied head bobbed periodically past in the kitchen window. She was probably hard at work giving health food the reputation it roundly deserved. For a while I sat at the edge of the wood, a scant sixty yards away, watching.
"Family," I philosophized as I gazed down on the pastoral scene. "What a joke. Families were, I felt sure, society's way of guaranteeing that one's childhood will be as thoroughly f__ked as possible."
By the time evening had fallen I was several miles away, retrieving the .22, its shells, and that handful of other oddments which now constituted the bulk of my worldly possessions.
Although it had been a risk, I had also slipped into the country store at Fredrickson just ahead of twilight and had, for the exorbitant price of thirty nine cents, purchased a loaf of totally white bread. I had choices in the matter. I didn't have to stray. After all, I was aware of cases when even the most rabid of the called and chosen, who simply couldn't bring themselves to look at another fallen mound of wet, doughy, homemade bread, had slipped quietly out to the local store and purchased a loaf or two of the commercial variety. And I had heard rumors of those even rarer occasions, when tautly repressed gastronomical memories had suddenly surfaced from unguessable depths and compelled an admittedly small few to temporarily forsake their traditional Armstrong diet and resort to the consumption of half-assed bread. I knew all this, but it didn't matter. That tiny store didn't dabble in such ascetics anyway. Their admittedly abridged line of baked goods came in only two categories, a whole lot of white and a smattering of whole wheat. Half-assed bread was not on their menu, and even if it had been it is unlikely I would have selected it.
Half-assed bread was both a commercial and a religious compromise designed, as it was, to circumvent the industrialized appearance of being utterly and unpardonably white. It incorporated many of white bread's more desirable characteristics such as the possession of a definable texture, a mild, as opposed to an overpowering, taste, and a pleasant appearance. Due to its lack of inherent sogginess, traditional sandwich fillers such as roast beef, bologna and chicken emerged at lunch-time relatively unscathed and tasting as they should, as if they'd been humanely slaughtered, rather than remorselessly suffocated.
Half-assed bread was allegedly a semi-healthy conglomerate of fifty percent white and fifty percent whole wheat flour. One would have been hard put to it to visually discern that elusive fifty percent whole wheat, however. To the unbiased eye, which is to say, an eye that was looking for nothing in particular, the stuff looked sort of white! Moreover except for a few stray husks of bran and its slightly off coloration, it tasted and felt white too. But there was no longer any need for me to quibble over such fripperies. I'd committed so many abominations in my life that I was constantly surprised when I woke up each morning alive and semi-well in the land of my nativity rather than doing the Armstrong back stroke in his soon coming lake of fire. For when that time came, and I had no doubt that it would, the gratuitous consumption of Wonder Bread would, most likely, be judged as the least of my iniquities.
A small jar of mustard and a sixteen ounce bottle of Double Cola rounded out my purchases which came to a grand total of eighty-two cents. Counting the fifteen cents bus fare which facilitated my escape, I had four dollars and three cents to my name. I spent that night at a campsite I'd occupied previously, midway up the southern flank of a wooded hill overlooking one of the many valleys Clover Creek wandered into. I kept my fire small and after a sumptuous repast of mustard sandwiches washed down with generous draughts of Double Cola, I settled back and watched as the wavering lights of civilization flickering in the rural distance. Autumn was settling in and, as night deepened, chilling airs spoke of frost. With no blanket and clad only in summer clothes, I spent a moderately uncomfortable night. The prospect of mustard sandwiches for breakfast did little to assuage that discomfort.
At one time, the majority of adults in my childhood would have, I suspected, gladly exchanged unmentionable parts of their anatomy for even one of my mustard sandwiches; and thanked God for the opportunity. They had all survived the Great Depression when food as I knew it was unheard of, jobs were scarce, the hourly wage was two bits a day, and they felt damned lucky to get that. Those were their good old days; when cornmeal, cornbread, and corn husks constituted breakfast, lunch and dinner, and, they would solemnly recount, they got down on their knees every night and thanked the Lord in heaven for providing them even with that.
I had asked what I thought was a perfectly natural question at one of these semi frequent deprivation testimonial's which went, "As long as you were talking things over with the Lord, why didn't you ask for some dessert?" I was, of course, instantly reprimanded for my outrageous insolence. The Lord did not take orders, I was curtly informed, he gave them.
Fond reminiscences of that character building epoch of early twentieth century America were most frequently disinterred at certain, specific mealtimes, when offerings nauseating enough to make a buzzard puke were unceremoniously plopped down in full view of the appalled and disbelieving. Such meals were always accompanied by parental warning glares which said, "If you want to reach puberty, don't say a word."
That hideous corpse of the "good old days" would then be waved in the horrified faces of children who being unused to deprivation were, even without a word being spoken, quite obviously ungrateful for a blessed abundance of boiled, anemic looking parsnips accompanied by steaming bowls of vomitorius split pea soup. The entire Great Depression program was, of course, only a thinly veiled attempt to achieve by guilt that which the prospect of perpetual starvation had been unable to effect by logic.
Any fundamentalist devotee foolish enough to reject the concept of mental telepathy out of hand had only to sit in on such a dinner to satisfy themselves of its existence. One could feel it: an unspoken, palpable assertion which hung thickly in the air like an oppressive fog conveying the following message, "I'd rather die than eat this shit."
By the time morning had opened even a crack in the doorway of the night, I had stoked up the fire and was attempting to make toast. I finally achieved a reasonable facsimile and, having forced myself to resist the attempt to substitute mustard for margarine, was able to choke three dry slices down. For all of that, it was a beautiful autumn day. The sky was a pale washed out blue, the air was crisp and cleanly scented with wispy hints of moss and evergreen. Best of all, I was free.
After extinguishing my fire I wandered on down, emerging from deep cover out on the open valley's grassy floor. A winding path meandered away between sparsely scattered clumps of Oregon grape, blackberry tangles, and the occasional solitary offspring of freeborn fir or hemlock. I headed vaguely southwest for no reason in particular, cutting the railroad track that ran through Fredrickson, southeast toward Mt. Rainier, and northwest towards the rail yards of Tacoma. I could hear in the distance the lonely wail of an approaching train tossing a vagabond salute to the tiny community as it screeched, rumbled and slowly passed.
It was long and heavily laden with massive logs from vast pristine forests far to the south and east. Rounding the slight curve a quarter mile away, it bore ponderously down upon me and, finally, began to struggle slowly past with the metallic squeal of mechanically applied brakes. A ladder on the side of a dark brown Northern Pacific boxcar slid by, inches from my face, then another. Log trains often incorporated a number of boxcars. I was standing too close and I knew it but I was totally mesmerized by the sight and sound of the passing cars. Another ladder appeared, then another. I grabbed it with both hands, was pulled off my feet and slowly swept away down the shiny metal rails towards Tacoma.
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