Please remember, if anyone actually reads this, that if you want to understand what happened, you should start with the earlier posts. Everything here is as it happened, as best I can remember.
Up until the day I watched my father die, no other person had inflicted the pain on me that he did. His cruelty when drunk seemed endless. While it is hard to remember my thoughts, I’m sure that with his death I thought relief would come. I thought the rest of my childhood would be one with cruelty and violence. I didn’t realize just how much worse it could become.
My father was a fire fighter in Chicago. His station was a good hour away from us, perhaps a bit more. And it had a dormitory for the fire fighters who were on duty. He was frequently away and that meant days without pain. Only when he came home and starting drinking would the violence begin. But even then it wasn’t every time he got drunk, though it only happened when he was drunk. There was a strange sort of relief for me in the drinking. I knew that the alcohol allowed him to commit the violence. I could assure myself this wasn’t how he would treat us when sober. He didn’t mean to inflict pain and suffering. And that comforted me. It wasn’t intentional.
This, perhaps, is one of the hardest things for me to understand about Glenwood School for Boys, at least when I went there. The pain that was inflicted on us boys was fully intentional. There was no excuse of being drunk. When we were hit, which was often, it was done as policy on campus. What I would soon discover was that the entire set up on campus was one that encouraged violence and institutionalized it. Older boys were given control of the younger ones and allowed to inflict pain on them for a number of reasons. It was a system that encouraged brutality and abuse—physical, mental and sexual.
I had pleaded with my mother when she told us we were being sent to this school and that we would live there. I didn’t want to go. She wouldn’t listen. Even though my two youngest brothers were too young to attend, and were at home, her excuse was she couldn’t care for us. In reality, she rarely cared for us. I can never remember her being affectionate. I can never remember her caring for us. She rarely cleaned the house and she hated to cook for us. We spent much of childhood eating take-away. Later in my childhood she stopped cooking entirely and simply ordered takeaway every night of the week.
Her efforts at protecting us from the violence of my father were minimal. And the few times she fled, mainly because she was being beaten, were only temporary. She always made us go back no matter how many times we asked her to not go back. Actually, it was I who asked her. My brothers were far too young to fully understand what happened.
I was promised that when we were taken away that my brother, who was two years younger than I, would be kept with me. I told them I wouldn’t go unless we stayed together. I felt it was my obligation to protect him. Mother told me that the school had assured her we would not be separated.
I remember the drive to the school; at least from the moment we entered the campus. There was a long road heading straight for a building in the middle of the campus. This was the administration building. To the left was a large green field with a huge flagpole. In the distance was a church. My mother has us dressed in our good suites, apparently to make an impression.
She parked in the parking lot in front of administration and we walked up the stairs. As I remember it the foyer was a large room in the center of the building with offices to the sides. But, this was my childhood, and perhaps everything seemed larger than it really was, because I was so much smaller then.
We were to meet Mrs. V., a social worker. She had an office there. She first spoke to my mother alone. My brother and I sat alone in the empty room outside the office. We were shaking with fear and nervous. Besides us were small suitcases with our clothes. All we knew was that our mother would shortly abandon us here, leaving us to an unknown fate—unknown to us, and I hope unknown to her.
I never knew what Mrs. V. and mother discussed. No one told us. Mrs. V. came out all friendly and smiling and brought us to her office. She told us she was there to help us. Perhaps this is why I have such distrust of anyone who pretends to be there to help others. She assured us that we could come and talk to anytime we wanted and that she was our friend. She told my mother to leave. I can’t remember mother hugging us, or even kissing us goodbye. She got in her car and drove away. My brother and I were both crying.
Within second Mrs. V. called for someone to join her. She instructed this person—was it a man or a woman?—to take my brother to one of the cottages on campus where the boys lived. And she started taking me in the other direction.
I realized it had all be a lie. They weren’t going to be with Rob (a pseudonym for my brother). There were taking us to different cottages and separating us. I cried out: “But you promised we could be together.” She told me, “You’ll see him soon enough. You don’t want to give me trouble on your first day do you?” The question seemed more like a threat than a genuine question.
I watched, as Rob was being lead away. He looked over his shoulder at me as if I had betrayed him as well. We were close until that moment. But from the second he was pulled away from me our relationship was never the same again. I always felt, when near him, that I had abandoned him and broken my promise to protect him. I can’t tell you what he thought. In the decades since we have never spoken of the matter again. And, if truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him at all in almost 30 years. That day broke our family and the sense of betrayal I felt meant I left home as soon as I could, and then went as far away as possible. I didn’t know this would happen, not that day, but because of everything else that happened, it wa
The one lesson I learned was that this social worker couldn’t be trusted. She lied to us and she didn’t care. Whatever would happen, from that day forward, I could never go and speak to the one person who allegedly was their as our advocate. Her dishonesty meant that when other things happened, perhaps things she would not approve of, there was no temptation to tell her. I knew it would do no good. She couldn’t be trusted.
I was taken to one of the old cottages on campus. It was built in the 1800s. The school was founded in 1887. I don’t know the whole story but we were constantly told that Lincoln’s son was involved somehow. I think the building I was housed in was built around the time the school was founded. And the woman hired to watch us there wasn’t much younger than the building.
She was a slovenly elderly woman who smoked a lot. I remember her hair was one of these dye jobs you often seen in the elderly. I think it was supposed to be dyed red but the color was a mish-mash with grayish-white roots and the red seemed faded. She was a nasty woman who didn’t seem to like children at all. She never spoke, she barked. She ordered me to take my suitcase and follow her upstairs. I was taken to a bare room, with a large window without any curtains.
There was a metal-framed bunk bed with a thin mattress on top. A chair sat next to the bed. I don’t remember any other furnishings. There was a cupboard in the hallway where we could keep our clothes. The room was ba
re of decorations and seemed to have a high ceiling common of the era in which it was built. She ordered me to put my clothes away and change out of my suit. There is little else I remember of that day, from that point on.
What I do remember was the bed. The thin mattress barely provided any protection from the springs beneath it. Another boy was in the bunk above me. I can’t remember him at all. The bed squeaked terribly with even the slightest of movement. The light from outside easily flooded the room. I was afraid. It was the first time in my life that I was alone, away from home, and I started to cry. I tried to cover up the crying.
The housemother, who we were forced to call “Ma,” was prowling the hallway, waiting to hear the slightest infraction. She heard me in spite of my efforts to cover my tears. She stormed into the room and screamed at me: “We don’t put up with crying around here. Stop it immediately.”
I forced myself to stop and lay there terrified of this nasty witch of a woman. After hours lying their afraid, and feeling so alone, I finally fell asleep. A few hours later I work up horrified. I had wet the bed.
This was not something I had done before, at least not since I was a small child. But I could feel that I was wet and cold and so was the bed. I now know this was just a sign of the trauma I was experiencing, being
forced away from my home and put into a strange environment. And any decent childcare worker would know this as well. Ma didn’t know it. If she did, she didn’t care.
I tried to cover up my transgression by making the bed and putting on my street clothes. I sat in the chair until I heard her in the hallway screaming to everyone to get up and brush his teeth. She then started going from room to room screaming at any boy who wasn’t fast enough to please her. She came into my room and stared at me for a second. Then she looked at the bed.
She suspected something wasn’t right and pulled down the blanket to find wet sheets and my piss-stained pajamas bundled underneath.
She turned and glared at me. Here is where a real childcare giver would offer sympathy. She howled at me and slapped me. And then it got worse. She screamed loudly, for every child to hear, that the “New baby wet his bed.” She ridiculed me for what had happened and told me she would show me how they deal with baby bed-wetters like myself. She made me pull all the sheets off the bed, along with my pajamas and carry them through the hallway of staring boys. Every one of them was made aware of what I had done, as if I had done it to purposely upset her, instead of done it out of fear.
I was taken down two flights of stairs into the basement where there was a washbasin. She made me scrub everything by hand in a tub of cold water with a bar of soap. She stood there yelling at me while I did it. And then, after she felt I had scrubbed them enough she told me that now we had to go to clothesline outside and I had to hang them up to dry. She made sure I knew that every boy on campus would see them there and that they would all know what a baby I was. She told me that every time it happened I would be punished and that each time I had to hang them out in public for the entire school to see.
What trauma I felt the day before seemed almost joyous after this incident. What I didn’t realize was that something else was happening. By forcing a boy to hang his sheets out in public, to humiliate him, the school was sending a signal to every other kid on campus. I don’t know if they did it intentionally, but whether they meant to or not, they clued the entire campus in on which kids were ripe targets for bullying.
As I try to sort through why they did this, I can’t help but think it was intentional. When I was a child there, the school operated on fear and pain. Everything was an infraction and each infraction brought corporal punishment. Each houseparent, teacher and main staff member had wooden paddles. The paddles usually had holes drilled in them so the air wouldn’t cushion the blows at all. And it was common for them to make children bend over while they beat them with the paddle. Typically there would be two to five swats, done at full strength by the adult who handed out the swats. Any adult was free to use their discretion as to when swats were deserved. And most handed them out readily.
On numerous occasions kids who were swatted would return with bruises. There were welts in all cases and heavy bruising was not unusual. Some of the boys had skin that looked almost black and purple because of the severity of the swats. And, as I would discover, these were the best you could expect. There were times that boys got as many as 10 to 15 swats. Often other boys were forced to witness the beatings.
I can remember Mr. S., the dean. He would patrol the campus with a German shepherd at his side, like some SS guard patrolling a camp. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks with me but I seem to remember an accent that made him appear more SS-like than perhaps was warranted. I saw him swat boys in front of the entire school.
He would force them to bend over, pull down their pants—to add to the humiliation that was a weapon in their arsenal—and then he pull the paddle back like a baseball bat. But instead of a ball, he would hit a boy. You could see that he put his entire body into the swing. He intended to hit them as hard as he could. The boys who flinched were told they had to start the punishment over again. Boys who screamed or cried were given additional swats. There was alwa
ys another reason to hit the boy again.
Even though I mostly managed to avoid swats myself, thought not always, each time I saw this terrified me. I would watch these adults torturing a child. They called it discipline, but that was easy for them to say, they weren’t on the receiving end. I stood there with tears running down my face. I felt sorry for the boy and tortured by the incident. They did it this way intentionally. It was to terrify the rest of us into total submission. I spent the rest of my grade school years in perpetual terror because of Glenwood School for Boys.
I know they claimed they were there to “help” us poor, unfortunate boys who had “bad circumstance.” My only crime was that my father had died. I did nothing to deserve the hell that they put me through.
For the first time, I wished the man who was my father, had still been alive. What pain he inflicted was sporadic and unintentional.
At Glenwood the pain was systemic and intentional. It was a tool they used to instill fear into the boys in order to force us into submission to adult authority. And it worked. And that is why so many of the boys were victims of other kinds of abuse, abuse that the school mostly ignored.
Another thing I became aware of was that the school was really gearing each boy up for the military. We were the boys that were expendable. We didn’t come from “good” families. If we had they would have had the money to allow us to stay home when we lost a parent. But boys like me, from working class homes, were expendable. Other boys were sent to the school because they got in trouble.
Why they combined kids who were orphans, with juvenile delinquents, I don’t know. But it was the delinquent types who often ended up as “officers” over us.
My next entry will discuss the “military system” on which the school was based. It was a full-fledged training program to turn us into warriors, including uniforms, marching, a chain of command, and learning to shoot. You will see why my statement, that they were trying to turn us into military fodder, is not a far fetched as it may have sounded at first.