Edenfield

Dear Sirs,

I got your letter some time back and I’m sorry for being so slow on the responding. I have given it a whole lot of thought these months now and decided to write you back. I wasn’t, but now I have (obviously). I’m not going to sign my name to this because I don’t want you to ever know my name. I reckon you can figure it out if you are inclined to anyway. I’m not going to say on it but what is here. You can use this for any reason you want except don’t expect me to ever speak at any hearing or law proceeding of that nature. I don’t want to do it and won’t. The past is past and should better stay that way. This is my opinion and I hope you can respect it. But I will set down a few words here concerning Mr. Edenfield as was asked for.

I read all you sent me. Yes it rings bells. I read a lot about the boys said they was traumatized. I was brutalized but not traumatized. At first it bothered me that I hadn’t been traumatized. Several of you guys was traumatized and brutalized. Reason being I wasn’t traumatized is because I was already in shock, a post-trauma from my daddy’s death and sudden aloneness and responsibility. This is my best explanation. See, I was pretty pissed off at the world in those days, enraged at my daddy, and then his dying on me, and then at God and Christ. I cussed them and raged against them for most of my early adulthood. I was a thing to behold. But I look back nowadays and I see that Christ was there for me all through. He loved me even when I didn’t love Him. I didn’t see it then, and there wasn’t nothing outside of me that could hurt me more than I was already hurting, but I see now the Holy Spirit was there with me every step I took. My daddy told me once that there’s always a place for God, the only question being whether He is in that place. God wasn’t there for the old man at all (even at the end he said how he had all them Baptists to die for his sins anyways) and I reckon he never satisfied his curiosities in that regard, but He is there for me today and this is a serious comfort in life.

That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought.

Like I was saying, I wasn’t traumatized. I was just brutalized and maybe not even that. I had a big brother back then and we used to swap licks with each other all the time. That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought. I held my own though and gave him as good or better than I got. All my brothers had a lot of anger similar to me. So I was maybe traumatized more by my own kinfolk than the cottage fathers. This is maybe a thing has given me perspective but you like as not don’t see it that way, which is fine.

I was a guest in Clinton and Mr. Edenfield was the ruler of that cottage, along with his assistant Bull Munro. (Mr. Edenfield was for sure the cottage father at Clinton and not Mr. McClair as some have claimed in the statements they done. I don’t see how some have such clear recollections of things that far back but can go getting names of people mixed up that way). Seemed like Edenfield drove a black ’57 Ford that looked like a cop car. He had seen just about every kind of kid there is and was completely untrusting of most, but I never minded him. He wasn’t the worst by a long chalk (I’ve scraped meaner off my shoe) and he treated me fine overall. Within that group was a certain comradeship and competition to being the best flogger. They took pride in busting a butt in under ten strokes sort of thing. McClair, Voss, and Dunlap was the best of the bunch. Some assistant cottage fathers got into the inner group rivalry, like Munro. The one with the one arm couldn’t get the balance/leverage to be in the top group but he was in the group right under. Not to say he wasn’t a slouch. Mr. Campbell was another wanted to be top ranked but with the one leg he couldn’t turn the paddle at certain angles and it became rigid-like and sliced wrong. I think you needed all your limbs to do it right, which is true of most things in life probably. But Edenfield never took it up personally. He might have had some qualms. I can’t say I ever asked. It wasn’t a thing me and him talked about.

It’s a long time ago. Life just flies don’t it? I had a ducktail hairstyle then, listened to ‘devil music’ (Elvis, Fats, Jerry Lee), wore Levis, penny loafers and had a leather jacket. It was a good jacket that and I don’t rightly know what came of it. Must have lost it. I was all bad and worse. Right feisty. But for all I raised hell I should never have stole anything. I knew better and done it anyway although I wouldn’t do it without I got drunk first. I got more sense than that. But I got stinking that night and it got done and I wasn’t exactly on the righteous path back then and I didn’t know God from diddly.

Two Statesmen come for me and I can see them still clear as water in their white shortsleeved shirts, black slacks, funny short argyle socks. Can see the blacklaced shoes of them shining polished in the sun (it being sunny like as if to mock me). They put me in back of the State car. My brother didn’t look too copacetic standing there in our yard that morning. He felt bad, staring in the dirt and making little mountains of it with his boot. Mainly because he was the one had put me up to the thieving in the first place and was thinking about his contributing to the delinquency of a minor and if I’d keep my mouth shut. It was copper wire was all it was. We had chickens then, but they didn’t amount to much. They were in the yard too as if to say goodbye, which is why I mention them. I remember the chickens being there but not really participating in the scene much.

In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

The door handles was took off the back of the car in case. We drove northwest out of Apalachicola on Highway 98. The light yonder came clicking on the water like silver dimes and glinting also off of the saw grass. Up there is some of the biggest pines I ever saw then and since. I had never been drove so far. Then north on 71, out of Port Gihon through Wewahitchka along the Dead Lake. You all must have done that when coming. In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

I was up three weeks before I gave them the chance to straighten me out. I had worked part time at a Morrison’s and so asked to work in the kitchen. After a week there came an opening as cook helper. I was an older boy (fifteen) so I was placed there (only the older bigger boys worked in the kitchen you’ll recollect, except some younger dish washers). My main job was cracking open cartons of eggs, prepping for the cook and staff cook who was also over the boys and whose names I forget. The staff cook had a face looked like a chewed cabbage, which feature made him memorable. They had a rank system and the lowest rank was Grub and if you was a Grub and you did anything wrong you had no rank to take away so you went down. But I had rank and went down anyways. I guess I had a talent for upsetting the natural order of things.

One big thing was we was never allowed to talk to the black boys when they come by to pick up the swill cans to take to the hogs. So this one time while we was loading the swill cans in the midden I was fixing to pour when I let slip a can and some of the swill spilled over the top and got on one of the black boy’s shoes. I said, “I’m sorry man I didn’t mean for that to happen.” This black boy had had his cheek laid open by a knife and looked mean as a snake and wasn’t a person you’d look to aggravate ideally. But he says “it’s O.K, don’t worry about it” and I said “thanks.” That was the all of it. But then one of the other boys, I never knew who, wish I knew what snake-in-the grass did for it still bothers me some, heard me and puked to Munro I was talking to the black boys and being of a conversational bent. Munro come and asked me what was said between the black boy and me and I said God’s truth I never said a word. He smiled that way he did and took me into the office, wrote me up for lying and made me sign it.

Next morning I was took to Edenfield and he looked sad as suffering Job, told how disappointing it was to see me sitting there in shame because I had been doing so well and he had high hopes. This lapse of honesty was going to cost me dear, at least another six weeks stay down the line. But he was going to give me a choice though I didn’t deserve it. I could accept the drop in rank (get moved out the kitchen) or I could have the write up (I can’t remember what it was called when you was written up, it was called something) paddled off. And I said to him the paddling off was fine by me. I figured I could handle their beatings given my family history and such and come up smiling like a rose.

I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst.

But that night I lay on my bunk after light out staring at the door, waiting for it to open. I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst. It must have been two hours before I see Munro open the door a chink and with him was the one armed man. I don’t remember his name though I knew it then. It had more vowels in it than is usual I think. I stood up next to my bunk and Munro waved me to them with a face like a bulldog chewing wasps.

At some point your mind goes to a blank place though and the thought of what is going to happen can’t get in.

I was took to a waiting car. There was another boy from a different cottage in the car but we didn’t look at each other as they drove us over to it. The boy looked crazier than a run over dog anyway and had I believe larger than average ears. Didn’t know him from Adam though. There was a short pine tree-lined road went past the kitchen back to it. I don’t recollect it being white, like everyone says it was in the statements. To me it was more biscuit coloured. It was Fall so maybe the brick was just wet though. There was a big rack of black clouds troweled up in the sky that night and no stars or moon and leaves come scattering at the car like poured coins out the dark. I could hear a train a ways out, all that liquid clicking and the shunt and clatter that trains have.

“You boys just sit there for a minute,” Munro said.

Then Gipe it was come out. This is the important thing, it not being Edenfield. Gipe you remember had this white bulldog with a big red flannel tongue was always about his legs (the dog). He signed the papers and took some keys from out his pocket, unlocked the door, and disappeared himself into the dark. Then he was back at the right side of the car and had to reach through the front window to unlock the rear door. “You can get out now,” he said. “You boys get on in there.” I always remember him saying that, about the getting out and getting in because of how confusing it was a minute.

“What happened to your other watchdog, Milton?” says the one-armed man.

“I do believe someone done stole it, Blake,” Gipe said, big grinning it. Blake was the one-armed man’s Christian given name now I think on it.

The three of them all laughed fit to bust at Gipe’s crack. I remember thinking it wasn’t that bad a one myself but I wasn’t of a very humorous disposition just then.

There was a whitewashed corridor six feet wide, eight feet high, estimate, and the walls of this corridor was lit by a bulb in a twisted case of wire. Three quarters of the way down the corridor was two rooms, one on either side. The other was the Colored Boys room. Word had it the only difference was in the number of strokes given, which makes you think. I was prejudiced then and still am but it still makes you think about things in general. In that other room where we got took was nothing but this rusting GI- green army cot. The cot had an uncovered striped mattress and pillow. The mattress was all dark with liquid stains also like it had been spattered with thrown ink.

Thinking of it again I can come near to smelling the damp cement and the mildew stink off the mattress and the dirty pillow with blood spots from boys that bit so hard. Funny thing it is that way in memory you practically scent things almost all over. We was told to sit so we sat. Gipe asked us if we knew why we was there. Munro kept himself in the small hallway behind. We said yes. Then the one armed man come and took the other boy outside to wait his go round. I figured it was better to get it over with and not to get to listen and have thoughts to think.

“All right now, boy,” Gipe said. “It’ll go easier on you if you do right as I tell you. You’re to lay on that cot there on your belly with your face to the wall. If I were you, I’d stuff that pillow in my mouth. Once we get started here you don’t turn your head, understand? Not for love or mercy. You don’t cry out or scream or we start it all over again. You hear me, boy?”

I just nodded. Wasn’t much else to do in that situation.

“Place both hands on the cot frame and keep a tight hold of it,” he said. “If I were you I’d try to stay as relaxed as you can. You’re less likely to be hurt.”

Of course, Gipe weren’t me though he kept suggesting it. He was choosing a strap as I was being instructed. He said to lower my pants on account of how fabric threads thrashed that hard into me might cause infection. But I kept my underpants on due to embarrassment and so on. Thinking back there was a kind of rubber mat ran the side of the cot so the person swung the paddle could take a baseball pitcher type of approach to it.

“You best do as the mister said and stick the corner of that pillow in your mouth,” said the one-armed man. He was watching the procedure. Observing. I suppose one of them had to watch too, as maybe a witness per regulations, see it got done right.

I got a big mouthful of pillow and bit down on it and waited, and Gipe shouts “hit the fan.” Then there comes the awful roar of a big blower at the corridor’s end. Must have been Munro switched it. It filled the little room until the fan was all the sound there was. It didn’t make the air any cooler, just a little more lively, and I was sweating already like two rats fighting in a sock from the heat and fearfulness.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small)… I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small). I believe he held the paddle in his dexter hand (maybe a southpaw). I don’t know what I was expecting of the hurt but the pain blew up in my head bang like a sizeable bomb going off when the skin split across my buttocks and the force of the hit drove my whole body down into the bunk, which springs squeaked. I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp. Every bone in my body had gone to jumping like they’re going to come through my skin and I felt this numb gritty feeling on the back of my teeth from where they were getting some grinding done.

Somewhere between that first lick and 24 licks later I stopped thinking about it all over much though.

I do agree funny enough that before each lick you did hear Gipe’s shoe pivot on the sand on the mat and I recollect also the same funny scratchy sound been reported. In writing this I remember something else about that first time. This being the one armed man saying, “Boy, I told you to stuff the corner of that pillow in your mouth and keep it there. I don’t want to have to listen to none of your crying and bawling.”

But I wasn’t crying given my sentiment that tears are for pussies. I was praying. And I said as much to them.

“Well boy,” Gipe said, stopping and looking disagreeable, “You just do that, but you’d better do it a lot quieter, else you’ll have a lot more to pray about, hear me?”

But looking back from the place I am now it was the first workings of Providence in me then, for the Lord moves in mysterious way it’s true, true in all my experience anyway. And thinking on it some more I am almost grateful now for what happened that night and the times after as it went some ways to the opening up my heart. You have to wonder sometimes why things happen like they do. But there’s a reason.

I couldn’t get up when he told me to.

“I said, get on up,” he kept saying, coming across a bit peevish overall.

I was trying to move my legs, to turn myself around, but nothing worked. My body was like something had been disjointed and put back by drunken surgeons.

“If you don’t get up off that cot like I told you, we’re going to start on you all over again,” Gipe said. “Now get you up.”

So I did.

There was bits and pieces of my undershorts got embedded in my skin (they was right about that) and I tried to pull as much as I could out later in bed but not much on account it hurt too bad to touch. Next day my buttocks felt like a big black crust and I could only take steps about 6 inches long and didn’t do the swilling (which was just as well given the earlier circumstance). I swear my ass was black as a crow for a week.

The other details you inquired about I am on the hazy side. I do believe that the strap was made of an old-time leather conveyer belt. The strap was cut from the belt and had a wood handle with holes to decrease the wind resistance (I guess) and also be able to create blood blisters except I don’t know why you’d want to do that. As to the numbers question, there was one father to whip, one father to witness and watch the inmate on the cot and any inmate previous been beat and then a father to stay with the inmates waiting to be whipped. Given all, it would take a minimum of three staff members to escort a group of boys over there. Seems like when they would take four guys at a time over there I was told they would also have four staff members but I might be recollecting wrong. I only had to go there three times myself in all that time.

The other boy there that night with the ears was more resistant. He observed how Gipe had a face like a bagful of chisels at one juncture I recollect and asked the man with the one arm why didn’t he give him a round of applause also. I best remember he didn’t make out too well. In my mind I’ve always reckoned it’s best not to insult the alligator before you cross the stream.

But I can’t say I ever saw any of the fathers taking any pleasure in what they done over there. Matter of fact they seemed sad and mournful at the time, like they’d rather be about something else. Nor was there anything queer about the procedure as has been set down by some in their testimonials. Most of the men were married as I recollect and their wives lived on the place and tended gardens and did chores around the place. I liked watching the ladies hang the white linen on the line in their blue aprons and how it billied there and they smiled a lot and seemed pretty happy considering. Many of the wives were nice to us and one gave me a poke of apples one time sweet and juicy as anything (the apples) and as I wasn’t nice myself I appreciated that. There was some said Mr. Edenfield who wasn’t ever married was a bit light in the loafers, but I never saw any of that in him. He was always good to me and fair and gave me privileges. They had some mean hombres to deal with in those cottages remember and it wasn’t all rosy and Paradise and I suppose you cut your cloth to suit and so on.

Like I said, I got nothing more to say about it. In my case, I was brutalized and not traumatized. I have seen some terrible things in my life too. Saw a woman hit by a tire iron on the head round back of the Harris Lee Parcus rest stop in Arab, Alabama. Kept right on talking as if nothing happened, as you might always suspected a woman might. Also saw a cat light a man on fire once (on accident). That was something too. I’m now 60 years old and I have finally gotten my life together. I have been married for the last 18 years to a wonderful lady and I am finally now sharing this awful past with her. I have had a lot of problems in my life with booze and relationships. I would never trust anyone, as many of you can relate so well. I have recently rededicated my life to Christ and we have joined a wonderful church (Right Hand Fork United Methodist) and I aim to share this story with some of the congregation directly except many of them (deacons included) seem to be on the sensitive side and don’t much care for hearing about the sins of others in general. I have to think God is using you all and your wonderful gift of writing the stories of abused children to help even older children like me get over the hurt and fear that was beaten into us long ago and I agree what ought to be ought not to be so hard. But as I was saying I wasn’t traumatized personally and think many of the details I have read have been wrong, and others mixed up, but some right. As I get along in life I also forget lots of things regularly, mainly being car keys and spectacles. This is also likely to be the case with others in my experience. You all are getting along in life. But I also have become considerable more easygoing as I’ve gotten older and my philosophy now is that the same rain falls upon the just and also on the unjust (but like the fella said mostly it falls upon the just because the unjust has likely made off with the just’s umbrellas).

I hope this helps some. Anyway, it’s all I got.

 

This is the place I would sign my name regularly if I was to.

P.S. Last thing I want to speak of was the blanket parties we had back then. Do you all remember those? I remember it like it was yesterday. If you don’t that was when the boys would wait till you were asleep and throw a blanket over your head and beat you about it with soap wrapped in a sock. First time, one of the other boys told me which night it was supposed to happen and I sat upright in my bed all night on account of being scared shitless and the party never took place. But it did another night. I’ve never forgot the pain and fear I felt, not being able to see, being hit at that hard. Some nights I wake up thinking I’m back in the dormitory, sweating and crying and so on, and my wife cries too when she sees me carry on like that. If you puked to a father about getting a blanket party you were called a snitch or rat and no one had anything to do with you so no one ever spoke up. But it was done to me and now I’m not even sure some of you wasn’t the boys did it to me, or even me to you, in which case I hope you forgive me, for I forgive you all, and am working on moving on to a place where such memories don’t bother me no more. But I know Mr. Edenfield didn’t know about any of that and if he had I think he’d have made us quit because he was at heart I think not a bad man and not the same as I recognize from my reading in these materials sent and is not a person would have done most of those awful things make me feel sick to my stomach. He wasn’t capable is my thinking and opinion and if he was, well, so was we all.

Robert Smith’s fiction has appeared in U.S. magazines like Gettysburg Review, Fugue, StoryQuarterlyBarrelhouse and Other Voices, and in European magazines like Chapman, Versal, Gutter, Warwick Review and Barcelona Review. He is a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.