Jun 12 2011
When I was a kid growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida this town was an almost bucolic and idyllic place to live. In the forties and fifties it was a sleepy little fishing/tourist town that doubled in size each fall as the winter visitors migrated from the north to escape bitter winters. Here they enjoyed white sand beaches, a mild climate and many good seafood restaurants. In the spring they returned and the town was again ours.
Life was good and time passed in a slow, leisurely Southern way. As kids we enjoyed fishing and swimming it was interrupted seasonally by the necessity to go to school. Remember this was before air conditioning became the norm and many of us found ourselves sleeping through boring classes to the drone of huge fans placed in the puke green painted walls of our class rooms. It was still a small town and we all knew each other.
It was a time when people still believed in “spare the rod and spoil the child”. More than once my friend Tom and I were hauled into the dean’s office to receive our “whacks” for some infraction or another. Though it hurt at the time, and was no where near as what we got at home, we gained an odd respect among our peers after each incident.
But then, in the 50s and 60s there was a real evil that those of us who were discipline problems faced. It was spoken about in hushed tones and not a lot was known first hand. Just rumors. Rumors about a place called Marianna and what happened to boys who were sent there. The stories were enough to scare many of us into grudged compliance. Not a bad thing I guess. It worked for most of us.
Then one of us was sent there. From this point on I am going to refer to the friend who was sentenced to the reform school in Marianna as David. It is not his real name, but I have not talked to him in years and I know he still lives here. I don’t want to inflict anymore pain on him by revealing his true identity.
I grew up in a neighborhood blocks from Crescent Lake. Down the street from me, in the alley behind us, lived David and his family. David’s dad was a successful businessman. But he was a mean drunk who insisted that dinner be on the table when he got home and that the whole family wait until he got home before they ate. Often he wouldn’t leave the local bar until late in the evening and when he got home he was more prone to violent behavior than dining with his family. Parents in the neighborhood soon began referring to them as white trash and warned us to not associate with them.
David was a good kid. He was also tough as nails. When he reached his teens he decided he’d had enough abuse and if his father hadn’t arrived at home by nine pm he would leave and find a place to sleep under the old banyon tree on Crescent Lake. Often he would go right from there to school the next morning. It was noticed by his peers that David appeared to have a hygiene problem. He often went days without a bath because it was not safe to return home. He began skipping school and staying away from home for days on end. He ultimately ended up in juvenile court and was sent to Marianna as a chronic runaway.
David was a couple years older than I. Several years later I ran across him working in a garage not far from home. I was home on leave from the Army and my car needed repairs. When I saw him I asked him, what was it like? David looked me in the eye and said, “you really don’t want to know.” He went about his business and fixed my car.
Now when I think back to those days growing up in Florida I can’t help but remember David. How his peers unfairly judged him with minds incapable of wrapping themselves around the circumstances of his life. We were innocent and he had experienced things we couldn’t comprehend. We judged him by our standards against a yardstick that didn’t allow for circumstances we never had to experience.
What am I trying to say here? Well I think we should go back in our lives and re-evaluate some of the judgements we made as kids. Peer pressure is a strange thing. Often it is the peers who don’t know what the hell they are dealing with. Marianna School For Boys was an abomination and we have no right to judge those who were sent there.
Fortunately the Florida School for Boys at Marianna has been abolished. The terrible legacy the school passed on will no longer harm anymore young men. Yet, those who had the unfortunate experience of attending that hell on earth, live with it every day. I believe those alumni who survived and returned to society carry scars that will never heal. I also believe that they should be compensated for the evil and cruel punishment they received at the hands of a corrupt government system and the sadists they employed to enforce it.
David, you and your family are in my prayers. Today I admire your resilience and ability to reenter the mainstream of society and become a successful, contributing member of society. And I don’t think the Boys School at Marianna had a damn thing to do with it. You did it all by yourself.