My name then was Michael Babarksy, the name from my Polish-Lithuanian step-father, Jim, who entered my life when I was five. We were living in my native home of Miami, Florida. He was a floor layer – a infantry veteran of WWII Pacific theatre, the step-son of an alcoholic coal miner from Scranton, PA. His step-mother came at an early age and all I knew of her was that she beat him and his siblings with a poker iron. He was alcoholic and a rage alcoholic.
My Edna mother was an alcoholic and addicted to Miltown given to her post her second caesarian birth to me and my step-brother Joe. She came from a large Georgia dirt-farm family and her father was alcoholic, a wife and child beater.
The two of them fought constantly. Their violence reached murderous suicidal levels when he would take out his hunting weapons, shoot into the ceiling of the house and threaten to kill everyone including himself.
My response was to begin to run away and drink alcohol at age 14 from our home in the Florida Keys. At age 15 I was on probation for running away from home, drinking under age. I was on suspended sentence to FSB for a juvenile mischievous prank when, while drunk, a friend and I lit candles used for the Sunday Catholic Church service in the Old Coast Guard Building and one of the candles fell against a wooden door scorching it.
I was sentenced to Mariana for violating that probation by purchasing alcohol, providing alcohol to a minor (my friends,) and having sex with a sixteen year old girl.
From the first day Mariana was a nightmare of verbal abuse and physical threats from the adults and the institutionalized culture of teen-on-teen culture. The senior boys ambushed new kids in private with soap-in-sock weapons, or sheeted them without redress. I was forced to view the back, buttocks and legs of a kid who had been beaten in the White House.
I did what I had learned to do to get away from the violence: I ran away. The following is what was done to me when I was captured and returned to the Florida “School” for Boys at Mariana under the color of state law. The following is my narrative story then published under my birth name, Michael Burt McCarthy. Today my literary name, nom de plume, if you will, is Michael O’McCarthy.
A VISIT TO THE WHITE HOUSE
Michael McCarthy (*)
First published in SOUTHERN EXPOSURE 1980 – anthologized in GROWING UP
SOUTHERN , PANTHEON, 1981
It was typical 0f Southern jails in the 1950s: a concrete and brick, two-story building with the first floor housing the sheriffs offices, jail booking office and small kitchen; the second floor, a hollow shell with a steel-barred cage set about four feet from the surrounding green walls and three feet below the dimly lit ceiling. There were segregated cells, each with two flat, metal-slatted bunks and an encrusted toilet bowl-wash basin combination. The floor, unpainted, grey-grouted cement, sloped towards drain-holes to facilitate a monthly hosing and to accommodate the inevitable flooding by a rampaging prisoner.
The two fifteen-year-old boys occupying the front cells by the security door were typical, too. Except they were clothed in State-issued, white cotton boxer shorts, dirty with road clay, torn by briars and thistles. They were runaways from what was called, by some, The Florida School for Boys, and by others, The Florida Industrial School at Marianna. Whatever. It all meant the same thing in the end. They were juvenile escapees from Florida’s one reform school for boys. And that’s why both boys had a look of cold terror about them. They knew what awaited runaways.
At a little past three o’clock in the afternoon, the security door swung open, and the county jailer came in, dressed in the gaudy green, grey and gold patch uniform, keys clanking and clinking against the hollow silence. Then came the two Statesmen in the casual dress of the boys’ school informality: white solid or thin-striped, short-sleeved shirts: brown or black slacks; white cotton or black argyle socks; black or brown laced shoes. These were the men with taut grins and white Baptist faces, men off the broken farms of north Florida, southern Georgia and Alabama, men in the benevolent tradition 0f the Southern paternal order. Hard Christian men serving the State, steeped in the doctrine of original sin and the swift application of salvation and retribution.
The jailer keyed the lock, and told the boys in a not unkindly way to back up against the cell door with their hands behind them. A Statesman manacled first one, then the other boy. He asked each if the cuffs were too tight; they in turn mumbled their no s. They were motioned out of the cell — the slimmer 0f the two, Mike, moving lamely on his left leg. His knee, ankle and foot were encrusted with blood and dirt.
The jailer led them down the hollow concrete steps, into the booking room, and the Statement motioned the boys to the wooden bench by the wall as they signed them out. The officials exchanged their good-byes, then the boys were led squinting into the orange-white sun of the parking lot. The omnipresent grey State car sat waiting, a well-used transport for State supplies and runaway boys.
The State car headed northwest out of Apalachicola on Highway 98; the boys were seated in the rear, the window and door handles removed. Fifty miles per hour along the golden Gulf Coast where the sun splashed on white beaches, green-brown saw grass, the sparse northern Florida pines. Then north on 71 out 0f Port St. Joe, through Wewahitchka, along the Dead Lake.
Little was said. What was there to say? They were taking them back to Marianna. Going to Hell in the “Sunshine State” of Yankee tourists and retirees.
The State car moved along the three-hour trip through the small towns of Blountsville and Althea, through the open grazing land of the humid Florida Panhandle. The road signs marked the distance as they drew nearer and nearer to Marianna. At the 20-mile sign, cold sweat began to film on the bottom of the boys’ feet, in the palms 0f their hands, in their armpits; it trickled through the hair of their groins, down and around their testicles to the vinyl seats, soaking their asses. The near-naked boys sat manacled arms behind their backs, on the elevated rear seat 0f the State station wagon, gawked at by pedestrians from curbsides and passengers in faster vehicles, Images conjured of Southern times past, of other runaways, their black bodies manacled, clothing torn and tattered, seated in the rear of a wagon.
The State car passed through the rock portals and up the road leading to the central offices 0f the school: it swung left and stopped in front of the Director’s office, Mr. Dennis, the school’s Boy Scout leader, got out the passenger seat and walked to the office door: he said something to the inside. Then, hack at the car, he waited. Soon a tall, angular man, the Director, came out. He had a slight, right-legged limp born with a sternness he seemed to pride. He neither looked at nor spoke to the boys, but motioned to the driver with a long, gaunt arm. Pointing towards the dining room and kitchen, and he said something to Dennis.
Dennis said.” Okay," and got back into the car. They drove the short, pine tree-lined road past the kitchen, and stopped before a one-story, white cement, windowless building. “You boys just sit there for a minute.” Dragging some keys from his pocket. Dennis unlocked the buildings heavy wooden door, and disappeared into the darkness. The boys could hear the clamor and din from the dining room as nearly 400 boys sat down to their evening meal.
Shortly, the Director appeared at the right side 0f the car and reached through the front window to unlock the rear door. “You can get out now, he said to Mike. Dennis reappeared through the doorway and opened the car’s left rear door, telling the other buy, Woody, to get out.
Motioning toward the building, the Director said, “You boys get on in there.” Dennis led them out of the late afternoon Florida sunlight into the near-darkness of the building known as the White House.
The boys were led into a dank. whitewashed corridor six feet wide, eight feet high. The aged walls were lit only by a single wire-encased bulb glaring against the musty ceiling.
Three quarters of the way down the corridor were two identical rooms, one on either side, both lit with bulbs encased in the rusty wire mesh. The boys were directed to the one on the left-the Colored Boys room it was called-equal and identical, separate by law. Word had it the only difference was in the number of strokes given blacks.
The room held nothing but a rusting, GI-green army cot, with an uncovered, striped mattress and pillow, dark with the liquid stains of human miser. The two runaways were uncuffed and ordered to sit on the cot. The two Statesmen stood over them, silent, watching as the terror began to tremble their bodies. A third state man stood waiting in the corridor. The director began to question them:
Why did you boys run? … Don’t you know you cant get away from here? You boys are lucky; farmers hereabouts shoot runaways. Either that or the swamps get them. What’s your excuse? … if you’ve got one, I want to hear it.”
Woody began to cry softly, the director’s voice signaling the inevitable emotional buildup to the beating.
Mike crying too, tried to speak: “I don’t know … I could take anymore … I just wanted to get away … I …”
Dennis said nothing; the director slowly tapped his game right foot. Finally, Mike gave up, his head bowed.
“All right,” the director said.
“Which of you will go first?”
Neither answered. The director pointed to Mike.
“You then, let’s go---into the other room. And giving a nod to Dennis, the director led Mike in the White Boys room.
Pointing to the army cot, the director gave the instructions:
“All right now, son, it’ll go easier on you if you do as I tell you. You’re to lay down on the cot on your belly; turn your face to the wall. If I were you, I’d stuff the corner of that pillow in your mouth. Once we begin, don’t turn your head. Don’t cry out or scream if you do, we start all over again. Place both hands on the cot frame and keep hold of it. Do not try to get up or try to stop us. If you do, we’ll send for some kitchen boys to hold you down. I’d try to stay as relaxed as you can; you’re less likely to be hurt.”
The mask of sternness began to slip. Something---remorse perhaps---began to flow down the long lines of his face.
“Now get this straight in your head. Every boy is told about running away. You knew the punishment; you’ve seen boys brought back to your cottage from here. You knew what to expect when you were caught. So you asked for this.”
The new mask melted into place: two hundred years old; seen from a thousand Protestant pulpits; from a multitude of Southern court benches at sentencing time; before the cringing figure of a mischievous child; at the hanging of a good slave gone bad; before the daughter being sent away from the unacceptable lover.
The patriarch stood towering before Mike. A long pause followed as he turned the show of his flawed right leg on the cement floor. Then he spoke the formula: “Let me tell you something son, this is going to hurt me more than it will you.”
Have said his piece, the director pulled himself erect, the tone of self-pitying condescension gone from his face.
“All right now, lay on down there, turn your head and get a’ hold of the cot.”
The boy, visibly shaken, did as he was told.
The director spoke again:
“You best do as I said and stick the corner of that pillow in your mouth.”
Mike caught the pillow corner in his mouth, turned his head flat on its side, shut his eyes, and waited. Seconds, minutes of clenched waiting. His body trembled. Sweat ran under his arms; sweat ran down the crack of his ass, the white-cotton shorts turning damp, clinging to the skin of his buttocks. He lay there in the silence, waiting for it to begin.
He heard Dennis’ footsteps return. The director step halfway out the door and tell him to “hit the fan.” And then heard the awful roar of the huge exhaust fan at the corridor’s end. The whole of the White House seemed to shudder under its force. It filled the room until no sound but the fan was possible.
Half in fear, reacting to the shock of the fan, Mike turned his head toward the director. In a glimpse of terror, he saw it. Pushing his head back toward the wall, he took the pillow again in his mouth; his hands squeezed the bed frame; he clamped his eyes shut.
The first stroke exploded. The sound like the booming Ka-Pow of a shotgun slammed into his ears as the impact of the blow penetrated into the tissues of his ass. The second stroke was higher, cutting just across the top elastic of his shorts.
Crack-Pow. The boom echoed louder off the barren walls; the shock of pain cracked into his lower back. He was driven deeper into the mattress.
The mattress and springs pushed his body up to meet the third stroke: Crack-Pow. The skin on the back of his thighs was ripped upward with the stroke’s completing.
Crack-Pow. Two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. The pain began to turn a deep, bright red as it ran through him.
He saw it clearly. Swinging in an arc over the director’s head, slapping in the cheeks of his ass.
THE PADDLE. an innocuous schoolroom term given it by the director. The Paddle. Two strips of quarter-inch polished leather, two feet long, over two inches wide, separated by a sixteenth-inch piece of taut, pliant sheet metal. Attached to a four-inch round hand grip, the leather was perforated on either side midway down, with one-eighth-inch holes, ending in a half-inch long taper. The effect brought the whipping weapon down in a cracking slap that drove through the thinness of the cotton shorts, into the upper tissues of the skin. Halfway through the beating, the holes were filled with blood-covered flesh.
The Paddle began to pull and suck to the side and away. Finally, with each stroke, the tapered end snapped the flesh, cracking it wherever it had grown taut and swollen. Crack-Pow. The strokes were coming in a marked rhythm now.
As the director began each stroke the foot of his twisted right leg slid on the cement floor, making a terse rasping sound. Then as the paddle was swung up and over the director’s head, it scraped against the ceiling just before it came down against the flesh. Between the eighth and twelfth blows the boy, now crying softly into the pillow, began to try different measures to ease the blows.
First he waited the split second between the scrape on the ceiling and at the impact, tightened his lower back, ass, and legs, and just as the blow landed, he would force himself to go limp.
Between the sixteenth and twentieth, he tried just the opposite. Just as the blow was to land, he would go rigid; as it ended, he went loose.
Somewhere between the twenty-third and twenty-sixth, he succumbed to deep guttural moaning, biting the pillow deeply so it was tight against his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He knew nothing would ease the pain as the Director, in his practiced, methodical manner, alternated the strokes first to the middle buttocks, then to the back of the legs, then to the small of the back, then hit just one cheek, the tapered end snatching and tearing at the inside of the crevice.
At the thirty-first stroke, the boy went into a state of semi-shock. The roar of the fan, the lunging breathing of the Director, the scraping foot, the paddle catching at the ceiling — all became surreal. The blows passed into his body, sending a numbing wave into his groin, on into the mattress, pushing him deep into the springs. At the thirty-sixth stroke the boy lost track of numbers. Then, without apparent reason, after ten or twelve more, it ended.
For the first time since the beginning, the Director spoke: “All right now, get up.”
The boy tried, but nothing moved.
“I said, get on up.”
The boy again tried to move his legs, to turn, but nothing worked. “If you don’t get up off that cot like I told you, we’re going to start all over again. Now get up.”
Pulling against the bed frame, Mike moved his body from the cot. Pushing, he turned toward the Director who was already looking out the door to the Colored Boys’ Room where Woody was waiting; the long strap hung hot and ready in his hand. An image of a hard-hewn woodcutter awaiting the next load of logs filled the boy’s mind. Crying, he finally managed to sit upright on the sagging cot, as Dennis re-entered the room.
“Alright boy, stand up, drop your shorts, bend over, and let’s have a look at you.” Mike finally struggled to his feet as Dennis moved closer. He turned his back to the Statesmen, pulled slowly at the waistband, and drew the shorts to his knees as he bent.
“That ain’t too bad.., some bleeding,” the Director motioned with his hand, talking to Dennis. The boy, head down, looked through his knees. The already mud-smudged, tattered shorts were now blotted with blood.
“Okay, you can pull them up. Go with Mr. Dennis and do as he tells you”; the Director turned and went into the Colored Boys’ Room.
Dennis motioned to Mike to follow him down the corridor. Limping stiff-legged, the boy obeyed. “Now you just stand over there in the corner with your face to the wall and wait. Don’t make any more noise, or else the Director wilt have you back in that room.” It was the first time since entering the White House that Dennis had spoken to the boy. “We’ll take you down to the hospital afterwards to see to your leg wounds.” Dennis left the boy standing face towards the wall, as Woody was taken into the White Boys’ Room.
Dennis gone, Mike leaned against the wall, gulping for air, trying to stop the trembling. A few feet to his left, the fan roared on, covering the voices in the White Boys’ Room. Suddenly the second round of strokes began, the sound cracking 0ff the walls, echoing into the corridor, breaking in the boy’s ears. He slunk to his knees, falling against the wall, covering his eyes with his forearm.
The Director again took up his steady rhythm: Crack-Pow two thousand, three thousand, four thousand — Crack-Pow. The fifth stroke, the sixth...
The boy pushed his head harder into his arm, but the image of the Director swinging the strap over his shoulder and down upon the prone body would not fade. Again and again he could see it fall.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth stroke the boy called Woody began to cry out at each impact. At the twenty-third, the Director shouted at him, “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 your crying and bawling.” The strap fell upon the boy as he got the pillow back into his mouth.
When the twenty-seventh stroke hit Woody, it must have cracked him open. He screamed. A loud, deep, animal cry of agony. Again and again he screamed. As each explosion of leather on ruptured skin broke, he screamed. By the thirty-third, the screaming was one long, continuous wail, rising with each stroke.
After the thirty-sixth stroke, a scuffle broke out in the White Boys’ Room. Mike heard the Director yell to the other Statemen, “Get him back on his stomach,” and to the boy, “Boy, this is it with you. Now you lay yourself back down there or else we’ll send for the kitchen boys. You ain’t getting anything you don’t de-serve. Now lay back down there and take your medicine like a man.” Woody was forced back on the cot and the beating and the wailing began again.
An insane image began to fill Mike’s mind. He’d seen it dozens 0f times at the movies and on the TV: Somewhere out West, a fort is surrounded. The last remaining troops of a long siege peer over the stockade walls. Over a not-too-distant hill, the glow from an Indian camp lights the nocturnal horizon. The cavalry troops are waiting to see if the volunteer sent to get relief makes it through the encircling savages... Suddenly, the silence is broken by a scream. A loud, deep, screaming cry of agony as the volunteer’s white skin is ruptured.
Succumbing to hysteria, Mike’s scream mixed with those of the boy on the cot.
Finally, the beating stopped. The three Statemen came out of the White Boys’ Room. “What is the matter with you, boy . . . do you want some more of the same?” Mike looked up and saw the three pallid-skinned Christians; the tall angular one swinging the blood-wet weapon in his hand. With all his force, with all the resourcefulness he could call upon, he shouted, “I’m praying to Jesus for forgiveness!”
After a long pause, the Director spoke again, “Well boy, you just do that, but you’d better do your praying a lot quieter — Or else you’ll have a lot more to pray about. Now keep quiet, hear me!”
Without waiting, he led the Statemen back into the room, and the beating continued; through forty, forty-five, fifty. At the fifty-sixth stroke, Mike lost count.
He slowly pulled himself to his feet as the sound 0f the exploding crack of The Paddle, Woody’s cries, merged into the receding roar of the fan. The pain from the wounds on his foot and leg, from the swollen, cracked flesh of his back and buttocks, melted into rage. It no longer mattered how long, how many blows retribution the Statemen inflicted. They had done all that was necessary.
(*) The following is the original bio at the end of the Pantheon edition.
(McCarthy, a Florida native, has worked variously as a disc jockey, freelance journalist, political editor of the Los Angeles Free Press, and sociologist. He served time from 1963 to ‘69 in California prisons. There, he says, “I obtained an extraordinary education in the disciplines of social and political science, social psychology and philosophy.” Now living in Hixson, Tennessee, McCarthy is currently at work on The Rise of the Dragons, a political history of the California Prison Movement, as well as The South: A National History.*>
-The end of the original SOUTHERN EXPOSURE PIECE-
From a memoir in progress: THE LONG JOURNEY OF DIXIE LULLABY.
They brought us from the White House to the infirmary dressed in our under shorts. The part time doctor from the nearby farm town of Marianna had been called to come and examine us. After examining Woody’s ass he dismissed him and Woody was taken back to the cottage to dress to go to the dining room for dinner.
As I remember he first looked at my ass and said it would heal just fine. He may or may not have cleansed the torn flesh or swabbed it with antiseptic. I don’t remember because I was still in shock.
AI do remember next that he ordered me up on the metal examining table and had me lie down on my back despite the terrible pain from my ass. He began examining the thorn wounds in my left knee and ankle which I had received when I jumped into the briars when we thought we saw a State car coming down the road early in our escape.
There were still thorns in the wounds. Some buried deeply in and under the skin. He took out his surgical instruments, which I remember as being a scalpel and scissors. That is when I asked him what kind of anesthesia he was going to use when cutting out the thorns. He flicked away my question with a wave of his hand. The one with the scalpel.
“Boys that run away don’t get no anesthesia,” he said with his medical degreed cracker twang and poured antiseptic on the wounds. The pain was horrible. He then motioned to the inmate infirmary attendants to hold my leg still and began to cut and pluck the thorns out of the already festering wounds. I only remember pain. I cannot recall how long he worked away on me. I may have passed out. I only remember being taken back to the cottage and dressed to go to the dining room to join the other boys. Woody was already there.
*The following is an episode from Michael Burt McCarthy’s
semi-fictional autobiography, The Long Journey of Dixie Lullaby.
(*)The piece was written under what was then my legal name.
Subsequently a birth certificate was found with the name Michael Burt
McCarthy. I adopted the nom de plume, Michael O’McCarthy in 1997.
Something happened to me the 15 year old boy, the juvenile delinquent that was sentenced to FSB. My innocence, the essence of childhood trust in adults and adult institution was essence was killed. More to the point, the humanity that children bring to the world as a free gift from nature was twisted into a rational twisted with selfishness and cowardness and a twisted viewpoint that believed in manipulation and connivance as the way to live. What survived was a tormented boy with a twisted sense of what I had to do to survive in a life I neither understood nor was capable of dealing with on life's terms. So rather than the geographic escapes I'd chosen before Marianna, now I escaped into the drug of alcohol. While is clear today that the I was in all probability an alcoholic genetically from birth, the kind of alcoholic I would become was one only partially functional, incapable of the mature, emotional thinking at any past 14-15.
It was obvious at the end that I needed psychological help. A Dr. Curry had begun to see me and indicated that too.
I never received it. I returned to my home a traumatized kid who had suppressed all my natural pain and anger below the surface to survive Mariana and to get out. I immediately began drinking.
I left Florida that summer for Jim’s business location in Chicago Heights, Ill. I continued to drink but managed to stay out of legal trouble through my senior year in high school. Upon leaving I began to have alcoholic, psychotic breaks: when drunk I would have paranoid episodes where I believed that people were out to get me to kill me. I was placed in the Cook County psychiatric ward, but released and sent back to Florida. I entered the US army only to have another alcoholic-psychotic episode that lead to AWOL and a medical discharge.
I went to California, (yet another in what we alcoholics call “Geographic’s,”” where shortly thereafter I had yet another and the worst. I was arrested while drunk for robbing a gas station of $6.37 of gas while fleeing the country to Mexico. I was sentenced to 1 year to Life in the California Department of Corrections and imprisoned in some of the worst prisons in the US correctional system.
There I changed, in order to survive. I became a painter and a published writer; I obtained a self-educated background in psychology, sociology and political science. I emerged seven years later, a political organizer of the first prisoner’s union in the history of the US, a hero to those in the human rights movement.
I would go on to a career in print journalism with the Los Angeles Free Press, a career20in movies for television; a social activist on behalf of prisoners, citizens in Virginia facing open pit uranium mining, become the spokesperson and negotiator to the Congress of the United States on behalf of the Viet Nam Veteran’s Coalition; locate and publicize the victims of the Rosewood Massacre which lead to their recognition before the state of Florida and their compensation, the first reparations paid to African Americans in the history of the US.
Currently I am a well published writer, editor and executive producer in film. I am a recovered alcoholic and drug addict with over 23 years of clean and sober living.