*New Adult 17+*
Children who grew up on military bases are called Army brats. Asylum brats were those few of us who grew up on the grounds of state insane asylums where our parents, who worked there, had housing provided by the state. We weren't shoved from base to base, state to state, country to country, so we couldn't claim we didn't put down roots. Instead, we were buffeted between the bizarre personalities among whom we lived, if we chose to know the lives of those mostly benign inmates–excuse me, patients–from whose lunacy our parents earned their livings.
My sister, Sally, ignored them. Not me. I got into trouble early in my life by making the acquaintance of so many of those twisted souls. My mother almost had a heart attack when I wandered away at the age of four and showed up back at her door holding the hand of a huge man who wasn’t insane, just retarded. He had had the good sense to bring me home before I had gone too far away. For his good had deed he was screamed at by my mother, who called the campus police, who hauled him away, tears streaming down his big, uncomprehending face.
When I was nine I got swept up in the scheme of one loony who told me that if we collected 100,000 cigarette wrappers, the tobacco company would redeem them for a wheelchair. So when I could, I joined him in scrounging for the cellophane wrapped papers and tying them up in neat packets of fifty each. Finally, Dad called several tobacco companies and broke the news to me that there was no such offer. I helped the patient finish the task anyway. Several good things came from this nutty venture, however. When the 100,000 number was reached, the guy seemed to recover his wits enough to be discharged. I never took up smoking, and a couple years later the discharged patient sent the hospital a wheelchair.
The hospital was located three miles outside of a small town that was in the middle of a state in the middle of the nation. It was the dumping ground for the retarded, the senile, the schizos and the paranoids, the brain-damaged, adolescent dopers, the suicidal-depressed, the manics, maniacs, and the perpetually confused. And one building, the Pinel Building, the one with barbed wire around it, housed the criminally insane. It even had its own small hospital ward, and Dad had an auxiliary dental office there. Patients were never taken from the Pinel Building unless they were judged to have become mentally competent to stand trial for their crimes, or, if they had been committed because they had been found innocent by reason of insanity for their crimes, released when they became sane, which didn’t happen very often. If ever.
They said it would happen to Michael Fromme, who at the age of fourteen had killed his mother, father, little sister, and brother, and then sat in the house with their dead bodies until a neighbor happened upon the scene and called the sheriff. Since he was a juvenile, he couldn’t be tried as an adult, so he was committed to the Pinel Building for the Criminally Insane until he was 18, at which time, if he was judged to be mentally sane, he would be released. He could even claim the farm of the family he had murdered.
Dad had worked on his teeth and found him to be perfectly normal. “Now that he’s killed his family,” Dad had said.
I kept trying to write a folk song about it, but nothing was coming. It was teaching me just how hard those simple little ditties were to compose.
It wasn’t easy recruiting people to work as attendants in the Pinel Building because most of the patients weren’t perfectly normal at all. They were perfectly dangerous. So the attendants and nurses who worked there were paid more. They were a group apart. A little pitied. A little feared. A little envied.
The whole insane asylum was the principle economic force for the small town nearby. Farming was in decline. But there would always be nuts to take care of. America seemed to produce a bigger crop every year. Nepotism at the hospital was rampant because the town was so small you couldn’t help but hire someone’s brother, sister, uncle, aunt, or cousin.
Although the town needed the mental hospital, it also resented it. After all, it wasn’t much fun to come from a place whose name was synonymous with being crazy. When our high-school basketball team went to other towns for games, there always would be a group of students from the opposing side in the stands waving their finger in circles at the side of their heads and screaming, at the top of their lungs in the shrillest falsetto as we were introduced: “Woo-woo!”
The superintendent of the whole affair was a psychiatrist who lived in the nicest house on the grounds. He wasn’t seen much. He presented the budget before the state legislature and went to a lot of national conferences. Dad himself was away for the week I’m about to relate, making his annual trip to a national dental conference. Being the only dentist for such a large and heterogeneous population as the asylum provided gave him several dentally interesting cases to present each year.
For a while, Mother had tried to convince Father to go into private practice, but he said he liked not having to worry about patients paying their bills. He could decide what the best course of treatment was for them without regard to whether they could afford it or not. Socialized medicine existed. You just had to be nuts to get it.
So eventually, Mother ran away. I thought I might turn that into a simple little folk song, too.
All in all, Larned State Hospital made for interesting formative years.