The following is an episode from Michael Bert McCarthy’s semi-fictional autobiography, The Long Journey of Dixie Lullabye.
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.
It was typical of Southern jails in the 1950s: a concrete and brick, two-story building with the first floor housing the sheriff’s 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, an 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 that look of cold, infantilizing 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 Statemen 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 of 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 Stateman 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 of 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 Statemen motioned the boys to the wooden bench by the wall as they signed them out. The officials exchanged their goodbyes, then the boys were led squinting into the orange-white sun of the parking lot. The omnipresent grey Statecar sat waiting, a well-used transport for State supplies and runaway boys.
The Statecar 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 of 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 Statecar moved along the three-hour trip through the small towns of Blountsville and Altha, 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 of 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 of 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 Statecar passed through the rock portals and up the road leading to the central offices of the school; it swung left and stopped in front of the Director’s office. Mr. Dennis, the school’s Boy Scout leader, got out of the passenger seat and walked to the office door; he said something to the inside. Then, back 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 building’s heavy wooden door, and disappeared into the darkness. The boys could hear the clammer and din from the dining room as nearly 400 boys sat down to their evening meal.
Shortly, the Director appeared at the right side of 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 boy, 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, Gl-green army cot, with an uncovered, striped mattress and pillow, dark with the liquid stains of human misery. The two runaways were uncuffed and ordered to sit on the cot. The two Statemen stood over them, silent, watching as the terror began to tremble their bodies. A third Stateman stood waiting in the corridor. The Director began to question them: “Why did you boys run .... Don’t you know you can’t 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 couldn’t 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. “Alright,” 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 into the White Boys’ Room.
Pointing to the army cot, the Director gave the instructions: “Alright 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 the 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 shoe of his flawed right leg on the cement floor, as he spoke the formula: “Let me tell you something son, this is going to hurt me more than it will you.”
Having 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 ahold of the cot.” The boy, visibly shaken, did as he was told. The Director spoke again: “You’d 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 he 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 towards the Director. In a glimpse of terror, he saw it. Pushing his head back towards the wall, he took the pillow again into 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 deep 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 upwards with the stroke’s completion. 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 clear. Swinging in an arc over the Director’s head, slapping into 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 rounded 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 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 Statemen, 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 will 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 off 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 deserve. 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 of times at the movies and on the TV: Somewhere out West, a fort is surrounded. The last remaining troops of a long seige peer over the stockaded 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 of 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, or what manner of retribution the Statemen inflicted. They had done all that was necessary.
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. (1978)