Memories of An Ugly Place
I remember an ugly place from when I was a boy.
It was near the first house my parents bought. It was a working class neighborhood north of Seattle. Nobody was rich, but not really poor. A neighborhood of Boeing workers and their families, Korean War vets and the sons and daughters of World War Two soldiers now grown and starting families of their own. A pleasant enough place to grow up in the 1950’s.
But I remember one specific place. It was just blocks from our small home, a large fenced in area, surrounded by not one but two fences. They were eight or ten feet apart and at least ten feet high. Both fences were topped with barbed wire, on the inner the wire faced inward and on the outer it faced outward. One to keep people out, the other to keep them inside.
It seemed like a forbidden park. There were lots of trees and paths you could see from the outside. If you went all the way around you would see the gates and guards, and the Quonset huts for the offices and homes for those who lived and worked inside.
As kids we had to pass the fence almost every day. There were all kinds of stories about who was inside that fenced area. Some parent said it was an asylum for the insane. Some others would tell you it was for “special” criminals. And there were only men. You never saw any women.
One look at these emaciated “inmates” and you truly did not know what story to believe. They reminded me of some pictures I had seen, in LIFE Magazine, of the camps of WW II and how the people looked when the Allies finally freed them.
There were no guard towers, but there were men walking around the paths during the daytime. At night you could sometimes see the glow of flashlights as the guards walked the grounds. They didn’t carry guns and wore white clothes, but they were guards just the same.
My early morning paper route took me down one side of the fence every day. Since I made my deliveries at 5 am, I seldom saw any of the people that lived “inside the fence”. Often on the way to school and on the way home, I would see them walking, silently, the paths of the wooded area. Sometimes, one would stand near the inside fence and just stare out at the passing cars, the yards, and the children on bicycles. Sometimes they would stand there until one or two of the white clothed guards would come, whisper in their ear, and walk them away into the trees. No kid, at least none I ever knew, claimed to have talked with any of the men.
Not even Paul, the kid everyone knew was “crazy” and mostly avoided as much as possible. Truth be known, I think even he was afraid.
It was their eyes I could never seem to avoid. They had a look that frightened me and I didn’t know why. As a child I just thought they were “scary”. I didn’t know why they scared me, but they did. The problem was every time I saw one of them standing by the fence, I had to look.
The men walking the paths wore blue cloth coats, blue pants that looked like pajama bottoms, and cloth slippers, just like the ones I wore on the house during the winter. It wasn’t until years later I realized it was hospital clothing.
It was a hospital, and a prison. I was much older when I learned that was the way they treated vets who came back home from Korea with TB and other “illness’” they couldn’t cure. Even with that knowledge, I never forgot the haunted look in the eyes of those men. I also never forgot the nightmares when their eyes would visit me in my warm childhood bed.
But I grew up. I went to war and returned. Now my children have children of their own.
The memory of that ugly place has never gone away.