Because I handed in the edited manuscript Wednesday, and because it is, after all, the holiday season, I’m giving myself a couple of days off to rest, recharge, and focus on Christmas. But I’ll be back to blogging about the book next week.
In the meantime, I wanted to share one of my funniest and craziest Christmas memories. The following appears in my memoir (The Aqua Net Diaries) about my high school years growing up in a small Indiana town…
Christmastime in Richmond, Indiana, meant several things: snow days, freezing temperatures, the live manger scene at First Methodist Church on National Road West, Christmas lights and decorations on the downtown Promenade, our dog Tosh howling along with the piano as my mom played our favorite Christmas carols, and long lists to my grandparents detailing every single thing I wanted (posters of Duran Duran, Cheap Trick, and Rick Springfield; T-shirts with cute sayings on them; Esprit clothes; new record albums from all my favorite bands.).
It also meant Lois Potts’s annual Quaker Christmas project for the community. This was when Lois Potts—my former Girl Scout leader, the same Lois Potts who had chosen me to play the Virgin Mary and her daughter Kimberly to be Joseph in the yearly Christmas pageant the first year I lived in Richmond—organized members of Clear Creek Friends Meeting to visit the sick at Reid Memorial Hospital or sing carols to shut-ins or take the old people who lived at Golden Rule Nursing Center on a field trip to Richmond Square Mall.
In December 1985, Lois Potts announced that she was going to take her Christmas cheer to the Richmond State Hospital, which, until 1927, had been known as the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane. We were all terrified of the Richmond State Hospital and the people who lived there—crazy people, mentally disabled people, violent people of all ages. There were even criminals who were too wicked and wild to be kept in the tiny Wayne County Jail downtown across from the Courthouse. Growing up, my friends and I lived in fear of someone escaping. Heather Craig lived near the hospital and I was almost too scared to spend the night at her house. Whenever we heard a strange noise outside, we were sure it was an escaped mental patient walking on the roof or hiding in the bushes.
When Lois Potts announced she was going to the State Hospital to sing carols and take presents, no one—adults or kids—wanted to go with her. Finally, my mother, who was both practical and kindhearted, said that she would go. She was one of the few people I knew who was not afraid of the Richmond State Hospital or the people who lived there. My father was busy, of course, but my mother would take me along. And Joey, because he was my best friend (even though he was Catholic and not Quaker) would go, too.
To prepare, my mother chose some of her favorite carols, and Joey and I practiced a dramatic reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which we were going to deliver speech-team style, as we had many a scene from a play, in a kind of duet.
So it was that four days before Christmas break, the four of us met in the main building of the Richmond State Hospital: Lois Potts (mid-forties—dark short-cropped hair, black-rimmed glasses, no-nonsense manner, resembling a great overbearing string bean); my mother (early forties—slim, blue-eyed, black-haired, pretty, wearing some sort of mid-1980s outfit befitting a Richmond housewife); Joey (eighteen—blond, glasses, pretty); me (seventeen—brunette, pretty, and boy crazy as could be).
We were not alone. This was ward-party day at the hospital. There were Santa Clauses of various shapes and ages, and bags of gifts (two each for every patient in the twenty-three wards) and holiday goodies and punch. The Old National Road Chapter of Sweet Adelines, a women’s barbershop singing group, was there to perform songs for one of the women’s wards. Volunteers were there from the Eastern Gateway Kiwanis Club and Home Bible Study of Adams County, as well as West Richmond Friends Meeting, which was not to be confused with us. West Richmond Friends had been coming to the hospital at Christmastime for years, ever since a man named Orval Fetters started the tradition.
A luncheon was prepared for all of the volunteers by Frances Lippke of the hospital’s dietary department, and then we were sent out to spread Christmas cheer to the crazy people.
When it came time for our particular ward assignment, one of the guards signed us in and said, “Now I’ll escort you to the maximum security building.”
Lois Potts, whose arms were filled with bags of wrapped presents, didn’t bat an eye. My mother, whose arms were also filled with bags of wrapped presents, said, “Excuse me?”
The guard said, “It’s one of our Acute Intensive Treatment Wards. We keep them in a separate building because of security risks. We have to with the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security male inmates. A lot of ‘em are violent or dangerous to themselves or others. But don’t worry. We’ll have a guard with you at all times. If anything happens, we’ll get you out of there.”
My mother and Joey and I stood there, staring at the guard, staring at one another. Lois Potts said, “Lead the way.”
The maximum security building was barred up and locked tight as any prison, and I knew about prisons because I had a fascination with them that went back to childhood, so much so that, at the age of nine, I had created a prison mystery series in the vein of the Nancy Drew stories: Debby, who was the prettiest of the group, was full of mysteries and puzzles. She sang and danced in nightclubs and spent her time at home reading. Debby turned into the driveway which led to Sandsky Prison. She parked the car and climbed out. “Ah, smell that fresh air!” she said, spreading her arms far apart.
My parents weren’t sure where this fascination came from—it was just one of those mysterious, unexplainable interests of mine, like my unreasonable love and affinity for Jesse James, Sweden, tambourines, and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
The maximum security ward looked a lot like a prison, so much so that a tiny part of me did a thrilling little jump as the guard let us in.
The inmates, as they called them, were very happy to see us. These were men, black and white, big and strong, tall and short, broad and skinny—but most of them big and strong and broad—who, as my mom said later, looked as if they had not seen a female in years. They remained happy—and friendly, and surprisingly well-behaved—throughout the singing of Christmas carols (Lois Potts banging away at the piano), the opening of presents, and the eating and drinking of refreshments.
At one point I went into the kitchen to look for some more paper cups, and a boy followed me in there. He was maybe a couple years older than me, with feathered blond hair that was also a little wavy. He had dark eyes and he was good-looking in a bad news kind of way. He shambled when he walked and had an air about him like he had been horribly wounded and hurt by someone somewhere down the line. He reminded me of Matt Dillon in Rumble Fish.
“Hey,” he said. He kind of slumped against the counter.
“You got any cigarettes?”
He shrugged, and then he smiled and it was wicked and sweet all at once, and I thought, Uh-oh.
He said, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Jennifer,” wondering if I should have told him my real name, if maybe now he might break out one night and come find me. He was, after all, a patient in the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security all-male ward at the state mental health facility.
He said, “I’m Andy. What year are you?”
He nodded. “I was a senior when they busted me.”
Thrillthrillthrill. “What did they bust you for?”
“Drugs. I was stupid. And now I’m here getting clean.”
It was the same little thrill I felt when I looked at the cover of Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, at Tom Petersson’s bloodshot eyes, and imagined all the wicked and unspeakable things he had done even minutes before the picture was snapped—smoking, drinking, having sex, maybe even taking drugs.
Andy said, “Maybe I could call you sometime.”
I was trying to picture him calling and my dad answering in one of his many foreign accents. “Do they ever let you out of here?” I said. Where would we go? I tried to picture us at a football game or at Noble Roman’s or Clara’s or at Rip’s house for a party. Would I have to drive? Was he allowed to drive? Did he even have a license?
“No, but I don’t have much longer. I’d like to take you out.”
At that moment, my mother, who had an uncanny ability to sense when I was about to make a horrible decision or endanger my life, appeared. “I found some cups in the other room,” she said, smiling tightly at both of us. “Jennifer, why don’t you come help me pour?”
After refreshments, Joey and I performed our dramatic reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The men were surprisingly attentive while we read—standing in front of them, side by side, the book open before us, alternating lines. At one point, two or three of the men started getting a little restless, whispering to each other and talking over us. We kept reading:
Joey: “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter…”
Jennifer: “I arose from my bed to see what was the matter…”
The men kept talking, so we just spoke a little louder to be heard above them.
Joey: “When, what to my wondering eyes should appear…”
Jennifer: “But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer…”
Finally, one of the men—a great big, burly man with a head as bald and shiny as a melon and tattoos up and down both arms—stood up and shouted, “SHUT UP, GODDAMMIT! I WANT TO HEAR THE STORY!” The talking men stared at him and fell silent. We all stared at him. Joey and I didn’t say a word until he waved us on. “Keep reading,” he said. “I want to hear the rest of it.” And he sat back down.
We kept reading, and for the rest of the story everyone was quiet.
We should have stopped there, of course. It would have been a perfect way to end the evening. Everyone was sleepy and settled and somewhat content. My mom and Joey and I were more than ready to leave. But Lois Potts had one more activity planned. Square dancing. I will never understand why she thought this could possibly be a good thing to do with eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security male inmates at a mental hospital, but she was very cheerful as she said, “I want everyone to join me in the Virginia Reel.”
It’s hard to know who was more shocked: my mother, Joey, me, or the men, who began stomping and whistling. You’d have thought she had introduced a stripper out of a cake or that she’d just passed around a box of Playboys. I’d never seen a group of people so excited about square dancing.
“Now let’s choose our partners,” she said.
“I want that one!” one of them shouted, pointing at me. My mother moved in front of me, standing between me and them.
“I’ll take that one,” another yelled, pointing at my mother.
“Well, I’ll have that one,” screamed the bald man, pointing right at Joey. No one wanted Lois Potts.
We paired up, standing across from our partners in two lines, most of the men forced to dance with each other, and Lois Potts explained that there would be no touching in this version of the Virginia Reel because we were leaving out the twirl. (Lois explained later that she thought it would be “overstimulating” for the inmates.) Then she lowered a needle on the record she had brought with her, unbeknownst to my mother and Joey and me, just for this purpose. Over the sounds of fiddles and banjo, we met our partners in the middle and began to promenade and do-si-do—something I had learned in gym class back in the fourth grade.
The men were very enthusiastic, especially Joey’s partner, the big, bald tattooed man who had so loved ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. He kept hollering along with the music, making up his own square dancing calls, which sounded more like the hog calling you heard at the local fair. I was looking everywhere for Andy, but he was nowhere to be seen and I wondered vaguely, as I was being jolted this way and that, if he had managed to escape. My partner seemed to be the leader of the inmates—a tall, lean black guy who looked almost exactly like Officer Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues, only without the smile. My mother’s partner kept trying to hold her close, even though there was supposed to be no touching.
When it came time for the twirl—when we reached that point in the dance where the twirl should have been, and we didn’t twirl—my partner, the leader, stopped dancing and said, “I want to twirl.” He just stopped right in the middle of everyone, men bumping into him left and right, and stared right at Lois Potts with a look that said No One Has Ever Refused Me Anything and Lived to Tell the Tale.
She said, “I don’t think we’d better.”
He said, “I want to twirl,” and he said it very, very firmly, so that you could imagine what he might have done on The Outside to get himself in here, in a facility where we were, after all, locked in behind bars.
They stood staring at each other for what seemed like twenty minutes or so, like the final showdown scene out of a western, before Lois Potts finally said, “Let’s do the twirl,” as if she had thought of it all on her own. The men clapped and cheered, and Lois began the record over. I looked at my mother and Joey. Their faces were flushed. Their hair was messy. Joey’s glasses were askew. I thought, Dear Jesus, if you can hear me. You got us into this mess in the first place, if you want to be technical about it. We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. The least you can do is get us out of here alive.
The dance eventually ended and we gathered our things. We bundled ourselves up in our layers of coats and scarves and gloves and hats and then the guard escorted us out into the winter night. As we walked to our cars, we could still hear the sounds of the men clapping and cheering and singing “Turkey in the Straw.”
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society