where the writers are
7: Sweat and Tears
Robby and author, 51 years after the Home
"Mama" Gross, Matron of the Little Boys

© 2012, All Rights Reserved

 

October, 2009…

 

So…, you think I should go?” Matt says to the tired-looking woman in the blue wing-backed chair across from him.

“It could be good,” Dr. Werner says after a pause.

Matt notices the way “good” ended on an upward inflection, a sign of doubt. After a year of her weekly therapy sessions he’s gotten the hang of her stiff, driving German delivery of English. “Tell me a bit more about him,” she says, readjusting the note pad under her left arm.

Matt leans in with his elbows on the arms of his chair. This will be easy. He’s written about Robby in his journal for years.

 

It was January, 1956. I had turned ten that July and been at the orphanage around eight months. I was dressing for church on a Sunday morning when Mama Gore, the Little Boys’ matron, grabbed my arm and towed me into the bathroom. She had thick grey hair molded into rigid waves, a jutting jaw and wattles of wrinkly skin at her throat. I’d been having trouble with my tie, and she started yanking at it.

“You’re German-headed, (yank) just like my dead husband!” she said through gritted teeth. “And every chance (yank) I get I’m gonna take you down a notch, just like I did him!

That shockwave of harshness took me by surprise. I’d not seen this dark side of her and had no inkling of what I’d done wrong, much less what extremes she was capable of, until a few days later when Robby Horton got it for wetting the bed.

Robby was a year younger than me and was the most recent “new kid,” having arrived at the children’s home the previous week. He was pale, brooding and quiet, his Cherokee heritage revealed by a hooked nose, straight dark hair and hawk-like eyes. He carried an inhaler for asthma and was so thin that the sleeves of his t-shirt flapped loosely about his arms as he walked.

The windows were frosty and the radiators were hissing the morning Mama Gore went after Robby. I came out of the bathroom, and he was cringing near a row of lockers as she extended a pale wrinkled finger at him. "Get over here! Now!" she said.

Robby backed away, pleading, “Please, Mama Gore!  No! I promise! I didn’t mean to!"

Fixing him with cobra eyes, she moved sideways to the big grey study table where she kept the board—a twenty-six-inch pine plank sanded smooth and notched and taped at one end for a handle. The look of terror in Robby’s eyes when she picked up the board sent a jolt through me. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t, as Robby shrank against the lockers, crouching, trying to disappear, screaming, "No! Mama Gore! I won’t do it again! Please, Mama Gore!"

There was no way at the time for me to have known that the board in her hand had triggered in Robby the memories of beatings by his mother. He knew in his bones the potential of a raging woman. All thirteen of us gathered to watch, some of us instinctively moving behind the table for protection.

"I’ll show you what it means to defy Muh-E-e!" She wagged her head and bugged out her eyes as “me” came out in a warbling growl. "I’m tellin’ yuh, right now; the longer yuh take; the worse it’s gonna be. Now get over here!"

She advanced toward Robby, gesturing with one hand, while from the other hand, cocked against a hip, hung the wooden tool of her rising lust.

With each of her steps Robby backed away. But she kept on and on, like some hypnotizing serpent, until the distance between them shrank enough for her to grab his wrist and pull him clear for an unimpeded swing with the board.

"Now bend over and grab those ankles! Do it!" she said.

Tears streaming down, the sixty-five-pound boy assumed the submissive pose. At the first stroke his knees buckled, and he went down, then scrambled screaming beyond her reach and turned facing her, pleading and tugging at the seat of his pants like they were on fire.

The look on her face reminded me of a snarling dog. “Get back here and grab those ankles!” she said.

The anguish on Robby’s face conveyed how torn he was between Mamma Gore’s unrelenting power and the urge to run. But where? He was there precisely because there was no other place for him. He stalled as long as he could, then slowly bent his thin frame into position. And just as his trembling fingers touched the tops of his ankles, she drove the board into him with all her might. Again he lurched up and danced away, screaming and rubbing his buttocks, his movements accompanied by her murderous glare and her words, “Com ’ere an’ Grab those ankles!”

From where I stood behind the table, the hands on the dormitory clock seemed to have stopped. I could smell urine. My cohorts and I could only gape and hope for this to end. But like a living gargoyle coming ‘round on a carousel of violence, Robby’s grisly cycle was replayed, again and again, as his trembling hands would reach toward his feet, and his body would jerk and writhe in response to her blows.

From an inverted view between his legs, Robby could see her draw back the board. Now a veteran, he realized he could time his move and preemptively spring erect, arching his back, and absorb some of the energy with his baggy jeans. But his self-preserving gyrations were like dousing fire with kerosene. Her face now a red sweat-dripping mask, Mama Gore snatched Robby’s wrist and held on as he pivoted ‘round and ‘round, begging. Then he slipped free.

“I’ll show You!” she said, grabbing his collar and cramming his head down between her knees, pinning it there. Then, grabbing his belt in back, she hoisted his rump and worked him over like an out-of-control hate machine. The flabby arm attached to that sweat-darkened blue flowered dress ratcheted up and down, up and down, while Robby, his dark red face upside-down at floor level, flailed his arms for balance among Mamma Gore’s granny shoes and the sweat and tear-stained floor tiles. Gore’s teeth clamped over her lower lip, pulsing in rhythm to the impact of the board, until finally she staggered, relaxed her quivering knees and allowed the whimpering mass that was once little Robby slump to the floor.

Her chest heaved as she wagged her head. "If you ever! (pant, pant) Don't you ever!" (pant, pant)

All of us jumped when she tossed the board onto the table in front of us. "You boys get on (pant pant) about your business!"

Dr. Werner waits a few moments for Matt to recompose himself.

“That was an unconscionable way to treat a child,” she says. “Today of course it would be illegal. Did anyone report it?”

Matt rubs his reddened face and stares at her as if he’s forgotten who she is. “Report it? To whom? It would only have meant more beatings.”

“How do you feel about it now?” she says.

Matt sits back, reflecting. “I don’t know. Angry maybe. No, I don’t know if I can describe it. Numb, I guess.”

“That happened when, fifty years ago?” she said. “And now you want to go all the way to Vermont to see him? What happened after the beating?”

Matt sighs deeply; then he begins again.

It was as if Robby was tainted. It made me uncomfortable in the showers seeing those hideous bruises on his butt and down his leg. I didn’t shun him outright, but I didn’t go out of my way to make friends with him either. Robby wasn’t very outgoing, and neither was I. My life was turned upside down before we had a chance to get to know each other. Before Robby’s bruises had healed, I became Mama Gore’s target for a back-to-back pair of beatings that set a new record. A new superintendent had arrived whose appetite for brutality stretches the imagination. But that’s another story.

Later that year, I moved up to the Big Boys dormitory. When Robby joined me there the following year, the memory of his beating had fallen away like turning pages in a book. A couple more years went by, then one day I came in from school, and Robby was gone. One of the guys told me his mother had remarried and come for him and his sisters. His empty locker and bunk were soon re-occupied, but the dormitory was different after Robby was gone.

When you live with someone for a period of years, they become a part of you. It’s inescapable. You share space with them day-to-day at meals, playing marbles on the playground or dominoes inside on a rainy day, scout meetings and church, camping trips, going to and from school, even in the showers or standing at the urinal or at the sinks brushing teeth. All these things occupy brain space, and when someone leaves you can’t help but feel it, on a subconscious level at the least.

At the Home, kids came and went without warning or explanation. That’s just how it was. You’d get attached to someone, and they’d just disappear.

Ultimately, I graduated high school and went to college. I started a business career. Got married and had children. Years folded into decades; then I became depressed and went into counseling. I started writing as therapy, and one morning the memory of Robby’s beating came back. I tried to track him down but had no luck. I wanted to know if he was okay, but the storms of life had me on the run. I had a family to support. The seasons came and went as my daughters grew into young women and started college. Life went on. I became single again.

Thanks to Google, I eventually got Robby on the phone. He was sixy-four, living in a subsidized apartment for seniors nearly three thousand miles away. Our visits every day on the phone gave me a growing concern about his mental health. He’d had arguments with his neighbors and ranted about wanting to shoot people. He’d said he was a combat veteran; so I assumed it was PTSD that made him that way. Still, no matter what, I had to see him. Being single and unemployed, my time was my own. Nothing can stop me.

Dr. Werner reads Matt’s face, nods and smiles. “That’s right; nothing can stop you. Go. Then come back and tell me about it.”

 

A month later, Matt is again in Dr. Werner’s leather chair facing the windows. “You look relaxed. It must have been a good trip” she says.

“Yes, it was a good trip.” He nods, smiling.

“And so?”

It was beautiful. The October hills were blazing with the palette of fall on the drive from Boston through Vermont. It was misting as I drove into Barre, a quiet, unspoiled little town in a region known for abandoned stone quarries, fall color and cross-country skiing. I was nervous about what to expect from Robby, given the disturbing things he’d said on the phone. I found his building with no trouble, and he buzzed me in. Soon a thin mustachioed little man wearing a faded denim jacket and a Marine Corps cap was lurching toward me from an elevator.  I didn’t recognize him until I saw those hawk-like eyes. He looked thin and frail, but the strength of his arms and hands was surprising as we hugged.

“What took ya so long? Ya get lost?” he said, poking me in the stomach and grinning behind that untrimmed mass of hair hiding his upper lip.

Robby’s tiny one-room apartment was the domain of a war veteran, with camouflage bedding, military memorabilia and a prominent American flag. Covering one wall, a large POW-MIA banner read: “You Are Not Fogotten.” He lit a stick of incense, cracked a window and smoked a joint as he recounted his life in the military. He said he’d been homeless for years and had used his survival training to live off the land along the Appalachian Trail. He told of the  six-months he’d spent in a Vermont mental hospital, sentenced there indefinitely for commandeering a television station that he’d hallucinated to be a North Vietnamese radar site. Dressed in Army surplus fatigues, he’d stormed in and taken over the place.

He offered me a hit, but I waved it off. “I keep my body pure,” I said, grinning.

“Bullshit.”  He half-smiled, and I could see his upper teeth were missing.

“How’d you get out?” I said.

He chuckled, his eyes sparkling. “I did a snow job on the psychiatrists. Ever read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? That’s how it was. Medication every day. Just like that, except for Nurse Ratched. All our nurses were nice.”

Robby talked in a detached way about having fathered six children and went on a long rant about his ex wife. Yet there was pride in his voice when he spoke about his sons and the beauty and intelligence of his daughters.

He said that he was a decorated veteran, a sniper, and offered convincing stories of night-time search-and-destroy missions against North Vietnamese SAM sites in some early version of a stealth helicopter called a LOACH. He said he’d been assigned to a special unit and had trained with the Navy Seals and Army Ranger. He said his unit was called a ghost platoon and had special black uniforms. He said they’d had to scrounge for supplies and pulled a midnight raid in the chopper on some battalion PX, hauling away a Coke machine at the end of a cable. “We stocked it with beer,” he said.

 He said he’d had an operation for lung cancer caused by Agent Orange. I expected him to show me the scar, but he didn’t.

“I burned my medals,” he said. “Me and some other Viet Nam vets threw our medals into a bonfire at an anti-war demonstration in D.C.”

“No shit?” I told him. “That’s pretty extreme.”

“Not when you’ve been where I have and seen what I’ve seen.” He puffed on the joint and went on to describe the firefight that he said earned him a medal and the nickname, “M-60 Horton, they called me.” He said he changed barrels three times before the order to cease fire.

“I went out of my gourd, shooting, changing barrels, shooting. When it was over there were thirty-two bodies. I looked at one, but I couldn’t look at the others. Death—that’s what the medals reminded me of.” He stopped, saying he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

He’d read the story I wrote about his beating. "You nailed it right on. That’s just how it was." he shook his head, "Old lady Gore was some kinda witch.

“You could say that.”I said.

His eyebrows lifted. “I had her in my crosshairs." He cocked his head, sighting along an outstretched arm, and squeezed the make-believe trigger. "Pshu-u-uw!" he said, rocking backward to dramatize the recoil of his imaginary rifle.

He had no trouble remembing the beatings I had received. “How could I forget?” he said. “You got two beatings in one day for somethin’ you didn’t even do. I was so mad. If Lovejoy hadn’t stopped when he did…,” He shook his head, “I had my eye on a stapler on Mama Gore’s desk I was gonna heave at the back of his head.” During the thirty months that the Home was run by Superintendent Lovejoy, Robby and I had witnessed countless beatings every bit as severe as ours.

“But you know,” Robby said, “when I was with my mother it was actually worse.” He went on for an hour with gruesome stories of his mother’s daily beatings. “I was her only male kid. She said I reminded her of my father. She hated him; so she took it out on me.”

When he finished, I was feeling queasy. “Let’s go outside,” I said. “I need some air.”

Over the next couple of days, we kicked around Barre and Mont Pelier. I bought him art supplies. He introduced me to his bank manager and to his pastor, Reverend David, who later met with me in private, wanting to know if Robby had really lived in an orphanage, and did I think he was dangerous. He said Robby had said some scary things.

“I know what you mean,” I said, considering the question. “If he’s threatened, I expect he could be, but then, …aren’t we all?”

I got a taste of Robby’s volatility one night at a Chinese smorgasbord on the road to Montpelier. A group of burr-headed boys across the room were being so noisy it was hard to hold a conversation. After repeated eruptions, Robby sprang up and yelled, “Ten-Hut!” The room got instantly quiet. But he was on the move, reaching in his hip pocket as he skirted a booth, heading for their table.  I wanted to crawl under ours.

Robby stopped facing two long tables of teenaged boys sporting military haircuts. He apparently knew them to be cadets from a nearby military academy. Like some Drill Sergeant, he stood there chewing them out, brandishing a shield in his wallet. When he returned to his seat, I asked, “What was that thing you were showing them?”

“You mean this?” He pulled out the bulging wallet and flipped it open, showing a thick silver and gold medallion with an official-looking insignia. I’d barely glanced at it before he put it away.

“What is it?”

“It basically means that I’ll take a bullet for my assignment,” he said. “I’m part of a special unit, but I can’t talk about it.”

“You on the federal payroll?”

“Something like that. I’m a contractor. Sometimes I work for one agency; sometimes another. Once I got assigned to Margaret Mitchell, and the crazy bitch yanked out my earphone, injuring my ear.”

After that I couldn’t get him to tell me about the organization he supposedly worked for. They couldn’t have paid him much; he’d been living on one meal a day.

After I returned to the Bay Area, Robby and I kept in touch. We talked on the phone about the stories I’d written about the Home, the good times and the bad. We agreed that it was the beatings that bound us together, like war buddies. I tried to get him to talk about what he did during and after his military time. He said he’d been in ‘Nam with the Marines in the 60s and joined the Army in the 80s, serving in Kosovo and Desert Storm.

                But he’d say little about the “contract” work. Several times, he started in about some aspect of it, but when I’d ask for details, he’d say it was classified. He’d sometimes act as if our phone conversations were being recorded, saying things like: “You hear that, fuck head? Yeah, I said that. Either write me up or erase this, you spastic fuck. I could care less.” Finally, I gave up trying to pin him down. He seemed paranoid. Delusional. Half of what he said could be pure bunk. If so, crazy or not, his ranting would be an insult to real war heroes. I tried to piece together something sensible from what he’d told me. Some of it had to be true; it sounded too real. I’d been in the Marines, and had some of the same training.

Then he stopped answering his phone. I called every few days, but it just rang and rang. Finally after a month he answered. He said he’d had to move because of some trouble where he’d been staying. He’d been booked for assault. The way he explained it, a mentally retarded boy had kept banging on his door, wanting to sell him vegetables. Robby yelled several times for him to go away.

“He just kept on and on, banging and banging,” Robby said, “until finally I lost it. I only weigh a hundred forty-five. Hell, he outweighed me a hundred pounds, but I took him down with one hand, a choke hold I learned in martial arts. I could have killed him if I wanted. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers.

I said, “Jeez, did you really want to? I mean, to hurt the guy?”

“No. Hell no! I didn’t mean any of it. I was just out of my gourd. It was the meds and I hadn’t had any sleep for three days.”

I knew what Robby meant. Everyone has a breaking point. I have trouble sleeping too, and I’ve felt that blind rage but always had just enough to keep it in check. When Dr. Serrat diagnosed me with PTSD in ’93 he said rage was a symptom. He said my PTSD stemmed from the beatings at the Home. He called it what it was—torture. He said it was the hardest kind to treat because it’s not from just a single event but from months or years of trauma—like Holocaust survivors and combat veterans.

“How’s everything stand? Are you going to jail?”

“No. Reverend David found out and came to the hearings with me and testified on my behalf. The charges were dropped, but I had to move. The people at that senior center wanted me out. They’re a bunch of assholes.”

 

The following week, Matt asked Dr. Werner why he was so obsessed with Robby. For a year, he’d been unable to get him off his mind, calling him nearly every day, listening to his problems and his rants. He mailed him stories he’d written about the Home, and they’d re-live the memories on the phone. Sometimes just simple things like a marble game or a canoe trip. When he couldn’t get him on the phone, he’d called Reverend David. He’d even called the Barre police chief and asked for a humanitarian check.

“Have you ever heard of bystander guilt, or survivor’s guilt?” Werner said.

“No.”

“It can happen when people witness some terrible thing, but they are unable to intervene or to help, for whatever reason. Afterward, they become highly attached to the memories of what happened. There are many symptoms—invasive thoughts, anxiety and depression among them. What you have is a form of this.

“Here, let’s do some EMDR around that memory of Robby’s beating.” She closed the blinds and pulled her chair up close.

 

Six months later, Matt is again in Dr. Werner’s soft armchair. It’s a sunny day, and the sound of children at recess comes in the windows.

 “So, how do you feel about Robby now? Do you think of him as a war hero?”

I respect Robby as much as anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve known some successful people. Compared with him, my childhood was a walk in the park. I’ve had years of therapy; Robby had what, six months as an inpatient? His abuse was exponentially worse than mine. There’s no way to measure the hump on Robby’s back. Anyone who can get through life carrying that kind of a load without ending up in prison is a hero to me.

I know there are people who will dismiss Robby as a pot-smoking vagrant who lived in a camouflaged tent in some trees in the heart of a cemetery and was on a first-name basis with every street-bound war veteran in Barre—and a few police officers. Some will think of him as a bum who abandoned his family and may even have abused his children. Some people doubt he was even in Viet Nam. As for me, I confirmed with his sisters what Robby had said about his mistreatment at the hands of his mother, father and stepfather. Who knows if he was a war hero. Truth is a gem of many facets. You take your pick, and you live with the consequences.

What do I think? I think Robby Horton never had a shot at a normal life because of what happened to him as a kid, but society holds us equally accountable as adults. Any shrink worth the paper in her diploma will tell you there are limits to what the human mind can endure or overcome.

Dr. Werner meets his gaze and nods in agreement. “There was a great injustice. What does that mean for you? What have you learned?”

I’ve learned that life is a jungle, where monsters like Lovejoy and Gore will exploit vulnerable children as long as nobody’s watching out for them. Robby’s parents were never held accountable, but what really gets me is that even today in some states child welfare workers have legal immunity when it comes to children, but they can be prosecuted for animal cruelty. In 1958, Lovejoy was forced to resign from the Fort Worth children’s home and went straight from there to Boysville, a private facility near San Antonio. He was in charge there until he retired in ‘72. Like the pedophile Catholic priests, he just got shifted from place to place, abusing kids. Mamma Gore was forced to “retire” in 1960, after getting caught beating the hell out of a little boy.

“How is Robby now?” Werner says. “Are you still in contact?”

Matt looks out the window, his eyes filling with tears. After a moment, he continues.

Robby died last week. Pneumonia  works God-awful fast. He’d stopped answering his phone again, but Reverend David alerted on Facebook. Thanks to the Reverend, all six of Robby’s children got to see him before his heart stopped. He passed with dignity, in a comfortable hospice room arranged by his oldest son. We had a final conversation. Robby’s voice on the phone was a whisper:

He said, “Ya’still writin’, …’bout the Home?”

I said, “Hell yes I am.”­

“Good …boy!” he said.

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Comments
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Atrocities

How I wish your stories were based on the musings of a twisted imagination rather on the reality of what you and other boys had to endure.  I am glad you were there for Robbie.  I am sure your understanding meant a great deal to him..

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The Benefits of Realistic Fiction

Thanks, Sue. I agree. Your comments are deeply appreciated.

It was John Steinbeck who opened my eyes to the potential of realistic fiction and Raymond Carver who spurred me on. Realism in literature  doesn't allow mankind off the hook the way the genres (romance, horror or fantasy/sci-fi,etc.) do. Realism holds us accountable and has a better chance of changing the world, one reader at a time.

Lorenzo Carcaterra, in his memoir, SLEEPERS, caused meaninful change in New York's juvenile justice system. That's what I'm hoping for, meaningful change.