Friends are everything in the orphanage
People seem interested when I write about my childhood experiences in St. Joseph’s Orphanage. I thought I’d write about something that’s very different from normal childhood experiences. By “normal,” I mean kids with families and homes that they go to each night.
I’d like to write about friends and friendship. To normal kids, a friend is someone you go to school with or play games with. Kids call their friends on the phone and they do fun things. In general, they spend quality time with friends, whenever they can, and they go home in the evening to their families.
To someone like me who didn’t live the normal life with a family and a home, the word “friend” takes on a whole different meaning. With no family members around, you’re pretty much alone in a crowded room, a friend is as important as a brother or a sister.
A friend is no longer someone that you just play with and then go home. To someone who lives in an orphanage, a friend is all-important. A friend is all that you have and all that you will ever have as long as you live in that place that I find indescribable.
Out of about 400 boys, I had two friends. I call them friends because I find it difficult to find the correct words for them. They were much, much more than friends. I met “Fat Phil” on the first morning I awoke at the orphanage, and I met Gerald Elmore a little later.
I awoke with a start and found that I had wet the bed. There was blood on my pillowcase. A kid had poked me in the nose the night before. I slipped out of bed and tried to cover up the fact that it was wet.
As I tried to make the bed, a voice from behind me said, “Don’t make it because the bed checker has to check your bed first.” That was how I met Fat Phil and sure enough, there was someone walking through the dorm of 52 beds pulling back the covers and checking for bedwetters.
I had to strip my bed, get into line for new bedding and then get into the swat line where I got three hard swats by Sister Conchadda. I had to smile when I came out of the beating room, and there stood Fat Phil to get his swats. After that, we were inseparable.
Fat Phil showed me the ropes and how to live in an orphanage without being noticed by anyone. Fat Phil was smart and he tried to show me how to get even with the bullies without getting caught, which usually meant getting beat up.
Fat Phil would put a turd under the pillow of a bully and then we would both bury our heads in our beds trying to hide our uncontrollable laughing. I have never in my life seen anything so funny as that bully trying to find out who was stinking so badly, accusing everyone around him.
Fat Phil had a deck of cards that he carried in his pocket that was so old that you could barely read the numbers on them. He and I played with those cards for years. As we played cards one day, Fat Phil told me that he was in the orphanage because his father had done nasty things to him. The State of Arkansas had brought him to St. Joseph’s.
Gerald Elmore was a sickly kid with rotten teeth that hurt all the time so he cried a lot. He was the center of ridicule and abuse from the bullies. One day he was hit so hard by a sucker punch that it knocked out his front teeth. It was the same day that Fat Phil told me that he was leaving to go home with his father that was cured of his sickness.
That night, I crept to the bully’s bed and hit him so hard that it broke his teeth off at the gums. He screamed and ran down the hall bleeding like a stuffed pig. After a beating that set a new record for the number of swats in one beating, I was locked in a closet. I was in the closet when Fat Phil, my friend of I don’t know how many years, was picked up by his father. I never saw him again, but he left his old deck of cards with Gerald Elmore to give to me.
That evening, I worked in the kitchen. I got a knife and cut my wrist for the first time. After dressing my wounds, the nuns kept me in the medical unit overnight. That was the first time I ran away by sneaking out the door to see so many stars that I had forgotten were there.
It wasn’t four hours later when the police caught me eating doughnuts from the garbage behind a bakery.
I wouldn’t tell them where I lived, so they made me empty my pockets on a desk. There was an old deck of cards and two crumpled up doughnuts. They withheld water until I told them where I lived. On the drive back to the orphanage I remembered that I had left Fat Phil’s cards on the desk at the police station. I begged them to go back and get them to no avail.
After that night, besides Gerald Elmore, I never made another friend. I did, however, fall in love with an abusive nun. She broke my heart.
Now I’m all grown up and I call just a few people “friend.” They are still all-important to me. My wife along with others do not understand what a friend is to me. She sometimes says that my friends are more important to me than she is. It isn’t true, but they are my friends. Their names are Steve, Terry and Mike.