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Dick Hinson Dozier School Memories

dick-hinson1

From January 29, 2009 A Rebuttal To Headlines In A Recent Sunday Edition of the Floridan Newspaper: 'Time to Clear the Air!'

Two former offenders whwere in the custody of the Dozier School for Boys during the mid 1950s have come forward with an amazing and sensational story. They allege they suffered cruel physical abuse from a group of guards while they were housed at Dozier.

This type of punishment was, they claim, standard operating procedure at the institution. However, that charge is equivalent to a slap on the wrist compared to the absurd accusation which follows. Are you prepared for a shock?  'The sadistic torture of the boys progressed to concealed murders on a fairly large scale.'

They didn't offer an estimate on the body count, but shared speculation that unmarked graves were abundant. Some victims apparently received hasty and shallow disposals as evidenced by bare bones surfacing in farmland adjacent to the school. We can assume that there were no funeral services for the victims.

The pair of men bringing these allegations now appear to be in their sixties and are having problems finding local citizens old enough to verify their tales of infamous standards of that era. They invite the 'good people of Marianna' to come forward and join the '300-400' former residents already recruited to complain. It is suggested that it is O.K. to remain anonymous if you so desire.

The duo of past offenders declares that their experience at the school was traumatic. A period of approximately fifty years was required for them to be able to come forward to talk about it. Now, speaking easily and freely, they also divulge that book and movie deals may be pending. This is no surprise. Lurid and sensational stories of this nature often find a ready market in certain classes of today’s media- including pulp magazines. They closed the press interview by urging any elderly residents (familiar with the earlier years of the “reform school”) to come forward with their comments on the validity of their claims.

As a native of this small town and now in my 80s, I submit that I meet their criteria and do not elect to with hold my identity. In my opinion, the best single word to describe their story is, “Hogwash.” Stay with me and I think you will agree.

The 'Florida School for Boys' now, 'Dozier' was formerly dedicated in Marianna on January 1, 1900. For over seventy years there was no perimeter fence around the expansive acreage. The interior streets, which served the buildings and housing, remained open to the public on a 24 hour basis. There were no check points or traffic controls. The superintendent and key staff members lived on the school premises with their families. Each year, Christmas displays erected by the boys drew thousands of people from the Tri-State area.

In the late 1940s, private picnic pavilions were constructed for the boys to use when they were visited by their families and/or friends. These occasions were totally unsupervised, permitting personal conversation. You can be certain that questions focused on the boys’ environment, welfare and conditions at the correctional facility. You can also be certain that the boy's were aware of every rumor- fact or fiction- and of any degrading and severe abuse to any student. The mere hint of a murder on the premises would have resulted in family outrage. Protests would have been made from the Governor to the House of Congress. The local police and sheriff would have been confronted.  It just did not happen.

If a boy had no immediate family members, there were two more back-up levels for detection of wrong doing. The second safeguard was the superintendant and his staff. I knew there all who served long terms during the 1930s to the early 1980s. They were capable managers who were good at their jobs. Their network of gathering information from certain rank and file employees was such that no activities escaped their attention and control on a 24 hour basis.

If you can imagine the failure of the first two systems to detect the deadly tortures, there remains a third: the medical personnel who were on staff there. I have been acquainted with the doctors who served as medical directors since the 1930s, who also maintained private practices in town. The physician who served one of the longest terms until recent years was a close personal friend. I can assure you that his perception and skill was impressive. Any injury of an abusive nature would have immediately been recognized, reported and investigated. This man died several years ago.

Subject to these three safeguards, it is almost ludicrous to imagine the reality of a long term practice of abuse and secret burials by the night shift school guards.

When young, we “town boys” made frequent visits to the school, and considered it to be an interesting place. Athletic teams, marching units and a drum and bugle band were in action. We also couldn’t help noticing that the boys, about our ages, appeared to be well fed, healthy and well clothed. This was not the case with our own classmates, some of whom did not go barefoot by choice during those years of the Depression.

When I returned to Jackson County from World War II, The Dozier School was considered to be an extension of our city, churches and civic clubs. It does not deserve to be portrayed as a concentration camp sixty years later.
-Dick Hinson

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Reminiscing The Last Donkey Baseball Game in Marianna

dick-hinson1What could be more fun and relaxing than attending an evening game of Donkey Baseball in the dismal Fall of 1936? The local newspaper offered free tickets to the top twenty readers who could submit the longest list of words using the fourteen letters in “Donkey Baseball”. The tickets were 50 cents, and dictionaries came off the shelf.

As it turned out, it would be like winning a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. However, bad surprises were almost guaranteed during the dark years of the Depression.

For the game, the high school football field had been converted to a baseball diamond. The field was located near the intersection of Guyton and Liddon Streets, adjacent to a present softball practice field. The Federal Works Progress Administration “(W.P.A.)” had built bleachers along the western side of the football field. This organization, created to provide depression-era jobs, was filled by willing workers who had little or no construction skills. The bleachers had a framework of iron girders with heavy pine planks bolted in seating rows. With a height of thirty feet, the spectator capacity was several hundred. Atop tall poles, electric lights had recently been installed. The “WPA” laborers had been busy.

As the name implies, normal baseball rules apply in “Donkey Baseball” with one comical exception: After a hit, all players must ride donkeys. The stubborn little animals have a mind of their own, and might run in any direction or refuse to move at all. On balance, it is a scenario of mass confusion and frustrated players. The crowd provides shouted advice with much laughter. The opposing teams were comprised of Rotary and Kiwanis Club members, all well known locally. The two organizations were sponsors of the game.

With the enthusiasm of a ten year old, I arrived early, clutching a winning ticket. Climbing to the top row, I didn’t intend to miss any of the action. As the bleachers filled, a group of about 10 or 12 senior boys stayed close together as they made their way up near my perch. Settling in shoulder to shoulder, they appeared to have their own agenda. Halfway through the game, they made their move. Locking arms, they began to throw their weight from side to side, swaying in unison. Weeks earlier, they had discovered that they could cause the empty structure to rock. Now, with the weight of the crowd, the sway would provide some “Added fun and excitement”. At first, there was no motion, but the big teenagers kept at their team effort.

As time passed, the first slight movement to the south could be detected, followed by a somewhat longer sway toward the north. As the momentum increased, the spectators suddenly became silent. There was no laughter. The teenage “rock team” sat motionless and frightened, but it was too late. “The die had been cast,” and the bleachers seemed to have acquired a life of their own. In the long final sway, the iron framework began to snap with the sounds of firing shotguns. The groaning structure balanced upright for an optimistic and short-lived few seconds. It then proceeded to crash toward Kelson Avenue like a giant house of playing cards! Some three hundred occupants were thrown about and under the debris.

Along the rear of the bleachers was a field of tall corn. Several top row occupants chose to take the 30 foot leap. One hapless customer misjudged his jump and landed on a group of terrified “substitute” donkeys which had been tied behind the bleachers. I stood balanced on a long loose plank which I planned to ride like a surfboard to a smooth landing somewhere below. That was a poor decision and I still carry the scar to remind me.

In the following confusion, the word was passed to carry the injured to Dr. Albert Baltzell’s small hospital on the corner of Russ and Lafayette streets. There, he would examine and dispatch the walking casualties to one of the other four physicians who opened their offices. They all worked through the night. There was a mix of lacerations, fractures and abrasions in addition to one or two permanent injuries. It was termed a miracle that there were no fatalities.

Bear in mind that medical expense insurance and benefits were unknown. All such expense was “out of pocket”, and in 1936 those pockets were almost empty. Now imagine how all this would play out in 2007. We could have a new contest to see who could compile the longest list of defendants and co-defendants. . . A personal injury attorney’s dream!!! For better or worse, the public reaction was almost unanimous, and a poignant reflection of the typical mindset of the times. It went like this: “It was simply a case of a teenage prank getting out of control. The accident was neither intended nor foreseen, and should therefore be forgiven.” When dust cleared and all was said and done, not a single complaint ever came from an occupant of the bleachers. The average person was accustomed to “hard luck” and unexpected setbacks.
Perhaps, some say, our residents were too accustomed to not complaining. There’s certainly nothing wrong with requiring standards for public safety. Nobody recalls where the bleacher builders went for their next job. They didn’t request a recommendation. . .

Well, that’s the way the evening went at “the last Donkey Baseball Game” a long time ago. . . I wonder why we never had another one?

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Riminiscing - Read Different Books

January 3, 2007 Times Edition

Many of us who grew up in the South have lived in the same area for several generations. We almost assume that others share our opinions and values, and would enjoy and benefit from duplicating our lifestyles. These delusions were shattered during World War II. For the first time, many of us with rural backgrounds were forced to mingle with people from totally different environments and lifestyles who "read different books".

Decades ago, I lived for a while on an island in the Pacific. Our accommodations, courtesy of the Navy, consisted of a canvas tent with five cots. A short distance away was a rocky beach with a path cutting through the brush. This trail went by a native hut. One day I noticed a tall steel container behind the dwelling. It appeared to have been salvaged from a sunken ship. Since rainwater collection cauldrons were common, I didn't pay much attention to it until one afternoon I saw a splash erupt from the surface. Inside was a monster sea turtle, staring at me as he munched on table scraps floating about in the water . . . the captive was obviously to be featured at some future feast occasion. Meanwhile, the lack of refrigeration was not a problem. Hopefully, the owner remembered to invite all of his helpers in hauling the giant from the beach. I'll bet that finished product was of gourmet quality. I was disappointed that we had to move on before the banquet.

Appearing to be healthy and happy, with the bounty of the sea awaiting their ancient skills, the question is posed: "Are these a deprived people? Should their culture be destroyed and replaced by our own 'standards'"? Since they have performed rather well for a few thousand years, the answer should be carefully considered. Unfortunately, few isolated native groups remain.

Back on the local scene, we have our own claims regarding the sea: "The most beautiful beaches in the world!" I would agree that Gulf Coast would rank among this class. However, the same fine sand circulates under and through the water, diminishing water clarity. In other words, you can't have it all! Our Gulf waters, which we describe as "clear" with five fathoms of visibility, would not impress a swimmer in the South Pacific. He looks down through his face mask at a coral reef more than 200 feet beneath the surface. We should stake our claim on the beach and change the subject before getting into the water!

The Pacific Reef is not dormant. Sea life of various shapes, sizes, and colors pulses about the coral formations. As you glide far above this activity, it is about as close to the sensation of free flight as an earthbound human can ever experience.

You are jolted back to reality when a mature shark makes his inspection pass along the reef. His size alone commands your attention. He is aware of your presence, but not interested. Like most predators, he is most active at night. You are at the bottom of his dining preference.

The most graceful of all the sea creatures are the Rays. Their body extensions form a perfect set of "wings", which they use as expertly as an underwater hawk. The species range from hand-size to the Manta Ray, which has a wingspan similar to the length of a pickup truck. None are aggressive toward a clumsy alien human; they are simply curious. Except in self-defense, even the sting rays are harmless. However, it must be recognized that this species of the rays interprets being touched in any way as an "attack". Their barb is instantly used. They are such masters of camouflage in sandy areas of the bottom that it is often difficult to spot them until they move.

Back in Jackson County, those experiences in a "strange" environment are beginning to dim. Still, you can't avoid thinking about the wide range of individuals whom you knew and worked with. They considered a landlocked farming area to be a strange and alien world. All good people "reading totally different books". Perhaps the time has come to learn to live and let live on this basis . . .

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