Life is not always full of unicorns and rainbows, there are also the things not spoken of, that are part of what has to be.
When I was young boy I made friends with elderly neighbors of my grandparents, aunts & uncles, and cousins. I say it that way because they all lived on the same street in Hollywood, Florida.
The couple was older than my grandparents (who were born in 1900 & 1915) and had a grown son who was about thirty-five. The son, David, was a giant of a man (it seemed so to a small boy) with the mind of a child. I never knew the reason for his mental deficiency as such things were not talked about in those days.
David and I got along very well, in fact much better than he did with my younger cousins who were his close neighbors (I lived a mile away) and teased him sometimes. They didn’t see his problems as being beyond his control. Nor did they comprehend the danger of angering a man who was 6’3” and over 200 lbs and didn’t have the capacity to control himself. They were just children too.
I would guess that David had a mental age of between four or six, but also had to wear a “diaper” (such things were very unusual in the early 1960s) under his pants because he sometimes had accidents. He was incredibly strong and often picked his average size parents up in his arms when he got excited.
All three of the members of this family were born in Germany, David in 1925 and his parents before 1890. The couple had waited until after Henrik (David’s father) had completed University and Graduate School to marry and then until his position was secure with the company he worked for until they had a child (in their middle thirties.)
They left their native country in 1938 as Hitler’s influence began to cause them to fear for the safety of their special needs child. There was also fear of involuntary military conscription (even at his age) due to Mr. Klaus having an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. So, they sold everything they had and sailed for America.
Arriving in New York City with a promise of employment (from a friend of a friend) they ran into strong anti-German sentiment at the firm he was supposed to join, and they were made to feel very unwelcome. Grace (David’s mother) spoke very little English and the other wives shunned her and their son.
A neighbor (also a German immigrant) in the apartment building they were living in told them of a company in Hollywood, Florida that was hiring machinists. Henrik said that it was better to be welcome and employed as a machinist than spit on as an engineer. Within a week the two families took the train to Florida.
Mr. Klaus worked as a machinist and then manager for the same firm for thirty years, retiring right before Christmas in 1968. During World War II they manufactured precision metal parts for military hardware from aircraft to tanks. After the war they switched to mainly heavy equipment parts but also made something for space rockets (like the Saturn V.)
By the time that I met the family, Grace and David had learned to speak English and had almost no perceptible accent remaining. Henrik had spoken English since he was a school boy and came from an educated multi-lingual family. He did have an accent that was interesting, but not confusing. You could easily understand everything that he said.
When they spoke to each other they spoke in German so that David would retain his native language, but switched to English whenever anyone else was present. I told them that I didn’t mind if they spoke German to each other as long as they let me know if I was supposed to know something. They smiled a lot and laughed at what I had said to them. I didn’t really know why.
Grace always spoke to and of Henrik as “Herr Klaus” (or Mr. Klaus if others were present) and waited on him as women did in that time and generation. He always treated her with respect and love and opened doors and held chairs for her, even at their own dining room table.
Henrik always wore a vest and tie from the time he got up, until he went to bed at night. If he left his property he had on a suit coat and hat and carried an umbrella that doubled as a walking stick (cane.) He was a slender man, about 5’ 8” tall, had silvery white hair and what was called a “Van Dyke” beard in those days. There was an air of class and dignity about the man that others could only hope to emulate.
In 1964 (it was after the Kennedy assassination) David had gotten a bit more belligerent when he wanted to do something and his mother had said no. He would protest loudly and throw a temper tantrum like children do; only this child was a big and very strong man.
I went to their house one day to pick kumquats from their tree and found Grace sitting on the back patio crying. Henrik was at work and David was supposed to be taking a nap (yes even at 39 years old) but he had gone out of the front door in defiance of his mother’s orders and was walking up and down the street.
The old woman was very distraught and even though I was only a boy, she confided that she was worried about not being able to take care of her son for much longer. I wasn’t sure just what “putting him in an institution” meant, but it didn’t sound good to me. She pulled herself together and smiled and told me that the kumquats were ripe and tasty and that I could pick as many as I wanted. I think she really just wanted to change the subject.
During a birthday celebration for me in the end of June, my youngest cousin ran around to the back of my uncle’s house where we were all gathered in lawn chairs yelling that David had thrown his mother down the steps. The entire family, except for my great grandmother who walked with crutches, jumped up and ran to help.
David was beside himself with frustration at what had happened. Everyone seemed to be afraid of him because he was yelling and waving his arms but I knew that he was just upset and unsure of what to do. I had seen him like that before. My father told me to stay away from him, but I took his hand anyway and he calmed down and then started to cry. It was a bizarre sight.
Grace was conscious and told us from her still prone position on the ground that David had “bumped” her and she fell down the steps. We were pretty sure that her leg was broken and I was sent inside to get the telephone number for Mr. Klaus at work.
I remember asking if they wanted me to just call him while I was inside and got slapped on the back of my head for asking. My dad was already angry at me for disobeying the order to stay away from David and said, “Just do what you are told for once!”
David and I went inside to get the number and I wrote it down on a piece of paper while sitting at the telephone desk between the dining room and kitchen. On the desk was a piece of paper from the South Florida State Mental Hospital. I wasn’t sure but I thought that might be an “institution.” We know it was now of course, but then you didn’t speak of such places, especially around children.
David was calm again by then so I asked him what had happened. The big man said in a little voice that “Mama said that I couldn’t go outside, but I wanted to go outside.” “So what did you do?” I asked him quietly, looking over my shoulder at the front door to make sure that no one else was in the house.
The huge man made a shoving gesture with both arms while saying “Yes Mama!” and then hung his head saying, “Mama fell down and cried.” I made the decision in my newly eleven year old mind right then that I was not going to volunteer that information to those outside. I was sure that they would tie David up and drag him off immediately to that “institution.”
Henrik arrived home in a few minutes and away they went to Hollywood Memorial Hospital. David rode along and actually carried his mother into the Emergency Room and then back to the car once all of the medical care was completed. Grace now had a new cast and some pain medication, along with a broken heart.
Women from their church were already bringing food over by the time they got home. Once Henrik got Grace situated in her bed, with David assigned to sit by her bed in case she needed him to get her something, he came looking for me.
Henrik took me aside and asked me what David had done really, because he knew that I had been with him the whole time since the accident and now the “boy” wouldn’t talk. I had told David not say anything about what he had done, that was true.
As we walked back to their house I explained to the very kind old man what his son had done. He broke down and cried for just a few minutes, which rattled me to the bones. I had no idea what this meant for their lives but I cried too, because Henrik was so sad.
A few days later my grandmother sat with Grace while Henrik and David took a ride to visit “the nice place.” That nice place was the South Florida State Mental Hospital and Henrik was checking it out in person. He took David with him to be sure that he didn’t hurt anyone while he was gone.
My grandmother said that when they came home again David told her that the nice place smelled like “the medicine hanging on the back of the bathroom door.” Many of you may be familiar with that rubber bag and hose arrangement.
His was just a statement of fact and not a social comment, but the story was told forever more between the women of that neighborhood and spread by those who overheard their whispers. The hospital smelled like either an enema or a douche, depending upon who told the story. It was known as the “_____ (fill in your choice) bag hotel” from then on.
When I went there in 1969 (See “Getting Inside the Bin”) and experienced the place for myself I decided that I would cast my vote for “enema.” It certainly was no “Summer’s Eve!”
On the Saturday after that visit, David hit his father in the face with a dinner plate during a tantrum at the table and knocked him out. He had broken his cheekbone and Henrik’s left eye was swollen closed and turned purple. That sealed his fate and arrangements were made.
After church on Sunday, a panel truck (like a van) from the hospital came and they led a heavily sedated, but still mobile David out to the truck and strapped him into the seat. I have never seen a more defeated looking couple than those two wonderful old people on that day.
They waited the requested week before they went to visit their son and when they arrived David went wild, throwing an orderly across a table and against a wall. A doctor had to give Grace a sedative and they helped Henrik get her back into the car.
Henrik tried to visit David several times after that, but Grace never went back. I don’t believe that she ever smiled again after that day. The doctors had to increase the dosage of medication that David was on just to control him. He had badly hurt the orderly on the first visit and had hurt another patient since that visit. At the doctor’s request Henrik quit going to the hospital.
They had no choice in what had to be done, David would have seriously hurt, or even killed one of them (or someone else) if he had continued to live at home. Henrik continued to dress, act, and work exactly as he had always done, but the smile was gone from him too.
Grace’s broken leg healed but still bothered her a lot, causing her to need to use a cane to walk for the rest of her days. She was soon showing some form of dementia (probably Alzheimer’s) and didn’t remember what happened to David. I suppose if it were ever a good thing to have dementia, this would have been it.
Henrik retired and spent his time taking care of Grace and puttering around in his super organized and spotless shop. The last time I saw him he sharpened a German World War I bayonet with a saw back (he did the saw part too) for me. I still have that bayonet.
Their personal dilemma taught me that even when you do the right thing, it can still feel wrong.
Grace lived to be 89 and five years later Henrik went at age 94, both passing in their sleep at home in their own beds.
David died in the hospital from a brain aneurysm fifteen years after being admitted. I did not try to see him when I went there on a psychology class trip. I was afraid of what would happen if he recognized me. I did not want to cause him more suffering and pain.