Dying with Junior Bass
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It was June or July of 1954 or 1955 when some organization came to the orphanage to take us to the beach. It was going to be my first visit to the beach, so I was excited, as were the rest of the orphan children.

Besides, we were going to get to see what it was like outside the fences of the home. It was something the other kids at school talked about all the time and something we had never seen. We were going to a wonderful, wonderful place with thousands of people running, playing and laughing. This was going to be the most wonderful day of my life.

Robert Gillman, Junior Bass and I had taken an old army blanket and were pulling each other up and down the long hallway that we had just waxed. We would stop at the corner where the hallway turned and hold hands all in a line. Then Robert would touch the light-switch-cover screw. When he this, it would send an electrical charge through our bodies. However, it would only shock the last person in line. The last person was whoever happened around the corner at the time. Of course, all hell would break loose if the house parents found out what we were doing, but we did not care, ‘cause we were going to the beach.’

We arrived at about nine o'clock in the morning and were herded down to the water's edge, given a short talk on water safety, and each child assigned a ‘buddy partner.’ As usual, the boys paired with the boys and the girls with the girls. However, this presented a problem. Junior Bass and one of the girls did not have a partner of the same sex, so Mrs. Winters decided to allow them to swim alone.

Several hours later, I noticed a commotion at one end of a large cement wall. I ran back up the beach and asked someone what had happened. I was told that some kid had drowned. I ran up and down the beach looking for all the kids from the orphanage, because I thought it might be Robert or Emmett Gillman who had drowned. They had found an old car tire tube and were seen going out into deep water. By now, there were hundreds of people everywhere and I could not get any closer to the wall, because of the people around the lifeguards.

The people were all pushing and shoving each another, I guess trying to see who had drowned or if it was their own kid. People were going crazy, pushing, shoving and cursing at one another.

As I looked around, I saw one of the women from the orphanage gathering all the children into a large group. I walked over and asked one of the boys if he knew who had drowned. He told me that Junior had become trapped in a riptide and was pulled out into deep water. I immediately ran back over to the large group of people who surrounded Junior. Pushing my way through all the people, I saw him lying on the ground.

There was a man sitting on Junior's back, pushing and pulling on his arms. Juniors’ arms were totally limp, somewhat floppy like. I knew that he was dead. I just stood there looking at his blue face. In a daze, I ran from the large group and walked around the beach in a circle. I could not forget what I had seen, especially his open eyes, the floppy arms and all the sand in his mouth.

I cannot even remember going back to the orphanage. The next thing I recall was sitting outside the dining room of the orphanage and everyone eating watermelon. I guess that would make it a Sunday, because we always got one sandwich and a slice of watermelon for Sunday supper. I could not eat for thinking about what had happened to Junior. Everyone was talking about the drowning and I remember telling Tommy Jernigan that this would not have happened, if Mrs. Winters had allowed Junior to have a girl as a swim partner. If she had, Junior would be eating watermelon with the rest of us.

Tommy walked over to the other kids and told them what I said. Then one of the girls went over to Mother Winters and told her as well. Mrs. Winters called me over and told me to get back on “the bench” and “to keep my big mouth shut.” When I returned to the bench and sat down, one of the girls started making a joke about what had happened to Junior. She ate some of her watermelon and then let part of it fall from her mouth onto the ground. Then the girls asked the boys if we knew what it was. I told them that it was watermelon and watermelon juice. They yelled back at us saying it was "Junior's blood and guts.”

I immediately jumped up and started throwing watermelon rinds at the girls. They all started running and laughing, and Mrs. Winters was laughing too. She motioned for me to come over to her. But when I arrived, she slapped me on the back of the head very hard, told me to go out to the basketball court, place my face against the goal post and stand there until everyone had finished eating.

I will never forget how little a life meant to those girls and to Mrs. Winters. I stood there against the goal post thinking just how insignificant an orphan‘s life was to the whole world.

“What if I had drowned? Would anyone be sad for me? Would I be just another little boy who was now gone forever and no one would really care? Is there anyone in this world who cares if orphans live or die?” I wondered. “Maybe there are just too many little orphan bodies for anyone to care about any single little boy or girl?”

Though I was only 9 years old, I learned a lot about life that day - and not just because Junior Bass died. He was my orphan brother and I will never forget him.

No! It did not turn out to be a wonderful day after all.

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