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After I was released from the Florida School for Boys at Marianna (reform school), I was locked up in the juvenile hall for months. I refused to ever return to the Children's Home Society. I was not going to return to that orphanage, even if I had to spend the rest of my life locked in a small cage. I flatly refused to even walk out the front door of the juvenile hall to help them clean up the streets, for fear they would take me back to that awful orphanage.
It was a Wednesday morning when a man named Burt, who worked for the court, came into my caged cell and asked if I wanted to go somewhere special for Thanksgiving dinner. I told him that I did not want to go outside the juvenile shelter. I liked Burt, because he was a nice man. Burt's brother had made a song, which they played on the radio called ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ Burt kept on and on about that dinner and how a kid should not be locked up on Thanksgiving, so I finally told him that I would go.
Later that afternoon, an older woman came to the shelter. She talked with me for about 10 minutes. She told me that she wanted to take me to her house for Thanksgiving. She also said that no child should be locked up in a cage. Before we left, I made her promise that she would bring me back the very next day. She and I walked out of the juvenile hall together and drove to her home. As we walked into the house, I was surprised at what I saw. It was really small. Not like the big dormitory house that I lived in at the orphanage. You could sleep 30 or 40 people in our house at the orphanage.
I was really surprised when I went to their bathroom. I saw right away that they were not rich at all. They only had one toilet and one sink in their bathroom! They were really poor and they did not even know it. Of course, I had never been in a regular house before and did not know that regular people only had one toilet and sink in their bathrooms. That is one of the hazards of being raised in an orphanage. You never get to see what life is really like in the ‘real world.’ Then one day, the orphanage shoves you out and everyone treats you like you are an idiot. They think that you are stupid, because you don’t know anything about life outside of the orphanage.
Wednesday afternoon and evening were very difficult on me. I wanted so badly just to get out of there and be back in my cage. There must have been 50 people going in and out of that house. They were each doing this and that, getting ready for that big Thanksgiving dinner the next day. I was really scared, too. I didn't like people very much, especially grown people. They can do some really bad things to you when you’re a kid. I hardly moved an inch, because I was so scared. I never moved out of the chair, nor did I move in any direction, until almost all those people were gone later that afternoon.
Mrs. Usher, the lady who brought me to her house, came into the living room and asked if I wanted to have a Coke in the small bottle. I told her "thank you," but that I did not care for anything. I wanted that Coke really bad, but was just too scared to take it. I thought about that Coke all day and how good it would have tasted. Late that night when everyone was asleep, I snuck into the kitchen really slow and quiet like, and took a cold Coca Cola out of the refrigerator. I drank it real fast, in about five seconds and hid the bottle cap behind the refrigerator. After that, I pressed the cold bottle against my stomach, so it would be warm like the other ones. Then I put it in the carton, so no one would ever know I drank it. Even after 50 years, no one ever found out that I drank that coke.
The next day was almost as unbearable for me as the first, because of the strange people coming for the big dinner. I would have rather died than gone through such a horrible experience as that dinner. All those big, strange people were laughing, joking and making all kinds of noise. I have never been so embarrassed and so scared in all my life, and that is the God’s honest truth. Not scared like being scared of the dark - scared in a different kind of way. I can’t explain it, not even to myself. I hardly ate anything that day, even though I had never seen so much food in all my life. I sure was glad when it was finally over.
Later that night after everyone else had gone to bed, Mrs. Usher took me out onto her front porch. We talked for hours and hours. She was a real nice lady. I think I was about 12 years old at that time. I had never once sat and talked with anyone before that in my whole life. It was my first ‘nice and slow time’ and I really liked it.
I will never forget her kindness and her warm smile. But what I could not understand was why she did all of this for me? Why would anyone be kind to me? So I always kept one eye on her all the time.
Mrs. Usher got up from her chair and went into the kitchen. When she returned, she brought a small bottle of Coke for each of us. She smiled and handed one to me. I will never forget that either. That was the best Coke I ever drank in my whole entire life.
The next morning, we ate some breakfast together. Then she told me to go into the bedroom and get my things together, so she could take me back to the juvenile hall like she promised. When I was in the bedroom getting my things together, I heard her in the hallway talking on the telephone to the authorities. She asked them why I was being sent back to the reform school. She wanted to know what I did that was so bad that I had to be sent back there. They told her that I did nothing wrong, but they had nowhere else to put me. I heard her get very mad at them and tell them she was not going to bring me back to the juvenile hall to be locked up again like an animal.
GOD KNOWS THAT I LOVED THAT WOMAN FOR SAYING THAT!
That was the most wonderful thing that anyone ever did for me as a child. That, of all the things in my life, is the one thing that made me want to become somebody someday. I thank you so very much, you loving, kind and wonderful woman. That one little sentence that came out of her mouth was the small and only light that guided my life for the next 45 years.
I stayed there for several weeks, then left to go out on my own at the age of 13. I continued to see the Usher family on and off for the next 20 or 30 years, until their deaths. I know they would have adopted me. But when it was discussed, I told Mrs. Usher that it was too late for me. She placed her hands over her face and cried.
I told her I had to ‘make it on my own now,’ 'cause I was a man.
I just wish that I could have shown her how much I really loved her before she died. But I didn’t know how to show love. I didn't even know what love meant or what it felt like. Mom, now that you are in heaven, I hope you know how much I love and respect you. I hope that you know how much you added to the life of one lonely, little boy that nobody else in the world wanted.
I LOVE YOU, MOM