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FACES IN THE FOREST
It was about 10 years since I had been to Jacksonville, Florida and visited the orphanage where I was raised as a small boy. As I drove the freeway heading toward the south side of town where Atlantic and Beach Boulevards meet, I noticed that things had really changed quite a bit since I was there. The freeway now ended within a mile of the orphanage entrance.
I turned right heading down Spring Park Road and soon passed the Spring Park School building where we children were terrorized every single day of our young lives. I wondered if all the kids who beat on us and made fun of us for being orphans even gave us a second thought now that they were adults.
All of a sudden, there it was right in front of me. Those large white gates and the concrete slab-stone post that held the engraved metal sign telling the world that this was the place for all of the children who were not deserving of a mother and a father. A place where innocent kids could be hidden away from the rest of the world, until they could one day be sent back out into society to spread the loneliness and heartbreak that they were taught while living there.
My heart was racing in my chest as I pulled off to the side of the road. I sat there for a moment or two, before exiting my car. Still on the outside of the orphanage fence, I walked down the sidewalk running my hand and fingers along the six-foot-high steel fence, as though I was a boy running a stick along a white picket fence. When I reached the gates, I walked over and placed my now adult hand on the very spot that I remembered touching as a little boy. Looking out into the real world outside the fences, hoping that someone would come along and take me home, to a real house and love me one day.
I looked though the gates and stared down the long winding path leading up to the orphanage building where I had lived. I wondered where the exact places were where I had skinned my knee many a time running from the matron who was beating me with a switch or bolo paddle, before locking me in the hallway closet for a day or two. I noticed that all the azalea bushes were now gone. That the beauty and safety of the places that I had known to hide as a child were no longer available to the children who now lived there.
I turned as I heard children screaming off in the distance. I walked down the sideway, still outside of the orphanage, tracing the path that "Old Topper," the elderly policeman use to take, years and years ago when he walked the neighborhood. As I neared the old nursery building, I noticed that the children now living in the orphanage had a small swimming pool. I just stood there looking at them. I was quite surprised to see smiles on their faces and even more surprised to hear laughter in their voices.
I stood there with my fingers clutched in the six-foot wire fence when all of a sudden it hit me that I was, for the first time in my life looking into the orphanage, rather than out of the orphanage. When the children saw me looking at them, they became very quiet and just stood there staring at me. No one moved or said a word. I wondered to myself if they were waiting for me to taunt them or laugh at them as hundreds of children had done to us when I lived there.
Everything became totally silent to me. The entire world was now blocked out and totally dead. No sounds of passing cars, no birds, no nothing. I could now hear my ears starting to ring from the dead silence. Everything was now moving in slow motion. The stone faces of the children now started to sag, and droop and show signs of the never-ending sadness that I had known as a child living there. The secret sadness that is only shared between orphans when their mind finally clicks back to reality and they once again realize the truth of how things really are.
One of the girls, about 10 or 11 years old started walking toward me. She stopped about 10 feet from the fence and just stood staring at me with a blank face.
"Will you help me run away from here?" she asked.
I looked into that beautiful little face and wondered how anyone could discard such a lovely little human being. She just stood there waiting for my answer, but I could not speak because I did not know what to say to her. I do not think I could have said anything, because all the muscles in my throat were tight and I felt myself about to cry.
"What's your name, mister?" she asked.
I stood there unable to say anything.
By now, all the children had walked up to the fence and were leaning against the steel wire with their fingers sticking through. Still no one said a word. We just stared into each other’s eyes. I looked from lonely face to lonely face, until I reached the end of the long line of children. "There is something bad wrong with him. We had better go," said one of the other girls.
All the children turned around and walked back toward the pool area and sat down.
"Hey, what do you want here?" asked a large man walking toward me.
"I use to live here years ago," I said as I turned to walk back toward my car.
"Then you know better than to talk to these kids," he yelled.
"Yeah, I know better,real well," I replied.
As I walked back down the sidewalk away from all that sadness, I already knew that when the day comes for that little girl to walk outside those big white gates that ‘loneliness’ would still be waiting there for her, just like it was for me. Orphans, like prisoners, always think that happiness and freedom are just right outside the fenced areas.
When the day comes that they walk outside those fences, they still will most likely not find true happiness. They will carry that fence with them everywhere they go. They will not realize for many a year, that the fence that now surrounds them as adults was made invisible by the way they were treated and raised in that orphanage.