Orphan Survival Stories Index |
I had been living at the Children's Home Society Orphanage in Jacksonville, Florida for more than three years. I had been transferred there from another orphanage when I was 6 years old.
I was not exactly sure what all was happening to me. All these grown-up people in suits and fancy dresses kept moving me from place to place. They just take you by the arm and say, "Let's go" and off you go to another strange place.
I was too afraid to say anything, 'cause I didn't know anybody. All I knew for sure was that I was sad all the time and there was nothing for us kids to do. Nothing except maybe swing on the swing set or play on the monkey bars all day. But after three years of doing that every day, it gets kinda old like.
"Hey come here and look," said one of the boys in the orphanage with me.
I ran as fast as I could over to the six-foot high, chain-link fence to see what was happening.
"They are tearing down that old building where they keep the balls and stuff," the boy yelled with excitement.
I stood with my little fingers through the holes in the wire fence watching as two men tore it down. It was nothing more than a small wooden shed where all the county equipment was stored. A baseball diamond, a basketball court and the large prison-style fence were the only three things that separated the orphanage from Spring Park Elementary School.
"I wonder what their gonna do with all that wood and stuff," I said to the boy.
"Come on. Lets go get the rest of the boys," he said as he took off running back toward our large, white dormitory.
Within five minutes, all 25 of us boys were lined up along the fence staring at the workers.
"We sure could build a good army fort with all that wood," I told Robert.
"WHAT YOU GONNA DO WITH ALL THAT OLD WOOD?" yelled Robert at the two workers.
One of the men stopped working, looked up and then began walking toward us.
"What you say there?" asked the man.
"What ya gonna do with all that good wood?" Robert asked again.
"That wood ain't no good. That's why we’re tearing it down," the man said.
"Can we have the wood?" I asked.
"I suppose," said the man. "Save me from hauling it off to the dump."
"Can you hand it over to us? I asked.
"Can't do that. You'll have to get it yourself. I'll be back tomorrow to haul it off, if it's not gone."
All of us boys just stood trying to figure out a way to get the lumber over the large steel fence. We were forbidden to climb on or over the fence. If caught, we would be locked in the downstairs closet for a whole day and night. Not a one of us was willing to take that chance.
Late that evening, after we had eaten our supper, about 10 of us met in one of the upstairs bathrooms to discuss what we should do. It was decided that Robert, Wayne, Bill, Eugene and myself would go to the park after the matron went to bed and retrieve the lumber.
About 9:30 p.m., we boys in our pajamas met at the back door of our dormitory. Carefully, we opened the door and out we went. We ran as fast as we could toward the back fence of the orphanage. Within 30 minutes, we had all the wood moved and neatly stacked behind the large clumps of bamboo, which lined the orphanage fence. For several days, we did not go near the lumber just in case someone might have seen us.
On Friday after school, we met out by the swing set to discuss what we wanted to do with the wood.
"We ain't got no nails or a hammer. How we gonna build a fort?" asked one of the boys.
We boys just stood in a circle looking at one another. We did not know what we should do. Not one of us had the slightest idea where such things, like hammers and nails came from.
"They must come from the store," said one of the boys.
"I ain't never see no hammers at the store," said another.
It was decided that Wayne and I would sneak out of the gate early the next morning, that we would run down to the local neighborhood store about two blocks from the school and see if they sold hammers.
The next morning, Wayne and I snuck out of the dormitory and out the front gate we went. We had with us a pocket full of nickels, which we boys had been given to buy milk at school that day. Wayne and I ran as fast as we could down to the little country store.
"You got any big hammers for sale?" I yelled at the man as the two of us entered the little store.
"What you need a hammer for?" asked the man behind the counter.
"We’re gonna build ourselves a big army fort out a wood," we explained.
"Sorry boys, but I don't carry any hammers. In fact, I don't carry any tools at all."
"But we need a hammer and some big, long nails real bad," I replied.
"Just a minute," he said as he walked toward the back room of his store.
Less than a minute later, out walked the old gentleman with a hammer and a brown paper bag in his hand.
"Here's an old bag of nails that you can have. The hammer, I have to have back," he said.
Our hearts jumped for joy as we reached out to take the hammer and nails.
"Thank you. Thank you very much for being so nice about the hammer and nails," Wayne said.
The old gentleman just smiled. He reached over into a small cardboard box and handed each of us a piece of penny candy.
"Your very welcome," said the man as we headed out the screen door of his store.
For four days, we worked building our army fort. When all was done, we cleaned up our mess, and Wayne and I decided to sneak out of the orphanage gate to take the borrowed hammer back to the man at the store. When we arrived, we saw that the small wooden store had burnt to the ground. The old man was in the middle of the rubble picking up what few items were still salvageable.
"We brought back your hammer. We didn't have no nails left," Wayne said.
"You boys keep the hammer. I won't be needing it," said the old gentleman.
"I'm sorry about your store," I said.
"It's okay. I was about ready to retire anyway," said the man. "Here. You boys take these things," he added as he picked up an old burnt saw and many other wet tools.
"WOW! This one drills holes in things," I yelled.
That's an auger," said the old man.
After we left the store, we headed back to the orphanage. We held a meeting in our new fort. We showed everyone in our little group all the tools that the old gentleman had given to us. Oh, what a happy day it was for us to have tools to work with. How glorious it was to have something to do with our time.
Who would ever think that in less than 30 days, 20 boys could almost totally destroy an orphanage with nothing more than a bunch of hand tools? Fifty-foot pine trees came crashing to the earth, one after the other. We even had bows with arrows so sharp they stuck into the trunk of oak trees. Each was handmade from the tall bamboo growing about the orphanage. Almost every door in our dormitory had one, if not two holes drilled into it, not to mention the holes drilled into the ceiling of the bathroom. Wooden chairs were torn apart so the seats could be used to push each other around on top of the single roller skate we had.
None of us boys were surprised as we once again stood before Judge Marion Gooding at the Duval County Juvenile Court.