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A FINGER AWAY



Day after day, we kids stood at the six-foot high, chain-link fence, which surrounded the orphanage where we lived. Or little fingers grasped the holes in the wire mesh. Our young, innocent, little faces were pressed against the cold rusting steel.

Hour after hour, we just stood watching the kids who lived outside the orphanage gates. Hundreds of children, who had parents, were allowed to come to the small city park every afternoon after school to play baseball, football or tag on the large grassy field.

"How come we never get to go to the park and play like all those other kids?" asked one of the newer boys to the orphanage.

"Cause their lucky. They ain't like us. They got a mom and dad," I replied.

"But I don't see no moms and dads over there with 'em," the 5-year-old boy stated.

"Moms stay home and dads go to work," I explained.

"How come those kids can be free and go out to play and we can't?" the boy questioned again.

I stood wondering what I should say to him. I was a little confused myself and it did not make any sense to me either. Of course, I was only 7 years old and I had only lived at the orphanage for about a year or two. All those kids with parents could go to the park and play any time they wanted. Yet, we kids from the orphanage always had to stay locked up behind the tall metal fence.

The park playground itself came right up to the orphanage fence. I could stick my fingers through the holes at the bottom of the fence and touch the dirt in the park. I stood at the fence almost every afternoon with my nose stuck through one of the holes in the chain-link. I stood almost motionless wishing that we could play games with the free kids. I took in very deep breaths, just trying to breathe in the same air that the kids in the park were breathing.

One day, five of us boys climbed over the fence and we went out onto the playground to play baseball. Oh! What a glorious day it was to be free for just an hour or two - running, and jumping, and hopping and laughing out loud. How wonderful it felt to be equal for a change and not be bored or scared.

But boy, there was a big price to be paid when the matron caught us. Three of us boys were lined up in the dining room and beaten across the back of our legs with a green bamboo cane. One of the boys was beaten so badly that the tops of his socks were bloodied. Then we were locked in the hall closet for 24 hours without food or water. We never again climbed back over the fence, at least not during daylight hours. Not even something as important as ‘freedom’ was worth getting that kind of a beating.

Yes, the days slowly came when many of the kids were released from the orphanage. As the days, weeks, months and years passed, the children just sort of disappeared, one by one. Some were sent off to the reform school, while others were sent to jail. Many of the kids went directly out on the streets to live.

We kids, though now all grown-up, will never forget those days as long as we live - all those years of being locked away, as if we were nothing more than little prisoners. For nine long years, I stood at that steel fence and watched as the free kids played. I watched them run. I watched them yell and I watched them as they fell down playing tag, each of them laughing and screaming, as if they were happy and having fun.

I will never forget that ‘freedom,’ though invisible to my young eyes, was only a finger away.



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