My name is Johann Wagener and I’m a White House Boy.
Back in 1958 I was known as John and sentenced to serve a term at the Florida School for Boys (FSB) for the crime of running away with my childhood sweetheart. Being incarcerated for loving someone never made much sense to me but back then I was determined to just do my time, get out, and marry my first love. Her letters, which I received every day of my time there, was what kept me from just giving up on life altogether. The few times I shared this with anyone I described the experience as being dunked into a tank of water and having to hold my breath for a very long time.
What I wasn’t prepared for was what I experienced during my time at FSB. For the most part the memories are vague and fragmented. In some twisted and distorted way some of these memories are fond ones, like my work as an assistant in the dental office. As I recall, the dentist was a nice guy in that he would let me sneak a smoke now and then and asked that it be kept just between us. It was a place I looked forward to going to. I also remember times in the lunch hall; especially the bread pudding that was on the Sunday menu. Then there was a boxing tournament that matched boys from different cottages against each other. One memory that stands out is of dropping my opponent in a few punches and how surprised I was because I had been scared shitless to get into the ring with him.
As I surf through the links on the whitehouseboys web site my efforts to conjure up more of those memories has been a struggle. They seem to be buried deep and only surface in bits and pieces. The feelings these memories bring up are strong at times, many of which I’m surprised to still have after so many years. There are others that are fragmented and confusing with my not knowing if what I’m remembering happened to me or to someone else. For example, as I try to remember the boys one name stands out; Vincent Davico. I sense that something terrible happened to him, but I’m not sure exactly what. Another name, Elmer, brings up images of a big guy, much older looking than everyone else, and I keep thinking he was one of the 4 boys who ganged up on me my first night and threatened (or tried to) rape me. I remember fighting them off and causing such a racket that it woke up the staff.
My memories of the white house are vivid and stark and, after seeing only a few of the pictures I found on the website, the feelings first overwhelmed me. The bloody walls, the god awful cot I was made to lie on face down. The dirty, smelly pillow I bit into so not to scream. I can also remember holding on to the bars with all my might and waiting for the first blow. The first was the worst. I remember the jolt and the intensity of the pain that ran through my body. The flash of what seemed to be white light igniting my brain is something I will never forget. I remember that the blows that followed were not as bad as the first one and the pain seemed to diminish with each subsequent stroke as the numbness set in. I quickly learned to go with the flow; when to brace, when to relax just by listening for the sound of what seemed to be a foot dragging across the floor, followed by a soft but distinct whooshing sound before the paddle found its mark.
Then there was the walk back to the dorm. I remember feeling some sick and distorted sense of pride, thinking that I was now one of the select few who went into that place and walked out unassisted or on a stretcher. I also remember being told to keep my clothes on and to go straight to bed. I vaguely recall waking from what seemed to be a long night and having to have someone peel the underwear off from what I later saw was my unrecognizable, bruised and bloodied buttock. I also recall the pain I felt then, though not nearly as bad as the night before. This time it didn’t last as long. The rest is a blur.
I do recall hearing stories of other incidents happening over the years. The worse rumors were of the blacks who I was told suffered a much worse fate than we did. It seemed that Mr. Hatton ( a name I remember) had it in for the black boys. There was something about his wife being assaulted by black boys during an escape attempt. The story went that Mr. Hatton made sure that no one would ever think about trying that again.
Discovering the white house boys website was neither intentional or anticipated. I liken this event to others in my life that I describe as divine intervention. Something that happens to me without rhyme or reason and is logically inexplicable. In this instance it began with a click of the mouse and going on to Google maps in search of a place in upstate Florida. As I scanned the map I noticed a place vaguely familiar to me; the city of Marianna. That brought up other memories about my time there and the school I was sent to. I typed in Florida School for Boys and with one click of the mouse I opened up a page that, for lack of a better word, was a “Pandora’s box” of hundreds if not thousands of links to sites holding news articles, book titles, investigations, personal stories and support sites about what was referred to as the “white house boys.” The stories and testimonials I read were at times overwhelming. So much so at times that I could not continue reading because of the tears that welled up with feelings of sadness; not only for those I read about but for myself.
Even though the names and faces I’ve seen so far are not familiar to me the stories are like templates of my own memories. In the days that have followed I have begun searching for things other than memories and have found a few pictures of myself at FSB along with postcards from my parents. These have provided me with a time line of my stay which points to a time frame starting in 1958 through 1959. One card from my mother dated January 9, 1959 reads;
“Dear John, I received your letter and report card today. Pioneer is excellent! (as I recall Pioneer was one of the ranks reached towards graduating and being released). She went on to say, “So, be a good boy. You are nice and have done your best for us all and I will write you a long letter soon, Mama.“
I also found a few pictures (attached) one of me standing next to a large Xmass cutout decoration that I recall making in woodshop. I know the boy standing next to the cut out is me, but recalling the experience is vague and almost non-existent. Names, places, faces, all seem unfamiliar and foreign where the feelings that arise in seeing them are crystal clear and often overwhelming.
Ironically my time at the Florida School for Boys did have a happy ending. On the day of my release I remember going home, packing by suitcase, jumping on a Greyhound bound for Pittsburg PA and reuniting with the girl I ran away with. She, in her own way, shared my experience. Having locked herself in her room during the whole time I was incarcerated, she refused to go out of the house and faithfully wrote me a letter every single day, assuring me of her love for me and counting the days before we would be together again.
It was only a few days before we were married. This time there was no descent from the family. Even though they still thought we were young and foolish, (we were 16 and 14) they had come to accept that we were seriously in love. And you know what they say about love?
Our marriage lasted almost 25 years during which we had 3 children. Some good, some bad. Even though I was not aware of how FSB had affected me at the time I came to realize that I internalized many of the experiences; some of which played themselves out in destructive ways. One that sticks in my mind is using the very same form of punishment with my children that I had been subjected to at FSB. There was the belt and the bed and a ritual in which I brought my child into the room, asked them to lie face down on the bed and grab the pillow as I methodically began to spank them. I remembered telling myself that this was good for them; not very different from what I was told. Fortunately I woke up from that nightmare early on in my marriage when in the course of a conversation with my wife she told me that my children were “afraid” of me.
Even though she meant it in a positive way because she had delegated punishment to me that comment rang a loud alarm inside me and after that I resolved to never hit my children again. Because of that decision I took a lot of criticism from my wife and others; sometimes even called a bad parent. But then these people didn’t know what I knew and I never shared.
It wasn’t a story book marriage but I did have experiences that as a child I only dreamed of; having been raised in a violent chaotic family by a pair of sad and pathetic parents. I remember thinking how crazy my mother was my mother when she begged the judge to send me to FSB, and her attempts to convince me and him that it would be good for me. Later in life I came to realize that my mother was well intended and in her mind she was protecting me from the non-stop beatings from my drunken, abusive and tormented father. In my mother’s mind the Florida School for Boys would be a safe place for me. I blamed them at first but later realized that they had been severely damaged by the experiences of WWII.
I now suspect my failed marriage was another casualty resulting from my experiences at FSB. When my wife was diagnosed with a terminal disease we were told she had only a few years to live. My reaction was to shut down emotionally and completely disconnect from everything and everyone around me; including my wife. I later came to learn that this was a defense mechanism I had picked up in childhood when needing to protect myself from fear and pain. In this instance it was as intense as I had ever felt. I believe that my emotional withdrawal during a time when my wife needed me the most killed our marriage. I distanced myself even further by premeditatedly committing a crime that I knew would end in my incarceration. At some level of my psyche, in some sick and twisted way, I believed we started and our bond was the strongest. But this time, there were no letters and she did not wait.
Nor, as fate would have it, did my wife die as predicted, but many years later. The disease went into remission. I, for the most part, came out of prison a different person no longer needing to hide inside. This time around there had been no beatings or isolation and as I later came to realize my prison experience was not only redemptive but lifesaving.
Prison is where I found myself, so to speak through spiritual experiences shared with a Yogi Swami I hooked up with who taught me how to breathe in ways that lit the fire in my belly. Then there were classes that allowed me to complete high school and take college courses. This would lead me to completing several degrees in education and psychology. From there I embarked on a whole new life as a practicing psychologist. I say it saved my life because by helping others to care for and love themselves I learned the ways of loving and caring for both myself and those close to me.
I have also come to realize that the scars and trauma I experienced back then have never truly healed completely. A sign was my last meltdown in 1990 which left me completely disabled and unable to continue practicing. The diagnosis was PTSD which back then I was not completely convinced was accurate. Now I do. I may have not gone to war but the experiences I lived during my time at FSB were not much different. In fact they were possibly much worse than those in combat where they at least had an opportunity to fight back. As one therapist put it, he found be to be “magnificently defended and self-contained” which at the time I took as a compliment. Looking back now that’s probably what saved me at the time. But then I unwittingly created an internal prison which I suspect was to protect myself from the ghosts of that were still haunting me from my time at FSB .
I have been blessed many times over in my life by being presented with opportunities to mend and heal some of the wounds of my past. One of the greatest gifts I’ve received came late in life. Her name is Briana, my now 16 year old daughter that I have had the privilege to raise on my own since she was 2. I remember the day I brought her home to live with me. She was so tiny and fragile and I was so uncertain about what to do. I remember gently placing her down on the bathroom carpet and having a one-way conversation with her which started with, “what do I do with you now?” That day I experienced a bond that until then I had never felt. And I have carried it with me ever since ever since. Unbeknown to her this little girl did something that no one else had ever been able to do. She allowed me to open myself up and expose that side of me that I had locked away for so many years. From that moment on all I can say is, life has been good to me.