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New Book Announcement! From the Inside – The Forest Haven Asylum (Available Now!)

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From the Inside – The Forest Haven Asylum, is available for order right now for $27 from Amazon.com (Here!). It will be available from all major book sellers shortly. The photo essay book takes the reader on an immersive journey through the facility with 120 carefully composed and selected photos that had been taken over a three day span.

The Forest Haven Asylum, established in 1925, is located in Laurel, Maryland. It was abandoned in 1991 due to court orders resulting from class action lawsuits brought against the facility for rampant cases of abuse and neglect. Numerous suspicious deaths had occurred at the facility with the bodies often unceremoniously buried on the premises in numbered graves. The facility was first ordered to close in 1978 by Judge Pratt in District Court, but the logistics of closing such a massive institution filled with so many difficult-to-place mentally challenged patients were staggering. It took thirteen years before the last patients and staff left the premises. When they were gone, many personal artifacts were left behind, resting where they were dropped. These belongings can still be found scattered throughout the institution—along with work logs and patient records.

Institutions like Forest Haven were originally an attempt to provide care for those believed to be too mentally ill and unstable to live on their own or function in society. The intent of asylum care was purely humanitarian, but the social commitment to fund the experiment soon dried up and became economically unfeasible. Financial corners were cut in all aspects of patient care. At one point, Forest Haven had only two social workers for its 1,300 residents. Overcrowding and poor care became the norm. This led to a dangerous environment with both patients and staff being pushed well beyond the human ability to cope. Even today, when entering the abandoned facility, you can feel the oppressive hell that it had been for anyone trapped within these walls.

Getting There

During the early 1970s, US policy shifted dramatically with respect to treating the mentally ill. Mostly under the guise of patient rights, large institutions were closed under the policy of deinstitutionalization. High profile cases of unjustified commitments and/or forced lobotomies as happened to movie actress Frances Farmer often became representative of the whole institutionalized population and took a front seat to the diverse reality of the majority of people being treated in US mental institutions. For many, there was nowhere else to go and no other resources to help them.

The stated plan for deinstitutionalization was to offload patients from centralized institutions like Forest Haven into community based halfway houses. While deinstitutionalization varied greatly from state to state, the shift was initially set in motion with the passage of the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 which had been championed by then president John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had established the President’s Panel of Mental Retardation shortly after being inaugurated. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, had been lobotomized at the age of 23 at the request of her father, so this was an important personal issue for him.

Kennedy’s presidential panel was responsible for the recommendations for determining how federal funding could help better transition the nation’s outdated asylum system into a modern community based system. However, having to deal with both the Vietnam War and the 1960 recession, Kennedy was never able to adequately fund the proposed programs, and the new halfway houses suffered the same lack of financial support as the historical asylums had. Without having a viable replacement, asylums were being closed across the country. Then with the passage of Medicaid in 1965, states were given further incentives to move patients out of state mental hospitals and into underfunded halfway houses, nursing homes, general hospitals or the streets. This was because Medicaid excluded coverage for people in “institutions for mental diseases,” so there was often no one left to bill for their services.

The biggest push toward implementing deinstituionalization came in 1967 when then governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the bi-partisan Lanterman-Petris-Short Act into law. This law was intended to be a patient’s rights act, but it provided no safety nets or transition plans for those leaving the asylums. The end result was basically releasing thousands of mentally ill patients with no plans for assimilation or rehabilitation. They often simply ended up on the street and had to fend for themselves. At very least, this law was a socially irresponsible, even if well meaning, act.

Aside from the changing political directives coming from both the federal government and some state governments, public opinion on mental illness was also shifting dramatically in the 1970s. The influential 1972 television broadcast from inside a New York institution, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace from the Willowbrook State School, outraged viewers when they saw for the first time what was happening inside our asylums. This broadcast was followed by the 1975 award-winning film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which sent another strong message regarding the rights of those involuntarily institutionalized. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that restricted the rights of states to incarcerate anyone who was nonviolent. This was followed by a 1978 ruling further restricting states from confining anyone for mental illness against their will.

The halfway house concept sounds great on paper as it appears to provide a viable route for re-entry into society, but it often doesn’t provide adequate care for patients with serious mental health issues. Many halfway houses are no better than the nation’s historical asylums. They are also often plagued by the same dilemmas when it comes to providing quality care while trying to get by on insufficient funding. Also, with halfway houses being less centralized and more dispersed across states and the nation as a whole, government oversight and regulation are often harder to enforce. Mostly run in private homes or small facilities, halfway houses are not generally designed to address the need for the highly secured care required by many of the most extreme cases of the mentally ill.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter attempted to follow Kennedy’s lead and address the mental health under-funding problem and better define federal guidelines for providing treatment paths for mental illness. His policies were implemented in the aggressively humanitarian Mental Health Systems Act. Unfortunately, shortly after its passage, Ronald Reagan took office as president and abolished the act. In 1982 it was replaced with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act which merged money for mental health programs into block grants. In the bigger picture, states were given fewer dollars to spend while the federal government allowed them to spend them however they chose. The pretense for this was the president’s concept of a New Federalism where taxes were cut, especially for the wealthy. Spending was reduced while also reducing the federal government’s influence. This left the important decisions on issues such has how to deal with mental health treatments to the states. The reality was that financial institutions were given greater protections than the most needy human beings.

Another unforeseen outcome of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s was the transfer of care for the mentally ill from institutions specifically set up to treat them—such as Forest Haven—to placing them into the care of the criminal justice system. It is estimated that at least 20% of all male inmates currently held in US jails are severely mentally ill. These unjustly incarcerated patients are not only getting no treatment for their illness while in jail, but they are being punished for their illness by both staff and fellow inmates. Sometimes this is far worse than the historic mistreatment that had occurred inside traditional mental asylums such as Forest Haven.

When not inside an institution, many of the mentally ill end up being homeless. Drug and alcohol abuse among the mentally ill is epidemic and becomes the main form of self-medication. Some of the patients released to the streets suffer from extreme mental illness, and these patients can be unpredictable, threatening and violent. Walk through any large metropolitan city, and you are likely to cross paths with troubled souls visibly fighting with their internal demons while on the ready to lash out at those they perceive as threatening in the outside world. The mentally ill left to roam the streets often stir mixed emotions in us: empathy, fear, hopelessness. Our hearts may go out to them, but very few of us are in a position to be of any real help. These suffering people need focused and professional care, not a Good Samaritan handing them a dollar for food or booze or a cop cracking them over the head with a billy club.

Through the Eyes of a Child

I was a kid living in Maryland during the mid-1970s. We heard whispers of the horrible things going on in Forest Haven and at other local asylums. It captured our imaginations. It fueled unspecified fears. The definition of madness and the possibility of involuntary confinement can trigger conflicting emotions in most of us. This is why we photograph and ponder the ruined remnants of institutions like Forest Haven. We want to find the answers to difficult questions about sanity, existence and what it means to be a whole healthy person. These emotions that I experienced as a child were rekindled when I went back to the asylum nearly 40 years later. These unanswerable questions about the human soul and sanity are what lead so many of us to become fascinated by places like Forest Haven.

When I was twelve years old, I spent many afternoons at a public pool in nearby Columbia, Maryland. The moms would take us there and let us run wild for several hours while they sunned themselves and gossiped. On one of these days, two vans pulled up filled with special needs kids presumably from one of the local institutions. For all I know, they had come from Forest Haven, but they also could have easily come from one of the new halfway houses. Before the young people were let out of the vans, everyone at the pool was alerted to the fact that these kids, while being supervised, should not be approached. Their handlers all carried electronic cattle prods. Whenever one of the kids started getting out of line, they were threatened with the devices. We could see the terror in the children’s eyes. They obviously had great fear of their handlers.

We were told to stay on one side of the pool while we watched these kids being lined up and forced to jump into the water. In one instance, a boy was so terrified that it took using the cattle prod on his wet back to get him to jump in. The memory of his screams and contorted body as he jumped away from the cattle prod haunts me to this day. Being a smart aleck and mouthy kid myself, I shouted out at the handler that she couldn’t do that to the poor kid. She came over to me and asked if I wanted to know what it felt like as she waved the cattle prod in my face. I wasn’t usually afraid of adults, but she made me back off. I saw something dark inside her eyes that made me aware that under her calm socially controlled demeanor lurked the potential for brutal acts.

When the kids were finished swimming and went into the locker room to change into their street clothes, I made the excuse that I had to go to the bathroom so I could follow them in. My curiosity got the best of me. I found the kid who I watched get prodded into the water. I felt a need to say something nice to him. I don’t really know why, but at some level I think I wanted to find something in him that I could relate to and maybe give him some kind of consoling for his mistreatment.

“You have fun today?” I asked.

He got excited by my attention and started madly trying to form comprehensible words with his distorted mouth. We ended up just laughing. This got a few of the other boys interested, and they all surrounded me. I have always had a strong sense of personal space, and these boys immediately violated it. In their excitement, they started grabbing and pinching me in inappropriate ways.

“Hey! Leave me alone!” I cried out, but they all just circled around me tighter, laughed and grabbed me harder.

They seemed really excited to have an outsider in their midst. I couldn’t get away from them. Claustrophobia kicked in, and I started to panic and scream out. Finally, one of the male handlers came in shouting at everyone. The boys froze when he lifted up his cattle prod. A wave of palpable fear swept through the entire locker room.

“What are you doing in here?” the handler demanded from me.

“Just had to go to the bathroom,” I said, shaken.

“Well, get out of here! You have no business being with these boys,” he yelled.

I left and was just relieved to get out.

I was visibly upset when I returned to my friends in the pool.

“What happened with the retards, Mark?” My friends asked.

I made up something funny and tried to play it off as a joke.

On the drive back home, I told the moms how the boy had been mistreated and how I thought they should call someone to report it. The moms passed it off saying, “You don’t know how it is. At least they got to get out for the day.”

Wandering the Halls

It’s impossible not to feel trapped while walking through the abandoned halls inside Forest Haven. The original play equipment in the cement walled courtyard that had been provided for the young patients made me recognize how important a trip outside this place could have been for the patients. Seeing these horrific confines reminded me of the kids from my past and prompted me to consider that the boys I had seen at the pool were probably the best behaved and most stable of all the patients here.

The tormented cries coming from the most violent and disturbed patients during Forest Haven’s operation had to be horrific to witness. We’re all human beings and share the same primitive emotions. At some level, the cries of the insane are the same cries we all have inside us. They’re attached to the same overwhelming feelings we have to squash down inside ourselves when life feels like it’s just too much to handle. We are drawn to places like Forest Haven because somehow they trigger recognition of our inner fears. Perhaps we find reassurance in the fact that we are able to walk away from them afterward.

As an artist entering this facility, I first and foremost wanted to do more than just document the artifacts of a historic tragedy. Instead, I was looking to create images that are both new and universally moving while respecting the suffering that has occurred inside these walls. Throughout the history of humankind, suffering and injustice have been part of our existence. We often have to ignore the reality of how quickly our imagined security, stability and freedom can be turned upside down. Walking down the halls of the Forest Haven Asylum reminded me just how fragile our social existence is. It made me question just what part of our deep internal selves enables us to live sanely in a seemingly insane world. What is the true line between sanity and insanity? Is it a matter of control or a matter of letting go of control?

The presence of the people who resided in these walls lives on through the personal objects left behind. A single cup collecting dust contains the ghosts of hands holding a hot cup of coffee, as perhaps the last person who drank from it did before the facility was abandoned. Chairs are everywhere. You can sit in these chairs and think about the last person who sat in them. Through sharing the same physical space, you feel like you have a direct connection to the people who spent their lives in these walls.

In the administration offices, you have to wonder how it would have felt had you been a patient being threatened or reprimanded by the staff administrator while you sat on the wrong side of the desk. What thoughts went through your mind while you talked with someone who you knew was able to leave the facility each night? How would you envision the freedom to go home to a quiet house at the end of the day, knowing you would be left to hear the din of tortured screams throughout each and every night? What would be the long-term trauma from witnessing the violence of orderlies trying to maintain order in this place when, at its core, there was no order?

Conversely, how would it feel to be the person on the other side of the desk? How would it feel having to deal with often unstable and abusive people who you knew had no hope of ever getting better? How would it feel being in the presence of people who had to be restrained so they wouldn’t fling their own feces at you or even try to eat it themselves? How could you deal with this daily pain without becoming completely desensitized to the individuals inside the facility? How could you reconcile the line between the people on the inside and the people on the outside? What would be the personal toll on everyone working here? How did they compartmentalize the insanity they dealt with on a daily basis and the sanity they tried to occupy while not at work? How could workers hold onto hope that some of the patients would get well, when there was not one bit of evidence showing anyone at Forest Haven got better? Were the staff able to convince themselves that they were doing something good?

Once committed to Forest Haven, the only way out is to die.

– Betty Evans, mother of Joy Evans, who died in the facility of aspirational pneumonia at age 17 in 1976.

Piles of suitcases with name tags still on them are lined up in closets. It is as if they were being stored for when the patient was going to leave the institution after receiving successful treatment. Sadly, there were essentially no successful treatments. The patients all either died in Forest Haven or remained until they were transferred to a halfway house or were let free to live on the streets (where most ultimately died). The suitcases are all empty. You know that they were full when they arrived. You have to wonder who was tasked with packing these suitcases before a patient was taken to Forest Haven. What difficult emotions got packed in with the belongings? Was it distraught family members who had to finally accept that they could no longer care for their child or spouse—or was it the patients themselves who packed the bags not exactly understanding where they were going?

All that is known is that someone carried these suitcases into the facility. Their hands held onto these handles before they were taken by the Forest Haven staff. Once the suitcases were stored in closets, it became a matter of how many doors stood between the patient, their families, and freedom. For people on the outside, the doors shut out the horrors of what occurred within these walls. For the patients locked inside, the doors shut them inside these walls where they were forced to live the horrors of Forest Haven for the rest of their lives.

Lingering Thoughts

In the end, we are all living on the inside in one way or another. No one is free. Our lives depend on conforming to the world around us. When we are no longer able to conform, we once were sent to places like Forest Haven. Now, if we don’t conform, we’re confined to cells in privately run for-profit prisons or perhaps end up to living under a bridge and shunning social interactions. As brutal as facilities like Forest Haven were, we as a society, have to reassess whether we have made humanitarian progress in shutting them down. I can’t help but wonder why our priorities in the U.S. always seem to be law enforcement and war instead of caring for those most in need of help. While our historic asylum system was flawed and outdated, given the will and adequate support, we could certainly have made it better.

I spent three days inside this facility taking photographs. The experience changed my life. The emotions stirred up in me were deep and conflicted. I suppose this is all part of the process of getting into better touch with my inner self. Given different circumstances or if I had I been born in a different time, I’m sure I could have “lost my mind” and ended up here. What keeps any of us on the outside? Maybe it’s a question that has no answer, but I wish I had the answers for how we could create a more caring world, especially for those suffering from mental illness.

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Forest Haven Asylum – Solar Culture Gallery

forest_haven_small-3Opening Saturday 10 June 2017

6-9 PM

I think I needed some time before I could go back and do something with my photos from the Forest Haven Asylum. We spent three solid and intense days in the abandoned asylum and I took over a thousand photos. My goal was never to create a body of work that would shock or horrify the viewer, even though the facility had a brutal history and aspects of it are and were horrifying, but for me as an artist, I used the experience as a way to explore my own emotions though photography in a place where the archaeology could be used to transcend its past as well as my own past.

I have been immersing myself in this set of photos because I am very near to completely my photo/essay book project. While I’ll announce when the book is published here, I will say that I am happy with the final 120 photos that will be included and with my introductory essay. The experience of being here is one of those that I will never forget for many reasons.

I am showing these three new photographs in the gallery:

Come see the show if you are in town!

Solar Culture Gallery is located at 31 East Toole Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701

All images and content copyrighted 2017 by Mark Hahn with all rights reserved.

Riding the Rails – Fragment From an Unpublished Novel

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. . . my mind wandered into the distant past. I imagined that I heard Hughie Johnson scream out in the dark of night nearly twenty-five years ago. When I was fourteen years old, Hughie, I and a few other boys in the neighborhood had a sort of bicycle gang. We would ride through the woods, down the power pole path and across the fields to different secret spots. We would also ride down to the railroad tracks — a place our parents told us was strictly off-limits.

Every evening there were three trains that passed on the tracks, a 3:40 and 4:05 westbound and a 5:15 eastbound. We would ride our bikes to where the tracks crossed over Old River Rd. There was an abandoned spur there and a deserted switching tower. This was smashed up and covered with graffiti. The rusted iron door was padlocked closed, but someone had pried the corner open. All of us were skinny enough to squeeze through except Daniel Smith. Inside we would climb the rusted iron steps to the small upper platform. There was a steel stool sitting in front of the rusted control panel. A few of the switches had been broken off. The floor was strewn with beer cans and broken glass.

For a while, Hughie and I would bring our slingshots and bags of walnuts we had stolen from home to shot against the side of the passing boxcars. They didn’t do any damage when they hit, but they made a beautiful sound as they shattered and exploded on impact. We fantasized about fighting behind German lines during World War II and destroying munitions trains — really, we were playing Hogan’s Heroes.

One day after Hughie and I got into trouble for vandalizing a construction site near our homes, we went up to the switching tower and watched the trains rumble by. We didn’t nail them with walnuts though because we were making more important plans. We both decided to run away from home. The trains would be our way out. We could ride them all over the country we thought, just like the hobos did in old movies.

There was a bend in the tracks about a half-mile past Old River Rd. All trains slowed down as they passed in front of our switching tower. We watched as the 3:40 rolled by. We figured that we could both catch the ladder hanging off different boxcars and climb up to the roof. That was how we had seen it done in the movies. We decided to try it on the 4:05. We climbed out of the switching tower and hid in the bushes.

When we heard the 4:05 coming, we gave each other a smile and a nod. The train came rumbling down the tracks. I slapped Hughie on the back of his shoulders as I took off running toward the train. I caught up with the train, grabbed the ladder high and swung my feet up to the bottom rung of the steel ladder hanging off the side of the oxide red boxcar. I had actually made it!

I climbed up to the top of the car and turned back to see where Hughie was. I saw him picking himself off the rocks at the side of the tracks.

I jumped up and down and waved my hands at him screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”

It was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. I could have ridden that train for miles and miles with the wind in my face and no control over where I was going.

When the train reached the curve in the tracks it slowed down some more. I climbed down and jumped off the bottom of the ladder. I slipped and fell as I hit the rocks, but I didn’t get hurt. I went running back to Hughie as proud and excited as I could be. When I got to Hughie, I could see that he was banged up pretty bad. His jeans were torn in the knee. His knee was all gashed and bloody and one of his elbows was also covered with blood. It looked like he might have been crying too though he tried to hide it from me.

He told me, “I just couldn’t get myself up. I held on and tried to run along for a while, but I tripped on the rocks and lost my grip.”

I asked him how he grabbed on and I told him that he had grabbed on too low. I told him that I had grabbed on as high as I could and that I didn’t have any problem swinging my feet up to the ladder.

I told him, “Next time you’ll do it. No problem. It was so cool! I ain’t never done anything cooler!”

We didn’t try it again until the weekend because then we could stay out later and we didn’tt have to worry about getting home.

Danny wanted to come too, although everyone else was too scared — either scared of getting hurt or scared of getting caught. When I was young, I never imagined that I could get hurt or caught. I figured I could out run almost anyone so there wasn’t much chance of getting caught. I explained to Danny how I got on the ladder so he wouldn’t fall off like Hughie had.

After thinking about it, we decided that we would have to catch one of the later trains. We realized that someone would probably see us on top of the train during the day and call the cops. We didn’t know the schedule of the night trains, but we heard their whistles in the night from our homes. The trains ran all night.

All three of us hid in the bushes and waited for the train. We had all put on our adolescent camo-commando-gear so that we would be harder to spot.  When a train rattled by, all three of us dashed out and caught hold of a ladder and climbed up. It was a little harder to do at night, but there weren’t any casualties.

Once we were on the roofs of different boxcars, we all started uncontrollably screaming and hooting like loons while we madly jumped up and down in the air — it was absolutely fantastic moment. The sounds, the smells and the motion of the huge boxcars made us feel like we were riding some dark all-powerful beast. We felt like dragon slayers who had conquered our prey and reveled in its quivering surrender beneath us. To this day that memory is both beautiful and powerful.

Danny was the first one who had the courage to jump from car to car. On fact, he didn’t hesitate for a minute. I saw him just start running and leaping beautifully from one car to another until he was on the same car as Hughie. I was a little afraid of jumping because I was much smaller than Danny and had much shorter legs, but since Danny did it, I felt I had to show that I could do it too. I was petrified as I leapt into the air toward the edge of the other boxcar.  I jumped and almost fell. I was barely able to cling to the traction grating on the boxcar roof and keep myself from sliding off the edge. As I dragged my legs up onto the roof, I looked down and saw the steel couplers grinding together in the near darkness. The blur of tracks slid out of sight under the car. I knew that it would be certain death had I fallen. I dragged myself up and jumped to the car were Danny and Hughie were standing.

The three of stood there on the roof laughing and boasting and slapping each other’s shoulders. Then we all made exaggerated flying postures, holding out our arms and facing into the wind. Being up on top of this slowly moving train made us feel like we were experiencing a new world.

We glided through the night within a new and separate reality. We had left behind our mundane white middle-class life by our fearless leap into the unknown.

For an extended part of my youth, riding the trains captured my heart like a narcotic. We got bolder and bolder. We rode the trains farther and farther past familiar places. We tried to use a compass, but we were never sure what direction the train would take at a switch. We never knew exactly how we would get home. When we jumped off a train we often had no idea when another would pass in the opposite direction.

Luckily, George, another friend that joined our group after hearing us brag at school, had an older hippie sister named Hillary who would come rescue us in an all out emergency. It only happened a couple times. Once we got stuck on a train for almost two hours because it was moving too fast to jump off of. We ended up in a strange town and had to call Hillary to pick us up get home. She was really pissed at us.

The train had taken us through some open country with long straight track where the train could go up to 65 miles per hour. There was nothing that we could do but hang on and hope we came to a populated area where it would again slow down. Riding the trains was truly a fantastic experience until one hot balmy night in June.

We road the trains through the early evening and had taken a switch through an unknown region with rivers and small valleys. It was exciting riding the trains over long bridges because you couldn’t see the bridge unless you looked right over the edge. The clanking steel train seemed to fly above the river with us standing with our arms stretched out like airplane wings.

We saw the lights in front of us as the train slowed around a bend. Then we slowly entered into a stock yard with trains moving in and out. Control towers rose out of the disorder of tracks and miss-matched cars. Giant lights lit up the whole area like a shopping mall. Our train passed a tall cement control tower and we saw the operator as he squinted his eyes in disbelief upon seeing four boys on the roof of the passing boxcar. Then we saw him yelling into his heavy black phone.

We knew we were caught. My heart was pounding as I looked around for a way out. I yelled to my friends, “How the hell are we going to get out of this?”

Hughie yelled back, “we’ve got to get off the train.”

The four of us scrambled down the iron ladders on the sides of the boxcar and two of us got off on each side. We didn’t plan on breaking up, but we weren’t thinking much about anything other than saving our own skins. Hughie and I didn’t see George or Daniel, so we just took off together. We ran between the trains for a while and didn’t see anyone. Then we came to a row of thick bushes.

I told Hughie, “We’ll be safe if we hide in the bushes and stay still. They can’t catch us if they don’t see us. After a while they’ll figure we got away and they’ll stop looking.”

Hughie replied, “As long as the cops don’t get us, I’ll deal with my parents later. If they get caught, we can always say that George and Daniel lied about us being here.”

We stayed there, crouched in the bushes, for what seemed an eternity, but it was probably only five or ten minutes. Then we heard muffled yells and some running footsteps on the broken gravel. Guards were chasing George and Daniel. We could see their feet when we looked through the wheels of the sleeping train cars. The footsteps trailed of into the distance until we couldn’t hear them anymore. Hughie and I didn’t say a word. We just prayed that they got away. We couldn’t move because we knew that more guards were probably somewhere near.

Just then we saw the tail of a flashlight as it flashed in the bushes just down the row from us. We heard the guard calling for us, “Come on boys. Just come on out. We have your friends already, so just come out so we can call your parents and you can all go home. Why do you want to make this hard on yourselves?”

We could see the guard moving from bush to bush with his flashlight — slowly coming down the row toward us. When he got within ten feet of us I knew we had to make a run for it. I gestured to Hughie to follow me and whispered, “Now!”

We bolted under a row of boxcars and heard the guard yelling at us to stop. The next line of boxcars was slowly moving. I saw the guard climbing under the boxcars after us. I looked at the moving cars a figured we could make it under them. I told Hughie, “We can make it,” and dashed under the moving car and came out the other side. Hughie followed me.

Then I heard a thud followed by a single groan. Hughie had struck his head on a steel overhang on the underside of the car and fell down in pain. I turned to help him, but before I could get to him the boxcar lurched forward and I heard Hughie scream. Then I heard the sound of his flesh and bones being crushed under the weight of the car as the wheels rolled over his legs. By the time I got to him Hughie had passed out in shock, blood was spurting out of the shredded remains of his pant-legs.

While I stood there in horror, a guard ran up behind me and grabbed me around my chest. Another guard was at his side.

He saw Hughie lying there and shouted out, “Jesus fucking Christ! We got to get an ambulance.”

The guard holding me let go, but I just stood there. One of the guards called someone on his walkie-talkie and they shouted back and forth. Someone found some old wire and used it to tie off Hughie’s stumps. This stemmed the bleeding. He could have died on the spot.

Two more guards came running with a stretcher. They put Hughie on it and belted him down. Hughie made incoherent gurgling noises as they moved him. A guard picked up Hughie’s shoes, his feet still in them.  He lashed these onto a separate stretcher while muttering something about possibly reattaching them later. One of Hughie’s legs was severed above the knee and the other down near his ankle.

We ran along side the stretcher and got to a waiting ambulance. They hooked up an IV to Hughie and checked his vital signs. It didn’t look good. We rushed him to the hospital. One of the guards dragged me along and told me I would have to talk to the police at the hospital.

When we got there, I saw Hughie wheeled through the double doors and out of sight. I didn’t see Him again for several days. The police came in and asked all kinds of questions. The first was, of course, who were we and what were our parent’s phone numbers. They called our parents right away. The police couldn’t believe that we were actually riding the trains.

Hughie’s mother arrived at the hospital before mine and she was hysterical. She started screaming at me when she saw me.

She lost it and started yelling, “Why did you little bastards have to drag my Hughie along with you? He never would have done this if it wasn’t for you. I hope you’re satisfied now that you’ve ruined his life forever.”

I stood there and felt like shit. Hughie was following me when it happened. It probably was my fault. I wondered why we had to run. If we would have just given ourselves up, Hughie would still have his legs and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal compared to what had happened. I had gotten into trouble many times before and it never felt as awful as this. The picture of Hughie being carried off on one stretcher with his legs strapped onto another one would certainly stay with me my entire life. Even as an adolescent, I knew that I could never erase it from my mind.

I started crying. Reality was just too hard to deal with. I felt like a lost little kid.

Then my parents entered the emergency room. My father just shook his head and said, “Let’s go and get you in the car.”

He didn’t say a thing as we walked to the car, but when we got in he said, “Your mother and I are very disappointed in you. What the hell were you thinking anyway? Are you boys brain dead or what? Are you stupid? What if it would have been you and not Hughie?”

I sat there not saying a word. I remembered all the close calls and everything that made riding the trains so exciting, but I couldn’t get Hughie’s painful scream out of my mind, that and the image of him being wheeled through the double doors at the hospital with a flat bloody sheet were his legs should have been.

Meditations From a Nightmare

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They came in and beat the shit out of me. Then they broke out all the doors and windows in my house. The wind blew icy rain inside my bedroom and the wallpaper rotted and started peeling off the walls. Black mold had been hidden underneath.

My clothes were tattered and covered with blood and dirt. I dragged myself outside. The sky was brooding, filled with heavy dark clouds. The winds picked up as if the clouds were preparing to unleash more torrential rains.

Dead sharp grass was waist deep as I ran from the house to the tumbled down shed at the edge of the property. There were only 3 walls intact. A dirty mattress lay beneath a broken out window. Someone had once slept here. A tattered sleeping bag was bunched up by the mattress.

I had been so beaten and battered inside the house, it was all I could to to lie down on the mattress and pull part of the dirty sleeping bag over myself. I don’t know if I actually fell asleep or whether I was just partially unconscious from all the blows. I had just covered my face as the intruders punched and kicked me. I laid there on the floor motionless when they left me.

Just at the very moment that I was losing consciousness and everything seemed peaceful, the largest of the intruders stomped into the shed and shouted, “Get your ass out here you piece of shit!”

“I can’t get up,” I said.

The intruder grabbed me by the shirt and tried to make me stand up. I just slumped back down onto the floor of the shed. There had been asphalt tiles on a shallow pad of concrete, but after the winds knocked out the wall, everything was buried in dirt and debris. A pile of spiny tumbleweeds filled the corner.

“I’ve already had too much,” I tried to say.

“What’s that, ass-wad?” The intruder mocked.

I lapsed into delirium. I couldn’t take anymore.

“You have to put me in the box,” I said.

“They told me I could go back in the box if everything got to be too much.”

“What the fuck are you talking about homo?” The intruder yelled at me before back-handing me across the face.

“When everything gets to be too much, I get to go in the box. The box is three foot square and made out of smooth concrete. Once I’m inside they slide a concrete lid on it. I can’t hear or see anything,” I tried to explain.

I was really too tired to explain this. My sentences trailed off into half spoken slurred words.

“What kind of freak are you? You aren’t even worth it,” the intruder scoffed as he kicked me in the back with his heavy work boot.

My wet shirt was ripped halfway off my body. The flesh on my back burned where it had been struck by the boot. The intruder spit on me and walked out of the shed muttering more abuse. I sat on the floor hugging my legs. I put my chin between my knees and kept my eyes closed. I didn’t want to see where the intruder went or if he was returning.

I pulled myself into a ball and imagined I was in the box. The air was warm and it was dark and silent. There was no way out and no way that anyone could get inside. As long as I didn’t touch the sides of the box I couldn’t tell where I was. I couldn’t feel how trapped I really was.

When I was really still, I could be anywhere. I walked through a field from my childhood and ended up in the woods. A small stream cut through it. Leopard frogs jumped into the small
pool where the stream took a bend.

Up above the bank, the small round leaves of wild ginger spilled over the edge. Their bright new green leaves flashed in the gentle breeze that made it down to the forest’s floor. Behind the patch of wild ginger, stately primordial ferns rise up. The little leopard frogs slyly poked their heads out of the water from a distance. The scene became its own pristine world. It made me wish I were only three inches tall and living in a small den under the tree roots.

If you’re mindful of your steps while walking through the forest, sometimes you’ll feel the crush of an old tin can that is buried somewhere underneath the blanket of last season’s fallen leaves. Things have been buried in the earth many years ago. Even though the forest looks pristine, at one time much of it was farmland. Even though there is no trace of the old farm houses, the small dumps the owners left behind are still there if you can find them.

Once you locate one, it usually isn’t hard to start digging up the old stuff. Most of what you find is rusted or decayed, but some of the glassware comes out intact. When you dig them out, the little cobalt blue medicine bottles seem the most precious. If you look closely, most will have an “M” inside a circle designating that it was made by the old Maryland Glass Corporation. This had been located in Baltimore. Most the bottles were for Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Bromo-Seltzer and Noxema — three products I have never used, even though they still exist today. The bottles I found in these dumps are probably close to a hundred years old.

I also liked finding the really old half pint booze bottles. The ones that took corks. I liked the idea of always having one in your pocket in case you needed a belt. Rip the cork out with your teeth and pour back the whiskey. When I got older, I wondered why anyone would bother with a half pint anyway. A few good slugs and it’s all gone. When I drank, I wanted to feel like I would never finish the bottle — even though I always did. Who needs sleep when you still have booze to drink?

Booze is just another promise of freedom — it makes you feel as if you are nearly free. You can almost get there. All it will take is one more drink. Then you pass out on the floor or in some strange doorway on the way home. Unconsciousness is not freedom though, so you have to start all over again the next day. It’s an never ending story.

Once, when I went really deep into the woods, I found the jackpot dump. I spent hours digging up amazing bottles. I even found a milk glass pill box. It seemed like it could hold magic. The metal top was pretty badly corroded, but it still closed pretty well. It seemed like a real artifact to me. It was early summer, but very hot. I had so much stuff to take back that I took my t-shirt off and tied the arms together to make a bag. I stuffed it full of bottles and other trinkets.

By the time I was ready to leave, the sun was getting low and the shadows long. Everything looked different. I headed back in the direction that I thought was home, but suddenly everything looked strange and different. I tried to stay calm and walk in a straight line. I went over one little hill after another. Each small leaf filled valley started looking like the last. I couldn’t restrain my panic and clutched my sack of bottles and took off in a run.

I ran as fast as I could. I held on tightly to my sack of booty as long as I could, but at some point I had to just let go of it. I hid it under a large ragged oak tree. I felt confident that I would be able to find it when I came back. I passed a tumbled down triangular corral that was falling to the ground. It could have been built here fifty years ago for all I knew.

The shadows grew deeper and I ran faster — dripping with sweat and fear. I came over a small hill and realized that I had been here before. I had come around full circle from where I had started. Now it was getting critical to get out of the wood before it was dark. Even if there was a moon, scant light would penetrate the broad leaf canopy above. I would be left wandering in near darkness.

I started running in a slightly different direction. I run up and down little hills. While running down a gentle slope, I caught my foot on a fallen sapling that was hidden beneath the leaves. There was nothing to catch hold of and I fell down the hill face first into the soft leaves. I let myself go. I decided nothing was going to happen to me even if I had to spend the night in the woods. Little green shoots grew around me. From where I lay on the ground they looked like tiny trees. Again I thought how much I would like to live here if I was only three inches tall.

I imagined the small houses that people build here one hundred years ago. The houses that the people lived in who made the little dumps that I dug up to find bottles in. I looked at the small sticks laying among the leaves and imagined I could build a tiny house from them. No one would even know I was alive. I built up a complete fantasy of living here — away from everything. It was beautiful and peaceful.

In the twilight, I pulled myself off the ground. I wasn’t worried about anything any longer. I just started walking. I kept walking. I walked until I made it out of the woods. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

A Cold Wind – Ocean City Boardwalk

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When I was 12 years old, I often went to Ocean City with my family. My friends and I would fish off a bridge behind some old motels. Ocean City was still a small but growing beach resort. There were only a few large hotels at the time. The town was dominated by privately owned  mom and pop businesses. Originally, Ocean City’s only claim to fame, other than the ocean, was a rinky-dink boardwalk with rows of junk food stands, trinket shops and a saltwater taffy pull.

As a kid, I was mesmerized watching the brightly colored twisted and pulled sugary mass on the taffy pulling machine. I brought allowance money with me so I could buy a big bag of taffy before we left, but watching it being made on the boardwalk was it — the highlight of any night. I tried talking with the guy making the taffy, thinking he was as excited about the process as I was. I didn’t recognize that it was just a crappy job for him and that dealing with annoying kids like me was just one of the hazards of his work.

This is where my friends and I started talking about girls — checking out their butts and boobs as they walked by in their colorful 1970’s patterned bikinis. While fishing off the bridge, we’d watch the girls go by and wink at each other when we thought one was really cute. I was a small kid, with messy blond hair, wearing torn up cutoffs and a tee shirt. None of the girls usually noticed me.

One afternoon, I caught a bunch of puffer fish. They are amazing little things. After filling a bucket with them, I had the crazy idea that I could bring them back home with me and make a large saltwater aquarium in my bedroom out of old pieces of found glass. As a kid, I was always scavenging things from the garbage or pilfering scrap from local construction sites to make stuff. I always looked for my own ways of doing things.

The Japanese name for puffer fish means “sea pigs,” but I thought they looked more like some of Keane’s big-eyed pixie-waifs. They were ugly and cute at the same time — like a naked troll doll. I think I identified with them in some way.

A pair of really cute girls walked across the bridge and stopped to look at the puffer fish in my bucket. They asked me about them. I was really excited to show off my catch. I poked at one of the fish until it filled itself up with water like a balloon. The girls thought it was really cool. In showing off, I picked up the fish and held it for them to see. The cute girl most interested in my fish was much taller than me. I couldn’t help but look at her cleavage while we talked. I was nervous talking to a strange girl, but it went pretty well until the puffer fish spit out all its water right onto to her bare stomach. Both girls were horrified, screamed and stormed away in disgust. My friends laughed.

* * *

Until this year, I hadn’t been to Ocean City since the winter of eighth grade. At that time, my family was returning from a trip to Virginia when the weather took a turn for the worse. My dad thought it safer to spend the night in one of the few open motels in Ocean City than brave the treacherous drive back home to Columbia. There are very few open motels in Ocean City during winter — back then as today — and the boardwalk is completely shut down.

The rain had turned to snow and froze on the road. My dad almost lost control of the car several times before before we found the motel. Maryland has always been infamously ill prepared for winter storms since they are so rare here.

This was the last vacation I went on with my family while still being a kid. We were the only guests in the motel. My dad went to the store and bought junk food for the room and we holed up and watched TV together. It felt good.

* * *

This time in Ocean City, I walked along the cold boardwalk and remembered the warm times I spent here as a kid. I remembered the times before my dad had died — killed by a drunk driver — when I was still in high school. Part of me felt the connection I had with that little kid who played in the waves with his sister and caught puffer fish with his friends. Part of me couldn’t figure out how I had gotten to where I am now.

The icy winds of winter blow across all time and stir up so many memories on their way across the Atlantic.  I guess all I could do was face the grief and emptiness I’ve experienced while listening to the waves crashing against the cold sandy shore. When I was leaving the beach, I found a perfect spiral shell in which you could hear the future. For all the countless hours I spent looking for such a shell as a kid, I had never found one until now.  I gave it to someone I love. Some things are better to give away than to hold onto.

Solar Culture Gallery – I Want You

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Opening Saturday 25 May 2013

6-9 PM

Looking for beauty and romance in the wreckage of a lost place. These are photos from an abandoned house somewhere on the way to Ocean City, MD. This set is meant to be a love poem.

I met my girlfriend at an opening at the Solar Culture Gallery two and a half years ago. We were both showing our working there. We are hanging work together in this show as well. This set of photos is for her.

My Photos:

Solar Culture Gallery is located at 31 East Toole Avenue, Tucson, AZ

Fine art prints from this set can be ordered here.

Talking In My Sleep

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I was back in Chicago after being gone for thirty years. I couldn’t remember why, but I was attending a gala art event. It seemed everyone was there. So many faces that looked familiar, but that I couldn’t place.

The dream was probably spawned from a series of events. A photo of people from my past. A moment in time. The passing of one. Revisiting On the Road. Watching Lawrence of Arabia all the way through — sober.

In my dream, a woman I had once known took me around to say hello to people who she said would remember me. Even though I went along with her, I couldn’t remember who she was. In moments of social chatter, I felt comfortable and confident. I forgot about everything. The years somehow didn’t seem to matter.

While we waited for someone to come around, the woman and I sat together by a wall. The din of the event faded into white noise and I was left looking deeply into her face. She told me her name, but I didn’t remember her — I knew I should have remembered who she was.

As I looked into her aged face I attempted to peel back the years. I was struck by how far away my past really was. I tried to see this woman as a beautiful young girl. I tried to remember if she had wanted me or me her.

The woman asked questions about what I had done after I left Chicago. I just vanished one day. The questions were simple, but they were hard to answer. I evaded these questions. The answers should have been simple — one messed up thing had been followed by another. I did what I could. But when I tried to condense the story into something meaningful, it all fell apart.

My whole life was a muddled reaction to a lot of bad luck followed by bad decisions on how to cope with it. Life goes on and we make mistakes. My mistakes pushed me farther and farther from everything I had known.

* * *

Most people watch Lawrence of Arabia and are blinded by the question of Laurence’s sexuality and how he exercised it. Really, I don’t care, it’s not that interesting. The essence of sexuality is found in the inexpressible feeling of attraction we have when looking at another — intellectualization and moralization come later. We can only hope, for his sake, that Lawrence found some joy and love in his messed up life, no matter how he was able to express it or with whom.

What came out of watching Lawrence of Arabia this time was seeing how much of an outsider he was. He isn’t a gay hero. He isn’t really even a hero at all. He lived his erratic life, attempting to do the best he could. He was a lost man trying to cope with a world he didn’t fit into. An American journalist turned him into a legend and Lawrence went along for the ride.

In real life, as a kid, T. E. Lawrence suffered random and excessive beatings and humiliation at the hands of his mother — an unmarried servant living with his aristocratic father. These beginnings, especially in terms of the class uncertainty and the questionable moral grounding of his family had to be confusing for Lawrence while growing up in the Victorian age. Overcoming this tumultuous beginning would be a monumental personal challenge for any person. It’s hard to imagine how a young Lawrence could feel at peace or even safe in his position. Lawrence learned to cope by shutting down.

In the desert, with the Arab people, Lawrence seems to find the closest thing to fitting in he would ever find. He was an accepted outsider. He was special. He was different. He could be himself, whatever that was.

Laurence’s fantasy of the natural primitive purity of the Arab people and his personal delusion of elevating himself above his humanness was shattered during his beatings and homosexual rape at the hands of the governor of Deraa.

He would later write of experience, “… the force of that night will lie in the agony which broke me and made me sur­ren­der. (…) For fear of being hurt, or rather to earn five minutes respite from a pain which drove me mad, I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity. It’s an unforgivable matter…

In various ways, we all give up different levels of personal integrity during the process of life and our attempts to avoid pain.

In the movie, the adult Laurence lives a life of detached fantasy — he is an image to himself. He never has any true intimate human attachments. He passes through life, reacting to one opportunity after another — he responds to the changes in the wind and tries to find a place for himself along the way. Maybe none of us can do any better.

A pivotal point in the movie comes after Lawrence risks his own life to go back into the blazing desert to rescue a dying man. When he returns, Sherif Ali gives him a set of traditional Arab robes and an ornate dagger in gratitude. Lawrence is accepted conditionally as “one of them” for doing something that none of them would have done. The irony is that Lawrence will later take the very same man’s life. Lawrence is no saint.

After putting on his new Arab dress for the first time, Lawrence finds himself alone in the desert and dances around in joy when he thinks that no one is looking — prancing around in gestures of exuberance which can easily be taken as feminine. The scene is viewed by many to be one of the hidden gay scenes in the film, but I choose to interpret it as Lawrence throwing off the oppressive Victorian moral code that he had been saddled with since youth and letting himself be free. Freedom is much larger than simple sexuality.

Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident while driving down the British road alone. At his funeral, we hear what people have to say about him. It is clear that no one really knew who he was. This, in spite of the fact that he was a national hero and honoured author. You have to wonder what he was thinking when he was alone — when he felt truly free — at the moment of his death.

* * *

Much like Kerouac’s personal self portrayal in On the Road, we see in T. E. Lawrence, as portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia, a man on a journey of self discovery. Both are in search of some sort of freedom — a way to put down the baggage they carry deep inside their scarred souls. While Kerouac never seems to get over his preconceived notion of what freedom should be and how he should find it, Lawrence seems to have been open to the remarkable situations that he found himself in and was able to let himself go. During the period of Lawrence’s Middle East military activities, he got to express himself in ways that he never could have foreseen. This is what freedom is all about, escaping every preconception — experiencing what is beyond what you can let yourself dream. Kerouac never opened up to anything and never found anything but loneliness and his own loathsomeness.

Perhaps it is finding the moments of freedom between all the bullshit in our lives that matters most — relishing in those moments where we let out ourselves out. For T. E. Lawrence, this came when he found himself in an alien landscape far from his home. We can romanticize this to the nth degree. There is a beauty in this type of salvation, but in real life, the opportunities for freedom and self expression are all around us. They are found in the multitude of small things that add up to a meaningful whole.

Lawrence of Arabia was just shown locally on the big screen where is was truly epic. On the Road opens in Tucson this week. I don’t have high hopes for this adaptation of Kerouac’s novel, but I will be definitely seeing it as soon as I can.

* * *

When I lived in Chicago, I slept with a world atlas by my bed. It was my book of salvation, somewhat like a Bible is to many. It gave me hope of escape. I’d read the cryptic entries describing distant cities and countries and I would flip through the pages. On many nights, I’d fall asleep dreaming of where I might find happiness. Before I lost this atlas, I had moved many places. Left a lot behind. I never found the happiness I looked for — not in the way I had imagined it anyway — but in the end, I stopped looking and found the happiness I have inside myself.

Solar Culture Gallery – Henryton Sanitorium Photos

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Opening Saturday 23 February 2013

6-9 PM

Last week was my birthday and my girlfriend took me with her on a business trip to D.C. She asked what I wanted to do there other than going to the museums. I did a quick google search on “abandoned Maryland” and told her my perfect birthday would be spent exploring a couple abandoned insane asylums with her. There aren’t anything like this in Arizona so it was a great adventure and turned out being my best birthday ever! These are the first photos from the trip.

My Photos on Exhibit:

Solar Culture Gallery is located at 31 East Toole Avenue, Tucson, AZ