Marion Rodwell had been reluctantly boarding out her young son, Craig, during the week. Divorced and working in Chicago as a low-paid secretary, Marion hadn't known what else to do; she couldn't afford to stay home and she didn't have enough money to hire a competent babysitter. For several years, Craig lived during the week-Marion reclaiming him on weekends-with Mrs. Ryberg, a kindly woman who took in a number of neighborhood children. As soon as he was old enough, Mrs. Ryberg gave him chores to do, including the job of kneading yellow coloring into the margarine to make it look more like butter (this was wartime, with butter unavailable). Craig liked Mrs. Ryberg so much that he hadn't minded the work, though it was strenuous and he was little more than a toddler.
But when Craig was five, Marion decided he should be in a more stimulating environment, and she turned to an inexpensive day-care center on Chicago's North Side. But it quickly became apparent that the low rates reflected the minimal individual attention given. Marion felt at her wit's end when a Mrs. Merkle, who sometimes worked at the day-care center and had taken a shine to Craig, told her that she would board the boy full-time if Marion would pay her a small sum each week. Marion agreed, hoping Mrs. Merkle would be able to give Craig the daily affection and attention he needed.
Attention he got, but very little affection. Mrs. Merkle also took in laundry to piece out an income, and she put Craig to work running sheets and towels through a mangle, watching hawk-eyed to make sure the five-year-old didn't slack off. Craig worked in constant terror of getting his fingers caught in the mangle, and he soon grew to hate Mrs. Merkle. But she found the arrangement profitable and began to play with the idea of adopting Craig as her own son (or indentured servant). Word of Mrs. Merkle's intention reached Marion and threw her into a panic. Mrs. Merkle had a husband, and Marion feared the courts might equate that with "having a stable home." Desperate, she confided in her boss. A devout Christian Scientist, he had connections with the church-affiliated Chicago Junior School for "problem" boys, and before long he had arranged for Craig to be admitted there free of charge.
Craig never forgot that fall day in 1947 when his mother drove him out to Chicago Junior. At age six, he didn't entirely understand what was happening to him, but his fright was palpable. The school was located some fifty miles outside of Chicago, set deep in the country between the towns of Dundee and Elgin. A complex of old, marginally maintained buildings, Chicago Junior was surrounded by woods and sealed off by a chain-link fence. Before leaving Craig off, Marion did her best to comfort him, assuring her son that with some forty other boys as playmates, he would be happy at the school. She promised that she would unfailingly come to see him on the third Sunday of every month, the only day visitors were allowed on the grounds.
But Craig had not been reassured. During his first month at the school, he cried himself to sleep every night. And every morning at breakfast, he threw up the unfamiliar hot cereal. A housemother cured him of the crying by sternly lecturing him about how unhappy his mother would be should she learn of his "bad" behavior. Another housemother cured him of the vomiting by picking him up by the neck from the breakfast table, marching him into the bathroom and forcing him to stand over the toilet and eat the vomit.
The housemothers came in two basic varieties: the stern ones who mechanically kept to the rules (and kept the boys at arms' length), and the warm surrogate mothers. Mrs. Wilkins, the music teacher, who doubled as a substitute housemother, quickly became Craig's favorite. The students lived in three dormitories, twelve to fifteen boys in each, and a housemother slept in a small room adjoining each dorm. Whenever Mrs. Wilkins was in charge, she let the boys do pretty much as they liked-make noise, and stay up past their bedtime-and usually refrained from checking up on them in the middle of the night.
She would also read them stories. Craig had two favorites. One was about a pair of boys who wanted to be brothers so badly, they pricked each other's fingers and formed a "blood bond." The other was "The Happy Prince." As Craig retells that story, it took place in a poor middle-European city that had a richly jeweled statue of Prince Somebody or Other in its main square. One day, a pigeon sitting on the Prince's shoulder noticed that a tear had formed in his eye. When the bird asked the Prince why he was unhappy, the Prince explained that the people in the city were starving because of poor crops, and he urged the pigeon to take the emerald embedded in his eye and sell it to buy the people food.
On and on the story went: The Prince would cry, would encourage the pigeon to sell the diamonds on his sword handle, the rubies on his breastplate-and so on-to provide coal for the people's stoves, warm clothing to put on their backs-and so on. At the story's close, all the jewels are gone, but the Prince is happy in the knowledge that the people no longer suffer. Craig adored the story and contended in later years that it had taught him important lessons about the need to share worldly goods with those less fortunate. (He also learned in later years that the story was written by Oscar Wilde.)
There were only two men on staff at the Chicago Junior School. One was Mr. Lazarus, who had himself been a student there and who in summer months would take some of the boys out for a midnight swim in the ancient concrete pool on the grounds and then astonish them by diving underwater, pulling off his bathing suit, and letting his ass shine naked in the moonlight. No one, so far as Craig knew, was ever invited to touch it.
The only other man at the school was its superintendent, the hated Mr. Kilburn. He enjoyed pitting the boys against each other in competition for his favor and each night would award the most "deserving" student the supreme honor of carrying a huge dinner tray to him and his wife in their apartment on the top of the classroom building; the bearer's reward was a Baby Ruth candy bar. Craig never once got to carry the tray. For after getting over his initial fright and settling into the school's routines, he had quickly become something of a rebel-the boy who challenged authority and "sassed" back.
That would alone have earned Kilburn's dislike. What intensified it was his conviction that Craig was a sissy. Two hours of sports were mandated at Chicago Junior for every student every day of the year. Craig, as the tallest boy in his group, was good at basketball, but inept in baseball-scandalously so, in Kilburn's view. Deciding he would teach Craig how to throw the baseball "like a real boy," Kilburn made him trudge a mile to the baseball field after dinner each night to get the appropriate coaching.
What convinced Kilburn that Craig's prospects in life were dim was his discovery that Craig had been sending away for autographed pictures of movie stars, had managed to collect several dozen, and-scandalously, again-had been sharing them with the other boys. Kilburn promptly confiscated the collection and thereafter opened all of Craig's incoming mail to make sure it contained no offending material. To underscore the horrendous nature of Craig's crime, Kilburn meted out his favorite punishment: Craig was given "one hundred burdock"-that is, assigned to dig up a hundred of the burdock plants that dotted the grounds; the burdock had long, deep roots, and to kill it one had to laboriously dig out every last piece.
This was but one of several Dickensian features of the school. Corporal punishment, including paddling, was commonplace; one teacher's favorite method was to beat offending students with an electric cord. The boys themselves did almost all the work on the place, keeping up the grounds, helping in the kitchen, serving the food. They marched in formation to meals in the dining hall, had to sit on the front part of their chairs to keep their backs stiff, and during breakfast were forbidden to speak. Strictly enforced prayer sessions began with Bible study at five A.M. and were reinforced periodically throughout the day, even during football huddles. When Craig didn't understand something in the Bible, or in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, which the boys were also made to study, he would raise his hand and say so. Most of the teachers treated this as a form of defiance. They sternly warned Craig that he was being "difficult," and his reputation as a rebellious child spread.
The draconian spirit at Chicago Junior produced a variety of bans. No incoming phone calls were permitted; the one phone in the place was locked up in the laundry room. Entertainment consisted of an occasional bonfire in fall and an occasional swim in summer, plus carefully monitored television once a week (the boys were allowed to watch only I Remember Mama and Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and the set was turned off during commercials for fear the cigarette and beer ads might prove too appealing). And any boy being punished for any reason was automatically denied his monthly visiting day-which meant Craig sometimes didn't get to see Marion for months at a time.
Among the boys' few diversions were occasional square dances, which they would perform for the Evanston Women's Club and other local groups as a fund-raising device. Half the boys would dress in regular clothes, and the other half would don little skirts and halters, which the housemothers had sewn for them. As a reward for the performance, each boy would be given a stocking filled with candy, fruit, and pennies.
There was also a Halloween party every year in the gym. The housemothers would again make costumes for the boys; one year Craig went as a fat lady, with a pillow stuck under his dress and lipstick smeared on his face. (When the boys lined up to have Craig give them kiss marks on the cheek, Mr. Kilburn ordered a halt.) The thirteen-year-old seniors were taken into the town of Elgin once a month to learn the fox-trot and the waltz-though the boys viewed this as punishment, not entertainment.
Despite these rigors, Craig was happier than not during his seven years at the Chicago Junior School and retains "wonderful, vivid memories" of the place. They center, not surprisingly, on the intensely emotional, sometimes erotic friendships that developed among the boys themselves.
Craig's first crush, when he was seven, was on an older boy (aged eight) named Bob Palmer. Bob's talented piano playing made him something of a school star and Craig "just worshiped" him. Epiphany came on a cold winter night. In the freezing, drafty dorms each boy kept an extra blanket at the foot of his bed, and Craig awoke one morning to discover that his blanket had been pulled up over him. He "just knew" Bob Palmer had done it, had gotten up in the middle of the night to make sure his little friend was warm.
Craig was the first boy in his age group to reach puberty, and in the showers the others never tired of staring in amazement at his emerging pubic hair. Harry, a slightly older boy, moved matters to the next logical stage. He took Craig out to one of the gigantic oak trees in the woods that the boys (disobeying the rules) loved to climb, and when they were standing at the top of the tree, he unzipped Craig's pants and said he was going to show him something. Craig immediately got a roaring hard-on and Harry masturbated him. To Craig's astonishment, "white stuff" flew out of his penis, great gobs of it covering his jeans-followed by panic over how to explain the stains to his housemother. Craig and Harry finally concocted a tale about "finding a can of white paint while playing in the woods."
Not all the boys were as winning as Harry. Chicago Junior, was, after all, a school for "disturbed" youth, and a few of the boys really did have problems beyond being overweight or having rejecting parents. When Ted invited Craig for a romp in the woods, the scenario moved quickly beyond white paint: Ted wanted to stick a pin up the opening in Craig's penis. Craig had the good sense to jump up and run. Ted tried to give chase, but he was a large, clumsy boy and Craig easily outdistanced him. Eventually Ted was sent to St. Charles, the nearby state reformatory. "We're going to send you to St. Charles" was a standard threat at Chicago Junior, though one infrequently carried out.
Most of the sex play among the boys involved kissing and masturbation, though "cornholing" was known to happen, and oral sex was frequent enough for rumors of it to reach Mr. Kilburn. He at once convened an assembly-always a weighty event at the school-to express his indignation over rumors that boys were "inserting their penises into other boys' mouths." He demanded that each boy submit a statement to him, declaring whether he had or had not ever committed that mortal sin.
Craig had deeply internalized the Christian Science notion that "truth is power and that truth is the greatest good," and he forthrightly declared in his statement that he had indeed engaged in the forbidden behavior. Worse, his tone was not defensive and he made no apology. Yet to his surprise, Kilburn did not punish him, even though some of the boys who confessed were put to pulling burdock or breaking up rocks. Craig supposes that Kilburn had already written him off as hopeless-after all, he had been the only person in the school to favor Stevenson over Eisenhower in the 1952 election-and was probably afraid Craig would make even more trouble if punished. The episode confirmed Craig's belief-which was to be central in his life-that "telling the truth" was in the end always the best policy.
The boys, of course, went right on having sex with each other. Not everybody participated, but none of them looked askance at the activity. Intense friendships and frequent touching were so integral to the special environment they inhabited as to seem utterly natural; even the nonsexual boys would walk back and forth to the dining hall unself-consciously holding hands. Occasionally a housemother would tell them they "shouldn't" do that, which made Craig aware for the first time that some people regarded his feelings as wrong-infuriating him, even at that early age.
Copyright © 2019 by Martin Duberman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.