Wednesday, June 2, 2010
I live in a university town that is also home to the state mental hospital. My father often commented that it was sometimes hard to tell the patients from the students especially during the 60's. The mental hospital is located at the east end of Main street. It's an old hospital dating back to the late 1800's. The buildings are old and as a kid I was terrified to even drive past the tall gates surrounding the grounds of the hospital.
The worst fire in my home town's history, measured by the lives lost, killed 38 men and boys in the Oklahoma State Hospital for mental patients occurred on April 13, 1918. That may have been the largest fire death toll in Oklahoma history. (The April 19,1995, Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 is considered in the explosion category.)
The fire broke out at4 a.m. on a Saturday, destroying two large buildings, described by our home town paper, The Norman Transcript as "old frame" structures, and a new building used as the dining hall.
All 38 victims were in a first-floor ward housing 48 boys 10 to 15 years old, the newspaper reported. Apparently some victims were attendants. All 36 patients in a second-floor ward were rescued, led down an outside stairway "by most strenuous efforts."
Eighty patients in the other destroyed ward building were evacuated safely. Firefighters were able to put out the flames in a third ward building, and patients who had been moved out were able to return. Others were covered with blankets on the grounds until they could be placed in other buildings.
“There were numerous instances of bravery in going into burning buildings," the story said, "but none of them take any special credit to themselves."
There was speculation that either an electrical defect or spontaneous combustion started the fire. A coroner's jury said the cause was unknown. Property damage was estimated at $25,000).
All but one of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and were buried in one big grave in the northeastern part of the IOOF Cemetery. "Everybody was laid in a neat coffin and given every kindly consideration possible," the Transcript account stated.
Although the story: put the deaths at 37, The World Almanac calls it 38. Probably an injured patient died later.
As a kid the hospital's patients were a mystery to me. They were never seen but you could imagine the stories that were told. Whenever we had sleepovers there were always one or two ghost stories involving the mental hospital. About the time I became a teenager the idea for mental health outpatient services started to develop. More and more patients were integrated into the community and many became urban legends around town. Unfortunately people with various mental issues can draw a lot of attention to themselves.
There are many, many, stories about individuals who have walked the streets of Norman whose permanent address was the state mental hospital. They had no where to go during the day except to roam the streets and sit on benches under the shade. It is a sad commentary about the mental health system.
I remember Crazy Craig. He was a fixture on the campus corner in the early 80s. He always kept a journal with him that he wrote and drew into. He eventually developed something of a cult status for his artwork, selling pieces from his journal for food money. And there was Billy Three Hats, the guy who wore several hats precariously stacked on top of his head. Someone said they heard Billy Three Hats was committed after assaulting his mother. Some kids looked in his duffel bag one time when he was away from his bike. They reported he had a pair of socks, a flashlight, a manual for a 72 Buick and a brand new hardback copy of Vanna Speaks! The autobiography of Vanna White!
And there was Crazy Judy who carried a doll and her child's purse and would solicit business men on the street. One day I saw her in the bus station diner and she had perched herself at the counter right next to a man sporting a 3 piece suit just having a quiet cup of coffee when Judy, in her booming voice, said "@#$% you for a dollar, I won't @#$% you for a dollar." The poor man about scalded his chin as he tried to no avail to slide away from her to the next stool. Judy just followed him down the row of stools until she had him trapped against the wall. He had no choice but to try to make a run for the door with Judy in hot pursuit.
But probably the most infamous character was a schizophrenic who had been a fixture in Norman for as long as I can remember. There were so many stories about this man simply referred to as the Glove Man. He walked all over town always wearing a white pair of gloves. He was always engaged in conversation with imaginary companions sometimes raising his voice to a fever pitch. I remember seeing him often, walking all over town and talking to someone who wasn't there. Once I was absorbed in picking out some veggie or other at the grocery store and didn't notice that he was doing the same, about 5 or 6 feet away. Suddenly I was jarred back to reality by a big, booming voice that said "I DAMN YOU, AND MY *MOTHER* DAMNS YOU!!!". I about jumped out of my skin. I thought someone was yelling at ME! I turned and saw him there, turning a green pepper in his white-gloved hand, looking like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.
One legend as to why he wore gloves was that his family had perished in a fire and he had repeatedly run into the house to try and save them and had been severely burned. They said he lost his mind after the fire. A lady once asked him why he always wore gloves and he said ,"Because they will do bad things if I take them off."
A story was done in The Oklahoma Gazette on The Glove Man around the time the movie A Beautiful Mind came out. This was after he died. Glove Man's real name was James Pittman and he was a gifted mathematician at OU, apparently with a very promising future. Unfortunately he developed schizophrenia, much like the guy in the movie. It had quotes from people that knew him before and after his illness, and all said he was always a kind and gentle man. It was actually very moving.
The real story here is that we encounter people every day who may seem a little strange or say things that aren't quite appropriate but they are someone's child, brother or sister. They may have been part of a family and over time became lost or estranged from those who cared about them. I didn't understand any of that as a kid. I was just like most people, afraid of what was different. But now I know that each and every person has a story no matter how odd or how different they may appear their story is worth being told.