Patient Observation

I had a perfectly normal childhood in Wichita Falls, a place Advertising Age once called the most average city in America. But I didn’t truly understand where I was from until I stepped inside the gates of the local state hospital and realized that every town has another side.
Patient Observation
An undated photograph of the Wichita Falls State Hospital, whose population peaked at 3,481 patients in 1955. Today it has fewer than 240.

One summer afternoon in the late sixties, when I was ten years old, I went swimming at a friend’s house on the very last street of a subdivision on the southern edge of Wichita Falls. When I stood on the diving board, I was able to see over the wooden fence that separated the backyard from acres of undeveloped pastureland. Maybe a mile away, silhouetted against the horizon, I could make out a cluster of dignified, red-brick buildings trimmed with limestone. Some of them were three stories high, as big as oilmen’s mansions.

I stood there, barely breathing. The next week, I visited my friend again, grabbed a pair of binoculars from his parents’ bedroom, and returned to the diving board to get a better look. My friend’s father, a prominent gynecologist in Wichita Falls, came outside, shaking his head, and asked what the hell I was doing.

“Looking for the lunatics,” I replied.

The buildings, 35 in all, made up what was then known as the Wichita Falls State Hospital. They were home to nearly two thousand Texans who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, and a whole host of other mental problems that no doctor could explain at the time. Like every kid who grew up in Wichita Falls, I had heard all sorts of stories about the patients—a man who believed he could fly, another man who drank his own urine, a woman who could not stop biting her fingernails, and her roommate, who kept pulling out her own hair.

At Friday night sleepovers, my friends and I would sit in the dark, holding flashlights under our chins, scaring one another with the tale of the homicidal maniac with a hook for a hand who had escaped from his padded cell and attacked two teenagers who were parking on a secluded dirt road. (Just as he’d slammed his hook into the car door, the terrified couple had raced away, ripping off his arm.) We swapped details about the patient who had received a lobotomy and who still walked, zombielike, through town on moonlit nights, looking for children to mutilate. And no sleepover was complete without a thorough accounting of what we all knew about the nymphomaniacs who supposedly lived at the hospital, beautiful, long-haired women in their early twenties who were being treated for their sexual obsessions, caused by drinking too much Spanish fly.

Wichita Falls was a small, starkly normal city of about 100,000 people—so normal that Advertising Age would later call it America’s most average city. It had three downtown movie theaters, a public library open six days a week, and both a YMCA and a YWCA. My friends and I grew up in homes full of bronzed baby shoes, needlepoints that read “Bless This House,” and family portraits taken at Olan Mills. Our fathers came home from work and sat in their La-Z-Boys, watching Walter Cronkite, while our mothers fixed meat loaf dinners in kitchens illuminated by fluorescent lights. For us, the state hospital, which nearly everyone referred to as LSU, or Lakeside University, because it was located across from Lake Wichita, was our real-life haunted house. The fact that two thousand adults were being treated for “insanity” out in those buildings, just past the city limits sign, simply tortured our imaginations. Indeed, one of the great rites of passage for kids in Wichita Falls was to pile into the bed of a pickup at dusk and race past LSU. Someone would always pretend to see a patient lurking behind a mesquite tree with a knife in his hand, and everyone would start to scream, the girls clutching their boyfriends, as the driver slammed his foot on the accelerator and sent the truck fishtailing down the road.

But that was as close as anyone my age got to the hospital. Nor did we ever get a good look at any of the patients except on those rare occasions when we saw a few of them coming through the city in the hospital’s old yellow bus, on their way to the Wichita Mountains for a field trip (with a stop at the Holy City of the Wichitas, an area that had been made to resemble Israel during biblical times). Our hearts pounding, we’d stare at them, barely making out their faces through the smeared windows, and they’d stare at us—and suddenly the bus would be gone, exhaust billowing out of the tailpipe and hanging in the air like a ghost.

Everything changed, however, when I was a freshman in high school. A new hospital superintendent named Mark Huff had arrived, and he and his staff began inviting the sane of Wichita Falls out to the hospital to meet the insane. Apparently Huff believed that such a grand intermingling would help rehabilitate the patients and perhaps help them rejoin the outside world.

The leader of my Boy Scout troop, Mr. Hamlett, a good-natured, backslapping newspaperman who was always exhorting us to become better citizens, thought this was a fine idea. Toward the end of one of our Monday night meetings, just before we all held hands and prayed to the Great Scoutmaster of All Scouts, he announced that we would be going out to the state hospital for our monthly service project. “That’s right, boys,” he said. “We’re off to LSU!”

My fellow Scouts and I looked at one another. We could barely believe what we were hearing. Were we really going to meet the lunatics?

Mr. Hamlett gave us a huge grin. “And you better be on your best behavior. I don’t want them getting any ideas about keeping you!”

Legend has it that in the early 1900’s, the Legislature offered the city fathers of Wichita Falls either a major new university, which was to be called Texas Tech, or an insane asylum. “Our leaders, in their great wisdom, weren’t so sure about the possibilities of higher education,” said Edgar Shockley, a high school classmate of mine who is an amateur Wichita Falls

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