From high in the trees along the shady avenue, past Cottage Fifteen, a creature sang incessantly, and loudest on sweltering summer days. "Locust," the boys of C-15 whispered, when they heard the frantic solo. They were cicadas outside my window, preaching from the trees, but my child-self still hears their whirring and murmurs, locust, locust.
I walked through weeds on the playground to see grasshoppers of all sizes leap and fly. When they settled, I watched them watching me. One, I learned, the one the boys called locust, slept seventeen years in darkness before soaring into the summer light.
* * *
It was overcast, almost dreary that day, the third Saturday of September 1944. I wore a soiled t-shirt and denims, and the slapping of my bare feet on the masonry floor echoed through the quiet halls of the Main Building. I rounded a bend and came to an abrupt stop. Miss Borsch stood talking to a middle-aged couple sitting on a hall bench. She smiled while pointing my way, but I sidled past them along the far wall looking straight ahead at the floor. I entered an office and placed papers on the desk but, when I turned to leave, Miss Borsch blocked the doorway.
"Peter, we've been looking for you," Miss Borsch said. "Miss Lewis said you would be running errands here. You must go to the cottage right now, get your things, and return here. Those folks in the hall have come to take you."
"Yes. They live over a hundred miles away and need to return home in time for chores."
"What clothes should I take?" I asked.
"That's all taken care of. Just bring your personal things."
"I have no personal things," I replied and shrugged.
"Miss Lewis seems to think you have a pocket Bible and rosary," Miss Borsch said.
"Yeah, those," I said. "How much time do I get?"
"Can you take a bath, dress, and be back in an hour?" she asked. "Miss Lewis has clean clothes ready for you. The Schaulses will buy you dinner on the way."
"Schauls?" I murmured. "I'll try."
My thoughts danced between hope for a good life and dark omens as I showered and dressed. The rosary and pocket Bible in hand, I waited in the living room for Miss Lewis to sign me out of the cottage-for the last time. The matron said little, just drew a line through my name on the register, and my final departure from the cottage was of no more note than were I going out for chores.
Back at the Main Building, I was clean with combed hair, dark blue dress pants, and a light blue shirt. My Sunday suit and winter clothes were already in the car when I delivered the papers to the office. Miss Borsch stood beside me, and we faced the couple.
"John and Emma Schauls," she said, motioning toward them.
John stood, staring at me without smiling. Instinctively, I looked down, and we shook hands. His grasp was aggressive. I glanced up but his unblinking stare made me uneasy-like a strange chill had seeped into the room. He was only a bit taller than me but much larger, and his gray hair fringed a bald pate, prematurely for a man I was told was in his late thirties. Emma stood, forced an awkward smile, and laid her hand in mine, as she mumbled a greeting. She was close to forty and nearly cross-eyed so she wore thick glasses.
Miss Borsch's smile never faltered and she bantered nonstop about weather and farming.
"Peter has been with us all his life," Miss Borsch explained. "Now, he's ready to try farming."
I remained silent and stared at the floor.
My family fell apart shortly after I was born. The United Christian Charities of St. Paul was housing my parents and two older brothers at the time and helping my father search for work. He was from the Fond du Lac band of Minnesota Chippewas, named Ningoos at birth, and baptized Wilbur. He served with the expeditionary forces in France during the First World War and did not work much after marrying my mother in 1925.
My mother, Mary Razor, was quiet, given to depression. My father drank and was of little help nurturing the children. One of my brothers, Leonard, was hydrocephalic and retarded, and the other, Arnold, was still young. When the state social services ruled that my mother suffered from "confusion," they sent her along with Leonard to an asylum at St. Peter. Some of my relatives from Michigan came to take Arnold home with them, but they did not take me. They thought my head looked too large for my body and feared I would turn out like Leonard. So I stayed with my father. He was supposed to look after me while he continued searching for a job. Instead he went to Milwaukee. I was ten months old when he abandoned me.
The state placed me temporarily in the Christian Boarding Home for Children in St. Paul, where two months later a psychologist tested me and recorded: Peter Razor is of Indian heritage. He is of average intelligence and underweight. I was taken to Ramsey County court and declared a ward of the state, at which point I was ordered committed to the State Public School at Owatonna. My placement was delayed by a measles epidemic, but on April 30, 1930, I arrived in the State School nursery. I was seventeen months old.
The State Public School occupied hundreds of acres on the west side of Owatonna. Farm buildings, gardens, and croplands were west, and the campus east-next to the city. Most cottages, facilities, and the Main Building were on a central mound that created an impressive, almost medieval, skyline. The Main Building, a large t-shaped, castle-like structure, faced a street bordered by trimmed shrubs, imposing flower beds, and large, well-kept lawns. Visitors were greeted inside in ornate offices with a posh visitors' lounge and teams of smiling civil servants.
A private children's hospital had recovery and isolation wards and an operating room for general surgery, such as removing a child's tonsils or appendix. The hospital admitted all patients needing bed rest, including those with headaches or minor fevers. Cottages, numbered one to sixteen, separately housed boys and girls who transferred, as they grew, to cottages for older children.
In the cottages, away from public view, white-uniformed matrons reigned supreme. They lived full-time in apartments in the cottage and were called house mothers by the office. Assistants to the matrons wore colored uniforms specific to their positions and worked twenty-four hours on, then had twenty-four hours off. While on duty, they ate with the children and slept in small private rooms.
The school is closed now. Little remains but these buildings, and a cemetery at the southwest corner of the former campus. Nearly two hundred children who died of disease, accident, or other causes lie there. Those three years old or younger suffered a higher death rate than the older children-death from general debility or simply wasted away, the records say. Those without family were buried without ceremony. Children died on farm indenture and other placements, too. According to mortality statistics over one ten-year period, as many children died on placement as those on the school grounds.
State officials disagreed about how the school would affect children. About 1900, one officially recorded his concern: I fear we have created a penal institution for innocent children. But there were few advocates for children then, and their voices were lost in the din of politics. To pacify their critics, state social services declared they would keep a child no longer than three months. It will be a way station for children, until we place them into loving homes, they wrote.
For the good of the child, a family that had a child taken away lost all rights except visitation. If the child ran away from the institution and returned home, the family was obliged, under penalty of law, to return their son or daughter to the state.
Families selecting children would review office files and be guided by staff before meeting a child. Adoption and procedures for taking foster children required more than one visit, but I did not meet my farmer before he came to get me. I had no choice, was told nothing of how to act, nor what to expect. In an early discussion about my suitability for farm placement, Miss Borsch said flatly, Peter can take care of himself. Staff commented often how Dale and I ran away at age fourteen, were gone over a week, and that seemed to set the stage to hand us over to farmers.
Most adoptive couples looked at race, intelligence, character, and their perception of physical perfection. Most farmers were interested in docility and durability. The bottom line of my last physical, which John Schauls would have seen, read, Peter Razor is a sturdy very athletic 15 year old. At the time I was five feet six inches tall and weighed 130 pounds.
An institutional state ward for fifteen years, I would now be a farm-indentured state ward. The state would not be responsible any more for my room, board, or clothing. Now they would only pay for major medical expenses or burial costs.
Midwinter 1944 at the State Public School, Dr. Yager, child psychologist at the school, posed a very strange question to me, "Do you think you could call anyone Mother or Father?"
I mumbled, "I wouldn't know what to do in a family."
"It's hard to find a family for an Indian boy, and we have no Indian families listed," Dr. Yager continued. "And you've been here a long time."
"How long?" I asked, without really caring.
"Fifteen years," Dr. Yager replied.
For the first fourteen years of my life, I knew Dr. Yager only as the one who sat blandly behind a desk pointing at tests with assurances that no matter how I did on them, was all right. I worked the tests at another table while he remained at his desk. Dr. Yager loved climbing into the minds of children. It was more than his job, it was his life. Every child had to be somewhere in his text book or he became obsessed with exposing their peculiarity. He recorded that I was very quiet and, before the age of twelve, basically untestable. He might have suspected that cottage life was at least partially responsible for, what he wrote, my sullen and withdrawn demeanor, but probably knew little of my experiences with a few employees.
Weeks or a month after Dr. Yager's strange questions about family life, I was interviewed by Mr. Doleman, a social worker under Superintendent Vevle.
"You told Dr. Yager that you would not feel comfortable in a regular family," Mr. Doleman said.
"Well ... I said maybe I didn't know what it meant to be in a family."
"Perhaps that was it," Mr. Doleman said. "Do you think you would like to work on a farm?"
"The work might be all right," I replied, then mumbled, "Heard it was dangerous. Being on a farm, I mean." Shifting uneasily on my chair, I glanced at documents on the wall, which said collectively that Mr. Doleman was very wise, indeed. I knew he stared at me, into me, and, uneasy, I looked around at the floor.
After a long silence, Mr. Doleman spoke, sounding like a preacher, "Everyone has to work for a living."
"A guy died on a farm last year, they said," I persisted. "The farmer beat him up or something." When stubborn, I pursed my mouth while staring at the floor near my shoes.
Mr. Doleman straightened in his chair. "You don't know that for sure," he said. He leaned back, slowly tapping his fingertips together in front of his face. "Unfortunate things might have happened in the past, but we watch things today." He seemed mildly irked.
Who watched Kruger and Beaty or Monson? I wanted to ask, but instead I mumbled, "Do I have to go to a farm?"
"Please understand ... if you're not placed soon ... well, you have to go somewhere." Mr. Doleman spoke softly, but I heard his threat.
"Why couldn't I go to relatives up north?" I asked. I squinted at the floor near my shoes. "If I can work for a farmer, I can work for relatives, can't I ... or myself?"
"You're not old enough to be on your own," Mr. Doleman insisted. "Can't you see? If I remember correctly, you were quite run down and filthy when I picked you up in St. Paul. Miss Klein"-the C-16 assistant-"also mentioned how terrible you and Dale looked."
Shrugging, I whispered almost to myself, "You made me come back." Then louder, "The State School, I mean."
Mr. Doleman pushed away from his desk. "We'll talk again," he said with a sigh of disappointment. "You may return to Cottage Sixteen."
Called to the office in early July, I was ushered before Miss Borsch for the first time. She was young and vivacious, smiled nonstop, and her eyes were warm friendly things. Mr. Doleman had called up the big guns. Having no experience with girls or doting women, I'd be a pushover.
"Good morning, Peter. My, isn't the weather simply grand?" Miss Borsch breathed. Her right arm was elevated toward the window, her upturned palm sagged off the wrist with two fingers languidly extended. I watched her hand and reeled from her brilliant smile.
"How have you been?" Her charm was in full gallop.
"All right, I guess," I replied, trying to guess her next move.
"Did you enjoy the outing with Mr. and Mrs. Cory?" Miss Borsch asked.
"Corys? ... Uh, yeah," I replied. More pieces to the puzzle suddenly fell into place.
"Have you thought about what comes after the State School?" she murmured softly.
"Some. I'd rather go on my own or to relatives."
"You became quite ill after your first, ah ... trip last summer," Miss Borsch said, appearing concerned. "It's not in your file, but Mrs. Steele says your second trip was quite dangerous." She was referring to the two times I had run away from the school.
"I didn't think so."
"Anyway," she murmured, appearing sympathetic, "you can see why you can't be on your own. Just yet."
"Dunno," I mumbled, but I knew where it all headed. "Couldn't I go to high school in Owatonna?"
"I'd like to see you in a regular home, if possible," Miss Borsch persisted.
"Older boys go to high school from here," I insisted.
"Perhaps they want to do something else," she replied. "Go into the army, for instance."
"Can I do something else?" I groped. "Besides this farm thing, I mean. Somebody said indenture is slavery."
"It's no longer indenture," Miss Borsch corrected. "It's farm placement." Her smile faded, but she retained composure. "And it's certainly not slavery! I really think you'd like a farm. We'd see that you got a good family, and somebody would visit you to see how things were going." Her smile could again melt steel.
"I don't know." Trapped, hating myself for letting her lead me on, I looked around at the floor. "If I went on a farm, would I go to high school?"
"Absolutely!" she said leaning across her desk toward me. "A farmer has to sign an agreement allowing you to attend school. It's your choice after age sixteen, but the family can't make you quit. And you are to be paid for summer work."
"Oh? Besides food and clothes?"
"That's right. We would leave the amount up to you and the family to decide."
"What do guys get working for farmers?" I asked.
"It depends on age and experience," Miss Borsch replied. "You might start at twenty-five dollars per month for summer work, but you'd work only for room and board while in school."
"That's a lot of money," I said. It was hard imagining money in amounts over one dollar. My grandmother on my father's side had sent me a one-dollar bill when I was twelve, and I had seldom possessed more than a quarter or fifteen cents at a time, since. Money bought tickets to movies in town or candy and circulated as part of a barter economy. Relatives sent money to children, and older boys, who seemed to always have money for cigarettes, worked in town or ran errands.
"You would get more as you grow older," Miss Borsch pressed. Beaming, she leaned more toward me, but still stared like most office workers.
I shrank back, my head tilted to one side. I wondered what would happen if I held out. I'd probably be sent to Red Wing, the state reformatory for boys.