larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next

December, 2008

First Night

by Larry

During the early years of my employment history, including before, during, and awhile after working my way through college, I liked to think of my various occupations as material for a future writing career. I romanticized the experiences this way because they really were not that great in and of themselves.

So I would imagine that I could turn them into a host of witty, sarcastic pieces such as David Sedaris has later made famous. Some, though, would lend themselves more to black humor, as in Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Yet others were too bleak even for that type offering and might become dark, Kafkaesque short stories which I would tell a confidante to burn after my death, but which would instead be preserved and prove to have been outstanding literature for which I would receive posthumous Pulitzers.

I do not know which of these categories the following account might have fit into, most likely none of the above, but among my best of all possible jobs before a big break - when I got work in Federal Civil Service and learned how to investigate and report first hand on U.S. Army training, motor vehicle, or other military personnel accidents, ignoring the spilled blood and guts, just the facts please - this incident was not extraordinary.

It happened this way... Well, first, a bit of background. I had by now finished all but one of my undergrad courses. The remaining holdout was my last semester of French. In a liberal arts curriculum, we were required then to have two years of a foreign language, but it was normally taught using a strictly auditory method. Unfortunately, I am not able to take in much this way, being mainly a visual learner. So, semester after semester, and even with tutoring help for awhile from my French major sister, who obviously had no such limitation and would later go on to teach the atrocious subject rather well, I would find myself unable to understand more than a few of the basics as the swarthy Algerian-born French instructor rattled off clipped Algerian accented phrases like so many machine-gun bursts and expected me to respond with other than my typically blank or confused expressions while never having an opportunity to look in a real textbook for the translations or answers. For the first time in my life, I was failing miserably, with emphasis on the last word.

Long story short, I even went to Quebec, Canada, hoping to "immerse myself" in the language of Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet), Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint Exupery, etc., then come back and the next fall wow my University of Texas teachers with newfound brilliance. It did not quite work out that way. I had forgotten, first, that the Quebecois generally resent English speakers, and so certainly would not give intruder students who spoke that language any assistance, and, second, that the courses' Parisian (or even Algerian) French is a far cry from that spoken in Quebec!

Finally, I discovered an exception to the auditory-only learning approach of the UT French Department. I might complete my final language semester requirement via a correspondence course! This worked wonderfully for me. I never had to hear or speak French again. I just needed to translate French texts and books, write up reports on what I had read, and successfully complete a few timed, written tests under supervision from somebody in the department, a relative cinch after all the ear-only techniques had crashed and burned upon reaching my auditory block head.

Larry's application photo, taken about 1973 (age 30), around the time of his big break
So, while I was steadily working my way through the correspondence lessons and had little else to do, I took a job with the Texas State School as a ward attendant. Some may recall a few of my sterling earlier adventures with the Austin State Hospital or Herrick Memorial Hospital (in Berkeley). No doubt with those in mind, after reviewing my record the personnel department hired me within hours of my new application.

The shift was from 11 PM -7 AM. I figured I could do my French lessons while the young fellows in my professional care were sleeping. My first set of clients were just mildly retarded youths on a locked ward, so secured because they had a few other mental deficits, but nothing serious, I was assured.

I was given a one-day orientation and introduced to my new duties and charges. All the lads and young men, aged about 18-25, seemed friendly and polite. This should be a cake walk, I thought. They will already be in bed by the time I arrive, and then I'll just help get them up and ready for breakfast the next day.

So, the first night, I reported in, used my new key to get onto the ward, got the latest minimal instructions from the outgoing shift attendant, and "made my rounds." As it happened, for some reason my clients were in fact far from asleep. Maybe it was the excitement of my novel presence among them, but few of these several young fellows seemed at all inclined to hit the hay.

Indeed, one was already getting rather agitated when I urged them to retire for the night. He complained more and more excitedly that he needed to leave to go check something out, I never did figure out what. Perhaps he simply knew he had no safe way to let off steam without an exit forthwith.

So, calling on my depth of experience with such situations, I was firm with him that it was bedtime and to, well, go to bed NOW. About half a dozen other residents were in the vicinity at this point, and perhaps he saw himself as their ring leader or something and that he was quickly losing face. In any case, he demanded loudly to be let out of the locked ward door. When I refused and tried to reason with him, to explain why it was time to go ahead and rest so he would feel better the next day, he grabbed a nearby heavy metal chair, hoisted it over his head and then smashed it into the door, causing some noisy and effective damage there.

I tried to intervene, thinking this was not going well and I had better quickly take control of the situation. So, he lifted the chair high again and was apparently about to slam it down on me when, with much faster reactions than I had displayed, one of the other residents rushed between us and tried to stop him. The chair came down with force anyway and, rather than my skull, it badly broke my rescuer's left arm. While I was then trying to tend to the victim and get the others settled down, the chair wielder successfully smashed through the door's lock and made his swift escape, no doubt all the more alarmed because of what he had done.

All in all, it had not been my finest hour. My supervisor (at home), the police, and an ambulance were called. By the time he was found and returned, the "assailant" had long since left the state school campus and become lost and terrified in the community. Once back, he had to be put in an isolation room (without loose furniture) to calm down for awhile.

Surprisingly, I kept my job and, just as I had hoped to do, went on to get a lot of studying done on my shift. The last French course was eventually passed with a "B," which, under the circumstances, I was glad to receive.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next