Eastern Trails Museum

I had found my way to Vinita, Oklahoma, to search for  more information about my father W. Lon Hutchison who had been committed in 1934 to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital by his aunt. In search of family reconciliation, long after his death, I am writing a novel Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, about events in my father’s life.

I had gone to the public library in Vinita to find out more information and searched through a file of clippings about the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital.

Next to the library was the Eastern Trails Museum. The Museum is made up of memorabilia, organized into sections, including kitchen, general store, post office, media, Civil War, ranching, Native Americans.

I have no idea why a museum in Oklahoma would be called “Eastern Trails”. Perhaps because it is located in Eastern Oklahoma?

Samples of exhibits at the Eastern Trails Museum:

Cowboy and ranching gear, including collection  of barbed wire

 

 

 

Exhibit of Native American crafts

 

 

 

 

There was no display of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, although it had been the largest employer in the county from the opening in 1913 until its closure in the late 1990’s. Perhaps not surprising. What community would want to publicize a state mental hospital?  Volunteers who run the Eastern Trails Museum said that they would like to help but could come up with nothing but a sketch of the buildings at the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital.

Drawing of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital complex

The people in Vinita were friendly, but it was mostly a cold trail. Onward.

Next stop? Tulsa Oklahoma, the second largest city in Oklahoma. I had contacted the Tulsa Public Library by email to ask for help from the research librarians.

Get your kicks on Route 66

I had driven from Lawrence, Kansas, straight south to the town of Vinita, Oklahoma.

Vinita was the home of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, where in 1934, my great aunt Jessie Hutchison had her nephew, my father W. Lon Hutchison, committed. I had only discovered this disturbing fact a few days before, while searching online at the Lawrence, Kansas public library. I drove from Lawrence to Vinita to find out more.

On its website, Vinita, Oklahoma describes itself:

With a population of nearly 5,700 friendly and 2 awfully ornery residents, Vinita is a wonderful city that is deeply dedicated to merging a very proud pioneer and Native American heritage with modern conveniences and amenities. . . it is nestled in northeast Oklahoma between Joplin, Missouri and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Main Street, Vinita, Oklahoma

Vinita is proud of being on Route 66 known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, established in 1926, which was one of the original highways within the USA highway system. Children, growing up in the Mid West in the 1950’s like me, all had heard the song Get Your Kicks on Route 66.

I went to the local public library. The librarian gave me a file of newspaper clippings about the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital. Here’s the first paragraph from the Vinita Daily Chieftain January 29, 1913 about the opening of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital in 1913.

Newspaper clipping from the Vinita Daily Chieftain, January 29, 1913

“Three hundred persons, bereft of their mind, arrived in this city yesterday afternoon from Norman (Oklahoma) to become inmates and patients in the state’s new home and hospital for such unfortunates. An effort was made to bring them to their new home quietly… but the news of the arrival spread rapidly and the special train was barely away from the station before the ever morbidly curious crowds were on their way at break neck paces, afoot, in buggies, automobiles and horseback to the spur east of town where they were unloaded.”

Have you ever traveled on Route 66?

Have you been to Vinita, Oklahoma?

Were any of your relatives ever in the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital?

Your comments are most welcome.  Thank you!

 

 

Jammed

Researching about my father’s life for my novel Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, I was shocked to discover he had been committed by his aunt to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital.

I drove to Vinita, Oklahoma and found the abandoned mental hospital. With no intention to trespass, I parked near the entrance gate to take photos. Within minutes, a man drove up and told me photos were not allowed. I asked why but got no answer. I explained that my dad had been a patient at the mental hospital. The man suggested I go to the Forensic Center, a small concrete block building near by, to ask if they had any information about my father.

At the Forensic Center, I waited, standing in a cold stark entry hall with no chairs. The receptionist called a clerk, who asked why I was there. She seemed somewhat surprised to meet anyone asking for information. I explained I was looking for records about my father who had been a patient of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital. She wrote down his name, W. Lon Hutchison, when he was at the hospital (1934-1937), and disappeared behind a closed door.

I paced the floor in the grey, cold, empty hall. I was all alone. The receptionist had disappeared. The clerk returned to the lobby telling me she had found something about my father on microfiche. I was very excited and eager to hear whatever she had found. She hesitated and then said the machine had jammed and she couldn’t read the record. She said it might take several days to get the machine fixed. Although frustrated that I had come so close to finding something, there was nothing I could do but thank her and say I would return in a few days.

Now that I was in Vinita, I decided to look around and see if I could find any information related to my father.

Abandoned, Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital

I’d come to the MidWest, USA to research events in my father’s life for the novel I was writing, Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time. I found very disturbing information while searching online at the public library in Lawrence Kansas. In 1934, my great aunt Jessie Hutchison went to court in Tulsa, Oklahoma to have my father, W. Lon Hutchison committed to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital in Vinita.

The documents Aunt Jessie submitted to have him committed included a letter from the warden at the Federal Medical Center for Defective Delinquents in Springfield, Missouri. After being transferred from the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, my father had served the remainder of his prison sentence for narcotics at the Medical Center in Springfield.

Court document Tulsa Oklahoma certifying W. Lon Hutchison as insane

The letter from the warden was as follows: “Lon is suffering from hallucinations, believes he’s been to heaven and back and is ordained to save mankind. It is necessary to feed him with a tube because he thinks all food is unclean and from the devil, except for milk. It will be necessary for him to go to a mental hospital for further treatment until he can be placed on his own. “

I had heard stories from my mother of my father being in prison for narcotics. That didn’t upset me. When I read the warden’s letter about my father’s delusions and the fact that his own aunt had him committed to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, I broke down completely.

I was struck down by the terrible pain of being rejected by his family and sent to the mental hospital -a place to dump the indigent, the poor, the aged, the neglected, the unwanted. Most people would never get out. I sat in a comfortable chair in the Lawrence Kansas Public Library and cried. I was shaking all over. No one in the library paid any attention.

The visit to the public library in Lawrence, Kansas was the lowest point in my search for information about my father. How could he have survived? How did he manage to get out of the mental hospital? How much did he have to keep hidden in later life from everyone, including his wife, my mother?

Postcard of Eastern Oklahoma State Mental     Hospital, Vinita, Oklahoma

I left the library and walked up and down in the park, trying to pull myself together to drive back to my friends’ house. I wasn’t sure I could remember the way down the country roads, which had no names or signs. I made it back but until the next day, I couldn’t tell my friends what I had found.

On the road: Back in the USA

In 2016, inspired by the ending of the film Big Fish to tell my father’s story so he could be immortal, I decided to research the life of my father, W. Lon Hutchison. I started writing a novel Tracking the Human; nobody’s a long time, based on events in his life. To carry out the research, I had to return to the Mid West USA, from Canberra, Australia, where I was living.

With my mother’s death in 2011 our family “home base” in Kansas City had been sold and reimagined by the new owners, going from being bright pumpkin orange trimmed in turquoise to being repainted all white with a picket fence.

Without my mom’s house, whose screened-in front porch had been a meeting place for the neighborhood, I had to find somewhere to stay. I wanted to be with people I knew and felt comfortable with. I was fearful that this would be a challenging project, quite different from past research that I had done for university assignments and educational programs. I anticipated needing emotional backup.

My friends, Linda and David, who live outside Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, welcomed me.

As it was a weekend and the National Archives in Kansas City were not yet open, I went to the public library in Lawrence, pleased that I found my way to the library on the back country road that didn’t show on maps.

Lawrence  Kansas has a beautiful public library. I went upstairs, sat down in a comfortable chair in a quiet glassed-in corner, overlooking a park, and started searching for documents using the free wifi.

I can’t remember what search engine or terms I used, but what came up was so shocking that I could barely read it through my tears.

In 1934, my great aunt Jessie Hutchison went to court in Tulsa, Oklahoma to have my father, W. Lon Hutchison committed to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital in Vinita.  Once committed, many  people never left.  The state mental hospitals were where the unwanted people were dumped.

A Really Big Fish

What made me return to writing Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, a novel about my father? I suspended the search for information about my father almost as soon as I started in 2011 after my mother’s death in Kansas City, Missouri.  I did send out freedom of Information requests, some emails and phone calls. When nothing came up, I gave up. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to find out more.

In 2014, I left Nairobi, Kenya where I had been living off and on since 1998. My partner and I moved back to Canberra, Australia, where he had grown up. I took some writing courses and workshops at the University of Canberra. I published a book of poems and sketches, Silence Spoken (available on www.lulu.com). I was not yet committed to researching and writing about my father’s life. Continue reading “A Really Big Fish”

Self-made Man

How can someone reconcile with their father decades after his death? The book I’m working on Tracking the Human: nobody is a long time is fiction based on events in the life of my father W. Lon Hutchison. The only clues I have about his life are documented intersections with the United States legal system. I have followed these clues to come closer to someone I never knew, although I lived with him for 18 years.

When my father died in 1971 in Kansas City, I learned about his death six months later.

I was camping on a beach in Northern California when a friend came running down the hill to our tent. We just received a message from your mother. Your father has died.

My father was an impossible being, a man without a past, without a family, who sprang full grown into Christian Science as a successful businessman. That’s how he presented himself to the world.

He was formidable, tough and unforgiving. No one crossed him. If they did, he never ever forgave them. I felt suffocated by Christian Science, the religion of my father and his constant push to make money.

Unless I accepted his worldview, I was out. So at age twenty, I was cast out of the family by my father.

Why fiction? Because a different truth lies in stories where point of view is acknowledged – where readers can draw their own conclusions and think about what happened or might have happened.

Do you think fiction can reveal truths?

Do you think fiction can reveal more than non-fiction?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It began with a death

Welcome to family and fiction, my blog about the novel I’m writing about my father’s life, Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time.

It began with a death. My mother. Death opens up old stories and new possibilities as well as family dissension and conflict. My mother died 1 March 2011, peacefully in her bed, on her sleeping porch, in her house in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

I was with her. She opened her eyes, looked at me. I smiled and said I love you Mom, and she was gone.

Notice the beaded bracelet she’s wearing that spells out KENYA.

After my mother’s death in Kansas City in 2011, I poked around in her attic to see what I could find. Her attic was a secret place, where people didn’t go – too hot in summer, too cold in winter, no insulation. The attic was only accessible through a pull-down ladder in the upstairs hall of her house.

Rummaging around in the attic, I found documents buried beneath keepsakes in a cedar chest. The documents I found started an off and on research project to learn more about my father’s life.

I had heard fleeting words from my mother that my father had been in prison for narcotics.

I went to the National Archives in Kansas City to see what I could find. At first nothing. BUT a document I found in my mother’s attic had listed aliases my father had used. Stephen Spence, an archivist tried to help me trace down my father through the aliases.

My father had been imprisoned at the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth Kansas, but there were no further records relating to his incarceration. Fort Leavenworth was divided into a military fort and a federal prison… establishing an annex which had to be used when there were thousands being picked up by the “war on drugs” in the 1930’s. Spence suggested he could have been in the Federal Penitentiary Annex and gave me contacts for further information.

I tried emails, letters, and phone calls to get more information about my father’s incarceration in the Federal Penitentiary, but it led nowhere. I returned to Nairobi, Kenya (where I was living at the time), and put aside looking for information about my father. The life I was living in Nairobi was more compelling. Let sleeping dogs lie, I thought to myself.

I did start a blog in memory of my mother, BetteHutchisonSilver@ wordpress.com

Nothing more happened for a few years. I just couldn’t face it. I had other priorities at the time. Something made me change my mind. Find out in the next post.

Thanks for reading my blog.  Your comments are always welcome!

Reconciliation with a dead man

Welcome to my blog about the process of writing Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, the book I’m working on.

Before I started this process, I assumed that I could live a self-contained life, within the family I had developed. I thought that I did not, could not, relate to my birth family. I was a “self made” person, who had escaped the limitations of middle class life in the suburban Mid West, USA.

The research and writing process has changed me. Reconciliation is possible and even necessary with my birth family, even after death. The focus of the book is my father. My goal is reconciliation with a dead man, my father, W. Lon Hutchison, who died in 1971.

In this blog I will share paths I follow to change the future of my family by plunging into the past. The journey is painful and challenging.

I hope the blog and the book will inspire people to work for reconciliation in their families. Reconciliation is still possible after death. Dive into it. Don’t be afraid of what you might find out about your family. Acceptance and forgiveness is always possible.

I invite you to share stories about writing and working for family reconciliation or books that have inspired you to work for reconciliation.

Thanks for coming along.

Your comments are always welcome!

Poetry finds the way

Although I had to ditch Life Expectancy, the title I had chosen for the novel about my father because it was the title of a book by best-selling author Dean Koontz, I did find a title for my blog: Family and Fiction

For the blog, I decided not to use the title of the book. The blog is about the book and more… about investigation, research, reading, writing, rewriting, soul searching, self-doubt related to the book and beyond.

Discouraged about not finding a title for the book, I put it aside. Better not to think about it. Concentrate on issues at hand – an open house party for a visitor from Venezuela, helping my older son and his spouse to move from Nairobi, Kenya to Canberra, Australia, activism on climate change and for human rights for asylum seekers.

The book and the title were shoved out of sight, out of mind. Neglected, yet festering in the background, telling myself I should do it. I should continue. It had to be done. But I ignored those interior voices and kept myself busy with everyday life.

Until…Poetry finds the way.

I attended a panel at the poetry festival, Poetry on the Move, in Canberra. I brought with me a blank journal with illustrations by Ebenezer Edward Gostelow (1866-1944) that I had purchased at the National Library of Australia. I’m a sucker for buying beautiful journals as gifts. But not for myself. Easy to write on the computer when you can change it anytime but in a journal? More thought and better handwriting required.

A side journey:

Ebenezer Edward Gostelow was born in Sydney Australia in 1866. From 1889 he taught in country schools across New South Wales. As a self -taught artist and lover of Australia flora, he livened up blackboards in his classroom with captivating chalk drawings of flowers.

My journal is livened up with a drawing of a banksia on the front cover (photo) And on the inside with 10 full-page color illustrations as well as small sketches of flowering plants that pop up when least expected.

Back to the poetry festival: 

While waiting for the poets to begin a panel discussion, I sat down in the front row and read previous entries in my Australian flora decorated journal. I found quotes copied from books I had been reading, including Land Fall, a poem by Clive James and several quotes from Tim Winton, Island Home. Then a quote from a poem by Gary Snyder, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems:

“Tracking the human future of intelligence and despair.”

That was it. One sentence that says what I’m trying to do in the book I’m writing.

The title found me: Tracking the Human, with a subtitle from a poem by Kenneth Patchen, Nobody’s a long time.

                         I’m on the road again… to writing, blogging, publishing….

How did you find the title for your book, short story or poem?

Your comments are welcome.  Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                               I’m on the road again… to writing, blogging, publishing….

 

Word Count: 456

Keywords: Poetry, Poetry on the Move, Canberra, Ebenezer Edward Gostelow, National Library of Australia, Banksia, Australian flora, Clive James, Tim Winton, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Patchen, Tracking the Human, Nobody’s a long time, title

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