The Orphan Chronicles

Dallas' own tribe of Oliver Twists can teach us much about the places they've been, and where we're all going

Her mother gave all five children to Buckner because she could not provide for them. Sadly, that was not the end of the children's experience of abandonment.

Bingham told me on the telephone: "She came to see us a lot when we were itty-bitty, when we first went out there, and as time went on it grew less and less. And then it just stopped altogether. That didn't take but a year or two, you know, two to three years maybe. It just stopped.

"I was a middle child. I had a sister and brother older and a sister and brother younger. My little brother and sister were quite young. I was 5, and they were 3 and 1 when [our parents] left.

Vernon Horsley and his brother thought Buckner was the Ritz. His football skills put him through college.
Courtesy of Vernon Horsley
Vernon Horsley and his brother thought Buckner was the Ritz. His football skills put him through college.
Vernon Horsley is now a retired school principal. He was master of a bootleg key operation at Buckner.
Mark Graham
Vernon Horsley is now a retired school principal. He was master of a bootleg key operation at Buckner.

"It was bad in the beginning, just because you don't understand why you can't go home again. Even though they don't want you, you still want to cling to them. And that's what made it tough at those times.

"As I got older, I don't know if I just got rebellious or got very self-sufficient or what. I got very independent, and then I got into sports."

In their reminiscences in Orphan Chronicles and in the conversations I had with them, there is a great deal of "self-sufficiency." In fact, self-sufficiency may be putting it mildly.

Mel Walls, a '58 Buckner alumnus now retired from the National Security Administration, talked to me by phone on several occasions from the front porch of his farmhouse in Virginia where he breeds Thoroughbred horses. Walls described the defense system he thinks some of the Buckner orphans carry into adult life.

"You will find that there is a shell, and if you pierce that shell, you will find a compassionate person. But the persona presented to the world can be quite tough. If he feels safe in lifting that veil, that's when you'll find the person. But he does not want to be perceived as being vulnerable. If you confront him, you'll find yourself with an implacable foe."

Of all the alumni I talked with or whose reminiscences I read, Walls, an eloquent writer, had the least sentimental memory of his years at Buckner.

"There was a time in my life, in my 20s," he said, "when it did not do for you to tell me you were a Baptist. I would say, 'I know all about Baptists. Baptists are real good at beating the shit out of kids. Why don't you try me now?'"

He recalled the period in 1994 when Michael Fay, a 19-year-old American, was sentenced by a Singapore court to six strokes with a rattan cane for vandalizing automobiles, later reduced to four strokes after President Clinton pleaded for leniency. One day at Walls' place of work at NSA the conversation turned to beatings, and he discovered that none of his colleagues had ever experienced a serious one. Walls, who is an expert on the different effects of leather straps and linoleum paddles, gave his colleagues an impromptu seminar:

"I said, 'I want to describe it to you. The first lick, you are just...every nerve, every muscle in your body is just screaming. After about the second or third lick, the muscles in your ass take on a life completely out of your control, and the only thing you can think of is where is that next lick going to land. Is it better to land on a place that is already numb, or is it better to land on fresh territory? And all of a sudden, all of your being is concentrated in the skin of your ass.'

"It is a memorable occasion," he told me. "But in the future when you are tempted to do something, suddenly your ass remembers. And your ass says, 'I would rather not take part in that, so let's think of something else to do.'

"Does that mean I concur in what they did to us? Probably not. Was it effective? Probably yes. It taught me to hew to the line more carefully and to err on the side of their desires, not my own."


When Lois Lillico saw that I was intrigued by her past, she began writing at home during the day and bringing pages of her autobiography to me in the evening at the nursing home. She began with her mother's death from a sudden illness when Lillico was 5, and then her father's death of a heart attack when she was 12.

She wrote, "As the ambulance drove away with his body as I watched with an aching heart, the pastor's wife stated to me, 'Lois, what will become of you children now?'"

She brought me a scanner copy of a photograph of herself and her brother at their father's grave in Rosemont Cemetery in Wichita Falls, dated May 17, 1948--a pretty girl with wild red hair in a plain checked dress, arms limp at her front, face crimped in a tiny mask of a smile. Her brother is turned from the camera and bent at the neck as if gulping back tears.

She wrote of waking up the first morning in a dormitory at Buckner: "The next day, the pecking order began, and various ones began to impress upon me what I could or could not do, the friends I could or could not make, and it was right here that my backbone stiffened, and I purposed in my heart that I would make my own choices, and if no one wanted to be my friend, that would be their choice, but I chose NOT to be intimidated by anyone."

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2 comments
hotspringsvillage
hotspringsvillage

I came to Buckner Jan 1958 and graduated May 1960.  Buckner was not an easy place to live, but it was certainly far better than what I had been doing for the last several months and that was being on my own, traveling around the country, trying to stay out of the way of the police since I was basically a vagrant.  I left my "family" in May 1956 and roamed from Kansas to Washington to Ohio to Texas.  I was picked up in west Texas for not being in school, and since the state didn't now what else to do with me, contacted Buckner Home and  they took me in.   In my situation, Buckner was a port in the storm.  It was a place to "relax" as I was able to sleep in the same bed for those years, got 3 meals a day, worked in the radio station, and finished my education... well, it put me on the track to go to college, which I had never dreamed possible for a kid like me.   Every kid who lived at the Home campus has a different story, but one thing is for sure... they all learned something while they were there.  Some of us learned quickly and others were slow to learn, but those lessons carried us forward into adulthood and I believe all of us became better people due to those lessons. 

wiserpaula
wiserpaula

I hv a friend of 25 years that has been searchn for her two smaller siblings since the 70s leslie porter johnson and shana marie johnson. My friend tobye johnson simmons, and five siblins were placed at bucknersbuckners

 
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