Part 10: Riley's Real Troubles Begin
Reading through the reports from The Eastern Carolina Industrial Training School for Boys, I noticed a dramatic change in tone after the Depression hit. In the early days of the school, 1926, 1927, 1928, reports were upbeat (not counting the poor horse and the tortured squirrel). But in 1929 the staff seemed overwhelmed. They had planned to grow all the food for the "school", but things weren't going as planned. The next door neighbors, a black farmer and his family, had a good farm going, so perhaps the school should've hired an actual farmer. The administrators suggest in a report that the State of North Carolina might purchase the property next door for the school to farm. They mention the family is black, and that the farm would go for a lot more on the open market, suggesting they could force the sale on the cheap. I hope they never got that farm.
The suggestion is made more than once by the founders of the "school" that many of the boys brought in were not from solid Christian homes, and the lack of understanding of the bible is what caused their criminal activity. In the first few blogs, I wrote about how Riley already knew the bible "backwards and forwards." Riley's parents were church going, religious folk on both sides. So there goes that theory. It's an easy answer to suggest that if the boys had only read the bible, they wouldn't have committed crimes.
Maybe, too, it's an easy to suggest that abuse compounded my Dad's criminal behavior, as I have. In reality, I don't know if he was born with something wrong, or if the head injury he sustained impacted his impulse control, or if the trauma of some early abuse caused an "ego split" as one psychologist suggested to me. Either way, I don't think The Eastern Carolina Industrial School made him better. I believe these places made things worse.
In the last blog, you know that Riley was sent to the "school" by Martha Amelia Merritt Tindal, his maternal grandmother and the matriarch of the family. I knew the story about how he broke into his grandmother's store (he broke the windows) and gave the food out to people on the street. His parents took him to Kinston, to be examined by a psychiatrist. It was 1929, he was 11 years-old.
After that, he wrote that he had his tonsils removed. I'm not sure if he had them removed while he was incarcerated, but it seems so.
Riley writes, looking back on his 12th year: "On Oct 29, eight days following my birthday, the Stock Market collapsed, and the Great Depression began."
Going back to the journal, Riley reflects on this time in two separate entries. One entry was rougher but with more details, the second one a bit clearer but with details left out.
Too bad we'll never know how long his escapes were, and the details of where he went. My father told me that he was 13 years-old when he did blackface in Vaudeville, but he was incarcerated from age 12--15. It seems that on one of his escapes, he joined a vaudeville troupe and took on the stage name "Lanky Bill." I wish I'd asked him about that specifically, instead of focusing on how he felt about the "black face" part. When we talked all those years ago I hadn't put the timeline together. All I heard was "black face" and had a reaction, like, oh no, my father performed in black face. Dad said his fellow black face performers were black, teenagers like he was, and that they were all happy to have jobs and enough to eat. Dad said, "we didn't know any better." In any case, being in character on stage helped him to hide from his captors, and that's the part I wish I knew more about.
I wonder how they caught him each time, or if someone turned him in. The entire sentence at the "school" would've been 17 months at the most. Riley was incarcerated much longer, with three breaks when he ran away. After that, he was sent to a "country farm" where he worked off the rest of his sentence. I've typed out Riley's words. He wrote "taking lots of aspin", and you might think he meant "taking lots of aspirin", but there is something called aspen, it's from the bark of a tree. So I don't know which he meant, but perhaps his head hurt him from the earlier injury and he was taking aspirin.
RSS The Childhood Years
Medicine show on vacant lot...Jail....taking lots of aspin....Kangaroo court...Kingston psychiatrist....Strawberry plant...candy factory...Reform school...first, tonsils removed...Boy had guitar...learned to make chords.
Various escapes...alone, or with boy named Fountain and, later, one named Herman Blackwell (whose father had killed his mother and was just recently released from prison).
Up river in a boat...island...rain-storm....nearly sank getting back. High Point...Goldsboro...Blackwell's relatives in Kingston...2 girls, sisters....
Escape alone...lived with Steven Shepard and his family on farm near Jacksonville..and with his daughter and her husband on adjacent farm...Pinehurst with Lena Belle's daughter and her husband, who were building a house.
Revolver...Auto downtown...abandoned car...boy with us stole the gun...there were three of us.
Louis' gun...Nixon street.....Mother paid for it.
Nixon street store.
Country Farm, where Kirby Daniels worked....4 months..1st radio program, local, Wilmington...
Went out on my own...driven to the highway by Louis...hitched to Raleigh...through Virginia, to New York City on truck...lost my clothes...The GOOD EARTH was playing at a theatre...I got out of N.Y., hitched rides to Pittsburgh, and on to Detroit where I found Uncle's store and spent the night or maybe two...Left....
Did I go across country, to California, or was that later?
I had a radio program in Kingston. Lived at Blackwell's relatives' house, with their son and two daughters...Met young prostitute...
Smith Ballew was in SUNNY SIDE OF THE ROCKIES, shown at theater where I made a personal appearance the following week...What year was movie made______________
Editor of Kingston paper liked me...gave me write-ups...played theatre in Goldsboro...
"Boy with us stole the gun" and "Mother paid for it", I'm guessing that Riley's mother had to reimburse Louis, her brother, because his gun was stolen. It gives a little more context to how much criminal activity Riley was up to, and at such a young age. The only thing harder than having a parent with anti-social behavior is having a child with this kind of behavior.
Now, here's Riley writing about the same time frame, but it's a bit more organized, except some of the events are left off. Remember, he started this journal in the late 1980s. He's trying to remember what happened.
OCTOBER 21, 1930 12 years old Some memories
This is the year I was sent to Eastern Carolina Training School at Rocky Mount, N.C.
I would runaway, again and again. I'd always get caught, sometimes quickly, sometimes not so soon, but eventually. Then, the school decided they didn't want me. Informed the court that I ruined the peace and harmony of the school. Judge gave me 4 months on the Country Farm....which I served...That's where Kirby Daniels was; he didn't show me any consideration at all.
When I got out, I decided to hit the road.
As I remember it, Louis, Jr. and my mother gave me a ride to the edge of town, two dollars, and went back home. I thumbed it to Raleigh, got a ride on a truck and made it to New York City....
THE GOOD EARTH was playing; it starred Louise Rainer and Paul Muni....A man on the street, from whom I asked how to get out of town gave me fifty cents....I got an other truck ride through Pittsburgh. Made it to Toledo and Detroit. Found my uncle's candy store....One of Steven's sons was there, working at a car factory---I spent two nights with them and took off again.
I rode freight trains, hitched, and made it to Los Angeles...I walked all over town. Walked to Hollywood and around 20th Century Fox studio on Western. Many homosexuals tried to pick me up....Got picked up as a transient by the police and locked in Lincoln Heights for (I think) 30 days...When I was released, I headed back....riding freight trains and hitching....Went through Charlotte, N.C.---Bert Bertram Players, Thayer Roberts, etc. Went to Wilmington. Got a radio program. Went to Kingston, got another radio program. Lived with Wm Blackwell's relatives, slept with the son and hungered for the tall, dark-haired daughter who was still single. The other daughter was married.
Played a few theaters...one in Kingston, one in Goldsboro. Went home for a visit, had a car accident...went back to Kingston. Then I took off from there and wound-up in Columbia, S.C. in a transient camp: an army barracks near town.
Riley was finally kicked out of the Boy's Home at Rocky Mount after they went to court. Besides being sent to the Training School in Rocky Mount, I didn't know (prior to reading this journal) that my father had been to jail. I knew he "rode the rails", but not that he was in a transient camp and homeless. He confided in me that grown women thought he was much older, and that he began sexual relationships with women when he was 13. I'm guessing the women were other vaudeville performers? Looking back, it pains me that I was too young to understand that my father was telling me he was abused. At the same time, I was too young to be told these things.
Next, in part 11, I'll keep moving forward with Riley's journal. Perhaps this project is only of interest to my newly discovered half-siblings, or in my magical thinking, great research for the actor who plays Riley in the movie. I cast Michael Shannon to play my father, FYI. Even if my book takes forever, and Mr. Shannon is 65 by the time the movie is made, we can pull a "Martin Scorsese" and just go crazy with the digital de-aging.