An issue of forced sterilization: Freddy's Story
Forced sterilization was one of the shameful things the United States at one time did to its citizens whom it considered inferior. A person might have been sterilized for being the wrong race, emotionally disturbed, or mentally challenged. Forced sterilization was still practiced in the United States after World War II. I am not going to go into statistics or the morality of the issue in general. There have already been enough good hubs written on that aspect.
This is the true story of Freddy Walters, a mentally challenged man who was sterilized in the mid-20th Century. Was this a blatant civil rights violation of a United States citizen or was his sterilization justified? Let me assure you that I am not arguing either side of the coin or offering an opinion. My jury is still out. I am just presenting the story as I know it.
I have changed his name for my purposes here. He was an older son in a large brood of children belonging to the Walters family. The Walters were dirt poor and uneducated, but seemingly honest people who lived in a little shack off a dirt road called “Polewood Alley” for as long as my grandparents could remember. Polewood Alley meandered down by a bridge over a large creek just outside the city limits. The bridge was very old and probably the only bridge in the county not made of stone and concrete, so the only name anyone could remember was “the Old Steel Bridge. The area around the Old Steel Bridge was isolated and a favorite dumping ground for people’s trash. This was the environment in which Freddy and his siblings grew up.
The Walters were not very bright people, but Freddy was mentally challenged. The simple Freddy wandered around town with a faraway look in his eyes, wobbling his head from side to side keeping time to the rhythm of his steps. Behind his back people called him “Wobbly,” so I was a teen ager before I learned his real name. As a rule, he was considered harmless but attitudes began to change when he started impregnating his sisters. I don’t know if any of them were mentally challenged also, but their IQs definitely were low enough to be suspect. Freddy fathered at least three children by his sisters, maybe more. When he impregnated one of them a second time, the town fathers decided enough was enough. One of the local men’s clubs raised the money for Freddy’s sterilization.
Usually people in town minded their own business, but by now Freddy had become a bit more than a public nuisance. It is really difficult to explain the prevailing attitude of the mid-century era, but it seemed to be similar to today’s attitude of getting your pet neutered. Freddy was liked by everyone, but like a dog that keeps having unwanted puppies, he needed to be fixed. He was sent away for the procedure.
Freddy was a Human Being
I had seen Freddy around most of my life. He was a small man with a Native American look, thick black hair and nut brown skin from spending his days in the outdoors. He might have been considered handsome to a stranger unaware of his condition. But when he spoke, his high nasal tones and speech impediment gave him away.
He was probably middle age when I became acquainted with him at the local swimming pool where I worked as a cashier during my summers in high school. One year the pool got a new manager, a college student nicknamed “Sparky,” who befriended Freddy. Freddy then started coming by late in the afternoons and hanging around. He never seemed to have any money to pay to swim although he had a job, but Sparky started allowing him to come inside and take a shower when the pool was closed. This was a real boon to Freddy whose family had no indoor plumbing in their shanty. I imagine that his usual summertime bath was to take a swim in the nearby creek, hopefully accompanied by a bar of soap.
Late in the afternoon several times a week, here came Freddy carrying his swim trunks and wanting to shower off the sweat and grime from his job. As soon as we closed the shutters on the cashier’s window, Freddy asked permission for his shower. “Me take share baff?” he would ask.
We teased Freddy a lot, but it was always good natured teasing because we liked him and he knew we were his friends. He understood that we were playing with him and it became a game, especially between him and Sparky. I am including a sample conversation to illustrate Freddy’s level of comprehension.
“Me take share baff?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Freddy, I don’t think so today,”
“C’mon, Sparky, me take share baff.”
“Not today, Freddy.”
“Why, Sparky? “Me want share baff!”
“Because it’s Tuesday, Freddy. You can’t take a shower on Tuesday.”
“Me can take share baff on Tuesday.”
And so the conversation would go until Sparky laughed and then they both laughed and Freddy walked in. He always showered in his bathing trunks. Then one day Sparky figured out that Freddy was too modest to remove his bathing trunks because the showers were not enclosed. Sparky started teasing Freddy about his modesty, and that is the only time Freddy ever got angry.
“Take off your trunks, Freddy, so you can wash your bottom.”
“No, not take um off.”
“Why not, Freddy, you need to wash there too?”
“No, don’t want people see me.”
“But you don’t want to be an old rusty butt.”
“Me not rusty butt!”
“You are too, rusty butt!”
“Me not rusty butt!”
The rusty butt joke almost became too much for Freddy because Sparky teased him a lot about it. As he approached the front, Sparky would call out, “Here comes Rusty Butt!”
“ME NOT RUSTY BUTT!” Freddy would yell back.
One day Freddy did take off his trunks, but apparently it embarrassed him so much that it was hard to tell if he was upset or angry, or both. Sparky was not an unkind person, and he genuinely regretted upsetting Freddy. He immediately stopped the rusty butt jokes, but the teasing before the showers continued.
Sometimes Freddy talked to us girls while he waited for Sparky or a lifeguard to let him in. We never had any fear of Freddy, even when alone with him. In fact, the fear factor never entered our minds. To us Freddy was just another kid, albeit a big one, and we learned a lot about him. He told us that he had a “good job,” and it was obvious that he was pleased that he had become self-supporting. By that time, he was contributing to his family’s support, and may have been their sole support.
He would talk to us about his work. The manager of a local soft drink bottling company had seen something in Freddy that caused him to hire him to work inside the warehouse and to fill orders loading cases of soft drinks onto customers’ trucks. Freddy took his responsibilities seriously and developed the reputation of being a reliable employee.
He didn’t have an much of education, but he knew his numbers. When a customer handed Freddy a paid invoice, he loaded onto the truck the exact number of cases written on the invoice, no more, no less. More than once a customer would back up his truck to the loading dock and tell Freddy to “have it loaded when I come out.”
Freddy would answer, “No sir, Mr. Jones said you pay first.” Freddy wouldn’t budge until the customer brought him the paid invoice. He would scrutinize the invoice and then load the exact amount paid for. It was said that sometimes a customer would be in a hurry and would get angry with Freddy, but that didn’t faze him. The owner answered any complaint with “Freddy is just following my orders, don’t get mad at him.” Freddy would tell us proudly, “Me not load cokes ‘til they pay.”
Freddy didn’t live to a ripe old age, but died from a heart attack in his fifties. One of Freddy’s children went to school with my younger sister, and she said the girl was an average student capable of finishing school. I never heard if she graduated high school because without Freddy’s very public persona, the town lost interest in the family.
The Questions Remain
If Freddy had lived today, he would have been arrested and charged with sex crimes. His babies would have been evidence of his guilt and he probably would have gone to prison with hardened criminals or, at best, to a mental institution and placed with mentally disturbed people. Freddy was not crazy, just mentally challenged. If arrested, he never would have become a happy productive member of society. His family would have been forever stuck on welfare and not had the benefit of his income.
Was his work ethic an inspiration to his daughters to get an education? Did the town fathers do a service or a disservice to Freddy, his family, and to society? Would society have been better off by locking him away? I believe what we think doesn’t matter. I think that only his sisters and daughters are qualified to answer that question.