The Perfect Slave: a memoir by Paul Klassen

The Perfect Slave: a memoir by Paul Klassen

                                      The Perfect Slave


In the years 1943 to 1946 I was working in the State Hospital at Marlboro, New Jersey as an attendant on the wards for mental patients.  I had been drafted as a conscientious objector in World War II, and after serving for about four months in a base camp in Virginia, I was transferred to this hospital setting.  I ended up in this particular hospital after having applied for a mental hospital assignment, but not knowing at all where I might be sent.

It was a job that required working on many of the various wards of this large hospital.  One might be assigned to a ward for a period of several months and then be transferred to another.  In this way we became familiar with all the wards.  We worked twelve-hour shifts with two hours off during the afternoon on the day shift, and two hours in the middle of the night on the night shift.  We were paid $15.00 per month to cover our minimal living expenses, and were provided living quarters and meals at the hospital.  The hospital housed about 2,000 male and female patients. 

On one of the three floors of the Men’s Senile Building, MSIII, as it was called, there were about 50 or 60 patients. They were mostly mentally deteriorated patients.  A few, though, were quite lucid, so that one wondered exactly why they were in a mental hospital, but most were far gone in their mental and physical capacities.

Caring for these patients required a good bit of work in terms of feeding, clothing, bathing, medicating, and whatever else was necessary to provide for their well-being.  The ward itself also needed considerable work to keep it clean and running properly.  The patients slept in a dormitory room and spent most of the rest of their time in a “day room”, furnished with nothing but benches and wooden chairs.  All but the bedfast took their meals in this day room.  The food was brought in on steam carts from the food service building.  There was no program of entertainment for these patients, not even a newspaper or a magazine for them to look at, not a radio for them to listen to, and of course, since this was before the time of television, that was not a possibility either.  There were usually two or three attendants assigned to such a ward during the day and only one at night.  In fact, at times the night attendant had several wards of sleeping patients as his responsibility.

To compliment the attendant work force the hospital had a system where able-bodied patients from some of the other wards who were able to work were assigned jobs on a work detail program.  Ostensibly this was occupational therapy, but there was no oversight or any control that tempted anyone to think of a therapeutic component to the practice.  MSIII had about three of these workers who came to the ward every morning and went back to their residence cottage each night.  One of these worker-patients was a forty or fifty-something year old black man named “Lightning”. I will describe Lightning as the perfect slave.

As some will recall, in the 1930’s and 40’s there was a popular radio program called “Amos and Andy”.  This was a five nights a week program on the 15 minute schedule of the time. It was a comedy show featuring all black characters.  It would be considered extremely demeaning in terms of racial sensitivity by present standards, but most people at the time never gave that a thought.  They just listened to the program for the humor it contained.  Some of the characters were buffoons, some were conniving, some simplistic, while some carried the straight line.  The setting was in Harlem. The simpleton in the cast was a man named Lightning, called so sarcastically because he was so slow and dim-witted. He talked in a slow drawl and was bossed around by the other more alert characters.

So our ‘Lightning’, the mental patient, likely received his name from this source.  I can think of no other way that anyone could have received such a name. But Lightning, (I have no idea of his real name) was by no means slow or dim-witted.  Lightning was a worker, and a good worker… dependable, uncomplaining, untiring, and competent for any assignment. He displayed no evidence of mental illness, and I have no idea why he was in the hospital.  We were not privy to the records.  Perhaps there was some incident in the far past that resulted in his landing in the hospital, and perhaps he was then forgotten, or had no one to complain for him.  Maybe he fit into the system so well that the hospital no longer cared.  Or maybe he was too valuable for the hospital to consider release.  Of course he wasn’t paid for his work.  In short, he was the perfect slave. But this was in New Jersey, in the 20th century, not in Mississippi or Alabama or any other state of the South where a culture of slavery had existed. This was in one of the liberal, progressive states of the North. Of course, it’s possible that Lightning may have originally come from the South.  He never said.  We never asked.

Lightning was an indispensable worker.  If another patient spilled his tray of food, Lightning would get a mop to clean it up.  And before that Lightning had been the one to dish out the food.  He dipped it out of the container on the steam cart onto the tin plates and metal trays.  And when the meal was over Lightning was there to help the attendants pick up the trays and plates and collect the spoons so they could be returned to the kitchen for washing.  Also, Lightning would have helped feed some of the many patients who could not handle feeding themselves. This happened three times each day, seven days a week.  Lightning didn’t complain.  He was a worker.  He was a perfect slave.

Actually, the attendants were somewhat like slaves too, but we had a higher status.  We had keys.  We had a day off.  We even had a little vacation each year, and were able to go to the Cashier’s Office at the end of each month to get our $15.00 pay check.  If Lightning thought of himself as a slave, or felt demeaned in any way it never showed, and we weren’t thinking about that.  Or, probably, we were too insensitive to notice.  Perhaps Lightning thought he had status too.  Maybe he felt that as a patient he had it better than most.  We never knew.  We didn’t ask.  We just all fit into the system.          

If the floors needed buffing Lightning would get right on the job.  He knew how to spread the paste wax on the long linoleum corridors and how to use a cloth on a long-handled buffing brush for best results.  He would march back and forth until the floor was shiny as glass.  Or, if the floors needed mopping, he was just as adept and willing.  He had a soap mixture that he made from big bars of yellow soap and water that were perfect for the job.  And when it was time to bathe the patients Lightning would be there to help, and, in case a patient soiled himself, (which was a regular occurrence for many) he would be quite available to take the patient to the shower and hose him down.  There was no job too messy for Lightning.  He was a perfect slave. 

On the other hand, there were some things that Lightning did not do.  He kept strictly to the jobs appropriate to his status.  This included all the menial tasks, the hard labor, and the messy work, but work that required keys, or authority, were left to the attendants who had the status to handle those responsibilities.  I don’t remember that we ever thanked Lightning for what he did.  We did treat him well, and sixty years have passed, so I must have forgotten much, but my recollection is that we just did our job and Lightning did his, and that was that.     

Was it slavery?  Well, maybe yes or maybe no.  The answer might reside in the definition of the term.  At first blush it would seem outlandish.  Slavery was a practice that had been abolished eighty years before…  What!?  Only eighty years? That seemed a long time ago then.  Now, somehow it seems not very long at all.  There were a few former slaves still living.  And, yes, it takes the culture of slavery a lot longer to die than one might expect.  Certainly the signing of a proclamation doesn’t do it. That might end the legal status, but the attitudes that were framed over centuries don’t just go away.  Many things were learned that were hard to forget.   Lightning learned his place and his role from someone.  He learned when to speak and when to be quiet. He learned to work and not complain. Perhaps his parents or at least his grandparents had been born slaves.  A cultural memory is a powerful force.  Maybe you can’t always define it, but it still hangs on in attitudes and feelings.  Lightning had feelings to be sure, but we didn’t know anything about them.  He didn’t tell us.  He just did his work.  He was the perfect slave.  And our attitudes were formed in a culture that controlled and determined much about us too.  Often change is a very slow process.

So thank you, Lightning.  You did a great job.  We did appreciate it even if we didn’t say so. You saved us a lot of hard, messy work that we would not have enjoyed.  There must have been some glimmer in my mind about these things those many years ago.  I made a little sketch one day when you were doing your job (or was it our job?)  taking a patient* to the shower to clean him after he messed himself up. You had to take off his dirty clothes or whatever he was wearing and pull his stiff, resistant, catatonic old body down the hall to the shower room.  Quite a job!  I know.  I did it too, often enough. It’s not a pleasant task.  But you did it with no complaints.  Just like a perfect slave.  You were quite the man!

                 Paul Klassen,  May 11, 2006

*name withheld