Have you ever head someone say on the news that a criminal has been sent for 30 days observation at a psychiatric hospital? That’s where my Dad worked, on a hospital ward for the criminally insane. It was often joked that this is where he got us kids from. I didn’t find this particularly funny because I'm pretty sure it was true.
Now and then, a spirited lunatic would charge at my Dad screaming bloody murder and brandishing stolen cutlery or hoisting a chair overhead ready to take him out and make a run for it. These attacks were easily thwarted, mostly because of the excellent warning system of a lunatic screaming as he charges.
The hospital provided temporary shelter to the 30 day crowd but also had lifers on the premises. Many of them were allowed out on supervised walks through town while others were given the barbed wire treatment and limited to the grounds. A select few were considered to no longer be a risk and they were allowed outside the fence which never made much sense to me.
Outside the fence was a playground. The playground backed onto one of two entrances to a trail that led up a mountain overlooking my town.The mountain was a nice hike with an elevation of 1000 feet, enough of an accomplishment to not completely wear you out and a great enough view to make it worth the climb.
On summer days when we’d sufficiently tortured our parents and the smaller neighborhood children, my friends and I would sometimes make our way over to the swings behind the hospital and debate climbing the mountain. We’d often see a few of the less dangerous patients wandering around outside the fence and although they never really bothered us, we kept a wary eye on them.
Only one of these fellows ever came up to us. His name was Jack and apart from the constant darting of his eyes, he seemed a nice enough chap. He’d ask us our names, wonder if we were going up the mountain and then be on his way. Behind his back, we called him Mad Jack after my father told me why he was a guest of the hospital. He had killed both of his parents when he was a teenager but never gave anyone a reason. He was now in his late fifties and regarded as harmless with several years of good behaviour under his belt.
When the mountain called our names one summer afternoon, the gang and I set out to conquer it again. One of the guys was well ahead of us and out of sight for a short time. He came bounding down to us a few moments later excitedly telling us Mad Jack is up ahead on the trail and has a case of beer hidden in the woods, let's go!!
We were all about 14 or so years old and I think it may have been one of the first times I’d offered an opinion I could be proud of. Are you fucking crazy? He’s a fucking mental patient! Where do you think he got the case of beer? Do you think he carted it through town past the hospital and up into the woods? Are you sure you’re not fucking mental? My friend decided that maybe his reasoning was a bit faulty although he scored points for willingness to share. We continued up the trail and there was Jack waiting patiently for us, all eyes and anticipation. Hi guys! Want to come and have some beer? My friend answered No thanks while I gave him the best stink eye I could manage and we went on our way.
We made fun of our friend but eventually let it slide as other concerns began to dot our horizons, like the usual complaints about the school year getting ready to assault us. It all came back to the surface quickly though as one day, my father arrived home with exciting news. Mad Jack had lured a fellow patient into the woods promising him beer and then bashed his skull in killing him!
As I breathlessly told my Dad about our encounter with Mad Jack a few weeks earlier on the trail, his eyes widened at our near brush with disaster and he began to shake his head in disbelief. Now where would he have thought a mental patient would get a case of beer?!
Mad Jack ended up back in maximum lock up where he died a few years later. I ended up here.