WILLIE THE CHECKER KING
Many many years ago, I worked in a state run insane asylum. I can’t mention the name. When I hired on, the director of personnel made me sign a form stating that I would never ever reveal what I saw or experienced while working in the wards. But gee, that was fifty two years ago and I’m just bursting with stories. And this one’s a doozy. For the life of me there’s not a thing wrong with telling this tale. It’s a good story about a very wonderful person. That person was Willie the Checker King.
State mental hospital wards back in the sixties were pretty rough places to work. Many people couldn’t do it even for a minute. The ward I worked on, for each shift, had about eight orderlies and one nurse to handle about one hundred and seventy five patients. There were about ten wards in the mens side of the building. There were ten wards for female patients. For all those patients, there was one psychiatrist and I think two medical doctors. I may be off a bit on the exact numbers but, I’m just trying to give you a rough idea of the patient to medical staff ratio. It wasn’t easy for patient or staff alike. We all did our best to make the best of a bad situation. We worked hard and, the patients did their best to make our chores easier.
We’d make beds and give out shaves, do the lunch feeding and, the like. You really don’t want to hear about some of the chores we had to do. Sometimes the patients would just come out of nowhere and attack us. I know I once got a punch in the mouth from an angry patient who hallucinated multi fanged worms in the ice cream I brought him. I didn’t see a thing in his darn ice cream. I also didn’t see his fist coming. After he hit me, I kind of saw multi fanged worms myself. They’re kind of pretty. I traded him two of my green worms for one of his purple ones.
Eventually, the day would calm down a bit and many of us, patients and staff would retire to the sun room. It was kind of a recreation room I guess. The TV was always on and high out of reach. There were books and newspapers. No girlie magazines. Even those folks who were really way far out of Realityville still liked to sit in a chair and soak in the sunlight and read a book. They might have had it upside down but, that’s ok. They were enjoying themselves. Of course there were checker boards and right next to the best board, the wooden one, sat Willie. He was there every day at break time with his arms folded waiting for a victim. He was waiting for me.
I don’t really know why Willie was in the hospital. He seemed ok to me. He seemed to be a little childish but, aren’t we all. He wore his clothes on the shabby side. But, if that was a symptom of mental illness, the orderlies would have been tying me to a chair right next to the guy who saw those multicolor snakes with fangs. He might have been a bit feeble minded but it, was the sixties. We were all short on the grey matter back then. Now that I think about it, I think Willie was put on this Earth just to humble yours truly Doc South and, I thank him for it.
You see, we were told at our one and only training session, to always be ready to interact with the patients. Get to know them. Watch for symptoms. Engage in conversations. We were also told to never turn our back on them. So, while we were facing them, heck why not strike up a bull session? Break time in the recreation room was the best place to do this kind of thing and every day that whole summer long I’d walk into the recreation room and there he’d be waiting with his arms folded and looking right through me. Willie was ready for the slaughter and I was the little fluffy lamb.
I like playing board games. I’m happy to play Chess, Monopoly, Risk, Bridge-It, Chinese Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Video Village, Candy Land. You name it. If it’s a board game, I love it. Playing checkers is a great way to spend an afternoon. Well, it was a great pastime until I met Willie.
It all started one day early that summer. I was new on the job but, eager to do my best. My chores were done and I walked into the break room looking to interact with the patients. Willie called me over and asked if I’d like to play checkers with him. He had such an innocent smile. It was almost childlike. How could I say no?
I sat down across from Willie. That was my first mistake. There were more to come. I don’t know how it’s possible but, in that first game, Willie had all my checkers in eight moves. I don’t think he lost even one. I should have stopped then but, I didn’t. Every work day at break time I went peacefully to my doom. Now I want you to know that my board game pride was shattered forever since that first day so long ago. That day that I met Willie and his red and black board of doom. Oh I tried. God knows I tried. Sometimes, I’d get three of his checkers all in one fell swoop. But, as I rubbed my hands with glee, Willie would run the board on me. Trust me, except for the human tragedy and human loss he must have felt at Gettysburg after Picketts charge, I at least have some idea as to how General Lee must have felt that awful day in July 1863.
To his credit, Willie never rubbed it in and thank God, he never wanted to play for money. Pride was all I lost that long hot summer. Try as I might, I never, and I mean never beat him at checkers. We must have played hundreds of games. Nope, I never beat him. It was impossible to beat him. Somehow it was as if God unleashed every last bit of His checker playing power through Willie.
For me it was humiliating at first. But one of the orderlies got me aside one day after an especially brutal beating on the red and black board of defeat. Willie was rubbing his hands and giggling as I gave up, shook hands, and left the room. The orderly said I had nothing to be ashamed of. Willie beat everyone. Everyone! The orderly said that as far as anyone knows Willie is beyond defeat. No one has ever seen him lose at checkers. No one. No one ever. I believe my fellow orderly said something to the effect of playing checkers with Willie is like doing something rather private against the wind. It was time to go. The shift was over. I went home defeated again and drove my crummy car home. Willie sat in the rec-room with his checker board and smiled.