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Chapter 5: Walnut Valley

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I-80 East, Approaching Delaware River
Thursday, January 2, 12:30 P.M.

The Chevrolet Sprint buzzed along at a steady 50 m.p.h., dodging potholes and slower vehicles in response to slight movements of Mark Marlow's right hand. The PennDOT plows had scraped the roadway reasonably clear of snow but what did remain had been converted to black soup by a mixture of salt and cinders. From tires to roofline, the Sprint looked more black than yellow as a result of the miasma churned up by the 18-wheelers. Only those areas of the windshield touched by the wipers had any semblance of cleanliness, and at the expense of over a gallon of washer solution since leaving Liverpool.

Those who knew Mark well could have detected that he was in a foul mood. The first day back to work after the Christmas and New Year's festivities was always a real drag. And three solid hours of driving through truck muck hadn't done a whole lot to sweeten his disposition. On top of that, a two o'clock interview with a reporter from the Atlantic City Press would be tense at best.

But the smooth driving style and slump in the Sprint's bucket gave no indication to the casual observer that Mark was anything but cool and calm. As always, his tensions and frustrations ran deep beneath a veneer of poise, professionalism, and self control. Even as a child, he could ruin a party game of Poor Pussy because no one could ever make him laugh--unless he wanted to.

As the Sprint hummed across the Delaware River bridge into New Jersey, Mark turned his thoughts toward his destination. Walnut Valley was a small hamlet in the northern New Jersey hills and lakes region. It was situated directly across the Delaware from the Pocono resort community of Shawnee, Pennsylvania. Walnut Valley had only one claim to distinction. New Jersey's largest residential facility for the care and training of persons with mental disabilities persons was located there.

In 1880, the State of New Jersey had decided to use a large tract of land in the remote Walnut Valley area to establish a custody center for females of child bearing age with mental disabilibies. The intent was to keep these girls and women locked up so they wouldn't have children. This was thought to be the best way to reduce the birth rate of persons with disabilities persons. However, the mental retardation specialists of that day overlooked one important fact. Dozens of causes for mental retardation have absolutely nothing to do with persons with disabilities giving birth to persons with disabilities.

The original nucleus of the Walnut Valley Colony was an impressive mountain stone mansion built by a lumber baron during the early 1800's. After the owner lost his showplace to the state as a result of a major tax problem, it was turned over to the Department of Institutions. During the first decade of the Colony's existence, the average daily census of the one-building institution ran around thirty-five girls and women between the ages of 15 and 45. After the turn of the century, however, the State expanded the mission of the Walnut Valley Colony. It would begin admitting, in the clinical language of the time, feeble-minded idiots and imbeciles as well as morons.

With the expansion of the admission criteria, growth in population, staff, and facilities was fairly constant through the late 60's. By the time Mark first saw the Colony as a member of a student tour from East Stroudsburg State College, the institution was just short of a self-contained community nestled in the gently rolling hills.

As the Sprint came off the bridge into New Jersey, Mark held to the right lane and prepared to take the State Route 94 exit. The secondary road was still slippery and snow-covered but it was a distinct relief to get away from I-80's black slurry of salt-melted snow and cinders.

The Sprint plowed a little in the heavier snow on the winding, high-crowned road up to Walnut Valley. However, Mark dropped from fifth to fourth and made each correction with automatic ease. As the twin stone pillars of the main gate came into view through a screen of pines, he smoothly downshifted to third and then second, making the turn without touching the brakes.

The scene Mark saw after turning into the Colony's main drive was suitable for framing. Snow-bowed evergreens lined the broad drive which curved past the pillared portico of the stone administration building. An American flag atop the ornamental cupola snapped briskly against the brilliant blue of a January sky. Two well-muffled groundskeepers cleared snow from the broad flight of shallow steps which led up to the main entrance.

Mark eased the Sprint up the drive at a sedate and posted 15 m.p.h., circling the Administration Building to a parking lot in the rear. He pulled into a stall marked DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS and slumped back against the headrest.

The parking lot was at the base of a large quadrangle which swept upward from the back of the administration building for over 200 yards. Both long sides of the quad were lined with identical dormitory buildings constructed of the same attractive stone used by the lumber baron for the huge home which now served as the administration building. Another pillared building stood at the crest of the hill at the far end of the quad. This one housed a spacious auditorium, gymnasium, and classrooms.

Mark squinted his eyes against the glare of the sun coming off the snow-covered mall in front of him and wondered absently what percentage of New Jersey's population had the slightest notion of what went on in the 26 residence cottages of the Walnut Valley Colony. Not that what went on in those cottages wasn't typical of the nation's residential facilities for persons with mental disbilities. Definitely typical and probably superior, Mark decided with no sense of elation. But who cares? Who really cares?

Who cares that at least 95 percent of the thousand or so human beings who live in these attractive stone buildings have severe and profound mental disabilities with measured or estimated IQs of less than 35. Who has the slightest notion that many of the Walnut Valley residents require total personal care including feeding, dressing, bathing, and diapering. And not just children and adolescents but adults of all ages as well. Who could even guess that many in this population are given to the self-destructive practices of headbanging and biting, along with fecal smearing and fecal ingestion. Who can possibly visualize the contorted and contractured arms and legs belonging to individuals who are old enough to vote but have neither the physical or mental ability to raise a head and make eye contact with a parent standing beside the crib.

Who really cares?

Sure, the scores of human services aides, cottage training technicians, LPNs, and RNs care. And the dozens of teachers, social workers, psychologists, recreators, office workers, and support staff who keep the institution operational day after day. They care. And, to varying degrees, a double handful of bureaucrats and legislators in Trenton care.

Many parents care. They visit, have their family members home for short vacations, send cards or packages.

But aside from the people whose lives are directly touched by the residents of Walnut Valley, who really cares what happens inside these beautiful buildings?

Does God care?

Mark Marlow fell far short of being a religious person. But he listened respectfully as the Walnut Valley chaplain and various visiting clergymen discoursed somberly on the infinite wisdom of God in giving us these poor unfortunate creatures so we can grow, spiritually and personally, from the rewarding experience of caring for them from the cradle to the grave.

A comforting line of counseling to be fed parents who are still in the first stages of trauma at the realization that God has visited such a blessing on them. But does that really prove God cares?

If there really is a God, and if this God is really a God of love, how could he possibly allow such unfortunate blobs of humanity to come into existence at all? Couldn't this omniscient and omnipotent God find a more efficient and humane way to expand the spiritual and personal capacities of mortals?

The tall figure slumping in the front seat of the Sprint shuddered visibly as the winter chill finally reached him, having dissipated the stored heat in the small car's interior. With a slight shake of his head as if to clear away the morose thoughts of the last few moments, Mark retrieved his brief case from the back seat and strode toward the rear entrance of the Administration Building.

Inside, the blue-eyed blonde at the switchboard smiled a welcome. "Well, hello there, stranger. Enjoy your vacation?"

Mark had used the short walk from the parking lot to clear his head of all melancholy musings. Wouldn't pay to start off the first work day of the new year slumped in the slough of despondency. And beside, he had to be up for his interview with the reporter from the Atlantic City Press. No telling what one of those birds could make of a careless comment or a perceived attitude.
He returned the smile. "Enjoyed every bit of it except the coming-back part, Brenda. Your bright and shining face does a lot to ease the pain, though."

"C'mon, Mr. Marlow. I bet you say that to all the operators," Brenda bantered easily. "Not that I'm complaining or anything. I'll never accuse you of sexual harassment."

Actually many of the younger unattached female members of the Walnut Valley staff ever complained about a chance to talk with the handsome but enigmatic Mark Marlow. In a shameful breach of confidentiality, the girls in the personnel office had surreptitiously circulated the high points gleaned from his resume only 24 hours after he started work. They knew the salient points by heart: six-two, 180 pounds, B.S. in Phys Ed from East Stroudsburg, Master's in Special Ed from Penn State. The grapevine had added another important fact: widowed by a tragic car accident after less than a year of marriage. And now Mark had been Director of Programs at WVC for five years.

Of greatest interest and frustration was the fact that Mark had not dated one WVC employee in the last five years. No amount of milking the grapevine or tittering around the soda machine could negate that fact. Of course, Brenda Dockerty and a whole bevy of others kept trying and even hoping. But it always ended in open friendliness and nothing more.

"By the way, Mr. Marlow, I'll be talking to you tonight on the beeper."

Mark had started down the hall to his office but turned and came back to the switchboard counter. "Oh, really" Thought you were one of the big shots now, working straight days," he joked.

"Yeah, well, you know Mrs. Brumley and her stomach problems. Called up a while ago and said she couldn't make it tonight so I volunteered to work a double. Don't mind, do you?"

"Brenda, you're doing it again. Tempting me to make an unprofessional comment about one of your fellow workers. Naughty, naughty!" They shared a conspiratorial chuckle. Everyone who carried a beeper was fully aware of Alice Brumley's chronic absenteeism. Brenda was always an improvement over Alice and her physical complaints.

Heading back down the hall, Mark was puzzled to see a fog of cigarette smoke drifting out of his open office door. The prim and proper Mrs. Evelyn Wintergreen never smoked and could usually stare down anyone who dared to try it in her office. Folks on the staff knew about and respected the Wintergreen ban on smoking, so who could be raising such a stink?

One Styrofoam cup was being used as an ashtray and the other delivered black coffee to a lined and leathery face which must belong to the guy from the Press. He was slumped in a side chair, an ash-tipped cigarette drooping from his mouth as he jabbed the air with his free hand to punctuate some pronouncement he was making. From the look on Evelyn's face, she considered the story being told to be as dirty as the air.

"Good afternoon, sir," Mark extended his right hand toward the tale-teller. "I'm Mark Marlow."

The visitor half rose and offered a veined and bony hand. "Tom Creedy, Atlantic City Press. Got here early for our appointment but your secretary was kind enough to give me some coffee and a place to sit. Even listened to a couple of my corny jokes, didn't you Evie?" he winked. Mrs. Wintergreen didn't blink.

"Glad you're on time, Mr. Creedy. I have a firm appointment at three so what you get done will have to happen between now and then. Why don't you step into my office and I'll be with you in just a moment."

Mark closed the door behind the newspaperman and turned back to his secretary. He smiled as Evelyn threw up the window as far as it would go and reached into her drawer for the Lysol spray. "Take it easy with that stuff, Evelyn, or you'll have this place smelling like a public restroom," he kidded.

The plump and fortyish secretary turned with eyes blazing. "Did you ever see such a boor?" she hissed. "He's been sitting here for the last forty-five minutes chain smoking those filthy weeds and telling stories that are even filthier. If he hadn't been from the Press, I'd have thrown him out on his butt. And no pun intended."

Mark laughed out loud and moved to close the window against the frigid draft. "You may not die of lung cancer but you'll die of pneumonia if you aren't careful. Seriously, though, I do appreciate your putting up with that clown until I got here. Just proves what I always say. You're the best that ever banged a typewriter."

"Never mind the soft soap, Mr. Marlow," Evelyn cautioned while looking pleased. "You can save that for those young ladies down the hall."

Mark laughed again. "Well, I guess I'll put on my oxygen mask and see what this rascal's up to. Hold all calls except Dr. Kimberly or an outside toll call, okay?"

Inside his office, a fog to rival the earlier one was already building. Like Mrs. Wintergreen, Mark never permitted smoking in his office and saw no reason to change his policy just for a reporter. Before he could begin to speak, Creedy's cigarette foaled a long ash on the carpet. A carpet, incidentally, which didn't cost the taxpayers a cent because it had been paid for from Mark's own pocket.

"Before we get started, Mr. Creedy, I wonder if you'd mind observing that Thank You for Not Smoking sign?"

Creedy looked up at the tall administrator from beneath the snap brim of his battered checked hat. Without removing the cigarette from the corner of his mouth he set his coffee cup on the corner of Mark's desk and crossed his arms.

"What are you? A health nut or a holy roller, or both?" he sneered in his sandpaper voice. "What's it to you if I die of lung cancer or heart disease? That's my business, not yours. You anti-smokers give me a--"

"Just a minute, sir," Mark cut in smoothly. "I only asked that you not smoke here in my office. It is my business when you smoke in my presence, here in my office. You see, I'm not opposed to smoking although I don't smoke myself. I am opposed, strongly opposed, to smoking inside, however. Smoking is an outdoor activity, along with burning leaves or charcoaling a steak. That's why places of human habitation since the dawn of history have always had a provision for letting smoke escape from cooking and heating fires. A hole in a cave roof, a flap at the top of a teepee, and, of course, the chimney. Humans have always abhorred smoke inside their dwellings. With the notable exception of tobacco smoke in recent centuries, that is."

Mark hated to expound on his no-smoking philosophy at the beginning of an interview. The little newsman's attitude softened, though, and he spoke with no trace of his earlier rancor. "It's crazy for us to be wasting time talking about smoking when I came here to get a story. I do respect your ideas, though. I hear you saying that you're opposed to smoking because of what it does to you, not what it does to me. Right?"

Mark nodded. "I guess you could put it that way."

"One thing a newsman has to do is stay logical and deal with facts. What you say is logical and I appreciate that. So, I'll bite the bullet and not smoke another cigarette until I'm out of your office. But you have to keep my cup full of hot black coffee. Deal?"

"Sure is. I'll ask Evelyn to bring in a pot and then we can get down to work. And here, use this mug. Coffee never tastes as good out of one those throwaways."

Creedy grinned amicably and extracted a legal pad and a supply of pencils from his battered brief case. Mark produced the promised coffee and both men got comfortable.

Mark wished Dr. Kimberly would have done the interview but she had very little rapport with the press and always leaned on Mark as the official spokesman for the institution. She claimed his earlier part-time job in radio and his unflappable personality made him the ideal PR man.

The clock said 1:40 and Mark decided to let the interview run no longer than 70 minutes. That would give him ten minutes to get down to the time office before change of shift.

"Mr. Creedy, before we get started, I'm a little curious about why the Atlantic City Press is coming way up here to North Jersey to do a story on Walnut Valley. What about one of the institutions in Vineland or the one in Woodbine? They're right in your back yard, aren't they?"

"True, Mark. As you say, they are close so we've already covered them. I've been working on a four-part series for our Sunday supplement which tells about the various residential programs for the persons with disabilities in this state. Institutions like this have gotten a lot of bad press lately, like that Pennhurst thing down near Philly several years ago. What I'm trying to do is show that some of these places do provide a good service, especially for families who can't afford to send their kids to one of those fancy private schools or can't find one they like in the community. You see, I'm not convinced that it's time to close down all institutions and put everyone out in some foster home or group home."

"You sound like you know a little more than the average man about this field. Always been a reporter?"

Creedy took a double slurp of hot coffee. "No. Matter of fact, you and I used to be on the same team. Years ago I worked for the old Department of Institutions and Agencies as a PR man. Used to tag along with the Commissioner and the Governor when they visited the different institutions. Got a job change when we got a governor change, though. Anyway, my old job is why I'm doing this piece."

Mark studied a wire sculpture which used to be a paper clip. "Any particular angle you plan to use here?"

"Well, when I talked to the superintendent on the phone, she said she was going to turn me over to the Director of Programs. Since I've already hit the program angle pretty hard in the other places, though, I thought I'd like to key on the employees this time. You know, what kind of people work in a place like this? What are their working conditions? How do you handle round-the-clock coverage, that sort of thing. Are you prepared for questions along those lines?"

Mark shifted mental gears and elevated his feet to the feet-on-drawer posture he'd inherited from his father. "I think so. My main job is to administer the training and activity programs for the residents. But I'm also closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the total institution, including what goes on in the cottages."

Mark took another cup from his credenza and poured himself some coffee. He swirled in two spoonsful of creamer before continuing. "The most important job in an institution is that of the attendant, the person who gives the direct care and supervision. All the fancy programs won't amount to a hill of beans if we don't have a strong staff of trained and dedicated para-professionals in the cottages."

Creedy started to fish a Camel out of a crumpled pack and then checked himself with a grin. "My addiction's creeping up on me again," he said dryly and dropped the pack in his brief case. "Gotta keep those things out of reach, it's so automatic."

Mark smiled and sipped his coffee.

Then Tom Creedy launched a series of questions about staffing the Colony with aides, LPNs and RNs which kept Mark talking for the better part of an hour. He kept an eye on the clock, however, and at 2:50, he told Creedy it was time to break it off. Creedy agreed readily and thanked Mark for the wealth of information.

Mark opened Evelyn's office door. "Well, Mr. Creedy, I enjoyed this chance to tell you and your readers a little bit about how we run things here at Walnut Valley. Hope you can put all that rambling into something that's fit to print. You do know, don't you, that Dr. Kimberly has to see a draft before you go to press? I believe that's an understanding she had with your editor."

"No sweat on that, Mark. This series doesn't have a tight schedule so it'll be no problem to send her a copy of the draft. And hey, I gotta run, too." The bony hand came out in farewell. "Enjoyed talking to you and I'm sure our readers will find what you've said here this afternoon as interesting as I did."

Creedy jammed his omnipresent hat a little farther down on his head and pulled on his top coat. Before closing his case, he retrieved the pack of Camels with a broad wink. Mark laughed good-naturedly.

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