“Now you sit there and don’t you move ’til I come back!”
There they sat. All six of them. On a mahogany bench in a long hallway at the Marion County Courthouse. Confused but obedient, they watched him disappear. They listened to the hollow echo of their father’s footsteps grow faint.
He never came back.
The next morning they woke up in what would be their home for the next several years, The Indianapolis Orphans Asylum.
Who would make a choice like that? And what led up to it?
It all started in Washington, Indiana, between the two great World Wars. Born to Jesse McKinley Hinkle (8/28/1895) and Besse May Houchins Hinkle (6/30/1896) between 1916 and 1929 were six beautiful babies: Mabel, Virginia, Jake, Bob, Jim, and Harold. Times were desperate across America in the 1930s. The Great Depression tightened its grip, and many families struggled to hold on. Too many kids. Not enough money. Even hope was in short supply.
After the last baby was born, what would today be called “postpartum depression” set in—and it set in hard. She began to wear thin and finally couldn’t bear it another day: the kids, the hunger, the dirt, the wind, the crying.
Besse made the only choice she felt she could. She took off. When she returned a few weeks later, no one asked where she had been. “I’ll take you back this time. But don’t you ever disappear like that again. If you do, don’t bother coming home,” her husband Jesse told her quietly.
After that, things got worse. Any trust that had been between them vanished. He found work when he could on the railroad as a boilermaker, but the stock market had crashed and the dirty thirties blew in drought and despair.
A few months later she took off again. This time she didn’t come back. After all, she had been warned; the choice had been made for her.
It didn’t take long and Jesse chose a younger woman. Maybe he thought she would step in and love his children. Turned out she didn’t have it in her.
Bob was five that year. Every night he wet the bed. It enraged her. Every morning when the pungent odor hung in his room, he was beaten with a belt and locked in the closet until noon. Most days, his sheets were hung on the line and then replaced on his bed unwashed. She did this every day for three years. He continued wetting the bed despite her methods.
A sad thing began to happen. The younger children started to forget what their mother looked like. They began to forget her touch and how she smelled. All they knew was how this new woman in the house made their father seem powerless.
One cold and damp February day in 1933, she finally took Jesse aside. “That’s it,” the older children overheard. “I can’t stand this another day. It’s either them or me.” She demanded that he choose…and he didn’t choose them.
The next day they piled into a borrowed pickup and a few hours later found themselves in downtown Indianapolis, on that hard bench in that long hallway. Six children between 4 and 17 years of age.
Whether he felt sad; whether he had a tear in his eye as he said goodbye (if he said goodbye at all); whether he did it because he knew they’d be better off without his wife; whether he thought he didn’t have a choice in the matter; whether he ever regretted that day—we will never know. All we know is how that day is remembered by the children—first abandoned by their mother who had left three years earlier and then abandoned by their father.
The day continues to be a snapshot frozen in their minds. The sight of the marble hallway, the hollow sound of his footsteps, and the terror in their bones that kept them glued to the bench until closing time. Had he signed any papers or had he simply dropped them off like unwanted kittens? They would never know. It really didn’t matter anymore.
4107 East Washington Street. The Orphanage. The Children’s Home. Children’s Bureau. The Indianapolis Orphans Asylum. Whatever the name, these kids had heard about it and new fear gripped their hearts.
But what they found was quite the contrary. Three square meals a day. Clean sheets on their beds. Shoes that actually fit. School (PS 59) every day with real books. Regular medical and dental care.
And at Christmas time, there were after-hours visits to L.S. Ayres Department Store for each child to pick out a new matching outfit, new shoes, and a toy of their very own. Sure, there were lots of kids and lots of structure, but what a trade off! Their needs were met more completely than ever before. And they were safe.
Oh, and that bed wetting thing? During a regular medical exam, it was discovered that Bob, then eight years old, needed a minor surgery to correct the problem he had been born with. After the simple surgery, Bob’s bed-wetting days were over.
As the children grew, some were assigned to foster homes. Some homes were better than others. Some just wanted free labor and really weren’t interested in parenting children. In those days, orphans were literally “put up” on a railroad flatbed or a platform stage and paraded in front of prospective parents, to be selected based on size and looks. That’s where we get the degrading term “put up for adoption.” The girls were often chosen to iron, do laundry, and clean the houses where they were assigned. The boys were chosen by farmers to help with harvest. None of the Hinkle children were ever legally adopted. A couple of them were placed temporarily in foster homes but chose to return to the Orphans Home. The boys pretty much bided their time until they turned 17 and enlisted in the military. By then World War II was brewing in Europe. The girls found husbands in the factories where they went to work. And they all lived happily ever after!
Well, not quite.
What about Bob?
Bob was my husband’s father. A tough old bird, he grew from this rocky start into an alcoholic who smoked four packs a day and died alone from the effects of hard living—infected ulcers on his legs that would not heal, emphysema, and congestive heart failure. He divorced his wife after 28 years, became a recluse, and went through spin-dry programs six times before relegating himself to the role of dry drunk. Mean and verbally abusive to the ones closest to him, he was charming and generous to new acquaintances.
So, here’s the point. In today’s climate of self-realization that too quickly blames our parents for our troubles, it occurs to me that the Hinkle children really did have something to blame their parents for.
But did they? Let’s see.
They justified their abandonment by the Great Depression. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and did the best they could with quite limited resources. They finished school, fought for their country, married, and had families. No violent crime. No jail time. They did their best to put together the puzzle of family, without having the picture on the box top to see what the puzzle should look like.
In the end, The Orphans Asylum seemed to meet its promise of rescuing children from poverty and dangerous situations and developing them into productive members of society.
Simply put, they overcame choices that had been made by their mother and then by their father. These choices of others affected all six deeply in different ways.
So what do you think?
Is it hard wiring from before birth that makes us choose the Bible or the bottle? Or is it the Bible or the bottle that hardens our wiring?
Is it childhood trauma that hardens the heart, closing us off? Or does childhood trauma soften the heart, making us open to love?
Or does it all boil down to the little choices we make every day?
To overcome or not?
To fear or not?
To trust or not?
To love or not?
It all depends on the choice.