MARIANNA — He drove up from Fort Walton Beach, to the front gate, and by the time he arrived his daughter's text had come through. I'm proud of you.
He parked his Toyota about 50 yards away from the razor wire, climbed out and walked past the Florida tag that says he won a Purple Heart and the bumper sticker that says he's an Airborne Ranger, 75th Infantry, Company K. Warm wind kicked through the pines. Mockingbirds sang. Mayflies landed on his ears.
Bryant Middleton, 66, stood still, hands behind his back, posture stiff. Minutes slid by, each one closer to 5:30 p.m., when the state would finally close its first and oldest reform school after 111 years.
He was not certain why he came. To bear witness, maybe. To see that the state officials kept their promises. To make sure they turned the lights off.
"There's been 111 years of child abuse at this place," he said. "Maybe I'm here to represent those children. Many of them can't speak. I'm not here to speak. I'm just here to stand as a representative."
So he stood, tie tied tight, in shiny shoes and with a knee that bears a bullet-sized scar from Vietnam. It wasn't easy, even for a man who has jumped from airplanes more than 800 times.
"No matter how many times I come out here, " he said, "when I look across that campus, I still have fear."
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The first time he walked this ground was in 1960, when it was called the Florida School for Boys. A Miami judge sent him up for breaking into houses. Thinking back, he was guilty as sin.
That first day, he remembered, a disciplinarian named R.W. Hatton explained the rules. Then Hatton asked him to run out to the fields and fetch a boy. He hadn't eaten since he left Miami, so he stopped to pick some wild blackberries. When he made it back, Hatton knew.
That night he took his first of five trips to a concrete-block hell the boys called the White House. The disciplinarian flipped on a fan to drown out Middleton's cries, and men took turns beating him with a leather strap.
They came out of the woodwork by the dozens in late 2008, after the news broke. Men were telling their stories of being beaten bloody when they were boys at the state school, which had been renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, after a longtime superintendent. Some had been raped. Others knew kids who had died.
Four of them, all former wards, had connected online and persuaded the Miami Herald to tell their stories. It quickly built into a scandal and spread across the nation. CNN showed up. The governor ordered an investigation into the men's claims and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to identify who was buried beneath 31 crosses in a small clearing in the middle of a pine forest near the campus.
Bryant Middleton's wife saw a story in the newspaper at their home in Fort Walton Beach.
Have you ever heard of Marianna? she asked her husband.
His hands started shaking. Through four decades of marriage, four kids and eight grandkids, he had never told her about Marianna.
He cried for three days.
At a little after 5 p.m., the gate opened and a car pulled out. One of the few staffers left said he didn't want to talk.
The state in May told the school's 185 workers that budget cuts had forced them to eliminate the $14.3-million-a-year program, recently renamed the North Florida Youth Development Center. Officials promised to help find them new jobs in an area already economically depressed.
Nobody felt good about that, not even the man who had come to watch them leave.
"I don't hold anything against these people," he said. "It was their predecessors who did us harm."
He remembers their names. Hatton. Hagen. Dozier. Edenfield. And there was Tidwell, Troy Tidwell, whom the boys called the One-Armed Man. All of them were dead except Tidwell.
Middleton sat across from Tidwell for five hours during a deposition in 2009, part of a failed class-action lawsuit the men brought against the state. Middleton heard Tidwell deny that he ever gave a boy more than a dozen licks, a claim hundreds of men dispute.
That irked them. Some talked of driving through Marianna towing a giant sign that said TIDWELL IS A LIAR. But slowly they calmed. It seemed many began to lose interest until the state announced it was closing the school.
Middleton wanted to buy an ad in the paper. Full page. He wanted to write WE WON! in big letters, and TWHB small at the bottom, for The White House Boys.
His wife talked him out of it.
Two weeks ago, he had a dream. He was inside a big building, three stories tall, like a giant general store. He was walking down a spiral staircase when he passed a man with one arm. Tidwell.
What are you doing here?" the man asked. Middleton kept walking. Around the corner came a toy train, and riding on the toy train was R.W. Hatton.
"It's him!" the man shouted. "It's him!"
He cried for an hour as his wife held him in bed. Fifty years after he was beaten, he's still haunted.
He took a deep breath. The gate opened again to let out one last car, then closed. There were no beams of light or rainbows. His wristwatch simply rolled forward.
"We won," he said to himself. "My God. My God."
He was quiet for a minute, then leaned his head back.
"I hope you guys can hear me, wherever you are," he said. "I hope you know we did the right thing. So many children. So many futures.
"We beat those sons of b-----s."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.