No one just happens to pass through John Day in Oregon. Nestled in the Blue Mountains about 300 miles east of Portland, John Day is that rare American place that cannot be reached by superhighway and is not served by airlines, trains or even buses. Big-eared mule deer outnumber people in surrounding Grant County--population 8,000--and the bus that brings ranch kids to the high school is likely to complete its route without passing another vehicle.
Small and isolated as it may be, John Day pulled hard on a dying man 3,000 miles away. Fred Boyce, a thin 63-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, ignored the pain in his belly as he scraped the ice from a March snowstorm off the windshield of his car and then drove from Boston’s South Shore to catch a shuttle to Logan Airport. Three different airplanes brought him to eastern Washington state, where I met him at a small airport. As we drove a rental car three hours down a two-lane road, we discussed his will, his ideas about funerals and his thoughts on the afterlife. We’ve talked a lot about these things lately.
We got to John Day as the sun was setting. At a small house where dogs barked and a horse snorted behind a fence, Boyce climbed out of the car and breathed in juniper and pine. Carol Kilpatrick, a woman he had never seen, stepped off the porch with tears in her eyes and hugged Boyce long and hard. Kilpatrick had been hoping to bring him to John Day since she had first read about him eight years ago, a project that had gained urgency when he was diagnosed recently with terminal colon cancer and told he had about a year to live. Her students at the high school had raised some of the airfare and then prepared a day of events in his honor. “I can’t believe you’re here at last,” she said. “I really don’t think you understand what it means to us that you came.”
Boyce was about to find out.
To understand how a man who had trouble finding the place on a map could be so important to John Day, you have to go back to 1996. That was when Kilpatrick, a high school social studies teacher, read about a group of middle-aged men who were suing the state of Massachusetts, Quaker Oats and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for using them as human guinea pigs in the early 1950s. As boys they had been inmates at the Fernald State School for the retarded, which recruited them to join a so-called “Science Club” and then offered them up for an experiment involving radioactive oatmeal. For the experiment, the boys were fed cereal that had been treated with radioactive elements, which were then traced as they made their way through their systems. The truth of what occurred was revealed in 1993 with the declassification of Cold War-era government papers, and made national headlines. It was Boyce who reunited the Science Club and then organized them to win a $3-million legal settlement.
Kilpatrick had been teaching her students about the ways nations balance the rights of individuals and the needs of society. The Science Club was a case study of what happens when the balance slips. She telephoned Boyce and he agreed to meet with her students via speakerphone. In the years that followed, virtually every child who passed through Grant Union High School--about 600 in all--heard his story. Although curious about the Science Club, students were more captivated by the story of Boyce’s life. As an abused and neglected child, he had become a ward of the state and lived in six foster homes before he was judged “feebleminded” and incarcerated at Fernald. There he received little education, was required to perform menial labor and subjected to the violence and sadism of both staff members and other inmates.
As young adults, Boyce and dozens of others were freed around 1960 when they were deemed too rebellious to be held at the school and capable of life on the outside. Upon their release, some men succumbed to drug abuse, alcoholism and criminal careers. Boyce did not. He taught himself to read and then took to the carnival circuit with a ring-toss booth that he towed in a trailer hitched to his car. He succeeded well enough to buy a house and achieve a stable, if sometimes lonesome, life. To the surprise of the Grant Union students, he refused to hate the doctors, attendants and officials at Fernald who might well have ruined his life. “They were victims of a system,” he told them, one class at a time. “There was this idea that you should take certain people and lock ‘em up and throw away the key. It wasn’t the fault of each individual attendant or doctor. What could they do?”
Boyce insisted he had enjoyed his life and inspired students to look past their temporary troubles. But Kilpatrick and her students understood that there were certain losses Boyce could not overcome. He had never attended a school. He had never experienced the life of a close-knit community. He had never been recognized for the life he had created out of adversity.
On the evening that he arrived in John Day, Boyce was the guest of honor at a dinner party attended by some of the town’s leading citizens. The menu included native elk, morel mushrooms from the nearby forest and a cheesecake made by the mother of a student. Boyce asked about life in a town that was losing its main industry--logging--and struggling to survive. His hosts wanted Boyce to know that he had been an inspiration to every high school student to become a productive adult in a place where opportunity is scarce. “These kids all talk about you and what you were able to do with your life,” said Mark Witty, the school principal. “You mean a lot to them.”
Boyce spent the night at a Kilpatrick family guest house. At breakfast the radio was tuned to the county’s one radio station--KJDY--as the newscaster announced that an honored guest had come to town. “A man who was wrongly incarcerated” would be telling his story at Grant Union High, where an assembly was planned, followed by a full day of activities.
At the school, signs said “Welcome Fred Boyce.” Inside, arrows pointed Boyce toward the “new gym,” which is decades old. Students filled the bleachers. Music echoed. A cheer went up as Boyce entered the room. He sat down, and the pep squad brought the crowd to its feet. The school choir sang a selection that included Hayden’s “Gloria.” A school dance troupe performed a piece that blended ballet and gymnastics.
Boyce stood to speak. As a carnival barker, he knew how to work a crowd. But he was choked by emotion. Finally, he began: “I want to tell you, never give up. A lot of times, you’ll think that life is giving you trouble. But in the end, you will find that life is beautiful. If I can get to that point, given where I started out, well, just imagine what you can do with your life.”
The students stood and cheered.
Kilpatrick’s class had spent weeks preparing for Boyce’s visit. they had composed dozens of questions, which they wrote on huge sheets of paper and posted on the classroom walls. After the assembly, they brought Boyce to their classroom and spent 90 minutes discussing the Science Club and his life.
Perched on a stool, Boyce talked about the many times he had tried to escape from Fernald and the bare cell he was thrown into after being caught. He said his dignity had been violated by the oatmeal experiment, even if the low dose of radiation was probably not harmful. He tried to explain how he was able to talk about his tragic early life without sounding any notes of bitterness and anger.
“Look, you have to come to some peace with what happens to you in life if you are going to be able to tell your own story,” he said. Fernald, he realized, had even given him a perspective that helped him find likeminded souls as an adult. “It’s like what Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘You judge people by the content of their character.’ ”
Next came the studios of KJDY to tape an interview with the grand dame of local media, a 70-something woman named Ruth Harris, who has entertained and informed Grant County for 20 years with her show “Coffee Time.” She is also the key figure in one of the town’s most storied events. A devoted cookbook collector, her home was once practically a library on cuisine. But then a gas explosion--thankfully Ruth was away--blew the house apart. The cookbooks were blown to smithereens. Weeks later, hunters still came upon recipes as they stalked game in forests and fields.
On this day, Harris began the show by explaining that Boyce was a familiar friend to Grant County High School students, a fixture in the town, without ever having visited. She asked him to recount the Science Club experiment and asked him, bluntly, “What made you realize you were a victim?”
“I actually don’t consider myself a victim, really,” said Boyce. “I think of myself as a survivor.”
Harris smiled. She went on to chat with Boyce about his fears as a child and his effort to illuminate the history of institutions such as Fernald by speaking out. After the taping, Harris explained that the chat would be broadcast the next day. Since there was only one station available to local listeners, the audience would be substantial. Appearing on “Coffee Time” would establish him in John Day alongside all the civic leaders, club presidents and elected officials who had answered Harris’ questions over the years.
Back at the high school, lunch with students was followed by a visit with a local book club. (Boyce is a main figure in a book I have written.) Afterward, Boyce met the school faculty, received a team cap from the baseball coach and went on a tour of the county. The man from Boston gazed at the mountains and streams and wildlife and marveled at the fact that he had been brought so far to receive so much kindness.
As a child who grew up behind the walls of an institution, Boyce had longed for a life on the “outside.” But he feared that he would always be an alien, a stranger with no family, no roots, no hometown. When he finally did get his freedom, he sometimes lied about his past, claiming to have grown up in certain towns and letting others believe he had attended regular schools. He was married briefly but otherwise lived alone his entire adult life. This experience led him to conclude that he was different from other people, especially the ones with families.
On Fred Boyce Day in the town of John Day, people intended to show their gratitude for his work with so many students. In the last season of his life, as he began to assess his gains and losses, they also gave him something he had long stopped dreaming of--a hometown.