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Richard Myers is one of the last alive who called the sanatorium home. He's 73 now, and still lives in Booneville. A few days after the Allies declared victory over Germany in Europe, a big black car pulled up to his parents' sharecropper shack on Ditch 40 between Kaiser and Osceola and took him away to live on The Hill. Though he had no symptoms, he had contracted TB of the left lung. He was seven years old. He wouldn't see his family again for four years.
Though he was eventually moved to the Masonic Building where other children with TB were kept, for the first years of his stay at the sanatorium Myers lived alone in a room on the third floor of the Nyberg Building. He doesn't know exactly how long he was there. He said the tedium of life at the sanatorium, where most of his days were spent confined to a bed, sapped him of all concept of time.
"I've often said that every day in our lives was a Tuesday," Myers said, "because nothing ever happens on a Tuesday."
For a poor boy from the Delta who had never lived in a house with electricity or running water, Myers said his life at the Sanatorium was the best of times, and the worst of times. He had all the good food he could eat, but the boredom gnawed at him. With day after day spent staring at the same thing — same wall, same door, same rectangle of sky through the window — he said most of his childhood memories are focused on sound.
"It's really strange thinking back on it," Myers said. "I suppose the worst part was the dying. That was a part of your existence. People died almost daily. I can remember laying there in bed at night, listening to people down the hall. It always began with a long coughing spell, then it would turn into a kind of gurgling, raspy sound. Then it would get deathly quiet. You knew what had happened."
Myers came to know the routine of death at the Sanatorium. When someone died, the nurses began closing the big oak doors of the patient rooms, one after another, their closing sending a deep and ominous drumbeat up the echoing hallways. Myers said he would wait until his door was closed, then he would jump out of bed, lie on the floor, and put his eye to the crack under the sill.
"When that stillness came at the end of that, they'd push those gurneys down the hallway and of course the wheels would wobble," he said. "You could see those wheels go by making that wobbling, squeaking sound. It would be gone for a moment, and when it came back with a body on it, it was loaded and the wheels would run straight. It didn't make the sound."
Spared the more horrific measures taken against TB (his treatment consisted solely of good food and bed rest) Myers was transferred to the children's unit at the Masonic Building. He and the other children — with the boys and girls strictly divided except during the four hours of school every day — almost never left the building.
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It is late May, 2016 and I, a Native Californian, am just in tears reading…
Thank you for telling this story.