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Florence's Family Album
By Florence Holub
Editor's Note: This essay, by Voice contributor Florence Holub, 86, was originally published in June 1992, a little more than a month after the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers accused in the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King.
The terrible events in Los Angeles last month made one wonder if brotherhood and justice are actually attainable goals. The Rodney King verdict certainly smelled of racism, and without the videotape the truth of the incident might never have come to light.
For me, the tape served as an agonizing reminder of the brutal treatment my younger brother, Warde, received 20 years ago at the hands of two members of the San Francisco Police Department.
Prior to this incident, my brother had never been in trouble with the law or involved in violence of any kind. He was attractive and good-natured--everyone's friend. He had served in the Navy during World War II, married his childhood sweetheart, and fathered two beautiful daughters. Trained as a carpenter, he worked with our father in a small construction company, which built and remodeled many Noe Valley homes. In 1971, at the age of 49, Warde Mickelson was enjoying a busy social life and lots of partying. He thought the good times would go on forever.
But he did have a drinking problem. And one fateful night, after over-indulging and then driving in an erratic manner, he was stopped by two policemen. He had shown poor judgment, of course, but I cannot believe that he deserved what he got. He was pulled out of his car, handcuffed, and beaten on the skull with billy clubs by two armed officers who could have subdued one unarmed inebriate with ease.
This beating did irreparable damage, although it was not immediately apparent. Several weeks after the incident, Warde's daughter realized that something was wrong when, one morning at breakfast, her father failed to recognize his wife of many years. He was hospitalized, and the doctors, suspecting a brain tumor, decided to operate. No tumor was found, however. Instead, the doctors discovered a buildup of fluids and "dead blood."
To relieve the pressure on his brain, they inserted a shunt--a tube for expelling excess fluid. They told us that in a few weeks Warde would be mentally back to where he had been before the surgery. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and he was transferred to Laguna Honda Hospital to convalesce.
Physically, my brother looked well enough, but now he was obsessed with the incident--the beating and the court procedure that followed. Confusing Laguna Honda with the Hall of Justice, he insisted upon being escorted through the halls of the hospital so that he could locate the courtroom in which he was required to appear. Day after day we repeated this search, until we were able to convince him of his true whereabouts and the fact that the court case was indeed over.
Warde didn't seem to know much else, however. He wasn't sure who I was, but he knew I had a familiar face. He did recognize his daughters, but he was shocked to see that they were all grown up. We came to realize that 20 years of memory storage had been obliterated, in addition to his short-term memory. His brain had been so traumatized by the blows that he would never again be able to function well.
He was shuttled from one rest home to another, and as his condition worsened, he was rushed to intensive-care units whenever blood clots lodged in a lung or leg. He was able to walk until a stroke paralyzed his right side, confining him to a wheelchair at Laguna Honda for the rest of his life.
Incapacitated as he was, my brother still occasionally got a hankering for a change of scenery. One quiet Sunday when no one was watching, he slyly but speedily wheeled his chair out the rear door. He then untied the restricting belt and attempted to stand up, but instead fell sideways when his paralyzed leg folded, sending him headfirst to the pavement. He split his brow and received a dozen stitches, not to mention a bright color-coded ribbon pinned to his back, which let the nurses know they were dealing with an escape artist. He didn't get away again.
On some visits, I took him my Voice articles if I thought they would interest him. One story, "A Remembrance of Christmas Past," was about the Swede/Finn festival at Latvian Hall and our happy participation as little children. He listened intently as I read. When I noticed a tear running down his cheek and asked him if he wanted me to stop, he quickly shook his head from side to side, and I realized these were tears of joy, not sadness. The words had found an avenue to his long-term memory bank! When I asked him if he would like to keep the article, he nodded his head up and down, and as I left, he was holding the clipping pressed against his chest with his one good hand.
But by and large, Warde's attention span was too short for anything weightier than the Sunday funnies, which I took to him every Tuesday. On Wednesdays, my older brother visited, and to test Warde's memory, he always asked if his sister had been there the day before. The answer was always no, with a doleful shake of the head, even though the comics were still in plain view on his night stand.
He was never bitter or angry, and he valiantly tried to cultivate the use of his left hand, because his right arm was useless due to the stroke. But in his hospital art class, he painted the same subject over and over--the violent action of several men beating another man on the head and to the ground. When I asked him who these people were, he couldn't remember. When I tried to suggest a happier theme, a hospital volunteer with a psychology background said it would be better to let him go on working through whatever was causing the fixation.
He finally did change the direction of his brush. And for a time, his control improved to such an extent that he actually sold a few paintings and won a first prize in a competition.
In June of 1991, at almost 70 years of age, Warde lapsed into a coma. Two days later, he quietly expired.
I just want to say that although the rioting and carnage in L.A. following the Rodney King verdict were reprehensible, police brutality is a monstrous thing that can never be ignored or condoned.
Even though most police officers are good and honorable people, they carry weapons, and can unintentionally cause great harm. In my brother Warde's case, they destroyed his mind, his health, and his life.