The First Noël

The following took place during my thirteenth year . . .

A week before Christmas Day, a gaggle of us self-conscious teenagers loaded into three cars. We headed to Elgin State Hospital, formerly called the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane. Our church’s youth group leader had decided that, in the spirit of Christmas, his charges should bring hope and joy to the less fortunate.

Four of us sat bunched together in the back seat of one of the cars. We kidded each other about who was the crazier. We cackled and fidgeted and sniffed the mimeographed sheets of Christmas Carols and became giddier. None of us knew what to expect. “But for the grace of God” is all I heard the youth group leader say before I got in the car.

The high school senior driving our car asked us if we wanted to hear about “Elgin State.” We became quiet and ready to squeal like when the four of us sat at a campfire last summer. Jeff slowly spun out his words and waited for our reaction.

 “They say the place is . . . haunted … horrific experiments had been performed there . . . spirits of the unclaimed dead walk the cemetery grounds and, . . .  in the buildings, . . . the criminally insane live there.”

It didn’t take much. Jeff’s description of Elgin State and the winter wind that howled through Jeff’s rusted-out car gave us goose bumps. I wound and unwound the pretty purple printed sheets. Lise snapped her gum. Mary kicked the front seat and Joan kept biting her nails.

The three cars drove through the front entrance and down a long driveway towards the largest brick building I had ever seen. I suddenly felt out of place. I saw no signs of Christmas anywhere.

We parked along the front of the building. The youth group leader led our group of sixteen through the front door. He announced us at the front desk. Soon an older gentleman came down the stairs.

Dr. I-Forget-His-Name was bald and wore thick-rimmed glasses. In his white lab coat, he looked like the mad scientist I’d seen in a movie that I wasn’t supposed to watch but watched anyway at a friend’s house. Up close, I could see small blood vessels on his nose and cheeks. Whispering to Lise, I wondered if that is what happened when you work here. I tried not to stare when he escorted the group upstairs.

On the second floor he directed us to a double-door entrance. We walked through it. The room before us was bigger than any church sanctuary I had been in. There were large windows along the length of the room. They were foggy, providing a pale spectral light. None of the patients stood near them.

There were no curtains around the windows. There were no pictures on the walls, no paintings, and no Christmas tree or decorations. The furniture, wooden chairs and tables, was scattered around the room on the dull linoleum floor. The hall seemed soulless and indifferent toward the fifty gowned inmates within it.

The patient’s voices, moans, yelps, and shrieks sounded like they were coming out from a deep cave. Many sat staring off blankly. Some of them bobbed their head endlessly. Those who walked around seemed content to be walking in no specific direction. Our appearance at the double-door made no difference to them.

We gathered in two rows just inside the doorway and began signing Jingle Bells. Our voices reverberated and then seemed to go off somewhere. Our captive audience didn’t stir. We followed with Silent Night. There were a couple of moans of recognition. Then we sang The First Noël.

The First Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
In fields as they lay
In fields where they Lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s…

Out from the hallway behind us came a naked man. He began shouting and writhing right in front of us. One of the girls shrieked. The patients whooped and hollered.

Two men with white coats tried to grab the man. But he squirmed and threw them off again and again. He jumped and shouted and flung his arms right in front of us. He wanted to be right in front of us.

More white coats came to help. They surrounded the man and subdued him. He was dragged from the room.

It took a few minutes for our youth group leader to get us back to singing. When we did, we kept looking behind us to see what was next. But nothing happened after that.

When we finished singing our host escorted us down stairs. At the door, he thanked us for coming. On the way home we had a lot to talk about. Jeff said nothing.

That night I told my parents about my experience at Elgin State. Father said he was reminded of the Gadarene demoniac. Mom said “That poor man.”

Two weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, I was allowed to stay up late. I sat with my father as he watched the newsman recap what had happened in 1965. Something was said about demonstrations and Vietnam and The Great Society. But I sat there thinking about “that poor” wild “man” in Elgin State. He sure reacted to The First Noël.