When my family moved to Omaha in the spring of 1991, I heard jokes about Boys Town from Tina, the realtor. “We got a place for kids like you,” she’d say, and then she’d squeeze her false eyelashes together and smile, causing the makeup on her face to crack like old siding. As realtors go, she was a fixer upper.
Tina joked with me because it was quite apparent I was a “good” kid; friendly but not brave, comfortable with adults, and in my case, devoted to reading the complete works of John Steinbeck. I was unhappy about the move to Omaha, and perhaps in her own way she was trying to cheer me up, letting me know that I was all right, that no matter what happened, I would never end up in a place like Boys Town—the name of which was made more ominous by the fact that I had little idea what it was.
My imagination produced something like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, a shadowy assembly of cigarette-smoking juvenile delinquents, the sort of unfortunate kids we called “druggies” where we lived in Iowa. My friends were all “good kids,” abstainers of drugs and alcohol except for a single and daring round of vodka shots one Friday afternoon. Our idea of fun was driving golf balls from the roof. And sneaking out at night to hose trees with toilet paper and to fork lawns. I had a girlfriend whom I hadn’t even kissed.
We were leaving our town because my father had made himself literally sick trying to rescue a nursing home in the suburbs of Des Moines that was near bankruptcy. He was hospitalized from the stress and anxiety, and by the time he returned, he had decided we would do what I feared most. Move.
Tina invested several consecutive weekends to finding a home in Omaha for my family. Our demands didn’t seem like much: Mom and Dad wanted something they described as “well-built” and “reasonably priced.” I began to dread Fridays, knowing that my weekend would be spent gazing from the back of a minivan at a city I did not know but did not like. For no good reason, I developed an opposition to ranch-style homes, announcing that an upstairs was essential to my happiness. My sister, then 11, cultivated a similar hatred for split foyers. More than a decade later and after a degree in architecture, her dislike would grow into professional loathing.
We drove in what seemed like circles through the city, Tina pushing us farther and farther west, where neighborhoods are patterned like paisley, all loops and expensive dead ends. One day Tina drove us out on Pacific Street, which runs east and west through the middle of town. When we reached 132nd Street, Omaha suddenly gave way to pastoral, fancy: a planned community of corn field, barns, homes, administrative facilities, schools, and athletic fields. From there, it reached to the other side of 144th Street and north past the torrent of Dodge Street.
This was Boys Town. It began as an orphanage in 1917 when an Irish priest named Father Edward Joseph Flanagan took in five orphans in a rented house at 25th and Dodge. He soon moved to a bigger place. But in 1921 he took his flock of orphan boys, which now numbered a hundred, and fled the crowded city and its vagrants, drunks and migrant workers. He moved to a farm ten miles west of town and left the city behind.
Today, Boys Town is nine hundred acres of incorporated village. And Omaha long ago surrounded and swept miles past it. With the city around it, Boys Town looks like a set piece of the American gothic, blown across the landscape. Dozens of houses sit along tidy, winding streets. Flags flap over porch fronts; shadows of old trees flicker in the streets; geese and ducks float on a wide pond; and next to it, is the Boys Town National Headquarters, a postmodern construction of the late ’70s that appears to be part Colorado ski lodge, part Ikea moon colony. As a kid, it accentuated the strangeness of the place; I had certainly never seen anything like it in Iowa. It seemed sophisticated—as new, ugly things often do—and worldly. I look at it today and it still seems worldly. But more so, it seems liberal.
And there are older brick buildings. The Wegner Middle School is red, modern, boxy, and utilitarian. The Boys Town High School is of the same build, but the brick is yellow; meanwhile, the cavernous, art deco Skip Palrang Memorial Field House feels as expansive and triumphant as the post-World War II era that produced it.
The Boys Town Post Office delivers the mail; Boys Town police patrol the streets; and the Boys Town Fire Department handles cats stuck in trees, and presumably, fires. About five hundred kids live there at any given time, though I saw none that first day. It was quiet, and the middle school and the high school were both dark. I paid close attention to the houses: no ranches. They looked big enough for a family of ten and bore a striking resemblance to Nebraska-style McMansions, which are mostly new and bulging and clustered in planned communities. The homes are meant to give these kids, and the married couples who care for them, a sense of the security and normalcy of suburban wealth. From ghettoes and rural poverty, from foster homes and state-run institutions, these kids undergo a radical transplant of privilege.
When we were driving through the city toward Boys Town, my first sight was a familiar one: corn. The field—several dozen acres of it—stops where the main Boys Town campus begins. On the other side of campus is the final vestige of Boys Town as a working farm: a small cluster of barns and feed lots and tractors, where kids work with geese, chickens, pigs, and their pasts.
The cornfield always drew me back. Something struck me as odd about it, beyond the fact that it existed at all. Later, when as a journalist I began researching Boys Town, I realized what it was: no fences. I grew up in and traveling around rural Iowa to the farms of my aunts and uncles. Never had I seen a cornfield without a fence, whose purpose is to corral cattle that are released into fields after harvest.
It was hard to imagine a farm without fences. But it was harder still to imagine forgoing fences in a place like Boys Town, home to hundreds of kids with criminal records, kids who have been abused, abandoned—kids who have survived by learning the art of running away.
My parents didn’t notice and they never expressed any concern that day when Tina drove us down the street that constitutes the southern border of Boys Town, and then swung us into an adjacent neighborhood. To the surprise of everyone, she had found us a home that fit three kids and my parents’ budget. It had a walk-out basement and three bathrooms and, I was happy to see, an upstairs. It was considered a good neighborhood, not rich, not a commune of millionaires striving for sameness, but in the middle, with trees, and schools in walking distance. After Tina closed the deal with my parents, I didn’t hear another word about Boys Town.
That year in Omaha, however, I became the closest thing to a Boys Town kid that I had ever been. My grades dropped. I watched TV or listened to music in my room, at levels that infuriated my parents, with the door locked. I grew more entranced with my old life. I took the Greyhound back to Iowa on weekends to stay with friends and to get away from my parents, whom I blamed for transplanting me into hell. As the new kid at my Omaha high school, I kept to myself, and ate by myself. Because I was not brave, I chose a small Catholic school in south Omaha over the big public school just a few blocks away. But the shelter I sought in the small school backfired. I found that the cliques were tight, and the kids could be cruel to an outsider. I told my friends in Iowa I was going to run away and come live with them. Then I told my parents. My mother, alarmed, enlisted us in family therapy. The psychologist suggested I would snap out of it.
In the meantime, I needed money to maintain my collection of angsty grunge rock, and to pay Greyhound. I got a job as a hamburger-and-fry guy at the Dairy Queen down the street.
On the first day, I met Donald, the mad king of the Dairy Queen kitchen. Donald was in his 40s, tall, and slightly heavyset. He had driven a delivery truck for 20 years before deciding that his fortune lay in the career of nursing. My first lesson from Donald was to avoid as much contact as possible with the “cracks,” he said jutting a thumb through the heat lamps in the direction of the three girls working the front counter.
“They’re cute and they know it and if they can get you to do their whole fucking job for them, they will. And don’t expect anything in return. Those little bitches will bite your dick off,” he said. “You just watch ’em handle a popsicle for Christ’s sake. Go at it like it’s a carrot stick.” One of those “bitches” was a no-nonsense but big-hearted punk rocker named Carla, who had grown so close to Donald and his wife that she took up a permanent residence in their basement. And Donald, who could and would say whatever he wanted to her or any other female, loved her as he did his daughter, who was grown and gone. He stood up for Carla when the owner was unhappy about what shifts she could work and when she failed to re-fill the M&Ms. Before Carla moved in with Donald, she had a boyfriend who was not kind to her. Donald took care of that, too. For those reasons, I guess, she didn’t care what came out of Donald’s mouth, or how he sounded to other people.
Carla helped Donald study for his exams, which seemed to occur at ten-day intervals and would result in violent, verbal explosions when a day at Dairy Queen had stressed him out. Orders processed by the girls at the counter, and they were always girls, appeared to us in the back as thick green letters on a tiny monitor. Donald didn’t like the system, and he shared his thoughts with his co-workers through the heat lamps.
“GODDAMMIT! THIS WHOLE SCREEN HAS LIT UP LIKE A FUCKING CHRISTMAS TREE AND YOU CRACKS ARE TELLING ME YOU CAN’T GIVE ME A HAND BACK HERE … OR A HAND JOB?”
The most amazing about Donald was that he got away with it. His explosive temper was disarming in its sheer creative force, and when he used words like “bitch” or “crack,” it was in some ways ironic, a joke on himself and the fact that he knew he occupied a station in life with expectations of ugliness. He wanted you to laugh at him, despite what he said. We did. But the biggest laughs were reserved for Jerry, the guy who owned the place—a blond, burnished, and tan male nurse. He was the butt of Donald’s jokes, but he was also Donald’s model for success. Of course, Jerry didn’t make his money from nursing. He made it from the small number of franchise restaurants he bought with his wife’s money. Occasionally, she and Jerry would show up in matching tennis outfits, which sparked joyous ridicule by the fryer. The day manager, Scott, had as many laughs as anyone.
Scott was in his early 30s, had a thin moustache and bandy legs, and carried a comb in his back pocket that he used to sweep up and over his high dollop of brown hair. I eventually learned he had gone to Boys Town. He ended up there circuitously. One day, his mother dropped off him and his brother at their grandparents’ house and never came back.
Scott’s grandparents were too old or too tired to care for the boys. After spending some time in foster care, they were bounced into Boys Town. They were lucky to still be together, and he credited Boys Town for that. Beyond that, he would say only that it was a good place. It prepared him for the real world. He graduated from high school, which, I think, surprised him. And like almost a third of Boys Town graduates, he enlisted in the military. He served four years in the Navy and declined to re-enlist, but the Navy remained his favorite topic. He regarded Dairy Queen as his ship, a friendlier and better-tasting ride, not to mention one equipped with a crew of teenage girls.
According to Scott, DQ bore a startling number of similarities to life on an aircraft carrier. Flushing out the Mr. Misty machine was “like wiping shit out of a latrine. I wouldn’t eat that either.” When he was stocking Buster Bars in the walk-in freezer, he’d pant out the story of sailing in arctic waters, frozen breath hanging from his moustache like ornaments. “Jesus Christ, cold like this reminds me when we were stationed off Argentina, man. You never felt wind like that. You think it gets cold here, brother, you haven’t felt cold until you stood on an aircraft carrier and have that fuckin’ wind hit you, man. It will blow you off that fuckin’ boat like a paper cup.”
I was washing dishes in the back when he wandered over one day, pushing buttons on a round, white plastic device about the size of a pocket watch. I asked him what was beeping in his hand. “Well, shit, I’m trying to quit smoking and this fuckin’ thing is supposed to tell me when I can have a cigarette. So instead of going outside and smoking for five minutes, I stand around all day watching this thing. Great fuckin’ plan.”
Scott said he wanted to quit because he knew cigarettes would kill him. He had often said the same thing about the Navy. And as he stared at the plastic cigarette timer in his hand, he said, “You know, I could have stayed in the military. They offered me a Corvette if I would have stayed on four more years. I was like, ‘Nah, fuck that.’ It’s not worth it, and what the fuck am I going to do with a Corvette if I’m floating out on a pond for the rest of my life?
“I pretty much made up my mind when I was on the deck one day and I was working on some cable with this guy Trevor. He was from Oklahoma. How two guys from Oklahoma and Nebraska ended up in the Navy beats the hell out of me.
“Anyway, we were stringing and tightening some cable for the aircraft when they land. The hook on the plane catches the cable and that’s what stops them. It’s dangerous work, man. The pilots, if they miss the cables, they’ll fucking skid off the deck or crash into something. And if you’re working on that deck, you have no idea the things that can happen to you. Get sucked into a jet engine. Get blown overboard. And the cables, man, those things are strung so tight, they can just snap. And boy you better pray you’re nowhere around when that happens. And they get worn out and you got to replace them. So me and Trevor are there and we are tightening this cable. The wind is fucking screaming across the deck. My fingers are so cold I can hardly move them. And then PHITH!! That cable snapped and I seen Trevor crumple. That cable snapped back at him and sliced him across the abdomen. Like he was a piece of cow or something.
“But the worst thing was that he lived for awhile. I held him and I was screaming for help. And the medics rushed over. And he was still alive, looking at us. I just thank God he didn’t say anything. I couldn’t have handled it if he would have said something, you know, because that would have meant he was really aware of what happened. Like he knew he was cut almost in half; his blood was everywhere. He was in shock, though, and that’s how he died.
“After that, I was like ‘fuck it. What did he die for? His country? A Corvette? I’ll take a fuckin’ job at Dairy Queen, man.’”
He looked down at the white piece of plastic in his hand, pushed another button. It beeped. He said, “Jesus Christ, I still got five minutes.” Scott walked away, contemplating his life, I suppose, as he stared at the device that was to save him from cancer, and that reminded him of why he left the Navy and ended up at Dairy Queen.
The fact that Dairy Queen was close to my house meant that it was also close to Boys Town. The day I met my first Boys Town kids, Scott and Donald were in the manager’s office watching television. Scott and Donald emerged, laughing. They had just seen a Dairy Queen commercial introducing its new slogan: “We treat you right.”
At that moment, we heard a cry for help from a new employee named Tasha up front. Carla and Scott went to investigate while Donald and I spied through the heat lamps from the kitchen. I saw the lobby filled with kids, black, white and Hispanic, swarming in and out of make-shift lines, yelling, cracking jokes and laughing.
They were in T-shirts and jeans, looking pretty much like any of the high school groups that come into Dairy Queen, usually after a sports team pulls off a big win. Scott came rushing into the back to load up on Blizzard filler. He was grabbing at a bag of mashed Snickers or Heath Bar or something when I asked what was going on.
“Boys Town kids,” he said matter-of-factly. This was intriguing. I had never seen Boys Town kids for myself.
“Why are they here?”
“Shouldn’t you be in the fuckin’ kitchen?”
I turned heel and saw Donald shoving hamburgers into the grill, screaming that the monitor was lit up like a fucking Christmas tree.
The kids were rowdy and hungry. I tried to observe as much as possible while preparing the food: They seemed no different to me than any other kids. Some looked friendly; others sullen. I gathered they were out on a shopping trip at the nearby mall, and swung by DQ for a treat. Just like any other kids, or any other family for that matter. A handful of adults supervised the crowd and, after they had eaten, rounded them into extended conversion vans.
We were nearly wiped out of French fries and several fillings for Blizzards. Scott looked exhausted and angry as he wiped puddles of melted ice cream and candy bar bits and chunks of Oreo cookie off the counter. Donald came up and slapped a hand on his back, and said: “Hey man, we treat you right.”
Later, I asked Scott if those sorts of outings were common at Boys Town. He shrugged. “It’s just like if you were raised in your house. Except no one there is really your family.”
Boys Town became a source of intrigue for me. One day, I told my parents I didn’t like our church, St. Wenceslaus. It was modern and warm and yuppie and it was shaped like an arena. Nothing about it felt particularly solemn, or even holy. People backed into their parking spots so they could leave as quickly as possible. And many of those people were driving cars that I considered emblems of excess and wealth. Exactly the sort of thing Jesus railed against. Isn’t the gospel devoted to the principles of self-sacrifice and service to the needy? I told my parents I wanted to go to mass at Boys Town.
They agreed. And I exulted in my triumph. I imagined mass at Boys Town as old-timey, with rows upon rows of boys and girls in blue suits and neckties, their hair slicked or tied back, freshly scrubbed and full of reverential joy. I imagined something more akin to English boarding school than modern-day Catholic church. I don’t think I was alone in this idea. The fact that Tina had often misidentified Boys Town, albeit in a teasing way, as a religious reformatory caused me to later wonder how many people in Omaha actually knew about Boys Town’s methods or history or ideology.
Years later, I discovered that opinions are widely divergent. Many people regard it with reverence; some describe it as bizarrely optimistic, others as cruel due to its philosophy of rigid behavior modification. Many people believe it’s still primarily an orphanage—though orphans are rare these days—and that it’s exclusively for Boys. Boys Town has accepted girls since 1979. Many think it is exclusively Catholic when it is, in fact, nonsectarian. Many want to believe it is conservative and rigorous and therefore uniquely successful in producing upstanding young men and women. They want to believe it is successful because they want to believe it is a holdover from a healthier, more robust time.
For people like my father, Boys Town proves what he wants to believe: that faith, structure, and high expectations are the answer to society’s problems. When we arrived at Boys Town, we all saw what we wanted to see. I noted that the church was old and stone and shaped like a crucifix the way I liked it. Priests bustled about before the beginning of mass, behaving as if all this really meant something. One or two retired into wooden confessionals built into the walls in back, where people had already lined up, ready to purge. All this activity was more than I had ever seen in a mass.
At the front, rows of heads, interrupted only the occasional adult supervisor, belonged to the children of Boys Town. Some wore suits. Others were in jeans, collared shirts. My dad smirked and elbowed my sister when the Boys Town boys filed into mass. He thought they looked like the right kind of guys, clean cut and brought up in the faith. Better yet, brought up in the church.
Most likely, Dad wouldn’t have been so effusive had he known that more than half of Boys Town kids arrive on mood-altering or anti-psychotic drugs, that half have attempted or threatened suicide, that most have a history of violence and drug or alcohol use, and 75 percent come to Boys Town through the court or child welfare services.
But Boys Town has a beguiling effect on people. Most anybody familiar with the place knows its focus is on troubled kids, most often from broken homes, neglected and living by their own rules. At Boys Town, they are groomed and given contemporary but neutral clothing. They are divided by sex and live up to eight at a time in a house with a married couple, which has the endearing appearance of being a real and very large family.
Boys Town’s carefully tended lawns, big houses, and happy children seemed like the actualization of our American ideal of community: White, black, Christian, Jew living alongside one another, growing up together, united by a common experience. They go to school together. They eat together as families at night. Everything is within walking distance: The houses are close to the middle school, which is close to the football field, which is close to the high school and the vocational center and the field house. Mass transportation is everywhere in the form of extended white vans sitting in driveways. Two churches sit within a hundred yards of each other, one Catholic, one Protestant. Residents of other faiths are taken to worship off campus.
In the 1990s, Father Val J. Peter, then the director of Boys Town, typically took the pulpit and welcomed the congregation. What hair he had left was white and curly, rising in plumes from his round head. His homilies usually relayed anecdotes from Boys Town, which he would tie into the liturgical calendar. I remember stories about children who came to Boys Town with nothing and still learned the value of giving, children who learned to read, who learned the importance of family and love. The stories often seemed a little too perfect. Peter also spoke about social justice, particularly for children—just as Flanagan once had.
Since Boys Town was founded, it has operated on the idea that no one is admitted who doesn’t want to be, and kids can leave if they choose. The lack of fences is important to this idea of cooperation, and for almost ninety years, the pact between child and Boys Town has worked in place of incarceration.
Certain things are required if they want to stay. They are expected to abide by the Boys Town method. Developed in the 1970s by the University of Kansas, the method is one of behavior modification based on positive reinforcement. Before most people hear a criticism at Boys Town, they have received four words of encouragement. The ratio of positive feedback to negative is supposed to stay at 4:1 during a child’s tenure. “Catch ’em being good,” is a mantra repeated among the faculty. In return, the child is expected to learn and abide by sixteen “Essential Skills” that are plastered on the walls of Boys Town’s schools with the repetition of concert flyers. Some of them are: Following Instructions; Accepting Criticism; Accepting Consequences; Accepting “No” for an Answer.
Every skill begins with “Look at the person,” which seems simple enough until you consider that it applies to children who’ve been beaten or neglected. Looking at the person then takes on new meaning, looking at the person is to acknowledge the person, respect the person, even confront the person. Looking at the person can be its own form of punishment.
When I think of Boys Town, I think of Scott at Dairy Queen. One day on the job, I told Scott that I went out to church at Boys Town a few times. I don’t know what I expected from him. He just said, “Oh yeah.”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty cool place.”
“Boys Town or the church?”
“Yeah. I should go back sometime and see some people.”
“Father Val is pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know him, really. A lot of people liked him.”
And that was that. Scott had little to say. I seemed more interested in the place than he did, but what was exotic to me were just the facts of his life. Maybe he simply didn’t think much about Boys Town because his life before gave him ample food for thought.
When May rolled around, I gave my two weeks notice to Scott and told him I was going to work at a summer camp back in Iowa. My friends would be there, but already the urgency to be with them was waning. I had stopped riding the Greyhound back to my former life.
I had found some things in this new city that I liked. I had begun to make friends at my school, and I had grown to like Omaha, its size, its quirks, its history. I had discovered its punk scene and its nascent indie and emo-rock scene, which would soon blossom into cult status as home to Saddle Creek Records. Scott told me there would be a job waiting for me after the summer, if I wanted. I told him I’d think about it.
At the end of the summer, I came back home and found work at a different restaurant, this one in the mall, where plenty of other kids from my high school worked. One day, I stopped in at the Dairy Queen to see everybody. Carla was there but Donald had found a job as a nurse and Scott had quit.
I asked what Scott was doing now.
Carla didn’t know. But she said since he left, the restaurant had been robbed twice. The cops found no evidence of forced entry from either burglary. They figured someone who had keys was the culprit.
“They think Scott did it. The cops are looking for him.”
Whether they found him or not I don’t know. Maybe the reason Scott looked so uneasy to me was he was always so close to running. McMansions and rented parents didn’t change that. Maybe there’s a reason so many of their graduates take to the military, migrating among Army bases or clinging to the decks of aircraft carriers. When you are someone like Scott, the idea of home must be an abstraction, like the idea of mothers who do not leave. Boys Town argues that it has an eighty percent success rate with its kids. “Success” is defined as those who graduate from high school or receive an equivalent degree, who get a job, stay out of jail, and are off drugs.
They get these results by running surveys of their alumni. I wondered if they would ever find Scott, and I wondered what he would say.
Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas.