“Like the appendix in a human body, an appendix in a book is information not strictly necessary to the main body of the writing. It is an addition or addendum.” –Wikihow: How to Write an Appendix
Begin at the end: with what is left over, still remaining, extraneous. Begin with me. Begin by understanding that this is not my story to tell. That this story is not necessary to the main body, to the whole.
Begin here, with the place itself: Craig Colony for Epileptics in Sonyea, NY. A place where tens of thousands of New Yorkers with epilepsy were sent between 1896 when the colony opened and the 1980s when it finally shut down.
Begin with this newspaper article, published by the St. Petersburg Times in 1960:
To begin, let’s start with their names: Robert Jacobs, 14; John Schreck, 15; Richard La Rose, 13; Robert Neach, 14; Harry Ramsey, 14.
Or perhaps we should start before the boys and begin with the construction of the tunnels, where high pressure steam traveled through a network of pipes to buildings around the colony—water cooled or heated depending on the time of year.
Let’s begin with Kathy, the nurse who first told me about the boys and the tunnel.
Let’s start with this scene: I am sitting in an old wooden chair in Kathy’s antique store. Customers wander in and out during the few hours I am here. She greets them by name—has everyone’s story in this small Western New York town catalogued alongside her own in the back of her brain. And when Kathy begins to talk about the boys that get stuck in the tunnel, the timbre of her voice lowers. Her shoulders turn inward; her speech begins to slow. She looks down at the floor behind the counter.
To begin, you should know that this is a story that can’t be told. This story you’re getting is based off a single interview with one woman, and a newspaper article published seven states and sixty years away, because any articles written closer in time and place about these boys can no longer be found.
In the forest near the colony’s old buildings, there is an unmarked cemetery. There is no sign denoting this space—just a random website with a rough location (1.5 miles southwest of the water tower) and a reference in an online forum. I park my car where the dirt road narrows to the point of becoming a hiking trail and I can’t drive any further. Walking into the woods, I follow a stream so I don’t get lost and stumble across the site a half-mile or so later. Cast-iron stakes protrude from the ground at varying heights and angles, numbers carved into metal in place of names.
What I’m trying to tell you is that there are voices that can no longer be found, or recorded, or heard.
I’m trying to tell you that there are gaps in this essay that can no longer be filled.
To begin, you don’t need to understand that in elementary school, I wished I could retreat into a layer of rock and stone where no one would be able to tell that I was different. Where no one would be able to see the way I could transform at a moment’s notice. You don’t need to know that I was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 7.
Start here: there is no witness to this story.
The truth is I have no right to tell you this story as if it were my own. I wasn’t there, at the colony, with the boys, in that tunnel. My epilepsy wasn’t their epilepsy, and I was never taken from my family because of my illness. I didn’t live their lives and I can’t record their voices.
But, after all, isn’t this what an appendix is for—everything extraneous but still pertinent to the whole? When I first started researching Craig Colony, I set out to find an answer: I wanted to know if Craig gave people with epilepsy a place to connect with others who shared their condition and to seek treatment, or if it was created to remove them from sight. The more I research this colony, however, the more I realize that there is no answer. That there are just fragments—of stories, of perspectives, of experiences.
Which is to say that the story you expect me to write has research from verifiable sources and interviews with people connected to this event, this place, these boys. The story both you and I want has a doctor or a nurse who realizes the boys are gone and finds them before it’s too late, pulls them to safety, reunites them with their families. But this story you’re getting is an appendix stuck to t
he back of a body we can’t find, an essay about us and our multiple failings and the way the stories we want to tell aren’t always possible to put into words, but sometimes this means they are the most important.
To begin, I could tell you about the tunnel, about the way the heat rose and the boys’ internal temperatures rose to match until they couldn’t rise any further, about what extreme heat does to a body after three days. But I wasn’t there. And you weren’t there, either. And neither of us will ever really know what that was like.
This is a story with many possible beginnings, but only one ending.
So let’s rewind and start here, with this one verifiable fact: there once were five friends. Their names were Robert and John and Richard and Robert and Harry. One night, they decided to go for an adventure…