This excerpt from "The House of 21, a novella" was inspired by the true account of the men who worked and exploited at Henry’s Turkey Service. Dan Barry, the author of the article “Boys” in the Bunkhouse, was also a huge inspiration.
It is a story about a group of men with disabilities and their efforts to support themselves, only to be met with greed, corruption, and violence. “This is what happens when we don’t pay attention,” Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.
We are now.
The House of 21 stood in an abandoned, freezer-burned field on the outskirts of Atawiss in eastern Iowa. Nothing was around except ragged trees, bare stalks of corn, and frozen rivers in the wintertime. Few had heard of it. Few had ever been there. Fewer had ever been inside.
The building was originally an old schoolhouse built in 1911. The remains of children’s footprints are gone now, but underneath the House, in the basement, between the floorboards, and in the dark corners of closets are their forgotten toys blanketed with discarded candy wrappers. Perched on top of a high hill like a bird’s nest whose mother and chicks long since abandoned it, people in town say they can still hear the lunch bell calling all the kids to their desks and all the teachers back to the blackboard. Every window was boarded up with thin, rain-soaked plywood. Jagged, haphazard nails lined the wood like poorly sprayed bullets. Everything about the House seemed to bend inward from the wind and the weight of nature’s abuse. No light came in or out. Everything that endured, endured within.
Surrounding the House was a tall iron fence with iron bars and barbed wire lining the entire perimeter. One large rusted lock hung from a clumsily fitted chain. Nothing grew near the road, the gate, or the surrounding land. A few rogue seeds would blow in from some far-off place like Sioux Falls, Rochester, or Lincoln, possibly finding themselves a divot of the dirt to try and grow in, though doubtful. Life itself found it impossible to be out there in all that nothing. Anything that tried was almost always futile.
Many who passed through town or were new to Atawiss thought the House was a small prison. They weren’t wrong. Only for work did anyone enter or leave. Only on a clear day, when the sun broke through the murky gray clouds, revealing a shade of red paint barely visible or perhaps a warmth in a window from an indistinguishable light, did the House appear alive. Of course, this spontaneous illumination also revealed cracked shingles, warped wood, and piles of discarded dirt. In its dilapidation, the House showed its will to survive.
A few scattered in Atawiss knew the 21 men’s stories living at the House at the time of “the incident.” They knew that they were different, special. Some ignorant people in town called them retards or special-eds. They were persons with disabilities brought over from support centers in Texas, where they were trained and eventually worked at Henry’s Turkey Service. No one would ever be caught quoted talking about the House, though. All that was hearsay. In the police reports, the workers were defined as a specialized group of trained turkey butchers, inseminators, and packers employed by T.H. Johnson and Kenneth J. Henry of Goldthwaite, Texas. Goldthwaite, where the original school and plant began its operation. The 21, or “The Boys,” a name everyone called them, were issued to work at the West Liberty turkey distribution plant just six miles away from the House.
Mind you, this was before the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016. This was 1974, the exact year Kenneth J. Henry (Mr. Henry for short) bought The House from Atawiss for just a few hundred dollars a month. Mr. Henry, setting up shop with bunks and bare-bone appliances brought in from Goldthwaite, where Mr. Henry’s infamous business partner, T.H. Johnson, ran his operation. T.H. was a god-like figure in town and a well-known rancher. Through his connections in local government, T.H. originally established a for-profit program choosing men based on a series of evaluations from “learning” or “rehabilitation” centers like Abilene State School of Support in Texas to train in agricultural work. These state-run schools like Abilene and others offered a broad scope of services with a wide range of needs for their clients, but their practices, like not allowing the family to be in contact with them for extended periods, were questionable. One example of this suspect behavior was providing a back channel to people like T.H. and Mr. Henry to train and send these boys to the plants. The catch: they were paid a subminimum wage by capitalizing on a section of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, benefiting both businesses.
Most of the boys would arrive in Iowa from Goldthwaite with little knowledge of where they were and little ability to contact anybody they knew. Their finances were controlled by Mr. Henry and his accountants, making it very difficult even to contact anybody. They only went into the town of Atawiss if one of the men was sick, injured, or dead. If they did go into town on the off chance, they’d be “treated” to a nice meal of hamburgers, peanut brittle, or maybe some soda water. It was all on their dime. The locals tried not to stare or ask questions. That would only bring answers they didn’t care about wanting to know.
Upon their arrival from Texas, one of the boys at the time of the 21 couldn’t help but chuckle to himself seeing the frigid corn. “Instead of dessert, ya’ll got gold out here.”
“That’s right,” the bus driver told him. “Turkey and gold.”
Was all of this going on at the House legal?
Of course, it was, so no one batted an eye.
This is America: land of theft, greed, and exploitation.
Land of the free if you have the means to pay for it.
The boys, not knowing any better, trusted where there was none.
How it worked was the West Liberty plant paid Henry’s Turkey Service for the boy’s work. Then, they paid the boys by depositing that money into their accounts. All the accounting, all of the tracking of hours, and all the desk work were handled by Mr. Henry and T.H. Johnson. A giant photo of those two hung in the mess hall, a reminder for any of the boys that ever worked there. They were there, working and making a living for themselves rather than off the taxpayers' dollars because of them.
T.H. Johnson trusted that what they did for the boys was a service to themselves and the country. Mr. Henry believed close to the same thing. Both of them saw it as an easy way to make a buck, but as people in power tend to do, greed sets in. Both had full access to the boy's account to do whatever they wanted. A little here, a little there, until a little turns into a lot. Where a lot turns into all of it.
No specific number of work hours of the boys were ever accounted for. Nothing like that was ever found in the books. They could work ten to twelve hours a day, but because the boys never actually handled their money on the argument of their disability, it didn’t matter. Their accountants handled everything, deducting men’s deposited earnings straight from their bank account and social security benefits for lodging at the House, some entertainment, and medical costs. The average payout would have been around $120 a month at the end of the month, but after all the deductions, the boys took home next to nothing. The boys didn’t know what was happening. They didn’t even have access to their bank account. If they wanted money, they had to ask for it. Nothing was truly their own. They did what they were told, and what they were told was that their bosses, their caretakers, would guide them. Out of the care of the support center they were pulled from, the comfort of their family and friends, Mr. Henry controlled them. Mr. Henry controlled everything. The Department of Labor occasionally cited Mr. Henry for not appropriately compensating the men, which they never complied with. The Iowa Department of Human Services received spotted complaints over the years, allegations of abuse, and poor management to no avail.
Mr. Hepker, a former Atawiss official who was one of the only people to notify Human Services, said of Mr. Henry, “If you had called about a skinny dog in someone’s yard, the response would have been quicker and better.”
No one cared about the boys or the House of 21 that year in 1980, six years after Mr. Henry had bought and established the house.
It appeared the machine was working just as it had been built.
And things hadn’t changed, at least not until the incident.