Grandpa was one of 3,500 who didn’t fly over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Opinion by Paul Fattig, from the Medford Tribune, August 24, 2008

The news that the old Cuckoo’s Nest will be torn down this fall leaves me feeling a bit melancholy.

It’s not the physical destruction of the 125-year-old main building of the Oregon State Hospital in Salem that I find depressing. Indeed, I applaud razing the building where the award-winning flick “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed in 1975. Plans call for replacing the circa-1883 structure with a new 620-bed hospital.

What haunts me is the thought of so many lonely lives ending there in the dark and dreary, dilapidated old yellow-brick building with rusting bars on its narrow windows.

One was Jonas Fattig, my paternal grandfather.

His cremated remains were among the roughly 3,500 “cremains” of mental patients in copper canisters discovered in a storage room during a 2004 tour by legislators. Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, rightfully called it “the room of lost souls.”

Grampa’s copper container, portions covered by a green patina, was No. 3414.

In a March 2006 column, I wrote about retrieving the ashes of the man whose living descendants believed had been buried on the state hospital grounds.

Yet for nearly 60 years, his remains sat unclaimed on a dusty shelf in the state hospital. The ancient fellow had been committed by his eldest son to the state asylum in spring 1947.

The friendly hospital staff was extremely helpful in identifying the remains of the Fattig patriarch, the one who had brought our family from the Great Plains to eventually homestead in the Applegate Valley, where he was known to play fiddle at barn dances.

We buried old No. 3414 in Ashland’s Hargadine Cemetery. It seemed fitting since it was there he paid $5 for the “north half of lot 40” in 1904 to bury his daughter, Bessie Belle, age 6. She had died of measles on June 10 of that year. We gently placed his canister near her remains.

The old farmer was born 150 years ago in Iowa on Jan. 22, 1858, three years beforee the eruption of the Civil War. He was 89 when he died on Sept. 17, 1947, some four years before I was born.

There were no friends or family members present when he died. His wife and my grandmother, Harriett Viola Fattig, had died in 1940.

The medical records accompanying his ashes listed the cause of death as “bronchopneumonia.” The folks in the white coats added his clinical diagnosis was “senile psychosis.”

They also noted that he was extremely sad, and that he did not know why he was locked up in what at that time was tantamount to a prison.

Family folklore has it that he was sent to the asylum after startling a flock of church ladies out on a Sunday picnic by parading buck naked amongst them. That allegedly occurred near his farm in Holland, a tiny hamlet in the Illinois Valley.

Given the reliability of stories handed down over the generations, that may not be the naked truth. But there is probably a basis for the legend.

What is indisputable is the content of two 1947 Western Union telegrams contained in his medical records. One was from the hospital staff to Charles Fattig, his eldest son, then living in rural Josephine County, notifying him that his father had just died. It requested that he wire back with funeral instructions.

“In regards to remains of Jonas Fattig am leaving to your disposal,” my now defunct uncle replied in the second telegram.

Obviously, there was a rift in the family. There may also have been an interest by the senior son in gaining control of the family farm. But perhaps grandpa was senile.

All who knew the gospel of it are long dead. Like those who have gone before, the answer belongs to the ages.

The legacy of the old gloomy hospital building has long been associated with the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” movie based on the novel by the late Ken Kesey. It was a great read with the rabble-rousing Randle McMurphy, domineering Big Nurse Ratched and the strong but silent Chief Bromden.

But I will be forever haunted by the thought of a bewildered old man sitting alone on his bed in that gloomy brick building, wondering why he was there.