He was the boy in the box, confined by the sadistic headmaster of a military school in Washington state who later was convicted of abusing the children in his care.
For nearly five months when he was 8 years old, John Jennings' only companion was a mouse and his own imagination, which comforted him with visions of silent pastures and crystal raindrops splattering on a windowsill.
That terrifying experience 35 years ago helped forge Jennings into the artist he is today.
Something else important to know about Jennings, now 43 and living in the hills of Vista: As a combat photographer in Vietnam, he captured on paper the fear and death that bound soldiers together emotionally.
The box gave him a lust for freedom. The war left a reverence for those who endure nightmarish combat. Together, those two forces have led Jennings to offer a unusual gift to the city of Oceanside.
The gift: dolphins, gray whales and a panoramic view of the coastal city as depicted on a 16-foot-high and 45-foot-wide mural that Jennings, an environmental marine artist, will paint for no charge on a wall near the Oceanside Pier.
Jennings was moved to donate the mural after watching the Marines from Camp Pendleton march down Hill Street after their return from the Gulf War. He sadly remembered how, when he came home from Vietnam, nobody seemed to care.
"It's really my way of saying, as a Vietnam vet, 'welcome home,' " Jennings said.
City officials eagerly accepted the gift, which Jennings will begin painting this month, weather permitting. Officials figure the dancing images of life above and below the sea will give the beachfront a new visual dimension.
"This mural will add aesthetic pleasure to that view," said Dan Sanchez, the city's parks and recreation director. "There is no question about the quality or integrity of the work."
Jennings is a known commodity, especially in California, where his murals, paintings and lithographs adorn public streets and galleries.
He painted a similar mural, but four times as large, on a building leading into Cannery Row on Monterey Bay, where merchants were at first wary of the grandiose undertaking.
But, since it was unveiled a year ago, his whale's-eye view of Monterey Bay has opened the eyes of tourists to the area.
"One of the problems we have is it's almost too successful," said Michael Sarka, manager of the Cannery Row Promotional District.
The mural has become so popular that the very merchants who once derided the idea now are calling for the removal of trees blocking the view of the art work, he said.
Jennings' art represents a long journey from literal and emotional darkness, and reflects his joy at simply being alive.
He never knew his father, an El Paso motorcycle officer who was divorced from his wife when Jennings was only 2. But when, at age 4, he drew pencil and crayon mountain scenes with lines and shadings, his mother and grandmother knew enough to nurture the child's talent.
"I had a conceptual feel for shadow and light," said Jennings, who would peer at scenes and objects, tracking how they changed in tone as the sunlight passed into night. "That was like a toy to me."
Yet childhood wasn't playful for Jennings, who was often uprooted as his mother traveled around to find work. There were a few idyllic years living on a farm in Washington state, where the boy's imagination could fix on the gentleness of nature, the open fields surrounded by lush forest.
"My fondest memories as a child were of being on that farm," he recalled. "It was looking out a window onto the beautiful open field and seeing the sun shine at the same time as it was raining."
Later, the remembrance of that shimmering scene virtually saved Jennings.
His mother remarried, but Jennings was having emotional and disciplinary problems in school. His mother enrolled him in Hopkins Military Academy in Redmond, Wash., where the headmaster later was arrested for his cruel actions.
"He was a sadist," Jennings said.
The headmaster punished him over a trifling matter by shutting him in a large wooden box in a barracks, he said. Food was brought in, he said, but he was not allowed to leave the box for anything, even going to the toilet.
The boy cried many hours, finding solace only in the mouse that visited him for a time and in his own imagination.
He withdrew into his dream world, Jennings said, conjuring mental pictures of the farm, the sunshine and the raindrops that softly pelted the window.
His mother, who had been repeatedly turned away when she came to visit, one day brought the sheriff to the academy, he said, freeing him.
Of his ordeal, he said, "I'll never forget it until I die."
But it also left him with something indelible. "It gave me the gift to create from my imagination."
Redmond police Sgt. George Potts said old-timers retired from the Police Department still remember the problems at the academy during the late 1950s.