Because of an editing error, a Style story last Friday incorrectly stated that the family of Clifford Ray was at home when its house caught fire. (Published 9/15/87)

ARCADIA, FLA. -- An hour away from the burnt-out shell of their green frame home in this west central Florida town, Louise and Clifford Ray sat in a rented duplex the other day as their three sons raced to the pool, shouting, turning somersaults, laughing.

Theirs could have been any family on a summer weekend -- except that this family lies at the center of the fear and passion surrounding the national debate over AIDS.

Late last month, a year after learning that their three sons -- Ricky, 10, Robert, 9, and Randy, 8, all victims of hemophilia -- were infected with the AIDS virus, after outlasting bomb threats and a long court fight to have them admitted to public school classrooms, the Rays awoke to find their house burning down around them.

The Rays, now in seclusion elsewhere, say they were firebombed by a community hysterical over fear of AIDS.

The citizens of Arcadia, a cattle town some 50 miles from Sarasota, fiercely deny the Rays were chased from the town, but acknowledge extreme civic concern over the deadly uncertainties surrounding the major epidemic of our time.

None of this was evident when the Ray boys, handsome blonds with deep tans, raced through the house, bursting with excitement at having made friends at the pool. Ricky sat restlessly on the couch and dutifully answered questions. School was not so easy the first of the week, but it was okay, he said. Randy felt bad when he got on the merry-go-round and other kids got off, said Ricky. What he missed was "being with other kids." What he wanted most was "that we can go back to school without somebody trying to burn down our house."

Today the Rays will be in Washington to testify before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in hopes of changing the climate and conditions regarding those who, like their sons, are infected with the AIDS virus.

When the Rays left Arcadia "with nothing but what was on our backs," they left behind a community united in its demands for mandatory AIDS testing of students and teachers in the public schools and for separate classrooms for the infected.

Everyone from the superintendent of schools to the town barber voices the same sentiments: No one ran the Rays out of town; the Ray children were offered a separate but equal education, and instead the parents exposed their children to publicity for personal gain.

No one from the community could have set that fire, they say. In fact, they say, a Ray family member may have set it himself.

Arcadian townsfolk are united also in their anger at the media for depicting them "as either crazy, lunatic, ignorant or redneck," according to Melody Patton, one of the advocates of AIDS testing in schools. "The only people who disagree with us," she added, "is the scum of the community."

Applause broke out at a Citizens Against AIDS in Schools rally following the fire when DeSoto County Commissioner John (Ed) Johnson demanded that President Reagan publicly apologize for making a "worldwide statement that brands us as a city without compassion." He was referring to Reagan's remarks in May that when it was learned that the Ray children had tested positive for the AIDS virus "the pastor asked the entire family not to come back to their church ... This is old-fashioned fear and it has no place in the 'home of the brave.' " The pastor says he did not ask the Rays to leave. Louise Ray says he did. "The only ones who know are my husband, me and the two ministers," she said, "and I'm not the one who will have to stand before God."

Louise Ray settles into a couch to tell their story, her sentences punctuated by deep, uncontrollable yawns that make her blue eyes water. After weeks of tension, "my body's just caught up."

The Rays, 29, grew up in Arcadia and married as teen-agers. By the time Louise was 21, she had three children. Louise knew that her grandfather was a hemophiliac and that it was hereditary, passed on to males. "But I didn't know that much about birth control." Her youngest, a daughter, Candy, 4, is free of both hemophilia and the AIDS virus.

She remembers well that hot day a year ago when routine blood work revealed that Randy tested positive for the AIDS virus. "I was in a state of shock." Dr. Jerry Barbosa, attending pediatrician and hemophilia expert at St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital, asked to test the rest of the family. "It never occurred to me what the results might be," Louise said. "Cliff and Candy and I were negative. But Randy and Robert were positive." Louise walked out of the hospital devastated.

"I kept thinking the first test was a fluke," remembered Louise. "But a second test also came back positive for the boys ... I didn't know there were stages, that you could have the antibodies, ARC (AIDS-related complex) and the full-blown disease. I just thought that was it; in two years my boys would all be dead."

Modern science has improved the outlook for the 20,000 hemophiliacs in the United States who have a hereditary tendency toward uncontrollable internal bleeding. A powdered antihemophilic clotting factor made from human plasma can now be diluted with sterile water and injected into patients to help them lead a nearly normal life. For years, Louise Ray, a practical nurse now unemployed, injected the clotting factor into her sons; Louise knew that "with the medicine to control it there was no reason they couldn't live to be 110 years old."

The Ray boys, like more than half of America's hemophiliacs, were infected by the AIDS virus because the clotting factor they used was contaminated before blood screening for AIDS began in 1985. As many as a thousand donors can supply blood for a single dose of clotting factor, so the chances of hemophiliacs getting AIDS was far greater than the possibility of contracting the virus from a single blood transfusion.

"It's a shame," says Louise. "Without the medicine, the kids could die. With it, they could die."

While that shadow remains, the experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hold out some hope. They say that the risk of hemophiliacs actually contracting AIDS from the virus is far less than for other groups. Only about 3 percent have so far developed full-blown AIDS compared with far higher estimates for others. Also, despite the fear and furor, the chance of hemophiliacs spreading the disease through casual contact appears to be almost impossible. Says Dr. Barbosa: "There is not one single documented case in the whole country where AIDS has been transmitted through casual contact."

Yet, in some 10 cases in the country, AIDS-infected hemophiliac children have been admitted to classrooms only after protracted legal fights and court orders.

The Rays were no different. At their court hearing last month, a developmental/behavioral specialist testified that all the Ray boys are "suffering significant emotional distress in part as a result of their continued exclusion from the normal classroom setting ... anxiety, feelings of rejection, anger, resentment and fear of social rejection."

Ricky, 10, once told his life story on a yellow legal pad, the first nine years condensed to four lines: "First I was born in Arcadia, Florida and when I was five years old me and Kirk had fun. And as the years when {went} by we meet new friends. But a few years later we found out we had the antibodies."

The rest is a poignant account of how he felt, particularly about not being able to go to school: "I was so mad at Mr. Browning {superintendent of DeSoto County schools} I was going to hit him and kill him so then there were no Mr. Browning ... I hate Mr. Browning ... We are going to court ..."

In Arcadia, the first thing anyone says is how sorry they feel for the Ray boys. But they say it's the parents' fault.

The town barber, Ron Waldron, 35, sits in the Arcadia Drug Store coffee shop sipping coffee. "They're cute kids and they all deserve a fair chance and to be cared about. And a lot of people did care. We didn't run those people out. We offered them a teacher and an aide in their own classroom. Wish they'd offer that to my children, instead of being in a class of 32. Who knows how many have the AIDS virus? With mandatory testing there'd probably be enough to start their own class."

Lawrence Browning, the superintendent of schools: "Those parents displayed what I consider questionable behavior -- paraded their children in front of TV, had 'em in trees, taking pictures. If these were my children, they'd receive one heck of a lot more protection from the news media."

The Rays said the proffered "homebound" course, only three days a week for a total of nine hours, was insufficient, but Browning said, "It was highly concentrated, comparable to what only wealthy children got back before there were public schools."

One of the Rays' lawyers, Bill Earl, said caustically, "If you think segregation is proper, it was a good offer. It was an offer to exclude -- and there is a constitutional right to be in a classroom" -- he said, adding that the Ray boys fit no disability guidelines for homebound students.

Says Louise Ray, "Even if it was the best education -- and it wasn't -- they would never be ready for the outside world. You need book education, but what you need more is interacting with others. You can't get that in isolation.

"If my children had something these kids were going to get, I would accept it in a heartbeat. But what they have they cannot give to them. I understand their fear -- but what I cannot understand is people who will not educate themselves -- or will read what the {CDC} says and still won't believe it."

Arcadia -- the seat of DeSoto County, which has 20,000 residents and 65,000 head of cattle -- is known for its rodeos. "Historic downtown" is a place that time forgot, with many empty storefronts. The action centers on the outskirts, at the Clock Restaurant or a few blocks off the main street at the Arcadia Drug Store, where everyone greets everyone by name over morning coffee.

The Total Elegance beauty and tanning salon offers computer perming, braiding, porcelain nails, ear piercing, hair removal -- and, in the back room, material on AIDS from the Citizens Against AIDS in Our Schools. The salon belongs to Danny Tew's wife Janet. Tew, a beauty supply salesman, is president of the organization, Melody Patton the vice president. Patton was recently on ABC's "Nightline," and the press, she says, "has it all wrong. The issue is AIDS in our schools, not the Rays ... There's probably a lot more who has AIDS. We're looking for the ones who aren't identified." Tew and Patton and their 700 members are convinced that -- contrary to expert opinion -- the AIDS virus can be spread through casual contact. Stacks of an American Red Cross pamphlet sit on the counter outside Browning's office, noting, "Not one case of AIDS is known to have been transmitted in a school, day-care or foster setting. AIDS is not spread through the kind of contact children have with each other, such as touching, hugging or sharing meals and bathrooms."

Patton and Tew remain unconvinced. "Not yet," they say.

"Kids swap food, lollipops, pee all over toilet seats. I've never seen a child able to vomit or bleed from a cut and not get it all over the place," says Patton. She tries to tell her elementary school daughter not to hug her schoolmates. "I cannot get through her head the potentially dangerous situation." Tew nods. "Who says you can't get it from hugging? ... No one knows." When doctors point out that families as close as the Rays have not contracted the virus, Tew replies that AIDS is too new: "This disease can lie dormant," he says. "There's just too much left unknown."

Doctors testify the risk is small but, Patton says, "When you're talking about my children I don't care how small the risk is."

Dr. Barbosa, an untiring fighter for the rights of all hemophiliac children, can hardly control his anger when he listens to the parents of Arcadia. "My children play, swim with the Ray boys," he says. "Do you think it would ever cross my mind to expose my family to something like that? In order for you to get AIDS you have to try to get it -- through sex or needles."

But the bible of many in Arcadia is a book called "The AIDS Cover Up?," which puts forth, among other things, that the CDC, the American Medical Association and the Gay Task Force have underreported on AIDS to hold down panic in the country.

The author, Gene Antonio, is so fearful of contracting AIDS that, he stated in a radio interview, when he is served by an effeminate male flight attendant, he makes certain the attendant handles only wrapped food.

Superintendent Browning says the book is a "devastating" revelation. Ron Waldron, the barber, believes the risk of contact transmission is actually great: "They lied to us about Watergate, the Iran-contra affair, Vietnam for 15 years ... All dentists now wear gloves and in hospitals they wear masks and gloves when treating AIDS patients. Are they afraid it's airborne? They're doctors."

In the wake of international publicity, the town of Arcadia is defensive, holds meetings on how to handle its image and tells everyone, as Sheriff Joe Varnadore says, that its citizens "are the salt of the earth."

Bitterness at the Rays has united the community; politeness drops and words turn ugly -- they have been referred to as "poor white trash" and Patton says "everybody knows they are low-hygiene-type people."

They had nothing before, says Waldron, "And now they got a new truck and new car." Sheriff Varnadore says the fire is being treated as arson, based on evidence, and that a report will be issued shortly.

Tew says, "Ask yourself, who stood to lose the most by that fire? It hurt this committee's cause much more than it hurt the Rays. The implication by Ray that we started the fire got them sympathy from millions of people plus money -- and we didn't do it. We want to get our cause nationwide and we could only do that with the press."

The Rays have set up a Remember the Children Inc. fund to provide support for others in similar situations and have requested that any donations from the people of Arcadia go to AIDS research. "They don't have a new car, don't have a new truck, don't have a house, don't have anywhere near millions. It's coming in from all over the country in $5 and $10, at most about $50,000," said lawyer Earl, who with his wife Judy Kavanaugh has become friends with the Ray family. "The bulk of whatever they keep will go into a trust fund for the boys.

"The people in Arcadia are grasping at straws."

On the outskirts of Arcadia, the burnt-out hulk of the one-story green frame house, with the "crime scene" sign, stands as a reminder. A child's wagon sits outside in the debris in a neighborhood of trailer houses. Cliff Ray says the fire "started inside the house, but the thing is our house never had no lock on it. The jalousie windows just flip open. That house is the last thing my father had. He give it to us kids. That's the house my wife and I got married in ... a lot of memories went up in smoke."

Nearby neighbors, Louise said, "never associated with us" after they knew the children were infected with the AIDS virus, "but they were nice. From a distance. They would wave at us -- which made us feel good. They had a little compassion for what we were going through."

She said she disclosed the results of the AIDS tests to her pastor and the school last fall. All four children were removed from the classroom but Candy was soon allowed to return. Homebound instruction began for the boys, although Barbosa and the pediatric consultant for children's medical services of Florida advised that the boys should be returned to the classroom. They were taught at home last winter. The Rays worked on separate shifts until Clifford Ray -- who has been a truck driver and a prison guard -- became unemployed.

In February, they moved briefly to Bay Minette, Ala. "Looking back, I realize we were just running," says Louise. "The boys went to school about two weeks and then we started getting calls from the school asking why they were so behind. I asked if they had gotten the records from Arcadia yet and they said no. Well, when they came, they had the recommendation for homebound and why. They said that Candy could stay but the boys couldn't."

Had the boys been able to stay in the classroom, Louise says, "we probably would have stayed there. I had a good job in the hospital, Cliff was working on maintenance at our apartment building."

Instead, the family returned to Arcadia.

Barbosa encouraged them to tell their story at a hearing for another hemophiliac child who had been removed from another Florida school system. From then on, lawyers guided the Rays as they requested enrollment in regular classrooms and were refused. Until the hearing, the boys were taught at summer school in a separate classroom.

The Rays come down on the side of voluntary testing for AIDS and feel "a doctor should know" who the infected children are "and watch for symptoms." But the penalty of disclosure is so severe, says Cliff, "what happened in Arcadia will just cause people with problems like ours to go underground even more."

"The boys know they probably could die. We haven't kept it from them." Louise adds, "They are taught not to let anyone touch their blood under any circumstances, even though it's a minute chance that anything could happen, if someone else has a cut." Cliff says, "We don't want to jeopardize nobody else."

He looks at his sons as they dash in for an inner tube for the water, then slam out the door. "I've been telling them all along they can't have a healthy sex life." Says Louise, "That's a terrible thing, to tell a 10-year-old he can't have kids. But Ricky says he'll adopt."

The judge, in "strongly recommending" that the boys be returned to the classroom, issued a statement with which no one could quarrel. "The Ray boys have already been dealt a hand not to be envied by anyone ... at their young ages {they} are having to face two potentially life-threatening diseases. This is more than most people face in their entire adult lives."

This week, Sarasota County schools voluntarily adopted a policy on AIDS-infected students that is almost a mirror image of the judge's ruling and have said they would be happy to take the Rays, who are expected to stay in the Sarasota area. They will announce their plans Monday.

As for the long-term implications of their lives together, Louise Ray says, "If I really sat down and dwelled on the fact that my kids could have AIDS, I don't know if I could handle that right now.

"But I have to keep thinking, at least I had them this long. Kids are God's gifts.

"If he takes them, he's got that right."