It was 1937. My youthful days at McCune Home for Boys in Jackson County, Missouri, were history. The Great Depression of the 1930s was at its peak. Apprehension and confusion accompanied my release into a world of desperate, jobless, hungry men. At 17 I too became desperate and homeless.
The natural instinct to survive soon taught me to follow the trail of men searching for employment that would put bread on the table for their families. Often a rumor that there was work in another state caused men to “ride the rails” or “hop a freight” to be the first to apply for a job.
I experienced a time during which the bad seemed to exceed the bearable by a considerable margin. Because of my own carelessness I found myself in an area known for its violent treatment of transients by local authorities. I decided to head to the freight yard, where I would “hop” a freight train headed west.
Via the grapevine I understood that the freight yards in this particular area were noted for making transients extremely uncomfortable. My usual method for hopping a freight train was to wait until a train was gathering enough speed to indicate that it was leaving the yard. Then, watching for a boxcar with an open door, I’d run from my hiding place, pace myself alongside the moving car, toss my bag of belongings inside the open door, and, at the right moment, scramble up into the interior of the car before the yard bulls saw me.
Near dusk, evening shadows fell before a train finally left the yard. It was moving a little faster than I liked, but I decided to try, not wanting to remain in that area overnight. I ran from my hiding place, tossed my bag into an open door, misjudged the speed of the train, nearly missed the edge of the door, and ended up clinging by my elbows to the splintery floor of the car with my legs swinging wildly outside.
I was clawing desperately at the floor of the car when a long, skinny, dirty arm reached out, and a clawlike hand closed around my wrist. I looked up into the grizzled face of an older man and voiced a humble thank-you as he pulled me inside.
A voice came that was soothing, tender, comforting.
“Ain’t no way to hop a freight,” he said.
His face wrinkled into a sly grin. His clothes were in the last stages of disrepair, and several days’ worth of stubble covered his chin. He was so scrawny that when he spoke his Adam’s apple ran up and down his long neck like a chipmunk running up and down a telephone pole.
“Pretty close, kid,” he chuckled. “But this town ain’t no place for a man of leisure.”
I tried to thank him again, but he ignored me. He moved to the other side of the freight car and slid down to the floor, back against the rocking side of the car. He motioned me to a spot nearby. “Glad to have some company. Don’t like being alone with someone when they pass on.”
He nodded, and jerked his thumb toward the darkened front of the car. I could barely make out what looked like a jumbled pile of bones. From it came a rasping cough mixed with the sounds of someone gasping for air. I stood up to go to the pile of bones, instinctively knowing that someone needed help. My savior grabbed my arm. “Don’t go near him, kid. Ain’t nothing you can do for him.”
“What’s he got?” I asked.
“We used to call it consumption. Guess you call it TB now. A lot of guys can’t take the dust from whatever was hauled in these boxcars last. It gets into their lungs. Takes ’em fast. This one won’t last much longer.”
I shuddered. This was going to be a long night.
“Poor devil,” the old man went on. “Told me he has a wife and a couple kids back in Detroit. Worked in the auto plants; lost his job when the unions started raising hell. Wouldn’t join ’em and couldn’t find work anywhere, things being the way they are. Finally ran out of food. He said he kissed his wife and kids and vowed he would find work somewhere. That was a couple years ago. He’s kept movin’ along, lookin’ and hopin’ but never findin’. He ain’t heard from the little woman or tried to get in touch with her since.
“Guess he feels guilty. Last time he spoke to me, he said to keep away from him. He didn’t want anyone to catch what he has.”
“How long has it been this way for you?” I asked.
“Since ’28,” he replied. “Had a good practice. Worked in the finest hospitals.” He looked at his hands. “Been all over. Been around a lot of nice people. Too old now to make a new start. One day I’ll end up in the dark side of a boxie; not like him, but just as dead. I only hope the good Lord will be kind to me.”
His voice carried the combined weight of his years. He fell silent and appeared to be asleep.
It was a good hour, well after dark, before my companion moved again. He reached behind him, pulled out a bit of newspaper, opened it, and exposed three large carrots with the tops still on them. He selected one and gave it to me.
“I got these back a ways. I was saving them for the pot at the next jungle, but I couldn’t leave him.” He jerked his thumb toward the front of the car. “Has to be someone there with you when it happens, you know.” He sighed and sat silent for a moment.
Then he said, “Save the top of the carrot, kid; you may need ’em to suck for water. This car is mighty dusty. We don’t know when we’ll get out of it.”
I sat looking at the carrot in my hand, with no appetite or desire for food. The train rumbled through the summer night. The wheels of the boxcar clacked their song of death and loneliness on the rails of the tracks. I got to my knees and crawled to the sick man.
“Here, this might help your throat.”
His eyes lit up as he saw the carrot. He started to reach for it, then raised both hands, palms toward me in a gesture of defeat.
“No, all it would do is start me retching again. Thanks. Keep it. You’ll need it.” And between coughs: “Please go back. I’m contagious. I don’t want . . .”
His coughing cut him off. I glanced over his body and noticed that his shoes appeared to be almost new. I looked at my own. I had started putting cardboard in them to cover the holes in the soles months ago. Guilt smothered the thought that came to me, and I retired to the other end of the car to settle my back against the wall a few feet from my older companion. He seemed to be sleeping. I dozed off myself.
Sometime in the night, as the freight train rumbled along, I was awakened by something that seemed to be a dream. But never have I had a dream that burned its way into my very soul as this one did. I will not try to explain it; I’ll just tell it as it occurred.
The car was too dark to see my companion only a few feet away, but the far end of the car seemed to be lit by a strange, soft light; a pure, white, self-contained light.
I heard low voices. The sick man’s coughing stopped, and I heard him say, “Tell them I love them. Tell them . . . I tried . . . I tried . . .”
Another figure bent over him, cradling the frail body on a white-sheathed arm. A voice came that was soothing, tender, comforting. “They know. Just rest. It’s been so hard for you.”
As curious as I was, I felt frozen in place, unable to move or speak. The light began to draw in on itself, until it was entirely dark again. I wanted to know more, but sleep made me its prisoner until sunlight thrust its way through the open door.
The train was not moving. I glanced out the car door and saw that we had been left on a railroad siding. I was alone. I looked toward the far end of the car. The figure was slumped in a position that meant only one thing.
Glancing at his feet, I realized that his shoes were gone.