A Hobo's Life

The story a couple of weeks ago about Giveaway Babies got a few very interesting comments.  One of them inspired me to write the following short story.


Rube could both hear and feel the rattle of the freight car as the train gained speed with each turn of the wheel.  He panted a little with the exertion of reaching the car and swinging himself onboard.  It hadn’t taken many rides to learn to quickly scoot into a corner that was protected from the cold wind.

The hum of steel wheels against the hardened rails sang a lullaby and his chin soon slumped onto his chest.  The sleep was light and images of home danced before him.  He dreamed of the first train he caught; he dreamed of the first train he heard.

“Rube, you’re gonna have to git them cows milked if we hope to git the corn chopped out today.” 

Rube acknowledged the kind farmer with only a grunt as he rhythmically pulled milk from the old cow’s udder, his head resting on her warm side.  The sun would quickly heat the corn field to misery but in the chill of the morning the boy appreciated his cozy resting spot. 

The farm was quiet in the mornings and that’s when Rube most enjoyed it.  He went to the barn before good daylight and even the cows seemed reluctant to disturb the peace.  In the silence, broken only by the metallic ring of milk against buckets, erupted a distant horn.  Rube froze.  It took only a moment to understand the sound and to remember that the tracks were just over the big hill; still he had somehow never noticed the sound, never realized the mournful, seductive nature of it.   In that moment, he could think of nothing but the train – the big locomotive and the steam he knew would be bellowing from the smoke stack, the innumerable cars following behind carrying people far away from Athens even out of Tennessee.

Rube shook his head, trying to regain control of his thoughts.  You’ll never see the inside of a train car and you know you’re lucky to have this place.

He was lucky, he would never argue that point.  A child without a father was nothing; he could hardly expect decent folk to speak to him and yet this man had taken him in and treated him nearly as well as his own sons.  He even bought him books and sent him to school in the winter months.  Much as he disliked sitting in still in the schoolroom, Rube realized it was a gift he that would serve him his whole life.  Yes, it was a lucky day for Rube when the farmer took notice of him as he stripped bark at the sawmill.

And yet the whistle lingered in his memory.  As he slowly made his way to the corn field with hoe in hand, he began to imagine where the train was going.  Was that coal smoke he smelled?  Was the train somehow reaching out to him?

He thought of Grandma.  He still imagined she would come for him one day, even though she left for the Cherokee reservation almost three years ago.  She’d always talked about her people and he wanted to believe they would love him for the blood he shared with them, no matter who his father was or even if he didn’t really know who his father was.  But somehow he’d never been able to fully believe it since both Mother and now Grandma had not wanted him, not really.  Maybe Grandpa had wanted him but the logging accident took him and now there was no one that wanted him, no one left to love him.

What did I do?  He asked himself that question every day.  How, he wondered, could Mr. Cox – despite his mother’s marriage to the man he’d never been allowed to call him anything but Mister – how could he have thought Rube was going to burn down the house when he was only stomping out an ember that popped from the fireplace?  It happened all the time; there were lots of little black spots around the stone that attested the fact.  What was different that time?  As Mother dragged him by the arm to her parent’s little house she’d promised that Mr. Cox would feel better soon and surely he would ask Rube to return.  But he didn’t feel better.  Now he and Mother had five children of their own and Rube supposed none of them ever let embers pop from the fire.

He woke with a jerk, the ligaments in his neck screaming – or was that the whistle again?  It took a minute to realize where he was, to realize he was no longer on the farm and the ache in his back was from the hard floor of the freight car and not hours bent over a hoe.  The dreams haunted him, as the unanswered questions always did.

Rube, I reckon you’re grown now so thar’s not a reason in the world to be worryin’ ‘bout all that stuff. 

He shifted the small pack, felt a bit of straw in the corner and tried to burrow as deeply into it as possible.  Even though his eyes were heavy, he tried not to sleep; sleep just brought more questions and he could never find the answers.

He passed this night like so many others – how many nights had he slept on the rails?  He shook his head, trying to focus on this new quandary. 

Must be two years now, he reasoned.  He slid the door open a crack and positioned himself to watch the rising sun even as the train seemed to run from it on the westbound track.  He’d ridden this line all the way to California, but then he found himself back in Tennessee.  In fact, every train seemed to eventually bring him back to Tennessee.  Now the Eastern horizon seemed to call him in a new way – it was reminiscent of that first sound of the train’s whistle he’d dreamed of again last night.

Suddenly Rube felt tired.  He realized it wasn’t just the restless nights, never sleeping soundly for fear the railroad bull would find him and use his ever-present club and toss him from the car at some remote whistle-stop.  No, this fatigue was deeper, much deeper.

Maybe it’s time to go home.  It occurred to Rube what a strange thought that was for there was no home to return to, no loved ones waiting with open arms, no one missing him and watching for his return.  Still, there was a distinct call from the mountains, an unmistakable need to be on solid ground and to begin to build something permanent, something better than what he had before.

Book Review: Where Treetops Glisten

Following is a review of a collection of three novellas.  I hope you enjoy it.

Where Treetops Glisten is a Christmas story – three such stories in fact for it is a collection of novellas which follow the same family through World War II.  We begin with a sister who has lost her fiancé at Pearl Harbor and she must try to heal her broken heart while the war rages around the world. “White Christmas” gives us a glimpse into the lives of those 1940’s era Americans who did not directly participate in war activities and yet the war would not be ignored.  It’s fascinating to remember that life rushed forward even as armies marched across Europe and from island to island in the Pacific.  Although Abigail Turner resolves to guard her heart against any further pain, she cannot stop herself from helping when she finds a young man in need.  As she and her father try to aid his family, she finds he has helped her to move past her own pain.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” highlights a bomber-pilot who has successfully completed his European tour of duty and has a brief time back home to recover from the fatigue of battle.  Instead of meeting a beautiful damsel in distress as the reader of a romance might expect, he finds a wandering child.  Her mother forces him to come to terms with his past sins, his present resignation from life and his future plans.  As Pete Turner prepares to resume his flying duties, he finds himself falling in love with a woman from whom World War II has already stolen a husband.  Therefore, we have the unique perspective of watching both man and woman surrender themselves to God’s plan for this new relationship.

Finally, we find ourselves in overseas as the Allies fight to free each tiny European country occupied by Hitler.  Seen through the eyes of an American nurse who is trying to hide a broken heart behind service to her country, the story shows us how even one woman can share God’s love with both friend and foe. 

I guess the resounding theme across the novellas was give, give, give.  And what an appropriate theme that is when set among that generation that gave so much to the cause of freedom.  I was fascinated to see the war through three very different sets of eyes.  I would have loved to have a little more development of characters and resolution of situations but there is always a tradeoff with a novella and those are the usual victims.    Still the authors are able to convey the essence of the main characters and even remind us of earlier characters in parts two and three.

Each author’s unique voice sings out of their individual stories allowing the characters very distinct personalities.  We also benefit from each author’s area of expertise.  The first two stories are set in the American Heartland while the third finds a sister stationed in The Netherlands.  I suppose anyone can do the necessary research and develop a story in any place and time, however, the more you research specifics the more immersed you are in that culture and therefore your writing almost seethes with the ethos. 

Book Review: The Berenstain Bears and the Biggest Brag

The Berenstain Bears and the Biggest Brag by Mike Berenstain is a delightful children’s book that continues the tradition begun by Jan and Stan Berenstain in the 1960’s.  I am thrilled to find their son Mike Berenstain continuing this series and moving it toward teaching biblical principles.

The Biggest Brag finds Brother and Sister Bear comparing all of their accomplishments until they really become ridiculous with it.  Then along comes Grizzly Gramps to show them just what a silly thing their competition has turned into and then to remind the cubs of the biblical lesson that, “Where there is strife, there is pride.”

The illustrations in this little book are beautiful and plentiful.  Laid out much like a comic book, there are multiple frames on each page so the twenty-three pages yield about thirty-seven picture frames.  This is very important for a children’s book to keep kids engaged through all of the words – and this book does have a lot of words compared to a lot of similar books.

I am giving The Berenstain Bears and the Biggest Brag five stars for story, five stars for illustrations and five big stars for a great lesson that we all need to hear. 

Publisher ZonderKidz supplied a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Give Away Babies

Tales of a baby left on the doorstep in a basket have tormented more than one younger brother or sister and, unfortunately, we still occasionally hear the heartbreaking news-story of a baby being left in some unlikely and unprotected places.  Just last week I read a story about a tiny baby found in a dumpster somewhere in Tennessee.  In today’s world, there seems to be no reason whatsoever to abandon a child – maybe there never has been a good reason to do it.  But it has always happened.

Life has been tough everywhere at one time or another.  Today, when prices soar and jobs are hard to find, we have a plethora of social relief programs and I would certainly hope we have churches with hearts and coffers sufficient to help anyone in need.  However, in the not too distant past, food was short and jobs nonexistent on the mountain; healthcare was scarce and too many youngsters were orphaned.  Even those with two living parents sometimes found their family unable to sustain them.  In those cases, children were often simply given away.

I have a huge respect for any woman who is able to hand over a baby that she would be unable to properly care for and put him in the hands of a family that will love, protect and nurture him.  While we know that lots of details are lost as the years roll by, it seems that not every situation included those careful and tear-filled decisions for the welfare of the baby. 

There are lots of these stories that vary from grandparents raising entire families to de facto indenturing agreements where children were given to work for their room and board.  Today I want to share one of these stories.

This story is about a young child, we’ll call her Doris, who was given to her maternal grandparents when she was just six months old.  She would spend her whole life wondering why.

There seem to be a number of logical reasons for giving away one or more of your children.  Single parenthood is hard enough in the twenty-first century but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was nearly impossible.  Therefore, illegitimate children were very often given away.   However, Doris’ parents were married.

Many times a family simply had too many children to care for.  A small hillside farm, tilled with mules, could only sustain so many people.  As a family grew, a father was hard pressed to bring home food sufficient to feed them all.  This seems to be the reason for a lot of the give-away babies especially when older children were turned out of the home in their early teen years.  They were old enough to lend a hand on a larger farm or maybe for a doctor or storekeeper who had an extra income besides the subsistence farming.  So the children were given into another’s care to not only feed that child but to allow extra for those still at home.  However, Doris was the oldest child in her family, and she was given away when she was just six months old.

Parents who were in poor health could not provide for children, and in the absence of social programs to help them, they often had to give up their children.  However, Doris’ parents went on to raise six children and the second child was born just eleven months after Doris. 

That really exhausts my imagination for why you would give up your child.  One fact of Doris’ little life that doesn’t seem to fall into any of those categories was her tiny size.  Doris was so small when she was born that we’re told her mother would carry her in an apron pocket and she used a turkey quill to feed her.  Since the next baby came just five months after Doris’ mother gave her away, I suppose it’s possible that her mother feared she could not care for such this special-needs baby when she had another newborn to care for as well. 

Doris grew and thrived with her grandparents.  When she was sixteen years old, another of Grandma Black’s children passed away just one year after his wife died, leaving eight orphaned children; Grandma Black raised seven of them with Doris’ help.  Doris and her grandparents took on this large family in order to keep the siblings together, otherwise they would have been sent to seven different homes.  There were also three more grandchildren left with the Blacks.  That household, which should have been an empty nest enjoying the golden years, raised eleven children and you can just imagine how poor they were.  As adults, the children would remember their grandparents knitting throughout the winter in hopes that each child would have just two pair of socks.

Doris’ birth parents lived just about five miles away so Doris knew her siblings.  When she once saw one of her sisters wearing a cheap necklace at church she was very hurt for she had no such luxuries; the orphaned or given-away child had only the necessities of life.  Many years later that sister taunted Doris, stating that she’d had a better upbringing than Doris – Doris responded by expelling her from her home and never really talking to her again.

Doris spent her whole life wondering why she was given away.  She asked grandparents, aunts and uncles and was always told, “Don’t worry about that”.  I can certainly imagine not wanting to trouble a child with the kind of adult problems that might lead to that kind of difficult decision, but surely there was a point at which the grown-up Doris could have understood the explanation.  Doris was born in 1892 so the answers to all of our questions are surely long since dead; yet the mystery remains. 

Doris married and raised five daughters of her own but her whole life would be characterized by distrust, even of her closest loved ones.  She unconsciously always wanted proof that they loved her and would try to pit them against each other in hopes they would offer her that proof.  As I said in the beginning, there are many stories of give-away children but Doris’ seems the saddest because she could never understand the ‘why’ of the whole thing despite growing up in close proximity to her parents and siblings.

Do you have family members who were given away?  I’d love to hear their story – just click on “comments” below.

Where does the Time go?

Well it’s a brand new year and everyone’s thinking about goals for 2015, and maybe reflecting a little on accomplishments of 2014.  I doubt I’m the only one who’s asking, “Where did the time go?”  I find I ask that almost every day for it seems that it’s supper time before I’ve more than realized the day has begun.  The months roll past till it’s summer before I’ve fully adjusted to winter.  Whew, I’m already afraid 2016 is going to sneak up on me.  I was listening to a talk radio show this week and the host was admonishing everyone to set some goals for the year; he reminded me that nothing gets accomplished without purposing to do it.  And he talked about setting social goals – and that’s what got me to thinking.

There are so many people I want to visit; they have stories to tell me and I have so much to learn from them.  About a year ago, I did manage to visit a cousin and neighbor who was ninety years old at the time.  In about an hour, I learned about years and years of her life and despite always having lived near her there were things I didn’t know.  I need to spend hour after hour with her, but now she’s gone home to heaven and my chance to chat with her is gone. 

Tell me, am I the only one who lets day after day pass without stopping to chat with a neighbor?  Do you find yourself passing someone’s home and thinking how badly you need to visit with them?  But there never seems to be enough time.

Where does the time get to?  Well, I wanted to think about some things that we don’t do these days.

Laundry.  Yeah, we have lots more clothes than our grandparents or great-grandparents had, and frankly we launder them much more often.  How long does that take?  Well, the machine has to run for fifteen or twenty minutes, but it doesn’t require anything from me after I’ve once dumped everything inside.  I still utilize a solar clothes-drier which takes about ten or fifteen minutes to ‘load’ but most folks just throw it all into a machine and push the ‘on’ button.  Then there’s ironing – do you still iron?  My electric iron is hot in seconds and maintains a constant temperature longer than I’m willing to stand there pushing it back and forth.  And to what can we compare this mundane set of tasks?  Well, what about building a fire under a giant iron kettle filled with water you just dipped out of the branch or pulled up from a deep well.  Stir the whites while they boil, cool them till you can stand to handle them then start scrubbing on a board.  When you’re satisfied they are clean you’ll have to wring out the soapy water then rinse and wring some more.  (I guess you wouldn’t have much need to visit a gym if you did this every week.)  Once they were clean, those pure cotton clothes had be ironed with a flat iron heated on the cooking stove so it naturally cooled very quickly.  And heaven forbid you left a bit of food on the stovetop at breakfast which sat and charred for it will surely stick to the bottom of the flat iron leaving a big black mark anywhere it touched – and it would always find its way to your husband’s white Sunday-go-to-meeting shirt and the whole process would have to start over for that garment.

And then there’s the cooking.  We have fast food.  We have convenience foods that you can just pop in the microwave and in three to five minutes have a full meal ready to eat.  Even if you’re cooking from scratch, just turn on the stove eye, run water from the tap, pull fresh foods from the refrigerator and a fine meal can be ready in about half an hour (not accounting for longer cooking or roasting times).  Compare that to keeping a box filled with stove wood, which of course requires much chopping for it must be very small wood, then stirring up a fire every time you want a hot meal or even a cup of coffee.  There are no high or low switches on a wood stove so you have to move your pan from one side to the other to regulate the temperature - and I won’t even get started on baking.

Whew, it all made me tired just describing it.  Can you imagine trying to manage all the other tasks required to keep house?  How much time did all that take?

And yet one hundred years ago, this description was the norm in rural homes, did everyone feel they had no time?  Did people know their neighbors or visit their extended family?  I don’t suppose we can find a scientific and quantitative answer to these questions.  Certainly my sense, from both written history and the oral annals to which I have access, is that communities were generally closer and that families spent more time together.  In my own family, my great aunts and uncles were closer to their siblings, nieces and nephews and cousins than I am to my own generation of family.  Recall the diary my great-great-grandmother kept and how she described a nearly-constant stream of visits from family and neighbors.  Even if those folks only stayed a quarter or half an hour, they took the time and surely made considerable effort to stop in to see an invalided old woman and those who were caring for her. 

So what’s changed?   Is our time not sufficiently freed by our modern conveniences to allow time to be spent with people?  Have we become so selfish that we’d rather see someone’s Facebook status than check on them personally?  Or do we simply no longer care about each other? 

I don’t know the answers and I’m certainly not preaching from a self-righteous soapbox for I’m at the head of this guilty line.  One of my dear friends had a major surgery on December 30th and I’ve not even called her; my next door neighbor has been having cancer treatments for months and I’ve not checked on her in weeks; I haven’t seen my grandmother since Christmas and that long list of visits I mentioned at the beginning – I’ve been pushing it forward in my to-do list for months.  I’m guilty, guilty, guilty.  But I’m also convicted about it.

So, I declare to all of you that my goal for 2015 is to VISIT!  And you can bet I’ll be sharing the stories those visits yield with you.

NOTE 1/10/2015:

Wow, I guess the whole world is realizing that we need more time and focus on PEOPLE!  Just 2 hours ago Steve Laube (President of The Steve Laube Agency which represents my writing) retweeted this CNN article about people's need to put down their smartphone and make face to face connections.  I didn't specifically address digital distractions but they are certainly one of our biggest modern barriers.