April 1, 2011

The “Tramp”

Category: News — Ira @ 6:44 pm

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Let me hear my Momma calling,
Look a-yonder, ya’ll, who’s coming.
Down the road, he’s coming home.
But they know I never will.

Conway Twitty, lyrics: Play, Guitar, Play
_________________________________

My parents spoke now and then of the long ago world they had known as children in Daviess. And of the colorful characters they saw in that world, including the ragged dusty tramps, straggling down the road to no particular destination, lugging their meager belongings in torn rucksacks, offering to chop wood for food. Once in awhile, Mom even hummed a few verses from the classic Depression era song, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

And the Aylmer Amish community, too, had a few local tramp legends. Way back in the dawn of its history, it was said, Solomon Herrfort left his coat hanging on a fence post beside the road while working in the fields one day. When he returned, a tramp had taken up an axe lying nearby and split the top of the post without bothering to remove Solomon’s coat. He’d been drinking, we heard. The tramp, not Solomon. (Although Solomon might have wished for a drink after he found the tattered remnants of his coat. Then again, probably not.)

And another legend was born in my own time, in my own childhood world. Late one night, Homer Grabers discovered a tramp sleeping in their barn. The details remain a bit foggy, but if I remember right, they came home from somewhere, maybe visiting at a neighbor’s place, and their farm dog was yapping insanely out by the barn. Homer and his son Alvin cautiously ventured out to investigate, and were greatly startled and then horrified to discover a man bedded down in the hay loft. One of them rushed to the schoolhouse phone and called the cops. It all ended (in subsequent greatly embellished detail, of course) with the cop hauling the hapless hobo off to somewhere, hopefully to a night in a warmer bed at the Aylmer jail.

To us, as children, tramps were mythical figures, and we tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in a world where they would just come strolling down the road from and to nowhere. And, of course, we never caught even so much as a glimpse of a real tramp.

And then one evening, we almost saw one. Or so we thought. It might have been late spring, going on early summer. Or it might have been late summer, going on early fall. The shadows of visual memory are about the same in either setting. But if I had to pick, I would say it was late spring/early summer.

It was after supper and we were outside, barefoot, playing and chattering in the yard. Probably an hour or so of daylight remained. I don’t remember who first saw him. In about two seconds, all of us did. A figure walking from the west along the gravel road toward us. We stirred a bit uneasily but continued our play. And watched as the speck of a man grew larger.

Closer he came, passing the great oak tree in the road ditch a few hundred yards away, and then he reached our lane. Frozen, we stared as he turned in and walked right up to our house. We skittered about like frightened rabbits, shifting into the shadows. Someone ran inside to tell Dad, who slowly ambled out. By this time the stranger had reached the concrete walkway leading to our house.

He was young, maybe twenty years old, which seemed old to us back then. Dressed in worn clothes and worn-out shoes. He looked ragged and tired. Dirty blond hair, and possibly a small beard (although that little detail escapes me). He stopped as Dad walked out to meet him.

“Hello, what can I do for you this evening?” Dad asked, somewhat rhetorically. The young man smiled hesitantly and fumbled nervously in his pocket. Pulled out a slip of paper.

“Your son Joseph said you might be able to put me up for the night. He wrote a note and told me to give it to you,” the stranger stammered. Joseph, recently married, lived with his wife Iva on the Sansburn farm a mile west. Dad took the note and quickly scanned it. Whatever it said, it seemed to satisfy him. He asked a few quick questions, to verify the note. And then he opened up his home.

“Come on inside and we’ll get you some food,” Dad said. He turned back to the house, the young stranger following close behind. Mom met them, smiling. She was used to unexpected company, but not this kind.

“This man is hungry,” Dad told her. “Can you fix him a bite to eat?”

And, of course, Mom could. Totally accustomed to scratching together quick meals for the swarms of Amish visitors that often popped in unannounced in every season, she quickly warmed up some leftovers on her stove. Dad sat and chatted with the young man. Nervous at first, the stranger calmed down a good deal and soon was wolfing down the plate of food Mom set before him.

Dad sat there at the table with the stranger as he ate and talked. He lived northeast of us, somewhere up in the Corinth area (if I remember right). Things weren’t going well at home with his parents. He and his father fought a lot. And he hated his job; his boss was always mean to him. It was all reaching unacceptable levels. Then in the last few days, for some reason, all the forces of life had conspired against him. He had a big knock-down drag out argument with his father the night before. And that day, the boss screamed at him for absolutely no reason (which was, of course, the stranger’s highly biased perspective). And at quitting time, instead of going home, he had simply walked down the road with nothing, really, but the clothes on his back. He didn’t own a car, or much of anything else.

Somehow, after trudging for hours, he had ended up at Joseph’s place. Joseph, recently ensconced in his new home with his bride, listened to the stranger’s story. While sympathetic, he couldn’t quite see boarding such a person for a night. So he finally decided on a sensible course of action. He sent the stranger a mile east to his father’s place with a note.

Dad listened as the man talked and talked, inserting a comment now and then. The stranger was stressed and exhausted, that much was plain. And by the way, his feet hurt. Could he possibly get some cardboard to cut out and fit into his shoes? All those miles of walking had about done them in.

Of course. That would be no problem, Dad assured him. But eat first, then we’ll take care of that.

The stranger didn’t know where he was going. This much was established as he ate and talked. All he knew was that it was over back there, back at his home and at his job. And that he needed a place to stay that night. Tomorrow he would move on, he assured Dad.

Hovering in the next room, we listened to their conversation, mildly disappointed. The guy wasn’t really a tramp, just a confused young man who had been pushed to the wall. But to us he seemed like one.

And soon enough, he finished eating. Dad ushered him into the living room, and they sat on rocking chairs and talked. The sun set, and darkness fell. Dad lit the hissing mantle lantern, and that was my last visual memory of the two of them together. Sitting there talking in our living room by the lantern’s light. And soon the children went off to bed.

The next morning, we got up and did our chores, then came in for breakfast. Dad was missing. Mom told us why.

The night before, Dad and the stranger had sat up late, talking. Dad had gently but persistently advised the young man to return home the next morning, and return to his job and face his problems. The stranger, at first adamantly opposed to such a plan, had gradually softened as Dad persuaded him. And eventually, he had agreed that he might consider returning.

Of course, Dad closed right in for the sale. And before they retired that night, he had convinced the young stranger of the wisdom of returning.

The stranger slept in our spare downstairs bedroom, in the northeast corner of our house. In the room bordering my parents’ bedroom.

The next morning, well before dawn, while all of us were still in deep slumber, Dad roused the young man from his bed. Mom got up and cooked a hasty breakfast for them both. With the stranger tagging along, Dad went out to the barn, harnessed his horse and hitched him to his old rattletrap buggy. The stranger stepped up and settled in nervously for the first and only buggy ride of his life.

And Dad took him home. The five or six miles north and east, in the predawn darkness. The buggy clattering along on the gravel roads, announcing its presence to the world with a single blinking orange light. They arrived at the young man’s home early enough for him to get to his job on time later that morning.

At home, we ate breakfast and began our day without Dad. Later that morning, he rattled into the lane with his rig, his mission accomplished. He never spoke much about the incident, at least not that I remember. It was just a thing that had happened, out of nowhere.

And thus ended this strange and extraordinary encounter between a stern, hardcore Amish man and a lost and disillusioned young English kid. Somehow, a connection was established across seemingly impenetrable cultural barriers. A father’s heart spoke life to a stranger’s son.

We returned to the normal bustle and flow of our lives on the farm. Spoke now and then of the stranger who had walked unannounced into our lives on that early summer evening. And that was that. Except it wasn’t, quite.

Some months later, one Saturday afternoon, a car pulled into our drive. Not a clunker, exactly, but not a late model, either. A clean-cut young man stepped out, smiling. He walked to the passenger’s door and opened it. A plain but smiling young woman stepped out.

It was the stranger, the “tramp” who had walked into our lane months before. He had returned home and cleaned up his act. Found a new job. Saved some money. Bought a car on credit. Started dating a nice girl. And now he had returned to thank Dad for what he had done all those months ago.

He proudly introduced us to the plain young woman. His girlfriend. And they both thanked my parents for their kindness that night.

After twenty minutes, or maybe half an hour, the first slivers of an awkward silence sprouted. There was no more to be said. A final pleasant platitude. Then the two young people got into the car, and drove slowly out our lane. Turned east, onto the gravel road, back to their English lives.

We never saw them again. We returned to the normal flow and course of our lives. Pondered among ourselves, now and then, about the tramp who had walked into our world for a few brief and surreal hours.

I don’t remember his name, although he spoke it to us. And I don’t know what ever happened to him. But I wonder sometimes how his life turned out and where he is today.

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(11 Comments) »

  1. Teared up a bit. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by R. A. Miller — April 1, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  2. I well remember that night, no he did not sleep in our spare bedroom. He slept in the room between the house and wash house. We had an old couch there, I don’t think Mom trusted him to sleep in the house. Funny, I was recently remembering that same man, and I can picture him yet….

    Comment by Rachel — April 1, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  3. I love that. I think of how many people like that young man could use a calm “outsider” with a rational perspective to shine some light on what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle. GREAT story ~ thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Bethrusso — April 1, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  4. This story says so much about your father, and all of it good. The story may be about the tramp, but it’s actually a nice tribute to your father’s character.

    Comment by Monica — April 1, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

  5. I agree with Monica.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — April 1, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

  6. Ira,

    I don’t really have anything to add except thanks for the story. In my opinion, it somehow has all the elements of a good story and you respected it and told it sensitively and masterfully.

    Long live the hoboes.

    Comment by Gideon — April 2, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  7. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

    Comment by Kate Hastings — April 3, 2011 @ 8:32 am

  8. Our worst days are not so bad that God’s grace is not enough, and our best days are not so good that we don’t need God’s grace.

    Comment by Paul H — April 4, 2011 @ 11:12 am

  9. Nice story, very kind of your Dad……

    Comment by e. s. gingerich — April 6, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  10. You’re back, taking us to another time, another place.
    A pleasant break from our present realities.
    Thank You. It helps me face those very realities.

    Comment by Paul — April 11, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  11. @Monica: great insight. Thanks once again, Ira. The pen is mightier.

    Comment by LeRoy — April 12, 2011 @ 8:12 am

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