The small stature of the youth, did not belie the fact that this handsome, rugged, young man with long, dark blonde, curly hair, was as confident in himself as he was. Driven by necessity, this journey had started many years ago. He stopped and breathed a long sigh of relief, when he saw a fire in the distance and then he paused, and thought long and hard before deciding to walk up between the rusted railroad cars along the tracks toward the welcoming glow coming from those flames. Something told him that this could be his very last time. That familiar sound of the train in the distance only made him walk a little slower. No, this time it would not call to him to run as fast as he could as it barely slowed, to jump up on as it had so many times before. Suddenly he saw out of the corner of his eye a man watching him. The ragged looking middle age man spoke in a raspy voice but loudly to him, “Come over here boy, what are you doing down in here?” As he turned and walked towards him he could smell alcohol and rotting food. He was frightened when he saw several others standing around the rusted barrel where the flames and sparks shooting out of it made their faces in the evening light look grotesque. The man who called to him was very dirty and looking strange with one eye askew and the other not quite focusing on him either. He reached out and put a trembling hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Need something to eat boy?” he then slowly turned and spoke to several other men who were crouched on the ground passing a glowing pipe and hollered toward them, “get this boy something to eat!” One of men who appeared to be much older than all the others began to laugh heartily and pulled a harmonica out of his worn, large overcoat made of animal fur and began to play a lively tune. There was no need to be afraid now, he had come upon scenes like this one countless times over the years. The sun had set and the darkness made the young traveler weary so he sat down on a stack of railroad ties to rest his tired feet.
As he watched and listened he thought about his life. His mother and father had been farmers from Nebraska, the house he was raised in, had a dirt floor and walls that were three feet thick, made of mud and straw. His mother would speak of the Olagala Indians who would talk to her when she was in the fields and the children all thought she was surely mad. There are no Indians around here! They would tell her. More brothers and sisters born every year, were making it hard to feed all those children during a few years of crop failure. School was taken to 8th grade and then at the age of 13 young Clement decided it was time to leave home. No need to worry about me, I can take care of myself he thought. He told no one, not knowing where he was heading. Walking for miles on a dirt road one very hot day he was tired and thirsty. Shielding his eyes, he looked far into a field and saw a few cattle standing around a windmill with a water trough beneath it. He ran as fast as he could to it thinking he could quench the incredible thirst he was experiencing, but when he arrived at the well it was completely dry and the cows looked as thirsty as he was. He ran to the closest farmhouse and hollered. An old man and woman come to the door and asked him what was wrong. “Your well is not working! Your cows are going to die!” The old man ran with him back to the well and made the discovery that his pump had broken. “Thank you so much young man, my cows would have never survived if you had not come along, please, stay and eat with us.” After the meal he asked the couple if he could spend the night in their barn to sleep, and they told him that he could. The next morning he took some whole oats from a barrel for the horses and cupped his hands to pour fresh cream from a milk can in the barn, washing them down his throat, as he smiled and thought, what a wonderful breakfast he had enjoyed that day. When the old man came by early that morning, he asked the young man if he wanted to stay on with them. They needed help on their farm and they would make it real nice for him to stay. He told them no. “I have to be going now, thanks anyway.”
The years after that went quickly. He learned how to jump on the rail cars and jump off again, running quickly so no one would see him. The experiences of those endless days of wandering were making him wish for easier times, and he knew that he could not keep running on forever. The thoughts of the old couple wanting him to stay with them haunted him. He wished he had said yes. Why did he have this urge to keep running on?
It was getting much colder now, as he stood close by the warmth of the glowing barrel. The first man who had spotted him came over and handed him a pot with a spoon and filled it with some kind of smelly grub. He ate, because he had not eaten anything much for several days. The man with the harmonica gave him a toothless smile and asked if he could play. “Yes”, he said. “Well lets hear you!” Knowing he could not say no, he grabbed it and started to play a tune he had learned on the rails years before. Suddenly the man looked at him and said, “I know you! Clement! What are you still doing riding the rails?” The young man stopped playing and looked up at him. It was his much older friend, Mike. Years before he had met Mike and rode the rails with him for a spell. He told him, “Nothing else to do I guess.” Mike sounded frustrated and mad when he said, “Well, don’t you let me ever see you out here riding the rails again! Find yourself a wife! A job! Get on with it boy! Life is waiting for you!”
That is exactly what my Grandfather Clement did. He married and got his first job selling insurance with Prudential Insurance Company. Years after the depression went by, he was very successful at convincing people that insurance was what people needed for their future. He moved up quickly in the growing company to become a Vice President before he retired. But that is not the end of this story. Clement traveled a lot as a manager of district sales, to cities all over the country, and on one of his visits to the city of Chicago, he was walking between the tall buildings on Main Street and saw someone on the crowded street that did not belong there. A disheveled old man, with ragged clothes now looked so familiar to him, standing asking for handouts near the street corner. It had been 20 years or more, “Mike! My grandfather dressed in his fine suit, shouted excitedly. The haggard looking old man in shabby clothes turned around and smiled a toothless smile, but obviously not recognizing him. “Lets go get you a cup of hot coffee and something to eat!” When my Grandfather finally left him off on a that street in Chicago, he handed the old man some money and he turned and walked away, never to see him again.
This story is based on the many stories my Grandfather told me about his life. He is long since gone now, but the memories of his incredible life of discovery, and people remembered, is not forgotten. Oh, and he told me once, that he found out many years later, that there really were Ogalala Indians still in Nebraska when my Great-grandmother was there, and there probably still is! She was not mad after all!