The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God. The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God

Childhood Lost 16

THE OLD MAN

As I rolled down out of the now familiar woodlands, roads and houses appeared with increasing frequency. I climbed the ladder to the boxcar's roof to better enjoy the view. From that lofty perch I could see for miles, a blue and hazy land brilliantly consumed by the spreading fires of autumn. The wind in my hair was cool, brushed with the aroma of wood smoke, tasting of old memories.

The train snaked its way through a tangle of rail yards southeast of Tacoma, slowing nearly to a halt as it navigated the switches. I climbed down the ladder and jumped off into the rust red canyons of Great Northern freight cars. The train lumbered on towards Puget Sound.

I wandered out across the serpentine maze of tracks heading nowhere. Some of the freights were loaded, doors closed, secured with shiny metal strips any reasonably mature Robin could have opened with its beak. Quite a number, though, were empties, their doors opened wide. I picked a car far back down on a train already coupled to a line of engines and hopped aboard.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and when they did I noticed I wasn't alone. A featureless form propped against the door side wall about twenty feet away was quietly regarding me. After several uncomfortable minutes passed, he finally spoke. "Where ya bound for, son?"

"I don't know," I replied, after a moment's reflection.

"Well, don't feel too bad about thet," he returned with a chuckle, "that's the way it is fer all God's children."

He stood up, grasped his small canvas pack and, walking with a distinct limp, plodded over and sat down against the far wall opposite me and facing the door. "You git a better view of life if you sit where you can see it," he explained. "C'mon over."

I walked across cautiously and sat down just out of arm's reach. He was an old man crumpled with years. A faded Stetson slouched tiredly above bushy eyebrows capping a weathered visage three days or more in need of a shave. Clad in well worn denims, he seemed amused at my wary scrutiny.

"Name's Bo Svenson," he said gruffly, extending a gnarled hand.

"Deke Collins," I lied, as we shook.

"Kinda young to be riding the rails, Deke," he observed. "Home go ta hell on ya'?"

"I just got tired of stayin'," I responded, evasively.

He gave a low chuckle, "Yeah, I been there. When ya get too long and time's too short there ain't nothin' to do but leave. Yer the youngest I seen it in so far though," he added.

"When did you leave, Bo?"

"I was fifteen, first time I hit the tracks," he said in wistful remembrance.

"Why'd you do it?" I persisted, after a long silence.

"Well, my old man and me never got along. Ya' see he was a country preacher who thought God rose and set on his side of the earth and only shone on him and his flock. Now preachers mostly think they live next door to heaven and maybe they do, but I'll tell ya the gospel Deke, if you have to live around 'em fer any length of time, life next door is hell." He paused for a few moments to light up a smoke and then settled deeper against the wall. "See, the problem is ya' gotta be perfect around 'em at all times. Ya' daren't say shit if ya' got a mouthful, and ya' allas got to be prayin and thankin' the Lord for each and every morsel of food ya' swallow and every damn penny that ya' steal."

"Ya can't drink, smoke, chew, or swear and in short, ya can't do anything at all that might possibly take the edge off'n life or make yer days tolerable."

"My old man preached the Christian miseries at me as early as I can recollect. When that failed ta 'bare fruit fer righteousness,' as he was so damned fond of sayin', he tried beatin' God into me with a stick. Well, I finally got big enough to knock him on his pious butt, was then I left." He fell silent for a moment, lost in an unseen tangle of yesterdays. "I never looked back, kid," he sighed. "I hopped the first freight I could catch and rode the rails fer the best part of two years."

"Did you knock him on his butt?" I inquired.

"What'd ya' think?" he rejoined with a grin.

"I don't know," I replied. "I guess I think you walked away."

"There's not much that's worth hittin' yer parents over, Deke," he said sadly, "or anyone else for that matter."

"What'd you do for food and clothes on the tracks?"

"When I'd hit a town, I'd start lookin' for odd jobs, fences that needed mending, wood that needed choppin'. I could usually find somethin' to do for nickels and dimes. That was all people had then, ya know. Hell, five dollars in them days was a pile. You could get a bath, shave, haircut...new jeans, shirt, and jacket, and still have enough left over fer a good meal and a couple packs of smokes. Sometimes," he continued wistfully, "I'd stumble across a job that'd take a week or two to do. Times like that I'd usually make enough to keep me goin' for a month." He fell silent for awhile, lost in a past I'd never know.

"You been ridin' since you were fifteen?" I asked incredulously.

"Naw," he chuckled. "World War One broke out when I was seventeen. I figured 'what the hell.' I got an old bo to swear he was my father. He signed my papers, semi legal like, and joined the Army."

"Did you go to war?"

"Yeah."

"What was it like?"

"Like life, once you understand it," he replied with a short laugh, then explained, "War is just life accelerated. A fella mostly has more fun quicker, works harder, and dies sooner, ya' see, so all we're really talking about here is the time. Ya do all those things when the world's at peace too, it just takes ya' longer to do 'em."

The box car suddenly lurched several feet forward, throwing us both sideways. A series of lesser jerks followed. The protesting screech of metal wheels on steel rails reverberated in the empty car; we were rolling east.

We sat in silence for a while, the old man and I, then he drifted off to sleep. I walked over to the door and stared out at the passing scenery. Houses soon thinned out, gradually replaced by unfenced lands and old growth evergreens. We were, I knew, headed for the Cascade Foothills. Beyond that, I had no clear idea about either the train's destination or what I would do when I got there.

"Is any of this real?" I asked myself, staring out into the gathering gloom. With time now to reflect, it seemed decidedly unreal, there were so many parts to the whole. So many accidents, any one of which, had they gone the other way would have changed the circumstances entirely.

"Where would I be today if my parents had never heard of Armstrong, if my Dad hadn't quit his job, if my parents hadn't split up?" The 'if's' were endless.

On the other hand, what if none of this was accidental? What if it was the will of God? Payment in full for rebellion tendered? That was supremely possible, more than that, it was damned likely. For this was, loosely interpreted, just the kind of future the called and chosen had envisioned for me. Cut off from family, friends and God. Consigned, if not to outer darkness, then at least to a physical, spiritual and emotional twilight. "Free, at last," I thought. "Headed nowhere, with nowhere to go."

I walked back across the steel deck of the rail car and sat down next to the old man. He had slumped to one side, and was resting his head on his travel worn pack. His eyes were staring at me though, as if he had been about to speak and at the last minute, changed his mind.

"You okay, Bo?" I asked.

When he didn't answer, I gave him a gentle shake. His head and shoulders slipped off his pack and he slid to the floor as limp as a puppet. His body quivered like Jello from the vibrations of the train. I felt for a pulse in his neck. There was none. I sat down by his side, took one of his hands between mine and held onto it for miles.

In the early hours of morning, just before dawn, the freight finally stopped somewhere in Eastern Washington. I hopped off, leaving the old man laying there in that empty boxcar. He was beyond any help I knew of and, except for a prayer and a handful of useless tears I could find no real reason for, he was certainly beyond mine.

The tracks stretched out in all directions. I'd been south as a child for some of Armstrong's gatherings but, although the scenery was spectacular, I had no desire to live there. Canada was less than two hundred miles to the north, but winter was on the way; besides which, I had no idea what I'd do once I got there. West was totally out of the question, I'd just come from there. The only thing church, family or the state wanted to do was to beat the Good Lord Jesus, either into or out of me depending on the circumstance, or lock me in a cage. East seemed as good as good a choice as any.


Chapter 15

 

Chapter 17

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