“Would you be kind enough to read something for me?” asked the old man, as we hid beneath the overpass.
Slowly shaking my seven-year-old head to the affirmative, I watched as he reached down and began rummaging through his dirty old knapsack. I stood, silently watching as the elderly hobo began to remove various items from the brown gunny sack he carried over his shoulder.
“Here it is sonny,” he yelled out with excitement, as he held out both his shaking hands.
“What is that thing? I ain’t never seen no kind of paper card thing like that before and it’s got a stamp on it. It is like a letter?” I inquired.
“It’s called a post card.”
I reached out, took the dirty, wrinkled postcard from his hand and I carefully looked at both sides. Taking my time, I inspected every inch of this strange new item. “Nov 27, 1951” was stamped on the back, covering part of the writing.
Once again, having run away from the orphanage, I had very little choice but to live beneath the railroad overpass. The word about the orphanage was that this was where an abundance of food could always be found. There was a never-ending flow of tramps and hobos almost on an hourly basis.
“Can you please read that to me?”
“Your kinda old mister, don’t you know how to read nothin’?”
Slowly, the old man lowered his eyes to the ground and hung his head. He folded his hands in front of his body and he just stood there, not saying a word.
“I’m sorry if I said something wrong,” I mumbled.
Raising the card, I began to read the large print,
“CARL, GLAD YOU MADE IT TO AMERICA. I KNOW YOU WILL BE A SUCCESS IN SUCH A WONDERFUL PLACE. LOVE MINI”
“Who’s Mini?” I asked the man.
“She’s my sister. She lives in Paris.”
“I know where that is. It’s over the ocean.”
Shaking his head back and forth, I watched as tears slowly rolled down the old man’s dirty cheeks.
“Thank you for the beans mister. It sure was good of you to share,” I said, as I held the post card out toward him.
Reaching out, he took the dirty card and began stuffing it into his torn wool over shirt pocket.
“I can teach you the ABCs, real fast, so you can read all by yourself, if you want.”
“Shaking his head “no,” he turned and walked back over to the large fire barrel and began to warm his hands.
The orphanage matrons had always told me that I was “not the brightest bulb on the tree.” But even considering that; I knew when someone wanted or did not want to talk. Keeping my mouth shut, I walked over to the rusty fifty-five gallon drum and just stood there, not saying a word.
Several minutes later the old man began to sing. It was one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. I had listened to many people sing on the little black and white Zenith television at the orphanage; but nothing I had ever heard was as beautiful as the voice coming from the old man.
Hearing something behind me, I turned around and saw two railroad guards, blackjacks in hand, running toward us. All at once they suddenly stopped and began to listen to the singing. I could tell that they too were amazed by such a wonderful and joyous sound. It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
I stood waiting for the two men to begin beating the two of us for hiding beneath the overpass. For almost a minute or two the two guards did not move a muscle. One of the men tapped his blackjack on the stomach of the other guard and motioned with his head, in a backwards direction. The two of them turned and began walking away, heading back toward the railroad yard.
When the old man stopped singing, I looked over at him and said, “You really need to be on television mister. Really you do.”
“I’ll never sing to the public again,” he replied.
“I was forced to sing for the Germans and I’ll never do that again.”
As he spoke, he began to remove his wool shirt. Laying it on the ground, he rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm. Tattooed on his arm was a long line of somewhat faded numbers.
“Why would you put something like that on your arm? Everyone else I know puts a picture.”
Once again, tears began to roll down the old man’s cheeks. He reached over, picked up his over-shirt and stuffed it into his gunny-sack. Throwing it over his shoulder he began walking down the railroad tracks.
For ten minutes, I stood watching as the old man, who had the most beautiful voice, as he disappeared into the distance.
By Roger Dean Kiser