Dad told her she would never see us kids again if she left. When mom ran off the last time, like in the story of Huck Finn the teacher read to us, I figured it was time for me to set out for the territories. I guessed the closest I would ever get to the territories (whatever they were) was to hide out in the hobo village south of town where the railroad switching yards met the county dump. Problem was, I’d heard the stories older kids told about wandering into the hobo village and never returning. Even mom had warned me.
“Ronny, I don’t want you going near that dump or that hobo village.”
Most times my friends, Dippy and Milty, and I spied on the bums down in the hobo village. We measured our distance from them at about BB gun or slingshot range. I would take aim with the slingshot at the coffee pot on a grate over the fire; never, of course, at a person. I kept my Daisy wood-handled BB gun handy and pumped it to the maximum. The Daisy was accurate, but the steelies in the slingshot pouch did more damage. I always planned my escape route in case I was chased.
I never understood how anybody could stay there long. It’s a blast furnace in the summer. With no rain the thin ash dust coming off the garbage piles drifts into clothes and eyes. And the noise: the way the crows and gulls make high-pitched calls while floating on dead air almost matched the constant screeching of the freight train wheels as they passed through on the way to the switching yards.
The town folks, the yard bulls and the railroad dicks mostly stay away because of the smell of coal exhaust from the switch engines and the garbage stench, along with the noise. I reckon that suits the hobos just fine. One thing is sure, though, it sounds kinda nice when those lords of the open road start singing their railroad songs and clapping their spoons on their knees. They sing Leadbelly songs like Midnight Special and they want to get their ticket on the Rock Island Line. But they know, like Woody Guthrie, they don’t have the Do Re Mi to get to the California line.
I don’t usually worry that some of the hobos might recognize me because of my red hair. When Dippy and Milty and I hunker down behind rocks, we hear the hobos talking and cursing real loud; some of it’s about me. The one with the scars on his face and arms called me ‘a little dickens, who’s going to get his neck wrung’.
“I’m going to catch that little red headed woodpecker one day, and it’s not going to be pretty.” He said once.
Scars wasn’t very big, and probably not very old. But I bet he had a story for each one of those scars on his neck and cheek. Likely he had more of them under the parts of the Army uniforms he wore to go with his worn-down combat boots. When we got real close, I heard someone mention that Scars had been a prisoner of the Koreans during the war. My mom told me those guys have lots of scars in their heads you can’t see. She said she thought my dad had a lot of them too from when he was in the big war.
“Lighten up. Kids like to raise a little hell once in a while.” Scar’s buddy said.
“Sure, but not by shooting into my bedroll. And if I get my hands on that carrot top kid…It just ain’t right that he shoots BBs and marbles into our cook fire.”
I must have really pissed them off. And I always wondered if I’d end up like them. But just because they lived outside in foul places and by their wits, didn’t make the hobos devils, I reckoned. Still, I knew I had to watch my step if I was going to escape to their territory.
Mom had always been easy on me; she knew that summers in Wapato, Washington got kinda boring. To keep me out of trouble, she sent me all over town to church summer vacation Bible camps ‘to get some churching’. Even when I had been kicked out of most of them in the past, the Lutherans, Baptists, Assembly of God and Adventists. All of them sang this one song, stuck in my head.
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world
“Mom, why do I have to glue Bible verses on colored paper with all those giggly girls in my good clothes?” I asked.
“I want you to be good, Ronny, so your dad don’t give you a lickin’, which you probably deserve. Besides, you need to set a good example for your brother and sister.” I could smell the guilt as strong as the stink of the outhouse out in our backyard.
Now, with mom gone, I don’t have to dodge the church ladies any more. My dad finds decent work as a carpenter when he’s sober. It took a few beatings and a lot of yelling, but dad soon discovered I wasn’t cut out to baby sit, so he made other arrangements. At first he put some food out for us kids and left us to ourselves, but the neighbours complained about us kids running wild like a pack of dogs.
When marbles and rough-housing with my friends gets boring, the guys and I take our dogs over to the Mexican side of town and let our dogs roughhouse with theirs. Their dogs are bigger and meaner than ours, but Pudge usually paws, bites and intimidates one of the Mexican dogs into submission. The loser leaves with bloody wounds, a lot of limping, and tail between its legs.
After we call it quits and patch up our dogs’ wounds, we pay the Mexicans in marbles. Then their moms feed us some tasty beans and rice cooked with chicken and a lot of violent chilies. We never understand when they talk their lingo. We just smile and ask for seconds. Something about those ladies—the way they look at us gringo boys with their dark eyes, the way they offer us food whether their boys won or lost–makes me think of mom. She was good to her own kids. But these ladies were kind and generous to other people’s kids.
“You come to Beaner Town anytime, okay?” One lady with big earrings laughed as she patted my cheek. I could tell she meant it, too.
I soon knew then that I had to escape like mom. But to a place I could choose. On Monday, after dad went to work and before Delores, our new baby sitter, came, I found supplies in the kitchen. The cool air through the back door made me wonder whether I would ever feel my mom’s hands on my face again. Who knows, maybe I’d find her somewhere on the road. Stepping off the porch, my stomach tightened at the thought of the smells, the noises and the dangers in the hobo camp. No looking back. I stopped long enough under the big maple tree to listen to the song birds singing goodbye from my tree house. They and the squirrels could move in now. No song birds in the hobo village. Or trees.
The smells of the back yard outhouse followed me as I moved from the house and into the alley past the garbage cans. I reached down, pulled up the soft part of a weed and put it between my teeth. I shaded my eyes from the arrow-like rays of the early morning sun while shifting my backpack. I smiled as the familiar song started up in my head, ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world’. At the end of the song, I turned in the opposite direction from Scars and the hobo village to follow my feet as they led me down the alley toward the Mexicans in Beaner Town. I knew what time lunch would be there.