When We Were Young
That’s Just Klaus
From the pen of Marsha L Burris
My sibs and I grew up in Newell, in a 1950s brick rancher that sat on the northwest corner of Mary and Osborne Yeomans’ dairy farm. When you grow up on a farm, there is no shortage of chores. Even if you’re a kid, there is always work to be done and as young’uns we learned that under no circumstances should we ever use the phrase “I’m bored”. That just opens up the dialog of “Well… let me give you something to do to fix your boredom.” And nobody wants that dialog opened up. Least of all kids.
My brother Robert and I never admitted to being bored because, basically, we were never bored. Excitement ruled our lives. Few events failed to attract our attention, most of which we manufactured ourselves. Playing make-believe is the prerogative of every eight-year-old and in the summertime, Robert and I spontaneously combusted into our imaginary worlds frequently.
A favorite activity of ours was to dive into the ditch that ran along Orr Road at the edge of our front yard, with cap guns and holsters, wooden rifles and sling shots. From there we had a clear shot at our enemies. We had no shortage of enemies because we watched Combat!, Gun Smoke and The Rifleman. We had just three networks then so it was easy to agree on what to watch each night (mostly whatever Daddy wanted to watch) so the only argument Robert and I had was who would play Sgt Saunders, Mr. Dillon or Lucas McCain as we went outside to re-enact the episode we had watched most recently. The ditch was our usual destination because in our minds it became a foxhole, a mine shaft, or even Death Valley (valley = ditch Get it?) We were protected within that versatile ditch and had the advantage of seeing without being seen. Well, in our minds anyway. Besides, what did we know? We were not even in the double digit age group yet. Barbara, our big sis, never joined in. She was much too refined to roll around in weeds and muck. She would be found indoors doing something much more frivolous than protecting the homestead… like doing her nails or reading Dostoevsky. And little Andy? Well, he wasn’t even a gleam in Jim’s eye yet.
From the vantage point of our ditch, Robert and I could watch the freight trains roll by. They whistled their approach toward each crossing near our property on a regular schedule. You would think that the deep rumbling of 130 tons of steel passing near your home would keep you awake at night, but we were so used to the sounds that we woke up if a train wasn’t on time.
Now, you might ask yourself:
Why in the world would two kids find watching box cars rolling lazily by on a summer’s day fascinating?
That would be a good question, and, there were several reasons.
One, we did not have Wii or Xbox back then.
Two, looking for graffiti emblazoned on the sides of the tankers was visually interesting. Even then. Not as imaginative as you find now, but usually some artist had spray-painted the name of a distant city they were proud of on this canvas of sorts. And as the artwork moved down the track, we paused and daydreamed about that place and what it might be like.
Three, and this is a very important reason, we were on the look-out for marauders. Without being asked, Robert and I assumed the responsibility of keeping Newell free from marauders.
But the best part of train-gazing was when we saw a boxcar with its door panel slid back in its track and we could peek inside. That’s when our imaginations really kicked in.
We saw all kinds of things in those cars. Or believed we did. Ammunition for one – most likely going to fortify our enemies. We contemplated tossing grenades (dirt clods, some people called them, but we knew different) at the cache of ammo but we were pretty sure Rusty would not want us close enough to the train to be able to complete that mission. And the Wrath of Rusty was to be avoided when possible.
We believed we saw livestock of Biblical (think: Noah’s Ark) proportions being transported to the cowboys out West, even though it was just the train to Raleigh. But in all the westerns we had seen, everything the West needed came from the East. So even though I know now that Newell, NC was not considered the livestock capital of the world, we were sure that we occupied the center of the universe and all good things had its genesis here.
After spotting an open car, our imaginations kicked into high gear and once or twice, inside those opened-door box cars, Robert and I saw Hobos.
“Did you see that?”
“Inside that car. A man was leaning against the far wall.”
“Are you sure?”
Somehow, even at our tender age, we were worldly enough to have heard all about Hobos and even though I think the term ‘Hobo’ may have a somewhat derogatory connotation associated with it, we romanticized this population. To us, Hobos were homeless wanderers of their own volition – not that we even knew that word then, but we knew the concept – and Hobos found work in exchange for food and maybe some cash, in whatever place they had wandered to. And, to get from place to place, we knew they hitched free rides on freight trains as their desired mode of transportation. And we were convinced that our freight trains were rife with them. Although we probably didn’t know that word either. It was only logical, though. Hobos were known far and wide for using empty freight cars as no-cost-limousines. Here were empty freight cars. Ergo, we were destined to have Hobo traffic on our freight cars. Strangely, even though we had amassed a surplus of weapons, when Robert and I spotted what we imagined were Hobos, it scared us. We weren’t use to their exotic lifestyle and when we were frightened, we had to run back to the house to fortify our courage with a chocolate chip cookie or two.
Of course, after revealing our whereabouts to get cookies, we were then likely to be appropriated for chores. Playtime is important to children all over the world, and pretend-play is important to a child’s cognitive development. Whatever. Frequently, our playtime was interrupted without thoughts for our cognitive development needs and chores were substituted in its place. Doing chores on a farm meant that meals appeared at prescribed and regular intervals. It was hard to argue against that kind of common sense.
Mr. Yeomans, who was Pam-pa to us, usually assumed all responsibilities in the animal husbandry category of chores. Weeding vegetable gardens and harvesting those vegetables usually fell to the children. On the rare occasion that Mam-ma and Pam-pa were out of town, feeding and watering Molly (the cow), Ricky (the pony), and Lassie (the collie) could be *ahem* farmed out to one of us kids. I liked earning money Please see my story called ‘Risky Business’ here and I volunteered for duty.
I was an efficient deliverer of services and to provide the services I was contracted for during the Yeomans’ absence in a timely manner I jumped on my bike and rode up the dog path through the field between our houses. This mode of transportation was faster than walking and walking was for sissies. Specialized bicycle classifications like “Mountain Bikes” or “Off-Road Bikes” had not yet been dreamed up. But our Schwinns could get the job done. In fact, most terrain in a dairy community is “off-road”. So I bumped across fields, through lawns and right up to the dairy and livestock barns on my trusty two-wheeler. An old bathtub sat behind the barns with a plug in its drain hole. My job was to keep it filled with water every day and to put out grain or hay, as required, for the animals.
On one assignment, as I was making the rounds, I caught a glimpse of something red flitting past a doorway. Red and black flannel. A shirt with a human inside it – where there was not suppose to be any humans.
Now, red flannel is kind of like the Burris family coat of arms so I immediately suspected a family member was sneaking around trying to startle me, and they were being pretty successful. But Daddy was at work, Robert had not followed me, and Momma was much too busy to play games. That left Barbara and I knew she was back at the house reading some Faulkner. No one else lived close by. I had no idea who or what this apparition was. When you live in an imaginary world a good bit of the day, imagination has a way of playing tricks on you, but I was pretty dang sure I had seem ‘something’.
Terrified, I did the only sane and practical thing I could do. I jumped on my bike, rode like the wind, and found the biggest bravest soul I knew. My Momma. Out of breath, but finally safe after my close encounter with danger, I started relating what I had witnessed.
“Oh, that’s just Klaus,” Mom reassured me casually.
“Klaus?” (It rhymes with mouse) “Who is Klaus?”
“Klaus, the Hobo.”
“We have a Hobo?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t you and Robert see them on the train when you’re in the ditch?”
She knew about the ditch?? And the Hobo-sitings? She was brilliant!
“Actually,” she continued. “You might call Klaus a nomad or a Hobo, but he’s really just a guy who prefers to keep to himself. And when he’s in the area, Pam-pa pays him to do odd jobs, gives him food and invites him to enjoy milk from Molly. I guess I’ll need to make him a plate for supper.”
Blimey. Our very own Hobo – and I didn’t even think they really existed. I thought we made them up in our minds. But Klaus was real. I told Robert. He was skeptical. Our entire play framework revolved around making stuff up so why would he believe me? I’m not sure if Robert ever saw Klaus the Hobo himself. I cannot remember. I sure wish I could ask him…