Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Meeting With A King

Just across the street from our house was the largest park in the city. In winter we'd build snow forts, have snowball fights, play on the ice on the small lake in the center of the park. In summer we'd play ball, hide 'n seek, tag, catch, and whatever other games we could drum up. Every summer weekend would find the road that circled the park just inside its perimeter jam-packed with people washing or waxing their cars. Every available open space would be filled with people picnicking, playing games, or just enjoying the shade of a warm summer day.

There was a small amusement center in the park which housed three wagon-wheel snack concessions, a permanent hamburger/hot dog stand, a ferris wheel, a tilt-a-whirl, and a merry-go-round. It too would be crowded with people enjoying themselves and their children. Across the street from that was a bandstand with covered seating for some three hundred people and standing room for another hundred. Five nights a week there was some kind of entertainment at the bandstand from June through August. I only remember Monday night movies, usually westerns, Tuesday night dance class recitals, Saturday night country music shows, and a Sunday night band concert. It was all free and fun, except of course the dance class recitals, but we went anyway because it was better than sitting at home or 'just goofing off'.

Walking through the park by myself one Sunday afternoon I came across a man sitting under a large shade tree. He was dressed in brown, wrinkled pants, a brown suit jacket, and black shoes with no socks. He was pulling cherries from a bag beside him and popping them into his mouth. He raised his hand and gestured for me to sit down which I did. He offered his bag of cherries and I reached in, pulled out one and ate it. It was large, colored a deep, dark red, perfectly juicy and sweet. The two of us sat there in the shade eating cherries and talking. He told me had been working in the cherry orchards of Bountiful, about 15 miles north of where I lived, and had left there that morning since the work was 'pretty much done'. He had stopped in 'my' park to rest before heading for the railroad yards to 'hop a freight' for Colorado.

We sat there talking and watching the people for a long time. He told me about the time he rode 300 miles in a cattle car...full of cattle. He had been in the car when it was pulled up to a loading dock and some 40 longhorn steers lumbered aboard. He spent the entire journey fending off their horns and heavy bodies. He never rode a cattle car again. He'd spent several trips 'riding the rods'. "What's that?" I asked. "The wheel carriages have long, curved steel rods connecting them to the bottom of the car," he explained, "and they fit a man's body pretty well. It's a bit noisy and you don't do it in winter, but it's a good ride and easier to spot railroad 'bulls' from."

He explained that outside of every major railroad center in America there were camps, called jungles, where hobos would stay until they were ready to move on. Once a year most of the 'real' hobos gathered in Iowa for their national convention where they traded stories, information, and elected a king and a queen, yes there were gal hobos too. The winners were usually the ones who had visited the most 'jungles' to campaign for the honor. He had been king once before and was campaigning to be re-elected this year. I was utterly captivated and incredibly impressed.

After some time had passed a fellow walked by sporting one of those just new polaroid cameras, the kind where you snap the shutter and exactly 60 seconds later, voila! a photograph. Amazing stuff back then. He asked if he could take our picture. The king of the hobos looked at me and asked, "OK with you?" "Sure", I said. 'CLICK' went the camera followed by some whirring noises...and we waited.

A minute later the camera made a buzzing sound as it slowly ejected the developed picture. The guy showed it to us and offered to sell it for a dollar. Well, a ten-year-old and a guy who picks fruit for a living and rides the rails aren't about to pop for pictures at a buck apiece so the price was dropped to fifty cents. That offer was rejected as well so the photographer tossed the picture on the grass and walked away shaking his head. My friend picked up the photo, looked at it, took a pen from his pocket and wrote something on the back of the picture and gave it to me. He said, "Now you have proof that you've met the king of the hobos". Then he got up, said it was time for him to leave, and walked away. Of course, I wanted to go with him. He turned around, pointed his finger at me and said, "some of us have to go, some of us have to stay. Right now, your job is to stay".

I watched him as he walked away and wondered if he would soon be on his way to Colorado sitting in a boxcar. It sounded terribly exciting and I wanted badly to go, but deep down knew I couldn't. As I slowly walked home I looked at the back of the photo and read "Two friends enjoying cherries in the park, Allan and the King of the Hobos". I put it in the back pocket of my jeans and went home. I never saw him again and I never found out if he truly was the king of the hobos.

That was over 50 years ago and luckily I remember it as though it were yesterday. Luckily because when I put those pants in the hamper to be washed I forgot about the photograph in the back pocket. It was lost forever in the ensuing wash. But I was sure I had met the king of the hobos.

I wrote this some time ago as a fond memory of my rather twisted childhood. A brief moment in time that lingers in the mind decades later. Was he the king of the hobos? I didn't know then, I don't know now, but I believe he was because however indirectly, I learned a life lesson that day. Live and make the best of your life, not somebody else's.

Some years ago I met another King. It wasn't in a park, there was no man with a Polaroid camera to take a picture and I was left no note by which to remember the meeting. Well, actually I was. The note was written on my heart; "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength," and with all your mind, and "your neighbor as yourself." Since that day I have tried to live by those words, sometimes succeeding, often failing. Since that day my life has been blessed again and again. I have been especially blessed in the knowledge that when this King returns He'll let me jump that freight with Him.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we'd first begun.

John Newton (1779) (verse 5 by R. Winchell, (1829))

Addendum: I decided to do some investigating and found the following at
The events described above took place in midsummer 1950 or 1951. According to this website the kings during those years were Cannonball Eddie (1950) and Hobo Ben Benson (1951) both of whom had been king once prior. There is, however, no confusion about the other King.

Nuda Veritas

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