As I drove down the freeway I recalled the day they found grandpa. That was Christmas ten years ago. We had always thought he was dead. Suddenly he wasn’t. It was as if he were resurrected. Or perhaps he was some demon who never really existed.
At first father was going to visit grandpa. Then he didn’t. He said he didn’t have the money. Some years later father said that after Vietnam he didn’t like to fly. After all those years it seemed that dad never did want to visit grandpa. Maybe, he was too angry.
Grandpa was a WWII vet, an ex-Arkansas share cropper, hobo and beatnik – he just didn’t know how beat he was. He was my grandpa.
My father was eight when grandpa disappeared in a cloud of Tulare County, California dust after one last argument with my grandma.
My father’s dog had also jumped into the car. The dog reappeared late that night but my grandpa was gone for good.
He said my grandma had sent for some important men from town and he’d hid in the grass near the tracks. After they left he jumped the next train and was unseen for 25 years.
A few years before that fateful day he’d scrounged up the money for an old Buick and hit the road with the whole family. He’d been farming with a mule and living in a shack where my father had been born. Sometimes they lived in the car. If they were lucky there would be temporary housing for migrant farm workers.
My dad, who was five, picked cotton from Texas to Arizona to California, often until his fingers bled. When he finally picked a hundred pounds of cotton his family got a dollar.
Years later I lived in Florida working as a photojournalist. It was a straight shot from West Palm Beach to Immokalee on the other side of the sandbar. I called him up and said I was coming for a visit.
He was so happy to see me. We drank beers. He introduced me to all his friends: the ex-con who lived in the house next to his converted mule barn; his lady friend who was a recovering alcoholic and probably still a prostitute; a couple good ol’ boys who fixed cars; and his new puppy. After a while a big guy stopped by, drank some beers and left.
“He used to be Golden Gloves,” said Grandpa. “But that crack fucked him all up.”
We drank our beers, throwing them in a 50-gallon barrel, as he told stories about riding Greyhound buses and picking oranges with Mexicans and Haitians. He said he was beat up by some blacks once at a Greyhound station in St. Louis. Then he showed me a scar on his head to prove it.
Soon Skinnie Minnie stopped by. She was a prostitute and was skinny because she’d been addicted to crack for awhile. She’d moved down to Florida from North Carolina. She gave grandpa a big kiss. “He was the one that got me to stop smoking,” she said. Then she began to cry. The big tears hit the dirt making a staccato pattern in the soil.
A lot of people stopped by. Grandpa was a sort of mayor for the poor and disenfranchised who were mostly white. However, the town was full of Latino and Haitian immigrants, many illegal, who had arrived to pick the winter tomato crop.
Later we sat inside eating. Grandpa was drinking the cold beer from his shaking hands. “With my ol’ hands I can’t do shit no more,” he said. “If I hitchhiked I might as well just start out walkin’ ‘cause you can’t get a ride. That’s the reason I started riding freights. I’ll never forget the first one I got on.
“The cops used to come and run me along. Most people bummed. But I never did do that. I worked seven days up at that Roseville yard cleaning up behind the carpenters where they were building a new house. That contractor was out of Novato.”
“I would take me some sweet rolls, some coffee…under paper and have rolls all morning. Go to the store at noon and make me a bologna sandwich. I would have had the job longer but that ol’ boy got us fired. I don’t know how but he did.”
“I don’t remember when I left Marysville. I had money but that didn’t last long. I’d always meet one ol’ boy on the train. He would always have pork and beans. He’d give me a can and some crackers. By god I never turned it down either. He was a regular freight bum. I forget his name. I used to know him. Them ol’ men is the ones I used to give something to when I had it. Most of the time I would carry cheese and crackers. And wine, plenty of good wine, that old sorry ass shit, it’d kill a goddamn mule.”
With that he began to laugh and then he began to cough. When he stopped he took another drink of his beer and continued, “I rode that one from Parker, Arizona. I don’t know how many times. You could always get cotton pickin’ or cotton choppin’ or somethin’ like that. I knew it so I’d head there.”
“There was a few girls that rides freights. A few of them got pulled off underage. I don’t know what they done with them. Nothing I don’t guess. Just pulled them off. There was one about 15.”
“My old nose runs all the time just like a spring. I better piss, I guess.”
The night’s embrace bore down on us as I finally said goodbye. I saw tears in his eyes. He was in my rearview mirror waving goodbye, growing smaller then finally disappearing into the night.
After Grandpa had jumped that train all those years ago, the family had to fend for themselves. My grandma began drinking a little more and working a little less until she finally attacked the children one night. They walked 30 miles through the orange groves to the next town where they were placed in foster homes.
Perhaps it is better that Dean Moriarty, the free wheeling hipster in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” novel, never found his father.