The Orphan Train

Decade Seven and beyond: Exploration and mostly ill functioning body parts

35th Segment

In one of my critique sessions, a member expressed a positive—almost with relief—reaction when I introduced my sci fi first chapter to our group. He said,” “I’m glad you’re getting out of the Bovine Minnesota box, he and others having sat through my presenting chapters from two novels of my three Bovine series. Light Years from Home turned out to be a two-part publication with a combined one hundred thousand plus words, followed by two Memoirs, Showgirl Memoir and PVT Richard Lee Leslie.

Vowing to never take on a novel-length project again, I introduced my Blog, / and fed that hungry beast four-five contributions each month: Minis/Maxis, Musings, Guest Minis, and bi monthly installment of my personal memoir. I also re-publish two chapters per month of Pvt. Richard Lee Leslie and Light Years from Home.

With an extended trip back to Minnesota planned this summer, 2018, I wanted to explore an historic event of interest that has connections to the local where I grew up: the Orphan Train. In Little Falls each September, local residents having arrived by way of an Orphan Train as children were honored up to the last survivor over a decade ago, and carried forward recognizing friends of survivors of an orphan. Sister Mary Watercott, a Franciscan nun, is the last surviving friend of a friend, and the reunion continues.

Following is a condensed summary of the orphan train program from Wikileaks on the internet:In the 1880s and 1890s eleven million new immigrants poured into and through New York City, ten thousand homeless children called the city home. These children were feared and reviled as street rats and guttersnipes, beggars, and waifs of the city. New York had the highest death rate of any major city in the world. Thousands of homeless children lived by their wits, sleeping in ash barrels, under door steps, in gutters or alleys, and other out of the way places. They dined on discarded remnants for sustenance.

In 1854, Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist/ Protestant minister, envisioned opportunities for these children. He devised an emigration plan to send them away from the overpopulated city streets to find family homes in the West. He knew that families in the western United States could take them in, offering provisions, a healthy environment, and opportunities unheard of in the city. And so ran the “orphan trains” from East Coast cities to all points west across America in a time span of seventy-five years (1854-1929).

With the publication of my previous books, the Little Falls radio station, KLTF, interviewed me as former resident-turned-writer, and I wanted to continue the tradition. I had no published work to present except my ongoing memoir available only on my blog. With nothing in hand except my domain calling card, lacked creditability. Last year, I touted my blog with the addition of, a pay-it-forward program offering street people Hobo Jackets, and I read a passage from Pvt. Richard Lee Leslie.

I decided to track a fictional orphan from one of the orphan trains and place him in my Bovine setting. Back in the Bovine, Minnesota, box felt comfortable, but I couldn’t interrupt the integrity of my characters with a new one who’d been invisible throughout the series. To solve the problem, and to remain honest to the Orphan Train time period, I introduced him into my family of characters in 1899, prior to their mid twentieth century time period in print. The only flaw, why wasn’t he at least mentioned during their moment in the sun. I chalk that to literary convention. I didn’t have to resurrect any character from the dead, as with some series. And, I had the opportunity to further develop family histories that were only alluded to in the three novels.

Comfortable back in the Bovine, Minnesota, box, I set about researching the turn-of-the-century background relative to the area in Minnesota such as such local government, life styles, and technology of that period. I plan to introduce the novel with How Bovine Minnesota Earned Its Name, followed by a first chapter that may read something like the following:

CHAPTER ONE Sunday, November 19, 1899
Oma in her white gown,
Holds red and black box in fingers.
“Never play with matches, Caleb.”
Shakes head “No, no, no.”
Oma slides red and black box open.
“Promise, my son.”
Nods “Okay, Oma.”
Oma’s fingers find stick-soldier with red hat.
Soldier’s red hat scratches side of box.
Fizzles. Flares. Makes mouth tastes smoke.
Stick-soldier touches fire to pretty green candles.
Fire dances on candles one, two, three, four, five.
Stick-soldier shrivels black and head falls off.
“Not four-years-old no more.”
Nana, brown dress and bonnet, smiles.
“Yes, my beautiful grandson is five-years-old today.”
Helped Nana bake Caleb’s birthday cake.
Oma back from hospital.
“Blow out the candles.”
“No, Oma.”
“Be a big boy and puff hard.”
“No Nana.” Eyelids squeeze shut.
Oma scolds, “Blow out the candles, Caleb.”
Eyes open wide. Deep breath. Blows hard.
One candle still on fire.
“Again, Caleb.” Nana smiles.
“Caleb doesn’t want to.”
“Just one more,” Oma begs?
Sobs. Blows.
Flames explode. Swallow Oma. Fire melts her smile. Nana’s lips move. “Caleb, Nana’s big boy.” Black dress turns orange. Red flames burst around Nana’s head, eats brown bonnet. Opens window. “My wonderful grand—”

Ears hear mouth scream. Eyes want to cry.
Sister-in-White wipes away tears. “You were just having a bad dream.”
“Oma. Nana.”
Sister-in-White claps hands. “You talked! Saints be praised.” She leans over bed. “The two women who perished were your mother and grandmother?”
Nods, rubs nose on white cloth. Eyes find wet spot.
“Don’t worry. My habit can be washed.” She whispers, “What boy misses Oma and Nana?”
Name stuck on tongue.
“Who are you?”
Caleb, Nana’s big boy.
Sister-in-White kisses hair and stands back up. “Oma and Nana want their big boy to tell Sister Mary Francis his name.”
Helped Nana bake Caleb’s birthday cake.
“Who had a birthday? Oma? Nana?”
“Not Nana. Not Oma.”
“Yes, yes. It must have been Oma’s son. Nana’s grandson.”
“Cake. Green candles.” Nana likes green.
“Yes, green candles. On whose birthday cake? Pretty green candles.”
“On fire.”
“How many candles are lit?”
Opens hand.
“Five years old?”
Opens other hand. “Big fire.”
“Oh, my goodness. You think your birthday candles caused the tenement fire?”
“The gas cook-stove exploded. Men rescued you from the window ledge.”
Eyes find ball of fire on string.
“You are safe here at Children’s Hospital.” Bends down and whispers, “Sister Mary Francis wants to hear you say your name.”
Eyes won’t go away from fireball.
“Tomorrow you will be traveling with many children. Would be nice to tell everyone who you are.”
Pinches eyes shut. Fireball inside eyes.
“Were you staring at that light bulb?”
“You don’t know what an electric light bulb is?”
Shakes head.
Sister-in-White talks loud. “Turn of the century and tenement buildings have gas but not electricity.”
Fireball wants eyes back.
“Don’t stare at it.”
Eyes won’t obey.
Sister-in-White moves, hides light bulb. She reaches into bag on floor. “Show Sister Mary Francis your happy face.”
Oma’s locket.
“Your mother probably wore this on a chain around her neck.” Snaps open. “Fire damaged baby’s face on one side—”
Little Sister.
“But, the mirror on the other side isn’t broken. Whose face do you see?”
“Don’t know.”
“You know who the boy is. Now say his name.”
“Maybe, Caleb?”
“Say it again.” Sister-in-White scolds. “This time, make sure I hear it.”
“Don’t let anybody forget that you are Caleb.”
Sees happy face in Oma’s locket.
Cover closes. Caleb goes away.
“Say your name again.”
Whispers, “Caleb.”
“What is your last name?”
“Don’t know.”
“It will come back to you, just remember to use your words. If Caleb goes silent again, words might go away forever.” She pulls up blanket. “Sleep tight. Tomorrow Caleb will be on the Orphan Train to Minnesota.” She tucks blanket under…Caleb. “The sisters there wear brown and cover their heads with bonnets like the one they found on Caleb’s nana. They are called Franciscans.”
“Nana Fran…?”
“No. She probably thought older women should wear bonnets. We think Caleb’s mother might have been a nurse but not a sister.”
Oma wears white hospital gown at Caleb’s birthday.
“Little Sister died.”
“Caleb had a little sister?”
“Oma and Nana pray for her.”
“A family of three in heaven to watch over Caleb.”
Mouth chews corner of blanket.
“Remember, don’t go silent again. Everyone needs to know who Caleb is.” She pulls blanket under chin. “Your mother gave you such a nice name.”
“Don’t forget Caleb, or Oma.”
Remembers Nana.
“I will add your name to the report in your handbag and that Caleb can talk, so don’t make people believe you can’t. I’ll also tell about Caleb’s mother and grandmother and sister. What was your sister’s name?”
“Little Sister.”
She kisses forehead. “A nun wearing a black habit will ride with you and the other children on the Orphan Train.”
Doesn’t like black. Likes boats, not trains.

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