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, www.HoboNovel.com / www.RogerStorkamp.com 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 www.HoboJacket.com, 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:

Can’t look away. Fireball hurts his eyes.
Clenched fist hides it. Open hand, many fingers.
One eye closed, just five.
Tuck thumb under, only four.
Not four no more.
Eyes drift shut.

Oma in her white dress. Scratches a stick-match. Flares.
“Never play with matches, Thomas.”
“Yes, Oma.”
“Promise me, Thomas.”
“I promise, Oma.”
She lights five birthday candles.
“I’m not four no more.”
Nana, wearing her black dress and bonnet, smiles. “Yes, you are five years old.”
He helped her bake his cake. Oma was at work.
Nana says,“Blow.”
“No Nana.”
“It’s okay. Be a big boy and blow hard”
Eyelids pinched. “No Oma.”
“Blow out the candles, Thomas”
Breath held to bursting. Eyes wide. One candle still on fire.
“Again, Thomas.”
“No,” he pleads.
“Just one more,” Oma scolds?
He puffs and the fire grows and grows. It swallows Oma. Head in flames, she tells Nana. “He’s such a big boy.”
Nana’s black dress turns orange. Red flames burst, surround her face, and eat away her bonnet. She smiles at him. “You are my wonderful grandson.”

He can’t stop screaming.

“There, there. You were having a bad dream.”

He stands and buries is face in white cloth. “Oma. Nana.”

“You miss your mother and grandmother.”

He nods, rubbing his nose up and down her gown. “My birthday.”

“Yes, God took them on your fifth birthday.”

“My cake. The candles.”

“Oh, my goodness. You think your birthday candles caused the fire?”

He nods.

“The fire started when your family was asleep. We’re just lucky the firemen were able to rescue you.”

He points to the glowing fireball. “Candle?”

“That’s an electric light.”

“Huh?”

“The tenement didn’t have electricity? She shakes her head. “The New York Foundling Hospital went electric over a decade ago.”

He plops onto his butt, eyes glued to the yellow glow.

She eases him onto his back. “Fire can’t harm you here.”

She covers him. “Sleep tight. Tomorrow you will join a group of children on the way to Minnesota.”

“M,mina–?”

“Minnesota. The nurses there are Benedictine Sisters. They wear black and cover their heads like your grandma did.”

“Was Grandma one?”

“No, she thought the elderly should wear black. Your mother was a nurse like me but not a sister.”

“Little Sister in heaven.”

“You had a little sister?”

“Oma prays for her.”

“Now you have a family up there looking out for you.”

He nods. Pulls a corner of the blanket to his mouth.

“Along with a change of clothes, we’re including the facts we know of your family’s immigration. I’ll add that you had a sister. What was her name?”

“Little Sister.”

She places a kiss on his forehead. “Sister Mary will be with you and the other children on the Orphan Train. Her gown is white like mine.”

***
Thomas steps into snow, his legs wobble from three days in motion. He could have counted to five.

“Thank you, Sister Mary. This must be Tommy.”

Man dressed black, not white. No bonnet.

“He wants to be called Thomas.”

“A great saint’s name. Thomas it shall be for now. Has he been baptized?”

“No mention of it in his family history. Nor of a father. Mother and Grandmother died in a tragic fire. I added a few comments about his journey from New York.”

“How old are you, son? I mean, Thomas.”

Hand springs up, fingers spread.

“Five?”

He nods.

“Please find Thomas a good Catholic home, Father.”

Papa?

“Come along, Thomas.”

He extends his hand to the man in black. Rubs mitten under his nose. Runs to catch up. He spots the horse that delivers his milk. Oma and Nana don’t drink milk. Waiting with Nana each morning on the stoop, she let him hold the empty bottle. It would break if it slipped out of his hands.

“Come here. I’ll boost you into the carriage. Cover yourself with the quilt my house keeper made for the thirty-mile ride to Bovine.”

Empty wagon—no clinking bottles—driver now wearing white.

“Are you comfortable back there, Thomas?”
Nods to the man’s back.

He wakes and has to pee. Crawling forward, he tugs on the man’s long scarf.

“Whoa.” The man jerks the reins. “You probably have to urinate.”

The horse lifts her tail and pees.

“Me too.”

The man laughs. He stands and faces Thomas.

“I get down by myself.” On his stomach, he inches himself over the edge, his foot finding the step. The snow glistens on the ground. “Where?”

“Wherever you want.”

He shivers and glances up at the round moon. Not so bright at home.

“I won’t look, I promise.” Papa laughs again.

“Grab your quilt and you can ride up here with me for a while.” Papa smiles. “Would you like that?”

“Yes, Papa.”

A snort. “Folks call me Father because I am a priest. You will come to understand what that means.” He grabs the reins and snaps them. “Thomas, you don’t have a Papa.”

Thomas hides under the woman’s quilt.

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