It was a cold night in Miller


By W.F. “Bill” Smith Jr

I would be remiss if I didn’t relate an incident that happened one cold night in early fall. As I recall I’d gone to the post office and got the U.S. Mail. I then returned to the depot and put the mail in a cart and locked it up in the warehouse until train time.

I then turned to getting the two stoves going again. There was a door between the office and the waiting room, with the door kept locked at all times. I unlocked the door and turned on the lights in the waiting room.

I was startled to see a man laying on the floor with his feet straight out toward the stove. He was a bum. Ragged and very dirty. I was always cautious when I encountered one of these men of the road. Some were dangerous but many were just  men out of work because of the Depression.

When I came in and turned the light on, he came to a sitting position. I told him to stay where he was and that if I didn’t have a passenger going west that night that he could stay. If I did get a passenger he would have to leave.

He was a pitiful sight. He had taken off his shoes and had on just pieces of socks. There were more holes in the socks than there were socks.

His feet were dirty and covered with red  blisters.

I asked him how did you get in this condition?

He was a track walker. He didn’t ride the rails but just followed and walked the tracks. They  didn’t associate with other hobos. Here he was in my Depot, on a cold night in Miller, South Dakota. I told him he couldn’t go on like this.

He was weak and didn’t reply.

I went into the office. I got the wash basin and some hot water from the stove. I got him sitting up in a bench and I washed his feet.

I tried to be careful and maybe didn’t do as good a job as I could but I didn’t want to hurt him.

He thanked me.

I said if he was Okay with it, that I would call the night Marshall, Johnny Goat, and have him taken to the hospital. He agreed. We loaded him in the car, and I never saw him again. I don’t know what ever happened to him.

My note: Dad and I would talk. He told me that he  felt he had a guardian angel. Three times in his railroad career he should have been killed.

He was icing reefer cars with tongs and blocks of ice. He lost his balance and pitched head first over the side of the car. He somersaulted and landed on his feet. Dusted himself off, climbed back up to go to work. The foreman made him get down and be checked out.

In the west end yards he was checking car numbers at night. He went to step between two cars and he said he felt a hand on his shoulder holding him back. Whoosh a car, just switched went by at speed.

There was a load of Campbell Soup in a boxcar out in the yard. It was going to freeze that night so he and another worker were sent to place heaters in the car to keep the load from freezing.

The car was loaded on each end, bulkheads installed and the center was empty. While working a switch crew, unknowingly sent  a speeding car into the soup car. The bulkheads collapsed and they were buried under the cartons of soup. Dad was uninsured. The other worker got a full disability from his injuries.

I think I know who the guardian angel was.

Waiting for Santa
I’m reflecting back now, I’m in a warm cozy room and outside, its maybe 10 degrees. I’m thinking back on Christmases past. We had them in the old house at 1314 Third St. S.W. This house is where my  siblings and I were raised.

This one particular Christmas, mother had the house all decorated. Streamers running from the corners and crisscross in the center of the room. There was a Christmas tree, with paper chains and popcorn strings all around it. Ornaments, German — the old fashioned kind, passed down from other generations.

I recall, too, an old iron coal burning  stove with fancy grill work and nickel plating.

In another room was a sheet iron stove to use in very cold weather.  I remember these because my brother Johnny and I had to haul out the ashes and to see that there was kindling and buckets of coal to use.

I remember one Christmas as the one in which I sold out my sister Aletha. To this day I’m ashamed at what I did. I did it to save myself and I’m not proud.

On Christmas Eve we were all gathered round and there was a knock at the door.

In came a Santa Claus. He didn’t exactly look like others I had seen. Oh sure, he had a white beard and red stocking cap. He actually looked a bit frowzy to me, scruffy maybe.

I quickly hid behind the hard coal stove, squeezed between it and the wall. My sister Aletha joined me there too. We hoped we were hiding from this Santa and that he wouldn’t see us. No such luck.

He asked if we had been good kids all year. We didn’t say anything. I couldn’t speak because I was so scared. We did manage to nod our heads. Then he asked; do you swear? He had me. I finally stammered out that, no, I didn’t but that my sister does all the time. I sold her out to save myself.

I don’t think he believed me but he accepted our gifts of a tobacco plug, and a roll of toilet paper.

Suddenly he bolted out the door and shouted, “Whoa, damnit, whoa!” We thought we heard sleigh bells fading away.

Mother took the sack of presents he had left and handed them out. An orange, some socks and some candy.

It was the best of times. Aletha forgave me, and occasionally she makes me a pie, so it must be ok.

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