I don’t much recall old Abe’s last name, but I do remember standing bare foot at a distance while he spoke with my dad. Dad seemed to have a knack for attracting those who at first seemed less fortunate and Abe was no exception. My dad ran a greenhouse operation outside of town in his spare time, mostly bedding plants, shrubs and vegetable starts for people to take home and plant around their houses and along their walk ways. Abe just happened to stop by one day, pedaling an old beat up bicycle with huge tires and a big beat up and bent basket on the front. That bicycle was a ladies model; you know the kind, the type with the frame missing in front of the seat. I noticed that because no self-respecting eight year old would be caught dead riding a “girl’s bike.” But there he was, worn out shoes, with his dirty looking white boot socks showing in places where the leather had given way. He had on old grey dress slacks, with a pleat showing down the front, stained from many years of cruising around the countryside picking up junk to haul away in his old grey green bicycle, which he probably sold to some Junker for a few dollars to buy things necessary for his survival. Abe wasn’t like the rest of the hobos or bums as we kids called them back then; he lived year around down by the river in a rundown shack with rusty old junk cars and farm machinery all about. You see, dad’s real job was working for the railroad and there wasn’t a hobo that ran the main line that did not know my dad as a guy who would give them a hand when they needed it most, mostly in the form of sandwiches and coffee which my mom had packed for his lunch that day. Those lonely souls, came in the summer, spending some time up North of us in the Yakima Valley, probably picking a little fruit or doing odd jobs or whatever hobos did when they weren’t camping or just riding the rails to who knows where. Then in the fall, they would once again head south for the winter, down to California where the fruit trees grew and where I was told it stayed like summer all year long although at that time, it seemed like a pretty tall story, but then that’s what folks said.
Now Abe was quite a bit different from those guys, although they all seemed to lead remote lives, you know; never sleeping in a nice warm house with a wife and kids and things like that. He never went South, staying instead in that run down shack by the river, living on whatever he could scrape together doing odd jobs for people like my dad who would have him weed the garden or something like that and then slip him some cash and shake his hand in thanks before Abe would once again climb onto that grey/green old woman’s bike and head down the road to some other destination.
In any event, I digress; Abe was standing there, in those worn out shoes and old stained dress pants held up by an old cracked leather belt held in place by a giant steel buckle, like the one that Black Beard would have worn, there was no pistol or sabre stuck in it, and in truth it just held up those old worn out pants. He had an old flannel work shirt stuffed into the pants, open at the chest for the last two buttons leaving a mat of peppery grey chest hair to protrude.
Over the shirt was an old pin stripped suit coat. It too had seen better days stained and old, with leather elbow patches. His face was brown and leathery with scraggly grey whiskers and a square jaw line. His teeth too had seen better days, brown, with a few obviously rotten and one or two missing and I assumed at the time that that was what my mom was always saying would happen when I failed to properly brush my teeth before I went to bed every night.
His eyes were faded deep blue, and quite honestly some of the brightest eyes I had ever seen. They were the color of a winter sky, you know, like when you are out hunting before daylight and the sun decides to poke out the first few rays of light through windblown clouds making you wish it was a whole lot warmer than sitting there on your cold butt in a duck blind waiting for some hapless ducks to fly by.
Over the top of his eyes, was a formidable and very prominent brow, ending at a large roman nose that had been badly broken at some point in his life and never been straightened. Thick grey brushy eye brows bordered his brow, like a patch of trees hanging over a windswept cliff on the ocean giving way to a tall forehead and square cut pepper grey and black hair which looked even worse than the one given me every couple of weeks by my mother. His hair cut was as abrupt as a clear cut in a virgin forest and looked vastly out of place; it was just square cut with large bushy pointed sideburns running almost down to his square chin.
On top of his head was an old Stetson that had once been tan that was now grey, beaten and worn. The hat had for sure seen better days, with rips in the brim and holes in the crown. That hat topped off a man, who at that time of my life seemed a giant right down to his knurly, lumpy hands with huge fingers. I stood there poised to run should he at any time make any moves which might endanger my life!
Standing there on our back porch in amongst all of the flats of pansies, petunias and other flowering plants and vegetables he raised his hands, kind of like you see Jesus do in some of those paintings and pictures in books they hand out at Sunday school. Well at that point, Abe began to whistle, a more heavenly sound I have not heard since, kind of like the song of a red winged black bird on a spring day or the bubbling of a brook along a good trout stream all rolled into one beautiful sound. Next thing you know, every song bird in the neighborhood is flying around his head and shoulders, landing on his outstretched hands and on top of that old run down Stetson. There were canaries, blue birds, humming birds, starlings and black birds of all sorts, flying and hovering around this big gentle old man. I will never forget that sight as long as I live! The look on his face was such that you would expect Jesus to have, all serene like, at least that is the way he is portrayed in all of the pictures you see while growing up!
Well Abe and my dad wandered around and through our greenhouses talking about stuff which did not interest a boy of my age, but I was never too far behind, all the while wondering about this strange man and the way he spoke to the animals.
When Abe headed down the road, his bike was loaded down with bedding plants and vegetable starts for his garden back at his run down shack. I remember him trying to pay my father for the stuff and my dad pushing his hand away, accepting only a handshake as payment.
Many summers came and went, I got older, learned to drive, got wild and reckless but I always remembered Abe. Sometimes I would see him riding his bike up the hiway headed into town seemingly wearing the same clothes; worn, old, and timeless. I gave him a ride from time to time, loading his bike into the back of my dad’s old Chevy pickup because it was a long hill leading up from the river, those long three miles to town. He never seemed to get older, and thinking back on it, he was old when I met him on that first summer day, standing there in my cut-off jeans, worn tee shirt and bare feet. I often think about him, and when I do, it is with his hands stretched out; the blissful look on his face and that warbling wonderful sound that encompasses all that is good and wonderful in this world. It is at that time, usually when I am feeling down because I seem to be fighting to stay alive in a world gone crazy, I realize I always have what I need, I just need to learn to be content in it.
Outdoor Writer & Photographer
If you are interested in a little more history about Abe, otherwise known as Charles Wheeler Click Here