The Long Journey Home
By Suzanne Chazin
as printed in Readers Digest November 1991
“A letter arrived from your father,” my friend Tomoko said, the thin air-mail envelope crackled like rice paper in her hands. I nodded, but didn’t move. “Perhaps you’ll read it later,” she offered.
I had arrived in Japan after finishing college. The trip was my father’s graduation present, and he had talked excitedly about my returning home. But two months later I wrote that I might remain to teach English. I knew my letter would pain him, and I dreaded his response.
As I sat in the sparsely furnished room, I recalled tales of my father’s youth, riding the rails during the Great Depression. He had been a hobo then, as full of wanderlust as I was now. If I had vagabond blood in my veins, I’d gotten it from him.
I thought about the gift that got my father to quit his wandering. It was my favorite story of his life on the road - and I could practically recite it by heart. In fact, I could almost hear is Brooklyn-edged voice telling me now:
He was 20, traveling in a freight car across the western foothill of the Rocky Mountains. The other men in the car were scattered along the walls, their dusty faces as empty as their pockets. Their work clothes were worn, their hands callused from hard work. Each stared silently out the open doors as if he had some particular destination in mind. They were heading east, but they were all going nowhere.
My father had left New York a year and a half earlier. It had been easy to abandon the concrete stoops and corner stores of his neighborhood. There, young men worked odd jobs in factories, when they could find work at all. And old men - mostly Russian immigrants like my grandfather - whiled away their time talking about the motherland.
In Russia, my grandfather had been an engineer who spoke four languages. In America, he was a house painter. His friends were counts who now waited tables, and captains who now opened doors and hailed cabs. Late at night, they would talk of the armies they’d led and the banquets they’d attended decades before. They were men who walked in their own shadows.
Their threadbare stories filled my father with anger and embarrassment. How could they keep nursing one another’s empty dreams? My father had bigger ambitions. He wanted to build bridges, rope cattle, sail the Pacific. California beckoned his city-boy imagination. There, certainly, people would see him as more than just a Russian house painter’s son. He would return a success, he vowed, or he wouldn’t return at all.
As the sun set and the train climbed in the Rockies, an icy chill stole into the car. My father wrapped his tattered peacoat around him and stared at his shoes.
They were made of rough brown leather and laced above the ankle. They had seen him through branding cattle in Northern California, cutting lumber in Oregon, hauling tuna out of San Pedro. They had hopped on many a boxcar from New York to California, and had paced the deck of a freighter as he sailed through the Panama Canal. Now the paper-thin soles flapped open - the leather worn out as his dreams.
Another hobo approached him. “There’s a man in a town up ahead who leaves his cellar door open for people like us.” Dad nodded and followed the others as they jumped off the train. Plunging into the spring snow, he felt the icy crunch under his toes. Soon his wool socks were soaked and his toes numb.
A full moon lit the ground like white linen as the men trudged down the hillside to a small frame house. Inside the cellar my father found a corner to curl up in, but his feet were so cold he couldn’t sleep. He tried massaging his toes; they refused to yield to his warm hands.
“What’s the matter?” drawled a soft voice beside him. He turned to see a lanky man in his late 20’s.
“My toes are frozen,” Dad said gruffly, then pointed to his shoes. “These leak.”
He was in no mood to talk to this stranger. Too many months on the road had chipped away his trust in people. Bosses promised to pay wages that never came. Men fought over spare change or a warm shirt, and sometimes stole them.
“Name’s Earl,” the stranger said. “I’m from Wichita, Kansas,” he added, extending a long, bony hand.
“I’m Sol, from New York,” my father mumbled, cautiously meeting his grip.
Earl began to tell my father about his life. His family had been wheat farmer for generations. But small-town living made him restless. Surely, he decided, there was more to life than working the land from sun-up to sundown, marrying the girl you’ve known since grade school, and going to church suppers on weekends. Gradually, as Earl spoke, my father drifted into a deep sleep.
In the morning, they hopped the next train toward Kansas. By late that day, they were riding past mountains and into the prairies. The weather turned even colder, and soon my father was stamping his feet to keep the blood going.
“Hurting bad, are they?” Earl asked gently.
“I’m okay,” Dad replied tersely. This, too, he had learned: never show fear or discomfort - someone might take advantage of it.
“You got family?”
Dad nodded, surprised by the question. “A sister and a father and a couple of uncles,” he answered. “Not much.”
“Any family’s family.” Earl said, looking at my father closely. “You know,” he continued, “I figured if I could just leave the farm behind I’d leave the farm-boy behind. But that boy’s still in here,” he said pointing to his heart. “I’ve had enough of the road. At least in Wichita I’m a farm boy with roots.”
“Well, I don’t come from a farm, said Dad, shrugging.
“Why don’t you come home with me, Sol? My sister’s a great cook.” It had been a long time since anyone had called Dad by name. “Thanks,” he replied. “But I can’t go to my own home - much less yours.”
“Why not?” Earl asked.
My father looked down at his fraying jacket and worn-out shoes. How could the boy who swore to his father that he could do better come home after doing worse? “Because I left New York to be somebody, and I can’t go back until I am.” my father answered. He stared out the boxcar. It was evening now, and the stars glittered like marcasite in a brocaded sky. Growing up by street light, he’d never seen such darkness. It made him feel alone. “One of these days, I’ll go home,” he muttered. “When I get together some money and shoes I can walk home in.”
Moments later, he felt a heavy object hit the back of his heel. He turned to find one of Earl’s thick soled brown shoes lying on the floor beside him.
“Try it on,” said. Earl.
“You just said you’d go home if you had a decent shoes. Well, mine aren’t new, but they don’t have holes in them either.”
Earl dismissed his protest. “Just try them on, Sol. They’ll keep your feet warm for now.”
Dad slipped a cold foot into one shoe. It was a perfect fit. “I can’t accept this,” Dad said finally.
“Wear them for a little bit,” Earl urged. “I’ll let you know when I want them back.” He tossed over the other shoe, then put on Dad’s. My father laced them up and felt his toes tingle and grow warm as circulation returned. He had forgotten how good warm feet could feel. He drifted off to the rhythmic rumbles of the train.
Dad awoke at dawn. There were a couple of other hobos in the boxcar now, but no Earl. Panic-stricken, he asked the men if they’d seen him. “The tall guy?” said one. “He jumped the train at Wichita.”
“But his shoes,” my father said. “I have his shoes.”
“He told me to say he’s never been to New York, but he hopes his shoes get there.”
Dad shook his head in disbelief. Among poor men, there is no greater sacrifice than to give up your shoes so another can walk. He had never seen anything like it before.
Or had he? My father thought about his old neighborhood. Mrs. Stoll, the landlady, took care of the sick, and Mrs. Roy, a neighbor, brought food to families when the breadwinner lost his job.
Certainly, they knew about hardship and loss. But they also knew about generosity - not giving what you have, but giving what someone else needs. It was an idea he had completely forgotten.
Now, as my father stared at the Kansas wheat fields clicking by, he realized that Earl hadn’t just given him a pair of shoes. He had given him back his faith in people.
That afternoon, Dad hopped a freight train bound for New York. When he arrived home, my grandfather, though not a demonstrative man, embraced his son warmly. And that evening, as he spoke of his days on the road, Dad caught the slightest glimmer of relief on the old man’s face. My father sensed he had been waiting, fearful that his child would never return.
I opened the airmail envelope and pulled out a short letter. My father spoke of events, not feelings - he wrote about the sprinkler system he was building, my mother’s new curtains, the dog’s visit to the vet.
Then, near the end, he added: “My darling, stay in Japan as long as your heart desires. I want your happiness, and if that’s where it lies, I understand. But you should also know that no matter how far you journey, no matter how rough the road, you can always come home.”
Dad’s words were a gift, as precious to me as Earl’s shoes had been to him. They spoke of sacrifice and generosity.
Things did not quite work our the way I had planned. The job I expected did not materialize, and my fascination with Japan waned.
So I returned home - not as a child obeying the blind tug of a parent’s wishes, but as an adult, drawn by my own heart and the legacy of a gift from a hobo I will never know.