The heat in the Georgia courtroom that morning in 1933 was stifling. The ceiling fan was loud, doing little to cool the room. Robert sat on a courtroom bench watching men get sentenced to time working on nearby peanut farms or sentenced to jail for theft or assault. Making his way across the country looking for work over the last four months, he’d felt much older than fifteen until now. Life got serious for him fast.
Hopping off a freight train the day before as it slowed to make a stop in Macon, he’d followed the scent of fried chicken to a small cafe on Main Street to try his luck at finding something to eat. When he’d entered the cafe, he’d slid his hands into his trouser pockets, staying near the doorway to see who was behind the counter. A middle-aged waitress walked out of the kitchen carrying two platters of food and set them down at a nearby table. Noticing Robert standing at the back of the restaurant, she nodded and then turned toward the kitchen. Sensing he might not get thrown out, he’d moved toward the counter, waiting for her return. Catching her concerned look as she stepped behind the counter and saw him, he became uneasy to ask if he could trade doing work for food. He’d spent the last of his change on breakfast that morning.
“Howdy, I’m Ada. What can I do for you, son?”
Uncertain now, with his voice shaky, he tried to speak. “Well, ma’am, I was wondering if I could do some dishes or help clean up for something to eat?” A number of times over the past months this approach had worked, ending in some type of work, but a seriousness crept across her eyes, showing she was thinking it over. Just as he was expecting her to ask him to leave, a slight smile slipped across her lips. “We don’t need any help, but you can have dinner if you eat at the table outside behind the restaurant.”
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“I don’t want a handout, ma’am. I can do any kind of work, and I’d rather work for my supper if you don’t mind.”
“That’s okay, kid, just have your dinner at the table out back. I’ll be just a minute.” She walked toward the kitchen, cutting off the chance to say anything more. She swung back around the corner with a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a steaming hot biscuit, and a dish of fried apples. The serious look was back on her face as she handed him the plate of food, but it softened slightly as she popped open a soda. He was sure her changed expression came from his eyes widening and his sheepish grin as she slid the cold bottle of cola across the counter.
Finishing the last bite of fried apples, he sipped the end of the cola. Just as he stood to take the plate inside, a police car pulled up coming to a quick halt a few feet beyond the table. A young police officer jumped out, expressionless as he stood staring at Robert for a moment. The officer took swift strides toward him, stopping just a foot away. “What are you doing in Macon?”
“Just passing through. The waitress was kind enough to give me some food. I’m leaving tonight.”
“On the freights?”
“Well, I . . .” Robert looked away, not knowing what to say.
“Come on, boy, get in the car.” He drove directly to the jail. Robert was put in a crowded cell. He’d settled his body against the wall like a fly, repulsed by how the cell reeked from body odor and the smell of urine. A pool of urine was sprawled in front of wooden benches that lined the walls.
After the night in jail, it frightened him to think he could spend months with the shoddy-looking men sitting around him in the courtroom. Taking a quick glance at his wrinkled trousers and threadbare shirt, he brushed away his thick brown hair that had fallen down over his face, realizing his appearance wasn’t much different. Like him, some had been picked up for vagrancy.
The sheriff walked to the front of the court room and addressed the judge. “Your Honor, I’ll take responsibility for him,” he said as he glanced over at Robert. The judge shuffled through the papers in front of him, raised his eyes, and gave him a slight nod. The sheriff moved toward Robert and sent a clear message to rise and follow him out of the courtroom.
The dust from the peanut farms hit their faces as soon as they stepped out the door and started down the cement steps. The midday heat clamped down as if a wool blanket had been yanked tightly over their heads, keeping any tease of air from them. Robert hopped into the back seat of the police car and quickly tipped his head down to hide his distress about where the sheriff was taking him, worried it might be another jail somewhere. He pushed his hands down hard on both his knees to stop them from shaking.
Once they pulled away from the courthouse, Robert glanced up to see the sheriff’s deep-set hazel eyes peering at him through the rearview mirror, but he said nothing to him. He drove north out of town. Signs for peanut farms began to appear.
“The Only Way Home”
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As he tried to take his mind off the previous night in jail, Robert glanced out the window to focus on the countryside.
Not a moment later the thought stormed through his mind that the waitress must have let the policeman know he was behind the restaurant. Now he understood the seriousness of her glances, wavering from annoyance to concern for him, her eyes drifting into a dazed thought, holding back a reply for such a long, awkward time.
A comforting breeze swept across Robert’s forehead when the sheriff rolled his window down farther, signaling the day was starting to cool off. Dark overcast skies ahead gave off a hint the weather might change soon.
The sheriff began driving west. It wasn’t long before he turned on to the main street of a small town that had nothing but a filling station, a diner, and grocery stop. Standing in the open doors of freight trains over the past months, watching towns like this one pass by, Robert always pondered what life was like in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.
“We’re stopping for lunch,” the sheriff announced tersely.
Conversations halted at once when they walked through the door of the diner. As they crossed the room toward a table, Robert noticed people gawking at them, probably wondering why he was with the sheriff.
The sheriff nodded to the waitress as she came toward the table. “The usual, Ruby.”
“Grilled cheese and baked beans for the both of you, right?”
“You got it.” Robert sat without knowing what to say. The sheriff didn’t offer any conversation. He was anxious about where he would end up and wanted to ask about where they were going, but the sheriff’s demeanor invited no questions.
“Looks like you’re done,” the sheriff said abruptly as he rose from the table. “Let’s get moving. Take a piss if you need to.”
When they pulled away from the restaurant, he noticed a couple of boys about his age walking along the road with rucksacks hanging from their shoulders. Robert began thinking about what might have happened to his neighborhood pal, Johnny Tominello. Two years older than Robert, they’d been inseparable growing up. The morning Johnny suggested hopping a freight train to see what kind of work was out there, it didn’t take much time for Robert to start talking about plans of where they would go. The dire economic downturn in the country hit his widowed mother especially hard, and finding work to help her support his five siblings was important to him.
They’d headed west from Illinois first to check out the coal mines northwest of Denver. When that didn’t work out, they traveled in different parts of the country still trying to find work.
But then things fell apart. They had separated a month ago in St. Louis after Johnny got discouraged when four guys on the same day labor job waited for them to collect their wages, followed them out to the road, and rolled them for their money. Johnny headed home to Illinois the next day, urging Robert to come with him. But when it came to hopping on the train, Robert couldn’t face going back empty handed. He regretted not staying with Johnny now. It was four months to the day since they had left their hometown of Elmhurst, on February 7, 1933, one week after his fifteenth birthday. Their big plans to find work to help things out at home felt foolish now.
As the sheriff continued to drive west, Robert tried to figure out where he might be taking him. Spending the morning in the courtroom ran through his mind again. So many of the men got sentenced to labor. If he was being taken to another jail, maybe he was being put on a chain gang somewhere. He’d overheard guys talking on the freight train to Georgia about them and mentioning there were chain gangs in all parts of the state. They’d shared stories about the labor the men were forced to do for hours and hours out in the heat, shackled together at the ankle. His hands started to tremble from not knowing what was going to happen to him. It could be months before I get home now.
Leaning his head back against the seat, he closed his eyes for a moment to calm himself about what might lie ahead. When he opened them, Robert saw the sheriff’s eyes in the rearview mirror looking at him again. Shifting his head quickly toward the window to escape his glare, he noticed the scenery around them was beginning to change from miles and miles of flatland and farmlands with row upon row of planted fields to rolling green hills directly ahead of them. The sheriff pulled in to a gas station. An elderly man sitting in front of the station jumped up, slid the newspaper he was reading onto the chair, and sauntered toward the police car. As he bent his head into the side of the window to greet the sheriff, he glanced back at Robert, showing some surprise as he sized him up.
“Fill it up, Sheriff?”
“You bet, thanks.”
The sheriff opened the door to step out, and then turned to Robert. “If you need to use the toilet, you can do it now.” Robert slid out of the car but didn’t move until the sheriff signaled for him to go ahead.
“Is that kid a criminal?” the man asked as Robert walked away.
“No, just a boy trying to get home.”
Once they headed west again, he could think of nothing but home now. A sadness draped him as he pictured returning with nothing to show for his travels after leaving his mom to worry about him like he did. Trying to get his mind off what his mother would say or do once he got back, his thoughts shifted to his father. He’d been sick for a long time. Robert didn’t know what cancer was, but people always whispered when they talked about it, so he figured it was something really bad. Nothing had been the same since his dad died, especially where they lived and how they lived. Sitting by his dad’s bedside playing the violin his father had bought for him swept through his mind, but he pushed it away as fast as it appeared. The pleasure of hearing each note as he moved the bow across the violin, and the smile his music always brought to his father’s face were memories too painful to let in.
The striking beauty of the sun setting to the west over the foothills caught his attention, bringing his thoughts back to where the sheriff was taking him. As they came over the ridge, the road began to flatten, making the sun seem as if it were dangling in the horizon ahead. Hours had passed since they’d left Macon. Signs for Alabama started to appear.
A feeling of relief rushed over him when the sheriff pulled off the road just before the sign for the state line. He shifted his body around to face Robert. “You’re free to go, but you better never come through Georgia again.” He held out two dollars. “Here, son, take this. Put it in your sock or a deep pocket. Get yourself home and don’t trust anybody on the way there. Do you understand me? Well, do yah?”
Robert’s mouth dropped open as he reached for the dollar bills. It had been awhile since he saw that much money all at once, making only enough doing labor along the way to have maybe two meals at most until the next day job came along. Glancing down to hide the emotions welling up from the sheriff’s kindness, he could only nod a reply. He opened the car door but paused before stepping out. With a crackly voice he said, “Thank you, sir.”
“Well, good luck to you, boy.”
Eying a small town just ahead, he started down the road and suddenly stopped, spinning on his heels to look behind him. The sheriff had already turned around, leaving a trail of dust spitting up from the gravel underneath the tires as the car pulled onto the road.
Turning back toward the town, he tried to swallow away the lump in his throat as he wondered what would happen now.
Jeanette Minniti is an author living in Colorado. She received an MA in Journalism with an emphasis in Public Relations from the University of Colorado Boulder. She and her husband enjoy all that Colorado offers, including hiking and biking.