Between 1854 and 1929, approximately 150,000 orphans and disadvantaged children living in the streets, crowded orphanages, and poverty-stricken homes of eastern cities were transported by rail to rural towns in the Midwest to begin new lives with adoptive families. Here is the story of one reluctant eight-year-old passenger.
On that March day in 1926, I was standing in line with my six year-old brother, Leo, and my three year-old brother, Gerald, at a train station in New York City. We were waiting to board the train that was supposed to start us on our way to what had been described to us as “wonderful new lives.” Back then I was Alton Lou Clement. I was almost nine, and as much as I’d hated living in an orphanage, I hated taking this trip even more.
Leo and I had been living at the Jefferson County Orphan Home in Watertown, New York, for two years, and Gerald had been living in a foster home. Three other brothers and, one sister, all in their teens, were living in other foster homes. I hadn’t seen them since being admitted to the orphanage and I didn’t know where they were.
Papa had struggled to keep us together after Mama died, but unemployment had forced him to separate us. Now, since I was the oldest, I’d been instructed to look after my brothers. As we moved closer to the steps, I wanted to grab them by the hands and run away, but I knew I couldn’t.
Instead, I reached into my coat pocket. The pink, stamped envelope with Papa’s name and address on it made a crackling sound as I touched it. He’d given it to me the day before, when he’d visited the orphanage to say goodbye. “Write me when you get settled,” he’d said. Then tears began running down his face.
Now I proudly choked back tears as we boarded. We began threading our way down the aisle of a crowded, noisy car filled with girls in dark dresses with white pinafores and boys dressed like us, in knickers, suit coats, dress shirts and ties. A tall, thin woman with bobbed hair escorted us to our assigned seats.
“Choochoo, brovers!” An excited Gerald quickly wiggled from my grasp and crawled across the seat to Leo so that he could look out the window. The fierce, protective love i felt as I looked at them was quickly replaced by fear. “What’s going to happen to us?” I raised my chin in defiance, “Nothing, I’ll take care of us.”
That evening, except for an occasional cough and a muffled sobbing, the car began to quiet. I placed my coat across the back of the seat, cheered by the sight of the pink envelope sticking out of the pocket. Soon Leo and Gerald began to sag against me. I leaned back against the seat, lulled by the rhythm of the clacking wheels. As I began composing a mental letter to Papa, the whistle gave a long, mournful wail across the rushing darkness.
The next thing I knew it was morning, and the train was steaming to a stop. I was handed a brush and damp cloth, and told to tidy myself and my brothers. I washed their grimy hands and faced and brushed their hair, then reached for my coat.
The envelope wasn’t sticking out of the pocket. thinking it had slipped down inside, I reached to get it. It was gone! I checked the other pocket. Nothing. “Leo, help me look on the floor. Papa’s envelope is gone!” He dropped to his hands and knees in front of the seat; I knelt in the aisle, trying to look under the seat. “What are you doing?” The thin woman standing above me. Fighting panic, I explained.
“Straighten up and sit down, boys. You’re starting a new life now. A clean break is best.” Her matter-of-fact words weren’t unkind. But when she spoke them, I knew she had taken the envelope and all I could do was hate her.
During the next three days I was a numb spectator as trees and houses and towns blurred outside our window. We changed trains several times, at unknown stations, then came to a stop where we got out and walked to a white church with a tall steeple. As we filed into the church, square pieces of white cloth with numbers printed on them were pinned to our clothing. Leo, Gerald and I were numbers 25, 26 and 27. Finally a voice said, “That’s all forty-three of them.”
Then we were instructed to go stand at the front of the church, where a lot of adults began coming in and crowding around us. I picked Gerald up and glared at the milling adults. Leo grabbed hold of my leg as a tall man dressed in overalls approached us. The man reached out and felt my arm, I stared straight ahead, “A bit scrawny,” he commented, then moved on down and chose number 30.
Number 30’s face turned white as he left the line with the man. A smiling woman wearing a flowered dress joined them. Then they walked to a table filled with papers, where some of the caretakers were sitting. Soon other numbers were called out, and by the time we left that afternoon to board another train, several of the children were gone.
Two days later my brothers and I had survived several lineups in many different towns. Each time we were inspected I was terrified we’d be chosen, and then when we weren’t, I was angered and believed that people thought we weren’t good enough. But I was relieved that we were still together. I’d seen other brothers and sisters separated, and as I listened to their loud sobbing, I wondered “How can I stop them from separating us?”
On the sixth day, in a small town in Texas, with only 23 children remaining in line, my worst fear was realized. A middle-aged couple chose Gerald. As the woman reached for him, Gerald eagerly jumped into her arms. But after the paperwork was completed, and they began going out the door, he looked over his new father’s shoulder and screamed for his “brovers.”
I wanted to grab Leo and run after them. Throw myself down at their feet and beg them to take us too. But I knew I’d be stopped as soon as I moved out of line. I’ll see my little brother again, I thought and my bitterness began to grow. I was so upset that at first I didn’t notice the elderly couple standing in front of Leo and me. Then the woman placed her hand on my shoulder. “We want these two.” I looked up into her kind face, and as Leo and I walked out the door and climbed into their Model T, I began to hope a little. If I could stay with this couple and grow a little bigger, I could run away with Leo and find Gerald. Then we’d all go back to New York and find Papa…
Three days later, after Leo and I had just begun to settle in the large farmhouse, the thin woman who’d been with us on the train was at the door. “You’re going to go to a new home, Alton. Another nice couple wants you.”
My bruised heart seemed to stop beating. “Why can’t I stay with Leo?” I had to force the words out over my tightened throat. She explained that she and her husband had decided they could care for only one child, so they had chosen the younger one.
I turned and looked at Leo. His eyes were wide and frightened. I gave him a big smile and waved. “I’ll see you later.” He seemed to accept my lie, because he gave me a tiny smile as he waved back. Hours later, another elderly couple greeted me at another large farmhouse. Dusk began to settle around us as I walked around the farmyard with my newest father. He showed me several caged he’d made from scraps of wire and tin for the hen families, then said we’d wait and fasten them up.
Clucking softly, each hen walked into her home, and as soon as her chicks were inside, the man slid down the cage door, explaining that he’d let them out the next morning. Soon the chicks were settled under the hens’ protective wings. As I listened to their muffled cheeps and peeps I wished for the millionth time that my mother hadn’t died.
The next morning I woke up early, and the smell of frying bacon lifted my spirits. I could hear the couple moving around in the kitchen. Deciding to surprise them, I pulled on my clothes, then sneaked out the back door. I hurried through the wet grass, which was sparkling with heavy dew, to the chicken cages.
I pulled the doors open on each of the cages. The mama hens scrambled out and their chicks followed close behind. I ran back inside the house for breakfast, thinking how pleased the couple would be with my early morning help.
After breakfast, I followed them out for chores, but when we got to the chicken cages, I stared in horror. All of the baby chickens were scattered around the cold grass. Dead! I looked up at my new father’s face. It had turned a dull red. “You opened the cages, didn’t you, boy?”
When I nodded he told me that the chicks weren’t supposed to be out until the sun had dried the dew. Later in the day, he didn’t speak as we buried the chicks. Four days later, a woman was standing at the front door, to take me to my third new home. This time I didn’t protest. In fact, I didn’t say anything as I climbed into the car. And I didn’t look back. As the car bounced over deep ruts, I made plans to run away.
Around noon we drove into a small town. I could see a grocery store, a dry goods store and a red-and-white striped barber pole. I began counting the neat white houses that lined the street, beginning just beyond the barbershop. After passing six houses, the car swung into the drive of a white house circled by a large porch.
A tall, dark-haired man dressed in overalls, followed by a small, plump woman in a blue dress and red-flowered apron, came out on the porch. As I approached them the man extended his hand, then shook mine in a firm grip. “We’re the Naillings son, and we’re glad you’re going to live here with us.” “Not for long,” I thought bitterly. That evening, I sat scrunched up in my chair as we ate supper. after failing in their few attempts to draw me into conversation, the couple stopped trying and we finished our meal in silence.
Later, lying in the soft depths of the feather bed, I wanted so badly to cry: for my lost pink envelope with Papa’s writing on it, for my failure to keep my two brothers with me, and for the poor dead chickens. But my rage at the circumstances that had brought me to this point wouldn’t let me. Dry-eyed, I waited for first light, so I could run away.
The next thing I knew, the man was shaking me. I was disappointed to see the sparkling morning sun lighting up the patchwork quilt on my bed. I’d overslept! Now I’d have to wait another day to run away. I pulled on my clothes and walked into the warm kitchen.
Mr. and Mrs. Nailling were already at the table. I slid into my seat and reached for a steaming biscuit. But Mrs. Nailling stopped me. “Not until we’ve said grace,” she explained. I watched as they bowed their heads. Mrs. Nailling began speaking softly to “our Father,” thanking Him for the food and the beautiful day. I knew enough about God to know that the woman’s “our Father” was the same one who was in the “our Father who art in heaven” prayer that visiting preachers had recited over us at the orphanage. But I couldn’t understand why she was talking to Him as though He were sitting here with us waiting for His share of the biscuits. I began to squirm in my chair.
Then Mrs. Nailling thanked God “for the privilege of raising a son.” I stared as she began to smile. She was calling me a privilege. And Mr. Nailling must have agreed with her, because he was beginning to smile too. For the first time since I’d boarded the train I began to relax. A strange, warm feeling began to fill my aloneness and I looked at the empty chair next to me. Maybe, in some mysterious way, “our Father” was seated there, and was listening to the next softly spoken words. “Help us make the right choices as we guide him, and help him make the right choices too.”
“Dig in, son.” The man’s voice startled me. I hadn’t even noticed the “amen.” My mind had stopped at the “choices” part. As I heaped my plate I thought about that. Hate and anger and running away had seemed to be my only choices, but maybe there were others. This Mr. Nailling didn’t seem so bad and this thing about having an “our Father” to talk to shook-me up a little. I ate in silence.
After breakfast, as they walked me to the barbershop for a haircut, we stopped at each of the six houses on the way. Each time, the Naillings introduced me as “our new son.” As we left the last house I knew that at first light the next day I would not be running away. There was a homeyness here that I’d never known before. At least I could choose to give it a try.
And there was something else. Although I didn’t know where Papa was, or how I could write to him, I had the strong feeling that I had found not one but two new fathers, and I could talk to both of them. And that’s the way it turned out.
by Lee Nailling, Atlanta, Texas
Guideposts, March 1991
Note: Lee Nailling passed away in 2001.
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