Walkin’ Joe and the Midnight Marauders   6 comments

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Walkin’ Joe and the Midnight Marauders 
By Dennis R. Waller

Page 241:  “Joseph Smith.  Born in Buffalo, Wisc. on Sept. 9, 1901.  Died in Cherokee, Ia. on Dec. 21, 1970.  Occupation, retired farmhand.  Relatives (living or dead), none known.  Activities, organizations, military service?  All blanks.  The newspaper obituary fact sheet is pretty bare for Joseph Smith, who is being put to rest today, Thursday, Dec. 24, after services at McCullough’s Funeral Chapel at 1: 30 p.m.

“To many of Algona residents over 25, Joseph Smith was a colorful character known as ‘Walkin’ Joe’.  Many people can tell a tale or two about this big man who walked the streets of Algona for some 30 years.  That Joe could ‘work like any two men’ is an often-heard remark.  Some farmers in the area can vouch for his strength, endurance and appetite by first hand experience.

“But the black and white facts that should fill in a normal obituary form are missing from Joseph Smith’s 69-year term on earth.  According to that cold sheet of paper the only things that ever really happened to Walkin’ Joe were his birth and death.

“He was mysterious as he was colorful, but not by his own choice.  He talked to very few people and when he did he said very little.

“He’d spend his hours walking and resting at various locations near downtown when he couldn’t get work as a farmhand.  For the past few years, he spent a lot of his time dreaming and napping on a bench in front of the courthouse.

“Residents  in Algona during World War II recall that Joe used to work with the crews of German prisoners-of-war around town.  He evidently was of German descent and could speak a little of his native language.

“Working with the POW’s led to nicknames like ‘Dutch’ or ‘Kraut’ and were yelled at him for years after the War by local youth.  The tradition of teasing this grumbling, big man (6’2′ and 260 lbs. in his prime, he told one man) was passed from kid to kid by the bicycle generation.  Tormenting taunts led to rock throwing and even shooting with BB guns by youths with an ignorant impression of how to have a good time.  He became a real source of amusement because he would chase his tormentors.

“It must have been out of fear and wonder that young boys bothered this mysterious, powerful man, who only wanted to be left alone.”

Page 243:  “He was taken to Cherokee, where he died.  Leo Cassel last visited him six months ago in Cherokee.  He was confused and having some leg trouble, but seemed happy.

“Exactly where Joe came from and what he did for his estimated 69 years is unclear.  By talking to those who knew him casually, you can pick up tiny pieces of what seems to be a sad giant puzzle.

“He must have gone through life with only the clothes on his back.  When his body was shipped here from Cherokee, his personal property included work clothes, underwear and shoes.  No papers, pictures, identification or mementos.

“Holidays probably didn’t mean much to him, since he didn’t have a family with which to spend them, but he’ll be buried at Riverview Cemetery on Christmas Eve.  I’ll be there, because I owe him for some rocks and name-calling.

“In the years I knew of him, I never once saw a grin on that weathered old face.  I would hope he’d smile if he knew how sad his blank obituary form makes me.”

Page 245:  “So that’s the end of ol’ Joe, right?” he asked.  “Guess you have some interesting recollections, now don’t you?”  He showed a sly smile.  “I know you do for sure, Skag.  Probably all of you.  Wish I’d known about your story, Mr. Waller.  There was something about Joe’s background that you didn’t mention.  He was on one of those orphan trains as a kid.  I was never able to find out anything more on that.  He always clammed up.”

Larry recalled the time guys were bellied up at the bar, talking about the old days, when passenger trains were a new big thing.  “Heck, we’d take Marykay and Judy down to the depot just to see the big locomotive come chugging in.  Kids screamed at the big, loud monster coming right at us, but they loved it.

“Anyhow, Joe came walking up to the bar for his glass of beer and he’d been listening.  Never did that before.  He stood back, but I could tell he was interested.  When the topic changed and I turned to leave, Joe tugged at my sleeve—something he’d never done.  He was a man of few words, but that day he said, very plainly—with his German accent—‘I come on orphan train.  Mean Wisconsin farmer.  No pay.'”  Larry said he had tried to ask Joe a few questions but Joe had said all he cared to and the subject never came up again.  “My assumption is that some Wisconsin farmer needed a hired man, but Joe wasn’t yet big and strong enough to do the work, so got bounced and either was on an orphan train or simply hopped freights.  Eventually landed in Algona.  But hey, I really don’t know.”

Page 268:  Even now, many years later and at unexpected times, my mind often travels back to the bittersweet memories of our childhood days seeking adventure.  They always trail off to the snowy vision upon leaving the pauper’s gravesite on the Christmas Eve of 1970.

We drove away from the chill at Riverview Cemetery and returned to the snug security of our families, warm homes, hot meals and the fruits of love and labor.  But if I think back upon my life, the earliest regrets are there.  They’re in the deep part of my conscience, where I am unable to wish away poor decisions of my youth.

And it is there, in the recesses, where Walkin’ Joe trods silently.

Walkin’ Joe website
A Man’s Foes Shall Be They Of His Own Household
A Conversation with a Vietnam Veteran
The Jerry Shey Family
Algona Upper Des Moines Newspaper

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6 responses to “Walkin’ Joe and the Midnight Marauders

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  1. Pingback: The Short, Short Hitchhiker | The Road

  2. That is so sad and so true for many, many of our homeless people who are often mistreated, today’s mistreatments are much worse than yesteryears unfortunately. It is beautifully written as well, thank you for sharing that Tim:) God bless and protect you always.

    • Sharon: I really liked the ending of WALKIN’ JOE; it reminded me of the end of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”:

      “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

      “The Dead” by James Joyce
      http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/

  3. Pingback: A Man’s Foes Shall Be They Of His Own Household | The Road

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