“They Didn’t Laugh,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 22–23
I’ll admit it. Junkyards have fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I’ll bet plenty of you remember kicking through trash heaps in your younger years, hoping to find treasures someone had tossed out. But my rummaging all those years never yielded much of a prize until one day, at the age of thirty-seven, I finally did find a treasure in a pile of junk.
I was working for the Union Pacific Railroad at the Pocatello, Idaho, yard. Situated on the property is a spot known as the “hole”—a dumping place for railroad garbage. My great find in this heap of rubble came two days before Thanksgiving. It was “Idaho cold” that day, and the snow seemed to be coming down horizontally instead of vertically. As I drove my rig past the junk, my eyes scanned the peaks, crevices, and cliffs as usual. There, huddled around what was struggling to be a fire, was an old man.
From a distance, he looked even more deteriorated than the mounds of debris surrounding him. Call it curiosity, or maybe compassion, but I just had to go over there. Never again will I whimper about the poor conditions I have experienced or have yet to experience. This man had no hat, a sheet-thin jacket, worn-out shoes, and gloves that left his fingers bare at the knuckles.
The fire was almost solid smoke, created by the smelly creosote-soaked piece of railroad tie he was trying to burn. It succeeded only in melting the frozen ground around it into a circle of mud. Crowning the fire was a rusty old frying pan he had dug out of the dump.
In it sizzled a small portion of pork fat—scraps from the local slaughterhouse. His drink simmered in a blackened tin can.
I didn’t even need to ask the question, “Is there anything I can do?” The answer was obvious. I thought of the hearty lunch my wife, Sally, had packed for me. I handed him my leftover sandwich and saw the appreciation light his face as he accepted the other half of the meal I had unappreciatively devoured earlier. Then I left.
Now, I have walked away from many junkyards, but this one seemed to say, “Come back. Just a sandwich? You can do better than that.”
I wheeled my rig into the rail yard amid all the activity and told my burly co-workers about our winter tenant. Rail vagrants are common in the area, and the workers usually just laugh at them, but there was no laughter this time when I described the man’s condition. The freezing Idaho weather brought out the compassion in these rough men. One fellow whom I had considered callous and uncaring began removing his expensive gloves. Another produced from somewhere a fifty-dollar pair of insulated coveralls. An extra pair of snowmobile boots came out of someone’s locker. An untouched lunch and forty dollars in cash were piled in my hands.
These rough-talking men were willingly, generously, genuinely concerned about a man I had only described. I mentally asked for forgiveness for some of the long-standing silent judgments I had made about them.
I looked at the forty dollars in my hand and then at my supervisor’s office door. How I got up the nerve, I’ll never know, but I went in and asked him if I could leave work to give that old man our gifts. Wouldn’t you know it, the supervisor’s boss was there. But I asked anyway, and, to my surprise, they both said, “Go ahead, Dean.”
So I left and bought a sleeping bag and some groceries for the old man. When I returned and gave him the gifts, I saw that junkyard camper in a different light. He was no longer a vagrant but a friend—a child of God. As he pulled on the snowmobile boots, he told me his name and said this was the best he had felt in months. Apparently having lost count of the days, he looked at me and asked a question we all should ask more often: “It’s about Thanksgiving, isn’t it?”