The dawn is greeted by the lonesome sound of a train whistle slowly, methodically growing louder as it approaches the crossings on the out skirts of town. The earth would shake as the train rumbled along the western rail line that passed just yards from my boyhood home. Cars bulging with their loads of coal would stretch for miles along the line on their journey to feed the hungry steel mills just on the south end of town.
Just across the track, down a narrow path through a thicket was a train yard and round house. This is where engines and cars were hooked up and staged for their return trips to the mines back east. The yard was always busy with the sound of workers and machinists tending to the big diesel engines. There were many who lived nearby in the village and traveled the path through the thicket on their way to the yard. The thicket was a playground for my friends and I and we came to recognize many of the workers who passed through there. One such worker passed through everyday on his way to the yard who we called old Moses. Old Moses was a quiet man who kept to himself in a small house just down the road. He was very tall and had a long white beard. He wore an old faded pair of overalls and on his head sat the blue and white striped hat of an engineer. Each day he would leave his house carrying an empty burlap sack and a small tin pail covered with a pale yellow towel. On cold mornings, you could see steam rising from the pail. In the evening, he would return with the empty pail and the towel folded up neatly and tucked inside and the burlap bag which was filled with bits of coal slung over his shoulder. As he would pass, he would look at me, smile, but never say a word. Some of my friends who played in the thicket were afraid of Ole Moses and would run and hide when he came by. But I had never felt that way. He had never threatened me in any way and although we never really spoke, I just knew he was a friend and would never do me any harm.
Chapter 2: Bums and Gypsies
One summer afternoon my friends and I had spent the better part of the day collecting blackberries that grew wild along the tracks when we came upon a small line shack. The brakemen used the shack as a place to get out of the rain or cold while they waited to operate the switch track when the trains would come by. The shack had a small window through which we could see an old rickety table. Inside on a bench we noticed someone sleeping. On the table, we observed Moses’ small tin pail and pale yellow towel. Careful not to disturb the person sleeping, we slowly retreated to our thicket with our cache of ripe blackberries. Near the center of the thicket was a great tree stump that we often use as our rendezvous point. There we sat and feasted on the berries and speculated about who the person was sleeping in the line shack. One boy suggested that it could have been a brakemen just trying to catch a little sleep before the next train came through. Another insisted that the person sleeping was nothing more than a bum. He went on to suggest that the bum had stolen ole Moses’ lunch pail and after eating his fill, lay down for a short nap. “Good for nothing vagrants!” another one said. “Thieves and gypsy’s who can not be trusted and should be run out of the county!” he hollered. We were having a grand time making fun and ridiculing the man when all of a sudden the conversation stopped. Looking up I noticed all of my friends wide eyed, with fearful expressions on their faces. Slowly, I turned to see ole Moses standing behind. Startled, I turned back to my friends who were now fleeing down the path out of sight. Taking a big gulp for courage I again turned to Moses. He was as we had often seen him carrying the empty pail and burlap sack. With a stern look from piercing eyes, he moved close to where I was sitting. I tried to speak but just as I was about to open my mouth; Moses, with a deep and raspy voice said, “They are not bums!” I stood paralyzed for what seemed to be an eternity. Again, I tried to speak but all I could do was stammer when he interrupted me once again. “Sit down boy I want to tell you a story.”
Chapter 3: Chester
Not so long ago in a valley green and lush, stood a great oak tree. Tall and strong were its branches which stretched from horizon to horizon. Wide and thick was its trunk and its roots drove deep into the soil holding the grand old tree firm and steady in the wind. Somewhere near the top, in a fork of the tree lived a squirrel named Chester. You see, Chester was a bit different. He had a big gap between his two front teeth. All the other squirrels made fun of Chester because of the way he looked. Often when he would try to play with the other squirrels they laughed and taunted him. They called him names and never included him in their playtime. Since Chester had such a big gap in his front teeth, he had a huge problem cracking the hard outer shells of the acorns he needed for his food. He would try and try to bite threw that hard shell but most of the time he would end up with an acorn stuck right between his two front teeth. Nevertheless, he would gather up acorns just like the other squirrels and take them to his fork in the tree. There in the privacy of the big oak, no one could see him and make fun of him as he tried to crack open the shells. Sometimes, Chester would have to sneak down the big tree at night and forage the valley floor for bits and pieces of nuts that the other squirrels left behind. Other times he would have to hunt for berries to eat, as they were easier to chew. Nevertheless, he would always gather the acorns and hide them in his tree even if they were doing him no good. There were many times when Chester just could not find enough to eat foraging on the valley floor. He would search and search but on many days, go back to his tree hungry. There was one other thing about Chester, because of the gap in his two front teeth; Chester could whistle. When he was sad or hungry, the only thing that made him feel better was to whistle. Late at night, he would scamper up to the tallest branch of the great tree and there he would whistle a tune sad and sweet. So beautiful were the notes that filtered to the valley floor that all the other creatures of the valley thought that the sounds came from angels singing. No ever realized that it was Chester way up in the top of that tree, sad and hungry pouring out his soul with every note. Each evening Chester serenaded the creatures of the valley with his beautiful tunes. Whistling a lullaby to the entire valley, providing comfort to each as they heard the music. The creatures believed it was an angel standing guard over them, steadfastly watching and protecting them and their valley.
Chapter 4: The Angel and the Chipmunk
Early one evening, while Chester was foraging the valley floor, a small pair of eyes watched from inside a hollow log. Chester was trying as hard as he could once again to crack open a ripe acorn but as before he could not. Discouraged and disappointed, Chester slowly started back to his tree when his ears heard a strange sound. It sounded like a nut shell cracking. When he turned to look where the sound came from, there he saw laying on the valley floor that very nut he was trying to crack. It was open and bursting with the tender fruit inside. How could this be? He wondered. He didn’t see anyone around. Nevertheless, he was hungry so he feasted on the now exposed banquet. Just then, he heard the sound again and there was another one! Again the sound - and again another! But who was doing this? Each time he would hear the cracking sound and go to investigate, he found the cracked nuts but no one there. Soon, Chester had eaten so many nuts that his belly was dragging the valley floor. Satisfied, he slowly made his way back toward the great tree all the while he was wondering who was opening up these shells and leaving the fruit for him to find. Just as he reached the tree, he heard a small squeaky sound. He turned suddenly to see a very tiny chipmunk running away. “Wait!” called Chester, but the chipmunk did not stop.” Are you the one who is helping me?” Chester waited for a reply but all he heard was silence. The chipmunk had vanished into the night. So, Chester climbed back to his fork in the tree and there with a full belly he fell fast asleep.
Early the next morning Chester noticed an unusual amount of chattering coming from the valley floor. Slowly he made his way down far enough to hear some of the valley creatures who were gathered at the base of the great tree for what seemed like some kind of meeting. As he listened, he heard some of the creatures asking why the angel had not sang last night. Some were saying this must be an omen of terrible things to come. Perhaps we have offended the angel and it has moved away to another valley, one creature offered. What are we going to do? They queried. At first, Chester was confused. “Who are they talking about” he wondered. “I have never heard of an angel in the valley before.” Then it dawned on him. The angel they were talking about, the one that comforts them every evening, was him! Last night he was not hungry or sad and so he did not go to the top of the tree and whistle. “They all think I am the angel of the valley. All of those who made fun of me and called me names, if they only knew. Oh, what fun I could have.” He thought long and hard about what he had heard. He wanted to tell them all he was the source of the music. But, he knew they probably would not believe him. They would again make fun and laugh at him. Still it made him proud to know that by his simple tune he was providing comfort and piece to all in the valley, even if they did not realize it. Just then, he heard that sound again - the same sound of a cracking shell that he’d heard the night before. However, this time it came from right above him in the tree. Slowly he crawled up the tree to the branch above and there on the branch sat a cracked acorn and next to it was a small chipmunk. “You!” he said, “were you the one last night?” The chipmunk just nodded his head, shyly. “Why didn’t you stop when I called to you?” The chipmunk said nothing. Chester moved closer to the shy little chipmunk but he just backed away. “Don’t go. Please stay” Chester pleaded. The chipmunk shook his head and started to turn. “Wait! Why won’t you stay and talk to me? Why are you doing this?” With that, the chipmunk stopped and turned and with a tiny voice, he said, “to thank the angel.” With that, he turned and vanished down the tree out of site. Chester tried to follow to see where he had gone but the little chipmunk was just too fast for Chester. All that day Chester stood and watched the valley floor desperately searching for any sign of his little friend. The day passed and soon evening had come and still there was no sign of his quiet, shy friend. As evening fell, Chester slowly made his way to the top of the big tree and began to whistle. This time not because he was hungry but because he was sad. As the beautiful tones found there way to the valley floor, once again the valley creatures were comforted. Chester’s music had a purpose. It did not matter to him if the others knew that he was their angel of the valley. The little chipmunk had known all along that Chester was the source of the music. The little chipmunk understood how it felt when others look upon you as being different, and how some will think you are not worth anything. You see, the little chipmunk was not only very small for a chipmunk but he was very shy and timid. “A coward” all the other creatures called him. Discouraged and shunned by all the valley creatures, the little chipmunk had climbed the big tree one evening hoping to seek comfort from the angle of the valley. When he had finally reached the top of the tree, he found Chester. From then on he sat in the shadows near the top of the tree to listen to the angel’s music. He loved it so much that he began to follow Chester secretly when he came down at night. It was then he realized Chester’s problem. So, in his small way and as a token of his gratitude for the wonderful music, the little chipmunk provided at least two cracked acorns as tribute to the angel of the valley and thanks for his comforting music. The little chipmunk loved sitting up in the great tree, listening to Chester. As time went on, each night Chester would whistle and afterward, he would leave at least two cracked acorns at his doorstep.
Chapter 5: The Alarm
One evening while Chester was whistling up in the tree he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Smoke was coming closer and closer to the valley. He had never seen smoke before and was curious but did not realize the danger. Then all of a sudden, flames began to shoot up. As they reached closer and closer to the valley, Chester knew they were in danger. All of the valley creatures are fast asleep. They would all be killed if something wasn’t done. Somehow they had to be warned about the approaching fire. But how? Just then, the little chipmunk ran up the tree to Chester. “Whistle!” he pleaded. “Whistle as loud as you can and do not stop until all the creatures learn of the danger!” Chester took in the deepest breath he could and let out a screeching whistle that was so loud all the creatures of the valley were awakened. As Chester sounded the alarm, the little chipmunk raced from tree to tree warning all of the impending danger. With lightning speed, he went to every burrow, every nest, and every home of every creature. The flames were coming closer. The smoke was so thick now that many could not find their way. “Run!” screamed the little chipmunk, “run away from the sound. You will be safe if you run away from the sound.” So they all ran just as fast and as far as they could, away from the sound of the angels alarm. Soon they had all reached safety down by the river and waited for the disaster to pass. By dawn the next morning, the fire had been extinguished and all the creatures returned to the valley. In the center of the valley, they found a charred stump where once the grand tree stood.
Stunned and shaken, but all safe, they gathered by the stump somberly. All were still and quiet as they reflected on events they had been through the night before. Just then, from behind the gathering, the little chipmunk emerged. Suddenly a roar erupted within the gathering. Cheers and applause broke out for the bravery of the littlest creature. “Thanks to you and the angel of the valley we were all saved.” The crowd shouted out. “Speech, speech!“ They all beckoned. The little chipmunk looked at what remained of the big tree and with a voice stronger and more powerful than they had ever heard from him before, he told them about Chester. Their angel, whom they thought was sent to watch and guard all the creatures of the valley was actually Chester! And what an angel he had turned out to be! Although he was different, he had a gift that comforted them and in the end saved the lives of all who lived in the valley. Here, in a place where once the grand old tree stood, our angel of the valley stood his post, sounding the alarm until all had reached safety. If not for Chester, many would have gotten lost in the smoke. Now the danger is past and we are all safe. All but one for I have searched and searched all night and I cannot find any sign of our angel of the valley. Nevertheless, I know that where ever he is that he will always be watching over us. “This cannot be true” the crowd insisted. “Chester? He wasn’t good for any thing and now you tell us he was our angel of the valley? Rubbish!” Just then, a small sound filtered through the noise of the gathering. “Quiet, listen! It’s coming from the river.” As the gathering followed the sound, they found Chester lying by the edge of the river gently whistling, his fur charred and covered with soot and barley alive. “It’s true!” someone said. “He is the angel of the valley.” With that, all they creatures began tending to Chester. The cleaned up his fur and all took turns helping to nurse him back to health. From that day on the valley creatures realized that a persons worth cannot be measured by appearance but rather their willingness to serve and be served. It did not matter if you were small or tall, thin or round, all have a purpose and it takes each one living together, learning from one another to make their valley a home.
Chapter 6: Heroes not Hoboes
As ole Moses finished the story, he said “You see, those men you and your friends call bums, I call travelers. Most of these men came out of a war in another land. Everyday as they served, they sacrificed a great deal for the safety of all of us. They saw things and did things that, well sometimes they just cannot forget. They have suffered fear and danger that no man could understand and yet in the midst of danger they put aside their fear and preformed their duty. Now they travel the line, searching for peace and acceptance. People ridicule these travelers for how they look or because they prefer to keep to them selves. Nevertheless, all have paid a debt to the world that we can never repay. They stood watch. They defended our freedoms; they were willing to sacrifice their lives so that you and I and your mom and dad could be safe. Each day I take some hot food to the shack on the chance that a traveler may need something to eat. When they do, they gather up bits of coal and fill this sack for me to take home and burn in my stove so that I may stay warm. You see son, we are too quick to judge a person by the way they look and neglect to see the spirit that resides inside each of us. Just as with Chester - its not a handicap or obstacle that defines a persons worth, rather their willingness and desire to serve others. The travelers that you and your friends call bums are not bums; they are heroes and should to be honored as such.”
Chapter 7: The Lesson
That day changed me in ways I may never fully understand. Today there are heroes who stand watch for us guarding against those who would destroy our green valley of freedom. They stand ready to sound the warning and if need be, sacrifice their very lives to ensure the safety and freedom of us all. Whether in the desert or on our very streets in which we live, the soldiers, firefighters, police officers, doctors and nurses, are heroes and are our first line of defense in our battle of existence. Whenever we can, we need to acknowledge them and honor them for the heroes they are.
So if ever you find yourself in a place where the valley was once green and lush, and you come upon an old abandoned shack, with an old rickety table inside, you may also find a small empty metal pail next to two cracked acorns. If you do find such a place, take time to listen very closely. You just may hear in the distance, a tune sad and sweet carried by the summer breeze from a time not so long ago.