There’s an old street legend about the man who used to greet people when they got out of jail.
“Whenever anyone got out and they didn’t have a place to go,” street folks would say, “We’d send them to the woods just beyond Old Mill Park.”
There they would find the station master.
A gruff looking homeless man, blonde hair and blue eyes, would always be there. He’d show them how to find a sleeping bag and set up their tent. He’d lend his knowledge of living on the street for 26 years. If they were hungry, he’d offer his food stamp card and show them to the next community meal. If they were cold, he’d give up his own blankets. He’d help them survive until they could find their way to better circumstances. He’d send them on their way with a token, “God bless.” And then he’d move on to the next one in need of his help.
He liked his drink and never went without a smoke. A public intoxication, aggressive solicitation or trespassing was known to land him in jail a time or two. But if homeless people had a caretaker, he was it.
Some people say it was Vietnam that messed up his mind. Around the camp fire some nights he would tell stories of the horrible things he witnessed: women, children mixed with guerilla warfare, always ending with a painful set of tears. He returned from war, married a few times and fathered a child, but something was never right. He lost touch with his family during a long prison sentence and settled into homelessness shortly after his release. At times he went to rehab, worked a job and lived indoors. But something always happened to sabatoge his efforts. Time and again, he returned to his forest abode.
For more than two decades the stationmaster looked after the street-walkers and tent dwellers of this community. He did so long after his health began to fail. He lost control of his bowels, started having difficulty walking. And even when he could do nothing but crawl out of the woods, he was doing so with the intent of helping others.
I watched this grandfather figure decline as my own “pop-pop” was entering his final days. My grandpa—the World War II veteran, the FBI agent, the teacher, the counselor, the reason people stop me all the time to share how his care for them changed their lives. Despite many differences, both he and stationmaster made an impact on the world. One changed the lives of community leaders. The other transformed the struggles of those who had trouble leading themselves. Regardless, their walk to heaven’s gate is a humbling story to tell.
While my father toted grandpa to doctor’s appointments and struggled with his lack of mobility, Fredericksburg’s homeless were acquiring a wheel chair from a local service agency to push their friend around town. They sat in Moss Clinic with him, stayed up with him at night, and tended his basic needs, as our family placed our loved one in a nursing home. As he began to settle into eternal sleep, we kept vigil around his hospital bed and decided as a family to remove life-sustaining treatment. In the stationmaster’s hospital room, a guardian appointed by the courts sat with his friends as the ventilator was removed and the wait began.
By the next morning, the stationmaster had died.
By the same afternoon, my grandfather had died in the same room.
I gain great peace from the image of those two crossing paths in the sight of St. Peter.
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” I hear him say as they walk together to meet the face of Jesus.