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Those Fewclothes Boys

those fewclothes boysThe first time that I heard the term Fewclothes Boys was in the Little Rock, Arkansas train station. We had taken our annual vacation trip from Kansas City south through Missouri to Arkansas. Arriving just after dark at my Uncle Frank’s house, we were told that he and my uncles Lynn and Tom were at work and would not be home until after midnight. Dad decided that he and I would go down to the Rock Island yards and surprise them.

Train yards are, by their very nature, places of mystery to a boy. All that steel stretching off into the distance. All of those box cars with exotic markings. Steam curling around and under the boxcars. Men with strange cans. Cans with long pointed spouts, looking like nothing if not black birds of prey, being carried by silent men in overalls moving in and around the cars as if tending to some strange herd of primordial beasts. At least that is the way it seemed to a six year old lad on a cold October night.

I stayed very close to my Dad as we walked into the station and then down to the level where he thought his brothers might be. My uncles comprised a wrecking crew for the Rock Island Line. When a train managed to get off the rails, it was my uncles’ job to literally put it back on track. This particular evening they were in the station and it was just a matter of finding them. Because of the nature of their job, we knew they would be together.

The first person we approached was an elderly black man. He was walking slowly toward us with his head down. He appeared deep in thought, so much so that when my father spoke to him, he appeared startled.

“Excuse me. Can you tell me where I could find Frank or Lynn Garner?” Dad asked. I watched as the man gazed thoughtfully at my dad before he replied.

“Yes sir. They be down track nine. You can’t miss ‘em if you go down there.” He pointed in the direction we were to take.

“Thank you.” My father responded. “Come on son.”    As we turned to go, the old man spoke. “Excuse me, sir. Can I ask you a question?”

“What is it you want to know?”

“Are you one of them fewcloths boys?”

Dad smiled and glancing down at me he replied “Why yes I am.”

The old man smiled back and asked “Which one is you?”

“I’m Mr. Dave Garner”

“Lawd have mercy” said the old man shaking his head and turning to go, “How many of you fewcloths boys is there?”

Dad smiled and did not reply. I looked up to him as we walked away and saw that the smile had turned into a sort of wistful expression. I was curious.

“Dad, why did that man call you fewcloths?”

“Because when we were kids, we didn’t have many cloths so we wore hand me downs and made do with what we had. I guess they thought it was funny.”

By now we were approaching the part of the yard where my uncles were working. My father quickened his pace and not another word was said.

I have often thought about that night and my father’s words and how he looked. What must it have been like growing up dirt poor and white in rural Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century? I will never know the answer to that question. I do, however, know the man who grew from that experience and I am proud to be the son of a fewcloths boy.