The winter of 1948 was very difficult for our family of eight living in Knoxville, Tennessee. We moved from the mountains to the city so Dad could work in a plant. Unfortunately, Dad became ill and was soon out of a job, and our mother took in laundry to help out. We survived because of one man’s kind action.
I was only 8 years old and my younger brother Buddy Earl was 7, but I remember that winter as if it was yesterday. After school it was our responsibility to gather coal that fell from the coal cars along the railroad tracks near our home. When the train slowed down for the crossing, we ran alongside the engine waving at the engineer and fireman. After the train passed, we gathered up the fallen coal.
One day, there was a wreck at the crossing and the train was stopped for a short time. My brother and I were digging around in the snow when the fireman came to the window of the engine cab and shouted to us:
“Why are you boys digging in the snow? Are you looking for gold?” He laughed.
“No, sir,” I replied, blowing on my hands to warm them up. “We are finding coal.”
“Why doesn’t your daddy buy coal so you can stay away from the trains that pass through here? It’s mighty dangerous for two little kids to be running these tracks.”
“Our daddy is awful sick and we ain’t got any money to buy food, much less coal,” I answered.
The train’s fireman turned and stepped into the cab, and my brother and I began searching for coal again.
“Hey!” a voice sounded behind us. “You little fellows bring that coal bucket over here; I got something for you.”
The fireman took the bucket from us and filled it with clean coal. We were delighted with his gift, and we knew we’d be able to go home early that day. “Thank you! What’s your name so I can remember you in my prayers tonight?” I asked.
He smiled the kindest and warmest smile I had ever seen. “Just call me Buck; the Lord will know who you are talking about. Now you two boys stay back from the train when it comes through day after tomorrow and I’ll throw off a scoop of coal.”
With me on one side and my brother on the other, we carried the bucket back to the house. Everyone was surprised at the full bucket of clean coal.
“Where did you boys get all this coal with no cinders or clinkers in it?” Mama asked, putting a few lumps in the fireplace.
“Our guardian angel gave it to us,” I answered, winking at my brother.
[pullquote] He smiled the kindest and warmest smile I had ever seen. [/pullquote]
“And the day after tomorrow, if we are lucky, we might see the angel again.”
“Does that guardian angel have a name, by any chance?” Mama questioned.
“Just Buck,” I replied quickly. “He is a guardian angel for us and the train’s steam engine.”
Mama let the subject drop and went back to her work.
Two days later, Buddy and I stood back away from the tracks as the train slowed down at the crossing. The fireman waved to us, then disappeared. Suddenly, out from the engineer’s cab came a large scoop of coal and a piece of red cloth.
“It looks like he lost his neck bandanna,” I said, running down and picking up the red cloth. “Wait, there’s something tied up in it.”
“Well, just look at that,” Buddy said. “Two pieces of bubble gum and a new one-dollar bill. That angel must be rich.”
All that winter, three days a week, we received a bucket of coal, a treat and, sometimes, money. I never knew the person’s full name, but to our family and to my brother and me, he wasn’t just a guardian angel. He was an angel of mercy.