Thursday, January 10, 2019

A trip westward becomes a defining experience for young John Wagoner

The muted glow from the cloud-covered moon cast only the faintest light in the deep, tangled Idaho forest. The year was 1908, and John Ernest Wagoner was wet, alone and lost. Only 17, he had recently graduated from high school in Carroll County, Indiana. He had never been away from home, but when brother George, 11 years John’s elder, told him about a job prospect in a logging camp out west, John succumbed to the lure of opportunity and adventure.

John E. Wagoner, date unknown
Now, standing in the dense woods, John regretted his decision. He tried to fight back the lump in his throat and the hot tears that coursed down his cheeks and mixed with the rain. Never had he been so scared or lonely. George had written directions about which trains to take and where to get off, but they ended with the words, “Go up the trail about three miles and you’ll come to the camp. Ask for me there.” Indiana had stations for its trains, and John had not considered that the final stop might be just a platform in the woods, nor that he would arrive well after sundown.

He should have asked more questions of the other passengers. They would have known which direction he should take to reach the camp. Perhaps some of them were even bound there themselves. But now it was too late. The half dozen or so riders who exited with him at the final stop had marched off in different directions, disappearing in the darkness, as did the train.

Only one thing seemed certain: He had to take a chance and pick the most likely direction, because he didn’t want to spend the night exposed to the dangers of the dark, moist forest. He noted that just beyond the platform, train rails branched off from the main line, and guessing that this spur track might lead to a logging operation, he set off, stumbling occasionally over the rough ties. The gap between the trees seemed to narrow menacingly, as if the trees were moving closer, ready to swallow him as he plodded forward. The blanket roll on his shoulders grew heavier, saturated by the persistent rain.

John plunged onwards, buoyed by the thought that no one would build a train track to nowhere, but it seemed to him that he had covered far more than three miles. Could this be an abandoned line?

John as a young man.
And then he saw it, a faint light in the woods. As he plunged into the woods away from the track, he realized with disappointment that it came not from a camp with barracks but from a single tiny shack. Still, it was a house and a light, which promised people, comfort, information—vast improvements over his prospects only a few minutes before. He knocked on the door, and the light quickly vanished. He heard scuffling noises from inside, and then silence. He knocked again and called out, pleading for help while trying—with only partial success—to keep his voice from shaking.

Finally, a gruff voice answered, “Who are you and what do you want?” A man inside opened the door a crack and lit a lantern. “Why, you’re just a boy.” Shivering, John stammered out his plight, and the man invited him in to warm up.

“You’ve not far to go,” the man explained, offering John a seat and a sip of reheated coffee. “You’ve taken the right track, and the loggers are just up a little farther. Let me get my boots on and I’ll take a lantern to light your way back to the tracks.”

The man from the shack accompanied John back to the tracks and even walked with him until they could see welcoming beams of light emanating from the logging camp. John, relieved beyond measure and with his composure and courage renewed, thanked the kind stranger profusely.

“I’m sorry I called you a boy,” the man said. “I can see now that you’re actually a man.”

“It’s quite all right,” John answered. “You may have been correct—both then and now.”

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Teacher and principal
Author’s note: This story is based on accounts from my mom and grandmother, with some descriptive details added from my imagination. I grew up in Rosedale, Washington, next door to my grandfather, John Wagoner (1881-1962). He worked in the logging camp for only one winter before he and George moved to Chewelah. They went to college in Spokane, took a state examination and became teachers in 1910. John taught in Washington state for the rest of his working life, often doing double duty as teacher and principal. He had a profound influence on my life.

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