Patty Somlo, 9/17/2012
Jim Brown was no hero, as some folks claimed. He simply ran out of options. Jim also liked to say, “I just started walking.”
And then he made up a sign.
MAN OUT OF WORK, the first line of the sign read. HEADED FOR WASHINGTON, the next line read. TO TELL THE POLITICIANS WHAT’S HAPPENING, the final line read, the letters getting smaller so they’d fit.
Jim carried an olive green pack on his back. Tied to the bottom was a royal blue nylon sleeping bag and a small light tent. He’d quit camping years ago but he hadn’t stopped fishing.
His wife June had taken the kids, Emily and Eric, when she’d left Jim the previous year. He’d considered stopping by for the last time but he didn’t like the kids thinking of their dad as a bum.
The night before, he’d rolled and stuffed his things into the nylon pack three different times and hefted the pack onto his shoulders, to make sure he could manage the weight. It was impossible to know what the pack, sleeping bag and tent would feel like after hours of walking, or his feet in the boots he’d worn for work. But as he liked to say to people he met along the road, a man sometimes has to head off into the unknown when life’s not treating him right.
Oh, Jim Brown had gone round and round about his plan. It wasn’t some crazy scheme he’d dreamed up overnight. Months out of work stretched into a year. A year practically turned into another. He’d snagged an odd job here and there but barely enough to make the rent on a one-room apartment. Then the unemployment ran out. That’s when even the rent got to be too much.
Jim asked June to hold onto his tools until he got back. He didn’t tell her his plan but left it at, “Gotta leave town to look for work.” It had all come crashing down so fast, some days Jim thought this had to be a bad dream he’d wake up from and see his old life come back. Why, it hadn’t been so long ago that he could barely keep up with the jobs. A finish carpenter, a skilled craftsman, Jim Brown was needed by builders all over the county and in the two counties east and west. Houses and condos were popping up but not fast enough for the demand. Jim went from eight-hour days to ten and then twelve, seven days a week, and June said it was too much. She wanted a husband and the kids needed a dad who was around some.
The week Jim got down to his last fifty dollars, he decided something had to give. If nothing else, a man needed to move around. In truth, he would rather have gone fishing. There was nothing in the world he liked more. It wasn’t catching fish that he most enjoyed, though June’s breaded, pan-fried rainbow trout was about the best-tasting thing in the world. No. Jim Brown liked sitting by a stream, staring at the water.
He didn’t need beer or company or anything to make a day of fishing worthwhile. The peacefulness drew Jim to the woods every time.
And that’s what he felt had been taken from him. The chance to sit, once in a while, on a nylon folding chair, leaving the world and its hammering, grinding, sawing noise behind, and listen to absolutely nothing at all.
Jim Brown walked along two-lane highways, as he knew the interstates would be dangerous and he wasn’t even sure it was allowed. He’d made two holes on either side of his sign, threaded a thin rope through and tied the rope in back. There he was, a man of forty-five, walking along the shoulder of the road, and on his back he carried a sleeping bag, tent, and a sign. Once in a while, a passing car honked. Occasionally, someone would yell out the window, “Good luck.”
Mostly, he avoided cities. He liked stopping in small towns. After the first two weeks, there had been too many to recall. People wanted to know what he was up to, with all that gear and the sign.
A little past midway across the country, in a town at the edge of the Navajo reservation, an old Indian man stared at Jim, from a bench where he sat doing nothing at all.
“Mornin’,” Jim said, though given the heat of the sun, he thought it just might be afternoon.
The Indian, whose stiff, straight gray hair fell past his shoulders, a good distance down his back, nodded. The Indian watched him a minute more and began to clean his teeth with the sharp pointed nail of his index finger. While he watched, Jim lifted the pack, sleeping bag and tent off his shoulders and set them on the wooden porch in front of the store, then began rolling his shoulders up and back and sighing.
“Looks like you gotta load there,” the Indian said, in between jabs at his top front teeth with the fingernail.
“Sure do,” Jim said.
He leaned the sign against the front of the store and the Indian read it.
“That true?” the Indian asked, nodding his head ever so slightly in the sign’s direction.
“That true, you’re headin’ all the way to Washington?”
“Yup,” Jim said and gave his shoulders another two rolls. “If I make it, that is.”
“Where’d you start?”
“California. Near San Diego.”
The Indian let out a long sigh and nodded his head. At the same moment, Warren Wright who owned the store stepped outside for a smoke.
“Hey, Warren. You hear what this guy’s doin’?” the Indian asked.
A tall, broad man with a belly that overshadowed his waist, Warren looked at Jim and then moved his attention over to the pack and the sign.
“Looks to me like he’s doing some camping.”
“Read that sign, Warren. This guy’s going to Washington.”
In between puffing on his cigarette, Warren read what Jim had scrawled on that white piece of board.
“You’re not walking, are you?” Warren said, turning back to look at Jim.
“I am,” Jim said and smiled.
Warren Wright invited Jim to have dinner with him and his wife. He told his friend, Earl Mathers, who edited the town paper, the Canyon Herald. Earl stopped by just as they were finishing Eva Wright’s splendid apple pie.
Earl’s story about Jim got picked up by the Journal in Albuquerque. From there, the news went out over the wires.
A crew from CNN figured the best place to find Jim would be headed west toward Albuquerque, on Route 66. The following afternoon, they spotted a man walking along the shoulder, a white sign hanging on his back.
From that point on, people tuned in to catch up on Jim’s progress. All across the country, they watched. Shots of Jim Brown walking with his sign along a highway repeated throughout the day and night. Lights hooked to a map of the United States blinked on and off to show Jim’s location and progress. Along the route, crowds of people gathered, many of whom were unemployed, and they cheered Jim on as he walked. The attention made Jim blush.
It started with a guy named Dwayne, somewhere in Oklahoma. Jim turned around when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Mind if I join you?” the young man asked.
Jim stopped to consider the question. The guy was probably half his age. Jim noticed that he had a pack on his back and was wearing army-issue fatigues.
“It’s a free country, I suppose,” Jim said. “You sure you wanta’ do this?”
“’Course I’m sure,” the young man said. He had the bluest eyes Jim had ever seen. His head was freshly shaved. Jim felt certain he’d end up with a fierce sunburn.
“You in the army?”
“Was. Two tours in hell.”
“Guess the heat won’t bother you then,” Jim said.
“Nuthin’ bothers me. I’m Dwayne Ritter by the way.”
Dwayne reached his hand out. Before Jim responded, Dwayne said, “Everybody in the world knows your name.”
The line of men along the highway grew, as Jim Brown headed north. By the time he landed in the Carolinas, the group had mushroomed to around fifty. Naturally, they voted to make Jim the spokesperson. Each night when they stopped to camp, he addressed the press.
The men made dinner from food donated by local churches. One of the guys who’d joined them in Arkansas had brought along a guitar. After they finished eating, he played and sang a string of country songs. Jim didn’t know the words, but he hummed along.
By the time Jim and the group reached West Virginia, reporters from all the major networks and even other parts of the world had joined them. Jim especially liked one young Japanese reporter, a pretty, thin thing Jim couldn’t believe was old enough to work. She called him Meester Brown, and hung on his every word. She also asked the one question none of the other reporters had yet dare raise.
“Why do you think, Meester Brown, that businesses are earning such high profit but you and many other people cannot get work?”
Jim pulled on the beard he’d let grow since setting out from San Diego. This had been a puzzle to him. There’d only been one thing that made any sense.
“They’d rather keep all the money for themselves,” he said.
“Do you think, Meester Brown, that what you are doing is going to make a difference?”
During all these days, since hatching the plan, this had been the question Jim Brown wouldn’t let himself consider.
Jim looked at the young reporter, her sweet face gazing up at him. He noticed that her skin looked perfect, not marred by a single blemish, as it must have been the day she was born. Jim suddenly wondered. If he were the reporter’s age, would he have fallen in love with her?
“Yes, it will,” Jim said. He’d hardly gotten the words out of his mouth when he turned away.
It’s true that there had been times in his marriage when Jim hadn’t told June the complete and absolute truth. But he’d never allowed himself to tell June a boldfaced lie, at the same moment that he was looking her squarely in the eye.