Soldier’s Return

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Sandy Welsh was hired man on my great-uncle’s farm, just below our house—the Brick Farm House farm. But to put it this way will give you quite the wrong idea of what he was to Uncle Xiram and Uncle Niram to him. For “hired man” in Vermont, particularly in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, does not mean at all what it means in some places and in some times. Sandy was an Irish boy, lovable, steady, hard-working, competent, and my Uncle Niram was a childless farmer with a very warm heart. To him, Sandy brought to the farm a breath of youth and warm vitality, which was very comforting to an old farmer who had no children of his own. And Sandy felt for “Mr. Niram” the love a nephew might feel for his uncle. Here in the country, you see, an affection can exist like that felt in a family, even when there is no blood kinship. We think it’s rather nice to have older and younger people feel that way about each other. And when I say “rather nice,” I am using Vermont understatement.

Uncle Niram’s farm is a big one, and in his day he had, as part of the farm’s working equipment, a sawmill run by the lively brook. Here logs were sawed into boards and a plain kind of woodwork was manufactured for the inside of houses. So of course one helper could not begin to do the work needed, in the mill and on the farm. Although Uncle Niram had no children and was a widower, his working family, if you can put it that way, had six or seven people in it more or less, off and on. Sandy was at that time much the youngest one, and a favorite with all of them.

You can see that when he decided to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army, very young indeed, it was a blow to everybody. Nobody expected to see the lad come back again alive. Indeed he was wounded twice, but not severely. And he did come back.

He was mustered out at the end of the war. Somehow lie did not have to wait as long as many of the soldiers did to get through the red tape which ties up a discharge from any army. Soon after the end of the shooting, at the ending of the Civil War, his papers came through unexpectedly, in time for him to leap aboard a northbound train. But not so unexpectedly that some conscientious bureaucrat in an office didn’t know about his discharge and sent a telegram up to Uncle Niram that Alexander Welsh was coming home on such and such a day.

Hence it happened that Sandy had no idea that people on the farm knew that he was returning, or which day he was coming. As the train left New York and came north along the Hudson, he thought he was going to surprise them all. At that time, naturally, everything was mixed up in railroad schedules, and he missed connections at Albany so that it was not the afternoon express but the slow evening train which brought him up into our valley.

I’ve heard the rest of the story from Sandy, whom I knew when I was a little girl. He was then a strongly built, vigorous, elderly man. It was also a favorite story of Uncle Niram’s. So I know that as the hour drew near for the arrival of the evening train at Sunderland (the little way station north of Arlington and nearest to the farm), Uncle Nirara had the whole farm family ready in decent clothes to make a sort of celebration of meeting their returned soldier boy. They climbed into the big farm wagon and started on the two-mile slow drive over the narrow dirt road to the Sunderland station.

In the meantime Sandy was leaning from the platform of the northbound train, watching his own valley come into view. You’d belter believe there were no vestibule connections between cars in those days, and to stand on the platform meant that you were out of doors, in the home wind. The train did not rush north—trains were slower in those days, many of the locomotives in Vermont still burning wood. The dusk gathered as Sandy ga/ed with all his eyes. He used to say, “It didn’t seem possible—it didn’t seem possible !—that there I was, alive, all in one piece, coming up our own valley.”

Of course, he knew, as we all know, every line and dip of the mountains’ silhouette against the sky, every slight bend of the railway line which brought a new field into view; he knew every house, every turn in the dirt road which runs beside the railroad for much of the way.

He continued to stand out on the platform because he couldn’t bear to sit indoors where he saw less. At the Arlington station, where the train halted briefly, he saw some people he knew and eagerly waved his hand to them. They had no idea who he was—the soldier in the worn blue uniform. He had grown taller during his absence and was very thin. As the train moved on from Arlington, every tree and bush and rock was like an old lriend to him.

The train inched its way north until it approached the turn, well known to us who go back and forth over the road. We call it “the crossing.” Here a side road crosses and runs side by side with the track for a short distance. Here the engine always gives two loud whistles. Sandy was nineteen years old, reckless with much experience of danger, his heart beating fast to see Red Mountain looming up there just where it always had been. When the whistle gave its two familiar shrieks at the crossing, a crazy notion took the boy that he would just drop off the train and walk the short distance to the farmhouse.

So he did, swinging off with the resilience and exact timing of powerful, hardened, nineteen-year-old muscles. He stumbled a little as he struck the earth but caught himself before he fell.