06 June 2017

Uncle Lord Open Road 1920-1981

When I was in my 30s and 40s, I used to call my parents, and sometime during the conversation, they would relate to me all their friends who had died since we’d last talked. It seemed so gruesome. Now that I have reached the same age they were, I’m the one who’s beginning to lose friends. Celebrities I grew up with seem to be dying like the leaves falling from the trees in autumn. Dear friends have lost spouses. My son died.

At the same time, one of my hobbies keeps me in the world of the dead – genealogy. My ex used to call it “searching for dead people.” And one expects ancestors born hundreds of years ago to be long gone; however, there was a time when I hoped to find relatives still living. When I discovered they had died just a few years before, it was a blow. If only I’d begun my search sooner; if only I’d researched more intently; if only…

In the 70s, I set out to find my maternal grandmother. I remember when I was a child, my mother asking me to put my finger on the brown twine that surrounded the brown paper package she said she was sending to her mother for her birthday or for Christmas. Then she stopped sending packages. My mother often talked about her very dysfunctional family from Oak Grove, Missouri, an alcoholic abusive father who died in a fall when she was 12, her father’s sister who kept her as a housekeeper in Dixon, Illinois, and caned her for walking home with a boy, her baby sister who was “adopted by a dentist from Coffeyville, Kansas, when she was three years old."

When I finally “found” my grandmother, in the days before the Internet and Google and Ancestry.com, she had been dead only a few years, having died in a nursing home in Kansas City, Missouri. I felt guilty to be the bearer of such bad news, so I set out to find my mother’s baby sister, the only other relative for whom I had any sort of details. Almost by accident, I found her. We (my mother, my sister, and I) exchanged photos and letters and phone calls with my newly discovered aunt. And then, about a month later, she told my mother she could no longer have anything to do with us because she was afraid her adopted sister would think she didn’t love her anymore. Well, that was it. I wasn’t going to look for any more of my mother’s relatives because it only brought her grief. I didn’t have many details on her three brothers, except I did know that she was deathly afraid of her oldest brother, James. He had pulled a knife on her once, had been in jail, and was a bad person, my mother said. She feared that my research would alert him to where she was living, and he would find her and do her harm.

She is 95 now and suffering from advanced dementia. She hasn’t known me for years. I can’t have a conversation with her. Sometime ago, I realized that if my mother is elderly, so is her older brother, and he no longer represents any danger. So, I began my search.

Headstone in Britt, IowaHe was one of the most difficult of the brothers to find. One brother had changed his name, perhaps when he was adopted, but used his birth name to apply for a Social Security number. Another brother had served in the Navy and was buried in a National cemetery. But James was a problem. Born in Oak Grove, apparently never in prison, but difficult to find.

Then one day, I came across a death certificate for James Harrison Langford, who died in Dalhart, Texas, from “Massive Hemopericardium Due to Multiple Stab Wounds to the Chest” at about 9:00 p.m. “At the Intersection of 1st and Amarillo Streets” on 24 April 1981. Could this be my uncle? The birth date matched, born in Missouri, live by the sword (according to my mother) die by the sword? But what a lonely death. “Behind Warehouse,” says the death certificate. He was 60 years old.

Being a university instructor, I don’t have much time for genealogy research during the school year. But eventually I started looking for my mother’s relatives again. During June 2016, I came upon an article on the Internet – I failed to note it or save it, so I don’t know which one it is – that told the story of a James “Lord Open Road” Langford, a hobo, who was killed in Dalhart, Texas, for $3.65. When his friends and fellow travelers learned of his death, they obtained his remains and had him buried in Britt, Iowa, the site of the annual Hobo Days Festival and convention, where he was always campaigning to be King of the Hobos, but never (to my knowledge) crowned.

There’s a hilarious story about two hobos, Adman and Skinny, who were sent by the then king, Steamtrain Maury Graham, to recover Lord Open Road’s remains for reburial in Britt. Paupers in Dalhart were buried several to a grave, so when Open Road was exhumed, his remains were mixed with quite a bit of dirt, as his was not the pine coffin on top. These remains were cremated, but they ended up being significantly heavier than the ashes of one person, and Adman and Skinny realized that they could not carry Open Road all the way to Britt on the rails. So, on every train they rode, they left some of Open Road’s remains, until when they arrived in Britt, they had about 120 pounds of ashes and other material in a plastic bag, which was interred in the hobo cemetery there. Every year since his burial in Britt, his friends leave the exact amount of change he was robbed and killed for on his headstone, and recognize him when they remember all their friends who have caught that ride on the westbound.

Newspaper articles claim he always spoke in rhyme. “I’ve been down the line, and I’m feeling fine. Yes sir, been dealing with the local citizens but of course, they’re not really denizens of this sort of life. Mainly, I’m disposed to suppose because they want to avoid the strife” (The Ottawa Journal, 28 July 1979). A folk singer, Larry Penn, wrote a song about Lord Open Road, “A Ride on the Westbound.”

This is not the man my mother told me about. How does a person lose a father at 14, stay at reformatories until he is 19, and turn out “okay”? How does a man with a sixth-grade education, who talks in rhyme support himself? He was in Dalhart partly because it is a railroad crossroads. He said he kept a motel room in Kansas City so he could get mail. I’m still researching, having recently heard from a Canadian journalist who knew him. He has photos of Uncle Open Road and received a letter from him not long before he died. I look forward to learning about this uncle, who I never met, until I read about his lonely death in Texas.