Looking for Earl in a haystack

By Joe Stumpe | November 28, 2018

RoseAnn Kirkpatrick just wants to know one thing:

What happened to Earl?

I doubt I can help her find the answer, but here goes anyway:

Kirkpatrick was reading through a stack of old Reader’s Digest magazines recently when she came across an article in the November 1991 issue entitled “Long Journey Home.” It was one of those heart-tugging tales the Digest specializes in – about the relationship between fathers and their children – but what intrigued Kirkpatrick was a person in it named Earl, who came from Wichita.

In the article, Earl and another young hobo are riding the rails during a bitterly cold winter. The second young man’s shoes are tattered and his toes begin to freeze. Earl throws him his own shoes. The second guy regains feeling in his feet and drifts off to sleep. When he wakes up, Earl is gone. Somebody says he jumped off the train in Wichita.

“What I want to know,” Kirkpatrick told me, “is where is Earl?”

When I asked her why, she said, “He needs to have a pat on the back by now.”

Earl, if you’re reading this, please speak up so you can get your pat.

If not, the biggest problem with finding Earl, or what happened to Earl, is that the article doesn’t give his last name. He’s described as being in his late ‘20s. The episode takes place during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to the late 1930s, so Earl would be well over 100 today, if still alive.

The article further describes Earl as a “tall farm boy from Wichita,” soft-spoken, friendly (obviously), and a little wise. Earl, like his traveling companion, who’s from New York, had left home trying to make something of himself. Failing to do so, he finally realizes it’s okay to return home, and advises his friend to do the same.

“Any family’s family,” Earl is quoted as saying. “I’ve had enough of the road. At least in Wichita I’m a farm boy with roots.”

The New Yorker takes Earl’s advice and – years later — tells the story to his daughter, who (even more years later) writes the article for the Digest.

It’s a good story. If Earl’s no longer around, maybe he let some of it slip to somebody who is. If so, let me know, and I’ll be sure to bring Kirkpatrick up to date on Earl.

Joe Stumpe can be reached at 316-942-5385 or joe@theactiveage.com