My journey with Fred Freeman

Published 3:59 am Sunday, May 10, 2009

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting one of Picayune’s elderly adopted sons. I had not a clue that on this day I would travel.

After a few minutes of sitting on Fred Freeman’s porch, I began to feel as if I’d been transported back in time… a time when life was grittier but the folks were slightly more genteel and welcoming. From the quaint front porch of the modest home, Freeman’s relaxed manner enveloped wholly my soul like a warm bowl of soup on a cold winter morning. The rest of me easily followed my new, old friend boldly into the unfamiliar era.

So involved did I become, that lovely spring day in Picayune, I could almost feel the sweat off Freeman’s inner young man brow — stinging my own eyes — while I listened intently to his outer elderly counterpart give me the details of his past. Even when sections of the autobiography were clouded in the shadows of an old man’s memory, the narrative still had the power to grab hold of the imagination.

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“I had to work Mister, I had to work,” said Freeman pulling me out of the story — if only for a moment — to remind me why I was there. On second thought, maybe the sweat was really my own as I realized I would be charged with painting a portrait, albeit with words, of this man’s humble, yet strangely alluring life. But it’s not about me…

“I had a hard way to go in my life, I can’t tell you everything that I did because I done so much, so much I left out, so much I forgot because I come up the hard, hard way,” he continued.

As the story unfolded it became clear that the humble man came from an even humbler beginning. “My mother and daddy separated and she went back [to live with] her daddy in Shubuta and had me with her.”

Shubuta: a small town in Mississippi, whose last census, recorded July 2007, boasts a population of 638. It was there Freeman began his work “in the woods” at the tender age of 10 — forgoing a formal education.

As the elder of his mother’s children, Freeman took a job working for his uncle who was also supplying jobs for his own children at the time.

While I couldn’t quite grasp exactly what the nature of his work in the woods entailed, I do know that shortly thereafter, Freeman became involved in the process of making hand hewn railroad cross-ties.

After seeing another gentleman working on one, he said, “…I wanted to cut one, but he didn’t have a right hand broadax, he had a left hand but I cut me three or four ties with that left hand broadax,” said the right handed Freeman.

“We carried them cross-ties to Shubuta. I got paid for them,” he said. Freeman was paid per piece, he just can’t recall now how much.

Hmm, he said carried — did I hear that correctly? Another new, old friend, Cecil Bennett, joined us on the porch to help me understand what exactly this meant. The image of the frail man that now sat before me was replaced by that fuzzy image of a strapping youth, toting the ties — in some cases more than one, and uphill — while Bennett explained that each ties weighs in excess of 200 pounds.

“See, I wanted to be a man just like I wish was one now,” Freeman laughed, good- naturedly, at himself.

Freeman continued working in the woods, cutting cross-ties until the 40s, just before he made his move to Picayune, now carrying only the dreams of a better life.

The year was 1947, and Picayune held promise of a job but as the saying goes, the best laid plans… well, you know. Cousin Luther, the relative who was supposed to help Freeman secure a job, sadly, was already laid-off by the time Freeman arrived.

“I couldn’t lay around here and starve to death,” he said, “So [my cousin and I] went to Mr. L.O. Crosby and asked for a job.” And he got one too, making 60 cents an hour to start.

“It was a long time before I got 75 cents, I can remember that.”

It would also be that same year, 1947 — or thereabouts — that Freeman would meet his future wife. The couple wed in 1949, the year he built his modest three room home, the same home whose porch I now occupied.

“In time I added to it,” he said proudly of his home. “I ran out of money and I can’t work now so I can’t add no more.”

As the too brief memoir headed for a resolute non-resolution, I took note of the important things: though the memories, eyesight and stature all seem to deteriorate, unbelievably the human spirit continues to soar. And it appeared I would not be the only one that day who got lost in narrative.

“I can’t find nobody who’ll talk bad about this old man… This is only the second time I’ve met him, and I feel like I’ve known him always,” Bennett mused.

Throughout the oral history, holes in Freeman’s story were spackled over with a charm and a quiet dignity that made the story appear as solid as his home. I didn’t grieve for the lost details. I enjoyed the crumbs of the leftovers.

My journey took me to a different place and as far as I could tell, it was the ride, not the destination, I would not soon forget.