- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

I found him by the railroad track this morning,

I could see that he was nearly dead,

I knelt down beside him and I listened,

Just to hear the words the dying fellow said.

Johnny Cash, “Give My Love to Rose.”

It sneaks up on you, Dec. 21, the long-ago day they found him out by the Cotton Belt tracks in the little Southern town. That’s the date he entered the town’s history even if the town didn’t know it. People were busy in Pine Bluff, Ark., that day, four days before Christmas.

We didn’t know it then, surely the lonesome traveler didn’t know it, but he had come to tell us something, even make us confront something. The something changes from year to year, like a familiar Bible passage you read at its allotted time of the year, but that always has something new to say. What is he telling us this Dec. 21? We lean over close and listen.

He said: ‘They let me out of prison out in ‘Frisco.

For 10 long years I paid for what I’d done.

I was trying to get back to Louisiana,

To see my Rose and get to know my son.’

He was nameless when they found him, just another bum down on his luck and riding the rails, and this was where he had gotten off, or fallen off. For him, it was the end of the line. He wouldn’t make it to wherever he was going. He wouldn’t even make it to Christmas.

He had arrived four days before all Christendom is to rejoice in the birth of Him who said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

In the words of the old gospel hymn they still sing in black churches, “We Didn’t Know Who You Was.” And so, through the short, waning hours of that Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled from one station of his cross to another.

There was no room for him at the inn. He wasn’t sick enough for the hospital to take him in, they said, and he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him. So they put him in the county jail — not because he had done anything wrong, but because he didn’t seem to belong anywhere else.

That would be the last place he would know in this world. They would find him the next morning. Sometime during the night, they didn’t know just when, he had died. Alone. Unattended.

At first we heard only rumors — something about somebody dying in the jail, and the body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed. It took days for the newspaper just to find out his name. It was Joe Telles, as in “Tell Us.”

He left little behind but the usual, fragmentary chronicles of the poor and troubled. A brush with the law years ago, traces of a family, an illness only vaguely diagnosed…. There was no way to know what he thought, what he prayed, that last night.

Late in his own life, Johnny Cash would sing in that broken but never more whole voice:

I hurt myself today

to see if I still feel,

I focus on the pain,

the only thing that’s real.

The needle tears a hole,

the old familiar sting,

try to kill it all away,

but I remember everything.

It all comes back, every Dec. 21. This is the first one without Johnny Cash. He is gone, but his voice is still here, not just on the tape but in our minds. We can’t erase him. Any more than we can Joe Telles.

Johnny Cash wasn’t supposed to be recording a song like “Hurt” in his old age, when he himself was sick and waiting to see the light. He was supposed to just take it easy and redo his old favorites to lush accompaniment. But to the end the man in black was leaning over to hear what the dying man said. He remembered everything.

The story of Joe Telles is easy to tell, too easy, shamelessly easy. It allows us to judge others while only seeming to judge ourselves. That is what came to us this year, listening to Johnny Cash’s last, unexpected songs. He wasn’t just listening to the dying man; he had become the dying man. He had put himself in Joe Telles’ place. And it hurt.

Thanks be, there is still time for us to recognize ourselves in the Joe Telleses of the world, and free ourselves of our estrangement from our dying, suffering selves, and know joy. There are still four days to bring Christmas.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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