Monday, November 12, 2012

Normal-Face Olaf

He was born in Germany in 1900, emigrated to England with his parents in 1903 and was the only member of his family to survive the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15th, 1912 - his twelfth birthday.  The Queens, New York orphanage proved utterly intolerable, and he hit the road - and the rails - about 18 months later.

Most of his early education had been provided by his parents and an elderly German nanny/tutor who had moved to England a few years before Olaf's family.  As a result, he spoke nearly-flawless English, but with a distinctly German accent.  There were not a great many German-sounding hoboes in the United States, and since hobo names were so often based upon distinguishing characteristics, he managed to keep the Olaf.

The other part of his hobo name had two different meanings, dependent upon how well one knew Olaf.  For most of his vagrant, bean-eating friends, Normal-Face was thought to indicate the disconnect between his appearance and his accent.  After years of meeting fellow wanderers out on the road and hearing, "that's funny - you sure don't look German," it was decided that his face wasn't just "not Germanic," but indeed "normal."

However, those who got to know Normal-Face Olaf a little better eventually learned of the real reason for his road name.  Sometime before his 2nd birthday, Olaf had been badly burned by an exploding steam pipe in his parents' flat in the seaport city of Bremerhaven.  His face and neck had been badly scarred and disfigured, and throughout his childhood and early hobo-hood he had been teased mercilessly about his freakish appearance.  

When he was still a novice hobo, learning the rules - written as well as unwritten - of the railroads and the vagrants who wandered them, he mistook the three whistle-blasts of a train backing up for the two-blast signature of a train moving forward.  The iron sill-step of a box car smashed into Olaf's face just as he turned toward it, breaking his nose and jaw and various other points on his skull.  After barely beating the infection that set in when his wounds went treated only with the hobo medicines of mud and moonshine, Olaf's face emerged from its burlap and newspaper hobo bandages looking... normal.

He looked tragically-mutilated no more, and he definitely didn't look German.  He was Normal-Face Olaf, and he smiled every single time he heard his name.  

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