Born in a Box Car

*This entry was originally posted on my former Blogger page in 2011.

Have you ever had one of those days where the outcome doesn’t match the journey? On Feb. 15, 2011 I had one of those days.

My adventure didn’t take much more than an hour but I will never forget it. Joe Terronez can be best described as a character. My assignment was to photograph Joe as part of our 2010 census coverage. The Quad-Cities Hispanic population increase was the centerpiece of our main story and no one understood the Mexican-American journey better than Joe.

I arrived at his house with an idea for the photo but no real hope I could pull it off. Our reporter Steve Elliot had learned during their phone that the 82-year-old first-generation Mexican-American and the former mayor of Silvis had been born in a box car. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that the perfect place to shoot his portrait was in an old box car. I had scouted the nearby rail yard but I could only find tanker cars which really wouldn’t work for the portrait.

All of the photo possibilities were running through my head as I stood on the front stoop of the modest single story house, located a stones throw from the famed Hero Street Monument. Joe’s wife met me at the door and brought me back the kitchen to meet Joe. It had been awhile since I had seen him and I noticed he was older and a little slower than our last meeting. I had photographed him when he was mayor and at Hero Street events but he was older and I quickly let go of the boxcar idea. I was going to have to make a photo somewhere in the house.

As we chatted about the recent blizzard which buried the midwest I took note of the stack of what looked like homemade taco shells on the kitchen table. For some reason it reminded me I had missed lunch but where were we going to take the photo?

“Steve tells me you were born in a box car. Where was is located?” I asked.

“Oh right over there behind the old Rock Island Line,” he said while pointing to the east.

I could see immediately that Joe was proud of being born in a box car and the strides his family made since those humble beginnings. He immediately seemed to get a spring in his step just talking about it. He quickly went back to a small office/bedroom and grabbed a prized map of the camps which families like his lived in back in the 1920’s. It was being carefully preserved in a protective plastic sleeve. I felt like we should have been wearing white gloves to handle it.

I had nothing to loose when I pitched my idea of photographing him with a box car. He loved the idea and didn’t seem too surprised by it. I mentioned that I couldn’t find a boxcar visible from the avenue. His wife suggested the restored caboose which was located in a small city park near the old rail yard. Joe wanted the real thing. I asked him if he could find the spot where he was born. “Sure can,” he said with a childlike enthusiasm. “Ok I’ll get my truck and we’ll give it a try.” I scooped up the bag of photo equipment I had brought and started out to my vehicle. As I left the house I turned to his wife, who wasn’t slightest bit alarmed by me kidnapping her husband, “I promise I’ll bring him back in one piece.” She just smiled like she knew something I didn’t.

Joe hopped in my SUV and off we went. I took a quick right turn and we were off. I knew about where we were going. I had been to the rail yard before but only ever photographed it from afar. It is an imposing looking place to someone like me but not to Joe who had a road map in his head. It wasn’t any different from taking someone on a tour of their old neighborhood.

We got off to a rough start because we turned too early and ended up in a dead-end in the middle of some field. “They have really changed this place,” said Joe a little disappointed that maybe his memory wasn’t as good as he thought.

It wasn’t but a minute and I figured out that we were on the wrong side of the tracks and were quickly back on track so to speak.

Joe talked about his family, his dad and how proud of his childhood. His dad was a blacksmith for the old Rock Island Line. He bragged about how strong his dad was. “Arms like steel,” he said. We talked about how hard a job it must have been to be a blacksmith but we both knew that it paled in comparison to his father leaving his family in Mexico at the age of 13 to come to America. We shared the common bond that neither of our father’s liked to talk about the past. They were both men focused on the road ahead.

In between anecdotes Joe helped me navigate the old rail yard which was still active but has different kind of tenant these day. The company which occupies the old Rock Island Line footprint restores train engines and from the look of it business is good. There seemed to be an endless string of engines parked quietly at the ready.

I knew we were trespassing, and so did Joe but neither of us ever mentioned it. It was the classic elephant in the room kinda moment. We just kept driving past the graveyard of old railroad parts. Steel parts probably forged in someplace like Pittsburg left rusting in neat piles everywhere. We kept driving, my white SUV getting more and more muddy by the second Joe observed. We wound around old brick buildings and the huge train engines. I swear Joe could see them as pristine in his mind’s eye. We finally found ourselves in the northern most section of the property which bordered land owned by Deere & Co. and separated by simple chain linked fence. It seemed more of a formality than a necessity.

I spotted a place on our trail where I knew I could make a great portrait of Joe. As I slowed the truck and started to suggest the location which would feature two rusting train engines as a backdrop in front of a rugged stack of railroad ties he politely cut me off . “We’re not there yet, keep going.” A missed opportunity but I started to get the feeling we were on a quest.

We wound around a building which could have doubled for a bombed out factory in some WWII movie. All the scene lacked were the GIs peering from the wreckage.

Finally as we cleared the last building a field opened up before us. “We’re here.” I drove up to the edge of the field. I knew that this was as far as I could drive given the muddy and icy conditions. The problem was that we were here but there wasn’t a train car within 400 yards to stand him in front of.

My backdrop wasn’t going to be a box car but the place where the box cars once stood. Joe stood there in rapture. Who knows how long it had been since he stood on this remote location but I am sure he hadn’t walked this hollowed ground since he was a boy and his father was working in the blacksmith shop some 100-yards away. Even as Mayor he wouldn’t have had any need to visit this little corner of his past.

I had to work quickly because odds were that security was going to find us sooner rather than later. He stood with his back to where camp #2 was located. In the distance were two trees he seemed to recognize like old friends. They were 80-years older but still familiar. In the distance there was an old rusty water tower that he and his friends used to climb. If you squinted you could see the 3 camps and maybe he was romanticizing it to me but I think he had the right to remember it anyway he wanted to.

I struggled to make a decent photo. I played with my depth of field, my lens choice and the angle. I had him hold the map and stand this way and which way. Finally I decided whatever I got was going to have to be good enough. There is only so much you can ask an 82-year-old man to do on a cold Feb. afternoon. I escorted him back to my SUV. I told him to take my arm because I wanted to live up to my promise to his wife. Just as we got back to the vehicle we both spotted the security car taking a beeline for our location.

“I’ll talk to him,” Joe said confidently. I rolled down the window and Joe worked his magic.

“Can I help you gentleman,” asked the thin but rumpled security guard in dark sunglasses. I quickly noticed that he didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency in his voice. He seemed surprised to see anyone, and I mean anyone, parked where were on the property. It was a bit of a shock to my system which had braced for a much more aggressive approach.

“I am Joe Terronez, the former Mayor of Silvis and the newspaper wanted to take a picture of me where I was born….I was born right here”, said to Joe pointing to the big field in front of us.

It might have been the last story the guard had expected because his response was one of sheer dumfounded amazement. I quickly added “He was born in a box car right over there.”

“Wow. Ok. Well….that’s great.”

“We couldn’t find anyone to ask so we just headed back. I hope it was OK, ” said Joe ever being the diplomat.

Before the guard could process what we were telling him we apologized again and assured him we were on our way out. He seem relieved to see us go and we were happy to hit the road and not get anyone in trouble.

The only real casualty of meeting the security guard was that I wasn’t going to be able to stop on the way out and try to make a better portrait amidst the rusting train parts. I was done taking pictures but my adventure wasn’t quite over yet.

On the way out Joe decided that he wanted one last look at the old blacksmith shop that his father toiled in for so many years. It was located in the middle of the complex and we had to pass an office which was buzzing with activity inside. We slowly passed by the living and found ourselves with the ghosts of Joe’s past. As he told me more about his dad and I started to see the men who used to toil in these buildings. All trying to eek out a tough living working for the railroad. We didn’t linger long just long enough to spot to old cars parked in the old blacksmith shop. We quickly identified one as an Edsel and the other as a Galaxy. Who knows if we were right but it was fun to guess.

A quick u-turn and we were headed home. All the way back to his house Joe talked about his dad and how proud he was of the sacrifice he made for Joe’s family. He waxed poetically about his childhood and what a paradise Silvis was to him as a kid in the 1930’s. He learned to work hard and give back to the community. He snuck in a few resume highlights from his days as mayor as I drove. “I am damn proud of what I did and I don’t care who knows it.” I just smiled.

I told him he reminded me of my dad. Both men are both cut from the same piece of cloth. Dad was someone who could make friends in a phone booth. Always quick with a smile and a good word. Joe was no different. I can see them sitting on the porch drinking an Old Style and talking about growing up in the Quad-Cities back in the day.

When we arrived at Joe’s front door I thanked him for the adventure. Before letting him get out of the car I needed to ask him a few questions so I could write a decent cutline for the photo. The first question was his age. “82. I was born Feb. 15, 1929,” he said with a smile.

“Oh…that’s today.”

“Yep,” he said knowing he had just revealed a secret.

“So I just took you to where you were born…on your birthday?” I asked rhetorically.

“Yep. We’re having a big party here tonight.”

“We’ll Joe you just made my year. That is so cool,” I exclaimed.

We traded a few more pleasantries and I was off.

As I drove away I felt like I had been a part of something special. I can only compare it to my experience on the inaugural Honor Flight to the WWII memorial. Only with Honor Flight I captured the image of my career. On this special day in February my adventure far out shined the images I captured. Truth be told that’s just fine with me.

This is the image of Joe we used in the newspaper. As you can see the rail engines are pretty far away but we decided that this image lent more context to the story than the B&W images posted at the top.


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