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Men cut from a different cloth

By Walter Geiger I didn’t know James Rooks or his brother Pete but I wish I had. James died January 7. He was the father of Neil and Ricky Rooks of Barnesville, Wade Rooks of Yatesville and Floyd Rooks of Oglethorpe along with a passel of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Pete has been dead going on 20 years now. I was intrigued when I heard secondhand of a tale told about James, whom his family called Paw, at his funeral. So, I inquired and learned more about this fascinating man and his brother. Their mother died when they were very young. Their father remarried but died when James was 12. The stepmother ‘˜ran the stepsons off’, according to Neil. The brothers were left scrabbling to survive. They went to Fort Benning, lied about their ages and tried to join the Army. The Army found them out but for two weeks they had a warm bed and three meals a day. James’ brother Pete got institutionalized in some sort of juvenile detention center. He later escaped and passed on to James information on how to flee if he ever ended up there. Sure, enough James did wind up in the same facility in Alabama and escaped using Pete’s tips, scrambling out an unscreened window when the guard was not looking and making his way to the railroad tracks along a path Pete had told him of. He jumped onto the coal bin of a passing train and soon made his way to a boxcar where he encountered a onearmed hobo. The hobo told him law enforcement would not bother them but the railroad police were another story. ‘They will just shoot us,’ he related. For that reason, the hobo continued, they had to jump from the train before it reached the massive rail yard in Atlanta. James watched the one-armed man jump and roll then followed suit. ‘It seemed like I rolled forever,’ he often related. James either walked or hitchhiked to Griffin and was standing on a street corner when he was accosted by a police officer who asked him what he was doing. James said he was looking for his grandmother’s house, showed the officer the address he had written down and the officer reunited him with family. Times were still tough. ‘Daddy didn’t talk about it all that much. My mama was 14 when they got married. They had a rough, rough life. We know now how they sacrificed for us. They did without so we could have things. He told us once how he broke his arm eating breakfast. When we asked how, he said he fell out of an apple tree,’ Neil said. James went to work in the Carter’s bleachery but later his life took an ironic twist. Having hoboed to Georgia on a train, he went to work for the railroad. ’He was famous with the railroad folks. He was supervisor over all the signals from Augusta to Montgomery, Alabama and when they built the new rail yard in Macon, Daddy wired all the signals there,’ Neil related. Pete was also a legend among hobos. ’Uncle Pete was pretty much a hobo all his life. All the jails in Georgia and Alabama knew him. He went into the Army for awhile but he dismissed himself when he wanted to. He was full of wanderlust,’ Neil said. Though he traveled with only a toothbrush, Uncle Pete was always clean and neat when he arrived at the Rooks home in Barnesville. Once he arrived by bus at Carreker’s store, now the Red Apple, on Atlanta Street. With a nip or two under his belt, he hailed what he thought was a cab but was actually the town police cruiser manned by then police chief Opie Pitts. Pitts saw fit to take him to the Rooks place rather than jail. ’The last time I saw Pete, I put him out by where Flash Foods is now and he hitchhiked off into the sunset,’ Neil said. It is sad to me that tales like this are often not told until the crowd is assembled for a funeral. Tales like these – of men of a different time and cut from a different cloth should not go to the grave untold. They are priceless and deserve chronicling. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette and The Journal Reporter.

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