A homeless man lay on railroad tracks in the snow

February 16, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I listen to Jim Fielder tell of the homeless man in Harford County - yes, there really are homeless people in Harford; their presence finally will be acknowledged with the opening of a cold-weather shelter next month, just in time for spring - and I keep thinking of what our world looked like Sunday morning, about 4 o'clock. I had risen with the foolish optimism of making a trip to Virginia, but the snow was a foot at my door by then, the wind hurling it horizontally against windows. I think of that - one of the 20 biggest snowfalls in Maryland history, hurling wind, temperatures in the 20s - when Jim Fielder tells of the homeless man who spent the night in it.

You have to keep that in mind because, where the story begins, with Fielder finding the man about 10 a.m., the snow had stopped, and the sun had come out, the temperature had risen to 31 degrees, and the world was beautiful and white - pretty enough for a picture. Fielder picked up his camera and walked down the driveway, away from his house.

The house is in Belcamp, off U.S. 40. To get home, Fielder, who serves the state of Maryland as secretary of licensing and regulation, must cross CSX railroad tracks. He stood at the base of the driveway and looked up at his house to take a picture of it in 18 inches of fresh snow. Then he looked down the railroad tracks, lightly wooded on both sides, parallel to U.S. 40. Freight cars run up and down those tracks all the time, including the "Juice Train" that carries Tropicana products - a magic streak of Florida through the Mid-Atlantic winter.

As he raised his camera to take a shot, Fielder noticed something strange on the snow on the tracks - a dark lump of some kind, looking as if it had fallen there. The lump was about 100 yards to the west. Fielder walked toward it.

Too big to be a dog or deer, he thought.

Fielder trudged through the snow and soon recognized the dark lump as a human being, a man.

The man lay on his right side, perfectly still.

The man wore thick glasses. No hat, no gloves. His jacket was a brown windbreaker. He wore dark pants, gray socks and sneakers. Fielder remembered seeing the man at least once before - back in the fall - and the man was walking near Fielder's driveway, carrying Klein's supermarket bags. Fielder said hello to the man and wondered how, in this suburban area near the Bush River, someone could get by - go to work, go shopping - without a car.

Now this man lay in the snow, apparently having spent the night under the nearby Route 543 overpass.

"Are you all right?" Fielder called to him.

"No, I'm not," the man said, his face against the snow.

"What happened?" Fielder asked.

"I can't move," the man said. "I can't feel my feet. ... Thank God, you're here." Fielder helped the man sit up. The man was shivering violently. His hands were wet and cold. Fielder gave the man what he had - his down vest and hooded sweat shirt. He pulled off his gloves and pulled them over the man's hands, then he squeezed the man's hands into a fist.

Fielder looked around for a moment. He could see the man's footprints - shuffling baby steps - leading up to the tracks from under the bridge. He had apparently spent the night there.

Fielder, who had stripped to his T-shirt, walked back to his house, excited and shaken by what he had found. He told his wife, Pat, to call 911. "There's a guy on the railroad tracks," he said. Fielder picked up his cell phone and dialed a number he'd stored for the CSX dispatcher. The dispatcher contacted an engineer to halt train traffic.

Now Fielder gathered a heavy, gray-and-green mover's blanket and a canvas tarp he thought he might need to slide the man across the snow. But Harford County deputies responded within minutes, and two of them met Fielder on his driveway. They waited there for paramedics from the Abingdon Fire Department. They all walked through the snow, back to the man on the tracks.

The man said his name was Charles. He gave his date of birth, which established his age as 36. The paramedics examined the man's feet and hands, and they checked his vital signs.

One of them asked Charles where he was from.

"Under the bridge," he said.

At another point, Fielder heard him say, "I have money in the bank, but I haven't found a good place to rent."

He also told the paramedics that he took medication for schizophrenia.

Fielder again heard Charles say, "Thank God, you're here."

The paramedics and deputies lifted Charles onto a stretcher and carried him down the tracks, through the snow, onto a stretcher with wheels, then into an ambulance. The paramedics took Charles to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, where he was treated for hypothermia. Fielder has been checking on him by phone, and Charles, who told the hospital he has no family, appears to be recovering from his night in the storm.

In his reflections on this experience, Fielder had a lot of thoughts - the reality that Charles was completely helpless and depended on him for survival; the "system failure" represented by a man with mental illness being found (or lost) in such an isolated area during a storm; and the nostalgic remembrance of a time on the Fielder family farms, where strangers like Charles were taken in, put to work, fed and cared for.

And there was irony: Next month, Harford County will at long last open an emergency shelter, ending seven years of debate and protest in the only county in the Baltimore region that had refused to provide a permanent shelter for the homeless. The new shelter will operate each year from late October through March, in the Riverside Business Park - about a half-mile from where Jim Fielder found Charles in the snow.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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