by James J. Hatfield | photograph by Mollie Tobias
After burning down a worn-out highway through Southern Pines I finally arrived in Hamlet, NC. I got there almost an hour early. To kill the time I decided to engage in a favorite pastime of mine when visiting a new place; I went and drove down the main drag.
Hamlet has a population of a little over 6,000. I cruised down Charlotte Street, parking when I saw a sign for the National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame. To my surprise, I learned Hamlet is known for this. Well, that, and being the birthplace of John Coltrane. But that is not why I am here.
I hopped back in my car when it was time, and when I arrived at my destination I saw a man with suspenders and a ball cap walking over to greet me at his front gate.
The Parks and Recreation department from neighboring Scotland County had sent word to OutreachNC about a person who they find to be extremely interesting, and 93-year-old Herbert “HL” Nelson did not disappoint. We sat on his porch for a little while. Surprisingly enough, his story started not far from where we were sitting.
“I was born and raised two doors down,” Nelson seemed to drift for a moment in his wavering thoughts. He looked like he was in sight of land. Then he snapped back and finished his thought: “And after I got grown and working and all, I bought this house here. Anyway, I got married. We lived in my mother’s house until we bought this one. Been here ever since.”
Nelson had just finished high school. His plans were to go on to more school after the summer. He stopped to watch the trains go by—something he did often—with no idea it would lead to his career.
“I started as a brakeman and worked up to conductor,” Nelson says. “To tell you the truth, I had never done anything with the railroad before. What happened was the superintendent of the railroad came out and met me—I was on my way back from the movies—and the train [was] coming in. I stopped at the station to watch the train and he came up beside me and we
That afternoon Herb went to his mother and told her he was going to work at the train. He needed her to sign for him, since it was required to have parental consent at the time to work so young.
His mother was under the impression he was going to go to school in the fall. He reassured her that this was only a summer job. That’s what he planned at least.
“But it got to being good to me,” Nelson recalls. “And I told her, I said, ‘I think I’ll stick with the railroad.’ And I did for 35 years. Tell you the truth, I enjoyed it. That’s why I stayed with it so long.”
Herb would have a fruitful career, starting with sorting other people’s luggage and working his way all the way to conductor. A few years into this newfound vocation the train industry had a massive boom.
The cause of this new wave of immigration that rocketed the use of the railroad is the exact same reason Herb had to put his career on hiatus just after starting: WWII
From what my editor was told, I thought that Nelson was at Pearl Harbor during WWII. It turns out he was actually in Saigon. Not only that, but he was part of the team that loaded the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki
“They took off in Saipan, you see, going to Japan. They came back and brought pictures,” says Nelson. “They tore that place up. You don’t see nothing but fire and smoke from all them bombs they dropped in Japan. And I never thought I would be able to see all that. But I’m glad I was able to see that, because if someone told me about it, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it.
“I tell you the truth, I didn’t show it,” he says, getting emotional. “When I got home and got to thinking about that I start[ed] shaking, to tell you the truth.”
This is when I saw the tenderness in Herbert. I felt sorry that a man who is so sweet had to live alone, even though he himself is still living independently and, from my personal view, is doing fine.
This is something I had wondered, and through Herb I found it true and manifested. People who have seen so much life have the ability to reflect longer, and they are likely to recognize a higher amount of good in the world with all that extra time to look at it. The blinding light of getting life going, right now, makes us use our hands as sun visors. That meaning, the immediacy that impedes life so harshly seems to block our ability to sit back and really view it. But that is not a problem for this man.
“It’s like all the sudden something just hits you. Doing all that when it’s happening you don’t think about it—what’s happening—to tell you the truth. Until it’s all over and you start thinking about it. And they start showing pictures about [World War II]. And you were a part of that.”
The Husband and Father
Nelson, with his 93 years of life, has outlived two wives and one daughter – all of whom passed away from natural causes due to old age.
He told the story about his daughter:
“She went to school in Durham, and she got a job with the government. And after she retired she moved back here. I was in Laurinburg and I came [to Hamlet] to check on her—something just told me to come over here—and I always come in the back way. And I kind of saw the back door open. It was about 8:00 or 9:00. I said, ‘What’s she doing up this early?’ So I went on in there and opened the kitchen door and walked in there, and she’s laying on the floor. I called the rescue [squad], and they came and done everything they could. The top man stood up and shook his head.”
He told the story about his second wife:
“I got married again. And she died on me. And it made it even that much worse.”
When he spoke about it he seemed to have fully reconciled with it. He did mention the feeling that one may have when the major milestones of one’s life are accomplished, and how simple and quiet life is thereafter.
“I tell you, there ain’t a whole lot to talk about. I sit in the house most of the time,” he says. “See, when you get to that age you don’t really wanna go nowhere. When someone calls, you don’t really wanna answer. I say that’s life, I guess,” he said with a shrug. Nelson seems to have a good attitude about everything. This is likely one reason the folks at Scotland County Parks and Recreation told us he would be a fascinating story.
The Active Man
One thing that gets Nelson out of his house is a health and exercise class he attends in Laurinburg three times a week. He’s known to do push-ups beside his car.
I am a 25-year-old writer who can do eight push-ups successfully before collapsing breathless. I felt compelled. I had to ask him.
I said, “What’s your secret?”
He held up two fingers and crossed them, “We like this.”
I said, “You and who?”
Herb said, “Me and God – try to be, anyway.”
“That’s your secret?” I said.