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THROW AWAY MATTRESS

Story ID:10432
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Fiction
Location:East Syracuse New York USA
Year:1950
Person:Old Pete
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THROW AWAY MATTRESS

THROW AWAY MATTRESS
By Fred Wickert


FOREWARD: This story is listed as Fiction. The basic story is true but I took some liberties with some of the details and it must therefore be called Fiction because it is not completely true.

I dedicate this story to Charles Micheaux. It was he who inspired me to write this story. More importantly it was he who caused me to think, and by thinking about it, helping me to learn what I had overlooked that is so greatly important. Jesus said ,”Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do also unto me.” If you stop and think about it, there is an awful lot to do with that in this story, and that part of it is not fiction. My sincere thanks to Charles Micheaux for opening my eyes and my brain.

The story begins in a small town East of Syracuse, NY so I will just call it East Syracuse. It is a small town. You have seen many of them if you have ever traveled by car off from the super interstate highways. This town had one blinking traffic light. It was located in the middle of town where two state highways intersected. One of the roads ran East and West and the other ran North and South. The traffic light is blinking yellow for the East and West route and blinking red for the North South route.

At the intersection is a small bank, a hardware store, a diner and an empty space where a feed store had burned down. Next to the feed store lot was a shoe maker shop, then a liquor store, a beauty shop and an insurance office. Behind the diner was a gas station, a bar and the Fire House. Across from the diner and the bank was a hardware store, then a pharmacy, then an Onieda Market, a car dealer with gas pumps and repair garage and body shop. Next was the post office and across the street was a laundromat, a bar, a pizza place, a dry goods store and a small store similar to a five and dime store.

There were two or three side streets that were mostly residences. On the route going North, behind the hardware store on the corner was a stream and then a cemetery entrance. Beyond that there are a couple of houses and then the school and more houses. Then a side street going to some apartment houses. Across the street from the houses is another car dealer and garage. On both ends of town going East and West there are some more diners and a soft ice cream and hot dog stand. There are other assorted shops. There is another small cemetery by the Methodist church, a Catholic church, a Pilgrim Holiness church, still another car dealer and garage, a couple of barber shops and another insurance office. There is an old rail road station no longer used that has some offices and small businesses in it and there is a big tire shop where not only cars but big trucks and farm machinery tires are also available.

There are a few other small businesses, a lot of houses, one doctor’s office and two motels. They are both the old and small type and not the big chain type motels. It is just your everyday typical American small town.

Many small towns have one or more characters in the town and East Syracuse is no exception. In this town there is Old Pete. Old Pete is an old man who sits in the same place all day every day. He is like a permanent fixture. Nobody except those who work in the bank and the post office know what his last name is. To everybody else he is just Pete. Pete has been there as long as anyone can remember. Older folk can remember him being there more than thirty years. Pete doesn’t have any family as far as anyone knows, because he never mentions any nor has any ever showed up there.

Pete lives in an apartment upstairs over the post office. There is a door between the front windows of the post office and the right front corner of the building that leads to the apartment. Pete has an old wooden chair he keeps inside the door. In the day time Pete brings that old cane bottom chair outside. He sits in it and leans it back against the wall of the building so it rests only on the back two legs and there Pete stays all day long. He places an empty coffee can on the sidewalk beside and behind his chair when he is there.

Sometimes people will come along, stop and throw some small change in the can or sometimes even a dollar bill. When that happens Pete always says, “Oh thankee, thankee. Bless you.”

People were in and out of the post office all day every day. As they came along they greeted Pete and he returned the greeting. Often a person had a dog on a leash and they asked Pete if he could hold their dog for them while they did their business in the post office. Pete was always ready and willing to do that. Each time he petted and stroked the dog’s fur much to the joy of the dog. The dog’s owners always thanked him and he in turn always assured them he was happy to be of service.

Children, boys mostly, gathered around him after school and on weekends. Sometimes the boys tried to play a prank on him. He never got angry, but laughed at it. Then he told them of some prank he remembered as a boy. Often a boy asked him a question about something. Not only was an answer given but usually there was a story with it. The children always enjoyed hanging around him on the way home from school.

Often, when parades or some sort of celebration was going on and a lot of people were milling around, there were food vendors set up. People bought an extra hot dog or ice cream or soda or whatever it may be, and gave it to Old Pete. Pete always replied , “Oh thankee, thankee, bless you!”

On special days like Thanksgiving or Christmas, people always remembered old Pete. Often someone came to him with a paper plate wrapped in wax paper. It contained turkey with all the trimmings, or maybe some ham with all the trimmings. Sometimes he was given a pumpkin pie or a man stopped by with a box of homemade cookies. The man said to him, “Pete, the wife was making cookies and she made an extra batch for you.”
“Oh thankee, thankee. Bless you and your missus.”

Every time someone gave him something like this he left his chair, long enough to take it upstairs to his apartment. Then he came back down to his chair again. Sometimes Pete was seen going to the Onieda Market. He then came back home, usually with one bag of groceries. Sometimes one of the ladies stopped and said they were making sandwiches at the church and had a half loaf of bread left over. The ladies wondered if Pete could use it. “Oh thankee, thankee, Bless you all,” Pete said.

Pete always had a corn cob pipe. Sometimes when he went to the Onieda Market someone observed he had a pound of tobacco with his purchases. Often one of the men in town who smoked a pipe, gave him a pack of tobacco. They told him to try that brand and see if he liked it. “Oh thankee, thankee and Bless You,” was the inevitable response.

Pete was always there every day. He was as permanent a fixture as was the fire hydrant. If someone was having a bad day they stopped to tell Pete all about it. They got it all off their chest and Pete never told anybody. He kept all that kind of thing to himself, but he was a good listener and sometimes suggested some good advice. He soon knew everyone’s business and everyone’s troubles. Every now and then he gave someone a subtle suggestion and if followed, as it often was, it resolved a problem or two for someone.

If the weather turned bad, Pete moved his chair inside the post office lobby and leaned it against the wall inside. During the winter months if the sun was shining but it was cold and windy, he had an old wool army blanket he wrapped himself in to protect himself from the chill, but he was still there. He had to be the most healthy man in the world because he never missed a day. Pete never had a cold or never had the flu.

According to post office personnel, Pete got a Social Security check in the mail every month. He always went straight to the bank with it and cashed it. Nobody knew how much it was except bank people and they were not allowed to say. Everybody figured he was poor, but he never complained and never asked anybody for any help with anything. He always paid his rent on time. Utilities were all in with those of the post office so they pretty much came with the apartment.

People gave him some of the vegetables from their gardens in the summer months. He was given food from time to time as previously mentioned. He went to the Onieda Market to buy small quantities from time to time. He bought a quart of milk, a pound of butter, a box of Bisquick along with one or two other things. He always looked healthy and never looked like he was starving. Folks figured that between his Social Security check, his coffee can proceeds and the handouts of food he got were enough to get by.

From time to time someone dropped by and gave him a bag. They told him someone in their family had outgrown their clothes and they were still good. They didn’t want to throw them away if he could use them. “Oh thankee, thankee, God Bless you” he was sure to say. He didn’t do a lot of physical activity and so he didn’t wear out clothes very fast. He was seen sometimes in the evenings across the street in the laundromat washing his clothes. He kept clean.

A day finally arrived when Pete was not outside on his chair as usual. No one thought anything of it. They all supposed he had gone to the Onieda Market. Later in the day he still wasn’t there. The next day Old Pete was not in his usual place either. People began to wonder if maybe Pete had got the flu or something. Yet another day went by with no Pete. Postal workers had not seen him. No one at the bank or the Onieda Market had seen him. People began to get worried.

Finally one man said he was going to call the Sherriff, and he did. The Sherriff came and tried the door. The door opened easily and was unlocked. The Sherriff called his name a few times but got no reply. The Sherriff went up the stairs and looked around. He found Pete lying on the bed. An odor had begun to drift across the room that was unmistakable. It was the smell of death. The Sherriff called for his deputies to come and assist the Coroner and then secure the scene. An investigation had to be done to rule out foul play.

Word spread fast. Soon the entire town knew that old Pete was dead. The Coroner came and removed the body. An autopsy had to be performed. The cause of death proved to be a massive heart attack. Social Security had to be notified.

There was no money available to bury him. He was to have a pauper’s funeral and grave. The county was going to pay, therefore he was to be buried as he lived, as simply as possible. He had the cheapest Pine box and was buried in the section of the cemetery known as Paupers Field. He had lived cheaply and was going to be buried cheaply. There was no marker but a few of the people at the Methodist church had started to talk about having a fund drive to buy a marker for his grave.

A simple graveside service was announced. Not knowing what his religious faith, if any, the pastors of all three churches in town agreed to say a little something. A surprising significant number of people showed up to mourn at the service. He was more popular than thought, among the people of the town.

The DA’s office, the Coroner’s office and the Sherriff’s office all released the apartment. The Land Lord was told he could do as he pleased with the apartment now. If he found anything of value it was to be turned over to the county. Anything like clothes were to be burned or thrown in the dump. The Land Lord hired two young men to help him.

The apartment had not been touched in more than thirty years. It was going to need a thorough cleaning and painting. The furniture, what little there was had to be removed and replaced with newer things. The sheets and blankets were bagged up for the dump. The Land Lord asked the two young men to remove the mattress and carry it down stairs. Later they could burn it.

The two young men pulled the mattress from the bed. Each grabbed an end of the lumpy mattress. They pulled it off the bed and turned it up on edge so they could get it through the door. Something started falling out and on to the floor. The land Lord shouted at the two young men to set it down and they did. A large gob of money lay on the floor. The Land Lord instructed the two young men not to touch anything. Then he said he was coming right back, and he left the apartment.

Soon he was back. He had phoned the Sherriff from the post office phone. He told the Sherriff what they had found. Soon the Sherriff and two deputies came to the apartment together with the county attorney. Carefully they examined the mattress and found a slit in it a foot long. Carefully they pulled back the slit and could see nothing but money. It looked like the entire mattress was stuffed full of money.

All of the money had to be removed. The attorney directed that there be separate piles of denominations of bills. There were five’s, ten’s, twenties and fifties in there. After it was separated into denominations it had to be counted. One pile was taken at a time. It was counted by one person, then a second and then a third. Then the bundle was tied and a slip of paper attached with the amount on it. When the counting was all done there was over two million dollars there.

The story was in the Syracuse Post Standard and was broadcast on radio stations WFBL and WSYR. No one could believe it. Old Pete was pretty crafty. He had saved up all that money over the years. Everybody thought he was poor and actually he was pretty rich. The funeral expenses were paid out of it. A marker was paid out of it and the undertaker was paid out of it. The law required that one year had to be given for anyone with legal claims on it to make their claim. I don’t know what actually happened to it. I never heard of anyone showing up to claim it but I just don’t know.

People will ask and wonder, why in the world someone with that much money could keep it in a mattress. Why not in the bank where it was safe? I think I know the answer to that. If he kept it in the bank, sooner or later a bank employee was bound to slip up and tell. Then the people, when they found out, would be angry. They would stop being friendly and the boys would stop hanging around and people wouldn’t give him those home cooked meals any more.

Old Pete enjoyed the life he was living. He enjoyed the attention of the people. Every time one of those people gave him a gift of any kind, it did wonders for their self esteem. Every time somebody did something for him they felt good about themselves and he enjoyed making them feel that way.

The people of the town had become his family and he loved things just the way they were. Why spoil it with a bunch of money. He was happy and content with the life he had. If someone found out he had any money all that was sure to go away. As an old person who lives alone and has no family any more, they will tell you that life alone is pretty lonesome. Old Pete was happy and content. If the people found out he had money he was going to lose it all. He did not want to take that risk.

As for the people, they had come to accept that old man as part of their town. They liked him and they were comfortable with him being there. They enjoyed having him say, “thankee, thankee. Bless you.” They liked having a sympathetic ear to tell their troubles to, and they liked the good advice they got from him too.

How many young boys stayed out of trouble in a period of more than thirty years, because Old Pete was there to keep them entertained, educate them with history and other things, and above all, give them the gift of learning how to think. How many of them stayed out of trouble because of Old Pete? Many of them and that is for sure. Boys with nothing to do have a tendency to get in trouble.

How many marriages were saved because of the advice of Old Pete? Several I believe. How many people changed their behavior for the better because of Old Pete?

He was good for the town and the town was good for him. I am reminded of a story in which Jesus was expected to be coming to town. He had promised to have a meal at someone’s house in the village before he left. The whole village became excited and prepared for him in case he chose their house. A very poor old woman had very little money left to survive on for the rest of the month. She had no food in the house. In case he might come to her house she took the last money she had and bought some good food. She had everything prepared as nice as she could make it. Then she waited for Jesus to arrive, just as the others in her village did.

A man in dirty rags came to the village and he went from house to house. He told them he had not eaten in a couple of days and begged to be fed. Every house he went to he was told to go away. They were expecting Jesus and he could not be around when he came. When the man came to the house of the poor old woman, she wanted to save the food for Jesus, but she knew she could not turn this poor soul away. She invited him in and fed him.

When he appeared before the people the next day, he told them that he had come to their door hungry and tired and they turned him away. He blessed the poor old woman and said hers was the kingdom of Heaven because he came to her tired and hungry and she took him in and fed him. Then he taught them by saying that whatever you do to the least of his brethren, you do to him.

Old Pete was the least of their brethren and they treated him well. They may not have realized it at the time but they were blessed because of it. Old Pete treated each of them in the village with kindness and love and he thanked them and blessed them for their good deeds towards him. They were blessed with that too.

You know, no trace of where Old Pete came from was ever found. No family of him was ever found. Not even with the lure of two million dollars. We are told that many angels are among us. We just don’t know it. I wonder, do you suppose that Old Pete was actually and angel?


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