In an excerpt from his upcoming book “American Story,” NBC’s award-winning Bob Dotson tells the remarkable story of five brothers who were plucked from the streets of New York and shipped to various foster parents out west. More than 60 years later, all five celebrate successful careers and cherish having each other throughout their lives.
Show me a self-made person, and I’ll show you a liar. Yes, America does thrive on rugged individualism, but gaze closely and you’ll see other hands that contribute to our success.
“No one succeeds alone,” an old man with a faraway look once told me. He was pointing to a picture taken when he was a boy. “I was a lonesome little fellow,” he observed. The photograph showed him clutching a suitcase, waiting for a train. “I remember being concerned, frightened because I could see where we could have been lost.”
Ed Panzer’s father had died. Because his mother couldn’t care for them, Panzer and his four brothers were bundled into a train car filled with orphans, all of whom were searching for families who would take them in. Five little boys, looking for a home.
Panzer’s older brother, Harold, remembered: “I didn’t think that anybody liked me.” He scrunched up his face and added, “I didn’t give a damn.”
The five boys rattling across America in the fall of 1922 were part of a remarkable odyssey. One hundred thousand such children were plucked from the streets of New York City and sent west to a new life. Most were the sons and daughters of immigrants, some found starving and alone. The Children’s Aid Society swept them up and shipped them to villages all across the country. At each stop their arrival was advertised. Kids trooped off the trains and lined up, and couples simply picked the one they wanted.
“They went around us and felt our muscles,” Harold Panzer said with a bitterness the years had not diluted. “I didn’t like that at all. That was just like making a slave out of you.” If a child acted up, he could be taken back to the station and put on the next orphan train passing through.
Orphans were often separated from their brothers and sisters, with the result that families were scattered all across the West. Some were adopted and took new last names. Years later, when their brothers and sisters came looking for them, they couldn’t be found.
Four of the Panzer boys were chosen when their train stopped in Tekamah, Nebraska. Harold was not. Desperate to be noticed, he sang to get the crowd’s attention, holding his little brother.
“They wanted to take George,” Harold recalled as his eyes misted with the recollection. “He was an attractive little boy. He had brown eyes and curly brown hair. He hung on to me and wouldn’t let go.” Harold swallowed hard. “That brings back memories that emotionally I have problems with.” Tears began to slide down his cheek. “A dentist took us both because George wouldn’t let go.”
The other Panzer boys were sent to separate farms. Some found couples that loved them. Ed Panzer ended up with a man who wanted cheap labor.
“He just gave me the god-awfullest beating I have ever had,” Panzer sighed. “I didn’t cry.”
The boys made a pact to keep their last name so that they would never lose track of one another, and they didn’t.
Harold Panzer took odd jobs, saved, and helped all of his brothers go to college. They were determined to have more than life had given them.
In the midst of the Great Depression, both Ed and Harold became doctors. Each had worked to put himself and his brother through medical school. Brother Jack built the hospital where Harold opened his practice. Bob Panzer became pastor of one of the largest Methodist churches in California. And George, the baby who kept the brothers together? They all pitched in to start him in the bee business. He retired a millionaire.
The Panzer boys were still at one another’s side when Harold Panzer decided to get married—at eighty.
“Where have you been all my life?” the bridegroom laughed, hugging his little brother.
“Oh,” George chuckled, “hiding from you.”
The Reverend Bob Panzer called them into his church, and the service began.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and”—he paused—“these brothers.”
The congregation roared with laughter.
All four of his brothers stood close to Harold as he slipped a ring on his bride’s finger.
“Now, if you can find a person named Panzer,” brother Bob said, grinning at Harold, “you may kiss her.”
Harold jokingly started to smooch each of his brothers before embracing the newest member of their family. It had been a long time since their ride on the orphan train, but the brothers still had what they had then—one another. They had made a deal with their hearts instead of their heads, and it lasted a lifetime.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things, Copyright © Bob Dotson, 2013
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