J. Wicker remembers moving from Hamlin, Texas, his birthplace, to Hico by covered wagon with his father and brother when he was a child. He would spend much of his life searching for a home.

His early childhood had not been typical. Of his unusual first name, Tellus Jonah, he jokes and says the only thing he can figure out is, “When they saw me, they yelled, ‘Tell us! What is it?’”

He said, “I was born Oct. 5, 1916, to Eldridge and Pearl Roberts Wicker. My brother, Lanas, was two years older. When I was a year old, our mother died. Our dad was a farmer and didn’t have anyone to care for us, so we lived with our grandfather and aunts and uncles.”

But the trip to Hico in 1927 was an attempt to reunite the family. His father had married Bertha Spinks. She had ridden the train ahead of them and was awaiting their arrival at a log cabin out in the country.

“The trip took an entire week. I remember I had jumped off the wheel’s hub and sprained my ankle. We had stayed at a wagon yard on Ranger Hill that first night. We’d travel the next day and stay at another wagon yard in the next town. They were common in most towns.”

His new stepmother’s brother and sister had made arrangements for the log house near Hico. His father was to farm there.

But the house was cold in the winter. The boys helped their father to chop and pick cotton and to harvest maize and corn. They suffered financially.

“The County Line School was close enough that I could ride my horse there. I had gone to a one-room school south of Hamlin before. I was good in arithmetic and spelling, and liked school a lot.”

The family moved to Chalk Mountain where T.J. entered Black Stump School when he was 14. His father farmed land that belonged to a blacksmith in Hico.

T.J.’s brother, Lanas, became very ill. Daily his condition worsened with tonsillitis. T.J. remembers that his brother could not eat or swallow. The doctor was called, but it was too late. Before the days of penicillin, there was no help for him.

“I was at a neighbor’s house when he died. I’ll never forget coming home.”

T.J.’s father needed help on the farm but couldn’t afford to hire anyone.

“I quit school to help him. I worked on the farm until I was 18 and joined the Civil Conservation Corps [established by FDR during the Depression to provide jobs for unmarried men] to bring in some money. I lived in the CCC camp at Bastrop where I helped build rock cabins at Bastrop Park.

“I was using a cold cut chisel when a piece of the chisel went deep into my leg. It got infected and they took me to an army base hospital in San Antonio. They put in a drain that finally got rid of the infection - but not before the false word got back home that I had lost a leg.”

Later, he was with the CCC in New Mexico where he drove a bulldozer, building ground tanks.

“We lived in barracks. Times were hard. You were glad to get $30 a month. You sent $25 of it back home to help your family and kept $5 for toothpaste and other things you needed. Our food and clothing were furnished.”

He left the camp to return home, and visited Sweetwater where he was able to earn a few dollars. When he returned to his father’s house, his father said he didn’t know how they were going to make it. Seven children would be born after his new marriage.

“I remember putting three 50-cent pieces on the bed. I’ll never forget how grateful my father was that night.”

T.J. returned to live with his aunt and uncle, Roy and Esther Smith, in Sweetwater. Their neighbor made T.J. an offer.

“This neighbor was a good-hearted man. He told me that I could probably get work if I had a bicycle and offered to loan me $5 for a down payment on one.”

T.J. used the bicycle to work for Western Union Telegraph Company.

“I delivered telegrams and made deliveries from a drugstore. It paid 76 cents a day. I saved my pennies and paid the neighbor back and then paid out the bike at $3 a month.”

He went from job to job, working for a meat packing house for one day, and quickly searching for something else that was not so nauseating. He began to haul cattle for his uncle.

That experience would help him in his future.

In 1940, the Selective Service draft was going into effect. Wicker, a friend and a cousin, decided to volunteer for the Army15 days early.

“Back then you could sign up for a year and buy out for $200. That was our plan. We signed up in Sweetwater and rode the train to Fort Ord, Calif., for basic training.

“Since I had experience as a truck driver I was placed in a service company in the Army. I’m convinced that kept me safe. ”

On Dec. 7, 1941, he and friends were on their way to see Judy Garland at a theater. A voice on a loud speaker told all personnel to return to their barracks immediately. Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese.

“I recall that we all left the base and spent the night in another location. Six of us in our company were moved into town into a vacant building. We took care of Army vehicles there.”

World War II was on. Wicker was sent to mechanics school.

“My company had already moved to Alaska by the time I finished the school. I was given a choice of joining them or going to California with another company. I chose to be with the guys I already knew in the 53rd Infantry.

That friendship cost him his comfort.

“We were in Alaska for 17 months — in the Aleutian Islands. We lived in Quonset huts. There was very little daylight and the weather was frigid. We had telephones so that we could contact each other and had to call the others one morning to come dig us out. Snow had covered our front door and we couldn’t budge it.”

He spoke of “Willywas” — storms with 60 mph circular winds.

“We had cleared off the tundra for a mess hall and a buddy and I were walking toward it, about a quarter of a mile away. The wind hit just as we were on a tennis court that was being built. The poles were up already. It had iced over and when the winds hit I grabbed a pole and went round and round one of those poles for the longest time. I never wanted to be cold again.”

His trip by ship to the Aleutian Islands had been a rough one.

“I was so sick that I said after that I’d have to be blindfolded to be put back on a ship. Little did I know that I soon would be sent to Europe.

“With the 242nd Infantry I drove a jeep into Germany from France. The foot soldiers had so much to carry that many of them got rid of their blankets as they walked. I picked them up out of the snow and put them in the Jeep. Sometimes I had as many as 12 blankets and I was still cold.”

He found the German people to be kind and compassionate. They were not in favor of war as were the Nazis, he said.

“As the 242nd Infantry moved toward the front lines, the people let us stay in their homes. They fed us well. I remember one very nice lady who let me sleep on a bed with a feather mattress and cover. It was my first time to drink hot milk.

“The German people were hard working and very clean. Their wooden floors were almost scrubbed white. Their houses were built up off the ground. Often, off to the side they kept their cows.”

The portions of France that he saw, by contrast, had trash in the streets. He found the people to be less hospitable and less industrious.

He considered himself fortunate that he never reached the front lines. One night he was close enough that he saw the big guns flashing in the night, as he drove a lieutenant to the lines for a delivery of whisky.

“Once a month this lieutenant made a delivery. We saw the U.S. anti-aircraft in ditches with the German planes strafing them. The lieutenant bailed out on the ground and I jumped out on top of him.

“Once we were on BIVOUAC [camped-out-field practicing maneuvers]. We were by this big, long, low building — only about 7 feet high — when we heard a plane and saw that it was German. We didn’t think we would be targeted, but suddenly he swooped down and there was machine gun fire barely above our heads, into the building. We scrambled inside in a hurry.”

As the troops moved at night they used only their parking lights on their vehicles, he said. The windshields were lowered for better visibility.

“That posed a problem. The Germans were good at stretching wire across the narrow roads. That could catch you by the neck. I remember rigging up angle iron with a notch in it on the front of my Jeep that would break the wire.”

Wicker grinned and said, “I set my Vienna sausage on the Jeep’s manifold. I had hot gourmet meals all across Europe that way.”

While in Germany, troops received the glorious news that the war had ended.

After more than five years in the U.S. Army, instead of the one year as he had planned, T.J. Wicker welcomed the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. He was discharged Oct. 20, 1945, in San Antonio and promptly bought a ’41 Buick, his first car.

He was welcomed back to Sweetwater at his aunt and uncle’s home. His uncle had a job waiting for him — a meat delivery route in West Texas.

When Wicker’s cousin, Roy Smith, introduced him to Jo Thomas, the sister of his girlfriend, it forever changed his life.

Jo had been born in Sweetwater, but grew up in Cleburne. Her dad, Glen Thomas, a career man with the Santa Fe Railroad, had been transferred out of state after she graduated from Cleburne High School, and then back to Sweetwater. Jo only lacked 30 semester hours at Hardin Simmons University, but had dropped out temporarily because her mother, Frances, was sick and had no one to care for her.

She said, “When I met Wicker I never went back to school. We dated for six months and married at First Baptist Church in Sweetwater, June 16, 1946. The next year his cousin, Roy, who had introduced us, married my sister, Dee.”

During the time they dated, T.J. found out something he didn’t know.

“I had never been to church. I thought I was OK because I had never done anything really bad. But Jo explained to me how to become a Christian, and I was baptized before we married. No one had ever explained it to me before. Without her, I would have been a different person.”

After they married, T.J. decided he was away from home too much, driving his meat delivery route, and he made Venetian blinds for a man there in Sweetwater. Then he worked for the Sweetwater Fire Department, and also drove extra for Gillette Transport.

By the time Gillette moved them to Stanton, their daughters, Vicki and Celia, had been born.

Jo said, “I absolutely hated Stanton. It was nothing but sand. Wicker was gone a lot, and I remember putting one little girl on either side of me when I went to bed.”

In 1951, they came to Cleburne on vacation. He put in his application for a job with General Dynamics, but a friend asked him why he didn’t work for the Santa Fe Railroad.

He said, “Babe McCall was general foreman and was a friend of Glen, Jo’s father. Glen was still with the railroad. I got on, and they sent me to a union man who wanted to know if I had any electrical experience. I had worked at an auto mechanic shop in Sweetwater, and the guy there wrote a letter of recommendation for me.

Later, Wicker became a part of the Santa Fe’s CF7 Rebuild Program, called by Santa Fe’s Web site “the most ambitious locomotive rebuild program by any United States railroad.”

The project reportedly extended the lifetime of the engines some 50 years and put Cleburne on the locomotive map, bringing visitors from all over the world.

June, 1983 Santa Fe Magazine wrote, “In 1970, Cleburne began the re-manufacturing process of disassembling the familiar, and older, round-nose passenger and freight-type diesel locomotives and producing new road switchers.”

Wicker, one of 30 electricians on the project, retired in May of 1981, with 30 years tenure, some eight years before the shops closed in Cleburne in 1989.

Jo had worked at the Santa Fe Shops all that time, as well, although their paths at work never crossed.

She said, “I was a steno in the Purchasing and Stores Department. I had the same job for 34 years. When Wicker had been retired for three years I was too young to retire, but I decided I wanted to be off with him. All those years we were never laid off. We were able to save our money and send both our girls to college. We were treated well.”

The Wickers’ two daughters, Vicki Eckles of College Station and Celia Albertson of Dallas, are CHS graduates.

Jo said, “We have wonderful sons-in-law and two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren that we treasure. We will celebrate 60 years of marriage in June.”

The Wickers are active members of Field Street Baptist Church. From 1976 to 2004 they were members of the Cleburne Curli-Qs, a square dance group. They enjoyed the Satellite Camping Club from 1979 until 2005 when they reluctantly sold their RV.

In March, 2005, in a tragic accident in his home workshop, T.J. almost severed the fingers and thumb of his left hand. He was rushed to John Peter Smith Hospital.

She recalled, “About 2 a.m. a doctor came in to talk to me. He asked me if I thought they should go ahead and amputate. Friends were with us, and we prayed about it. I told the surgeon to reattach them.”

The surgery was successful, but there are some limitations. Wicker says he can’t grip a golf club or shuffle playing cards anymore.

He grinned. “That’s okay. I have an automatic card shuffler and a holder for the cards. Jo and I play gin rummy every day and we play Mexican Train with friends every week.”

There’s the railroad again — still helping him stay on track.

Larue Barnes may be reached at laruebarnes@yahoo.com

Source: Santa Fe’s CF7 Rebuild Program Photo Highlights Web site.

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