The Running Man
Gale E. Christianson describes the young Loren Eiseley as the running man in “Fox at the Wood’s Edge,” his biography of the multifaceted writer-anthropologist-philosopher. But Christianson writes that Eiseley somehow always found the road home. Actually, the running man epithet originated with Eiseley in his autobiography, “All the Strange Hours.”
According to Christianson, Eiseley hopped freight trains and rode the boxcars for at least three or four years, both alone and with his friends. He finally hooked up with the wandering brotherhood of freight hoppers, sometimes called hobos or tramps by society.
All humans are at some point wanderers and drifters—running men. But the good news is that we, like the youthful Loren Eiseley, always have the possibility and opportunity to find the road home.
Eiseley remembered an event during his fifth year that had a profound effect on his life from that day forward. The same year that the Titanic sank, three prisoners escaped from the Nebraska State Penitentiary near where the Eiseley family lived in Lincoln. Loren’s father, after reading the account in the newspaper, remarked, “They’ll never make it.”
For days the prisoners evaded their pursuers through a howling blizzard. Loren’s dad read him the newspaper accounts of the tragic events as they unfolded. At last, the posse trapped the men and shot them. They never made it. And Loren never forgot.
“I identified with the man (the leader of the fugitive band),” Eiseley wrote, “as I always had across the years.” Remembering his years of running, he remarked to a friend, “We never made it.”
The Running Man Begins
An early incident became a precursor of his later restless travels. The family now lived in Aurora, Nebraska. Against his father’s injunction, Loren joined a pack of local boys he’d befriended and ran off through the fields with his mother in pursuit. “I ran, and with me ran my childish companions, over fences, tumbling down haystacks.” His mother couldn’t catch him. “Escape, escape the first stirrings of the running man. Miles of escape,” Eiseley wrote.
But even at that tender young age, little Loren found the road home. “Walking home alone in the twilight, I was bitterly ashamed.”
Christianson describes Eiseley’s years riding boxcars westward with the wandering brotherhood of freight hoppers as “Phantom travelers on a phantom track, running from the past, the present, and the future.”
As the last of his drifting days approached, the train he had hopped stopped in Kansas City. He encountered a kindly switchman in the dark who asked, “Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” “I’m going home,” the young wanderer replied.
Many miles of track lay between Eiseley and home. Sometimes the way home is a long, long road. A road traveled by many a wayfarer, including the prodigal son of whom Jesus of Nazareth spoke in Luke 15:11-32.
The parable begins with a father’s youngest son growing tired of staying at home. He demanded his inheritance and left home to pursue the good life in a far country. We don’t know what country. It doesn’t matter. What happened to the son during his sojourn matters very much.
The Scripture records that “he squandered his property in reckless living” (Luke 15:13). Not only did he spend everything, but he also began starving because of a severe famine in the land. He became so needy that he hired himself out to a farmer who sent him to feed the pigs. The young man’s desperation drove him to crave the husks fed to the pigs, but no one gave him anything.
What happens next becomes the turning point in the story. “But when he came to himself, he said, How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17). The road home for the prodigal divides into three sections.
First, he remembered. What did he remember? He remembered his father. He remembered the well-fed hired servants in his father’s house. He remembered an abundance of bread. He remembered the privileged life he once had at home.
Second, he resolved, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” The fact he saw his wasteful living not only as an offense to his father, but also as a sin against “heaven,” gives us a peek into the young man’s heart. This and his next resolution depicted a radical change.
He resolved to say to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). The young son acquired perhaps the most difficult life skill we humans can learn: humility. The road home requires that. Returning after jumping the fence for greener pastures amounts to an acknowledgment that, “I was wrong.”
Here, many a prodigal does not follow through. Pride swells up and impedes the return. It’s possible to fall, but not fall far enough to change the heart. Such was not the case with the prodigal son. He’d learned a lesson no university can teach. Nothing could stand in his way. The running man set out on the road home.
The prodigal’s return became a resurrection of sorts. He had been as good as dead in the far country. His return to his father’s house represented a return to life from the dead. The prodigal’s father even announced to the household, “This my son was dead, and is alive again” (Luke 15:24).
The Way Home
Loren Eiseley lived the life of a skeptic regarding religious matters. Yet at the last, he knew the way home. “I feel my hour coming. I am anxious to press on. They wait for me…”
Eiseley became a close friend with an elderly doctor who, in his late eighties, began succumbing to the ravages of time. A picture on the doctor’s wall fascinated Eiseley. It showed a long lane with a house in the distance. Eiseley thought, “He’ll be walking that road soon to the big house of his childhood,” adding, “He will be all right. He will know where to go… most of us lose our way when the time comes.”
But not all. Jesus said, “where I go you know, and the way you know.” May we all know the way home when our running days are over.