Angels Come in the Strangest Form

Joachim Christopher Martens believed in angels, especially the Angel of Peace.

He migrated to the United States from Bremen, Germany to escape war. He found in western Pennsylvania a land just like home.


The farm he bought had shale fields. In order to grow corn, he lifted a piece of shale, dropped a kernel of corn, let the shale down on it and poured a tin can of water on top of it.

To grow hay, he plowed a field atop a hill behind his barn and farm house. He sowed the seed, mowed the hay when it had matured, raked it into piles, and loaded it on a hay wagon pulled by two horses–Blackie and Bruce.

Pulled the load? Actually guided the wagon down th steep hill and into the barn. By strenuous braking and the holding back by Blackie and Bruce, the wagon barely stopped on the threshing floor of the barn. The hay was then tossed by hand into the hay mow in the top of the barn.

Once unloaded the wagon departed through a second door. This time the wagon was pulled up the hill for another load.

Now Chris, as they called Joachim Christopher Martens, had a little 2-year-old angel he adored nmed Flora Blanche.

Sometimes he would let her place the corn kernels under the shale pieces.

Sometimes he would let her ride on Bruce’s back to the stable after Bruce was unhitched from the wagon after a day’s work.

And sometimes he’d just walk carefully when little Flora Blanche was under his feet as he went about the chores.

He had never bought any of his other children toys. “Waste of money,” he said. But he bought Flora Blanche a doll.

Her favorite place to play with the doll was in the barn on the threshing floor. She would pretend the doll was tossing hay up into the hay mow. Or that the doll was riding Bruce to the stable.

Chris had warned Flora Blanche not to play in the barn when he was making hay. “I can’t stop the horses until they are completely on the threshing floor,” he had explained.

But what does a 2-year-old understand about horses and threshing floors? So one day she was playing on the threshing floor just as Chris was hauling back on the brake lever to slow the wagon on it’s descent down the hill.

As the horses guided the wagon into a turn to enter the barn, Chris saw her. He was already pulling on the brake lever with all his might.

“Gott im himmel!” he cried as he yanked on the reins to hold the horses back. But at that moment Bruce took the bit in his teeth and it was useless to pull on his reins.

Chris could visualize the big hoofs kicking the little girl senseless Or worse, the large iron-banded wheels rolling over her like a great buzz saw cutting her in half.

He was crazy with agony. His only thought was to shoot Bruce for taking the bit in his teeth.

Then the miracle happened. As Bruce reached Flora Blanche, he let go of the bit. He reached down. He grabbed her dress in his teeth. He picked her up. He gently put her back down when the wagon stopped.

The Martens family ever after claimed Bruce was an angel in disguise.

And Chris didn’t shoot him.

This is a true story that happened to my grandmother as a girl. I’ve heard family members repeat it many times.

Who Are the Angels?

Picture a sailor on leave from San Francisco walking down Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, Florida. He is unaware that there are angels about. He has his thumb out. Sweat trickles down under his collar.

He has just left his girl friend. She was the reason he had hitch-hiked over 3000 miles. If he were asked if there were Angels in the neighborhood, he would indicate her.

Now, he was going to hitch-hike even farther. He would travel first to Western Maryland to see his father. He’d enjoy the mountains, “that make you feel safe,” as one mountaineer put it.

Then on up the road to Pittsburgh. The “Smoky City.” He hadn’t found it very smoky. His mother lived there.

Then on back across the plains, Rockies, and desert to San Francisco to catch the Rendova before it left for Korea.

As he walks backward, thumb out, a large Cadillac pulls up.

“Hop in,” the driver says.

They drive up Biscayne Boulevard a short distance.

“You’ll never catch a ride in town,” the driver tells him. “I’ll take you out to the edge of town. Where ya heading.”

The sailor doesn’t want to go into a lot of detail. He simply says, “Pittsburgh.”

“Pittsburgh?” says the driver, showing interest. “That’s where I’m from. What part?”

“East Liberty.”

“East Liberty! That’s where I grew up.”

The sailor is beginning to get a little suspicious at all these coincidences. He asks, “What’s the name of that main drag?”

“You mean Baum Boulevard,” replies the driver.

“You ever been out to Fox Chapel?” asks the sailor.

“Lots of times. One of my favorite places to go riding.”

The sailor knows he means horseback riding. He laughs. “Don’t say horses to me,” he tells the driver. “I was skinny dipping there and a couple of girls rode up to where I was. They giggled and stayed there several minutes. I was totally embarrassed.”

He feels better about this guy being legitimate.

“Shoulda just come up outta the water and shown them everything you had,” says the driver.

“Problem is, I was just a kid. Didn’t have anything to show them.”

They both laugh.

The sailor changes the subject.

“That was only embarrassing. I almost lost my head when I joined the Boulevard Bums Athletic Club. I had to go a round with a guy name of Ronnie as initiation and...”

“The Golden Gloves fighter? You went a round with him?”

The sailor doesn’t like being cut off like that. On the other hand he appreciates the respect in the other’s voice.

The driver continues. “I was a Boulevard Bum–am a Boulevard Bum. We’re brothers, you and me.”

The sailor suddenly is pressed against the door as the big Caddie swerves in a U-turn.

“Where we going?” asks the sailor in alarm. He catches a glimpse of a gun under the man’s coat.

“I’m going to get you to Pittsburgh,” the driver tells him.

Soon they turn into a sign painter’s parking lot.

“C’mon,” says the driver. He walks up to the lone figure in the shop. “Tony,” he says, “my brother here is going to Pittsburgh. He’s thumbing it. Fix him something that’ll get him there. Then give him a ride up the road where he’s past local traffic.”

“Got ‘cha,” Tony replies.

The driver leaves the sailor in the shop splotched with color and smelling like turpentine.

Tony takes a piece of fiberboard and quickly outlines a fist with a thumb oversized and prominently sticking out. He fills in the detail until there is no doubt that it represents a hitch-hikers hand and thumb.

Across the palm of the hand he letters Going to Pittsburgh. With a box cutter he cuts out the figure. Reaching into a box of advertizing yardsticks he removes one and staples the fist to the yardstick.

Now there is a large hitch-hikers hand stating Going to Pittsburgh with a handle to hold it high.

One last step is to spray it with a solution to make it waterproof. The fumes almost gag the pair, but Tony flips witch to an exhaust fan. The air is promptly breathable.

The sailor watches with fascination as he asks, “Who was that guy? He’s a real guardian angel”

“Yeah,: laughs Tony. Somewhat nervously the sailor thinks. Tony answers the question. “Here,” he says. “I’ll write down his name and local address in case you want to drop him a note and thank him.”

He takes a marking pen and writes on the back of the hand-shaped sign.

With hand in hand, the sailor makes good time, first to Maryland, then to Pittsburgh.

He welcomes the cool mountain breezes in Maryland. Miami had been hot, but DC was positively scorching.

Pittsburgh was a bit hotter than Maryland. And smokier than he remembered.

It’s not hard to find the Pittsburgh Press Building. Dad Jim works there as a political cartoonist for the Press.

Dad Jim is Mother’s new husband.

“Hey Jim,” calls one of the workers over the hubbub of the press room. “There’s a kid here says he’s your son. He’s wearing a sailor suit.?”

The sailor blushes.

Dad Jim notices his embarrassment. “Carl, you ninny!” he yells at the speaker. “That’s no suit. It’s a uniform. My kid’s in the navy. He’s on his way to Korea to get his tail shot off. Have more respect.”

There is deliberately half-hearted applause from the pressroom gang.

The sailor is more embarrassed at Dad Jim’s outburst than at the joshing of the press room character. But he is grateful as well.

“So, what brings you here,” says Dad Jim.

“Just passing through on my way back to my ship. Thought I’d drop in and say hi to Mother,” the sailor tells him, “And you,” he adds.

“I figured that,” says Dad Jim. “I mean here at the Press?”

“This is as far as I got. So far,” Says the sailor. He holds up the sign and tells his story. “He’s like a guardian angel,” finishes the sailor, “picking me up like that, from Pittsburgh, from East Liberty, a member of the Boulevard Bums, knowing just the right sign painter to help me. It’s really eerie.”

“Hey. That’d make a good human interest story. ‘Pittsburgh man helps gang member’.”

“The Bums are an athletic club,” says the sailor.

“‘Gang’ sounds better,” laughs Dad Jim. He looks to the other side of the pressroom. “Hey, Jake. Let’s get a picture of this.”

Jake walks over. “Be better outside. We can stand him next to the building name. Holding the gizmo with it’s thumb pointing at the name.”

“You’re the photog,” Jim tells him.

As they head outside Dad Jim tells the sailor how it will work. “You’ll tell your story to a re-write man. He’ll copy down notes on your story. Then he’ll use the notes to create a human interest story to run with the photo.”

The photographer positions the sailor and his hand-sign as he’d said.

“What’s the ‘angel’s’ name,” he asks.

The sailor tells him.

Startled Dad Jim asks, “You sure?”

“Hey. It’s written right on the back of this sign,” the sailor tells him.

“Hold that gizmo still,” shouts the photographer.

As soon s the picture is taken, Dad Jim grabs the sailor;’s arm and says “Come with me.” He takes the sailor straight to the editor’s office.

An annoyed editor looks up from work on his desk.

“I’m busy, Jim,” he says.

“Chief, just take 2 minutes to listen to this kid’s story. I’ll guarantee it’s front page,” Jim answers.

“Well, you don’t come in here making wild claims all the time,” mutters the editor. “What’s your story, son?”

The editor is slightly bored, like he’s heard all this before, as the sailor recites once again the bare bones of the story. He figures the editor isn’t the religious type, so he voids references to angels. The editor suddenly comes alive when the sailor gets to the driver’s name.

“Hold it! Hold it!” he shouts. Then shouts again, “Get me re-write reporter in here!” The editor picks up three photos from his desk. “Any of these look like the man you’re talking about?”

The sailor instantly points to one of the photos.

When the re-write man gets to the office, the editor tells the sailor, “Tell this man what you told me. Detail for detail.” Turning to Dad Jim, he says, “Get Jake in here. We want a picture of this kid and his sign.”

“Already done, Chief,” Dad Jim tells him.

A completely puzzled sailor tells his story for the third time.

On the trolley home, as it sways side to side on the uneven tracks, Dad Jim explains.

“There was a gang war last Monday. Your angel’s gang and a rival gang.”

“The Bums?” exclaims the sailor excitedly. Everyone in the car looks at him.

“No,” says Dad Jim. “A real gang. Your friend is the leader of a mob.”

“No wonder Tony laughed when I called him an angel,” thought the sailor to himself.

Dad Jim continues. “The police have been looking for him all week to question him. He is their prime suspect. But now you are his alibi.”

The sailor thinks for a minute. “I hope I don’t get involved in an investigation and miss my ship.”

“No problem,” says Dad Jim. “The police will want a statement. The editor will give them the statement the re-write man typed up for you. That’s why he had you sign it.”

“Wants to get me out of town before any other paper can interview me, eh?”

“That did cross my mind,” admits Dad Jim, “but I think mostly he wants to protect you from the insensitive grilling you might go through as the police try to break your story.”

“Break my story? Why would I lie?”

“For money,” Dad Jim tells him. “It was pretty convenient for him, you showing up like you did. Tell the truth, I would have been pretty suspicious of your story if you weren’t my son.”

The sailor feels a little funny having Dad Jim call him “my son.”

“But now that they can locate where he was during the gun battle,” continues Dad Jim. “They’ll find dozens of people to verify his presence in Miami. The sign painter., A priest if he attended mass on Sunday. The agent at the car rental agency. Waiters. They won’t need you. But don’t jay walk. They hate you right now. They’d love to get their hands on you.”

“No problem. I have to leave tomorrow anyhow.”

“Look,” says Dad Jim, “I can loan you money for a ticket...

“Thanks” cuts in the sailor, “but I really want to hitch-hike. I want to be able to say I hitch-hiked from coast to coast and back again.”

Dad Jim smiles. He is silent for a moment, looking out the window of the trolley at store fronts, houses crammed between businesses, occasional vacant lots littered with trash and junk. He turns back to the sailor.

“O.K.” says Dad Jim. “But the offer stands if you change your mind.

At the apartment Dad Jim has the sailor wait outside the door as he enters.

“Honey, I’m home,” he calls. When she enters the room he gives her a kiss and says, “I found out today your son was involved in the shooting last Monday.”

His wife catches her breath.

“Don’t even joke about a thing like that,” she tells Dad Jim somewhat crossly.

“It’s true, Mother," says the sailor as he walks into the room. “You can read about it in the paper tomorrow.”

His mother cries out his name and rushes to hug him.

The sailor tell the story for the fourth time.

“Jim, you’ve got to give him the money to get a ticket.”

“He already offered, Mother. But I’m going to make it on my own.”

“Jim, talk to him,” she says.

“Hey, he’s a man now. He’s off to war. Cut the apron strings, Margie,” says Dad Jim.

Margie recoils at each sentence. She’s obviously hurt.

The sailor feels more like Dad Jim’s son than ever before.

Dad Jim puts his arm around his wife’s shoulder. He says, “Besides, when that article runs, he’ll have enough to buy ten tickets.”

“What do you mean?” asks the sailor.

“It’s these crazy Pittsburghers,” says Dad Jim. “Once they read you’re hitch-hiking back to your ship, they’re going to start sending you money to help you get there. That’s the paper you signed, giving the paper authority to deposit such money into an account and disburse it according to your instructions.”

“I don’t want money that comes in that way. It’s because of the sign. It’ll be like tainted money. Like money the crime boss gave me himself.”

“So, what do you want done with the money?” asks Dad Jim.

“Give it to a church. No, it’ll be coming from people from different churches. Don’t you have a community charity of some kind?”

“The Community Chest,” suggests Dad Jim.

“That’ll be fine,” says the sailor.

“I’ll have Marge drive you to the state fine in the morning. So you don’t get picked up for hitch-hiking. It’s illegal in this state, you know,” says Dad Jim.

“It’s illegal in Ohio, too,” says the sailor. “But better picked up there than in P. A. at this particular time”

The next day, across the Ohio line, Margie pulls into a truck stop at the sailor’s request. She gives him a kiss and tries to get him to take a $20 bill. He pushes it back and says. “Buy yourself a hat and a new pair of shoes.”

“With $20?” she asks in mock surprise, and quickly turns away to hide her tears.

As the sailor rides in the passenger seat of the eighteen wheeler, the people at the Community Chest back in Pittsburgh are saying what an angel that sailor is.

And one particular contribution from a certain mob boss includes a note, “Make sure that sailor gets this check for $1000. He’s my real guardian angel.”

Watch this page for the next true Angel story soon to be published.

You will find more angel stories at I Believe in Angels

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