She's mighty tall and handsome,
She's known quite well by all,
She's the 'boes accommodation
On the Wabash Cannonball
"Ho, Blackie," chorused the 'boes as he walked through the jungle.
"Lo Ray. How's your bursitis?" He saw the grimace as Ray lifted his arm in greeting. He knew then that Ray was suffering his annual bout with the dread malady. It was a dire problem for a 'bo. Hopping a train is almost impossible with inflamed shoulder joints.
"How's it goin' Grits?" The grizzled, lean old man smiled his toothless grin as Blackie passed by. Grits got his nickname from his favorite food of course. He hadn't had a tooth to chew with for many years, but grits were nourishing and, if one had a little butter, even delicious.
"Yo, Friar." Friar had obtained his nickname from his proper name which was "Tuck." What a great handle, Blackie thought. When he saw Friar, he immediately thought of Merry Men and a group of inseparable comrades. Perhaps the 'boes were "Merry Men" in actuality. It was nice to think so.
He plopped his bundle down near the fire and warmed his hands over the flame. The Indiana autumn could be bitter and this was an example. The wind was sharp and biting. Nothing felt better than a warm fire in the jungle when the wind cut through to the bone. He turned to warm his backside and listened to the wind soughing through the sycamores. Was it playing a tune?
No, it was a guitar heard faintly from a distance. The sound must have been coming from another camp, upwind. He could see the glimmer of other fires through the trees and the murmur of conversation borne on the wind. The tune, as he heard it, seemed mournful as hobo songs often were. But Blackie was feeling pretty good, better maybe than the 'bo whose guitar tune he heard carried by the wind.
The smell of beans wafted over the campfire as he sat on a folded, day-old newspaper to insulate his bottom from the chilled earth. A young buck that he had never seen before handed him a tin plate of steaming beans and a nickel-plated fork lifted from some diner years before. Blackie dug into the beans. He didn't really relish beans that much, but they were filling and he knew they were nutritious. They had been the mainstay of the hobo diet for decades. Sometimes a chicken from a local farmer's yard or a soup made from dog bones given away by the butcher would add variety to the diet. Blackie recalled with nostalgic pleasure how a new widow had fed him a roast beef dinner once, so many years ago he could not count them. The meat was delicious and the potatoes were heavenly, drowned in rich brown savory gravy. He had eaten very slowly, cherishing each and every bite. And well he should; it was the last beef he would experience for many years.
The Professor, who it was said had read every book ever written, was expounding about something. Blackie hardly listened, but the oration seemed to be about politics. He heard Truman's name mentioned, and he knew that Truman was the new president. It didn't seem important who was president. In the scheme of things, the actions of the president, indeed the acts of the government in any form or substance, never had much effect on his life. Peacetime, wartime ... it was all the same. Republicans or Democrats or communists, no matter who was in power, the hobo's existence remained the nomad's life and the one constant was keeping on the move.
Today a woman had brandished a broom at him and said, "Get out of here, you dirty tramp!" He was not a tramp. He was neither a vagrant nor a beggar. He was neither a thief nor a criminal. He was not a gypsy. He, like all 'boes, greatly resented being called a tramp.
He was a hobo and an esteemed member of the ancient order of road knights. He was a bindlestiff and proud of the heritage. But he and his comrades were a disappearing breed. The youngster who had handed him the plate of beans was the first young 'bo Blackie had seen in months. Most were nearly as old as he was, some older.
He finished his beans and leaned back against a sycamore and closed his eyes. The Professor was droning on and Truman was catching hell. Blackie drifted off ...
... only to be awakened by the shrill whistle of a locomotive. The faraway wail of the whistle blowing the crossing warning was like a call to arms. The 'bo's trumpet call. Long, long, short and extra long. Sometimes you could even identify the engineer by the cadence of the whistle signal.
The steam locomotive's whistle was gradually being replaced by the diesel air horn. It wasn't the same. The steam engines were majestic; their whistles spoke to the hoboes. The diesels were modern, smooth, powerful and totally without heart. The world was changing. And not necessarily for the better.
The whistle blew again. It always stirred his heart when he heard the whistle. Something inside said "It's time to go." Or "There's a better place just down the line." Every hobo was looking for the better place. What was the definition of "better place?"
To some 'bos it was simply a place with a good meal or a warm place to sleep. Others dreamed of tropical climes, palm trees and warm breezes.
Blackie recalled the song he had heard when he was a kid. The lyrics continued to haunt him:
O, the buzzin of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the Big Rock Candy Mountain
He supposed it was his personal "better place," never far from his mind when he hopped a train. He knew Big Rock Candy Mountain didn't exist but so what? Lots of places people aspired to didn't exist. If his personal paradise was imaginary, it didn't deter him from dreaming about it.
The whistle blew again. Closer. The Professor was still pontificating. The fire didn't seem as warm and he was feeling the chill of falling asleep without cover. He rubbed his hands and held them, palms out, to the fire. The flames cast an orange glow over each and every hobo face. Even in the warm light of the campfire, the faces were lined and world-weary. There were no smiles. No laughter.
Blackie heaved his creaky frame erect and he grabbed his bundle.
"Where you goin', Blackie?" asked Ray.
"Headin' for a land that's far away ..." he responded so softly the other couldn't make it out. "Beside the crystal fountain," more softly.
"Too old for this weather," explained Blackie. "I'm goin' south."
"Ain't no trains this time o'night, Blackie," said the Professor, who knew everything. He had, after all, read every book ever written. If you doubt it, ask him and he'll set you straight.
The whistle. Definitely coming from the north. The train was still far enough that he could make it to the tracks before it passed.
"Hear that whistle? Unless my hobo ears are lyin' to me, that train is heading my direction," Blackie said.
The men around the campfire looked at each other questioningly but not one said a word. One of the 'boes patted Blackie on the back as he passed. It was an unusual show of affection for a hobo.
"Gad be with ye," said toothless Grits as Blackie passed into the trees and out of sight. The other 'boes murmured something and sat down closer to the fire, for there was a sudden chill that everyone felt.
Blackie hurried through the trees toward the main line track that he knew was there. Brambles pulled at his pants as he ran. There was no time to find a clear trail. He ducked the low sycamore limbs, holding his bundle close lest it be snatched from his grasp by an unseen branch.
I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the sleet don't fall
And the winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
He burst from the trees into the area kept clear by the train crews. There was the gravel berm and the twin ribbons of track glimmering in the moonlight. The berm was narrow and high at this point and Blackie knew that hopping a box-car would be very difficult even for a younger, more agile man from such a place. He ran along the track searching for a better vantage from which to mount a moving boxcar. The thought occurred to him that the train might well be moving too fast to climb aboard. He was bound to try, though, for Blackie was forever an optimist.
The whistle of the locomotive sounded and now it was very close. It definitely was a southbound train, and the engine must be just around the bend behind him. A few yards ahead the silver moonlight revealed that the berm flattened out and a signal tower stood silhouetted against the sky. Fate had smiled on him once again.
Just as Blackie reached the signal tower, the train came up behind him. He turned and saw that his luck was holding, the train was moving slowly. As the locomotive passed him, Blackie could clearly see that it was resplendent in a glossy bright blue livery with gold striping. No common freight train had ever looked like this. The rush of the drivers still bespoke of power and majesty even though pumping at a slow speed. The beautiful blue tender went past and "Wabash" glinted from its side like bright neon as the gold lettering caught and reflected the light of the full moon.
Blackie ran alongside the train, breathing heavily. Soon the boxcars started by, the full ones first with their sliding doors sealed and locked. In this consist, the empty cars would be near the end of the train. He looked back as he ran and saw the caboose lights coming around the curve.
An empty boxcar, door open, rushed up behind the running hobo. Blackie saw it and reached for the handrail of the car as it passed. There was a sudden pain in his chest, a terrible crushing pain that almost brought him to his knees. But hands reached out of the boxcar and caught his sleeve, pulling him aboard. He collapsed on the wooden floor of the car, out of breath, exhausted and in agony.
A face appeared close to his. "You all right, mate?"
Blackie nodded. "Thanks, 'bo," he was able to croak. He dragged his body over to some empty pallets stacked in a corner and sat up with the pallets as a backrest. There he sat gasping for breath, his chest feeling as if an elephant was resting on it. A hand appeared out of the dim interior of the car and he felt a bottle placed gently to his lips. Smelled like whiskey. He took a sip, then another. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious.
The dim light went dimmer. His consciousness slipped away.
He woke in the dining car. A waiter in a white jacket handed him a menu. "The roast beef is very good, sir," the waiter smiled.
Blackie looked around. The cherry paneling was burnished to a high luster. Lacquered brass light fixtures with opal glass globes. The table in front of him was covered with snow-white linen and set with polished silver flatware and porcelain dinnerware with the texture and color of alabaster. He picked up a crystal goblet and stared at the rainbow glint from the pattern cut into the glass. It had been years since he had drunk from anything but a tin cup.
"I understand that you will want to consider the selection before you choose. Just signal when you are ready to order." The waiter held up a beckoning finger in demonstration.
"But I have no money ..."
"It is all paid for, sir. No need to worry." The waiter stepped to another table.
His hand held the menu but his eyes strayed to the window. He knew the train was making time. The clack of the wheels on the track was a very rapid staccato. The dark trees flashed by in a blur. Occasionally there would be a clearing and the lights of the train cars could be seen reflected in the broad expanse of water that must be the river. It had to be the Wabash yet it seemed too wide. He could not see a far shore. It was as if the train was travelling parallel to the coast and the water was the ocean. Not possible, of course, as he was 800 miles from the nearest ocean.
What seemed certain was that the train was preternaturally long. When a clearing was reached, the reflections of the lights of the cars extended great distances both forward and behind. The infrequent whistle of the locomotive came from a great distance. Blackie scratched his head and dismissed the problem. It was an illusion of some sort.
He turned his attention to the other diners. They were all engaged in quiet, genteel conversation. There was not a hobo among them. He looked down at his clothes and saw the soiled, gray jersey shirt he had worn for months. It did need washing. His canvas jacket was worn at the elbows and collar but still serviceable. His heavy wool army pants would last forever. Their once knife-edged crease had long since succumbed to humidity and neglect but they were warm and comfortable. His long johns still scratched his hide so he knew they were there.
His bundle was missing, but the lack of it seemed a blessing rather than a loss. He settled back into the brocade cushions of the chair and luxuriated. How he came to be here he could not fathom, but a hobo knew a damn good thing when he ran across it.
The waiter came back eventually. Blackie supposed he had drifted off again because the waiter was tugging at his sleeve. "Allow me to bring you the roast beef, sir. I can guarantee it will be superior to the widow Greeley's in every respect. And I know how you loved the meal she served up.
"Some of your friends are on the train," the waiter continued. "I will be happy to take you to them when you have dined. And your mother has been waiting eagerly to see you for so long."
Blackie returned the waiter's smile. It had finally occurred to him. He was travelling on the "boes accommodation." He was on the Cannonball.
His earthly days are over
And the curtains 'round him fall
We'll carry him home to victory
On the Wabash Cannonball