Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sand On The Tracks - A Bum Finds His Beach

It started in a rail yard in 1930...
East Brunswick, Maryland
A hobo was being escorted from the property for the umpteenth and final time.  Scabpicker Rump, whose name is not important, had worked for the B&O, and had helped build and maintain some of the bridges and viaducts that carried the rails over the creeks and rivers that feed the Potomac.  He had been fired for insubordination.

His parents had abandoned him when he was ten, because they had grown tired of his "unflagging need for supper, every single night."  He later learned that they had both been killed in a bizarre ice skating accident the police had labeled "suspicious."  

As he was kicked out of Brunswick yard that chilly fall evening, Lemmy, the burly watchman, who Rump had known for years, gave him a piece of advice that would change his life.  "I know times are tough, old friend, but if you're gonna be a hobo, you gotta head south in the winter - like the snowbirds that migrate from New York City to Florida every fall.  And I hear they still need labor to maintain the FEC's Key West extension."

"That's a mighty long way from here, Lemmy," Scabpicker sighed.

"Think about it, buddy.  Parts of it get washed out by hurricanes every other year, seems to me, and it's all bridges.  They could probably use a man like you."

"Thanks for the tip.  I'll think about it."

Three months of hard hobo-ing later, Scabpicker Rump was working again, helping to maintain, among three dozen others, this bridge...
The old Bahia Honda Bridge, connecting Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor Key - Photo by [Maris]

It didn't take long for him to prove the old "once a hobo, always a hobo" adage I just made up, and within a year, he was fired - for insubordination.  But he had fallen in love with both the Overseas Railroad and the beach.  He occasionally stowed away on trains, but mostly he walked the rails and "his bridges" between Key Largo and Key West.  His hobo name was amended slightly, and he came to be known, down here at the end of road, as Scabpicker Sandy Rump.

And he sat.  He sat on the sand - actually crushed coral, in most cases - and drank and fished and stole coconuts and stone crabs.  Gradually, his hobo life transformed into that of a beach bum.  When the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 destroyed most of Henry Flagler's beloved overseas railroad - this time beyond repair - Scabpicker Sandy Rump stayed in Key West, where he lived his remaining years in challenging but happy homelessness.  

In 1937, his old friend Lemmy received a long, rambling letter from Scabpicker.  Much of it was nearly incomprehensible, drunken blather, but it had one paragraph of clarity:

"People come to these beaches and marvel at the white sand and the iridescent water, but I hardly pay those things any mind.  I love the AIR at the land's end.  I find it utterly delicious.  I am reborn with every breath of it.  It's salty and warm, sure, but there's more to it, down here.  At the beach, even with hardly a wave in sight, the air is filled with sound.  At some beaches, when the wind turns around, the air is filled with sea life aromas that send the snowbirds scurrying back to their hotels, but I love that rotten smell; to me, it smells of life.  During Key West summers, the air is heavy and sticky and the clouds get unruly, but I love that, too.  For it's not just salt or heat or fish, nor is it simply that this place is becoming a playground.  There is something in the air here that I feel blessed and privileged to sense.  This air, my friend, is absolutely soaked through with MAGIC."

Magic Key West Air

[This post was written in response to a prompt - a writing prompt - from my friends at Studio Thirty Plus.  Please stop by and check out some of the fine writers who hang out at S30P!]


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obligatory Valentine's Message From Gallant: Sometimes, They Do

My Dearest [Soul Mate],

     I pray this letter finds you well, I hope that you have opened it, this time, and further allow myself to dream that you are reading it.  Yes, I still walk beside the silver ribbons of commerce and transportation.  No, I won't be home for this year's St. Valentine's Day.  Yes, I wish I could be.  I mean to be there, but not until I can tell you that I am once more gainfully-employed.  I promise you that I am trying.

If you are still reading this, I can hear you as you make that little "tut-tut" sound and say - aloud, to the cat - "Hoboes never keep their promises."  Angel of my heart, know this:  Sometimes, they do.  I have faltered, these past four years, and allowed destitution, sickness and despair to rule my world.  But Sweetness, it cannot be said that I'm not trying to mend my broken life.

Lest you forget, there have been other times you've bandied that word about - never.  "I'll never find a soul mate, for there is no such thing as one perfect mate for any soul," you said.  "No one finds a perfect match."  With my help, you later admitted that yes, sometimes, they do.

I remember your friends (and mine), back in '26, telling you not to wait for me.  Do you recall what they said, O Light of My Heart?  "A man will never ever marry his mistress," they said.  Well, while I must admit that that is generally true, sometimes, they do.

Then they said that a love such as ours wouldn't last a week.  It did.  Some gave us a year.  My mother, bless her soul, gave us two.  "Such marriages don't last," we were told.  Well, sometimes, they do.

My friends along the tracks have told me that a woman like you has surely declared her husband dead, or had the marriage annulled, and long-since remarried by now.  I should accept that my "walk around the block for a breath of fresh air," now nearly four years long, was the end of us.  Beautiful, smart, strong women such as yourself never take back their wayward men.  As I type this letter (don't ask what I had to do in order to borrow a typewriter), I can only pray that sometimes, they do.

You see, my angel, my dawn, my light, while I won't be home in time for St. Valentine's, I estimate that I will be there by the sixteenth.  I'll understand if you have gone, or refuse to see me, but I promised you I would find my way back to you.  I know they say that "Hoboes never keep their promises," and I have no doubt that it's true.

But sometimes, they do.

With all of my heart,
Your Gallant

P.S. - It's Reginald, if you had failed to surmise.  Gallant is my hobo name.  

Not exactly Depression-era wardrobe, but she's always been fashion-forward.
-- for [Maris]

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Four Words Of Hope And Renewal

Punxsutawney Phil has spoken, and this year, he declareth unto us that spring will arrive early.  YAY!!

Whatever, Phil.  Look - you're fuzzy and cute, and I'm sure your hometown is adorable.  I also have no doubt that February 2nd is blast for those who come to eat, drink, dance and freeze in the predawn Pennsylvania frost, awaiting your man-made "prognostication."  

We all know you're a fraud.  I've watched on TV as you allegedly saw your shadow in the pouring rain - twice.  Come to think of it, shouldn't you see your shadow every single year, what with all those bright lights on you?  Still, you're cute and the whole thing is fun and harmless.  Plus, most of us will take whatever hope we can from your prediction of a quick end to winter.

I have to admit, I have my own traditional harbinger of spring.  I share it with millions.  It's coming next week, starting on February 12th, and while it doesn't have anything to say about when or how spring will arrive (early vs. late, wild vs. mild etc.), it does declare that the wheels are in motion and the change of seasons will happen.  It comes in the form of four simple, magical words.


As in, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.  One does not have to give a tenth of a hoot about baseball in order to appreciate this late-winter milestone for its implications beyond "dur, sports."  Having lived my whole four (ahem - and a half) decades in the DC suburbs, with three years in Baltimore thrown in for good measure, I have LOTS of practice in appreciating these words for their non-baseball message.  For much of my life the baseball implication was simply, "Here comes another miserable season for the Orioles [and more recently, the Nationals]."  So it was natural for me to focus on the underlying "Here comes SPRING!" message and nothing more.

Until now.

This year, for the first time in many, many years, I can look forward not just to spring and its blessed warmth - and energy and salt-free roads and flowers and green stuff and the shortening of the skirts and sleeves and the lengthening of the days and the outdoor cooking etc. - but also to the baseball season.  

My Nationals are considered a top contender for the first time in franchise history, and my over-performing secondary team, the O's, should at least be competitive again, this season.  I'm not accustomed to this feeling.  I don't dread an interminable season of losing.  I'm excited for these guys, and looking forward to getting to the ballpark. 

So this year, I can add "Pitchers and catchers report" to what that furry little rodent said, and it's like the perfect storm of HOPE.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Super Bowl Monday - An Idea Whose Time Has Come


How were you feeling, this morning?  Yeah - same here.  I've been saying this for years, and now I believe it is time for us, as a nation, to act.  The time has come to make Super Bowl Monday a national holiday.

This holiday, like the day that precedes it, is not just for football fans - although obviously they need it as much as the rest of the country.  Every year, two major cities have significant portions of their workforces call in sick*, or go to work or school exhausted and/or hung-over and - be they the happily-tired fans or the bitterly-tired ones - completely unproductive.  There's also the matter of cleaning up after the riots, and going shopping for new buses and/or police cruisers, in one of the cities, if not both. 

It's not just the cities of the two competing teams that suffer, nor is this wretched day-after effect limited to sports fans.  The Super Bowl is a lot like Thanksgiving.  It's more than a football game.  A large chunk of our population is eating more than it usually does, drinking more than it should and staying up late on a school night.  

This brings me to the heart of my argument in favor of making Super Bowl Monday a national holiday.  Sure, the massive loss of productivity and school/workplace misery of the adult population is reason enough to act, but I want you to think about the children.

That's right, the kids.  If you have young children, it's very likely that they ate a ton of junk food and stayed up way later than they usually do, last night.  Getting them up and processed for delivery to their places of learning was worse today than any other day of their little school year, wasn't it?

And if you're a teacher, not only is it likely that you yourself are feeling the ill-effects of last night, but now you've got these tired, grumpy, unfocused and possibly tummy-achy kids to try to imbue with knowledge.  I don't know what that's like, but it sounds rough.

And if, like me, you don't have children and aren't a teacher, you still have to hear how awful the poor things are to deal with on the day after the Super Bowl.  And yes, before you even start, I have no doubt that hearing about them is NOTHING compared to having to deal with them, today.  It's just another little symptom that's out there doing what symptoms do.

So, my fellow citizens, has not the time come?  Should we not just cut our collective losses and make Super Bowl Monday a national holiday?  I know some will argue that it's too close to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day.  It's true that it falls right between the two, but think about it - It's the middle of winter in the USParts of the country have snow to shovel, and in every classroom, factory, store and office, people have the flu.  I figure, the more three-day weekends we can squeeze into January and February, the better it will be for everyone.

Super Bowl Monday.  Do it for the children.

* Yes, I called in sick, today - but I wasn't hung-over.  That would probably have been less unpleasant.  :(

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thundertwine: A Fable In Three Parts

I'm often asked by no one if there were ever any hoboes who reentered civilized society - any who made it.  While there were a handful who tried, and a couple who sort of drifted back and forth between the two worlds, only one ever really made it big.  His name was Hobo Hank.  Following one of my posts about how hoboes got their hobo names, I was asked by no one if any of them ever changed their names, as their hobo lives progressed.  Again, only one that I know of, and again, that was Hobo Hank.

It all began, as everything does, with one simple idea.  Twine. Hoboes used twine - a lot of it.  They used it to secure their meager belongings in sticks-and-bindles.  They used it hold their ratty shoes together, and to hold up their makeshift tents, if they were lucky enough to possess either of those luxuries.  But most of all, they used twine to hold up their trousers.

As the Great Depression entered its third year - and the hobo population was nearing its peak - twine was becoming scarce.  It was easy to make, if one had access to cotton or hemp, but those crops were becoming better-guarded as thieves had grown increasingly desperate.  Hank began to see hoboes with their pants at half-mast and untied shoes and, knowing that the twine was the problem, was smacked upside the head with his simple idea.

"I'm gonna make twine outta somethin' else, and make it strong enough to last through these awful times," he declared one day to the caboose of a Norfolk and Western coal train.  Hank was the only son of Irish immigrants - a dancer and a welder - who had come to America in 1910, when he was one year old.  His father had worked himself to death, building ships in Maine, by Hank's sixth birthday.  His mother raised him until she was accidentally electrocuted by an ungrounded stand of lights left touching a metal backstage staircase.  He was fourteen, so it was high time he left home and got a job, anyway.  

He worked for several years at the shipyard in Portland, but the constant threat of decapitation or worse began to wear on him, and he found work at a textile mill in North Carolina - until the economy collapsed and he joined the ranks of the rail-wandering-barely-alive.  Like most hoboes, he made few friends, but he was clever.  He could make useful things out of useless junk, cook the inedible into the sort of edible, and fix the unfixable.  Over time, he came to be well-known for his handiness, in his small circle.

It didn't take long for him to figure out how to make cheaper, stronger twine.  Horses were being expelled from the cities in huge numbers, in part because of the depressed economy, but also due to the rise of the electric streetcar and the automobile.  They didn't miss a few hairs from their tails, and the ones at the slaughterhouses (hey - it was the depression!) had no use for tails at all.  Hobo Hank stole horse tails, and made his twine out of a blend of that hair and lint (hoboes had no shortage of uses for lint, but that's another story).  And it was strong.  He hadn't the tools to test it, but he estimated it to have the tensile strength of cast iron - about 200 megapascals.

It also didn't take long for word to get around Hobo Nation that Hank had invented the strongest twine known, using "free" materials he kept secret.  He was a generous man, and was more than happy to make twine for his fellow tramps.  He would trade his product, which he began calling "thundertwine," with his comrades for food or clothes or fire-starters.  He was content with this arrangement, and he no intention of taking his little project any further than the confines of Hobo Nation.

Fate, it seemed, had other plans in store for Hank, who after a few months of making and trading his invention had found himself renamed.  The hoboes were calling him Thundertwine.  Word of his new string made it beyond their realm and into the real world, where it caught the eye of one Randolph Mortimer Moneysaks, one of the last great textile barons of the Mid-Atlantic.  Like almost everyone else in the country, Moneysaks was struggling.  He had shuttered all but one of his twenty-plus mills and factories, and found himself downsized from mansion to house to apartment - but he still had a lot of cash and an eye for opportunity.

I know what you're thinking, and no, Mr. Moneysaks did not steal Thundertwine's idea and make millions with it.  He was an honest man.  He spent four months trying to track down Thundertwine, and when at last he succeeded, he made the hobo his partner.  "Fifty-fifty," he had said, "For this is nothing without your invention, and nothing without my capital, but with both together, it is everything."

Overnight, Thundertwine went from being a filthy homeless drifter to a businessman with an apartment and a checking account.  Twine, it turned out, was in widespread use throughout the destitute nation, and the tough, inexpensive Thundertwine was a massive success. 

Within six months, both Moneysaks and Thundertwine - now being called MISTER Thundertwine - went from apartments to houses to mansions.  The former hobo had it all - cars, maids, a butler, women.  He wore the finest silk suits, although it is worth noting that he never stopped holding his trousers up with twine.  He was, in the last few years of the Great Depression, a rich man.  And while he did live it up quite a bit, he was not stupid.  He closely guarded his secret recipe for super-strong cheap twine, sharing it only with Moneysaks and their closest confidants.

Unfortunately, one of those close confidants was Thurmond Moneysaks, a bastard in every sense of the word.  He did, in fact, take the secret and run, starting a rival company and running the ex-hobo and his benefactor into the ground, having found that cotton could be added to the blend of fibers, making the twine cheaper to produce, nearly as strong, and slightly better-smelling. 

Thundertwine and the senior Moneysaks sued Thurmond, but the trial was long and costly, and in the end they won only the Thundertwine name, which wasn't worth much anymore, especially with the court ruling that the bastard's company would be permitted to continue calling its product "Better Than Thundertwine."

Three years after he had left the world of the hobo, Thundertwine was again homeless.  He was a little more bitter now, having tasted the good life, but he did what hoboes do, and survived as best he could.  He continued to be known as Thundertwine, because he couldn't make his fellow hoboes go back to calling him Hank.  Every time he heard his name, a little spark of disappointment flashed through his tired heart.

He wandered track-side with his stick-and-bindle and resumed trading his twine for whatever he needed, and his trousers were never held up by any other means.