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.

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