|Train Robbery - Cumberland, MD. |
Photo by Joe Scott
Some of the tales I heard from old Buck Mope were a bit on the tall side. Others were utterly ridiculous. The story of Billy Creak Knees was neither of those things, but it is still one of my favorites.
Born in Philadelphia in 1899, Heiko William Bowie was the only child of Cassandra and Günter Bowie. His father was a master tailor from Germany, and his English mother kept the books. Early on, he had designs on a career in law. He was the first in his family to finish high school, but his parents' pride turned quickly to heartbreak, when at age 17 he enlisted in the Army and was hastily deployed to the front lines of the Great War in France.
He did what most boys did, over there. He witnessed hell. Unlike nine of ten guys in his unit, he survived. He was shot - twice - but spent only a few days in a field hospital before being hurled back in the direction of the enemy. When he returned home in early 1918, it was immediately evident to his parents and friends that there would be no college, no law degree, no life of security and professional achievement. His achievement was that he had survived the bullets and shrapnel of the war, but at an incalculable cost.
He drank, he whored, he fought, he even found his way into an opium den, once. He got arrested. Soon, he withdrew completely into his post-traumatic private hell. They called it shell shock, and that was as good a name as any for what was going on in young H. William's brain.
One late-winter morning, a dissatisfied customer strangled his father to death with a tape measure, and bludgeoned his mother with an adding machine, when she tried to intervene. She clung to life in a coma for a week before succumbing. William had held it together for his father's funeral, but the thought of seeing his mother buried overwhelmed him, and he ran.
His first year as a hobo was much like his time in the trenches of France, in that he just barely managed to survive it. He acquired the moniker Billy Creak Knees, although he was so immersed in his pain and hopelessness that he didn't learn it until years later. In those early, lonely days on the rails, his despair kept potential hobo friends at bay. On three separate occasions, he stood in the middle of the trackbed before an oncoming train, and three times he leaped to safety at the last conceivable instant. He didn't much care to be alive, but he did not want to be hit by a train, either.
"Can't say for sure what pulled Billy Creak Knees from that black pit," Buck Mope told me, shaking his head. "Some say it was the sight of those trains, coming for to pulverize his mortal body. I heard it might have been breakin' up that Western Maryland robbery that turned his life around. Silver Jacket Man said he found God. Could be, could be. But me - I think he just woke up one day. Smelled the air, heard the birds, all that. Did the math and saw alive greater than dead. Who knows? But turn he did."
Billy Creak Knees became what was known as an expert hobo. He could start a fire in seconds, cook anything into an edible entreé, avoid cops and dogs, rather than engage them, and talk strangers into hiring him for a wide variety of day jobs. He scrawled hieroglyphic poetry on bridges, sheds, and boxcars, inspiring his brethren to hold their heads high, live with honor, work hard, and survive.
I asked Buck how Billy met his end. I was used to hearing about the wretched fates of so many of his hobo acquaintances, but this time, I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.
"Billy Creak Knees - far as I know, he still alive," Buck shrugged. "Must be about a hundred-eight, now. All I know for sure is he learned to love the road, and mentored every reckless young 'bo he could find. Heard a rumor back in the seventies - they said he was working for Amtrak, tellin' stories for tourists. Don't matter to me. He survived. He found hope where there was none. That's what he did."