Friday, December 30, 2011

700 Hoboes: Jack Skunk's New Year

Jack Skunk wasn't the worst-smelling hobo. He wasn't the second-worst-smelling hobo. Jack wasn't even in the top eleven worst-smelling hoboes. Such was the magnitude of the hobo stenches with which he had to compete. And yet, the man had a stink about him. Riot-police-grade, eyeball-melting, gag-inducing fumes emanated from his wiry frame at all times. He had few friends.

Somehow - and no one who knew him was quite sure how - he had a son, about fifteen years his junior. He didn't smell at all. At least, when in the company of his father, the boy didn't seem to have any odor. He was a Skunk, however, and his smelliness was assumed. They called him Jack Skunk Fils.

It is a well-known fact that many, if not most, hoboes embraced their meager and difficult lives as penniless drifters. Some of them, before the hobo wars, even chose to drop out and ride the rails and sleep under the stars. Jack Skunk was not such a hobo. Jack had returned from The Great War after surviving two years in the mud and blood of France, only to find that his job at Walton's Hinge Pin Factory in Evanston, IL was no more. He had held a half-dozen jobs across the Midwest over the following year, before finally losing his home, his wife and his hope, and taking to the rails with three-year old Jack Junior.

By 1931, Skunk and son were expert hoboes, not merely surviving, but thriving along the high steel of the Grand Trunk Railway, the Chicago and Northwestern and the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton. So at home as railroad vagrants were they that the onset of the Great Depression had taken them months to notice. They had gradually realized that there were more hoboes, and that the ones who could stand the elder Jack's stench long enough to converse with them had stories of bread lines and massive unemployment in the cities.

Jack Fils was about twelve years old as 1931 drew to a close, and his father was annoying him. It had become an odd tradition for Jack to annoy his son at the end of each year. Between the hobo Christmas parties to which they were never invited and the hobo New Year's parties to which they were never invited, Jack Senior moved the two of them as far east as he could, working along the Pennsylvania Railroad - sometimes even the Baltimore and Ohio - until December 31st. This New Year's Eve found them in the woods near a Pennsy yard in Wilmington, Delaware.

"Are you happy, Pop? Delaware. I don't think we could get any farther east without taking that miserable short line to Atlantic City - and we'd probably have to walk the last fifty miles." Jack Skunk Fils poked at the campfire as it struggled against a mixture of snow and sleet.

"It'll do, son. It'll do." the old man of 27 years sighed. "You gonna stay up this year, or should I wake you?"

Jack the younger grunted. "Can't I just sleep in? Or better yet - just freeze to death and be done with this stupid life?"

"Don't talk like that, boy. This is the one thing - the one thing - I ask of you each year. I've never made you eat a vegetable - ever. I let you stay up late. You've been drinking hobo beer for two years, already! Stay up with me."

"Come on, Pop. Why? Every year you drag us east on these railroads we don't know. Every year we get our rear ends beaten. We get chased by yard cops. Last year, we got arrested and held for six hours. And for what? So you can freeze us nearly to death all night, trying to stay awake for the 'first light of 1932' or whatever you call it. Why? What's the big deal?"

Jack Skunk shook his head sadly. "Never mind, son. Go to sleep."

Jack Fils happily complied, crawling under their tattered, leaking tent, wrapping himself in shreds of burlap and disintegrating Army blankets and passing out almost immediately. He slept for no more than half-hour stretches for the rest of the night, as the sleet changed to rain and eventually ended. Each time he woke, he peered outside the tent to confirm that his father was, indeed, still clinging tenaciously to consciousness, drinking hobo coffee, slapping himself or just letting the cold rain drench his face.

Eventually, the black sky turned to indigo, then to purple and finally it began to glow. Jack Junior grudgingly joined his old man by the fire and watched the sun creep over the horizon, painting the thinning clouds in blazing pink and orange as it rose. He watched his father, watching the sunrise. He had done this every January 1st for nearly a decade, but had never fully understood it - until now. This year, having been a hobo adult for three years already, he saw it. It was obvious, now. He started the declaration that his pop usually uttered, "We are very likely the first hoboes to see the dawn of 1932..."

Jack Skunk looked at his son for a moment, then smiled at the morning sky. "...Anything is possible," he concluded.

Young Jack was connected now to his strange, annoying father, united in a single emotion. It was in the man's eyes at every New Year's dawn. It was hope, and this was the one moment each year when it dared show itself. The world was born again. There was hope. The hardships and struggle of the road could end, and it could happen in this new year. A job, medicine, food, a home, a stink-free life - it was all possible.

"Anything is possible, Pop," he repeated.

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