Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Silver Jacket Man's Gift

There were not many hoboes who could accurately be described as beloved.  Rarer still were the hoboes of African descent who were  beloved equally by both whites and blacks.  The Silver Jacket Man was such a hobo.  

His funeral in October of 1931 was attended by nearly a hundred of his fellow drifters, which was remarkable if for no other reason than the difficulty of getting the news out to that many solitary, widely-dispersed vagrants.  The hoboes had long used simple hieroglyphs, usually in chalk or charcoal, to leave each other messages, but The Silver Jacket Man's friends knew that that alone would not cut it.  Luckily, even the railroad cops, yardmasters and tower operators had come to know this man.  So his friends came up with a simple pictograph of an empty, horizontal jacket, a cross, a date and the letters "MX."  The tower operator at Viaduct Junction in Cumberland agreed to telegraph a description of the symbols to other towers.  The news spread, nearly coast-to-coast, overnight.  The operators scrawled the message on the outside walls of their towers.  Translated, it basically said "The Silver Jacket Man has died.  Funeral on Sunday behind the Mexico tower, Cumberland."

The Silver Jacket Man was widely-known and yes, he wore a silver jacket.  It was technically white, but he had meticulously sewn dozens of tiny rows of fish scales to it, resulting in a silvery shine.  He was one of the oldest known hoboes when he died, aged well into his seventies.  He was the only son of a freed slave.  He was a serene, peaceful man, and his good nature toward his fellow hobo knew no color.  In that, he was decades ahead of his time.  He was also quite gifted.

Rufus Caboose gave the eulogy.

"Friends, Brothers, we have gathered here in the shadow of Mexico tower on this cold autumn afternoon to bid a fond farewell to our dearest friend, The Silver Jacket Man.  It's a hard word, 'farewell.'  Sticks in your throat.  Don't want to say it.  But I say take heart, brethren, for today we celebrate.  Yes, we celebrate the life of this beautiful man.  We are here to thank him for the time he was with us, and for the gift he brought to us - surely from God Almighty His Own Self!  Yes, we are sad.  But so too should we be glad.

My apologies, brothers and sisters.  I am not here to preach at you.  I know that many of you are sure that God has long forgotten us, and some of you have darker thoughts still.  I have been without a home for so long now, I cannot even argue with you.  But surely The Silver Jacket Man was proof that there is still some good in this world, and maybe a few drips of that goodness trickled here - through him - from the next world. 

How else can you explain a colored hobo who had nothing but love for all men?  Looking out at all of your faces, I got to say I had no idea there were so many colored hoboes.  I kind of always thought The Silver Jacket Man and I were the only ones.  I bet it makes him real happy today to see his white friends mixing with his friends of color.  I know it might be hard to tell which is which, under all the grime, but he knows.

I think we all know that his father spent the best years of his life as a slave on a Georgia farm.  Most of us probably know that his father could not let go of his bitterness, even years after being freed.  What The Silver Jacket Man didn't like to talk about was how he fought every day to forgive his father's anger, and how he wished and prayed and worked to make his own way, free of hate.  He believed that no one could hate him without cause, and that the darkness of his skin was not such cause.  He wasn't always right, but he always told me he was right more often than not.

I never heard a man say 'peace' - and mean it - more than The Silver Jacket Man.  And we all know he'd give a stranger his last scoop of beans without even thinking about it.  But that ain't his greatest gift.  I know some of you young folks out there never got to see it, but I bet you've heard about it.  

The Silver Jacket Man was our only barber.  No one else could cut a hobo's rough and terrible hair like he could.  Didn't matter who you were - colored, white, whatever - he knew how to cut through the dirt and the twigs and tangles and years, and make you feel human again.  I don't know how he did it.  No one knows how he did it.  They say he just picked up some old rusty shears one day and taught himself.  He probably saved some of us from deadly infections from the scalp crabs and whatnot.  It was his gift, and he gave it freely, never asking nothing in return.

I know it gave him great joy to be able to give something of value, something unique, to his wandering brothers.  These last few years, his fingers betrayed him, went stiff and sore on him, but he just kept cutting.  Fought through the pain, he did.  He told me once that a good haircut was all he really had to offer, and he swore he'd keep doin' it til his last day on earth.  I think he did that, but I respectfully disagree with him on one thing.

I don't believe cutting our nasty hair was his only gift.  I believe that everything about this man was a gift.  And we who knew him in life are surely blessed.  I will miss him.  I know I'll really miss him, come time for my next haircut.  Farewell, my brother.  I hope I see you again someday."

1 comment:

  1. Definitely a man before his time...sounds like he had a heart of gold inside that silver jacket.

    Stopped by from Studio30 Plus Weekend Spotlight.