Thursday, September 13, 2012

700 Hoboes: Frederick Bannister, the Tree Surgeon, Born Again

Before the Great Depression, long before the Hobo Wars and longer still before the advent of atomic power, there lived in Zanesville, Ohio a successful arborist named Frederick Bannister.  So skilled was he in the care of trees, so great was the demand for his gift, that he couldn't walk a public street in east-central Ohio without being accosted for advice or appointments.  He spent the warm months booked at least six weeks in advance.  

In his hometown, he was something of a celebrity, and had been ever since he had saved the historic Y Bridge elm tree from a terrible fungus.  Legend had it that Bannister had used only a cheese grater and his own saliva to cure the ailing tree, and he allowed that legend to live its own life without interference from him, but the truth was he had simply employed an auger, a funnel and a quart of oxytetracyline.

Thanks in no small part to his notoriety, Frederick had his pick of several of Zanesville's most desirable young ladies, and in 1928 he married Heddy McCallister, daughter of a wealthy railroad executive turned real estate magnate.  The following year, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Randolph.  Heddy and Randy were the lights of Fred Bannister's heart, and although his profession often required that he travel to Columbus and beyond, when he was home he doted on his small family, nearly smothering them with affection.

October, 1929.  The Bannisters' considerable savings, most of which had been invested in a variety of stocks, evaporated almost overnight.  Frederick's biggest customers - local companies, towns and the city of Columbus - could no longer spend anything on the care and grooming of trees, so it didn't take long for the Bannisters to find themselves in the same soup lines as their neighbors.  When winter came and the world grew grey and hard and cold, they frequently resorted to burning furniture or stolen bits of wood from neighborhood fences to keep warm.  

In January of 1930, little Randolph developed pneumonia.  In February, he died in parents' arms.  Frederick found strength in his faith, but Heddy could not.  Despite his tireless efforts to comfort her, she withdrew from him, from the church and from the world.  When the ice that had covered the Muskingum River receded, she jumped from the Y Bridge and died.

Frederick was utterly devastated, and contemplated taking his own life.  By the time spring arrived, the Great Depression was deepening and every Sunday's church service included prayers for that week's suicides and their survivors.  The tree surgeon's faith was flagging, and he couldn't find a paying customer for his special set of skills - or any job - so one April afternoon he donned his belt of arborist's tools, walked to an isolated stretch of railroad tracks outside of town, and lay down with his head on the cold, greasy rail, waiting for the westbound fast freight.

He could hear the train's whistle as it crossed Adamsville Road, probably less than five minutes away.  He closed his eyes and asked God to forgive him.  He heard footsteps in the gravel at his feet, and opened his eyes.  Two grizzled old geezers stood over him, looking him up one side and down the other, as if measuring him for a suit of clothes.

"Listen fellas," Frederick said, "Would you mind waiting 'til I'm dead, before you rob me?  All I have is my tool belt, and as soon as this train comes by, it's all yours."

The two codgers squinted at the sad man with head on steel waiting for his steam-powered executioner.  They looked at each other.  Then one spoke.  "I don't think so, mister.  Can you walk?"

"Pardon me?"

"Can you walk?"

"Sure I can walk."

"Then you can survive.  Get up out of the dirt and come with us.  You're a hobo, now."

Frederick propped himself on his elbows and stared at the men.  "How do you know I'm not already a hobo, taking my leave of this world by way of the next westbound manifest headed for Columbus?"

The scruffy old hoboes laughed heartily.  "That's a stupid question, sir.  Now get up.  We got a lot to talk about.  And we'll need to start thinking of a road name for you.  How did you make a living in your last life?"  

One of the men extended a hand, which Frederick took with some hesitation, and hoisted him to his feet.

"I was a tree surgeon," he said.

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