Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Seven Robert Silks And Their Six Dogs (And One Bobcat)

The closest thing Hobo Nation had to an organized gang - and one of only a few family units - was the Silk brothers of the Western Maryland Railway.  Most of the seven boys were born in Elkins, West Virginia.  Only two were born elsewhere - one in Cumberland and one on the "National Road," just outside Wheeling.

Their parents, Bob and Minnie Silk, were performers with an earnest but struggling vaudeville troupe in the early part of the twentieth century.  Bob was a juggler and Minnie was a trapeze artist, but neither was particularly skilled. They met their untimely deaths, seconds apart, during a performance at the 1930 Maryland State Fair in Timonium.

Bob's big finale was the lead-in to Minnie's act, and they intentionally overlapped by about a half-minute.  He would still be juggling a full bottle of wine, a machete, two meat cleavers, a live (but flightless) duck, two flaming torches, a maraca and a sizable rock - and Minnie would come swinging through the flying objects from her perch, horrifying the audienceThe effect was simple enough to achieve.  The trapeze was set up about ten feet upstage from Bob's line of fire, so it appeared to the audience that she was flying through the mayhem, when in actuality she was perfectly safe.

Somewhat needless to say, on this night, the stagehands failed to erect the trapeze and its stands a safe distance from the danger zone above Bob.  The flying machete sliced halfway through his dear wife's neck, severing her jugular veinOne of the torches set her hair ablaze.  The duck bit her nose.  She screamed, but managed to keep her grip on the trapeze - until one of the cleavers took her hand clean off at the wrist and the other split her skull.  She was dead before she landed - on top of her stunned husband, who died instantly of a broken neck.  They got a ten-minute standing ovation.

Their sons had not witnessed the tragedy, which would come to be known by members of the troupe as "the act that will never be bested."  They had been on a side stage at the time, working on their tumbling and acrobatics before an audience of disinterested families waiting in line for the Ferris wheelAfter a dizzying week of being shoved from place to place by various aunts and uncles and grownups unknown to them, the boys watched their parents' coffins disappear into gaping holes in the earth near Elkins.  The next day, they were gone - disappeared into the hills of northern West Virginia to find their way as only brothers can. 

Their first concern, after the intense battle over who would sleep in which of their three two-man tents (the next-to-youngest were twins, and would squeeze in with their four-year old little brother), was their dog, who was to deliver puppies - and soon.  She was almost five years old, a mutt made from German shepherds, some kind of retriever, collies and terriers - lots and lots of terriers.  Her name was Molly, and her first litter of five came only two weeks after her masters, the Silk brothers, had run away and joined the world of the hoboes.

The seven brothers, all named Robert, had grown to both love and hate their father's carney-like sense of humor regarding their names, and had become downright bitter about their diminutive stature.  These issues were moved to the part of their campfire that passed as the back burner, for now they had a mother dog and her brood to look after, in addition to each other.  Such matters were further complicated when, a week after the puppies' birth, the boys awoke one morning to find a female bobcat kitten nursing alongside the dogs.

They tried to leave the orphaned cat behind when they broke camp, assuming that her potentially-lethal mother would come looking for her, but Molly would not have it.  She had already bonded with the kitten, and as far as she was concerned her brood was now six strong.  

For a while, the Roberts shared custody and care of all the dogs and the little bobcat, as they moved from place to place along the Western Maryland rails, but within about a year, each of them had paired up with a furry companion.

Robert The Tot, as the oldest and strongest, was a natural to take on the management of the bobcat, who they named Bobbi Boop.  He kept assuming the cat would attack him or one of the family when her predator instincts took over - or maybe just leave - but she never did.  She outlived all of the dogs by three and a half years, and was as docile and affectionate as a golden retriever.

Robert The Child-Size became Molly's primary human, and the two of them were excellent thieves.

Robert The Miniscule took the pup that looked like a husky but acted like a Westie.  They were never apart, and they hunted small game like nobody's business.

Robert The Wee and Hanz, the most German shepherd-y of the dogs were disciplined and quietly fearsome fighters, and usually took night watch duty.

The twins, Robert Fits-In-A-Case and Robert Eats-For-Free, took an instant liking to the two runts of the litter, a pair of collie-retriever-rat-terrier-like mutts they named Heckle and Jeckle.  They could chase down the fastest hoboes (or yard cops, or grocers, or milkmen) and take their food, money, milk or booze so quickly and quietly, they collectively came to be called Team Seek-and-Obtain.

Robert Is-He-An-Elf? fostered the grey and white dog that looked more husky than anything else.  He was the only Robert Silk who harbored any goodwill toward the vaudeville life.  He and his dog Minnie developed a synchronized diving act, practicing for years in the Potomac river and Wills Creek, and eventually left the Silk brothers to join a traveling show out of Charleston, West Virginia.  Unfortunately, vaudeville by then had been killed by the motion picture and the radio, so they failed miserably and rejoined the family a year later.

One by one, the dogs passed away.  The Roberts trudged on, becoming notorious in the Appalachian highlands as a crew to be reckoned with, although no one could ever say exactly why.  They didn't hurt anyone, never used a weapon and stole only what they needed, relying mostly on what the woods and the river provided.  They rode the rails between Hagerstown and Elkins and had most everything they needed.  

They survived longer than most hoboes did.


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