Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zaxxon Galaxian's Extra Life - A 700 Hoboes Story

Zaxxon Galaxian was made of magic.  And water.  And carbon.  Mostly water, actually.  And some nitrogen and other stuff.  Okay, to be clear, he was composed of water, carbon, nitrogen and some elemental odds and ends, but he was made of magic.

In school in 1927, when the other boys were drawing stick-figures doing The Charleston, Zaxxon was doodling 3/4-view industrial landscapes in 256-colors.  And none of that simplistic vertical scrolling for young Zax, either.  It may have been good enough for his father, back in the stone age, but these days it was all about scrolling right-to-left, rendered to appear 3-dimensional.

Mr. Galaxian
Zaxxon, age 8

By the time he turned fourteen, Zaxxon had already known loss.  His mother died of pneumonia when he was ten, and at thirteen his father, then a blurry after-image of his once-vibrant self, was blown up three times by marauding space wasps.  But by then, Zax had also begun to realize that he had a gift.  In 1934, he ran away from the East St. Louis Industrial Arts School For Boys, carrying nothing but his beloved colored pencils and crayons, a pad of cheap sketch paper and a hat.  His mother had always made him wear a hat from the first week in September through mid-June, so he was sure he'd need it.

Like many hoboes, he kept mostly to himself.  He was tall, but thin and not very strong, and he knew nothing of fighting.  His self-defense was centered primarily around the avoidance of others.  He wandered east and found a stretch of woods and rails along the snaking Potomac River border between western Maryland and northeastern West Virginia, a few miles east of Paw Paw.  

He hunted small game, fished what little could be fished from that part of the river, and hid in the hills above a nearly-nonexistent place called Magnolia.  There, he worked on his craft.  When he ran out of paper or drawing implements, he'd venture into Paw Paw or hop a train to Cumberland and conjure up some more.

"Conjuring" was Zaxxon's term for his unique brand of panhandling and supply-replenishment.  He would go into town and find a park or a school - someplace with children - and he would trade his artwork for fresh paper, pencils, crayons, occasionally pennies or a new hat.  He was comfortable around children.  He trusted them, and they trusted him.  His hard life had spared his naive and loving heart, and in many ways he remained utterly childlike.  Kids could sense that.  Sometimes, the older children pitied him, but most found him fascinating, and absolutely adored him.  They came to look forward to his visits as though he were Santa Claus himself.

Their parents, many of whom were railroad men, were less trusting.  To them, he was just a creepy man who was too old - and far too filthy - to be skulking about the playgrounds giving weird drawings to their kids.  Once, a group of men set upon him with furious fists and one set of brass knuckles, and fractured his skull, leaving him for dead in an alley.  A few months later, he tried a little conjuring in Hancock, Maryland.  He was stabbed by two men who took exception to his fraternizing with their children, and left face-down and unconscious in a creek.  The following winter, he was pretty sure he froze to death in his makeshift tent near Magnolia.

He was well-aware of the three-life limit that afflicted his family on his father's side, so he knew that he must have somehow earned that elusive "free guy," the bonus life.  He was not about to squander it.

It took him a year to find a job in a department store in Cumberland, another year to earn the trust and support of a benefactor and two more years to find his way to the front of a classroom, teaching art to sixth-to-ninth-graders.  The magic in his drawings inspired the kids of that mountain railroad town for the next thirty-two years.  His students were never quite able to explain the magic of their teacher's works of art, except to say that to look at one was to fall into another universe, complete, moving and real.  

Orion Nebula

The grownups never quite warmed to him, nor he to them, but he was at least accepted.  The kids, until the day he died for the last time, loved him.

Zaxxon Galaxian and his gift had found a home.         

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