Since I started telling the tales of John Hodgman's 700 Hoboes, I've been asked repeatedly by no one whether any of these tramps ever managed to return home from life on the road. There were seven hundred of them; of course some went home. Remember Santa Fe Jingle Bell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp?
Candle-Eyed Sally - given name Sara Elizabeth Fitzpatrick - ran away with her boyfriend in 1931, when she was thirteen years old, and he was three years her senior. She left her family's humble but comfortable home in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania primarily to escape her father, with whom she had developed a bitter and private rift, but also because she was in love with Ralph Bourne. They were going to be hoboes and get married by the railroad tracks at Horseshoe Curve on Sally's next birthday.
Part of that plan came to fruition, as they both quickly learned the ways of the road, but her dream of marrying Ralph died when he did, not ten months after they left home. He was cooking a pot of hobo chili in the shelter of a small rail-side shed. Taking a test sniff of his concoction, he inhaled a noseful of chili powder. He sneezed so hard that in the recoil, he hit his head on the low roof of the shed, broke his neck, and died instantly. Sally cried for a month, nearly starving and dehydrating herself to death in the process.
She almost went home, that month, but by then she knew that only one of her two loves had perished. She loved the road. She loved being in control of her destiny, fending for herself, being free. She vowed to make it work.
Her moniker came from her late hobo boyfriend. Even before they had run away together, he had taken to calling her Candle-Eyed Sally. It was the easiest of nicknames. Her blue eyes did indeed glow with a light that seemed to come from within, but more importantly, they flickered as only the solitary flames of candles can. Her hair was the kind of fiery red that would have made her Irish ancestors proud. She was sturdy and broad-shouldered, and had always been a bit of a tomboy.
She did what hoboes did to survive, and she grew up fast and hard. Life on the road was ten times more difficult for a girl than it was for the boys and men who dominated the hobo world every bit as much as they dominated everything else. She learned quickly, became a tough and respected filthy homeless drifter, saw the United States from end to end and top to bottom, and made many friends. Men twice her size were powerless when faced with her candlelit eyes and, when push came to shove, with her fearsome right hook.
She couldn't - or wouldn't - explain to her hobo brethren just what it was that compelled her to go home for Christmas in 1935, some four and a half years after leaving. She rode B & O and Pennsy trains from western Kentucky, through Cumberland and Baltimore and Philadelphia, and walked the last miles to her parents' home. She arrived just before dark on Christmas Eve.
"Saints preserve us!" her mother gasped at the sight of her firstborn, standing on the porch. "It's Sara! She's come home! George! Fay! Come quick! Sara's home!"
Hugs. Shrieks of joy. More hugs. She scarcely recognized her baby sister Phaedra "Fay" Anne, now all of nine years old. She acknowledged her father with a nod and a quick smile. Her mother showed her to her room, which they had kept ready for her for nearly the last half-decade. Sally enjoyed a bath, sang Christmas hymns, gave her family gifts of hobo incense and figurines crafted from anthracite coal, then joined them for dinner.
"We've set a place for you, every night, all this time, Sara," her mother announced. "Haven't we, George?"
Mr. Fitzpatrick grunted and took his seat at the head of the table.
"I go by Sally now, Mother," she said quietly.
"Not in my house, Sara Elizabeth," her father said flatly. "Sally is a floozy name."
Undeterred, she added, "all my friends call me Candle-Eyed Sally."
"Leave her be, George," her mother said. "You do still have the most luminescent eyes, sweetie."
"I can't wait to tell you about the things I've seen - the places I've been and oh, the people I've met..."
"We don't need to know about the dirty, sinful cities or the rotten, heathen drunks and criminals you've been associating with, Sara," her father growled at his plate. "We're just happy you're home, where you belong."
"But they're not all bad, Daddy. In fact, some of the folks I know from the road are the salt of the earth..."
"I'm sure they are," her mother nodded, "but the important thing is, there's still time to repent for all your sins."
"Your sins, and your sinful, fornicating ways," her mother said with a disturbing degree of cheerfulness.
"You heard your mother," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "But, tell me - why did you come home? Were just hungry, or are you planning on robbing us while we sleep?"
The candles in Sally's eyes dimmed. "Firstly - I live a pretty clean life, Mother. As to your query, Daddy - I am here to tell you that I forgive you."
"Don't change the subject, young lady. There's nothing for you to forgive your father for. He was strict because you needed him to be strict. But don't deny your sinful ways of the road. We're not ignorant. We know what goes on among those dirty hoboes. You were an innocent little girl when you left here, and now... well, a woman can tell certain things about her daughter..."
"You must be joking!" Sally snapped. "I was not exactly a virgin when I left here. Isn't that right, Daddy?"
"You come back into my house and start insulting everyone and spouting your vile lies? Get out!" Her father thundered.
"Oh, she's just delirious from malnutrition, George. Let her be. After a good night of sleep and some prayer, we'll all be right as rain in the morning."
"Well, I was here because Christmas is the best time for forgiveness, but I was mistaken..."
It took several minutes, but Mrs. Fitzpatrick managed to restore order and steward her reassembled family through dinner. Sally retired to her little girl bed in her little girl room, and slept fitfully, unaccustomed as she now was to the softness and warmth.
At nearly two in the morning, she became dimly aware of sounds coming from Fay's room, next door. After a minute or so, her dim awareness became a keen awareness. She recognized the breathing; she had stifled those same cries, fearing for her life. She couldn't hear her father's words, but she knew the tones of his voice, the sinister and confusing blend of comfort and threat.
She stomped resolutely to Fay's bedroom door, and kicked it in. "I knew it!"
"This is none of your concern," her father roared.
"Sure it isn't, Daddy," Sally said through gnashed teeth, "but if you touch her again - ever - I will kill you myself."
"You don't understand..." Mrs. Fitzpatrick sobbed, racing from the master bedroom and wedging herself between Sally and George.
"No. I do, Mother. That was the whole point behind my forgiving Daddy. I understand that someone hurt him, too. I truly want to forgive him, but we have to get out of here."
"I'm the man of this house, and no one's going anywhere!" he declared.
"I am, Daddy. Don't try to stop me. If Mama and Phaedra have any sense, they'll come with me." She ran to her room, snatched her bindle bag from the floor, and raced past her parents, who were still frozen in ghastly denial in the hallway. "Thank you for the bath, and for dinner. I still love you all, and Daddy..." her voice cracked, betraying her heartbreak at the realization that it was forever, this time - she would never come home again. "...I forgive you."
A half-mile down the old Philadelphia road, her mother caught up with her.
"Sara! Sara, stop! Here. Take this." She held out a stack of cash.
"Mother! No! I don't need it, and Daddy will beat you to death if he finds that missing," Sally said.
"He doesn't know about it," her mother said. "I've been saving it, a dollar or two at a time, for years. Take it, please."
"I'll take five bucks, Mother. You take the rest, and go get Fay, and promise me that you will run from that man and never stop."
"But, he's my husband. And, and it's Christmas..."
"I know, and I am not so young that I don't understand - truly. But your life and Fay's life are worth saving. Everyone is worth saving, Mother, but we can't save Daddy. Save yourself. Save my sister. Promise me you'll run."
Her mother hugged her, hard. "I promise, honey. I will. I have to get back now. He'll drink himself to sleep, and once he's passed-out, I'll take Fay and go. Can we meet you? Will you help us?"
"I'll wait behind the train station until sunup, but then I'm going. I hope you'll come. It will be a Christmas miracle if you come."
Her mother kissed her on the forehead. "I love you, Candle..."
"Candle-Eyed Sally," she said. "I love you, too. Go. And be careful."
The flames grudgingly returned to Candle-Eyed Sally's eyes, and they flickered faintly in the dim light of the sodium lamp that hung from the eave of the train station roof in Washington Crossing. Sally prayed, and she waited.
It was Christmas, she reasoned with her god. Anything could happen.