The train leaves at half past ten, but it’ll be back tomorrow; same time again. The conductor he’s weary, he’s still stuck on the line. But if I can save you any time, come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine. – Bob Dylan
‘I never want to hear that you boys took a short cut across the railroad tracks; do you hear me?’ Those stupid kids in Kansas or Iowa or somewhere almost ruined our daily routine in second and third grade. Mom read a horrible article in the Chicago Daily News about a couple of kids who spent their time playing around the town’s railroad tracks and one of the clumsy kids fell and while another one was trying to help him up and off the track a speeding train ran right over them (I think they even made a movie about them). ‘If I ever hear you and your friends are hanging around the tracks, you’ll be grounded! One of you could get killed.’ It was the kind of thing Mom liked to say, with one of those ironic twists thrown in like ‘If you break your legs, don’t come running to me.’
But then she added: ‘And you won’t be allowed to walk home from school!’ That was the real threat – not being able to have the freedom of walking home from school was the worst kind of punishment I could think of, and Mom knew it. Dad would drop me off in the mornings on his way to work, occasionally, but it was really out of his way until I got into fourth grade. But walking home meant I was free when the bell rang at the end of the day. Free to be on my own, with my friends, even if it was just for a half-hour. It was the time in-between, the time no adult could control; I was accounted for (‘Come straight home young man!’ ‘Yes, I will,’ but never quite managed the ‘straight’ part very well).
You see we lived on the south side of the railroad tracks, a set of three that ran right through the middle of The Hills. There was no social divide, no wrong side of the tracks, because The Hills was so small it was just one neighborhood, and housing values were almost exactly the same north and south, east and west. What the railroad tracks did accomplish was to inconvenience adults and fascinate kids. Commuter trains brought workers home from Chicago at night and took them away again in the morning; same trains, same nearly identical cars, just the ping-pong of Chicago to Aurora and back again – monotony. When the bells began to ring, lights flash, gates start their slow descent to protect automobiles full of suburbanites, station wagons full of families, and the occasional oblivious pedestrian. We would strain to see, from the back or way-back seat of the station wagon, what type of train was approaching. Parents groaned at freight trains, children were elated; they’d count the minutes for freighters to pass, we’d count the cars – bigger numbers had the exact opposite effect.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School was on the north side of the tracks. It took 20 or 25 minutes to walk home the long way, but only 10 minutes if you cut across Mrs. Fodor’s back yard, down one of the two hills in a town named The Hills and over a chain-link fence. The diamond shaped spaces in the chain-link fencing were a perfect fit for the toes on my Jack Purcell gym shoes (why’d they even put up a fence, except to give us something to climb anyway). Over the fence and we’d ascend a small mounding of big stones and rocks to the three sets of railroad tracks, walking on the creosote-saturated ties, down the other side, over another chain-link fence, across the swimming pool parking lot, cut behind the O’Neil’s house and up my block. Ten minutes without even running, but it always took me at least a half-hour to arrive at my front door.
If we walked the ‘right’ way home – the long way, the way my mom told me to walk – we’d walk the sidewalks of our little village heading south but mostly west, past my dentist’s house, six left turns, about thirty intersections, through the heart of town and across the railroad tracks at the ‘big crossing’ as we called it, then back to the east and up a hill that by now was hard to take since we had been walking for twenty minutes, to our street. I hated the long way, as did my little brother Johnny when he started walking it with me; it would take an extra five minutes to get home when I became Johnny-the-first grader’s older brother. To hurry him up I would kick or punch him and get him to run after me. Four or five times on the way home and we would make the trip in twenty minutes (he never figured it out, he was too busy stepping and skipping over sidewalk cracks, trying not to break Mom’s back, to notice, ‘Don’t you care if Mom’s back is broken!?’ My answer was usually something like, ‘Johnny you are so stupid; you’re as dumb as a bag of hammers’).
I was a big-shot third grader, the one who had shown everyone in our club the short cut. It was very secret, like the Knights of Columbus at Sacred Heart of Jesus, but without the fuzzy hats and swords and Spanish uniforms trying to hide the grown-up’s beer bellies. The Knights started way back in 1881 when a small group of about twenty Catholic laymen met in a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut at the behest of a Father Michael McGivney. They vowed to uphold the ideals of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism – all noble and seemingly ordinary pledges, until you realize how anti-Catholic the United States always was. They chose ‘of Columbus’ because they wanted the Protestant culture to know it was a Catholic who discovered America (that was long before the sordid stories of inhumane behavior, exploitation and doubts about colonialism). And the reference to ‘Knights’ was to emphasize the knightly notions of service and unity to a common cause; a round-table fraternity of one for all and all for one.
The charity part of their pledge was to form a network of insurance that would offer financial hope to Catholic widows and orphans. They did this and more – they even paid to refurbish the Vatican, no wonder why whey are known as ‘the strong right arm of the Church.’ Their motto was something like: ‘Don’t keep the faith, spread it!’ To become a Knight, you have to be eighteen years old, be what they call ‘a practical Catholic’ – which means you have to be cool with the Pope and your local parish (and be recommended by a Knight in good standing). And then the Knights vote on you, and if you pass you are a Knight, first order (then second, then third orders, and they stand for the pledges of charity, unity and fraternity). A fourth order Knight is about patriotism, but not the kind of patriotism most people think about. Most Americans think that patriotism is about believing that whatever the country and its leaders do is right, the Knights are into patriotism that tries to change the country, change political and social practices and laws, and influence elections and judicial appointments. And it was no secret to Catholics, but it was a secret to everyone else.
We had a secret handshake that involved saliva, but we never pricked our fingers and never smeared each other’s blood into the wound – that was gross (we never got beyond ‘coodies’). It was Steven, Richard and me. The club was formed sometime in second grade and dissolved after third grade. We didn’t have a club house, but we had a short cut and nobody who wasn’t in the club was allowed to accompany us past Mrs. Fodor’s yard. We used to scare the first graders who sometimes tried to tag along with us, ‘She has a killer Doberman Pincher that is huge with big fangs and it runs wild in her yard, so you don’t want to go near.’ But when they protested that we were heading into forbidden territory we simply said the dog knew us, feared us (or at least we weren’t afraid of the dog). ‘But he eats first graders for snacks, like Fritos; now get lost!’
East and west the tracks ran and ran and ran; no turns, no bends, no inclines or descents. If you stood right in the middle of the middle set of tracks and strained to see the tracks simply faded into the horizon. So, we had to imagine what was there, imagine where these straight-aways went. Like others I had my hobbies, like slot cars and model trains – my gauge of choice was H-O. I got a starter set for my eighth birthday; it was a commuter train (a Santa Fe, I think), track with even a few switching junctions, and a transformer with wires and a real electric plug (my mother was concerned about the electricity part, but my dad said he would supervise). When I started to lay-out my lay-out I tried to get one section to replicate The Hills, the three tracks that divided north from south, and my neighborhood in my several attempts at model railroading. ‘Why don’t you make your lay-out look like some other place?’ Dad asked. ‘You live right here already.’ It was only two feet of track that was supposed to look like The Hills, and it wasn’t the town crossing; it was a stretch with a fence on each side and a swimming pool (blue paint on the plywood board) on the one side. My biggest obstacle to replicating home was that the tracks in that first set were mostly curves and only a few straight-aways. If I wanted to be exact (as in, not use my imagination), my railroad would run for three feet in one direction, stop, reverse the direction, and run the three feet back, stop, and repeat this monotony. I guess that’s why the train set came with so many curves…to avoid boredom, but boredom wasn’t the problem. I begged for more straight-away track sections for Christmas, birthdays, anytime I was offered a present or asked what I would like. Every train track I ever saw in my young life was pretty much a straight-away, and bends were only meant to get to another straight-away and go somewhere, but my first railroading set was one small, tight circle; keeping things here, keeping the set manageable, keeping the world manageable. I longed for straight-aways.
When the commuter trains rolled into town the conductors would step off the cars first, holding onto the handrail and wait for the passengers to watch their step, then look up and down the train, wave their hand as a signal, and hop back onto the train as it lurched forward. If you waited long enough you could see the same conductor making the return trip on the other side of the tracks. I began to look at the commuter locomotive engineers and conductors with questions rather than just admiration. They never went anywhere and just as quickly at they got going they had to slow and stop. The conductors always said the same things, ‘Watch your step,’ ‘All aboard,’ and ‘Tickets please.’ And they always had bored looks on their faces – the conductors did, but they had to be just playing it cool, they just had to be pretending to be bored. When I got to ride the train (shopping with Mom downtown, traveling to a crowded lakefront event where parking would be limited), I sat like a puppy dog panting excitedly bounding around on the seat and looking out, up, down, back and forth – overwhelmed and too excited to say more than, ‘Cool!’ and ‘Coo-oool!’ But the conductors rode the train everyday, all day; and they never got to take a turn, they never went beyond their line, and both ends were the end of the line (that’s what they announced whether they were downtown or in Aurora, ‘End of the line’ or ‘Last stop’). I didn’t understand then, but I guess I do now. Being excited was about more than the train, it was about being who you were. It’s Bob Dylan’s “The train leaves / at half past ten / but it’ll be back tomorrow / same time again. / The conductor he’s weary / he’s still stuck on the line / But if I can save you any time / come on, give it to me / I’ll keep it with mine. Even he had to figure out that it was more about who you were than just getting out of the place where you were. It probably didn’t hurt things that he left Minnesota (he was born in Duluth, and that’s a tough place to be and a better place to leave if there ever was a place to leave). It also didn’t hurt things that he changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman, but everyone who met him in Greenwich Village folk music circles said he came to the city with his talent in him already.
Zimmerman’s (that is, Dylan’s) darkness was already in him, and when he started to sing through his nose about death and how life was just about to end (it always did, it was just a matter of time), and sometimes about his own grave, people thought he was a morbid soul, like my friend Richard seemed to me. Dylan sang songs like “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and “In My Time of Dying” and especially “Man of Constant Sorrow” – he knew he was pouting, he didn’t try to hide it, “It’s a hard, hard road to travel / When you can’t be satisfied / I’ve got a rope that’s hanging o’er me / And the devil’s at my side.” Unless you knew him, I guess, he just seemed cynical and depressed, but he was just being himself; he needed to pout to be himself. People who talk about Dylan say he just sang about his times and captured the mood of his days. This means that everyone in the youngish American scene in the early 60’s was depressed, frustrated, and anguished with the futility of life. Dylan sang and talked about how his hero, Woody Guthrie, had so influenced him that he even wrote a song about him called ‘Song for Woody.’ Dylan was channeling Woody, “I’m out here a thousand miles from home / Walkin’ a road other men have gone down / I’m seein’ your world of people and things / Of paupers and peasants and princes and kings.”
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Of paupers and peasants and princes and kings.
Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
’Bout a funny old world that’s comin’ along
See, it’s sick and it’s hungry and it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dyin’ and it’s hardly been born.
Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things I’m a-sayin’, and many a-times more
I’m a-singin’ every song, but I can’t sing enough
Cause there’s not many men done the things that you done.
Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too
And all the good people that have travelled with you
Here’s to the hearts and hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind
I’m a-leavin’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do is to say
I’d been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.
But Dylan only got what he wanted out of Guthrie, he only got what he wanted to get – the depressing sound of human tragedy that lead to hope for Guthrie and melancholy for Dylan. Guthrie said,
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.
I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.
When Guthrie left his home it was because of dust storms, not because he didn’t like Pampa, Texas, but because you couldn’t live there with the dust storms of the 30’s, and he wrote a whole bunch of dust bowl songs about surviving and how the dust storms could kill his body, kill his family and ruin everyone’s lives but dust couldn’t kill him, the real him. It didn’t make life any better to complain about it, so when he sung about life Guthrie went out of his way to be sure everyone knew he wasn’t complaining. He wrote this to a friend in January, 1940, from California,
Just offhanded you might think that us human beings is the only things that sing. But I doubt this. You got words and you know what they mean when you hear somebody sing them but when you hear somebody a singing in a foreign language, say, and you can’t tell what the words means, they are just sounds of so much noise. Why I remember one certain old cricket back where I come from that use to sing me off to sleep of a night and then wake me up right early next morning and get me off to work and after he’d took care of me he’d throw his rear end out of gear and throw his voice in another direction and wake up somebody else. He got 2/3 of the folks down in that strip of the country off to a good day’s work and what’s more he sung while you worked. The rainy weather he’d hide up under a chunk somewheres and you talk about it, he’d mentally put it out. Warm days in the early spring you could hear him out trapsing around under the leaves of the new green things and he sung his prettiest but not his loudest, and this was awful good to work by as everybody along the railroad use to admit. But now in the right hot summer time he sung his very loudest ‘cause it was warm enough to sleep outside and he wasn’t afraid of his boss. If his boss didn’t like his singing he could always hang onto a rotten tie and get hauled off over to some farmers house and watch him split the tie up into wood and get carried in close up behind the cookstove and sing while the farmer’s kids popped corn, and his wife made flour gravy and the neighbors come over to setup ‘till midnight quoting the scriptures and cussing the banker. He sung for six funerals. Winter times was confining and dreary, but he was cut out for singing and he liked his work. When he got cold he got serious and he sung a song to all of the other crickets. And they heard him and some of them got up the nerve to sing back and others wasn’t afraid but just kept hid and kept real still, and there was some cowards that crawled away off into big holes all by their self and was afraid to come out and listen to his song even. They’d find something to eat and a place to stay and think they ought to keep quiet about it or some other cricket would crawl over and want to eat and maybe even go to singing and making all sorts of noise. He heard the tales and cusswords of the section gangs and he sung off a prophecy about the big railroads. He longed to go and see the other ends of the line but the porter sprayed the coaches so much that he couldn’t ride, it got in his throat and he couldn’t sing, and in his eyes and he couldn’t see – so he stayed pretty close around there where he was born and just sung like I told you to get you woke up and to put you to work, and when the train whistled by.
So you sing about where you are, even if you can’t leave there. And we would linger there, in the middle of the middle set of tracks, the brave ones took their seats on one of the two middle rails, the scared ones sat off to the edges, but all of us marveling at the impressive steel rails, wooden railroad ties, and dusty rocks – big like boulders to second graders. We would toss them against the rails and listen as their sound traveled up and down, imagining the echo making it all the way to Kansas City or New York – rail after rail connecting The Hills to the known world, carrying along our little rock against steel rail noise through the infrastructure of North America. We would listen by putting our ears to the rail, right after one of us threw a rock, but not too close or too soon – we were lousy aims in second grade and we were all afraid of getting hit in the head by someone, especially Richard. ‘As long as you’re aiming, Richard, I got nothing to worry about,’ we always told him. He couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a rock, even when he was standing inside the barn. Richard was infamous for his lack of arm, his lack of aim. He played center field in little league baseball because nobody hit to center field. He also ran away from home once or twice a year, since he was three or four years old. Sometimes his parents would actually go look for him, but usually they didn’t and he would show up and pronounce his journey had ended, ‘I’m back, even though I hate living here.’ ‘That’s nice, Richard. Do you want salisbury steak or fried chicken for dinner?’ Like the sound of the rocks we tossed at the rails racing down the rails in both directions but never staying put, Richard was always racing off in one direction or another. Except he would always come back home and the sound was always just gone until we made another with another rock and it raced off as if trying to catch the first (if we threw the rock harder we thought it might catch the first sound, but this was never confirmed).
I ran away from home just once and got so lost just three blocks away from my front door that I got scared and almost wet my pants, but not because I was scared, just because I didn’t have a bathroom available to me wandering around the neighborhood. Out of necessity, not bravery or disgusting boyish behavior, I learned to pee in someone’s bushes. I wandered around my neighborhood, first excited and then bored, and too busy to notice where I was walking so I would up on a street I had never been on before even though it was only a few blocks away from my block. I didn’t leave a note; I just went AWOL. I left as much in the name of adventure as in anger about something so significant that I can’t remember what it was. My mother found me after she called all my friends’ homes when I didn’t come home to go shopping for school clothes at some boring department store (maybe that was what made me run away). I was such an amateur – scared at not knowing where I was which is exactly what running away from ‘home’ was all about. I never ran away again. My little brother Johnny ran away a couple of times, but he always announced it, threatened it, and I dared him to really do it and got yelled at by my mom, ‘How could you even think such a thing!’ (Why didn’t Johnny get in trouble for thinking such a thing, but then he was the baby boy of the family and he got away with just about everything.) When he actually walked out the door my mother waited a few minutes, peeked out the window, and made quite a pageant out of the chase and celebrated his return – it was a poetic moment, ‘Com home, my love, and think no wrong!’ When Mom found me avoiding a shopping for school clothes trip I got in trouble, got yelled at, got nothing special at the store, and got a spanking later that day and sent to bed without dessert. Johnny got ice cream and time sitting with Mom as a reward upon his return under her wing. But I didn’t even think about running away a second time, even for ice cream and quality time with Mom; it never occurred to me. I guess I didn’t need to run away so I just didn’t.
Richard, on the other hand, was an expert at running away from home and never planning on coming back; he would sometimes spend a whole morning or afternoon away before returning to forgive his family. No one came after him, ‘They don’t even notice I’m gone; they don’t care,’ he would always say after recounting his adventure to the short-cut club. Richard was always angry at his mom and/or dad; he didn’t have any brothers or sisters (Richard’s family was the only ‘family’ without a half-dozen, station-wagon filling of little kids that we knew). He had every spare ounce of attention from his parents and that wasn’t enough. They were a different sort of family (we wondered if they should really be called a family; maybe they should be called two-adults-and-a-kid instead). Richard’s mom works as a secretary or something at a big office building a few towns away and doesn’t come home until dinner time and that meant that they got to eat Swanson Frozen Dinners a few times a week and that was really cool. I always wanted to eat over at his house, but Richard said nobody was allowed. We never even played at his house after school; we just hung-out together on the railroad tracks when he wasn’t running away from home.
He was going to hop a freighter one day, that’s what he said, ‘I would live in a different box car every couple of days. Eat beans out of a can cooked over a fire. Carry my things in a scarf tied-up and hung on a stick and carried over my shoulder.’ ‘Co-oool!’ was all we could muster, and it would be cool – we just knew it would be. Riding the rails was Richard’s romance, like Hank Williams’ song
I was born in dixie in a boomer’s shack,
Just a little old shanty by a railroad track,
The hummin’ of the drivers was my lullaby,
And a freight train whistle taught me how to cry.
I’ve got the freight train blues, lordy, lordy, lordy,
Got ‘em in the bottom of my ramblin’ shoes,
And when that whistle blows, I’ve gotta go,
Oh! lordy! guess I’m never gonna lose,
The mean old freight train blues.
And when a freight train would roll by it would slow to pass through The Hills and we would stand off to the side and make a pumping action with our right hands, high, like a piston, to get the conductor to blow the horn (they often did and we would laugh hard, bending over sharply at the waist to show we were laughing because you couldn’t hear the other kids laughing over the sounds of a freight diesel or three rolling by just twenty feet away). We would count the cars, debate whether the engines were ‘cars’ or should be included in a separate category; ‘one-hundred-four, with three engines,’ was a purist way of counting. We would further classify categories like tankers, box cars, flatbeds, automobile transports, coal cars, and the super-purists in the group would wait for the caboose, usually red, with all those lights. If it was cool to run the locomotive, it was really cool to live in the caboose, at least I thought so until my second-grade class took a field trip. I was disappointed to learn that they didn’t have a television in there and that it looked more like a prison cell than a den or clubhouse. We saw the actual insides of a caboose at the Museum of Science and Industry and lingered so long that one of the parent chaperons had to shoo us out of there, ‘C’mon boys, your class is already at the walk through human heart!’ That was cool, but not as cool as the caboose. Richard said he didn’t want a job on the railroad, he wanted to jump into one of those empty box cars, and he would point to one as it passed. Richard never said he wanted to go anywhere except away from here, away from home. We would strain to see inside to see if there was a hobo or three in there. We weren’t scared of them, and we were old enough to know that they weren’t gypsies like Steven’s parents told him they were, ‘So stay away from the tracks! Gypsies ride in those box cars and they might try to grab you and then we’d lose you for good, Steven!’ Only Richard ever thought that being snatched-up by a hobo and carried off in a box car was a real opportunity. He had enough guts to run away from home and he had enough guts to inch just a bit closer to the passing train as if to tempt some hobo (or gypsy, according to Steven) to reach out for him; we never got as close to the train, especially the box cars, as Richard did.
‘One day…. One day I’ll get my stuff together and leave my parents a note telling them I’m going away but not where I’m going and I’ll come here and wait for a freight train. I won’t know which direction I’ll head, I guess it will depend on how fast the train is going, whether it is going east or west, and I’ll get to decide.’ ‘You will not,’ Steven said. ‘Yes I will!’ Richard said. I asked, ‘Why will you leave a note? Do you always leave a note when you run away from home?’ ‘Nope, and that will show them I’m serious this time.’ We all knew he wouldn’t hop on the next freight train; he never had his stuff with him, except on Halloween when our short-cut club all dressed up as honorable, benign, hobo’s, like Freddie the Freeloader from The Red Skelton Show. Skelton’s Freddie wasn’t a homeless man, he wasn’t indigent, he wasn’t running away from his parents; Freddie the Freeloader was a noble clown-faced character that made soft gestures, kind faces, and romanticized the lifestyle that most of us would call homelessness, but Freddie wasn’t homeless. During the Great Depression men rode the rails from town-to-town looking for work and there was no work so they continued to ride the rails. Their faces were covered with soot from the locomotives, clothes dirtied by the dust kicked up by passing trains, and yet they took great pride in their appearance, acting politely and calmly making High Tea out of a scrap of bread and something brewed in a can. They had nobility; they may have sipped liquor, for medicinal purposes, but they weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts.
We used to all gather on Sunday nights to watch The Red Skelton Show; the experience of watching the show seemed to bind together ancient history (our grandparents world of living through the Great Depression and the primary transportation infrastructure of the freight lines), our parents generation as those brought into the world in its most desperate economic times (bravery, sheer bravery, having kids during the Great Depression) and keeping it alive during the Second World War, and our own post-War, baby-boomer generation looking to hold together the American dream and our enjoyment of childhood. This experience produced Renaissance men like Skelton – clown, comedian, movie star, musician, composer (thousands of pieces and thirteen symphonies), artist in oils and pencil, patriot, author, and college lecturer (political science, of all things); he played a command performance for Queen Elizabeth, entertained eight United States Presidents (Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush – he has a better record of Presidential audiences than Billy Graham), and he also had private audiences with three Popes (Pius XII, John, Paul) which my proud 1960’s Catholicism celebrated. Red Skelton literally held together the twentieth-century; when CBS cancelled his top-rated show in 1971 because they thought he was out-of-touch with America’s youth, Red proved them wrong by touring to sell-out crowds in Colleges and Universities across America (it was CBS that was out-of-touch, and still is for that matter). It – The Red Skelton Show – was the one program that grandparents, parents and kids would happily gather to watch together in the late 1960’s (no disrespect to Lawrence Welk, but he didn’t do it for me).
Richard Bernard (‘Red’) Skelton was born in July of 1913 in Vincennes, Indiana (the State’s oldest city, it was founded as a French fur trading outpost in 1732 and the oldest Catholic church in the Midwest). Skelton took off from home when just ten years old to join Doc Lewis’ Traveling Medicine Show; he ended up with a vaudeville act and clowned his way around the Midwest. He said his mom once said to him, ‘I didn’t run away from home, my destiny just caught up with me at an early age.’ He had to go to work when he was a boy; life was hard for his poor family. His father, Joe Skelton, was sometimes a grocer and sometimes a clown, but he died two months before Red was born. Just a few years ago, around 1997 when he died, Red Skelton said,
I’d have avoided some of the pain if I could. Anyone would. But I wouldn’t have missed knowing any of the people – even the ones who’s leaving hurt most. In fact, the only thing I’m sorry about is that I didn’t meet one particular guy, a clown named Joe Skelton. You know, he sure picked the right profession. I mean, a clown’s got it all. He never has to hold back. He can do as he pleases. The mouth and the eyes are painted on, so if you wanna cry, you can go right ahead. The make up won’t smear. You’ll still be smiling.
When we dressed up as smiling hobos on Halloween in third grade we wore our parents’ give-away clothes, old and too big flannel shirts, sport coats and bandanas tied over old broom handles; we smeared charcoal briquettes from the grill on our cheeks and chins. We spoke with English accents, ‘Trrrick…or…trrreat’ with an air of indifference. When asked where he got the idea for Freddie the Freeloader, Red said,
Well, I guess you might say that Freddie the Freeloader is a little bit of you, and a little bit of me, a little bit of all of us, you know. He’s found out what love means. He knows the value of time. He knows that time is a glutton. We say we don’t have time to do this or do that. There’s plenty of time. The trick is to apply it. The greatest disease in the world today is procrastination. And Freddie knows about all these things. And so do you. He doesn’t ask anybody to provide for him, because it would be taken away from you. He doesn’t ask for equal rights if it’s going to give up some of yours. And he knows one thing…that patriotism is more powerful than guns. He’s nice to everybody because he was taught that man is made in God’s image. He’s never met God in person and the next fella just might be him. I would say that Freddie is a little bit of all of us.
Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Emmet Kelly’s Weary Willie were down on their luck clowns, Freddie the Freeloader was this but with a gracious lack of unhappiness; everything may not turn out as the rest of us would expect, but the hobo doesn’t expect what the rest of us expect. He didn’t live by the rest of the worlds’ rules – didn’t have to, didn’t care to. The only real question was whether the rest of the world would let him live in his hobo way.
Freddie the Freeloader also fed a rather common childhood curiosity with clowns (something that I find is almost completely lacking in the days of computers and video games). We grew up with the Auguste face painting of clowns silently making us laugh out loud; they were magicians who weren’t impressed with the ability to do little magic tricks (or cram 20 clowns into a little car). They lived the romantic life of the big-top – circus life (the ‘I’m going to run off and join the circus’ type of life). When the old International Amphitheater hosted the greatest show on earth we made our annual family pilgrimage downtown; Mary wanted to see the high-wire acts, Johnny wanted to see the elephants hold each others’ tails and circle the ring, I wanted to see the clowns, and Mom and Dad wanted us all to have a good time. One year we sat so close that the clown’s confetti from the fake water bucket landed in our laps. On the drive home that day, with a pocket full of the confetti, I saw a man that my Mom called a hobo, with a tone of disgust in her voice. I sat up straight, excited, looking around and only saw a disheveled, smelly-looking, broken man who looked one hundred years old. He was dragging a bag behind him, his shoes didn’t match, his clothing was stained like he wet his pants, sat in garbage and spilled on himself, every day. I was perched in the way-back seat, rear facing, of the family station wagon. My nose was an inch from the glass, breath steaming the glass, as I starred in disbelief at this man. He wasn’t a hobo; he was a bum, a derelict, a poor, dirty, sad man. ‘That’s not a hobo!’ I protested. And we just drove on through the city in our nice station wagon, my mother quietly admonishing my father for driving us through such a neighborhood, ‘Next time, please take the highway. It really isn’t pleasant to have to see people like that.’ We lived in a suburb, drove a station wagon that we parked in our garage, mowed our lawns, never had to pick up garbage from our streets or parkways, and never had to see bums. I always wanted to see a real, live hobo, and I still hadn’t. I’d only seen a bum.
I saw my whole world out the back of that station wagon rear window. The tailgate swung open from one side and the window was powered by a switch off to one side that I was forbidden to lower without permission, ‘The exhaust fumes come in the open window and it gives your sister and brother headaches; please keep the window up.’ I had a three-window view of the world, while my brother and sister only saw out of their own windows, but my view was watching the world pass me by and I gave up trying to look forward over the seat – too much of a view of my sister and brother bickering about whether the other crossed the dividing line that separated them, ‘You crossed the line. Mom! Johnny crossed over to my side.’ ‘Mary, please be kind to your little brother; maybe he just wants to see what you’re doing?’ ‘No I don’t! She’s playing with a Barbie and I hate Barbies!’ Johnny said. The depth of our childhood dialogues rarely went much beyond bickering and mother asking me or my sister or just me to be understanding with Johnny, ‘Be nice to your little brother, he loves you.’ No he doesn’t. Johnny spent most of his time sticking out his tongue at me behind mother’s back after she begged me to be nice to him because he loves me. ‘One day you two will be best of friends, you’ll see.’
I had to walk Johnny home almost everyday when I began fourth grade and he was in first grade. I was responsible for him, according to my mother. The only way to avoid my responsibility was to pass it off on my sister Mary and she, as the only girl in the house besides Mom, wasn’t going near baby Johnny. Mary always had more self-control than I did, even though I was almost two years older than her (which, she reminded me, meant that she was actually more emotionally and mentally developed than I was, me being a boy and her being an above average human called a girl). The only way she would take responsibility for Johnny was if something drastic happened, a seismic shift that altered the crust of the earth itself, or a tidal wave that carried the rest of us off into the oblivion of the deep sea that rose, consumed, and providentially left Mary and Johnny to fend for themselves. That, or our family moving, was going to be necessary, and that’s exactly what happened (the moving, not the earthquake-tidal wave scenario, happened, but I believe I would have preferred the latter to the former).
At the end of fourth grade my parents announced that they had bought a nice house, a little bigger inside but with a smaller yard, on the other side of town, ‘You kids will love the new house, and you will be able to keep your same friends. Isn’t that nice?’ Same town, same telephone number, same zip code, even the street names began with the same letter (‘H’ the real, i.e. old house, was on Hamilton, the newer, i.e. little bigger house, on Hudson). But they had different house numbers and there must have been a correlation between the bigger house number (434 Hamilton) and the bigger yard. The new house number was 16 Hudson, and the yard was just as diminutive. Moving, I immediately hoped, would change one significant thing about how I lived, but it didn’t. Instead it changed the way I got around, in two ways. The thing I hoped it would change was having to share a bedroom with my little brother (or ‘my little bother,’ as I liked to call him, sometimes even in front of mother). I thought it was really cool that I would get my own room and not have to share a room with Johnny. That was, I assumed, what my parents meant by a little bigger inside, but the day we moved I discovered that ‘the boys’’ room was just one room, just a little bigger. And the new house changed the way I got around because it ended the necessity for a short-cut and made me into a biker-kid. It (the new house) was still the same distance from school, but it was on the way through town to walk there so there would be no short cuts across the train tracks (I could still hang out near the tracks, but it was now out of my way and the little kids – second graders – started hanging out there so I didn’t bother). My father said he would be able to give us all a ride to school in the mornings on his way to work since he had to drive through town to get to the road that took him to The Highway. That was the year that I also got a new bicycle and asked if I could ride it to school; ‘You sure you want to ride when your father could drop you off? You won’t have to leave so early!’ ‘No thanks, I’d really like to ride.’ They didn’t figure out that if I rode that meant my sister was responsible to walk Johnny home after school; they couldn’t expect me to walk my bicycle alongside him. Mary usually walked home with a neighbor, but now that we moved there were a whole gang of girls, second graders, who walked through town and Mary would happily walk with them. Johnny would tag along, about ten feet behind the girls, and mind his own business and throw little stones at the girls’ feet until Mary yelled, ‘Johnny, you stop that right this instant! You hear me!? I’ll tell mother.’ She actually tried telling on Johnny one day and got the same response I learned to expect, ‘Mary, he’s your little brother. Please be kind to him. He’s the only boy walking with a whole group of girls; it must be awkward for him.’
The move was also part of the reason why we had to dissolve the short-cut club. Steven and Richard could have just kept it up, but the short cut wasn’t really shorter for Steven, he was just one of the gang and liked to hang-out with Richard and me but wouldn’t admit that that’s why he was in the club. And Richard’s family moved that year, just at the end of the summer between third and fourth grade. The last time I saw him was a week before /school started when we were hanging around the swimming pool parking lot near the train tracks. Richard had a couple of coins left over from buying popcorn after we went swimming all afternoon, and he said we should try putting the coins on the tracks to see if a train would flatten them or not. One of Richard’s friends told him, he said, that if you put two pennies stacked on top of each other on a rail it might derail a train that was moving really fast; so we tried it. Three trains came along while we were trying to derail a Zephyr on the way to Colorado or California. The first train came on the middle track and was moving the fastest, but we had put the two pennies stacked on one rail on the closest track. By the time we figured out it was not gonna hit the coins it was too late (although Richard seemed tempted to make a quick switch when Steven yelled that the train was on the wrong track; but Richard didn’t, it just seemed like he would). Then we spread the coins on each of the six rails and kept the stacked pennies on one of the middle track rails (they always moved the fastest because they were express trains heading fast past the crossing in The Hills). The next train was a freighter, but a short one (only fifty-eight cars with one engine and a blue caboose). The dime on the rail was perfectly squished; you couldn’t even see the president’s face anymore. The next train was a commuter and it smushed a penny into an oval but we could still recognize Lincoln’s head and some of the year; _964 (the ‘1’ was mushed too much, but we knew the millennium). Then, no more trains and it was time to head home for supper. I never saw Richard again, ever. I heard he moved later that very same week. I wondered why he didn’t tell us he was moving, but then maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he went home and his parents were waiting for him in the car, with the bags and couches and pots and pans all packed, with the engine running. I can see him hopping into the back seat of the family car with his wet swim trunks on, his towel over his shoulder and his flip-flops snapping and he was off to who-knows-where because we never heard where. It wasn’t like we knew each others’ telephone numbers; we just showed up at each others’ houses, yelled for each other, or just were always together so much that we didn’t have to find each other because we were always there together. He didn’t say goodbye and that wasn’t the part that mattered; he was my friend since before we were in school together. These days I wish for the opportunity to see far enough ahead to say goodbyes, but who knows when we will be with the people who aren’t people because they are our friends, like when Red Skelton signed-off his final show in 1971 he said this.
The time has come to say goodnight,
My, how time does fly.
We’ve had a laugh, perhaps a tear,
And now we hear goodbye.
I really hate to say goodnight,
for times like these are few
I wish you love and happiness,
In everything you do.
The time has come to say goodnight,
I hope I’ve made a friend.
And so we’ll say ‘May God bless you,’
Until we meet again.
I wondered if Richard’s new town had train tracks that ran through its middle. Maybe Richard would really run away from home, really run away and not come home one day. Maybe he would jump a freight train box car and ride the rails, eat beans out of a can at a campfire in rail yards across the Midwest.
I’ve got the freight train blues, lordy, lordy, lordy,
Got ‘em in the bottom of my ramblin’ shoes,
And when that whistle blows, I’ve gotta go,
Oh! lordy! guess I’m never gonna lose,
The mean old freight train blues.
Even these days when a freight train goes by I count the cars, noting the number of engines, and I look for box cars with open doors to see if I can see someone who looks like Richard would look thirty years later. They lock box car doors these days, and they don’t have cabooses anymore either. But a lock couldn’t keep Richard from riding the rails. Just maybe he finally made it. Who knows?
Having to cross the tracks at the crossing meant that I wound up spending my time hanging around the commuter station on the way home from school, all alone. The lights down the tracks showed green or red and told me which track the next train would come down and from which direction. I would always see the headlight of the train before the bells, lights and gates would start up. I would sit there on my bike, watching the train, counting the cars and registering the length of the train, the different types of cars, and the number of engines. Sometimes a motorist idling in a car next to me would warn me not to get too close to the tracks (I would inch my front tire up under the crossing gate, especially when it was on the close track), ‘Be careful, young man. Don’t get too close.’ Once a Hills policeman was watching me, and I felt his eyes on me; I kept my bicycle tire an inch on my side of the gate with the flashing red light and bells ringing right in my face. He didn’t say anything, and when the train finally lurched off (it was a commuter dropping off hundreds of riders), I waited an extra few seconds until the gate went all the way back up, the bells and lights stopped clanging and flashing. I became a crossing-gate legalist, just to thwart the efforts of local law enforcement to persecute a kid at a crossing.
The bike I rode – my bicycle for five or six years – was a medium-blue Schwinn with a white vinyl banana seat, chopper handle bars and a baseball card (some nobody, probably a duplicate or someone from the White Sox, but never a Cub) attached to the front yoke with a spring-loaded clothes pin so the edge of the card would click against the spokes and make a motorcycle-like sound when I rode it fast (which I always did). I never went slow on that bike; it was made for speed, just like me, and I would ride it up to the top of one of The Hills’ two hills, slam on the brakes and skid around, and jump up to propel me and my chopper down the slope, gaining speed from gravity until I reached the bottom and bobbed and weaved around trees, shrubs and hopefully jump the edge of a sidewalk curb for a little simulated ramp-to-ramp, just like Evil Knieval. Almost every day I would ride through the one block town square, in front of the Ace Hardware store, the realtor, the beauty shop, the drug store and the Village Diner on the one side, or down the other side with the bank, card shop, florist, and the grocery store called Gallagher’s (no video rental or coffee shops in the 60’s remember, and no strip malls either). It was divided in a V by a triangular green strip that featured a Christmas tree in December and a little garden in the summer, and a sidewalk that connected one side of the street to the other. The sidewalks were wide and you could march a parade down one side and up the other, but we marched our parades – fourth-of-July, Founders’ day, and little league opening day parades – through the heart of town, sometimes getting stopped by a train, right down main street which was called Main Street.
Those inviting sidewalks cost me two weeks allowance in September of fourth grade. I was speeding down the hardware store-realtor-beauty shop-drugstore-diner side when a policeman flashed his lights and turned on his siren to get my attention. I obediently stopped (but at first I just thought he was going off to catch a criminal). ‘What’s your name young man?’ I answered with my full and complete name. ‘What grade are you in?’ ‘Fourth grade, sir.’ ‘Well, then, you can read, can’t you?!’ ‘Sure.’ Then he pointed up to a sign on a light post just two feet from me and asked, ‘What does that sign say?’ BICYCLE RIDING ON SIDEWALKS PROHIBITED. So I read it aloud. ‘Do you know what that means?’ Okay, that was a good question. I understood every word perfectly except the last one, PROHIBITED. My mind raced back through the 4+ years of Latin I had with Sister Marie and remembered that pro- meant something like in favor of or to agree with, so I offered, ‘It says something about it being okay to ride bicycles on the sidewalks.’ The policeman just shook his head and started to write down something (I had never seen him at Sacred Heart of Jesus church, so maybe he had no idea about Latin and wanted to write this information down). I was wrong. He wrote me out an official, real ticket. Bicycle Violation: Riding on sidewalk(s). Fine: 50¢. Fifty cents!? That was two weeks of allowance for me. He never explained what was wrong with my Latin, but he told me to show the ticket to my mother and father that night because he said he would call later to tell them, ‘And they’d better know what I’m talking about when I call.’ He never called, but I told Mom and Dad right after dinner. My mother was upset, but my father told me that he would have to give me an advance on my allowance so that I could pay the ticket right away. ‘If you don’t pay your ticket, they will impound your bike,’ he warned. I had to do extra work around the house for a few weeks as well (interest on the allowance advance, I guess). I rode my bike up to the police station, just on the other side of the train tracks in town and paid my fine. There was a jail cell in the back that I could see from the front desk and that really scared me. I paid my fine and hopped on my bike, about to speed off when I looked up and saw another one of those Latin signs in front of the police station. So I hopped off my bike, and walked it to the edge of the sidewalk-street and rode off avoiding sidewalks all the way, taking a much longer way home, and riding fast on the streets where it was safer.
The only time I didn’t ride my bicycle every day was when we went on our family vacations. Sometimes we drove to places in Wisconsin or Michigan, one time we flew to Virginia to see early colonial sights, but the best of all was when the airlines were on strike and we took a train to Colorado. All dressed-up in our suits, with all of our luggage, the five of us took a cab to Union Station to get on our train, the Colorado Zephyr; it had observation cars, a dining car, a few regular looking commuter cars with seats and small bathrooms, and sleeper cars where we would fit into two rooms and sleep one night on the train. When we were waiting to board I noticed a large wall with mail boxes on it, from floor to ceiling, and I just stood there studying the boxes and trying to imagine why they were here and how they worked. I studied them so intently that I didn’t notice that my father, mother, sister and little brother had gone off to board the train. A conductor looking man appeared next to me and asked if I was lost. ‘No, I’m not lost. I’m here with my family, we are going to Colorado on a train and we were waiting to….’ Then I looked around and didn’t see anyone I knew. ‘Come with me,’ he said and started off. After finding out my name and talking with someone behind a big counter, I heard, ‘Would the parents of a lost ten-year-old boy please come to the ticket counter,’ over the loud speakers that sounded like the PA at Wrigley Field announcing Billy Williams or Ernie Banks were about to bat. When they all showed up I was scolded for wandering off (which I didn’t, they had left me). I got lost on the train, twice; both times I just stayed put when I should have been with my family. My sister Mary was always on one side of mother, baby Johnny on the other side holding her hand, and my father just a half-step ahead of the family leading us wherever we were going. I was too old to hold a parent’s hand and too young to be completely on my own, so I was always getting lost. And when we got back to Union Station after the return train ride back to Chicago I got lost standing at the baggage claim after my family had retrieved all our bags. They left and I was left and I was lost, again. The funny thing was that I knew exactly where I was and hadn’t wandered off, I wasn’t lost. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to get lost young man,’ my mother offered in the car on the ride home.
After putting more air in my bicycle tires after two weeks with no attention, I set off to find what I had missed in The Hills. School was going to start in one week, fifth grade, and everything would change overnight. The swimming pool was almost empty because the kids’ afternoon swim had ended an hour ago and adult swim was going on; but adults didn’t swim or play ‘Marco-Polo’ or dive off the diving boards, they just waded in the shallows and talked. When all the kids were swimming during the day-time swim we would dart back-and-forth playing, splashing (splashing wasn’t allowed during adult swim), laughing and diving off the low and high diving boards. If you wanted to get over to a friend on the other side of the pool you had to weave in-and-out of friends and strangers, but diving under people worked just as well; it was against the rules to get out of the pool to run over to the other side and jump right back in (no running, anytime, at The Hills’ pool). But this late summer night everyone was either eating dinner or doing chores or hiding inside their houses or still on vacation. The commuters had already arrived home, people were eating dinner in the diner, the stores were closed for the day, and the sidewalks were empty (I noticed as I rode along in the streets). It was a quiet August night, but this was nothing new – it was usually quiet in The Hills. So I kept riding my bicycle around town, even tried a couple of streets that I’d never been on. I rode past Steven’s house, down Richard’s street just for old times’ sake, and eventually back toward home. I raced from across town but was stopped by a train (I thought I could have made it under the descending gates with flashing lights, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get home). I sat there in front of the crossing gate as a really long freight train slowly rolled through town; one hundred sixteen cars, with four engines – all Santa Fe’s. There was a whole line of box cars, most with the doors open on both sides, airing them out. I strained to see inside them; some were empty, some had straw or garbage in them. If someone was hiding in a corner you’d never see him, unless you got in there with him. The train was moving very slowly; so slowly that you could anticipate the clank-clank sound of the empty box cars as they rolled over a gap that joined rails just down from the crossing. My mother had told me that when the street lights came on I was to ‘Come straight home.’ I arrived well after dark that night and my mother was already upset over all the laundry she was unpacking from our vacation to Colorado. ‘Young man, where have you been? I told you I wanted you to come straight home when the street lights came on!’ ‘But I did, Mom. I came straight home. I just got stopped by a train.’
The train leaves at half past ten, but it’ll be back tomorrow; same time again. The conductor he’s weary, he’s still stuck on the line. But if I can save you any time, come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.