My encounter with Hobo Joe
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
I pushed the glass door open that was plastered with community and school announcement signs and posters and stepped through the space onto the brightly lit concrete lot. The heat from the pavement slapped me in the face. It was hot from absorbing 90 degree-plus sun rays most of the day. A big lighted Gulf sign hung on the corner of Salisbury Avenue and 11th Street, a place commonly known by the locals as “Surratt’s Curve.”
The service station was only a few months old and was the latest addition to the town of Spencer. It was the mid-1950s. I was home after spending my first year at Gaston College, an engineering prep school that was highly praised and recommended at the time by Duke Power Co., where my dad was an employee. I worked a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at Duke’s Buck Station and held down the service station job from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and all day on most weekends. Somehow, I also wedged in a paper route and baseball games and late dates about every night.
My black ’50 Ford coupe with its sparkling whitewall tires, duel exhaust and a modified camshaft sat halfway in and halfway out of the wash pit. The radio was tuned to Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tenn. Big Joe Turner blasted the air waves, “Flip, Flip and Fly”… don’t ever leave me … don’t ever say goodbye.” The night business was slow. The word around town was that with the coming of the new diesel engines, Spencer Shops were at the beginning of its end. The only things moving were a welcome July breeze and an old hound dog dragging along the sidewalk.
I flopped down on a Cheerwine bench and waited to pump gas, wash windshields and check oil. Gas prices had decreased during a “gas war” to around 20 cents a gallon. Repairing a flat was $1.
I noticed a strange looking guy walking south along the sidewalk on Salisbury Avenue. Although it was the heat of mid-summer, he had on a heavy Army-surplus jacket, boots and a striped railroad cap. He carried a backpack and a guitar slung over his shoulders. He never looked at me, just walked straight ahead.
After pumping gas in several cars, meeting and chewing the fat with a couple of guys that were friends of the owner and kept their booze hidden in the oil storage room, I was again alone, and the strange looking guy was coming back down the street. This time he turned and came toward me.
I could smell him as he came by the gas pumps, but I welcomed him to come sit a spell. He smiled, and I saw he had several teeth missing. He asked for something to eat. I gave him a Moon Pie and told him to take his pick from the drink box. He said his name was Joe. I asked where he was from.
He told me his story. He grew up across the Big Sandy River, which flows north, in Pritchard, W.Va. The front porch of the family’s big frame house was within 30 feet of the C&O railroad track on a curve that followed the river. The boards that formed the pig pen were within a foot of the crossties. Squawking chickens often had to flutter from the rails. The house was there when the track was built and his dad refused to sell to C&O so they had co-existed with the trains for his entire life.
He said he “lived with the sounds. Your bones knew when the noon whistle was going to blow,” he said. “Even in your sleep you incorporated the railroad into yourself and its ‘rhythms’ were part of you. I slept in the front room and at 4 in the morning the fast trains would almost knock me out of bed. The railroad was in my blood and I never could shake it, nor did I want to.”
Early one foggy September morning, after his parents were killed in an automotive accident when they entered a new interstate highway in Virginia in the wrong direction, he was 17 and alone in the world. He packed things he needed and jumped a freight train from his front yard and never looked back. He found himself the next day in Kentucky and later in Atlanta, and then “it all ran together.” Later, he joined the Army and went to Korea and got himself “shell shocked” after his first engagement in a battle. He was discharged 18 months after he joined. He went back to riding the rails, now calling himself a professional hobo. He carried a railroad timetable and said that his train had pulled into the roundhouse at the Spencer Shops for servicing and was scheduled out at 9 o’clock. He had a couple of hours to kill. He strummed his guitar in tune with the sounds from my car radio. He sang with Elvis Presley and danced with Chuck Berry.
The air had been cooling while we mingled, and lightning suddenly split the sky and thunder crashed around us. A summer storm had sneaked up on us. Hurriedly, Joe and I closed the station. It was time for him to go. I got Joe in my car and drove him to the Spencer Shops. The train was slowly pulling on to the main line. Joe took off in a run. I pulled out from the Shops and headed home. The rain was gone as suddenly as it had arrived.
I pulled up to the Long Ferry Road crossing. The red signal lights were blinking. A freight train rocked north with all of its muscle and all its sounds . the rushing air, the clickity-clack of expansion joints under the wheels, the lonesome whistle cutting through the night, and the squeal of cars lurching one after another around a long curve. As the last cars passed, flooded by my headlight, I saw Joe hanging from the back of the caboose, flashing that gap tooth grin and waving with his guitar in his hand. Just as quickly as he appeared, he was gone. The rhythms of the rails were still in his bones.
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Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of the town of Spencer and writes occasionally for the Salisbury Post.