Saturday, September 13, 2008

MAYBE DEATH STILL WALKS THESE RAILS
& RIDES THESE MIDNIGHT ROADS:
A Ghost Story, Of Sorts

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- Our travels through this world are not ours alone, not merely the logical paths of our construction crews and civil engineers but also the ethereal inspirations of those which man-made things such as logic and reason cannot touch.

In this world, there are things that are natural and things that are supernatural. It's as simple as that, if you accept such things.

But choose to believe at your own peril. This is, after all, the New Postmodern Millennium. To most postmodern men and women, such talk falls into the realm of ancient superstition, religious naivety, or even blasphemy.

As a 21st century man, raised in a resurrected, desegregated New South, I'm probably not supposed to believe in the mythology of my supposedly less-cultured ancestors, either.

You know. Old ghost stories and whatnot. But some of the things I've seen in this world, at crossroads...

* * * *

I'm still not sure who that old black man was, the one who scared the living shit out of me one night, while taking a midnight stroll along the property line of my family's farm in Virginia, away from a clandestine party in the woods.

I'd been drinking and partaking in other illicit substances with friends nearby, well out of sight of local law enforcement and parents. An afternoon of shooting a an old abandoned car full of holes, fishing, and playing Marlboro Fucking Man had taken its toll, that's for damned sure - I was annoyed with the petty late-night boy brawling and cursing and needed, yes, a quiet moment by myself.

He'd wandered out from behind the pines and brambles, from my family's side of an old Virginian Railway access road, from where that red clay road intersected the old timber road.

He made no noise as his feet crossed the earth, as he moved between the rows of thorns and into the open night. Not a sound. In fact, if I hadn't seen the movement in the bush, hadn't seen him step out of the shadows myself, well, I wouldn't have known he was there.

In my part of the country, well, when a strange old dude -regardless of color - sneaks up on you from the woods, even beneath a full moon, you're probably going to level the business end of your shotgun his way when you holler. And that's just what I did, instinctively.

The black face showed teeth and raised his black hands, hollered back. He hollered back that he'd been lost in the woods a whah, boss and couldn't fin' he whah backa' quittin' whenna boss holla'd. He kept looking at the ground, old rag of a hat in hand, asking me the way back towards the railroad tracks so he could get back home for the night.

I pointed due west, back towards the rail bed. I remember laughing and thinking that the guy was merely drunk; a moonshiner lived a few miles away and, well, it's not like his customers only showed up during daylight hours.

I mean, c'mon - boss? In Virginia, by the 1990s, even the oldest black folk had quit staring at the dirt and calling random white folk boss. And hell, one of the Virginian's successor railways had yanked up the last of those tracks when I was a kid.

Figured the guy was one of the numerous retired, half-senile old railroad workers who lived in the area, still stuck in the glory years, and, yeah, just wandering back from a white lightning ride towards home.

The guy just smiled, thanked me for my help in his Gone With the Fucking Wind manner of dialect and disappeared off into the night, feet moving without a sound, walked back towards where the rail bed had been.

I remember staggering back to the campsite, telling a few guys about how I'd run into Uncle Fucking Remus's cousin out in the woods.

Everybody thought it was pretty funny. Even I thought it was funny, back then.

* * * *

More than a decade later, while visiting my home state and the town of Keysville, I met the most interesting elderly gentleman at the lunch counter at one of my favorite restaurants in the Old Dominion.

A retired railroad worker, one of the last of the Gandy Dancers. Older than sin, skin like spotted brown leather, white woolly hair. We started talking about all sorts of things - about his dead wife, his having grown up as, well, a second-class citizen in a segregated United States, his grandchildren, his oldest granddaughter's fondness for downright fugly-sounding white trash guys...

And, eventually, we started up a conversation about railroads, old work songs... and superstitions he'd heard as a young man working the tracks.

Funny thing, those old railroad legends.

Ever hear the legend of the Ol' Joe Gandy?

Neither had I.

* * * *

Apparently, the Angel of Death was once said to take the very human form of a lost railroad man - Joe Gandy. Death would walk the rails, looking for souls to test, strangers in the night who could be judged as either kind or cruel, depending on how they answered his questions.

If the strangers he met in his journeys along America's rails passed his tests - the measure of a human soul is in its capacity for kindness, after all - he'd leave empty handed. If the strangers were treacherous, belittling, or, well, just plain ol' racist pricks, Death would extract a payment in misfortune and doom.

Not that I believe in such things, mind you. I mean, it's not like I grew up hearing my great-grandmother's stories about Louisiana Rougarous and Hoodoos, or ever went witchhunting in the wilds of Lunenburg County or anything...

But now, every time a memory of that childhood experience pops into my mind...

Let's just say that I'm on my best behavior when I happen across an old dude near the train tracks at midnight. I think I've already used my Get Out of Hell Free card once - no sense in tempting fate.

* * * *

"... So I was waiting for the Blue Line out to O'Hare. And it's late, right? Like really late and kinda empty, you know?"

I'm wondering where she's going with her story. She's just finished telling me everything she's been doing with her life for, oh, the last year and a half. And, out of the blue, she interrupted my story about a rather abysmal, tiring week at work here in Oxford Fucking Ohio.

"And I get in the car and there's, like, only, like, ten of us, right? And this old, like, black guy in a CTA hat - Ohmygod! he smelled like something DIED! - like sits down next to me, right?"

I'm getting annoyed. I'm tired. I've got the cell phone plugged into the charger and on speaker, so I can respond to late-night emails and chat simultaneously.

"So... okay. Couldya hurry it up here? Not to be rude or anything, chica."

"Oh. RIGHT! Well, this guy just sits down beside me and starts, like, asking me about flying and telling me that he's never flown before and asks if I'd tell him how to find the Northwest terminal --"


"Yeah. So? Did you help him out or just make fun of him for smelling like ass?"


"DUDE! No... I helped him. But you remember that creepy-ASS story you told me about that Black Gandhi train demon or something..."


I hung up on her. It's two o'clock in the morning, Saturday.

I've a few beers in me and the last thing I need to have nightmares about is an old railroad legend.

Crazy-ass chick, really.

But I pray she hadn't given him bad directions.

You know. Just in case.

* * * *

Hell, maybe Ol' Joe Gandy's flying the friendly skies these days, riding Chicago's L lines, New York's subways and in Los Angeles taxis. Maybe he's traversing European rails and African buses, South American roads and Far Eastern high-speed lines, testing the men and the women of the world by just asking for directions.

Angel. Of Friggin' Death. It's not like he's stuck as a black dude. Hell, every human culture on this planet has a personification of that creature...

But imagine Death as an elderly Polish Jew, sitting down on a train in Berlin, maybe next to the great-grandson of some forgotten Schutzstaffel sturmbannführer, striking up a conversation, like old men tend to do. Say the kid blows the man off, intentionally gives him bad directions to that hotel at the next stop, simply because, well, the guy's Jewish...

Or imagine that angel appearing as a beautiful middle-aged Lakota woman in a truck stop somewhere in Montana, sitting down at a meal counter next to the semi-driving descendant of an Indian Wars veteran and asking for directions to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Say that trucker not only gives her directions but ends up so smitten that he picks up her coffee...

Not that people in the 21st century, us modern folks, should be worried or anything. These sorts of mysterious occurances are long behind us, stories our grandparents heard from their grandparents, stories that became the basis for our movies and television shows and horror novels.

It's not like you, reader, are reading this very essay on an Information Superhighway - a veritable electronic railroad of knowledge, built megabits at a time by hundreds of millions of random strangers every day, each one gandy dancing their way into Facebook profiles and MySpace pages and Wordpress accounts.

Surely, Ol' Joe Gandy, that dancing Angel of Death, isn't capable of navigating the World Wide Web?

I mean, why would he bother with testing our travels upon tracks made of fiberoptic cables?

Right?

Heh. Sleep tight tonight.

- # # # -


3 comments:

coyotemike said...

I think everyone's met such folks. And, sometimes, we ARE those folks.
Big man walks down the streed; clack bootheel clack; The steps are slow, fine, low;The hustle around of living can't find him; "Where do I find the busline out?"; Scared eyes look under his hat to see the smile line map; "No bus tonight, but it's two blocks down.";
"Buses always come for me."


Don't know where that came from.

coyotemike said...

and that should be "street"

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