By Mel Tharp © 1985
Issue: February, 1985
Many of my stories deal with people I knew while growing up in the Green River section of Western Kentucky. George Howe had a natural spontaneous humor that made him a local legend. Even though he has been dead for over 30 years, people in McLean County, Kentucky still repeat a lot of his homey sayings.
If he were alive today, with a proper public relations man, he would probably be a country comedian on a par with the late Rod Brasfield. This is the story of his trip north as he told it. I am sure some of it was tongue in-cheek. Uncle George was no fool. But I can certainly see him baiting the surly conductor.
In 1936, Uncle George Howe decided to take a trip to Cincinnati to visit his son. It is believed to be the first Uncle George had ever been out of his native McLean County.
I have written this story in Uncle George's own vernacular and dialect. The story is written as he would tell it if he were alive today. The story is a classic microcosm of Western Kentucky folk culture.
Prior to World War II, it was not uncommon for residents of the Green River country of Western Kentucky to spend their entire lifetime without straying more than fifty miles from their place of birth. In the 30's a lot of younger people went to the North to find work in the factories. The older people for the most part subscribed to the precept that "A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush." So it was only natural that Uncle George caused quite a stir among his neighbors when he announced that he was taking a train to Cincinnati to visit his son.
This is Uncle George's story as he told it to me:
I don't reckon I'd ever left to go North, but my boy sent me the train fare, and I always wanted to ride on one of them iron horses. My neighbors took me to the train station in Owensboro, and the train was already loading folks on when we got there. I already had my ticket and I reckon it weren't in no hurry to leave, because I had time to look around before I got on the train.
I noticed this big pointed thing sticking out on the front or the engine. My neighbor said this was a cowcatcher. My neighbor's name was Elmer, and he was pretty smart. He was purty well traveled. I remember when he traveled with a sorghum mill for one whole season. I reckon he must have hit a lot of territory that fall.
I got on board and found me a seat beside the window where I could look out. I noticed a black satchel on the seat beside me. It was one of them like the doctors carry. I figgered whoever left it there would be back, and I would have somebody to talk to. Purty soon, a feller in a black suit and a little crackerbox hat come through hollering, "All aboard, all aboard!"
I looked out the window and seed all them people standing on the platform, so I motioned to the feller. He didn't see me at first, so I got right up in the seat and hollered, "Are you the driver?"
"I'm the conductor," he smarted back.
"Well," I said, "I reckon you got a purty good job, and I don't want to see you get in trouble, but you jist said that they was all on board, and I know they ain't. If you'll jist look out that window, you'll see that they's a whole bunch of folks that ain't on board yet."
That conductor feller jist looked at me and walked away. I reckon he knowed I had him.
I hadn't no more that sot back to enjoy the ride, when here come old Crackerbox again. I showed him my ticket, and he took out a little pair of pliers and punched it plumb full of holes. I started to call him on that, but I don't like to pick trouble when I'm away from home. Crackerbox started to move off when he noticed that satchel on the seat.
"Move that bag!" he snapped at me in a right harsh tone.
I figured I'd took about all I needed to from that scutter, so I reared back and looked him smack dab in the eye. "I ain't moving it," I said flatly.
"Your baggage must be placed in the baggage rack," he said, pointing to a little shelf over my head.
"I ain't a-moving it," I repeated and I meant it.
"I'll be back in a few minutes," he said, looking back over his shoulder. "If that bag is still there, I'll throw it off the train."
About that time, I noticed a man and woman in a seat across the aisle. The man acted like he was right puny and kept the road hot going back and forth to the privy. "Did he eat something that didn't agree with him?" I asked the woman while the man was out of the seat.
"No," she smiled, "I think he has a case of vertigo."
I sot right back in my seat. I reckoned maybe, what with the man having to go so much, that vertigo might be one of them bad diseases a feller gets from going around with fancy women. That vertigo is probably jist a proper name fer it. That feller kind of looked like a sport anyhow.
Directly, a Black man in a white suit come through the train. "First call to lunch," he called. By that time I was getting might hungry, but I thought it wouldn't be polite to go on the first call. I was always taught that it was proper to act like a body weren't hungry when eating away from home. Folks might get the idea that you ain't got much to eat at home.
I reckon it must have been an hour or more before the man come back and called, "Last call for lunch." This time, I made a beeline fer the kitchen car.
As soon as I sot down, another feller in a white suit come over and put a piece of paper in front of me. I could read most of what was on the paper real good, and it had names of different kinds of grub printed out on it. I read off most of the names. The feller wrote down what I called off, and I reckon he was real pleased, because he kind of smiled and took the paper off fer another feller to read.
Purty soon, two fellers come out and started putting grub on my table. I ain't never seed so much belly timber fer one man. I got away with most of it. I noticed this pocket at the side of my seat where somebody had put some papers and magazines. I reckon this was fer trash, so I raked the leavings off the table and into the pocket. I reckon they had fellers being paid to do this, but I got feelings fer the hired help.
I enjoyed my dinner, but it shore was steep. It tore the devil out of a ten-dollar bill. On the way back to my seat I run into Crackerbox, and I thought I'd josh him up a bit.
"Mr. Conductor, Sir," I said, real polite-like.
"What do you want?" he growled.
"Well Sir, I notice you got a cowcatcher on the front of the train. Now, if I could offer some advice, I might suggest you take the cowcatcher off the front and put it on the back. It's a blue cinch you ain't gonna run over no cows, but they ain't [a] plague-taking thing to keep one from strolling in the back and biting a passenger."
I thought we had some purty good cussers back in McLean County, but that feller knew some words that were new to my ears.
I got back to my seat, but Crackerbox was hot on my trail. The satchel was still on the seat.
"For the last time," he said, "I'm telling you to move that bag."
"I told you I ain't moving it; I snapped back. Crackerbox grabbed that satchel like he meant to give it a good whupping and took off hell bent for Georgia. In a little while he was back. He had a grin on his face like a wave on a slop bucket. "Well I guess you thought I was joking," he said, rubbing his hands. "I tossed it off the train."
"I tell you something Mister," I said real soft-like. "I don't care what you done with it. It don't belong to me nohow." Crackerbox grabbed his stomach like he might have caught some of that vertigo.
I didn't see Crackerbox anymore until I changed trains in Louisville. He was standing by the door when I got off the train. I tried to make up friendly to let him know that they weren't no hard feelings, but he jist took one look at me and run off like a scalded dog. I expect he might have been looking fer that feller what owned the satchel. The train I took on to Cincinnati had a conductor, but he was a purty nice feller, and I didn't have no fuss with him.
I didn't stay up North very long. Them folks there didn't live to suit me. They have their privies indoors and they go right in the house. Grub don't taste right cooked on stoves. You can taste that old lectrit in the beans. I didn't see Crackerbox when I come back. I don't know if he might've got fired fer throwing that satchel away. I don't bear him no ill will. He jist didn't seem to have much fun in him. The Bible says there's a time to weep and a time to laugh. I jist don't think it's natural fer a man not to laugh. I think it's all right if a woman don't laugh. I think the Lord made women without a sense of women humor so they could love men without laughing at them.