My mother, Marion Ross, to whom I owe so much, is celebrating her 90th birthday this month. She’s had such an inspiring and positive effect on my life and on the lives of my family, and on literally millions of others to whom she has brought joy and inspiration.
For her birthday, I decided I wanted to honor her with a poem, to amuse and delight her, but also to validate her persistence and spirit, and serve as encouragement for her to continue on, despite her years.
This is the poem I wrote, in the Americana style of a railroad poem of the last century, the kind that might be attributed to “Anonymous” in some dusty textbook.
(I should mention that my mother always described her own two bulb-shaped thumbs as “Killer thumbs.” Also, it was she who originated referring to her age as “Eighty fuckin’ eight”, “Eighty-fuckin’-nine”, etc. This year, following the tradition, the frosting on her cake read “Fuckin’ Ninety.”)
SHE RODE THE BIG NINE-OH
by Jim Meskimen
Back in the days when freight trains
were the lifeblood of the land,
and the sound of wailing whistles blew,
and coal was in high demand,
When railroad tracks were a tattoo
upon the landscape’s skin,
and mountain tunnels filled with smoke
when engines thundered in.
Those were days of the rich and poor,
just as they are today,
but way back then, the hobo ruled
o’er all that he surveyed.
And none was more applauded
amongst the campfire slums
than the hobo lass named Marion-
she of the killer thumbs.
For many a mile she’d rode the rails
and never paid a dime
from faraway Saskatchewan
to Cardiff’s sunny clime.
She’d shared a boxcar with the best,
and Margaritas, too,
But Marion of the killer thumbs
was a lady, through and through.
Her face adorned the broadsheets
that conductors passed around
to the cops at all the train yards
so that they might bring her down,
But she always did confound the bulls
and made her trek unscathed.
She lived up to her Scottish blood,
and ne’er a passage paid.
But one day, word passed tramp to tramp
that a train was on the way
that boasted to be “hobo-proof”,
causing general dismay.
This train was number Ninety,
and the rumors travelled far
that no one short of God himself
could ride free on those cars.
Imaginations sparked and swirled
about this frightening train-
the bums about the campfires
all soon spoke the same refrain:
“There’s many can ride the boxcars
in this railroad rodeo,
not even Marion with her thumbs
could ride the big Nine-Oh.”
The cold nights that October
bore ice crystals on the breeze,
the vapor shot from nostrils
when e’re the hoboes sneezed.
The sun-soaked beaches way down south
formed a tempting, warm tableau
in the dreams of all the railroad tramps
awaiting the Big Nine-Oh.
But also in their dreams did lurk
an iron monstrosity,
with spikes on her cowcatcher
and a wail like a banshee.
She bore down on each slumbering tramp
who in their bedrolls reeled,
and fancied themselves ground to bits
beneath those metal wheels.
Only when daylight roused them
with its optimistic glow
did they grasp they’d not been butchered
by the steely Big Nine-Oh.
But Marion slept well the while,
untroubled as a babe.
Her confidence was legend,
she was strong, and unafraid.
She knew inside her heart of hearts
abundance in her flowed,
She vowed she’d get the better of
the dreaded Big Nine-Oh.
That afternoon was quiet
and the tramps lounged near the tracks,
dining on cold cans of beans,
and straightening up their packs.
There came then, on a breath of wind
a faint and foreign scream,
that nary a man did recognize
but from his nightmare dreams.
They spied an engine far away
a worm of smoke in tow,
with unimaginable speed–
“Here comes the big Nine-Oh!”
Still miles away, yet clearly
she was a mighty train
half bullet, half locomotive,
aimed at the tramp’s domain.
All hoboes leaped for shelter,
all hoboes, save for one:
the solitary hobo by the tracks…
The Big Nine-Oh raced toward the camp,
the tramps all plugged their ears
and turned their sooty faces
from the sight that each man feared.
They could not watch their comrade’s fate,
for it was certain she
would fail to mount that iron beast
and heaven bound must be.
A hurricane swept by them,
an avalanche roared by,
the earth shook underneath their boots
and smoke clouds stung their eyes.
And once the dust had settled
and the wind-borne steam dispersed,
the ragged men stood silent
and not one hobo cursed.
But as they watched it tear away
A voice rang out with pride
as Marion waved from ‘top the roof
as the train rocked side to side.
They heard her shout, “I’ve rode ‘em all,
but I swear before I’m done,
I’ll ride this Ninety all the way
to Ninety fuckin’ One!
If you ask a hobo to this day,
or ask one of his chums
he’ll tell you he knows Marion-
she of the killer thumbs,
He’ll say the words they always say,
those gentlemen of the road,
That only mighty Marion
could ride the big Nine-Oh.