There was four of us working in the boxcars for the Russian Circus Load Out. There was Joey B., my partner at the Guthrie, and always fun to work with. And an oldtimer, Big Ike. Surly and strong. You overlooked his zero personality because he loved to show off his strength and would always pick up the heaviest thing around. And then there was Mike, our handicap.
Mike was a young apprentice that worked harder to get out of work than if he just did the work. It wasn’t what he wanted in life. His family forced him into being a stagehand like his father and brother. He could screw up a one car funeral procession. His big ambition in life was to be a milkman. He believed in the urban legend that some milkmen delivered more than bottles and butter to lonely women on their route. He did a lot of day dreaming and his dreams always wore skirts.
There were three boxcars waiting for us on the spur. It made sense that the first things loaded were the four bears in their cages. What didn’t make sense was the cages went into the middle car and the cages were open without their metal sides. We couldn’t use the dock because there were the personal steamer trunks and wardrobe boxes clogging up the center of the dock. It was easier just to go through the bears’ car. There was plenty room to walk without a bear actually hitting you with it’s paw, but it still made you jump every time one swung at you.
One of the bear trainers was giving them food and water. Ike bellowed and pointed to the metal sides that were underneath each cage and demanded they be put on the cages. The trainer told Ike nyet and continued his chores. That got Big Ike mad. He swore at the trainer, called him a snuffing Commie and now, not only did we have bears to watch out for, we had an angry Ike.
It didn’t take much to get Ike mad. He’d could get mad at a snuffing falling leaf.
Big Ike only feared one person… his wife. She allowed him to smoke a pipe in the house but not to use vulgar language or drink in the house. He obeyed her rules. Instead of the common swear words, he came up with one of his own, ‘snuff’, complete with all the variations. And he quenched his thirst for whiskey by keeping his jugs of Four Roses out in the garage. Even after his wife died, Ike never used ‘vulgar words’ nor drank in the house but walked out to the garage quite often.
Henri, the French-Canadian road carpenter, my far, far cousin came out with the first load of equipment, to explain what to expect and to introduce us to the Russian stagehand who would, through a very little English and a lot of finger pointing, tell us how the pack went.
Ike got in Henri’s face right away about the snuffing Commie bears.
Henri explained, before he and the trainer left, that the trainers told him the bears would not go to sleep in the dark cages and needed fresh air. He also said that there was something in the food that would put the bears to sleep. That was evident because the two bears that had gobbled down their meal were now curled up in the far corner of their cage fast asleep. The two who did not eat were awake and pacing back and forth in their cages, stopping only to reach out at us when we walked by. Then one of them decided to eat and he went out like a light.
That only left one bear awake to swing at us.
Ike bellowed at bear to eat and go to sleep, but to no avail. The bear seemed to be having too much fun watching us jump every time he pawed at us.
Then, Joey B. figured out that maybe this was the bear that Richie had given cigarettes to, the one that like to chew on tobacco. Joey threw the bear a cigarette. Joe smoked filtered menthols and after the first taste, the bear spit it out and growled.
I quickly reached in my shirt and threw him a straight Pall Mall. That was more like it. I could swear the bear nodded his head to thank me as he chewed on my cigarette.
One problem though, now the bear wanted another cigarette every time he saw us. I said that I wasn’t going to give the bear all my smokes. Big Ike said all he had was pipe tobacco and just enough left in his pouch for two more pipe fills. Joey shrugged and said all his cigarettes did was make the bear angry.
The three of us turned to Mike. We had seen him smoking a roll-you-own when he got out of his car. We told him to roll one for the bear.
Mike thought that would be a great idea. The bear would really like it. He took a paper and his draw-string bag.
‘Snuff it,’ shouted Big Ike, grabbing the bag out of Mike’s hand, ‘Give him the whole snuffing thing.’ And he threw the bag into the cage.
‘No,’ screamed Mike, ‘That’s a dime bag! That cost a lot of money.’
Ike bellowed, ‘A dime ain’t a lot of money, you snuffing dehorn!’
Then I tried to explain to Ike that dime bag wasn’t tobacco. It was grass. Ike just frowned at me.
Then Joey B. took over the expiation. ‘Grass, Ike. You know wacky-tabaky, Mary Jane, merry-wa-na.’
‘Drugs! You doing snuffing drugs, kid!’ He made a gesture as if to slap Mike. ‘Does your dad know you are a snuffing druggie? You a snuffing hippie beetlenic like Richie? Sit around smoking that snuffing dope and banging on bingo drums. No wonder you’re such a snuffing bad stagehand. Drink whiskey like the rest of us do and straighten up!’
The Russian hand said something and pointed to the bear, who was chewing on the bag. The draw-string hanging out of his mouth. He hadn’t spit out the bag. Instead, he was sitting on his haunches, chewing slowly, looking at us. Joey B. said he was positive the bear had a grin on his face.
The rest of the night, the bear did not move from the spot. Every time we walked by he just looked up, his eyes half shut, chewing slowly on Mike’s dime bag.
‘You know, Joey,’ Ike said, ‘I think the snuffer is grinning.’
As we were wrapping up the load, a train engine backed along the rails to the cars. A car drove up and Henri and the smaller one of the bear trainers got out. The trainer went into the bear car and opened up a sleeping cot. The Russian hand closed all the doors on the sides of the box cars.
Henri thanked thre three hands and his ‘Cousin Donny.’ Mike jumped off the dock and ran to his car. He had told us earlier that there was a girl who promised to leave the door unlocked for him.
The Russian stagehand shook hands with Joey and me and told us pasib.
Big Ike refused to shake hands with a snuffing Commie.
And then he spoke in broken English. ‘Russia, no choo-choo. Trucks. Better.’
‘Another great Russian invention like putting casters on boxes,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Trucks to haul show biz, not trains. We’ll have to remember that. Pasib. Pasib.’
The engine made a loud bang as it coupled into the first car. The railroad man that had been watching the couple connect, ran and jumped into the engine. He waved at us as the train pulled away.
I turned to Joey B. and Ike and commented that might be the last time any one of us work a train load out.
‘We thought the same things when the last Met Opera train left,’ Joey B. said.
‘Yeah, kid, maybe’ Big Ike said. ‘But the longer you stay in this snuffing business the more you learn to never say never.’
‘Yup,’ Joey B. added, ‘And you never say goodbye to any other stagehand because chances are even if they go far away, someday you’ll probably be working with them again. You say see ya.’
‘Snuffing right,’ Big Ike agreed, and the three of us said, see ya, and walked to our vehicles.
Joey B. and I had a lot more fun years together until he retired, moved to Ensanada, Mexico, and bought into a fishing boat. Big Ike’s arthritis caught up with him a few years later and he moved to Arizona, hoping the sun would ease the pain. Mike! About a month after the train, his bad stagehanding reached the limit and his father stood up at a union meeting and proposed we take away his son’s apprentice card. Mike moved to California. Never got a milk route but last we heard he was the promoter for an All Girls Celebrity Softball team.
I got in my pickup and watched until the lights of the train disappeared in the early morning darkness.
And in spite of what Big Ike said
that was our Last Train Out.