He stood at the kitchen window waiting. He had memorized everything around him: the pine walls, bare of wallpaper or even paint; the wardrobe where his widowed mother kept her churn for making buttermilk; the stove fueled by the firewood he cut each morning; the two coolers, one for dairy and the other for cakes and pies. He had branded them into his memory, these artifacts of a life that, after today, would no longer be his.
His mother was working in town. As she cleaned the house of the doctor and his wife, Josie Mae Martin didn’t know that her blue-eyed son was planning his escape from McComb, Mississippi. He had even assured her otherwise. But he had it all worked out: When he heard the chug of the southbound freight train, heard its piercing whistle, he would dash out the side door, run around the L of the house, and grab from its hiding place the 50-pound flour sack he had stuffed with a pair of shoes, two shirts, and a pair of pants. He would bolt to the west side of the Illinois Central tracks, squat behind a bush, and wait until he saw an open car.
He thought he knew how to do this. He had heard his father tell stories about "hoboing" the trains on his way to jobs picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta to the north, or cutting sugar cane in Vacherie, Louisiana, to the south. Before his death, Jessie James Martin and his friends would sit around drinking and talking about the fine art of eluding detection in a boxcar, traveling around the roughest parts of the South without suffering a detour to the local jail. The boy always listened closely, culling their stories for tips. “My daddy did it,” he thought to himself. “I can do it, too.”
He didn’t know what would await him at the New Orleans end of his journey — a 14-year-old boy with “not nary a copper cent” in his bib overalls — or if he’d make it at all. And he surely couldn’t have guessed what the next six decades would bring: the grubby floors of back-of-town nightclubs; the ruinous infatuation with Taylor Cream Sherry; the cuttings and shootings that would threaten to cut short his life; the sounds of a brass band without a horn in sight; the marriage marked by violence, forgiveness, more violence, and grace; the cheers of crowds in far-off countries; the fall from God and eventual return; the apocalyptic storm that marooned him five hundred miles away; and, by the time he reached his 70s, the exquisite silence of weekend mornings, broken only by the sound of tour buses rolling past his home.
All he knew, on this most anxious afternoon of his adolescence, was that he wasn’t going to miss that train.