When Hoboes Had Wings

by Jim Knipfel

Back in the early 80's, just before the smirking hipsters latched onto the schlock value of Slim Whitman, entranced and bemused by his ever-present, low-budget television commercials, there was another singer, with his own television commercials, who never made it quite as big as Mr. Whitman.

For my money, Boxcar Willie was always the man--and for one reason: there was just something very surreal about his commercial. Well, just one scene. We get a shot from behind Boxcar as he's playing his guitar, singing one of his songs about trains or hobo life in front of an audience in some small club someplace. It was obvious that the audience members were supposed to be clapping along with the beat. That's what the scene was supposed to be showing. But if you looked real close, you'd notice that nobody was clapping in unison. It was very odd. So I came to love Boxcar for his oddness--and the fact that I had this thing for hobo life.

One day my dad and I were watching the television together when this commercial came on, and I was all excited to be able to point out this weird scene to him, as I had to so many others. But before the scene in question came up, my dad blurted out:

"That man's never ridden a train in his life."


"He's never been a hobo, and he's never ridden a train in his goddamned life."

"But it's Boxcar Willie! Of course he has."

"I know it's Boxcar Willie. I spent I don't know how many years in the Air Force with that man. He was in my squadron. Flew with him many, many a time. His real name's Lecile. Lecile Martin."

I forgot all about pointing out my funny little scene, turned down the volume, and asked him about his years with Boxcar. I was surprised to hear any of this, since he never reminisced much about much of anything. Getting him to talk about his past was always (and still is) like pulling teeth.

My dad was in the Air Force for 26 years. For the first 18 or so of those years, he was a boom operator on a KC-97 (and later a KC-135) refueler. That meant he rode in a little glass bubble on the rear belly of the plane, directing the nozzle of a gas line into the fuel tanks of the fighters and bombers who flew up beneath them. You watch the opening sequence to Dr. Strangelove, and you'll know exactly what he did. We have hours of home movies of this. Boxcar a was flight engineer with him as part of the 98th Squadron out of Lincoln, Nebraska.

"Oh, he was always singing these damn songs of his. He was terrible. We did everything, yelled at him, threw our boots at him-we finally took to hiding his guitar whenever we flew overseas. Now look at him."

I didn't know whether or not to put it down as just another one of my dad's stories, but I filed it away, repeating it to friends whenever the subject of Boxcar Willie came up.

One day some years later, I was in the middle of an interminable Greyhound trip someplace--to or from Minneapolis, I think, but I can't be certain--when we made a two-hour stopover in Peshtigo, WI. Peshtigo's a dusty little nothing of a town, whose only claim to anything is the Great Peshtigo Fire. It took place on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, did more damage and killed more people than the Chicago fire, but nobody remembers it today. The folks in Peshtigo have always been very bitter about that.

So the bus pulled into the gravel parking lot of a little diner/bus stop, where we were supposed to kill those two hours. I had no interest in spending any more time cooped up with my fellow passengers, so I set to wandering. It was a nice day, maybe I could find a bar, I thought, maybe get a beer. Before I got a block away, I noticed that another passenger, older woman, early 50s, maybe, had decided to do the same thing. She'd been walking a few yards in front of me, but suddenly stopped and turned around.

"You lookin' to get yourself a beer?" she asked.

"Sure," I said, a little wary. But I was armed, so if she decided to go all creepy on me, I'd be ready.

"I've been on this trip plenty of times, so I know where there's a bar."

A few minutes later, we were sitting in this bright little place, tall glasses of Blatz in front of us, chatting about this and that.

She was in the process of putting together some big music festival in central Wisconsin, and I was convincing her much too easily that my band at the time, the Pain Amplifiers, was just the thing to bring the young people in and keep them happy.

"Wait, I have something to show you," she said, as she started digging through her purse. She pulled out a simple, ragged little snapshot of a young boy standing in front of Boxcar Willie's tour bus.

"What's this?"

"That's my grandson. He and I were taking a trip once, and we were staying at this hotel where Boxcar Willie was staying, I guess. And his bus was out in the parking lot, so I took a picture of my grandson standing in front of it."

I took the picture from her and looked at it. Nothing fancy, so far as buses go. Just another Greyhound, except with "Boxcar Willie" painted on the side in tiny script. That was all I needed to start telling her about my dad and Boxcar. When I was finished, and it was time to go back to the bus, she told me I could keep the picture.

"But this is your grandson."

"Yeah, sure, but Boxcar Willie obviously means an awful lot to you."

I took the picture and slipped it into my pocket. It remained pinned to the wall above my desk for years afterwards, until I lost it somehow.

A few weeks ago, my folks called to let me know that they were going to Branson, MO, for a week. This didn't surprise me. For years, their friends who'd been to Branson had been telling them to go. Good for them, I thought.

"What's the deal," I asked. "You going down with Eileen and Leo?"

"Naah," my dad said off-handedly, "Boxcar asked us down. He tracked down everyone in the 98th, called them up and asked them to come to Branson to ride in the Veteran's Day parade with him."


"He wants us to wear our old flight uniforms and everything. At this point, aahh, I can still wear the hat, and I think the shoes'll still fit, but that's about it."

Boxcar, as it turns out, was one of Branson's original country music celebrity residents. He's been down there for some time, with his lounge and his motels, and has, by all accounts, made a mighty mountain of cash in the process. And still he dresses like a bum!

So down my folks went and arrived in Branson just in time for the press conference in which Boxcar announced that, at the end of the week right after the parade, he was going to be shutting down his motels and his show lounge, packing himself up, and moving back to Texas to continue with his chemotherapy. It seems he's got a bad dose of leukemia, and his chances of kicking it at this point, at least according to my folks, seem mighty slim.

"Well, you're still going to get an autograph for me, aren't you?" I asked when they called me from Missouri with the news, "and maybe a CD?" I felt a little bad, afterwards, but it just slipped out.

Despite the press conference and his condition, he put all the members of the 98th up in his motel, gave them a show, showed them around, he and Mel Tillis (another Air Force vet) put on a big breakfast for them. Then he loaded all of these battered old warriors--77 men from the squadron, four from my dad's original flight crew--into a Humvee and led the nation's largest Veteran's Day parade through the streets of Branson, to be cheered one last time.

I always knew he was all right, even if all that hobo stuff was just an act.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.

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