The Tattooed Boxcar

Reprinted with permission from The Odyssey Online

Be who you were made to be, and love it.

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Boxcar was sure there was a moment in his past when he truly became aware, but recalling the exact moment was beyond him. The years and miles had rolled by practically unbroken, making the distant past a hazy and insubstantial thing. If he thought really hard he could remember bits and pieces as far back as the late 20s when he had first been constructed and hitched to the BNSF line. Back in those days he had pulled a consistent circuit from Oklahoma City to Austin to Santa Fe to Los Angeles, and back again. It was a route he knew and liked, and never failed to offer new surprises.

Pulling into the stock yards in Oklahoma City had always been Boxcar’s favorite stop on the route. The yards were huge and sprawling, with horses and cowboys and every manner of cattle making an exhilarating racket. If he could smell, Boxcar thought the stock yards would probably smell wonderful, too. Best of all were the travelers who prowled the yards after dark, hiding their secrets in the shadows and waiting to hitch a ride on a departing train. Boxcar had played host to many of these fellows over the years, some leaving no memory at all and some leaving a permanent mark to note their passing. Boxcar had been refurbished many times over the years, but was still proud of the few labels he still bore from traveling strangers. His favorite was “Bud Sellers” carved on a support beam near his front corner. Boxcar remembered Bud well; a young, bright man who carried hope in his eyes like a torchlight.

“I dunno if I oughta be carvin’ on the train,” Bud said to his companion, that night so long ago.

“Aww go on,” the other man replied. “It’s just a train. You’re goin’ to California to make your mark. Might as well start now.”

Bud had considered those words and then bent to the task of etching his memory permanently into Boxcar’s side.

A few years later, Boxcar spent a couple of months parked in a Santa Fe rail yard. There had been a derailment on the way into the city and Boxcar’s trucks had been shifted violently off the track, requiring repair for him and several other cars. He found the experience immensely interesting and loved the feel of hot metal joining his parts back together as the welders worked on him.

“These ol’ boxcars are tough as hell,” one worker remarked, and Boxcar felt pride in his solid construction.

Railway riders became scarce in the late 50s and 60s thanks to automobiles becoming more affordable, and those years were the closest Boxcar had ever come to boredom. He still loved clacking along through the predawn West, bearing important cargo for far away places. He still loved seeing the occasional coyote or antelope lingering near the tracks, watching placidly as he and his fellows rumbled along. As long as he was moving, Boxcar never truly felt discontented.

One day, while sitting in a rail yard waiting to be loaded, a strange looking man approached. Boxcar watched with intense interest as the man crept up and removed a backpack, placing it on the ground at his feet. From the backpack the man took several cans of spray paint and began shaking them. The man began to spray a design on Boxcar’s flank. The paint felt cool, and the smooth motions the man used to lay down the design was soothing.

“Now,” the man said, stepping back to inspect his work. “This car belongs to the FTRA.”

Boxcar had no idea what this meant, but enjoyed the decoration immensely. He thought he looked rather dapper with his new artistic accessory. The other cars were not amused.

“It’s ugly,” the car in front of him stated.

“Why did you get picked?” another on an adjoining track whined. Boxcar did not reply, and knew they were jealous.

The other boxcars did not have long to envy the spray painted art. Before long, boxcars were being tagged at every stop. Soon, many sported more than one decoration, or had overlapping art that eventually became cluttered looking and distracting. Boxcar was not surprised when he was sent, along with many other cars, for a repaint.

His fresh new coat of paint was nice, but boring. Boxcar could not wait to get back out on the line, making stops in rail yards and getting new artwork. He came to think of his designs as rail-car tattoos. He had noticed tattoos on men that had hitched midnight rides on his train and had always been fascinated. Having his tattoos painted over was annoying, but acquiring a new set was fun.

With the passage of the years, Boxcar found himself sitting longer stretches in the rail yard and less actually working the line. He knew he was getting up there in age, but he also knew he was solidly constructed and tough. Sure enough, within a few years he was sent to a rail yard for a refit. He worried about his Bud Sellers carving, but need not have bothered. The rail line painted him, updated his trucks and did some shoring up of his floor support beams, but otherwise left him intact.

“This car needs put on a shorter circuit,” he heard a railway official state. “It’s still plenty serviceable, but its age means it needs to stay closer to the maintenance yards.”

And so Boxcar found himself pulled permanently from the route he had traveled for so many years and on a shorter turnaround, pulling lighter goods from the Port of Catoosa to destinations only a few hundred miles away, rather than thousands. He missed the stock yards of Oklahoma City, but found new pleasure in the sights of his fresh rail lines. He acquired a new set of rail-car tattoos that nobody on his new route seemed to care about, and he hoped they would never be painted over. Day after day, clickety-clack went Boxcar’s wheels on the rails, and day after day Boxcar felt more and more content with the tracks he had taken.

-by Julie Jones
Family Jules

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