DRIFTING FOR A DAY
Gerald and John Beckett are known as Pete and Repeat, the two hobo brothers of Parkersburg, West Virginia. They’re 71 and 73-year-old retired nomads with identical hunched stances and scruffy white facial hair. They dress exactly the same as each other every day, walk along the highway for hours at a time with seemingly no destination, and are either virtuous Appalachian sages or completely bat-shit crazy.
Apparently John was hit by a car about five years ago, so now, instead of walking exactly ten paces in front of him at all times, Gerald pushes John around in a wheelchair. I was once told that they cut their own toes off after getting frostbite traveling by boxcar from Canada. I heard from someone else that they spent some of their childhood in a youth mental facility, but refuse to talk about the experience to anyone. I’ve seen them put double the amount of rubbing tobacco in their mouth than the huskiest West Virginian auto-mechanic ever could. If you ask me, they deserve no fewer than two keys to the city.
Lately I’ve been trying to find a way to get to Chicago without a car or the appropriate finances. Since they are experienced vagabonds, I thought they could give me some pointers. I saw the two loitering outside of Tim Horton’s last Monday, so I caught up with them and spent the afternoon walking around with the legends, talking about how to become a successful, celebrity drifter. John “doesn’t hear too good,” so Gerald did the grand bulk of the talking. Most of my day’s energy was spent trying to translate their southern West Virginia/toothless hobo/senile old man dialect into English. This was my drifter internship. I’m now going to see if I can petition for a couple of hours towards a Masters Degree in Hobo linguistics.
Vice: How much do you think you walk a day?
Gerald Beckett: Well, we used to walk about 50 to 60 miles a day. Yeah, we used to. One guy went out and followed me and John one day and he said, “How long you think you’ve walked today?” He said, “You walked over 59 miles today!”
Wow! So you and your brother obviously spend a lot of time together.
Yeah, well Me and John been out on our own since seven years old.
Oh yeah? How’d that happen?
My mom and dad just left us. We just raised ourselves the best way we know how.
John’s the older of you two. Did he take care of you growing up?
Nah, we just raised each other you know? Just eatin’ wild berries and wild fruit like that on the side of the road.
Do you guys have any other brothers or sisters?
Yeah. We’ve got some somewhere but we don’t know where they at.
Did they ever travel with you two?
Nope. It’s just me an ol’ John here. Idn’t that right John?
Yikes. Did people help you out along the way?
I tell you what. When yer off driftin’, a lot of people go on and give yeh lots of food and stuff. We sure made it good when we’re driftin’, ol’ John and me. Even little kids come up to us and bring us food out and stuff. Didn’t they, John? Some little kid one time said he was gonna give me and John some money, so he went off and brought back 100 dollars!
Really? He just gave you 100 bucks like that?
Yep! I say, “Where’d yeh git that money little boy?” And he said, “I stole it from my dad!” I say “y’oughta be shamed of ye’self!”
But you didn't give it back. Do people give you guys clothes as well?
Yeap. People just come up and give us clothes, especially near Christmas time. Boy we get lotsa clothes and stuff up near the Christmas time.
You guys dress exactly alike every day. Why?
Oh, people just give me an ol’ John the same clothes. Lots of people think we’re twins. People calls us things like Pete and Repeat or Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum.
That's a little mean. Who chooses what to wear every morning?
Heh. We just choose together. It just depends on what the people give us.
Yeah. I always thought you guys were twins. I used to see you two walking in front of each other on the side of the road and you were always dressed the exact same.
Yeah. John used to walk real good too, but now I push him in this old chair.
Wow. How’s your knee now, John?
John! The man’s trying to talk to you.
John: I’m gonna sit in the chair.
Gerald: Yer already sittin’ in the chair!
Interesting. OK. So, if I wanted to become a famous drifter like you guys, where should I start?
Oh, well. The easiest way was by train to git from one place to the next. It used to be easier, but it’s not the same anymore. You can git int’a lot of trouble these days.
I hear that drifting can be a bit dangerous. Did you guys get into much trouble when you were drifting in your prime?
Oh, I got in one this one time there. I saw some boy come tryin’ to beat me in the head with a club or something. He’s an ol’ colored guy, tried to rob me and John. I fixed him I did. I beat him to the jaw!
Yeah? What’d you do?
I beat him to the jaw! We was going up through the north, up in Lima, Ohio. I been into a draw. I got one big coil thing with rubber on it. I snuck that up ‘cross that boy, bloodied him all through! He didn’t bother me and John no more! We got him, didn’t we, John?
When was that?
Oh, back in 1968.
Can you guys play the harmonica? If I’m going to start drifting, I feel like I’m going to need to learn how to play that.
I met many guys on trains play them harmonicas. I tried but it never done me no good. I met some man who could play most anything. Met him on the way through New Orleans.
What about the banjo?
Well, I like to hear ‘em, but I ain’t no good. I met one man named Boxcar Willy. He’s a good music man. He sings and everything else.
Jesus, you met Boxcar Willy?
Yep! Met him on the way down through Tampa!
So listen. I’m trying to get to Chicago. If I’m trying to get there by drifting, how should I do it?
Well. Um, I’d go down to Huntington, git on one of them trains, go on over to Kentucky, over in there, then go on up through that way. Chicago’s a pretty nice little place over there. It’s not too bad.
Thanks. And what if I wanted to get all the way up to Fairbanks, Alaska? Where should I start?
Boy, I like it up there in Alaska. They got some real big fish. Some red salmon about the biggest I ever saw!
Were you working as a fisherman in Alaska?
Did you often get jobs when you were drifting?
I got a job once down there in Greenbrier, West Virginia. I went down there and got a job picking apples. He didn’t pay very damn much, but I got all the apples I could eat.
What about John?
John, the man’s talking to you! John don’t hear too good.
Why didn’t you two ever go your separate ways and try to live separate lives?
You know, you get lonely sometimes, you know? You get out there and there aint nothing else to do, and you just get out and just travel on the road. That’s the way we do.
And you just stuck together ever since?
Yep, just me and John.
It wouldn’t look right to see you walking around by yourself.
I bet you guys are going to at least have a statue in this town someday.
Yeah, we might someday. They could put it down there by the ol’ city building, up there.
Or the mall.
Yep, maybe the mall. We like it there.