February 27, 2007


The intersection is reminiscent, first of all, of that intersection in Hitchcock's classic, North by Northwest: Cary Grant in the middle of flatland nowhere, and eventually he gets cropdusted. (Go see the film again for the 17th time, dudettes). Admittedly, this one isn't quite as isolated, isn't quite as flat, isn't surrounded by miles of crops and above all, isn't frequented by malevolent cropdusters. But nevertheless, it's the first thought that comes to my mind.

After miles of driving, I have stopped at this intersection in the middle of a tiny dot on the map, and I have come here on purpose. Meaning, for weeks and months this very intersection has been a destination.

So having arrived at my destination, I get out and look around. On my left is a yellow sign saying "High Water Possible". On the right is CJ's Liquor, Wine and Beer, and I learn that they sell Keystone Light ("It's Good To Be On Top") beer by the six-pack of cans at $2.99, or by the case at $9.99. The next door store has dispensed with such niceties as names: above the entrance one sign says simply: "Milkshakes, Burgers, Fries, Pizza, Catfish, Chicken" and another sign says simply "LOTTO GAS BEER DELI". A large tanker motorvates past, making the turn at the intersection. "Tri-State Gas Company" is the banner on its side, and "Our Customers Are Our Warm Friends." ("Warm", get it?).

Behind is the first clue to where I am (and possibly why), had I not known: "Cayce Baptist Church Welcomes You." Indeed, this is Cayce, Kentucky: tiny town centered on this intersection in the far southwestern corner of the state.

Why did I come here? For that, the second clue helps: Cayce is not pronounced, as I might have imagined, "Case". Instead, it is pronounced "Casey". As in Casey Jones, who took his name from this town, legendary locomotive engineer and subject of song after song. One, by the Grateful Dead, famously if unfairly accuses him of being "high on cocaine". But it, like the others, only adds to the legend.

Casey Jones was really John Luther Jones, a successful engine driver in these parts in the late 1890s. In April 1900, he took charge of a New Orleans-bound passenger train, the "Cannonball", in Memphis. A few hours later, travelling at 70 mph, he saw a freight train parked on the tracks ahead. With no time to come to a stop, Jones ordered his fireman, Simeon Webb, to leap off and save himself. He stayed at his post, trying to slow his train. He plowed into the freight train and died still holding the controls.

The heroic stuff of legend, this man. As I stand there, I see the plaque across the street, under a pine tree. I cross and read:
    In this community, the famous locomotive engineer John Luther Jones (alias Casey Jones) spent his boyhood days. Casey's many record feats as locomotive engineer engrossed him deeply in the hearts of his fellow workers. On the morning of April 30th 1900, while running the Illinois Central Fast Mail Number 1, "The Cannonball" and by no fault of his, his engine bolted through three freight cars at Vaughan, Miss.

    Casey died with his hand clenched to the break helve and his was the only life lost.

    Famous for bravery and courage, the name of Casey Jones lives deeply set into the hearts of American people in both tradition and song. It can be truthfully said of him, "Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friend."

    Casey Jones Memorial, erected by admirers of Casey Jones, July 9th 1938.
Further south, Jackson, Tennessee, is home to the Casey Jones Museum. I am there at 9 the next morning. The resident historian, Norma Taylor, blows me away by refusing to charge me admission. And while I roam through the museum, she puts together a small packet of information for me.

She is warm and kind, and the museum has some interesting things. But through the hour I spend there, I long to be back at the windswept junction in Cayce, where after the tanker barrels past, the only sounds are of the breeze and the birds in the pine tree.

CJ's at the Cayce intersection is owned by Judy and Kenneth Blackburn: she hearty and whitehaired; he crusty, tall and laconic. "The museum should have been up here," they tell me while I'm buying orange juice.

"Would you have liked that?" I ask.

Judy Blackburn thinks for a few seconds, and then I realize she has misunderstood. "Yeah," she says, "I think Casey would have liked that, hon."

I don't know about that. But to me, this intersection in Cayce, this beautiful and desolate spot with no museum, fits the legend of Casey Jones.


Jai_Choorakkot said...

Nice trip down memory lane reading this post.

N-by-NW and also Casey Jones and his "six-eight wheeler" in the song and an old RD article that corrected that with the actual description.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I always wondered about the Dead song. Jerry Garcia has recorded a different Casey Jones (by Mississippi John Hurt) on his side projects. A letter on the annotated Dead site suggests that the Dead song may really have been about Neal Cassady, who drove Ken Kesey's famous bus and was indeed often "high on cocaine".

km said...

Rahul, you better watch your speed!

You are turning one of my favoritest legends upside down, so I say, it WAS an engine driver riding down the tracks while he was high on cocaine :)

(Been enjoying your recent "spate" of posts, Dilip!)

Kartik said...

I thought you were at the spot where the Eastern and Western parts of the transcontinental railway met when they were completed. But that's far further west; nearer Nebraska than Kentucky.

I'm impressed that you're finding time for the frequent updates despite all the travelling :)

Anonymous said...

why the hell don't you ever answer yr phone on the 706 number?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks for the info, Rahul! Though I still don't quite follow why the song should refer to Casey Jones then, if it's about Cassady and Kesey's bus. That he was high on cocaine I have no problem believing!

km, did I mention how delighted I was to meet you a couple weeks ago?

Kartik, that spot where the tracks meet is another place I want to get to one day. Where exactly is it? Never been to Nebraska!

And AK my friend, check your email.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Dilip -- Cassady seems to have been a favourite topic of the Dead: they had another song about him, "Cassidy". Why "Cassidy" if he's "Cassidy"? Because -- according to lyricist John Perry Barlow -- the song is also about Cassidy Law -- "necessary dualities".

Perhaps Casey/Cassady were also a "necessary duality"... at least in the Dead's imagination.

Your road trip looks fun. Have you seen the movie "Crossroads", about a bluesman trying to find the place where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil? It would be fun to locate that too...

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, clearly I need to be better versed with GDead knowledge than I am. Thanks for that nugget about necessary dualities.

As for Robert johnson, I haven't seen the movie, but I did spend quite a while in Greenwood hearing about him (and later listening to the blues in a place in Indianola). Of that, more soon -- dammit, there's so much to write!

Bicyclemark said...

All these posts from the trip are so dam inspiring. Thats settles it.. not only am I going to the US next month for a visit.. Im making the trip down to NOLA to do some podcasts on the struggles.

Anonymous said...

There are two Casey Jones Museums, one in Jackson, Tennessee and one in Water Valley, Mississippi. So there is a museum duality (lol). If the good citizens of Cayce need a museum they can create their own, they don't have to view the existing ones with envious eyes.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

For some weird reason thinking back on this Casey Jones post brought to my mind the parliament attack in Dec 2001. I dont know why, there is no link.

It bothered me that many or most ppl reading this blog incl me, presumably Indian / NRI / PIO know abt Casey Jones but likely wouldnt be able to name the guards who died fighting to protect our parliament.

Many of us know which songs are based on Casey, where are the museums (there are multiple of them?) and I can recall the RD article with some image of this man in a locomotive but cannot recall, nay did not ever see the faces of the defenders.

It bothers me even more that a google search doesnt help me find who they were. There are no songs, no celebration of their bravery I know of in the public space and it looks like we couldnt care less.

Here is one link, on Kamlesh Kumari the lady CRPF constable who died that day.


I am not claiming that this is a competition or that our understanding is some finite fixed amount and we need to grudge Casey his recognition to be able to remember these heroes.

I am confident Dilip will forgive me this off-topic detour and I will be happy that anybody that reads this thread will at least be reminded of Kamlesh Kumari.

Thank you,

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