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On the Rail Again - part 3

The Jungle after Vietnam
by Jan Hertoghs for Humo magazine

 

6:15 a.m. and the lamps switch on in the sleeping rooms of the Union Gospel Mission... Up you guys! Within a minute our room is out of the blankets, apart from one "slow-hand" making some quick masturbo-moves under his sheets, and then everybody straight on to the washing room, pajamas out, and like yesterday we are standing naked and in line for the counter. Number? 134! Then you get your crate with your own clothes. Yesterday we had to give them in because the board does not want that "lice, drugs and knifes being brought in". It's called "precautions", but it's the face of the prison, if you have to give in everything you owe, that is a punishment, so, let's get out of here.

After the 6:00 a.m. breakfast (a blob of porridge, a spoon of syrup, two pieces of toast and a cup of coffee) it's check out time. Doug is looking at our backpacks, and as we watch his face, we know he wants to leave here too. Doug is living some 6O miles from here, "but when I come in town, and near my home, the police will grab me and I'll have to serve a 15 years sentence. They released me on probation but the doom of a long prison sentence was so frightening that I ran away. And now I want to go home, but I cannot go home".

And one of these days Doug is goin to hit some of the "staff members", he says. "Nice building, nice food, nice director" but these staff members are bastards. They are tramps that promised to mend their ways, tramps that "have let Jesus in their hearts" as it is called. But because they come from the gutter, they want to boss the guys that still live on the streets. That's why it was so quiet at the tables. Everyone is scared. Nobody wants to argue with them for fear that they will withheld your welfare cheque. When getting out Big Mouth David "wonders" why we have not converted ourselves and why we are hurrying out, "you fuckin' Born To Run Christians!"

 

Joleen
5oo yards away from the mission there is the railrad track and three Mexicans are roasting a pot of coffee. Eno, Robert and George are typical "Mexican" names for Mexicans that live legally in the States. We have papers, they tap on their jackets, we have a lot of papers. No "aliens", no wetbacks, we were born in the USA! They head for the Wenatchee appleyards where they are going to thin miles and miles of apple trees. "It's the Big Apple", says Eno. "And it earns five bucks an hour".

The three of them will hide until dark to catch out for Seattle, "because in the daytime there are too many bulls patrolling". We don't want to wait that long and we head for the yard, and there, under a bridge full of tags, there's Joleen, eightteen and three years "on the road". It is not the best of days for her. She comes from Seattle, she's going to Minneapolis,and she lost her two good friends when departing from Seattle. She had thrown her dog on an empty and then she made the jump, expecting the two others to jump as soon as she was on the train, but on arrival in Spokane, there was no-one on the train, she doesn't know why the others missed it. She looks on the railway map counting the miles to Minneapolis (16OO!) and she thinks she can make it in 36 hours. But then she needs some luck travelling on the hotshots, the fast freights with express-loads that make almost no stops and that are under heavy control of the bulls.

The way she sits on her pack, ducked under her oversized army surplus jacket and her UPS cap, she rather looks like a runaway kid than an eightteen year old. When she was twelve, she ran away from home for the first time, it was her mother saying she "did not want to see her again". After a few weeks she returned home, but being fifteen she ran away for good. The first few weeks she thumbed for cars but when meeting "too many perverts", she got to the trains, all across the States. And she recalls one night in El Paso sleeping in a dumpster and waking up by the shouts of a man and the feeling of being lifted ...and if the man had not shouted from the apartment she probably would have been crushed in the refuse lorry. She laughs on the reminder, and what if she'd lived in Europe, she wants to know, that's the place where any child can buy beer in a supermarket. Her saying "I love alcohol" sounds like "I love basketball".

The first hotshot is coming in, it's an eastbound full of piggybacks going for Minneapolis. Joleen runs down the verge, but it's too fast and too steep for the dog who's stretching his legs like wooden sticks but she's pulling him down the verge, and she runs alongside the train that is slowing down, she keeps her dog on her left arm and with her right she's trying to grab a ladder, she's grabbing a second, a third, but she has to loosen them again because the train is still running too fast, and we can see the fear in her eyes, she's desperate, she wants to be on that freight, and we take the dog from her,and then the train is slowing a bit more and Joleen can climb a ladder, and we put the dog on her arms again and then she's gone, hidden behind the huge wheels of a lorry, the nice kid in her oversized jacket.

 

Container-sleeping-coach
We lay in the long grass and the crickets must chirp, because of the straw between our lips, and because we lie so nicely in this little ambush: we can see the trains coming from about a mile and they have to stop before the red signal, so it's just get up and get away. But the next three hours three eastbounds for Montana come in but no westbound for Seattle, and when the fourth eastbound stops, and waits a minute, and waits two minutes, we suddenly want to go to Montana, let's go, and we jump up to run down the verge, but then there's the jeep on the track sidepath: "Hi, you guys! You're going to ride? Then first your ID! Railroad police!"

Name, adress, length, weight, color of eyes, we all confess, but when asked other questions, we keep to the hobo-recommended I know nottink attitude: we were hitch-hiking and we did not get away and a man said we'd better hop a train... And the men nod and they say it is dangerous and they say it is against the law and they say they don't want to see us a second time, "because then we have to arrest you!" We act very obedient, yes sir, no sir, but once out of sight, we duck behind some bushes, just under cover for an hour and then we are back on the verge again, yes sir! But shit, the police are there too and they hold up two fingers (second time!) and for not being arrested and having to pay a $325 fine, we take to one's heels again. It means we have to await the night: eat a sandwich, eat a hamburger, drink some coke, drain some foot blisters, and when it's 1O:3O pm and dark, we make a circling move two and a half miles long to reach the other end of the yard, but we keep away from the road, we sneak through shadows of hangars and warehouses, through empty parking lots and factory sites that dead end onto fences, and fuck sake, train riding is a lot of walking! And then a RR crossing closes nearby, dindindindin, and the Mighty Headlight that draws near, stops right ON the crossing, and we see cars and lot of empties and we don't care anymore about being discovered because we have to get away from here, and I step in front of the engine waving the engineer, Hey man! Hey man!, are you going to Seattle, but he refuses to stick his head out of the window. Damned! And when he pulls up, we have to duck for cover again because the flood lights of the control tower are just too near. For half an hour we lie on the grass, backpacks on our back and hands out ready in our gloves, but no more train coming. And we want to get out of the flood lights, every little move we make is printed in big shadows, and while running out of the lights, we hear a whistling, we hear it once, twice, three times, four times, this must be Winnetou, but it's the Mexicans from this morning! Hi brothers, they say, and there is a muffled but heartily meet again in their hiding place, a lap of grass behind a heap of sand. And now there is the five of us under the moonlit sky, a magical moment! In the lights of the control tower there's the hissing and smoking and damping of the billygoats waiting for work, and in the light of the full moon there are the silhouettes of the three Latinos, kneeled in the grass, their hands on their packs, ready to get up and run (like desperadoes waiting for a train, in Guy Clark's song). And then the first train draws in and the first disappointment, it's all piggybacks and no one wants to sit and suffer the cold a whole night behind those lorry wheels. And one by one, they lie down again. I stay awake as a cricket, waiting for the headlight in the night, and some one and a half hours later he turns on our track, here he is! And with his five meter high cars he blocks the lights from the tower, it's all container loaded, it's a hotshot, so this gives us only three minutes to look for accomodation! And it's a running and searching for a car with some stowaway space; and for the first time we climb on a forty-eighter, a flat car loaded with a 4O foot container, so both sides have a four feet "dip" to lay the sleeping bags. But before laying my head I make sure the container is well hooked on his steel anchors; because if this thing starts to shift, we are corned beef.

 

Seattle Baywatch
We sleep as a log and on arrival in Wenatchee with its rolling appleyard hills we say goodbye to Eno, Robert and Richard. Five more hours to Seattle, they say, vaya con Dios! And the train that was pulled by four engines, gets another three engines, that makes seven units and seven times 3OOO hp to pull us over the Cascade Mountains. And the sun shines straight into our forty-eighter, the container hole is like an oven, and only when leaving apple country and entering the huge Douglas fir woods, there is some shadow on our necks. That goes into a complete black out upon entering the Cascade Tunnel, eight miles and twenty minutes that we cannot see the hands before our eyes. In early days, with the coalpowered engines, hoboes suffocated in this tunnel, but now it has filters and the engineers have an oxygen mask. Trainriders keep a (wet) handkerchief on their mouths...

After the long tunnel it's sun-trees, sun-trees again, a shimmering that is knocking us out, and for the first time we no longer look at the landscape, we just lay down and out between the four iron walls of our container car. But then we see a kite in the air and we see the ocean, the Pacific Ocean! And the sea is like a reward after days of land. And there's a cool breeze, the fragrance of sandy beaches and moist rocks, the walkers with their dogs and a seal in the sea, and the train runs along the beach, and frisbees fly through the air and meat goes on the barbecue and on a rock some guy is playing his guitar, and everywhere there are kids that like everywhere gaze at passing trains, and it's a waving and a swaying, fathers heave their bottles of beer towards us, and of old we whistle for the bikini girls that look shocked who's whistling where on that train, and wow, what a fine entry into Seattle, city of Nirvana and Bill Gates. And it's a cool city, bit sloppy bit nonchalant, bit like an old sailor going down to the waterside and its old buildings.

And by now we get to know the hobo-exits on the tracks, just follow the signs of throwaway clothes and broken glass, and it will inevitably lead to small campments like the one where 62 year-old Fat Walter is living. "Take a seat" and he draws some office chair, a piece of furniture still on wheels, but without a back, and all the other camp chairs are trash designed: a paint can with a lap of muslin, a double car seat with the head-rests still on. And this whole throw-away interior is set around a fire in a former sailor's trunk. Take a cob of that roasted corn, and here's some bread, and peanut butter, and coffee, and ketchup, and all this is mine, with a wide gesture to the bags with limp French sticks, the banana box filled with dented tin cans and the wooden palettes ready to be thrown on the fire. Fat Walter was a hobo from 195O to 1995 but after a stroke he got settled here. And Fat Walter has four children and eleven grand children who all live in a house, but they don't have to think they can put him up in a house, "such a thing with doors and windows that never moves!" Further along the same railroad tracks and under a freeway bridge there are three more tramps sleeping on a bed of sand. One of them is Popeye, an old hobo that once last his leg while wandering on the freights, and they tell us he has stories to fill a train from here to Canada, but Popeye is awake and he shouts not to come any nearer, and the youngest of his mates comes to the fence: "Forget it guys. It's the beginning of the month, everyone got his welfare cheque and is drunk now. Why don't you come back in three weeks, then Popeye will be broke and sober and you could talk to him", and by now Popeye is swaying a knife, get them fuckin' strangers off my fuckin' track! And here too, in places that only look like a reservation, the firewater is still doing his job.

 

In the gutter again
From one moment to another we have no more spirit, as a loose sail we hang into our shoes, a sun stroke beat us, it's the hothouse-effect from that hole in the container car. And the postgrunge dude on the bus only has to say which cheap motel to pick and then we will fall onto the small bed until it's midnight and the city died, and we have to walk a mile to find a hamburger and a beer that we won't finish. Sleep! We want to sleep!

The day after we try to pour this heat-hang-over away with small cups of coffee and we spend some time buying post cards but the shop manager say they're closed and only when I'm out I see that the opening hours are from 10:00 am 'til 6:00 pm and that three more customers are still in the place... so they don't want our faces here because we look like tramps. Thus, that's the time it takes, one week to get from the sidewalk in the gutter. Just for having a beard, dirty jeans, a sooty backpack and a besmeared cardboard. And now we remember the passengers in yesterday's bus, how they looked the other way, but the real transition must have happened overnight. Because near the deli where the winos exchange their nickel for beer in brown paper bags, nobody had asked us a dime. And now in clear daylight it's all the more visible. The homeless and the toothless don't stick out their hands anymore - hey brother, can you spare a dime? - no, they hold up their hands to hello us, hey brother, how ye doing? That we are considered as plain "have nots" is to our liking, but when going to a shelter at night and asking our way to the parking lot attendant, she shouts after us: and don't panhandle! And jesus, I get mad: "It's not because we look like..." and here's A Tramp Fighting Public Prejudice (Hear! Hear!), but she just tells us to fuck off and shut up. And that's it. We go.

 

Vietnam Flash
Night at the St. Martin de Porres veranda, a shelter often frequented by trainriders, and they know Popeye here, but none is in a mood to go and disturb him. Not even the sharp muscled Hawkshadow, a fifty year-old who's been riding the rails for 28 years now and who isn't keen to go in dark places like that. It is Vietnam, he says and does it sound as an excuse? How was Vietnam, is my stupid question just to make him speak. How was Vietnam? is his icy repeat and as he points to Stephan, "it was like your buddy been blown up in forty pieces. That was what it was like." I say nothing and he keeps staring at me. "Every eight out of ten trainriders that you have met and that are over 45, have been in Vietnam. Guys that no longer fit in this society. They are still alive, but they have removed themselves from society. They have given up themselves "missing"'. Because they know they will never come back, because they know they will never be able to come back, because they know they can never be the same persons anymore. They are alive, but they are shot down man, emotionally shot down..."

I tell him about Roy, a guy we met in Klamath Falls. After five minutes we knew everything about him, three year old son, and given the boot by his wife just a month before. And he made no effort to talk it over with her, he just left and jumped on the first train. That's the lesson he learned in Vietnam, "if there is something in the air, just get away, or the shit will get you". Two tours of duty he made and on returning in San Francisco airport, a seventeen year old came to him and spat on his uniform, how many babies had he killed? And Roy had never been the same after, he lost his job, had troubles with everybody, had been in San Quentin, tried to start a new life three years ago that had lasted three years, and now all was over again. Roy was the one who told us how we could recognize Vietnam veterans underway: "Just look what they have in their eyes; It's DEATH." Hawkshadow listened to it all without a word. He says: "I was 18 when I left. I worked the intelligence, questioning POW's, etc. Yeah, we taught these goons a tough lesson. If they kept their mouth shut, we took them in a chopper and we climbed 3OO feet and then we pulled the door open. And if they were still not willing to talk, we picked one of them and booted him out, and then the others suddenly were all too prepared to talk. You had to do things like that if you had seen what they did, cut off the balls and the penis of a dead man and putting it in his mouth."

He stares at the dark spot where Popeye and the other tramps are sleeping: "It can overcome you any minute, such a flashback, you only have to enter an unknown area, feel the dark and wapp!, you're back in Nam! No man, I don't want to see it again. You got guys that throw themselves on the pavement when a car exaust crackles. I get it when I hear a drill in the road, to me it is as if a machinegun is hitting a house. Wapp! Back in Nam!"

 

Jungle
Why do all these veterans venture themselves in those empty yards where cars are hitting and creeping around? It looks as if they can't go without a jungle, as if they go searching for danger?! "In the beginning some have seeked this thrill, but soon enough the nightmares would come and you don't want them kicks anymore. It's not that you are looking for death. It's more that you want to feel that you are still alive after you witnessed so much death. And you can't get this feeling as a worker in a "dead" factory or as an employee in front of a "dead" computer. You get the feeling only in hard places. There you get the thrill of life, the thrill of survival. And that's why you see so many veterans hiding out in the trains and in the Rocky Mountains. Those are hard places. And those are also the places where you don't care about the rules of society. And that's what we need, we need to feel that we can live by our own rules. This society has sent us to war, this society has made our mind sick with death and destruction, well, we feel that we must live where this sickening society has no longer grip on us and where we have everything under control. And once you've ridden the rails, you can't go without anymore, it gets into your blood!"

Hawkshadow once met a professor in sociology from Harvard. The professor tried the train life for one week, his wife and colleagues thinking he had gone mad, but in the end he stayed four months. "He had a beard for weeks, his trousers were ripped, he drank with us, he ate with us, and now and then he called his wife to tell his students his courses were postponed for another month."

 

Seattle Dugout
And then we want to get out of Seattle, but that's not an easy cookie, because Seattle is the foremost import harbour from the Asian tigers and its seven yards are sending out goods to the major cities in the US and its bulls don't like anyone to come near this nervous hotshot activity. You better leave at night is the advice, and try to go incognito, which means one has to enter the yard without backpack and as soon as this "spy" has discovered an empty, both of us must move in quickly. On entering the yard no more than 2OO yards I can see a bull's jeep fifty yards away - and then the lights went on! - a sudden flash of headlights and car spotlights is directed towards an outgoing train and the light splashes on the cars, the whole freight is being x-rayed to see if any stowaways are on board. Wrong side of the tracks! But at the other side a brakeman warns us to get out of the yard ("the bulls are arresting everyone"), and he advises us to go another two miles: "There is a red signal where all outgoing trains have to stop." And we go for it, with the lights chasing every shadow and so we have to look for cover all the time, hiding beside cars, hiding beside huge wheels, running heads down over grinding ballast rocks, thousands of them, and gasping for breath in cover again, and running again, shaking under the weight of our backpacks, and that way we went as far as three miles but not one red light in sight... And our confidence in brakemen and switchmen is shocked. Why did he send us in the wilderness? Normally you can count on their information, normally they are on the trainriders side. Because they have to do a dangerous and underpaid job, it's a small revenge for them to help some passengers on board of them trains owned by the wealthy big companies. But things seem to change, maybe they get tired by the trainriders when their numbers are increasing? Anyway, we are so knocked up that we can only fall into a ditch and stay until the first sunlight is there and the first jogger too, look at him, he fancies to gasp some breath in this early morning too, ah, go away man!

 

Garbage Express
6:00 a.m. and inevitably we have to board a downtown bus for Seattle and another bus to Tacoma, and to ride among the trafic jams isn't really cheering, and then the old sucker in the other seat starts saying that the (ugly) wife sleeping next to him is his new wife,and that his former wedding was a disaster, and so on and so forth. Damned, six in the morning and here they are with their talkshow I never asked for. Call Oprah Winfrey but leave me alone!

In Tacoma we swallow our breakfast because from the snack bar we can see the units and cars moving in the yard ("that one goes south and that one too!"). And there is no hiding in the verge, so we have to sneak in a shunt empty, a good spot to see all the incoming trafic, and as soon as we see one, we'll jump it. But... it'll take another eleven hours before we get away. And for hours I peer through a slit of the doors watching every move on the tracks until my eyes ache and I start seeing trains in the brewing heat above the rails, and the car is a hothouse, everything is dust and drought, the chalk on the floor of the boxcar swirls up with every move and creeps into our skin and clothes.

At about 6:00 pm there's some switching in the yard, and suddenly we see one superlong train moving OUT. It takes some effort to catch him, we throw our luggage into an empty boxcar, we jump in ourselves and yeehaw, we are gone! but after a hundred yards through Tacoma, the train returns. One more switching, you stupid nitwits! And to say it with Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.

At about 7:00 pm our moment has come. A freight with a hundred double stack containers stops before the red signal. And the train stinks. Which is good news, because we need to catch out on the Garbage Train to Vancouver (Wa.) But we restrain. Not because of the rotten load but because of the unsafe seating. It's no more than a little "doorstep" at the front of the container car, we'll have to sit on it like stagecoach drivers (feet on deck and back against the container). Yep, we'll risk it, it'll only take four or five hours. And so we are on our way! Since midnight we try to get away from Seattle-Tacoma and after nineteen hours we're finally gone.

The train is scouring the whimsical bays of the Pacific with the snowcovered Mt. Rainier in the background, slides over stone bridges spanning little green valleys whereupon a gentle rain is falling and the wet grass is something to inhale, but what we get under the nostrils is mixed with 3O tons of sour milk packs and stale gone ash trays. Bang! A rock hits the container car before ours, and then we shoot past, three louts throwing stones to passing train trafic. If they had hit us! Hoboes have been killed by random stones hitting their heads. But the wheels keep on turning, nothing has happened, and in the air above the trees the stars are lit and in the houses near the tracks there's light in the children's bedrooms, Mickey Mouse on a wallpaper. And our heads are nod-dozing and I can see myself fall off the train while asleep, so I untie a leather string from the rucksack and I tie myself to a bar from the car. And so we sit on the train, with crossed arms and our jacket caps pulled over our faces, dozing off on the stagecoach of the Pony Express.

 

Part 4