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On the Rail Again - part 4

by Jan Hertoghs for Humo magazine

 

The Garbage Express with ourselves and 3OOO tons of Seattle garbage on board arrives in Vancouver (Wa.) shortly before midnight. At this hour it's a hissing and crossing point of units; everywhere there are trains waiting to leave or being switched. No further than three blocks away we can see Share House, a shelter managed by Vietnam veterans, a well known place among trainriders for good food, good sleep and good company. But on this late hour all beds are occupied and so it'll be another night under the stars, Motel the Great Bear.

Next morning the sun shoots over the tracks and today will be the day for us to go back in time and to look for witnesses that have ridden the rails sixty years ago. In the thirties, the years of the Depression, after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, there were about three million hoboes! Mostly they were men wandering off and looking for work, but complete families too, fathers, mothers and children that sought a way out of the poverty. Scores of people climbed the boxcars, rode on foot-boards, stood on couplings, lay upon the decks or upon the rods (the iron "hammocks" between the iron wheels of a car). A freight with 3OO hoboes on board was no exception in those days, and everywhere a train stopped, people went into town to beg for food. The hobo jungles (campments nearby the yards) were transitplaces for all these transients; you could share a cup of coffee and a pot of stew, you were told where to find work or a bowl of soup and in the jungles you were somehow more protected against the harrassment of the bulls than ...the stealing of other tramps.

In Chicago's West Madison Street existed a hobohemia part of town with some 5O,OOO hoboes living there and a hobo college where the unshaved pupils were taught the history of Ancient Rome as well as the way to survive on the rails. In those days hoboes were not just tramps, they had their own organisations like the radical left "Industrial Workers of the World" (the Wobblies), they had their own vocabulary, own songs and own codes. On houses and shacks they left their chalk written symbols that indicated if a house provided a dinner or a sleeping place and if the owner was of a generous kind or only generous "when hearing a sad story".

 

Thirteen year-olds
To find witnesses of that era we search Vancouver for an old people's home. Almost everybody indicates the same place, it's part of a local army veteran hospital, we can see the close cropped lawns and the straight lined barracks, certainly the place to be for the bearded creatures that we have become. But to tell you the truth, the US Army does help you when you look as if you're just out of the trenches, because within thirty minutes the woman manager has rounded up a bunch of old ramblers, and here they come crutching in with walking-stick, walking-pen and wheelchair: Dick Lane (81), George S (82), Ernest Page (78), Ed Sluder (7O), Raymond Arnauld (88). George, Ernest and Raymond wandered for adventure, Dick and Ed did it out of pure misery.

ED: "There was almost no food we got and my father often came home drunk and beat up my mother. One day I could no longer stand it and I jumped on him and I beat him. But then I got so scared I ran away and I hopped a train. I was only thirteen. I had nothing with me, just my clothes and a blanket."
DICK: "We were a family with twelve kids and during winter it was so terribly cold in Minnesota; you just wanted to get away from there. I was also thirteen when I left."
HUMO: "You did not run away from home?"
DICK: "No, I just left with a westbound train. I could work on a farm, picking peas, paid 13 cents a day. And at night I would sleep in a hay barn."
ED: "I also slept in barns, under bridges and in boxcars. And when I got cold I did what other hoboes did: we stole clothes and blankets from the clothes-lines. In fact it was no stealing when you almost died from cold. You had to keep your clothes onto you when you slept, otherwise someone would steal them too."
HUMO: "Did your parents not worry about you?"
DICK: "No. They didn't mind, they had eleven more kids to take care of. You did not run away from home, no, you just went away for a while. To make it easy for your parents."
ED: "For them it was one mouth less to feed."
ERNEST: "The people were hungry. There was no food and no money at all."
ED: "And after a few months you got back home and your parents would ask where you'd been and then you said where you had been and that was it."
HUMO: "Have you seen whole families riding?"
GEORGE: "Yes, with ten and twelve year-old kids they hopped the freights. I even saw families with babies. Most of them went to California. And the few belongings they had, they kept in a potato bag."
HUMO: "Where did you catch out?"
GEORGE: "Mostly near the water tower, all units had to stop there to take on water."
DICK: "We mostly climbed on the tender. You lay amidst the coal, it was dirty, but at least you were warm near that heat of the engine. When the engineers knew we hided in the coal, they treated us bad. They tanked water at the tower and while the water was still running from the hose, they pulled away so we got completely soaked. During winter it was terrible."
DICK: "Damn, it was cold in those days. Your eyebrows, your forehead, everything froze. When you closed your eyes, your scalp came off!"
GEORGE: "The only ones that were warm in winter were the apples, they had warmed cars."
DICK: "One time I had it warm, too, that was when I met an Indian girl and slept with her on the train, that was nice and warm."
ERNEST: "You could have it warm in the reefers. When they weren't filled with ice, you could crawl in from the deck and it was warm inside because of the double walls. But they were dangerous places too; a lot of hoboes died from thirst and starvation because they couldn't get out anymore after the lid fell and shut them off."
GEORGE: "The tunnels were dangerous too. One time we drove through a five mile tunnel. In our car there was a guy who had asthma and who kept coughing and coughing. And when we got out of the tunnel he was dead. The police came to take his body from the train. But you learned to survive. In the bakery shop you bought three days old bread, you sliced it and you sprinkled water on it and if you put it in a pot on the fire, you had crispy bread again."
ED: "Or you got some bones and leftover meat from the butcher, another would "find" some potatoes and onions in a field, you threw it in a bucket with water and salt, put it on a fire and got the best stew ever. Sometimes there was a singsong and dancing, men danced with men, and everyone drank moonshine beer. It was prohibition then; if you wanted whisky, you went into a hotel, gave 2 to 5 bucks to the receptionist and he would say something like: "Farmer Smith, at the fourth fence pole." And when it got dark, you dug near that pole and you found your stuff there."
RAYMOND: "In the stations you'd meet guys with long coats and at the inside you could see a hundred of them little brown bottles. You paid and they'd be gone and when you drank it, it was just tea in that damn' bottle!"
HUMO: "The bulls must have been harsh in those days?"
ED: "Yeah,they had big torches to light out the boxcars and they dragged everyone out. They'd beat you with baseball bats or with their bludgeon. They'd hit you on your knees and on your bottom, boy, that'd hurt!"
GEORGE: "Or they'd just kick you from the train. Once in november the eight of us rode a train through Montana and we were shivering from the cold but the bull just booted us out, right down in the snow. You had to be prepared for it. When you went to sleep, you'd untie your shoes, but you'd always tie them around your neck. If they kicked you from the train, you'd still have your shoes."
DICK: "And shoes, you needed! They once threw me off the train in North Dakota and I had to march two days and a half to get to the next station. To get something to eat, I'd knock at some farmers door. Nobody wondered that a thirteen year-old would stand in the door begging for food. The people had already seen so many of them."

 

Yuppie hoboes
Hoboes are still a notion in the States. No statistics, however, but it's accepted that there must be around 30,000-50,000 trainriders. 500-1000 of them are full time riders: it's the small group of (il)legal migrants that wander from apple harvest to peach picking, and then there's the vast amount of tramps that live on food stamps and commute between three-four states to cash in more food stamps. It's guys like Rollercoaster, a 30 year-old trainrider we meet in Vancouver and whose existence is solely built on welfare-commuting. Rollercoaster grew up in California but lives in Washington "because it's the most generous state". From that state Rollercoaster receives a $339 welfare cheque and some $65 in food stamps. "Food stamps are meant to buy food", he grins, "but I happen to know some families to whom I sell the stamps. They give me 65 cents cash for every food dollar, and with the cash I can buy booze." When all his money and stamps are finished, he goes to the Food Bank, where they hand out left over tin cans and food supplies from supermarkets. And if the Food Bank's closed, Rollercoaster just walks into the parish hall to get some bread and a bowl of soup. And if he's in need of clothes, he goes to the Sally. And if them clothes are dirty, he just throws them away ("I can get new ones at the Sally!") He smiles: "Yes, boys, why don't you stay in the Free States of America!" (Bad news for Rollercoaster and his mates; the Clinton government just decided to cut down in the foodstamp-programs,jh)

Apart from the migration workers and the food stamp "collectors", a growing group of trainriders is formed by trainhoppers and rec riders, guys that hop the trains just for the kick and the lure of adventure and - times are- a-changin' - some carry a VHF-scanner in their shirt pocket just to figure out where their train is waiting. In the last few years one can even find doctors, managers and admen among them: the yuppie hoboes!

 

Desperadoes
In Share House where we get a good meal, the service is still maintained by hardcore tramps, many of them Vietnam veterans. Share House started in the beginning of the seventies as a "refuge" for Vietnam veterans.

PHIL: "After a two weeks stay in dirty trains, you long for a place where you can wash yourself and your clothing and where you can have a good meal and a safe sleeping place. Especially the latter got more and more important in recent years, because twenty years ago everyone was a bit of a hippie and easy going and you had no train gangs then as there are now. The way urban gangs are dividing up a city in territories, you get train gangs that divide up the railroads. And some gangs work together; you've got the gangs from the West that go all the way from Seattle to Minneapolis, that's the border; from there on it's the East, with the gangs from Chicago and further. Five years ago police prevented a full gang-clash between the East and West in North Dakota. There were 25O gang members armed with bats and knifes and guns."

From what we've heard we reckon the FTRA to be part of these gangs, but Phil is not sure: "It wasn't a bad organisation at the beginning. They wanted to organise that big group of trainriders; distributing maps of railroad yards, giving legal aid when someone was arrested, and giving hard repression against thieves that robbed trainriders. When someone had robbed you, a FTRA-commando would track down the thief and if they found him, he had to lay his hands on the tracks and then they'd beat his fingers until they broke. But this "people's justice" was the start of a wave of internal feuds, people were threatened to give their money, tramps were thrown from the trains just to get their belongings, and that way the FTRA got a bad name. But you still have bona fide members, I see them here, and they are defiant; they are desperadoes; they can catch every train they want but no one is able to catch them.

 

He's my brother
In the Portland Southern Pacific Yard we'll catch one of our last rides. The location for departure is unique because the rustbrown depot lies next to the flashing green of a golf course where executive Americans and Japanese hit their hail white little balls. Pok! Pok! what a perfect soundtrack when you lay in the grass with your arms under your head. 2OO yards away two tramps - a white and a black - argue loudly who's turn it is to go and buy beer. We get it for them, a cold sixpack is the over-all accepted credit card among tramps. We say our names, theirs are Sixpack and Good Time Charlie. Two names for a movie and they are characters too. Sixpack (The Baddie) has been in jail from 18 onto 31. Is now on the run. Uses drugs. Heroin, but he changed to amphetamines, pot and booze. Biker. Member of the Bandidos. Strong, muscled, did 4OO push-ups per morning when in jail.

Good Time Charlie (The Goodie) former airborn commando but with a shy personality. Loves trains. Loves birds. Loves people. Drinks. Drinks too much. Drinks to forget. Her name is Renée. "My daughter. My only child. She's seventeen and she's nice and she's gentle. Blond hair, brown eyes. I love her. I miss her." He'll repeat it a hundred times. Always with a soft and saddened voice. I miss her. I miss her so much. And that he hasn't seen her once in the last five years. And that he likes to see her. But that he's not seeing her any more. Tears in his eyes. From the bottles full of drink and those five years full of sadness.

Good Time Charlie says he prays every night. In the train or wherever he is. Jesus, protect my daughter. Jesus, protect my daughter. And that he rides the rails because he has so many questions. Question one: what is love? Question two: why do people that love each other separate? Question three... Sixpack is back with a sixpack, he unhooks a can, brings it to his lips, and burps straight through Charlies monologue, and says it's time to go and find a boxcar.

We take our luggage. Good Time Charlie is not getting up. Get up! shouts Sixpack. But Good Time Charlie sings softly "My brown-eyed girl." Sixpack is definite: "We go, Charlie!" But Charlie is not going. And after half an hour waiting in the boxcar, he still is not there. "I'm gonna rescue him" and Sixpack is off.

After a while the two of them approach. The Goodie and the Baddie. Sixpack, the man with the bandana and the tattoos, the man from the jails and the motor gangs and the drugs, the man that snarls "Shut up!" every time Charlie starts to speak about his daughter, that man Sixpack is now carrying the luggage from Charlie. All the trash, all the bags, all the plastic shit from Charlie who sheepishly follows his lead. The brotherhood of the road as the hoboes call it, and it is not a friendship of years, but the comradship that lasts as long as it takes. Because tomorrow Sixpack might boot Charlie out of the car because he's tired of listening to "that same crap about his daughter" but now it's still: "He ain't heavy, he's my brother."

And Sixpack is angry because that is how he shows his anxiety. "That bastard! He lay with his stupid head about two foot from the tracks. Ready to be crushed and mushed. That sonofabith was almost dead." But Charlie, good man Charlie says he "just wanted to see if a train was coming!"

Once he's in the boxcar Charlie keeps on saying he has a blanket for Sixpack, and that he doesn't need two blankets, and here it is, here's your blanket, Sixpack, and you are my friend, Sixpack, but Sixpack sits on his ass and smokes a cigarette: "Shut up Charlie. I am not listening, Charlie."

And that's the way how these two men are having a conversation until they fall asleep, each in a different corner of the boxcar.

 

Alaska one way
Instead of four hours this slow train takes about eight hours to get to his destination and then we have to change trains one more time. And because the next southbound is ready for departure, the units already in front, without much of a thought we jump from our slow driving train, it's like jumping from a high swing, and our backpacks are twenty metres behind, we threw them out first, and then we make a run for that waiting train and for an empty. As soon as we find it, I run back again, because I saw some "cardboard cushions" in another train on another track, and I want to have these fantastic wadded envelopes in which you can sleep so softly, and that would be an extra comfort for our last ride, and I make my run, I find my train, but not the car with the cushions, and then I hear the brakes coming loose on our train, the final sign of leaving, and Stephan is shouting after me, I can hear his voice in the dark runway between two trains, and I have to run back some twenty cars, that's twenty by fifteen metres, that makes 3OO metres, and after the engines get started you have about one minute to catch him, if not you're lost because he'll be driving too fast. And fear strikes my heart, maybe it wasn't twenty but thirty cars?! But then I can see Stephan, he's waving his arm, I make a wee sprint to catch our car, I grab the latch, throw my legs in the air and with a fine swing I land in the boxcar, just like in the adventurers' handbook.

It's a very macho thing, all this jumping and climbing on trains, pulling yourself up on those iron handles, feeling the grip through your leather gloves, touching the rungs of the ladder with your stiff leather boots and feeling the floor under your rough blue jeans. But at the same time there's this vulnerable "Gulliver feeling" when you place those few pounds of human flesh, that slight hold of two hands and two feet on top of that iron giant, fifteen hundred metres long and weighing almost four thousand tons. But as soon as you are in the boxcar and the train has found its kboum- kboum-rhythm, it feels like home, and with all the stories that are fired upon you when meeting other guys one could easily built a cosy fire in them boxcars. As with Harold who we met in K-Falls. He was about twenty-five, had never rode a freight before, had hardly any luggage, a coat and two blankets nothing more, but he had traveled thousands of miles coming from Houston (Texas) and on his way to Alaska, a 5OOO mile killer trip. He was going for the salmon fishery, three months he wanted to work on such a ship. Harold knew nothing about salmon or salmon fishing, he just went because of the pictures he saw in a magazine, and they were great, and now he was on his way to earn $5OOO a month and work 16 hours a day, and he still carried the glossy magazine pages in his pocket. And I'd love to see black Harold from the hot shimmering south working in the ice cold tempestry of the northern Bering Sea, but his only answer was that he would make it, "I'll find some warm clothes in the Seattle Mission, they'll keep me warm in the polar ice". And seeing him sleep on his blanket on the hard floor of the boxcar, you had to think about the Hobo's Lullaby:

Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the town drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails humming
Well, that's the hobo's lullaby

Do not think about tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you have a nice warm boxcar
Free from all the ice and snow

 

The boxcar blues In such a fine boxcar we are riding our final 200 kilometres now. To safeguard this special mood, we keep standing in the side doorway until it's pitch dark and I hold up my glove covered hand to the red-ringing RR crossings, to the dark pine trees you can almost touch passing by, to the bright snow cap on a mountain far away and to the stars in the cold evening sky that are watching a train move on a part of the track around the world. And as to say goodbye there's no better way then this Jack Kerouac "sample" from Lonesome Traveller:

"How often do I remember my wonder at the slow grinding movement and squeal of gigantic boxcars and flats and gons rolling by with that overpowering steel dust crenching closh and clack of steel on steel... And if you're riding out on such a freight train you see all the lil homes and in the evening people sipping in living rooms open to the sweetness, the stars, the hope that lil children must see when they lay in little beds and bedtime and look up and a star throbs for them above the railroad earth, and the train calls, ah me, I wish I was a little child in a crib in a little sweet house with my parents sipping in the living room with their picture window pointing out on the little backyard of lawn chairs and the fence, the stars above, the pure dry golden smelling night, and just beyond a few weeds and blocks of wood, and rubber tires, bam the main line of the ole SP and the train flashing by, toom, tboom, the great crash of the black engine, then the long snake freighttrain and all the numbers and all the whole thing flashing by, gcrachs, thunder, the world is going by all of it finally terminated by the sweet little caboose with its brown smoky light inside where old conductor bends over waybills, and the rear markers, red, and the thing all gone howling around the bend and the stars bend to it, the whole world's coming to bend with the big engine booms and balls by, and wow there's just no end to all this wine."