Flipping The Meat Train

PrintPrintEmailEmailI picked up my first clue at a cocktail reception. Over my shoulder, hearing an enthusiastic discussion, I realized that I was eavesdropping on a group of several youngish to middleaged men and one woman who were comparing their exploits in an activity that was illegal, hazardous, and, to me, utterly astonishing. As they chattered on, it became clear that they were members of an organization whose hobby, if I could believe my hearing aid, was riding freight trains.


I inquired and found it to be true: There is a generation of prosperous hobohemians whose drug of choice is flipping freight trains in emulation of the vanished hobo. Riding the rails has become a recreational kick. Well-fed baby boomers are taking trips on the high iron. Further, there are books of instruction, which recommend clothing and equipment suitable for flipping freights, and a number of how-to manuals. Among the most comprehensive is Duffy Littlejohn’s Hopping Freight Trains in America. This book is wonderful. An amazement. All 350 fact-crammed pages of it. “Why ride freight trains?” asks Duffy. And answers, “Riding the rails is the last pure red-blooded adventure in North America.”

Furthermore, he lists “The 100 Commandments of Riding the Rails,” a compendium of everything the hobohemian might need to know, from how to find the freight yards to how to jump off a moving train. Particularly fascinating is the section devoted to the equipment considered necessary for the New Age hobo: a backpack of nylon or another synthetic material, “not over 25 pounds when fully packed”; blankets of a certain weight and texture; toilet paper, absolutely; warm clothing of precise specification and surprising cost; and bottled water.

My amazement rose from the fact that back in the days when hoboes were an established underclass, I was there. Living the life, the real thing, sans all equipment but the clothing on my back and a three-inch pocketknife. From the age of 14 to 19, embracing all adolescence, I was a hobo, homeless and surviving day to day in a life that for all its horrors could also engender astonishing delights. Only now do I realize that I may be one of the last of the echt hoboes, and I am therefore driven to speak in their behalf.

In taking to the Road, one entered distinguished company. Jack London was a hobo, though held in low esteem since he made only one trip and thereafter made a book and a big deal of it. Upton Sinclair hoboed, as did John Dos Passes, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Zane Grey. So did Vachel Lindsay, Robert W. Service, John Fante, and Bret Harte. Harry Kemp made a career as the “tramp poet,” as did W. H. Davies, and one must grant that their credentials were authentic. Jack Kerouac’s were not; he belonged to the suborder of Hoboes-Vicarious. Clark Gable rode the rails, as did Robert Mitchum (Mitchum and I compared Road notes at our first meeting) and Frank Capra, Melvin Belli, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and a host of others.

In the rigid order of the Road that was, a hobo ranked high. It must be understood that he was not a tramp. A tramp might be a thug, a jackroller, a punch-drunk boxer, or a yegg on the lam. The Road, among its other attractions, was a refuge from the law.

Nor was a hobo a bum. A bum hung out on Chicago’s West Madison Avenue and panhandled the stem. In the hobo jungles he might be seen squeezing Sterno Canned Heat through an old sock to extract the grain alcohol. Hoboes disdained tramps, felt nothing warmer than pity for bums, and avoided both.

For what defines the hobo is that he worked . The great majority of hoboes (at least until the Depression struck) were skilled at a host of occupations. Lumberjacks, cigar-rollers, woodchoppers, construction stiffs, fruit and vegetable pickers, barley buckers, short-order cooks, merchant mariners . . . name it, and there were hoboes who could do it. They wouldn’t do it for long, however. The Road was home; other domiciles were temporary.

In looking back, I realize that I can claim affinity with Lavengro and the Romany Rye, with Jim Tully and Huckleberry Finn, with Ishmael and Thor Heyerdahl and Casanova and Rändle P. McMurphy and Johnny Appleseed and Don Quixote and Fry Pan Jack and the Cheyenne Kid and all the men and women, fictional and historical, who ran away from home and never looked back.

On the rare occasion that I mention my time on the Road, people invariably ask, “But wasn’t it dangerous?”

Yes. Extremely. If I tend to forget, I am reminded by the bullet scar on my right leg, a memento of shots fired by a town clown in Anniston, Alabama. A seam on my right eyebrow recalls a cosh slammed against my head by a yard bull (railroad cop) in Wyoming. My floating ribs are adrift from their original anchorage. A scar across the back of my hand recalls . . . odd, I can’t remember.