- Historic Sites
Flipping The Meat Train
One of the last veterans; of a dangerous violent, exhilarating way of life tells of a youth spent on the Road.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
ON THE RARE OCCASION THAT I MENTION MY TIME ON THE ROAD, PEOPLE INVARIABLY ASK,“BUT WASN’T IT DANGEROUS?” YES. EXTREMELY.
The population of the Road itself numbered many who were dangerous to others. There were prison escapees and excons. Lunatics were common.
One learned to keep a wary distance, to wake instantly from sleep and hit the ground running, especially if one was a “gaycat,” a young apprentice like me. Also dangerous were the jockers, men seeking “punks” among the young to whom they offered protection, often in exchange for sexual favors.
But most dangerous of all were the trains themselves. There were precise techniques for flipping a freight and for the even more hazardous move, dropping off. Thousands of Road kids were killed or injured; there are no statistics numbering those who fell beneath the wheels. One may extrapolate from the figures of one railroad alone, the Missouri Pacific, which from 1930 (the year I started jumping freights) to 1932 recorded 330 trespassers killed and 682 seriously injured.
And yet. As though “normal” danger was too tame, we Road kids sought more. Status on the Road was awarded according to which trains one had ridden. It wasn’t enough to ride and survive the red ball—express—freights, which, after all, started and stopped at conservative speeds and lumbered along at a mere 30 to 50 miles per hour. There were passenger trains, and there were crack passenger trains that offered one mere seconds to catch and no safe place to ride and which braked so sharply there was no way to drop off until they had stopped in the glare of the station lights.
On such trains there were only certain places it was possible to ride. Each spot had its virtues, each its hazards. The blind baggage, the space between a locomotive’s tender and the mail or baggage car at the head end, was a favorite. On the other hand, if the crew discovered you there, they’d think nothing of booting you off at 80 miles an hour. Riding between any other cars could be done if one were able to survive the muscle ache from clinging to a single ladder rung beside the bumpers, plus the wind that worked always to tear one loose, plus the buffeting from cinders and stones churned up by suction from the roadbed. And there were the battery boxes, usually empty, beneath some coaches. A person might crawl into one if it could be done unobserved and, if young and limber, huddle in its claustrophobic murk to ride in safety. But there was the chance of the outside latch’s being closed, deliberately or accidentally, whereupon one was privileged to die in darkness; battery boxes, like refrigerator cars, had no inside handles.
In hobo jungles one could garner fascinating information of trains even more prestigious to ride than the crack passenger flyers, the Silk Train from the West Coast for instance, carrying valuable cargo destined for New York and escorted by armed guards who were privileged to shoot on sight. I should like to claim that I rode it. I scoped it, certainly, but, having observed the gimlet-eyed men with rifles, found it too intimidating to approach. I heard claims by other ‘boes that they’d ridden the Silk Train but concluded that there were no fewer liars on the Road than in the square life.
The Meat Trains were famous. They were “contract runs,” rolling nightly at high speed from Sioux Falls to Chicago, carrying beef carcasses that had to be there by dawn. The cars that made up the “consist” were neither special nor adapted to the breakneck velocity. The Meat Train carried no empties. It made no scheduled stops. Its violence of motion made it impossible to ride the bumpers. Strictly suicide, warned the older ‘boes.
I was determined to ride it.
I am dozing on and off in a swale amid infinite Iowa corn rows, close by the crossing of two railroads. The tracks, shining by moonlight, intersect at precise right angles. I wear a beret, a light jacket, and two pairs of Frisco jeans as a cloth sandwich to guard against earlymorning chill.
In the far distance, a locomotive whistles. Instantly I’m awake and listening. One short: a train signaling that it’s about to stop. The glow of a headlight, the engine coming on at speed; yes, on the Northwestern’s tracks, precisely where it should be. Brakes scream, steel on steel, as the hogger hits the air and the train pauses just short of the junction. But it’s a pause, not a stop, and the whistle immediately sounds two long blasts, the highball, meaning “We go!” and it’s rolling again.
In the few seconds available, my eyes canvass the train in dismay. I’d expected reefers (refrigerator cars) with room for a ‘bo to ride up top where the open hatches would at least provide windbreaks or, better still, allow him to drop down into an empty ice compartment. But these aren’t reefers, they’re ordinary boxcars, and for a moment I think, “It’s the wrong train.” Then I realize: beef carcasses not iced but simply loaded in boxcars at a huge savings in cost but demanding speed, speed! if they’re to get to the packinghouse before nature renders them rotten.