- 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
I’ve waited a fraction too long; the train is already under way, crossing the frogs. Nothing for it but to board where I can.
Running alongside until I’m moving almost as fast as the train, I make my play, hooking on to the ladder at the front end of a car, perhaps the tenth in the string. My foot finds a stirrup. There I cling until I catch my breath. I climb halfway up the side of the car—and stop.
I feel it, a squirming of a powerful muscle against my left thigh and, although incredulous, realize that it must be a snake, that while I was sleeping, a snake crawled between the two pairs of jeans I am wearing. Are there rattlesnakes in Iowa? Copperheads?
Panic strikes. I kick free of the ladder, hanging on by my hands, swinging wildly, slamming my body against the side of the boxcar to dislodge the terrifying thing that is clinging to me. Finally it loses its grip. I catch a glimpse as it falls: almost three feet long, glistening darkly in the moonlight.
When the panic subsides, I consider dropping off but, looking down at the ties spinning away, realize that the train is already rolling too fast. There’s no choice. I’m going to have to deck it, ride the top.
The runway on top is three boards wide, about 20 inches overall. I’d like to be many cars farther back, but it’s impossible to navigate the rocking deck, so I have to settle for lying prone, my head toward the locomotive, where of necessity it must take the brunt of sparks, smoke, and cinders spewing from the smokestack.
The train accelerates. It’s rolling, I guess, at close to 90 miles an hour. Not unusual for a passenger hotshot but very much so for boxcars, which never were designed for that speed. The car beneath me is bucking, pitching, yawing, jerking violently from side to side. I grip the edges of the runway, sure I’m leaving fingerprints embedded in its coarse, weathered wood. Not enough; I dig sneakered feet into the space between runway and car top, finally anchored at both ends though still deafened and buffeted by hurricane-force wind.
Now I know why nobody rides the Meat Train.
An infinity later I realize that the train is slowing down, that it’s rolling placidly through the freight yards of suburban Chicago.
A new problem: how to get off. My hands are claws. My muscles ache. My kidneys feel as though I’d finished 10 tough rounds in the ring. I crawl to the ladder on hand and knees, make my way down, shakily, and plant my feet in the stirrup. I drop off the train in the way I’ve learned from watching brakemen do it, opposite the “natural” way, back foot first, leaning backward so that if you fall, you fall away from, not into, the wheels. I do it nicely too, but overstrained muscles give wav, and I hit the cinders, rolling.
But alive. And I’ve ridden the Meat Train. I am now a hobo cum laude.
How does one attain the profession of hobo? A town called Estherville in northern Iowa; the Rock Island Line ran through it. Few trains actually stopped in Estherville, but many came thundering through. They came out of the horizon, emerging from a sea of corn rows. The locomotive was black, its round face topped by a single blazing eye that grew enormous as it approached. I would shrink from the juggernaut’s passage, trapped between fascination and fear. Occasionally my vigil would be rewarded by a condescending wave from the cab as a train rolled groundshakingly past. In this event, delirium! Engineers were royalty, as pilots on the Mississippi had been in Mark Twain’s day.
Estherville ended with the death of my parents and the dealing out of my siblings like a poker hand to relatives or to orphanages. Undisciplined, secretive, and almost entirely unschooled, at the age of 14 I was shipped to a family member in Blunt, South Dakota.
Blunt was a town of 400 and well named. I lasted less than a month there, conniving with a friendly truck driver to escape. So it happened that in the middle of a hot summer night in the year 1930 I dropped off a truck in South Dakota’s capital, Pierre, not knowing quite where I was, much less where I might be going.
I’d arrived at a no man’s land between freight yards and the river. To the left were a few, a very few lights in the town, seen across a spidery maze of railroad tracks. To the right was the Missouri, a deeper darkness of slow-moving water. The wail of a locomotive’s whistle approached from the east. A lovely sound, the only sound on this summer’s night: one short cry, then dying to a disconsolate silence. I knew what that meant: Days of hanging out at the Rock Island depot were paying off. The engineer was signaling “down brakes.”