Flipping The Meat Train

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On the river, no traffic in sight; on the track, a freight train. An easy choice. I made for the tracks, swung up onto the sill of one of the boxcars. Soon the train jolted into motion, and from the depths of the car I’d chosen came an irritated voice: “Get in or get out, yuh damn fool, ‘less yer waitin’ fer the f—in’ door tuh cut yer f—in’ legs off.”

Thank you, Professor, for my first Road lesson. There were to be more, and in general I accepted instruction gratefully. The train rolled. I sat cross-legged on the floor of my car, watching America flow by, feeling happy, feeling anonymous, feeling free .

I eventually went to sleep and woke to bright sunlight in Chadron, Nebraska, and with the help of a friendly switchman caught a red ball freight heading for the Rocky Mountains, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Ouarzazate, all of which I reached in due course.

No one knows the origin of the word hobo , but it had to be invented for a cast of wanderers who lucked into a mode of travel that existed for one century and never will again. Without trains there could have been no hoboes. Traveling was the essence, and the 250,000-mile railroad system of North America offered a unique means.

It was perilous, it was delightful, it was brutal and exalting, and above all it was romantic. Millions of adolescent boys dreamed of becoming hoboes, and thousands upon thousands of them did. It took guts, courage, and imagination. Any lapse and the results could be devastating. Consider this account, for instance, by the poet W. H. Davies from his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp , a book that opens with a laudatory preface by no less a hobo manqué than George Bernard Shaw: “Taking a firmer grip on the bar, I jumped, but it was too late, for the train was now going at a rapid rate. My foot came short of the step, and I fell, and, still clinging to the handle bar was dragged several yards before I relinquished my hold. And there I lay for several minutes, feeling a little shaken, whilst the train swiftly passed on into the darkness.

 

“Even then I did not know what had happened, for 1 attempted to stand, but found that something had happened to prevent me from doing this. Sitting down in an upright position, I then began to examine myself, and now found that the right foot had been severed from the ankle.”

Compassionate railroad workers found Davies and saved his life. The chances of being maimed were multiple, but nothing deterred all those boys (myself among them) who, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, were “burning in the night.” There were an estimated quarter-million of them riding freights at the height of the Depression.

The Depression accounted for the fact that the Road belonged no longer to the young but to the dispossessed of all ages, no longer the life of those who’d chosen but of those who’d been deprived of any choice at all. They swarmed onto the freight trains, husbands, wives, children, in futile search for work, for a welcoming community, for an unlikely offer of food, friendship, compassion. Estimates of the numbers of homeless on the road at the depth of the Depression reached one million . . . two million. The truth is, no one knows.

I fear I may have given the impression that hoboing was an unending round of danger, discomfort, and anomie. Well, yes. But it offered so much more. Independence. Freedom, like none other on earth. Unexpected pleasures, astonishing sights. Ecstasy even, and the joy of wonders previously known only from rumor or from books.

Nor in the course of my travels did I neglect education. In the library of a small town, I would select two books, slip them under my belt at the small of my back, read as I rode, and slip them back into the stacks of another library in another town far down the line, where I would “borrow” two more. I thus acquired a substantial, if incoherent, fund of knowledge that, together with experience, became my total education.

I have danced with joy on the decks of freight trains laboring though the High Sierra in the time of snow, intoxicated by beauty, and yelled with jubilation at the swoops of whitened valleys and sculptured peaks fresh-born or still in the process of parturition, if reckoned in geologic time. The stars were close about my ears.