Flipping The Meat Train


There was exhilaration in going over the Sierra Nevada, even factoring in the cold, the ominous snow tunnels, the steel-straining labors of a nearly mile-long freight. I was in awe of the giant engines that pulled, pushed, and powered this numbing tonnage several times daily. They were cab-front Malletts, one of the largest and most powerful locomotives on earth, and there were three to a train. They were god-like, but, like most gods, they had alarmingly human characteristics. One could feel their muscles straining at the task; one could hear it in the huff-chuff, huff-chuff, of their exhaust. When at rest, on a sidetrack, for instance, they coughed and panted in a unique pattern not to be mistaken for that of any other locomotive. Now, at this moment, I can hear it in my head.

Of all the gifts of hobodom, however, the sweetest and most dangerous is the freedom, that most abused word in the lexicon. To the wanderer alienated from society, it has precise and profound implications, fulfilling the sense of the Camus phrase terrible freedom .

As a hobo I was free of family pressures and responsibility—and free to endure the absence of support in the rites of passage enjoyed by a “normal” member of society. I was free of moral and behavioral restraints and free of the social accommodations that make living among one’s fellow folk possible. I was free of sexual education or modulation, and free to suffer the consequences in tainted relationships for decades to follow.


I found freedom marvelous, joyous, wing-spreading. I found it crippling, dangerous, and lonely.

Now I’m sixteen, slight but wiry, wearing my black beret, Frisco jeans, and a ready grin. I am a gaycat, Road-wise, a real slim-jim. Unfortunately, I’ve misremembered the distinction between carefree and careless.

On a humid summer’s evening, with soft dark rain falling in a railroad town between Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming, I’ve spotted a road hog waiting on a siding, its lights and numbers up, ready to roll.

Now I’m strolling along, canvassing the cars of the red ball freight it will be hauling, checking for empties. A tall man, wearing a straw Stetson with a rolled brim, steps out from between two cars and beckons with his left hand: Come closer.

It’s too dark to see what he’s holding in his other hand. A gun? On the chance that it is, I check my first instinct, which is to run.

I’m reassured by the tall man’s eyes. They’re brown, they’re friendly. No danger signals. Nor in his voice when he speaks; concern, rather, and courtesy. In a soft Texas accent the tall man asks, “Headin’ out?”


“On this train?”

“I was figuring.”

The tall man nods, his manner almost mournful. “Y’all know you’re on railroad property?”

I tense up. Run? But what’s concealed in his right hand?

“I wasn’t fixing to steal anything.”

“Said you was. Said you was goin’ to steal a ride on this here train.”

“Well, I never figured that flipping a ride on a freight—”

I don’t see it coming. Only know a blinding flash of light, cold and scintillating. And a clang in my head followed by a fast, nauseating vibration.

I’m lying on the ground. I raise my eyes to see, at last, the implement in the tall man’s right hand. Not a gun, a billy club perhaps fashioned from a sawed-off table leg. The fog clears from my eyes, and I can see more clearly now, can even make out the dull gray plug of metal at its business end. The billy has been cored with a half-pound of lead. Yard bull’s trick.

The pain has not yet reached its apex. What I feel is shame, shame in the stupidity of not recognizing danger while there was a chance to avoid it.

The soft Texas voice, solicitous: “Y’all listenin’?”

I summon up a whisper. “Yes, sir.”

“Want you should pay note t’ this.”