- 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 see it coming, and there’s not one damn thing I can do about it. There’s time, even, to note the steel capping of the yard bull’s boots as I am kicked, with precise aim, in the center of my ribs. I feel them crack and give. Breath is driven out, and now the pain is no longer shy; it washes over in a blinding wave, and to my own shame I cry out, “All right ,” as though it will interdict the beating. Through a mist I hear the warm, solicitous voice, “Kin yuh git up?” and I gasp, “No . . . no. . . ,” with an irrational expectation that now hostilities will cease, friendship be declared, and my wounds tended.
“Git up or take the next one in the nuts.” The voice is no more emphatic than before, but I know it doesn’t piss around, it means it.
I struggle to my feet. The effort costs, a price paid in pain, in waves of nausea, in shame and fury.
The yard bull faces me away from the tracks, south toward the empty hills. “Start walkin’,” he says. “And keep walkin’.”
The night has fully settled in by now, the soft drizzle persisting. I stumble on, unseeing, sick with pain. The rain stops. A few stars appear, even a blur of moonS The night seemingly has no end. Yet after an eternity or two there’s the beginning of light.
I am out of sight of anything man-made, town, railroad, anything at all. Nothing but great, undulating hills. I’m aware principally of thirst.
The nightmare begins. It will last three, possibly four days. Hunger . . . one can live with hunger for a long time. But thirst . . . thirst is not passive. Thirst demands .
Mirages now. This one’s lovely. I am in the green shade of northern Wisconsin, place of my birth, and all the little mouths of my body drink endlessly of the cool, clear water flowing over me. A coyote preaches a sermon from a pulpit of bones. A Lakota boy of my own age takes me by the hand and leads me for a while but callously abandons me when I am unable to match his pace.
Now one quite extraordinary: At the foot of the hillock on which I have sat down to die, a column of tarantulas is passing. They march in military order; they have leaders, scouts, flankers, and they set a brisk pace.
Ridiculous. Still, these great hairy spiders have a destination.
I find the strength to rise and follow, vision fixed on the tail of the column. I am unconscious of how far I’ve gone or how the terrain is changing around me. Then the spiders have disappeared; they have changed into sheep. Sheep ? I lift my eyes to see, silhouetted, the blocky figure of a man. Surely another mirage. But soon I’m being administered small sips of water.
It’s dark, and there’s a huge black pot simmering on a small fire, and the sheepherder, grinning affably with squarish teeth set in a dark-skinned face, hands me a wooden bowl of mutton stew and speaks to me, but I think my ears or brain have been affected, for the language is a jumble of sounds. Later I learn that the man and the language are Basque.
I eat, drink water, and sleep long hours in a fleece-lined bedroll in the shadow of the shepherd’s wagon. The broken ribs are painful, but they’re healing (never set, they’ll be forever crooked). A scar across my right eyebrow will be a further reminder, and I have suffered sunstroke.
One day I’m on my feet, expressing shame at having so imposed on a stranger. The Basque seems to feel no imposition; indeed he has enjoyed the break in his isolation. But I insist, and he draws on the ground a map of sorts. There is a highway to the south and west, half a day’s walk.
Were the spiders really there? Months later I consult an encyclopedia and learn that tarantulas do, on occasion and for reasons unknown, assemble and move en masse to a new location. So they might have been real.
Or possibly not.
By 1940 the day of the hobo had ended in its pre-recreational mode, that is. As for me, restless and rootless, I have continued to avoid a fixed address. I have been true to hoboism in my fashion.
Post-Road there was a time of living on the rooftops of office buildings in Los Angeles. With the confidence of ignorance, having landed in a revolutionary theater group wholly by accident, I embarked upon producing, directing, and acting in a propaganda form we’d now call street theater. The Federal Theater Project hired me as a director but gave me no plays to direct; in the resulting vacuum I taught myself theatrical lighting and thereafter designed lighting for such eminent dance companies as Martha Graham, Myra Kinch, the Ballets Russes, and, finally, Katherine Dunham, with whom I toured the world. Our headquarters were in Haiti, where we planted the entire menagerie of dancers, singers, and musicians on the old MariaPaulette Buonaparte Leclerc plantation.