- 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
The impresario S. Hurok engaged my services, sending me to stage and light his multicultural attractions in Java, Japan, Africa.
Back in New York I made the only truly courageous decision of my life: At the age of 33, unburdened by education and ignorant even of the rules of grammar, I decided that I would try to become a writer. I would give myself one year to learn to write and to make a living at it. The year ended with the sale of a story I’d written, barely within my deadline.
Whereupon I turned to what I knew best, theater. It was television’s golden age (though in truth much of it was leaden). I was not yet, if ever, a good writer, but I had one distinct advantage over my colleagues: Theater was embedded in my instincts. Indeed, it was all I really knew. My first play for television took an award as top TV play of the year. Many more plays and awards were to follow.
And still I had no fixed abode. Man of La Mancha (originally a television play) was written in a mountainside cabin overlooking Lake Maggiore, in the Ticino. I wrote The Vikings in Denmark, in the shadow of Kronborg Castle. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was hammered out in a disreputable hotel in Jamaica, preceded by one conference with Ken Kesey, the novel’s author. As it happened, we never discussed the problems of dramatization, instead comparing notes on lumber camps we’d worked and jails in which we’d been temporarily domiciled.
I never stopped traveling, never fixed on a “permanent” address, even as the funds to make that possible came in.
I own a clock that every hour on the hour plays a recording of a steam locomotive getting under way, its bells clanging “Clear the track,” gut-straining for power, drive wheels spinning until they grip the rails, at length conquering the inertia of a half-million tons of loaded cars, sounding its whistle across a vanished past.