February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
One of the last veterans; of a dangerous violent, exhilarating way of life tells of a youth spent on the Road.
I inquired and found it to be true: There is a generation of prosperous hobohemians whose drug of choice is flipping freight trains in emulation of the vanished hobo. Riding the rails has become a recreational kick. Well-fed baby boomers are taking trips on the high iron. Further, there are books of instruction, which recommend clothing and equipment suitable for flipping freights, and a number of how-to manuals. Among the most comprehensive is Duffy Littlejohn’s Hopping Freight Trains in America. This book is wonderful. An amazement. All 350 fact-crammed pages of it. “Why ride freight trains?” asks Duffy. And answers, “Riding the rails is the last pure red-blooded adventure in North America.”
Furthermore, he lists “The 100 Commandments of Riding the Rails,” a compendium of everything the hobohemian might need to know, from how to find the freight yards to how to jump off a moving train. Particularly fascinating is the section devoted to the equipment considered necessary for the New Age hobo: a backpack of nylon or another synthetic material, “not over 25 pounds when fully packed”; blankets of a certain weight and texture; toilet paper, absolutely; warm clothing of precise specification and surprising cost; and bottled water.
My amazement rose from the fact that back in the days when hoboes were an established underclass, I was there. Living the life, the real thing, sans all equipment but the clothing on my back and a three-inch pocketknife. From the age of 14 to 19, embracing all adolescence, I was a hobo, homeless and surviving day to day in a life that for all its horrors could also engender astonishing delights. Only now do I realize that I may be one of the last of the echt hoboes, and I am therefore driven to speak in their behalf.
In taking to the Road, one entered distinguished company. Jack London was a hobo, though held in low esteem since he made only one trip and thereafter made a book and a big deal of it. Upton Sinclair hoboed, as did John Dos Passes, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Zane Grey. So did Vachel Lindsay, Robert W. Service, John Fante, and Bret Harte. Harry Kemp made a career as the “tramp poet,” as did W. H. Davies, and one must grant that their credentials were authentic. Jack Kerouac’s were not; he belonged to the suborder of Hoboes-Vicarious. Clark Gable rode the rails, as did Robert Mitchum (Mitchum and I compared Road notes at our first meeting) and Frank Capra, Melvin Belli, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and a host of others.
In the rigid order of the Road that was, a hobo ranked high. It must be understood that he was not a tramp. A tramp might be a thug, a jackroller, a punch-drunk boxer, or a yegg on the lam. The Road, among its other attractions, was a refuge from the law.
Nor was a hobo a bum. A bum hung out on Chicago’s West Madison Avenue and panhandled the stem. In the hobo jungles he might be seen squeezing Sterno Canned Heat through an old sock to extract the grain alcohol. Hoboes disdained tramps, felt nothing warmer than pity for bums, and avoided both.
For what defines the hobo is that he worked . The great majority of hoboes (at least until the Depression struck) were skilled at a host of occupations. Lumberjacks, cigar-rollers, woodchoppers, construction stiffs, fruit and vegetable pickers, barley buckers, short-order cooks, merchant mariners . . . name it, and there were hoboes who could do it. They wouldn’t do it for long, however. The Road was home; other domiciles were temporary.
In looking back, I realize that I can claim affinity with Lavengro and the Romany Rye, with Jim Tully and Huckleberry Finn, with Ishmael and Thor Heyerdahl and Casanova and Rändle P. McMurphy and Johnny Appleseed and Don Quixote and Fry Pan Jack and the Cheyenne Kid and all the men and women, fictional and historical, who ran away from home and never looked back.
On the rare occasion that I mention my time on the Road, people invariably ask, “But wasn’t it dangerous?”
Yes. Extremely. If I tend to forget, I am reminded by the bullet scar on my right leg, a memento of shots fired by a town clown in Anniston, Alabama. A seam on my right eyebrow recalls a cosh slammed against my head by a yard bull (railroad cop) in Wyoming. My floating ribs are adrift from their original anchorage. A scar across the back of my hand recalls . . . odd, I can’t remember.
The population of the Road itself numbered many who were dangerous to others. There were prison escapees and excons. Lunatics were common.
One learned to keep a wary distance, to wake instantly from sleep and hit the ground running, especially if one was a “gaycat,” a young apprentice like me. Also dangerous were the jockers, men seeking “punks” among the young to whom they offered protection, often in exchange for sexual favors.
But most dangerous of all were the trains themselves. There were precise techniques for flipping a freight and for the even more hazardous move, dropping off. Thousands of Road kids were killed or injured; there are no statistics numbering those who fell beneath the wheels. One may extrapolate from the figures of one railroad alone, the Missouri Pacific, which from 1930 (the year I started jumping freights) to 1932 recorded 330 trespassers killed and 682 seriously injured.
And yet. As though “normal” danger was too tame, we Road kids sought more. Status on the Road was awarded according to which trains one had ridden. It wasn’t enough to ride and survive the red ball—express—freights, which, after all, started and stopped at conservative speeds and lumbered along at a mere 30 to 50 miles per hour. There were passenger trains, and there were crack passenger trains that offered one mere seconds to catch and no safe place to ride and which braked so sharply there was no way to drop off until they had stopped in the glare of the station lights.
On such trains there were only certain places it was possible to ride. Each spot had its virtues, each its hazards. The blind baggage, the space between a locomotive’s tender and the mail or baggage car at the head end, was a favorite. On the other hand, if the crew discovered you there, they’d think nothing of booting you off at 80 miles an hour. Riding between any other cars could be done if one were able to survive the muscle ache from clinging to a single ladder rung beside the bumpers, plus the wind that worked always to tear one loose, plus the buffeting from cinders and stones churned up by suction from the roadbed. And there were the battery boxes, usually empty, beneath some coaches. A person might crawl into one if it could be done unobserved and, if young and limber, huddle in its claustrophobic murk to ride in safety. But there was the chance of the outside latch’s being closed, deliberately or accidentally, whereupon one was privileged to die in darkness; battery boxes, like refrigerator cars, had no inside handles.
In hobo jungles one could garner fascinating information of trains even more prestigious to ride than the crack passenger flyers, the Silk Train from the West Coast for instance, carrying valuable cargo destined for New York and escorted by armed guards who were privileged to shoot on sight. I should like to claim that I rode it. I scoped it, certainly, but, having observed the gimlet-eyed men with rifles, found it too intimidating to approach. I heard claims by other ‘boes that they’d ridden the Silk Train but concluded that there were no fewer liars on the Road than in the square life.
The Meat Trains were famous. They were “contract runs,” rolling nightly at high speed from Sioux Falls to Chicago, carrying beef carcasses that had to be there by dawn. The cars that made up the “consist” were neither special nor adapted to the breakneck velocity. The Meat Train carried no empties. It made no scheduled stops. Its violence of motion made it impossible to ride the bumpers. Strictly suicide, warned the older ‘boes.
I was determined to ride it.
I am dozing on and off in a swale amid infinite Iowa corn rows, close by the crossing of two railroads. The tracks, shining by moonlight, intersect at precise right angles. I wear a beret, a light jacket, and two pairs of Frisco jeans as a cloth sandwich to guard against earlymorning chill.
In the far distance, a locomotive whistles. Instantly I’m awake and listening. One short: a train signaling that it’s about to stop. The glow of a headlight, the engine coming on at speed; yes, on the Northwestern’s tracks, precisely where it should be. Brakes scream, steel on steel, as the hogger hits the air and the train pauses just short of the junction. But it’s a pause, not a stop, and the whistle immediately sounds two long blasts, the highball, meaning “We go!” and it’s rolling again.
In the few seconds available, my eyes canvass the train in dismay. I’d expected reefers (refrigerator cars) with room for a ‘bo to ride up top where the open hatches would at least provide windbreaks or, better still, allow him to drop down into an empty ice compartment. But these aren’t reefers, they’re ordinary boxcars, and for a moment I think, “It’s the wrong train.” Then I realize: beef carcasses not iced but simply loaded in boxcars at a huge savings in cost but demanding speed, speed! if they’re to get to the packinghouse before nature renders them rotten.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.