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The Low Spark of Haiku

 

During my junior year in high school I had the hots for a particular girl who happened to live near some train tracks that provided transportation for me to a part time job I had in Southern California. Getting into her pants became my primary focus both during and after school, but one obstacle I came up against was her "developmentally challenged" brother, Dennis, who was similar to the character Warren in "There's Something About Mary". I'm not sure just what the exact name was for his malady, but he was unable to attend a public school, and as far as I knew, never had any sort of home schooling either. He had difficulty speaking, alright, but whatever conversational skills he lacked were more than made up for by his amazing level of motor skills. I can't remember a time when he wasn't racing around the house and yard with his favorite toy, Nicholas Ridiculus. Once upon a time it was probably a stuffed rabbit, but he continuously used it as part battering ram and part hammer, which had reduced its external features to such a degree that unless you caught Dennis in a rare moment of being "still", you'd have a hard time guessing what he was swinging around at everything within reach. Their house was well prepared for the beatings doled out by Dennis and Nicholas Ridiculus - lamps were screwed down to tables, pictures were screwed to the walls, furniture was screwed to the floor... about the only thing that wasn't getting screwed was me, because every time I would stop by to court Dennis's sister, he was an integral part of our afternoon, running from room to room, uttering words that only he could understand, and giving us absolutely no privacy at all.

While the relationship between his sister and I seemed to be on permanent hold, the relationship between Dennis and I reached a "peak", as it were, one day as I pulled into their driveway in my canary yellow '56 Chevy in the hopes of spiriting away his sister for a ride. For some unknown reason, Dennis had momentarily dropped Nicholas Ridiculus during one of his banzai runs around the yard, and, as luck would have it, I inadvertently parked on top of it when I drove up. Hearing my car, Dennis raced back out to greet me, but then the inevitable happened as his gaze fell upon the pronate form of dear Nicholas Ridiculus. Since I was still sitting in the driver's seat I had no idea what he was staring at near my right front wheel, but in the next second his face twisted into, well... a twisted face, and he started screaming, beating, and kicking my front fender, the same front fender that was the recent recipient of several coats of laboriously applied wax.

My patience with Dennis had now evaporated and I jumped out of the car and ran around to his side to apply a similar beating upon his body, but he whirled around and made for the house in a impressive burst of speed, even for someone whose entire life seemed dependent upon speeding everywhere he went. Although, given enough time and distance, I felt certain of catching him, his intimate knowledge of the fastest way to negotiate every room of the house gave him an early edge, and following his blurred form gave me a false sense of just how fast I, unaccustomed to anything above a leisurely walk, could take the corners in my pursuit. I met my match entering the dining room, only a scant 10 feet or so behind the screaming banshee that had possessed Dennis's person. The rug covering the hardwood floor was probably the only object in the house that wasn't screwed down to something, and as I set up for the 90 degree right-hand dogleg that led from the dining room to the hallway, everything seemed to go into slow motion.

Details of the "event", scant as they were at the time, tend to resurface as the years go by, but the salient facts remain these: after having downed a "few" beers prior to arriving at my destination (supposedly to bolster my confidence at asking Dennis's sister "out" on a date), my bladder, at the exact moment that my head collided with the door frame leading into their hallway, was filled to it's fullest potential, and as I slipped into the delicious world of unconsciousness, the inevitable happened.

A more exquisite release was never imagined! Anyone who has been knocked out (with a full bladder) knows of what I speak. A cascading warmth enveloped my person and propelled me into realms of undersea ecstasy not to be enjoyed again. Suffice to say, that when I awoke I found that I had "pissed in me britches!" This did wonders for my chances of an afternoon of animalistic sex with Dennis's sister, but fortunately I was too groggy to realize the consequences at the moment. It seems that I somehow bid everyone farewell and was able to drive home, but what, exactly, was the connection between my yearnings for Dennis's sister and trains? Yes, trains were the key! If I had not got into the habit of hopping the Santa Fe local on the San Jacinto Branch to save gas getting to (and fro) from my humble "job" I never would have had the opportunity to meet "her" and her unique brother, and another chapter in my life would be as blank as the next. Trains seemed to be involved in every important "milestone" I approached.

Years later I had ridden up to Eugene from Dunsmuir - perfect trip, great weather, nice smooth-riding wooden-floored boxcar. The crew change in Klamath was on the main and over in 10 minutes. Even my wait in Dunsmuir had been pleasant - kicked back in the jungle long enough to enjoy a pre-chilled bottle of White Port, then the sound of an approaching northbound, a short walk to one of several open boxcars, and minutes later we were on the move. Life became different. The entire Universe was just me an' my train. A beautiful morning drifting up-canyon from Dunsmuir with both doors open. Flying around Mount Shasta on rails that seemed like they were made for the Monorail ride at Disneyland. The western horizon became my focus as we slid down the "wet" side of the Cascades at sunset and I bailed off at a comfortable clip next to the 66 Motel in downtown Eugene, where I had reserved a room for the next two nights.

Enjoying the seldom-enjoyed feeling of "sleeping in", noon arrived before I was ready. The nearby IHOP became a breakfast/lunch paradise. Gorging myself on sausages, bacon, and whatever "sinful" foods I could think of, I wallowed away to check out the bookstores, new and used, as well as any thrift store that came across my urban routefinding. Living in the "country" had long dissolved the attachment to "retail stores", but I was in heaven to walk into spaces with thousands of books and magazines, whether current or tied to some distant past. There was even an entire store devoted to "travel accessories" - stuff that people who "travel" must have. Little pillows to use when you want to sleep on some plane ride to Zanzibar, "personal hydration systems" where a simple bottle of water would surely do. And the deli at Fred Meyers - how many kinds of cheeses do we really need, anyway?

That night I went to bed early, yearning for a day to come that would free me from the rigors of urban living and transport me back into the fast, smooth, carefree travel upon a freight train, as I had known only days before.

That was not to be.

Taking the city bus out to the freightyard beat the heck out of doing the 2½ mile walk with my wine-laden pack. Almost feeling embarrassed for the ease in which I went from town to yard, I quickly settled into the stupor of "waiting for a train". There's nothing like sitting under a bridge on a piece of cardboard, surrounded by piles of "Soylent Brown", to put you exactly in whatever "place" you belong in. My "urban vacation" had indeed ended, and instead of being the King of the Sidewalk, I was now the Troll under the Bridge. Once you surrender yourself to the trains, all sorts of changes take place. Time, for one, means nothing. Even our remembrances, however primeval, of sunlight beginning our waking day and darkness ending it were lost. The railroads ran 24 hours a day, and so did the tramps. Longing briefly for my soft motel bed and the associated cable TV, not to mention the 10 steps to the bathroom, I had to force myself back into the train thing, even though none of the strings of cars sitting in the yard below me qualified as a train yet.

Sometime during the evening's slumber I heard, then saw, a string of units backing down into the departure yard. As if shot out of a canon, I ran up to the top of the overpass and walked out over the yard to see which string of cars the power was going to connect to. The second track over - crap! It had to be the shortest string of cars in the entire yard, but that also meant that he might double over to pick up another string before he left. Four units and maybe 20 cars - he had to double before he left. However, since I couldn't see if the end of the string had a FRED on yet, there was the slight possibility that he could leave town with just the cars he had, and I'd better get down there and make sure I was on whatever left town.

Nothing to ride but loaded lumber - rats! Well, at least it wasn't raining, but since it was now dark enough that the sky was totally black, there was no way to be sure that it wouldn't rain later, up in the Cascades, which it did.

In a matter of minutes after I managed to secret myself into a cramped back-of-a-bulkhead, the train oozed forward, slowly to the point where the yard tracks joined the mainline, then, as I had suspected earlier, jammed to a stop and backed up to almost the exact spot I had climbed aboard an hour ago, only now on the adjacent track.

Since I hadn't allowed myself the pleasure of "rolling out" yet, I quickly jumped off my miniscule lodgings and walked along the string behind me that we had coupled to, hoping to find a better ride. If I had known the "plan" ahead of time, the footwork would have been much less of a pain and I might even be asleep by now. Later I learned that it was in my advantage to not be asleep, because at the very moment I reached what was to be the only open boxcar on the train, the air was suddenly dropped.

At this point, near the end of my proverbial "rope", I had what is often referred to as a "moment of clarity". Worries and doubts were ridden and calm prevailed - I almost had to stop and look around behind me to see if there was a movie crew filming my predicament who would surely yell "Cut!" and everything would return to normal. Here I was in my domain of trains and everything else and I felt as if I wasn't in control. I shouldn't even "be" here if I wasn't in control, right? Humbled to the bone, I moved on down the string of cars, found a good ride, and had an epic sleep over the Cascades and down to Dunsmuir. The whole idea of being in your "element" was paramount in my thoughts all the way back home. Why do something (anything!) that you felt was either beyond your capabilities or that preyed upon a weakness? Train riding defies many of the parameters that we use to gauge what we "can" and "cannot" do. We think that we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, but on a train (or in a yard) that person is left at home and another "person" emerges. A second chance at life? For a moment it seems so...