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On the Rail Again - part 1

The Drifters Express: 4000 km through the "hobo jungle"
by Jan Hertoghs for Humo magazine

 

The United Airlines plane lifts us over the ocean, still a wonder of technique, but moreover the crew is turning out the lights and preparing a film for us at 30,000 feet! And they had the choice of a thousand other movies, but on this particular day and flight they're showing a movie where the plot centers around an American freight train. John Travolta is the 'action man' who has to secure a nuclear time bomb from exploding on the train thus blowing up the rest of the States. And sure they want to shoot him down the roof, and sure he'll fall through the open doors, and sure he'll be able to grab a sideladder, and sure he'll survive hanging from the train his balls singeing next to the murdering wheels. And (swallow!), it's these freight trains that we are after. God of the sideladders, have mercy on us! - Departure point is Eugene, university-town of Oregon. Late Friday night, the streets are empty because all students seem to have left the place. And in that empty city we suddenly hear The Train - its sound is just what's called for in those deserted streets, with the long lonesome whine and the din din din of the crossings where no-one is waiting at this hour. And three streets further we see him fueling into the station with the white glare of the headlight and a bell on the engine as recalling the time when they still put trees and Indians on the tracks. And together with Stephan I stand next to the train, as to match him, as to measure how much more immense he is than we are. The engine speeds up again,we run along, we touch a sideladder and in our thought we venture a jump in the boxcar, and at the same time we think: how would it go with a ten kilo backpack on our back? And that night I didn't get much sleep at the motel, because all night trains are passing through Eugene, and how their whistling is challenging us: come on! come on! catch us if you can! In the morning North Bank Fred knocks at the door. He will be our guide and mentor for the next few days. Fred (48) is not a hobo - he has a job as a construction worker - but for twenty years he has this trainriding thing in his blood. ("Every two weeks I have to hop a train, if not I get completely unresty and unmanageable.") Every two weeks Fred hops on a Dunsmuir freight for Klamath Falls, and after a five hour back and fourth ride through the mountains and the woods, he has his peace of mind again. Fred shows 'the Oregonian'. on page two there's a column saying: ONE DEAD AND ONE HEAVILY WOUNDED AfTER FALL FROM TRAIN. Two bodies were found on the railroad line between Washougal and Stevenson; the local sheriff presumes they were transients fallen off or pushed from the train driving with a 55-60 mph. It further states that trainriding is illegal with a maximum fine of one year custody. With Fred we check our equipment. He asked to bring worn out jeans and jackets, we had to look like tramps-among-tramps instead of 'fuckin' mountain trekking professionals'. The backpack should not have a metal frame ('you'll have to throw that thing from a train now and then') and backpack, clothes and sleeping gear should have no bright colors as not to attract the bulls. Furthermore: heavy duty shoes with a heel and non-skid soles (for not gliding off the ladders), leather gloves (to have a firm grip when climbing), a nylon poncho to protect body and equipment against the rain, earplugs against the deafening noise, and a big bottle with water because it could be damned hot in a wagon that stands for hours in the sun. We buy some more fruit juice, vitamins, bread and cheese and then we leave for the Eugene yard.

 

FULL STOP
On arrival we see four SP trains that sit waiting, but which one to catch? An uncertainty that will stay with us for the coming weeks, because in a switching yard there is nothing that says where the trains are headed for, there are no timetables, there are just twenty tracks with strings of train on it. Do they head south or north? What time do they leave? At four, at five or the next morning? And there are no tunnels to go from one track to another, you simply clamber over the couplings to get from one train to the next. Fred climbs on the iron grip above the buffers and shows us where to put firmly our feet and hands when passing the couplings ("Every second you can get thrown off if you don't have a strong hold! You have to be prepared that such a train gets a real shaking when they attach another string of cars to its tail end.") We climb over two trains to track number three and that train is about to leave, his engines pointing south. Fred has no time to ask a brakie if the train is really going to K-Falls, we'll just go for it, according to Fred 'it's a load that looks like going to K-Falls'. The enigineer is pumping air in the brakes, the shoes are coming off the weels, and there are few minutes left to find an open boxcar. Fred doesn't want to loose more time and after a quick pee against the weels ("sorry, but i have to use the restroom for a moment!), he crawls into an open gondola, the kind of dent iron wagon used for loading coal or metal or scrap. One by one we climb into this rust-brown bin, and jeezes, I had some better idea of my first voyage than being stowed away on this floor covered with stone chippings and white dust. Jerking and shuddering the train moves out and because it is still daylight Fred gesticulates that we duck our heads for the first ten minutes. Once out of town, the bulls can no longer see us, and we peer our heads above the gondola. Ah, the wind in our hair, the sun on our face, the buzzards in the open blue sky and festive yellow broom between the rocks.This is it! Fred conjures a bottle of white port from his pack, we hold it -cheers!- to our dry mouths and everywhere crossing barriers are tumbling down and signals changes to green and there is a waving from the motorists on the highway and above all the noise, I sing "Go Johnnie Go!" and then -after less than an hour- the train is going into the hole, no problem, says Fred, just let some other train pass by. But then something happens that has only happened three times in twenty years to our guide: pchewww! With a crack the air explodes out of the braking line and... the three engines drive away from our train! They leave us alone! Hey! You can't leave us like that! But the sonofabitch drives away and yes sir, five minutes ago we stood cheering and dancing in our gondola and now we stand still, fuckin' full stop! No other way round than to climb down. Lucky enough it's not the middle of nowhere. There is a lake stretching out in the sun and there is a road and there is Joe's Truckstop with huge freezers containing beer and soft drinks behind its clapping doors.

 

TRAMP ROYAL
The train seemingly had a fourth stowaway on board. Fred knows who he is: "Hey, Tall man!" Tall Man is the archetype of the older hobo; on first sight he looks like all homeless people - wrinkle face, stubble beard, and greasy black edge nails- but the traces of the train are unmistakeable: soot on trousers and shoes. Rather than lugging a string of plastic garbage bags behind him, he carries only a bedroll, a bundle consisting of a sleeping bag and a sheet of tarpaulin, carried with a rope around the shoulders. He's proof that a hobo isn't a tramp who huddles in doorways, but a nomad who's ready to pack and leave at any minute's notice. Tall Man lights a fag with them brown fingers that look as if they grew together with them stems of tobacco, and he swears that he is one of the most famous tramps in the US:" Name any fuckin' railroad in the US and I fuckin' hopped it," he says. Even more, the railroads in Africa, Australia, Europe, he hopped them all. But do not think he's a beggar and a bum, oh no, Tall Man can work for his living, he can fix roofs and cars and he used to work for the Air Force, Tall Man was an intelligence officer, Tall Man took top secret pictures in Vietnam and Nicaragua, "and UFOs. I once photograhed ten of them, but damn the film was taken out of my camera." And so he goes on oracling, the Mister Wanderlust with the lighty eyes, the Tramp Royal that lived on the rails for 21 years ('and nine months'). 9:30 pm is bedtime, and the four of us embark in an empty boxcar, we enroll our sleeping bags and we listen to the silence of a frog that croaks near the lake. Then, after an hour, we hear a slight whizzing in the night, a singing and soughing in the rails, and we hear it is a train approaching, the soughing grows into a growling and a thundering, and then it's rounding the bend, howling and whistling, the huge white glare of the headlight shoots through the boxcar and I think: he 's gonna fly straight into our car, he's gonna ram our wagon out of the string, beng, down the line and over the shoulder and into the lake, and it is noise to the fifth power, the whole boxcar is filled, brimmed with noise, screetching iron on iron, more whistling, and rattling, ten, twenty, eighty, ninety boxcars that go clattering past, wham! wham!, and then it's gone and the noise is drifting off, like a thunderstorm that came very close. And all is quiet again and it's midnight and I stand in the open door for a pee on the rails that shine in the moonlit night, and yeah, what a fantastic feeling standing here, watering under zillions of stars, breathing the cool breeze from the pines and seeing the cafe a hundred yards away where Coors and Budweiser keep writing their names in neonlight, all night long.

 

BOXCAR SWING
Sunday Morning 7am and Tall Man sits on the rails brewing a cup of coffee, heating water in a Coke can over a red flare ('got it out the alarm kit of a SP engineer'). When the flare is out, the water is hot and he pours it into a cup of instant coffee. He also explains how one can cook water in a brown paper bag. First you fill the bag with water and then you roll the top of it into a handle. Then you hold the bag about ten inches above a fire and you wait til it cooks. The bag does not burn because it is too wet and it doesn't rip apart because it is too strong. When the water is hot, you cut a slice in the bottom so you can pour the hot water. Blimey, this old hobo has discovered the hot water! Fred found out that the string of cars could stay there for two days and we decide to hitchhike to Eugene again trying a second catch out. Tall Man stays with the train: I go where the train goes. To make a long story short, it took us 5 hours to get back to the Eugene yard where the message is firm: "no train to K-Falls within the next seven hours". Shit happens, says Fred, and we go for a hiding place to be out of sight of the control tower. When we crawl under a railway bridge, a three feet viper sits in the grass -and this is the biology class, guys- we watch the stock-still animal for more than a minute and -um- it really is a SNAKE, but Fred assures us, it cannot bite through our thick socks. And Fred will teach us some more. He draws little maps from the yards that we will pass through, pointing with circles and xxx where we have to catch out, where we best hide, where the tramp jungle is, where the control towers are, and if the yard has a mellow or a hot bull. Just after dark we reenter the yard and he gives us a crash course in hopping into boxcars. Fred stands in front of a shunted out boxcar, grabs the loose latch handle on the side of the door and lifts his left foot onto the boxcar floor with a wide swing. Then, still hanging from the latch, he pulls his other leg and the rest of his body inside. After two trials we're able to perform this swing, but when Fred swings himself up with a 24 pound backpack, we cannot put up with it cause of our wooden legs and paper muscles. "If you want to throw your luggage in and not leaving without you, you better be quick jumping after it," warns Fred.

 

RUST REST
Around midnight a train comes in on track six heading for K-Falls. Before we cross the tracks, Fred issues a warning on the midnight creeps, the wagons that come creeping after they have been humped ("sometimes with a speed of one mph, but even then you are as flat as a pancake if you get under them fifty ton wheels") and so we watch right and left before we cross. We cross eight tracks and run about 500 yards along our train. But because there is no empty, Fred decides to embark another gondola. Up until mid '96 a gondola was a romantic little vessel in Venice, but I lost that idyllic notion after this gondola that is even more dirty than the first one.The floor isn't covered with stones and dust this time, but with scrap and rust of all kinds, keys, screws,hinges, cable ends, laths, springs and iron slags. Is Fred gone mad? No, Fred is gone doing some interior design to make a sleeping place. From another train he hauls two square metres of cardboard with a plastic fleece. the cardboard is used as a floor carpet upon the scrap, the fleece is to keep our bedding warm and dry during the cold night coming up now. Just after midnight the train leaves with some slow grinding through a bunch of switches and sidetracks and this time we're gone, for good. Fred hands out the earplugs against the noise and then we crawl into our sleeping bags with our clothes on. We agreed before that we'd be doing it this way -'the hard way' , but how Fred and Stephan are nonetheless able to sleep -while all them cold night winds are hovering over us amidst the roar of 80 cars- that is a mystery to me. I pulled a woollen cap and the cap of my jacket deep over my eyes 'n ears and covered my face with a small poncho to protect it from the swirling rust and the dripping condense water in the tunnels, but this cannot make me go to sleep. Only when the train slows his pace to climb the Cascade Mountains and the noise is lowering, I feel I'm dozing in and the last thing I see are the silhouettes of the towering pines, hanging over our gondola like old grannies over a cradle, and they nod: the kid finally fell asleep.

 

SIDETRACK-KILLER
5:45 am I wake up and the first thing I see, is not the clear bright day but the rusty remains in our wagon, GOOD MORNING Scrapyard Hotel! The 50 degrees we had during the night have now fallen to a mere 35 degrees and on the shoulder we see patches of snow leftover from last winter. We have breakfast with an airplane flask of Absolut Vodka, a piece of cheddar and a malt bread that Fred found yesterday - still fresh but with traces of mouseteeth!

At 8:30 am the train arrives in K-Falls, a lumber town near a big lake. Fred points to a freeway bridge full of tags. One tag stands for murder, it's the one from Sidetrack. Sidetrack was the much feared tramp-killer. According to Fred he killed 16 tramps in some years time, and he only got arrested in California last month.

A Cherokee Jeep drives by, it's Roger, the bull from K-Falls. Fred knows Roger and he likes to introduce us to the man, but Roger's reaction is rather cool; he just asks for our ID and notes everything down in a little notepad." You have to understand this," he says, "last week a girl from K-Falls was raped in the yard and we're still looking for the culprit." And the month before a tramp was stabbed to death in Santa Monica and the month before two more deaths in Texas, you have to be careful now. And if we haven't seen the man on this robot picture, a Charles Black who multiply stabbed a tramp with a buck knife. I look at the xeroxed man with the whiskers and the mean moustache, and the Hobo Picture suddenly looks less romantic.

 

RAILHIPPIE
We buy ourselves a good breakfast in 'Gino's Market', a full blown grocery with a four table snack bar, and if you ask us, the best place in Oregon. The eggs come rolling from the chicken in the frying pan, the people are nice for all the human wreckage arriving ("Had a cold night in the boxcar, guys?"), and the only thing you hear grumbling you hear comes from the coffee machine.

At noon Fred climbs into his 'gondola California' where three other passengers have taken our places. One of them is a hippie of the Nineties. Back-to-front baseball cap, flashy blue sun glasses, two bent silver forks round the wrist as a bracelet, a puppie that wiggles his tail against his jeans, a Rock FM-transistor in his hand and meanwhile filliping by that freight as if it were a jukebox. Hey you guys, whereyou from? Europe? Wow man! Nice to meet you! His moniker is Skillet, Skillet Fried Southern Rider. Skillet is 34 and he pretends that nothing equals trainriding: "I hitchhiked for a year through the States, I lived for a year in the city, I lived for a year in the mountains, but this is my home, man!" Skillet says he's making an easy 3000 miles a month, summer and winter. "Winter, man! Ten inches of snow, man! The moon ! The stars! The train that highballs through the cold and I am on that train, man, I'm on it".

Skillet collects food stamps and he travels from one state to another to cash them. While Fred and the two other passengers get seated in the gondola, Skillet sits on the edge of the gondola like a cowboy on his horse. The train leaves with a jerk, he stays in his saddle:"This is the life, man! There's nothing like it! You gotta ride'em! Ride em high!"

 

DEATH IN THE BOXCAR
On a northbound train we meet Bob (a white man) and Tom (a black man looking like an 'uncle Tom') and who mutters yeahyeah in his doze every time Bob finishes a phrase. Bob says that the hobo life has grown much harder the last five years:" Thirty years ago you hear engineers say that it brought them luck if they had a hobo on the train, now they sometimes give you the finger, fuck you, and they speed up when you come running. They have seen too much: drunken old geezers who tumble under the weels, youngsters on drugs who force open the boxcars along the way. In the old days a hobo would give his last cigarette to a man who had nothing, nowadays he must fear they gonna bash his head for that last fag." Bob is about the only one who is still using the old (and gentle) word hobo. It would date back from the 1890's when poor city folk would leave town to work on the country (the boys with the hoe). Most older men call themselves tramps nowadays, and the younger name themselves trainriders. Name it like you wish, says Bob, as long as you don't call us bums. A bum bums on his ass on the streets, a bum bums cigarettes, bums nickel, bums cans. A hobo/tramp/trainrider does not bum, sometimes looks for work but never sits on his ass! "Everyone of us is restless, we all have the I-have-to-go-mentality". Bob repeats we have to be careful: "I never used to carry a weapon, but now I always have a club handy. It started the night I saw this guy with a bottle standing over me. Before he could hit me I socked him with an iron bar -wham, half his skull gone.As dead as a doornail. In the first station I went to call the cops. I've beaten someone to death, I said. They put me in jail for six days, but the judge released me. It was self-defense, but that bastard keeps on appearing in my dreams. Since then I no longer allow 'strangers' into my boxcar. Believe me, guys, do the same; don't let any one in that you don't know. A real hobo will respect and look for another car. -And if he doesn't? Then you have to keep him at bay, booth the teeth out of his mouth. I know that it sounds rude and cruel, but this is a cruel world guys. The hobo jungle can be a real jungle." Fred had a similar advice:" Never be too friendly when you encounter someone, because this friendliness is considered as the uncertainty of the beginner. And that might bring people on some 'ideas'." Bob says we have to take care of the homeguards and the streamliners. Homeguards are tramps that hang about in the same city all the time "sometimes to rob other tramps". Streamliners are men that travel with no luggage: "what they'll need, they'll take it from guys like you!" But he hopes we'll enjoy our trip: "You'll have to enjoy it now because within 5 years there will be so much crime and so much police, that there simply will be no hoboes anymore."

 

ROBBERS AND RUNAWAYS
In the morning he had not much time, but around five o'clock he accepted to meet us. Roger Bryant has a reputation. All tramps we meet, say he is the best bull in the US." No wonder, Roger tolerates the (illegal) trainhopping on condition no one is getting on piggybacks or on the helper units. Roger, with a star on the cleancut shirt, has the sharp looks of all them honest sheriffs that played a part in all those decent tv-series with dogs like Lassie and The littlest hobo (broadcasted in Belgium in 66-67!). He's neither the wisecrack nor the one liner guy , law enforcement is not for joking. Accourding to his estimates, about 30,000 tramps pass K-Falls every year, mostly in summertime. The oldest one died two years ago (an old geezer of ninety!) and yesterday he saw a grandpa of 78. The youngest was a twelve year old, a black runaway kid that came all the way from LA, some 800 miles away. He thinks there are coming more women and more youngsters on the rails. "They lost their job, they see no more future and they start to drift. "Last year he arrested a mother with two kids, tweleve and eleven. After the divorce the man got the children, but the mother ran away with both kids,all the way from the east coast, some 3,000 miles. Only 5% of the customers cause him trouble, but the troubles are growing. You have the old tramps that drink and fall asleep and tumble under the wheels. "Booze is a major problem", says Roger. "Last year a tramp arrived dead in his sleeping bag. He came over the Cascades, he had been drinking wine so he wouldn't feel the cold, but what he wasn't feeling was that he was freezing to death." But most trouble he gets from the youngsters, the 15-16 year olds, the runaways. They show no respect, they use drugs and they are completely out of control. He also keeps a close watch for the Mexicans: "Most go for the apple harvest in Washington, but among them are yegs that ride from town to town to break into cars." And do we know the FTRA? These are little gangs of 5-6 members that ride the rails to kick people off and take their posessions. They have been quiet since some time, says Roger, but he estimates their numbers up to a thousand."And you can recognize them at their red or blue bandana with a silver or golden clip." And what about Sidetrack? I've seen him a hundred times, replies Roger. "He came to collect food stamps. There must have been numbers of tramps that travelled with him without being killed. But after all he murdered 19 people in ten years time, and 16 killings were tramps. I don't think he was a murderer for lust. He just did it to take their food stamps." Roger returns to his tracks, he's expecting a piggyback train heading for LA and he will have to pick some passengers from the train. There are four and it wasn't hard to find them, they all sat behind the truck wheels at the lew side. To our amazement one tramp disembarks with a mountainbike! Roger notes their ID's and nobody is pissed off: "Glad to meet you, Roger! We heard so much about you, Roger! You can put us in the can, Roger!" Roger drives away and the guys' attention has switched our way, their voice smeared with port wine: Wow you are from Belgium! Hey, you got hash. I know you got hash because you come from Amsterdam!" And then he suddenly sees the light: "Hey, these guys have come by plane, these guys have money, these guys have a papa and a mama with money, these guys have a house full of money." And we try to pass off the matter with a joken with two, three jokes, but they're hooked at our money, and so we knock off. With no good feelings: we made the beginners fault, being too friendly instead of rude and big-mouthed. It's an attitued we hardly adapt: being rude to the have nots while we have money and a plane ticket in our bag."

 

Part 2