A rainy day in Vancouver, Washington. So what else is new? In the small yard north of the main freightyard I duck-walked into the hollowed-out blackberry thicket that served as a jungle after announcing my presence beforehand. The overhanging branches were drooping lower than usual with the extra weight of the ever-present raindrops, but I made it through with only a few snags. Three other tramps were perched on upturned buckets and a small wooden spool, and greetings were exchanged.
Realizing that I arrived in the middle of an ongoing discussion, I made myself comfortable as quietly as I could while trying to get up to speed on the subject at hand. My entrance was met with smiles of acknowledgement, but the usual "Where 'ya headed?" queries were absent. I figured that whether I was headed north or south could be determined later, as a serious oration was obviously in progress.
"Tramp oration" is pretty much a lost art these days. I've witnessed many tramps make poor imitations of the "real thing", but when you here it from a pro, you will truly be moved.
The tramp who had the "floor", so to speak, had such a weathered appearance that all I could say is that he was over 50. He possessed a speaking voice that could have earned him a good living making audio tapes. The more I listened the more I wish I had gotten here earlier to bring myself up to speed on his story, but I came in at the part where he had found a dead body in a boxcar. I didn't catch what yard he was in, or where he was going, but apparently it was raining and the "onliest" ride he could find was the one open boxcar on the whole train.
After he climbed into the boxcar and allowed his eyes a chance to adjust to the gloom, he saw what looked like someone sleeping at one end. After hollering out that he would like to share this car with whoever it was lying prone against the wall and getting no response, he walked closer and noticed that there was no gear anywhere around. Figuring that the poor guy had gotten rolled for everything he had, the tramp telling the story said that he bent over to tap the guy on the shoulder to rouse him when he noticed a small pool of blood on the floor below his mouth. Beginning to get the creeps, he poked the guy a few times, and without the slightest sign of movement in response, he rolled the guy over and recoiled at the sight of a large blood stain on the front of his shirt.
At this point panic had surely set in. The train was airing up, and there was no where else for him to go. He immediately realized that to alert the police about the body would end up causing him untold problems, the least of which would be to surely miss this train. His next thought was to drag the body to the door and dump it out on the ground, but the chance of a yard worker seeing it before his train left made him forget completely about that possibility. The next thought was that when the train got up to speed and was far away from town he would dump it out the door. Relaxing now that he had a plan that seemed reasonable, he settled down in the opposite corner to wait for the train to leave.
At this point the President could not have had a more rapt audience. I wanted desperately to bring out a bottle of White Port but it was not the right time. The tramp continued — as luck would have it, as the train left town there was a highway paralleling the tracks on the side of the open door, and the traffic prevented him from even making his presence known, lest a cop stop the train because of a "hobo riding a boxcar" and discover his pronate riding partner.
The sound of approaching engines cut the dialog short, as four pairs of ears strained to make out if it was road power or just a switch engine. Almost as one we all realized that it was road power coming up to head down to the main yard for their train, and regrettably the fascinating story of the dead body was forgotten as everyone scurried around gathering their gear, putting out the fire, taking last minute leaks, and looking around for any forgotten items. Since I never had time to "unpack" I was the first one to leave the jungle and walk out to see where the power had gone. It was an easy "read" — there were only three strings of cars in the yard. One had what I was to learn when I got closer just 20 or 30 loaded grain hoppers, while the other two looked to have the ordinary mix of freight cars, but neither string had a caboose on our end. We divided up and walked along both strings looking for rides, all the while glancing under the cars to keep abreast of the other tramps so not to get spread too far apart.
Someone yelled "Stop, I got one" and the rest climbed across couplers to rendezvous at the possible ride. It was a nice clean boxcar with both doors open, and we pondered if there was time to look for another ride before the train aired up, but we quickly realized that we weren't going to find a better car to ride in as the rain picked up and one by one we piled into our new home. Since I was the odd man out I took the windy end, but as soon as I brought out the first bottle of wine we became a group, and enjoyed the feeling of knowing that wherever we were headed, we had a good ride to get there in. It ended up that they were headed down to California as I was... them to re-up on Food Stamps in Marysville and me to go home in Sonoma County.
Halfway through the first bottle we felt a bump telling us that the caboose had arrived, and not too long afterward the brakes released and we pulled down to the south end where we turned east along the Columbia River and into the Gorge. With the scenery on the "inland" side of the train nothing but blurry trees rushing past, we all enjoyed the big-screen TV that the open doors on the river side offered. We stayed awake for a few hours until we got to Wishram to make sure that this was indeed the "California Man", and when we stopped at the drawbridge and I looked up toward the head end and saw the engines pointed toward the river we knew it was the right train, and everyone dispersed to set up their sleeping arrangements. As I finished off the wine and laid back down my only regret was not being able to hear the rest of the "dead body in the boxcar" story. As it often is with tramp oration, it's the story that counts, and a beginning or ending is merely icing on the cake.
The topics of tramp oration can probably be traced back to whatever books or magazines were available at whatever thrift store was closest to the freightyard. There was a thrift store in Klamath Falls that always had a large selection of both National Geographic and Reader's Digests. Any place where tramps hung out in or near the yard would usually have well-read copies of these magazines. A peculiarity of many of the Reader's Digests that I came across were having pages about food and recipes torn out, which made up a surprisingly large percentage of the advertising. I guess if you're sitting in a jungle in the rain with only a can of cold beans to eat you don't want to see pictures of happy people inside of warm homes eating turkey dinners. Even without the food pages, there was a lot of reading in any issue — I remember being so bored waiting for a train that I even read all of the fine print describing the side effects of the numerous over-the-counter drugs that were advertised.
Even the lowly comic book was used successfully to wile away the time on train trips. In the 70's I remember going on a train trip with a few friends up to Castle Crags State Park, in Northern California. At the last minute they said that they would like to bring along a "friend", who I was to learn had never rode trains before. I admonished them that they were to be his sole mentors, as I didn't look forward to babysitting anyone. This was agreed to, and subsequently I was to learn also that this was to be his first backpacking trip, since once we got to Dunsmuir we planned to go hiking for a few days. As my doubts increased I was repeatedly assured that the "friend" would not be a burden and we all drove over to Roseville to catch a train north.
Apparently some miracle must have occurred catching out because I don't have any memories of the trip until we got to Dunsmuir and walked the 4 miles or so back to the Crags. Getting there after dark, we snuck into a campsite to sleep, with the plan being to get a very early start so we wouldn't be around when the Ranger made their rounds to collect the camping fees in the morning. As we re-arranged our gear on the convenient picnic table, I was astonished to see that the "friend", who looked to be of junior high school age, brought along a number of comic books. This is where I realized just how big his pack was, compared to mine. As he dug around inside, I was even more astonished to see that his mother (I assumed) had sealed a clean pair of underpants in its own plastic bag, with the day of the week for each one boldly printed with a marker pen. I had heard about this practice in some long distant movie, but this was the first time I was exposed to it in practice.
My first reaction was to vigorously chastise the kid, but so far on the trip he had pulled [carried] his own weight and, as I thought more and more about it, if he had to live with a mother like that then he certainly didn't need any more problems coming from me. We all had a decent sleep and miraculously managed to get up and get on our way shortly after sunrise. We hiked for a few hours and stopped to set up a base camp mid-morning on what was quickly becoming a hot day. Between the four of us we came up with enough tarp material and cord to set up a large lean-to, creating a refuge of shade big enough for everyone. While the "friend" walked away to find a suitable place to poop, my companions and I quickly realized the downside to our lean-to — it was positioned directly over a large colony of tiny ants we called piss-ants, who had the incredibly annoying quality of emitting an extremely foul smell if you so much as made contact with one.
Unfortunately, this was discovered after we had each smacked several ants off of our clothes and bodies, leaving the foul smell to permeate our shelter. Pouring water on the spot where we came into contact with the ants did little to diminish the smell, and we resorted to rubbing dirt on the affected area which actually seemed to help. With an official "hands off" policy issued toward any ant contact, we quickly dismantled the lean-to and moved it over several feet to a spot that was examined beforehand for ants with extreme diligence. The lean-to was rebuilt and we settled down to languish in the shade and enjoy a luke-warm bottle of Hearty Burgundy.
Soon the "friend" returned from his bathroom break and stopped suddenly as he approached us. He was motionless and expressionless for several seconds, forcing us to turn our heads and look around to see if some wild animal had us in its sights. We returned to look at him, and then realized that when he had left the lean-to was in one place, and when he returned it was in another. This provoked intense laughter from us as we were just feeling the effects of the wine, and we were laughing so hard that nobody could stop long enough to tell the "friend" that we had moved the lean-to and he was not losing his mind. Now that we all [well, three of us anyway] had a good buzz on, we hatched a practical joke that, like most practical jokes, shouldn't have been put in play to begin with. We told the "friend" that while he was away pooping we came up with a game to pass the time. The play was to see how many ants you could squash using only your fingers in 60 seconds.
He was initially reluctant due to a fear of getting bitten, but we assured him that, due to their small size, the ants couldn't open their mouths wide enough to cause any pain in something as large as a human finger. Goaded on, he agreed, and I ceremoniously held my arm up to stare at my watch. Saying "Go!", I tried not to chuckle when he started furiously poking at any and every ant in reach. In a matter of seconds I and my friends who were not participating burst into a fit of laughter. Through tear-filled eyes I watched as the kid took out all of whatever pent-up vengeance he might have had on the ants, until one of the group who were laughing like crazy managed to straighten up long enough to convince the "friend" that it was all a joke, and he should immediately stop.
After everyone calmed down enough to talk, we told him to smell his fingers, which brought out peals of laughter from three of us and the most "unpleasant" expression I had ever seen from the fourth. When all was said and done he was such a good sport that we concluded that his "initiation" was hereby complete, and he was now officially a member of the train riding and backpacking fraternity. I then reached into my pack and produced the pièce de résistance, a half-gallon jug of good ol' Hearty Burgundy, something I brought along for just such an occasion. My joy was two-fold — we had enough wine to have a great party, and I didn't have to lug the 5 pound bottle of wine around anymore.