Some Things Are Interesting

and some aren't

Waiting for a train in a freightyard, often for hours, and never really knowing when you're going to leave can be very relaxing. Consider the alternatives when I've had the unfortunate experience of being in a bus station waiting for a bus, even though I knew exactly when it was supposed to leave still left me with the unsettling feeling that I might get seated next to a psychopath, a "talker", a fat woman, or, God forbid, a child. Airports aren't much different. The seats are uncomfortable, you can never understand what the person is saying over the loudspeakers, you can't really take a nap without worrying about someone making off with your carry-on, and the previously mentioned fears of being seated next to a psychopath, etc.

Hanging around in a freightyard, on the other hand, has many features not available in more "accepted" forms of transportation. Let's see... you don't have to pay for gas like you would if you were driving somewhere. Nor is there any "wear and tear" on your vehicle, cuz you're not using it. Unlike airports, you don't have to arrive 45 minutes early. You can go to the bathroom just about anywhere you want, and don't have to worry about peeing in a urinal with two guys on either side of you trying to engage you in conversation, or pooping in a stall with a large "glory hole" in each wall, not to mention a seat that's not exactly "clean", if you know what I mean.

Usually if you see something at a bus station or airport you can pretty much figure out what it does, right? Vending machines, telephones, etc. But in a freightyard you can just about always find something that causes you to stop and say "What in the fuck is this?" When was the last time you said that in a bus station or airport? Crap, I found something in a freightyard years ago and I still don't know what the heck it was...

The down side to spending hours in a yard waiting for a train is just figuring out what to do, unless of course you drank too much and passed out, or managed somehow to go to sleep. My brief stint [why is time spent in the military called a stint?] in the Army prepared me for a life of trying to look like you're doing something when you actually are not. There were times when my buddies and I would ditch some detail and walk off into the woods at Fort Ord to just hang out for hours between meals.

I was removed from my unit because of my insistence on being treated as a conscientious objector, as if there were other kinds of objectors. I was put in a holding group of schmucks that were awaiting discharges for some reason or another, mostly either physical or mental again like there were other kinds of reasons. The military has a legendary affinity for making mountains out of molehills, mostly in the way they name things. For example, instead of saying "shovel" they say "entrenching tool, personal". Who came up with that shit anyway? As long as we hung out in the woods we remained invisible to those that would get their panties in a knot if they found us "not doing anything", but at least sometime each day we had to walk somewhere that put us in contact with people with a patch on their shoulder, and one who wore any kind of a patch outranked us, who were patchless.

During a brief period of mental clarity I devised a method of moving about freely without worrying about having to explain to people just why it was that I was moving about freely, and not back with my company doing calisthenics, or blowing up stuff. Sometimes there was/were paperwork that had to be sent from one part of the base to another, and occasionally unassigned Privates were used as couriers to scurry around with important looking documents with varying degrees of urgency in their delivery. Since I was still a Private and certainly unassigned, all I need to complete the ruse was some official looking "paperwork".

I paid a visit to the Supply Sergeant's office to pick up something or another, and when he left the room to go to the bathroom I quickly grabbed one of those large manila envelopes with the little string thingie to close it on the back, then as fast as I could I opened a drawer of his desk, grabbed the "Urgent" and "Do Not Delay" rubber stamps, stamped the envelope, returned the stamps, and tucked the envelope into my pants, under my jacket. Later I just added, in big letters, the name of whatever General was in charge of the entire base and voila!, suddenly I was un-touchable, or at least un-delayable. I filled the envelope with a section of that day's newspaper, twisted the string closure, and all I had to do was hold my head up and retain an earnest expression on my face and if I was stopped I would just flash the folder and away I would go. As luck would have it, on one occasion when I was stopped it ended up that the guy who stopped me was actually heading over to see the Base Commander, and offered me a ride. It was only because of another brief period of clarity was I able to blurt out some hastily made up reason that I should decline his offer.

About the only event that would draw us out of our forest retreat during the day, other than to buy more beer, was lunch time. I could miss breakfast without too much damage, and I wasn't usually very hungry at dinner time anyway, but lunch was not to be missed. Since we couldn't go back to the barracks to eat without the risk of being assigned to some thankless detail, we made it the high point of the day to mysteriously appear at the hospital waiting room at lunch time. Food in the barracks was consumed by grunts, and there was no reason to make it tasty or "good for you", it just had to be available, but the hospital had to feed doctors and nurses, and even some civilians, so the food was top notch.

Since Fort Ord was situated next to the ocean, and since the barracks windows had to remain partially open at all times to prevent the spread of meningitis or something like that, and since we all had buzz haircuts so our heads would freeze at night, and since the cock-sucking Army blankets were too short to cover your head at night unless you slept in the fetal position... all of these factors contributed to everyone developing some sort of cough or sore throat, and it was easy getting a pass to go to the hospital for cough syrup, since they didn't want the entire company coming down with every cold that went around. In order to expedite this process, on one occasion I helped myself to an entire pad of hospital passes, and spent an hour or so perfecting my version of the company Captain's signature. Passing the real and the forged signature around to the other misfits that frequented the woods, I received a resounding vote of approval, and I quickly became a sort of surrogate doctor of sorts, handing out passes at the slightest hint of a cough, either voluntary or involuntary. We helped ourselves to great lunches, gallons of real chocolate milk, and that famous clear 150 proof cough syrup that made our "stint" in the Army bearable. I actually got a real sore throat once from drinking too much of the cough syrup, but it sure stopped my coughing.

Getting back to waiting for trains, the ability to occupy oneself for hours merely by utilizing whatever "found objects" one is surrounded with can certainly be used in other facets of daily life, although I can't think of any examples right now. One memorable incident occurred in the South Saint Paul yard while I was waiting for a train down to Mason City. The train I was waiting for was a once-a-day job that usually came through between maybe 6:00 and 9:00 at night, but I arrived at the yard bright and early in the morning, which meant I had all day to kill. Since I was eventually going to be entering a State that had no concept of appropriate alcoholic beverages, I felt compelled to stock up ahead of time, and, as luck would have it, there was a large shopping center a block away. It would also be an opportunity to refresh my cardboard supply, as the previous several days of riding in from the West Coast had a profound "ageing" effect on the piece that I had been using.

Saving the cardboard search for last, I hit the market for a couple of cans of chili which, eaten cold with a few judiciously applied drops of Tabasco Sauce, produced a filling and tasty meal with no dishes to wash, and the spoon needed only to be licked fairly clean, then wiped on one's pants to complete the necessary cleaning. Since I was far from the Mexican Food Heaven that is the West Coast, I was surprised to see packages of nice, thick flour gorditas, so I added a few of these, as well as a large block of cheese. With no way to keep anything cold in the merciless heat of the Midwest in August, I passed over getting any beer and made my way to the wine department. Noting that most of the wines in their "boutique" section would be demoted to cooking wines in California, I arrived at the "dessert" wine section, wondering who might consider a glass of wine as "dessert". There, before me, on the bottom row, with a heavy coating of dust on them, sat several bottles of Gallo White Port, an elixir that practically begs to be included on any train trip. Seizing the remaining three, I proudly strode up to the counter with my bounty. Spotting a display of Magic Markers next to the cashier, I added a black one, and my supply stop was almost over. Exiting the market, I circled around back and, with great difficulty, extracted a large box used to hold watermelons from the fenced-in enclosure, flattened it as best I could, then walked back to the yard. After selecting a shady spot to use as a "camp" for the day, I dropped my gear and began the day's activities.

First on the agenda was to find a way to keep the wine at least cool if I could. With the Mississippi River right next to the yard, I walked over to the water's edge and instantly noted that this was not like the clear, cold rushing rivers I was used to seeing where I lived it was barely moving and the color of... well, muddy water. Yuck. It was, however, colder [barely] than the hot, humid air that surrounded me, so I dug a little "marina" on a shaded stretch and moored two of the bottles here, blocked on all sides by hefty chunks of concrete I found nearby. The remaining bottle would provide inspiration for the rest of the day.

Sweat-soaked clothing was hung up to dry, including socks that I almost had to peel off with my knife, the insoles in my boots were removed for a much-needed airing out, and I set out to cut the room-sized piece of cardboard into a manageable shape. Here is where the purchase of the Magic Marker came into play. I drew a large, reasonably-accurate outline of the United States, and attempted to sub-divide it into representations of the individual States that I travelled through. Thank goodness I didn't go anywhere near the East Coast or the South, for many reasons. Settling upon polygons that looked, to me at least, as accurate as one could do under the circumstances, I began to trace my route through the various States with a precision that deteriorated as I moved away from the West Coast. Satisfied that, if it were possible to view my crude map from Space, it would be recognized as indeed a map of the United States, I added little notes here and there along the route describing any interesting events that occurred at that spot. With the addition of crew changes, approximate arrival and departure times, and perhaps an over-indulgence with including various mountain ranges and natural features, I stood up and revelled in my artistry.

Needing a break from the mental gymnastics of the last few hours, I, with great trepidation, waded out far enough in the soupy water and quickly dunked myself a few times to simulate a washing, then tiptoed back to my "jungle" to worry that I might have added more pathogens from the river water than I washed away. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking and napping, until the fading sunlight told me that I should round up my gear and get ready to depart. The bottles, now actually almost cold, were retrieved from their moorage and I re-dressed myself in dirty but somewhat less smelly clothes. More drinking and more napping, then the sound of a train approaching got me bolt upright. I had "survived" a day of sitting around doing nothing, and I sure didn't want to have to do it again the very next day, so I walked out and scanned the train for rides as it crawled past. A properly-positioned piggy-back trailer was chosen and in an hour or so I was leaving town, with a new addition to my train map added in the failing light.