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Hobo Memoirs

Baby Jack Black and Bo Kerouac

Before I saw the hobo way, I was a respected and productive member of society. Now I ride the rails and if you follow my story you can be a hobo too.

'How do we know which freight to hop,' asks Baby Jack staring down yesterday from the Eugene Maxwell Bridge at the funnel of tracks with huffing yellow-and-gold locomotives and miles of trails of cars.

'The ones that moves!' I reply.

'But Bo,' he withers. 'I've never broken a law in my life.'

'It's time to pierce the legal skin,' I retort. 'Hand me your cell phone.'

We dial the Union Pacific Yardmaster who controls all the freight arrivals and departures beneath us, and I wink at Jack before speaking. 'My wife and I are train buffs and want to take a picture of the big loco's as they pull under the Maxwell Bridge. What time will that be, so my dear doesn't have to wait out in the heat?'

'Be on the bridge in one hour,' accommodates the Yardmaster. 'She'll get her train.' We hang up.

My road partner on this outing is fresh to the rails but a gladiator of life despite never having broken a rule. Kerry Mortell is one of Hollywood's most talented and unsuccessful actors who supports bit acting by moving refrigerators. I am the veteran on this trip with hundreds of rides under my belt.

There's another beside us on this overpass who will stay behind. Our bewitching hostess Shandi sings, 'Goodbye, boys!', and we heft our packs and tramp beneath the bridge into the Union Pacific yard. Every hobo takes a moniker to the rails and dear Shantdi gave us ours: Baby Jack Black and Beau Kerouac.

'Anywhere but here, Jack,' I quip an hour later as our half-mile train puffs alongside and waits like a grin on a curve under the bridge. 'That's the hobo motto, mate. Now let's be quick to 'frisk the drag' for a proper car to Portland.'

We scuff the grit, streamlined this morning with daypacks filled with water, books and a jacket each, walking along thousands of tons of fresh-cut lumber. Douglas Fir in full-stacks weigh heavily the springs, flatcar after car, with pitch oozing to the hot metal floors and wafting over the sides. 'Here's a half-stack!' Jack whoops at the first mountable sheaf of lumber. We clamber five feet onto the car, and another ten high up onto a hobo throne.

'We've sampled the view, Jack. Let's go back down now and hide for a good reason. This freight could start in a minute or an hour, and there's no sense risking the Bull before she pulls out.' We descend the stack and wiggle into two slots, fore and aft, between lumber piles that squeeze like wood straightjackets. I count knotholes and listen to my associate's labored breathing. In thirty minutes, an electric click runs the brake line, far ahead the engineer whistles highball- one short and one long- the couples clasp chicka-chicka BANG and our car launches. The adventure is begun.

I rise arthritically from my cubby and hobble to poor Jack wedged in the wood slot. 'Get me out!' he commands, and after a long chuckle I throw a hand and pull hard. He flounders on the platform shaking his head, 'No, no! That was the longest thirty minutes of my life,' Then his jaw slacks on looking over the side of the rumbling freight.

The freight train is a gigantic linear machine of cars hooked tail to nose like iron elephants that pulls away. It exits the yard boundary, picks up speed, and enters the backcountry with a blast at each crossing. The rail bends north, and weaves through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where pines throw great green brushes at the lumber sides and tops. 'Hobos call this the Snaky Route through Oregon,' I exalt to Jack.

He has stood watching in stunned silence for an hour... They've 'taken the whiskers off' the cornfields that lay now flat and fallow with funnels of dust devils tracing the horizon. There is a stream of hundreds of pulp and saw mills, noxious dairy farms and endless fruit orchards. Tiny old tank towns dot the way where steam engines once watered for the long pull up the coast. A startled lady in a pumpkin patch looks up waves at us. My buddy shouts down in glee, 'We're hobos, ma'am! Real hobos.'

In Junction City, we zip past the Country Coach smoking plant that's signed 'Manufacturer of Luxury Diesel Motor Homes'. A jet zooms overhead prompting my partner to boogie across the deck and belt up like Gordon Lightfoot, 'You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train ... ' As we pull from the town limit, Baby Jack urinates over the side of the flatcar and I predict his first successful illegal train ride shall be a life pivot. The yellow stream loops back in the wind at him like a cane. "Piss off a flatcar once, you're hooked!' I cheer.

Our carrier through this magic is the behemoth Union Pacific RR that is the steel backbone of the timber industry with a gridiron of rails throughout the Northwest on which, today, on one track, our pitifully slow, short train sides every fifteen minutes for other lumber freights. Only Amtrak sides for us in the heart of timberland where felled trees are hotter commodities than paying passengers. We wave at them through their polished Amtrak windows and Jack gets a kick when they gape and disappear.

Inspired, he climbs a full stack high over the passing country and 'decks' it sitting on top. Now he clutches the bundle strap grinning in the bucking wind and bugs. 'My god,' he chimes, ducking a pine bough. 'This is America through the back door.'

'A hobo's got to travel, know what I mean?' I render. He yells down, 'I've wanted to jump a freight train ever since I was a kid and saw a hobo framed in a boxcar door. But I got cold feet because I always did the right thing.'

'That's all behind you now. Come down to hear the three rules of the rail that may save your skin today:' The Irish gorilla drops lightly to the quaking porch and bores into my eyes. 'Rule one is no loose ends.' I pull a knife and cut short his pack straps as he double-knots his laces. 'Rule two is no weapons, and carry an I.D.' He taps confidently his wallet in a rear pocket. 'Rule three, as you'll be turned upside down on this ride, is to secure your wallet.' I offer him a safety pin that he declines with a guffaw. I shrug, 'Have it your way,' and turn to face the vista.

He grabs my shoulder to spin me about and studies my face as a foggy mirror. Then he wheels to eye the sliding landscape as if for the first time, slapping his other pocket. He thrusts skyward a dog-eared copy of Jack Black's 'You Can't Win' and balances howling into the wind, 'I'm free! In honor of Jack Black and Jack Kerouac, I'm freee...!'

'As the scream dies, I take the book to read aloud the first line upside down, my habit, 'I am now librarian of the San Francisco Call. Do I look like one?'

'It's the best inside autobiography,' I tell Baby Jack, and hand it back. I open my own pack and pull 'Animal Camouflage' by Powyzk, and read silently as Jack scales and beams high atop the stack. He sits there for more than an hour.

We packed no food today expecting a short ride to Portland, however the unexpected single rail with repeated sidings for other trains has extended the passage by threefold. Blackberry bushes have lined the right-of-way for a hundred miles. Duly at noon, when our freight 'goes in the hole', I hop down for lunch. Jack languishes aboard never having caught a moving freight. 'I'll bring you a handful,' I call over my shoulder on the way to the first bush that is weighty with fruit.

I stuff my mug until the lips drip black and, distracted by a horn, freeze like a Norman Rockwell painting. A bright light!' A freight barrels around a curve between the bushes and my own train. 'I'm going to be cut off!' I shout across the right-of-way as the engine bears down. If I let it pass my own ride could leave and I'll be stranded blue-faced. Or... I peer over at Jack in a jig of despair on the flatcar when everything turns into slow motion. 'I'l-l m-a-k-e i-t J-a-c-k!' I bellow, and dash before the locomotive. It rushes behind me with angry toots.

Now safe and full of myself, I kindle him from the cinders. 'Let me show you how to get comfy with these metal elephants. Do you have a quarter?' He passes one down. I saunter to the rear set of three-foot wheels, stoop and put the coin on the rail an inch before the first wheel. 'It'll roll any second to fashion a 'hobo coin' for good luck. Our car is heavy enough too ...' Suddenly the train heaves and squashes George Washington's long face 2'' more. I snatch and clench it twit my incisors and run for Jack's outstretched hand as the freight moves out at 1 mph. He snaps a photo with a digital camera and yanks me aboard.

'Don't leave me again.' agitates Jack, rising above me. 'I won't, Pal. Sorry about the blackberries.'

Shortly, our train stops inexplicably dead on the main at a country crossing. The crossbar falls and bells clang on and on as traffic piles up on both sides. 'There's no good behind this,' I reason aloud. 'We must keep alert.'

Crunch...crunch. An advancing step jolts me. I motion with a cut of my throat to Jack. Like a big cat he scales the stack to the top unseen, and as quickly and quietly I swing around a ladder. A burly RR Bull brushes between us miraculously unaware. I watch the blue uniform with gold shoulder stars, sun glasses and bald head bob toward the freight rear. Once out of earshot, Jack and I rejoin on the flatcar where I whisper, 'The cinder dick will round the tail and return, so let's hide in the lumber slits.' We squeeze into them until, after fifteen feverish minutes, a wearier step trudges up the far side. The Bull passes, the engineer toots and our car pitches, but we stay low for the first mile. Finally, we extract.

'Whew! Our engineer isn't happy about the train stop, and the Dick hated that fruitless trek,' I inform my partner. 'Normally, getting nabbed is small potatoes with a warning finger shaken in your face. But in this case, I'm sure we would have been dragged off the train to jail. How about that escape!'

'Escape you say!' roars Jack. 'My stomach clenched and my underpants went brown. You broke the golden rule of not being spotted in the raspberry patch.'

'You're right,' I admit. 'We're on a hungry ride now and must keep one eye each out for the Bull and town clowns during the rest of the journey.'

Somewhere in the afternoon, at the base of an unknown mountain, the track tips and veers from the afternoon sun. My throat tightens as the freight pulls aside Highway 99 East. I frown down at the shaking lumber stack and pick at the twirling tag in the wind that reads, 'Origin: Eugene, Or./Destination: Bar Code'. 'Jack,' I ask. 'Does it make more sense for this lumber freight to turn east to the plains or north into timber country? He answers east. 'Then can you read this bar code to tell me where we're headed?' He grins sourly.

'Sad to say,' I continue, 'This freight may not be our Portland Man. It could be the 'low line' clear to Montana, but I'm only a little worried since getting off-track is the hobo way too.' 'If you're worried,' he ejects, 'I'm terrified!' And he whips out a cell phone to speedily dial and yell above the wheel noise, 'Cousin Jamie; meet Bo.' He forks it over to me.

'Hello,' I greet the mystery. 'I'm guiding your cousin on a Union Pacific freight through the Pacific Northwest, but we're lost. I'll reel off the next town name and hope you can lead us to Portland.' Dead silence on the far end, followed by an astonished voice, 'Freight! What? Where?' I fill him in as Jack spies signs, and Jamie explains that he sits and drinks beer at the computer in a San Diego apartment '24-7-365' until he passes out, only to reawaken afresh to drink and scan the net. Abruptly Jack bawls, 'I see a town limit: Ten miles to Salem.' 'I relay it to Jamie, who snaps alertly, 'Give me a moment.' As quickly he's back with, 'YahooMap shows the UP track courses Highway 99 East- a misnomer since it really goes north- through Salem and fifty miles beyond to Portland. You're all set, and tell me all about it later.' I thank him and hang up.

Then I conjecture, 'The engineer suspects tramps aboard and the train sure as hell will be searched as it pulls into the Portland yard. That city is a spider web of rails, waterways and bridges, so we'll jump down when the freight slows 'on the fly'.

The track threads gently north over terrain grown lumpy with verdant hills, and in two hours the freight trundles into South Portland. It enters the yard slowly enough to dismount on the roll. Jack, pack in hand, hits the grit on one boot and sprints for the right-of-way underbrush. I follow him calling, 'Just walk. No sense in drawing attention.'

We step over a few sets of tracks and through the underbrush to hunker under small pines and take stock. While scraping sap from the ride he feels his rear pocket and looks suddenly ill. The last thing a man wants to lose in a new town is his leather poke. Jack bolts for the train and vaults onto the flatcar, monkeys up the wood stack, kneels and reaches into the slot. He holds high the wallet, crawls down and shuffles back to me repeatedly crossing himself.

'Why, Jack. You're pale.'

'Never again!' he grunts. 'When I get home I'm gonna kiss my truck and never look at another freight.'

I take a final peek from the brush at our steel steed stretched down the track and departing, and utter, 'There she goes... don't need no ticket to ride.'

So we shoulder our gear and stamp through the underbrush onto a rural road and strike a brisk pace toward the Portland skyline, he walking oddly bowlegged.

In fifteen minutes, we reach a gas station where I ask directions while he visits the men's room. After a long while he strides back and announces, 'My last act of this trip was to donate my underwear to the Chevron Station!'

Thereupon we board a local bus to the downtown Amtrak terminal and 'ride the cushions' through twilight back to Eugene.

Our hostess, Shandi Sinnamon, jumps every direction at once on the receiving platform and smothers us with questions. ''Don't leave out a detail, boys!' she demands. We relate what you have just read.

She laughs till she cries through the streets and then lingers in her doorway saying, 'I'm going to immortalize that trip with a song.'

Jack and I eye each other, and step inside where her Grammy for the 'Flashdance' song rests on the fireplace mantle. She leaves us and cloisters in the music room. Yet hours into the night, the piano, guitar and sweet voice seep through our bedroom walls.

She bursts into the kitchen the next morning flailing a music score at Jack and me eating breakfast. 'You look fresh as a haystack, Shandi,' I say, studying the dreamy eyes and disheveled nightgown.

'Sorry about last night, boys,' she coos. 'But the great songs are written in one sitting.' She picks up her guitar and gaily sings the song that gave this story a title ...

'Baby Jack Black and Beau Kerouac took off one morning down the railroad track. They hoped to hop a boxcar or a flat, promised me that they'd be comin' back...'

Well, after the song and tale are over, it dawns on me that a hobo's got to move on... Anywhere but here. Jack kisses his truck and drives it to Hollywood. I slip out the back door and jump Shadi's white picket fence for the sweeter song of the road.

Remember this story in word or tune, and decide if the hobo life is for you.