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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 10) "Long Road Home"
We twiddle our thumbs in tall weeds until three hardhats working strings across the yard appear fleetingly into view. Clown pops up to pursue them, vowing over her shoulder to radio intelligence every fifteen minutes. She traipses merrily out the trampled circle into the lengthy makeup yard.
Fifteen minutes later, Wiz carps, "Why hasn't she radioed?" I mutter waving my hand, "Give her ten minutes more." We sweat, look and listen to units rumble toward the spot where she vanished. Car string after string bang together there into one train that surely is our ride out of town. "Let's get out of these weeds," I finally urge, and we stand with our packs and hers. "Soon that freight will highball."
I lug two packs following Wiz with his across a dozen vacant tracks toward the clamor. Nearing, we hear singing between car clashes, and stoop to peek under a gondola. Behold, Clown with crayon-hair flowing over a pink halter top giggles within a ring of hardhats. They help her place coin after coin on a rail beneath the three locomotives' wheels, and the engineer rocks back-and-forth over them to make "hobo jewelry". (Later, one may drills holes in the twice-sized, flattened coins that retain a faint outline of the head and tail to fashion trinkets or earrings.) She now holds up beautiful pieces - nickels, dimes and quarters - to reflect sunlight. Wiz collapses his pocket telescope and cusses.
"You know what?" he questions, brushing a bee from his face. "First of all, I'm allergic to bee stings. Second, I don't think she's in danger. In fact, she seems to be enjoying herself. Third, I'm so irate this is what I'm going to do..." He keys the radio and bawls, "My name is Clown and I like trainmen!" In the distance, Clown grabs her pants for the walkie-talkie. I yank my radio and yell, "After the finale, gentlemen, get her on this California Man." The hardhats recoil that words could pour so angrily from a hoboette's jeans. She jerks out her radio and transmits, "Oh. It's you, boys. This is your train. All aboard!"
Wiz and I shake our heads, and rise from our haunches. We climb six rungs over the blue gondola wall and, with no inside ladder, drop the packs five feet and tumble to the hot floor ourselves. Then we peer over the gondola like Kilorys. Men watch her. They can't take their eyes off the Medusa with a sharp tongue. "She'll leave a trail of erections all the way to Sacramento," I curse. "Train information is the sole determinant of a successful hobo," Wiz abates. "She gets it better than all my gadgets."
Moments later, Clown mounts and drops to the gondola floor and we squat in the shared sunshine smelling the diesel of two growling engines about to connect up front. We brace in the car center for the inevitable jolt and, though the power joins ½-mile away, the couplers pair-by-pair jam in a staccato beat - our car rocks as if hit by a wave - that washes by and to the rear end. In seconds the brakes hiss, the horn trumpets and our freight charges out the rail.
"I found it stimulating to talk to the yard workers," says Clown as the car waggles down the track. "There aren't a lot of men in these parts. I convinced them with the rail lingo you taught me, Doc, that I knew what I was doing. So, they said, "Hold the train!" After you spoiled it with that radio slot they joked, "Your guys are better equipped than us," and finally let me go."
I grin and pull out another L'Amour book. Wiz tunes his scanner to crew chatter in the lead unit, and Clown, smiling mysteriously, eats a whole jar of pickles before we reach the town limit.
This mile-long mixed freight draws boxcars, grainers, oilers, gondolas including our blue one, but no pigs or containers. This is called a "dog" for low priority that'll side for hotshots having boxes and pigs zooming past from either direction all day. But no one complains because our train is shambling toward the Pacific. The track parallels I-70 for a few hours across high, flat desert and on into canyon land past the Arches National Park.
The afternoon journey becomes a string of knots - sidings for faster freights - but we knew it would be slow going when we made our play in Grand Junction. At one pause, we switch from the gondola to the shaded back porch of a graincar.
Most freight hoppers watch the scenery flow until it blends with their personal past, and then they drowse. Conversely, I've never seen Wiz without something to do, and now he tinkers with various electronic gadgets from his pack for miles on end. Clown always has a book in hand, and prefers it to the landscape sliding past the freight. I, with a deep reserve for introspection, am my best own company in one corner of the platform.
Suddenly Wiz holds high his cell phone and blurts, "That's it! We are, as far as I know, the first hobos ever to send an email from a moving freight." On request for particulars and he replies, "It went to the Wiley Publisher Chief Pam VanGeesen and reported what I just told you, that this is the first hobo email. I promised to try to update her via the www.dailyspeculations.com website with our daily progress."
The freight lumbers constantly at 40mph until the rail picks up a parallel river with sporadic rapids. Our hopper overtakes a boat of rafters traveling the same direction, but they're intent on their ride and miss ours. Clown asks if a hobo ever rides atop a car, and I reply, "Yes, that's called decking, a safe maneuver when done with sensitivity." Wordlessly she zips up the ladder of our rolling porch and, as Wiz shakes his head over a gadget, I trail her like a worrying father.
A two-feet steel catwalk runs the length of the car top that she crabs to the center and sits on. Now, with one hand clutching the bucking grate like a cowgirl, the train breeze punches her dreadlocks horizontally and she whoops "Yahoo!" She leans back and unbuttons and strips off her blouse and bra with the free hand, and waves them high at the boatload. The rafters hoot approval for a quarter-mile before ebbing.
Satisfied, she dresses and brushes by me on the catwalk to the ladder with, "It must have been the excitement of the locomotives and the first ride." We descend to the platform and to Wiz engrossed in electronics without knowing the better.
The region flattens in the hot part of the day, and a Zen quality clutches the slowest train on earth. Freight hopping ultimately becomes sitting on a large vibrating rock and living inside one's self. We're grateful for the hopper shade and each makes the best of his passing hours. Wiz declares he's out of Internet range, Clown reads, an opportunist dragonfly pinches insects on the wing in our car draft, and I catnap. Several hours later, the countryside turns agricultural checkerboard green and brown, with lofty red barns.
There's an old hobo depiction where a slow freight stops at every house except when it comes to a two-family house it stops twice. That's probably exaggeration, but I've seen tramps climb off milk-run drags like this one to pick oranges in an orchard, rob vegetable from gardens, "gooseberry pick" (clothes from lines), and catch trackside pigeons for supper - and board in time.
We side off the main yet again for a double-stack hotshot to race by to Salt Lake City. That faster horse gets the inside rail, the enduring theme in our scenic pilgrimage.
(Continued in Part 11)
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