Write to us at: (address is not clickable)
True Stories by Steve Keely
The train dynamites and kicks apart in Laurel. We sit a few calm minutes until the morning chess game opens. Is our train adding or setting off cars, or are the units simply refueling. These and other possibilities in each of our minds are assigned probabilities, and we play one card at a time until there’s a winner. His yard strategy is to stick to a train on a main line, whereas my style is to throttle the yard for information or other freights. At loggerheads, we compromise with a 30 minute hiatus before jumping off to explore. We’re chagrinned in walking past our train’s last car for breakfast to discover FRED is gone.
This Flashing Rear End Device that bos call the Fuc____ Rear End Device replaced cabooses in the 1980’s. The one-foot flashing red light hung on the last train couple radios telemetry including brake pressure and motion to the engineer in the lead unit. A freight without a FRED goes nowhere.
We hike E. Main St. with the yard at our right elbows and dingy establishments on the left. This is East Laurel, once called Railroad Town. A slimy Mexican Café catches my colleague’s eye. I’ve stretched a gallon of milk for the last two days. He orders fluently having minored in Spanish at University and later worked a year with Mexican peons. I don’t know what I eat for breakfast, but it’s delicious and meatless.
Rail towns are never uninteresting to anyone with the slightest taste for history, and Laurel illustrates this. These days, it’s a main entry to Yellowstone Park for millions of tourists who drone I-90 a mile south of the café. It’s the present BNSF crew change, and earlier was one of many RR towns that grew like weeds along the line to supply the workers and trains. During WWII, German prisoners of war constructed buildings in the town park where we can camp in the event there’s no train. Chief Joseph led the famous Nez Perce flight of his people through Yellowstone and beat back the U.S. cavalry nearby. Right now, Diesel and I sit on the ‘main stem’ in the weeds debating whether to wait outside the east yard or to penetrate for information.
‘Life is a puzzle,’ he avers. ‘Let’s kill two birds by watching for an hour and then explore.’ Nothing shakes in that time so, radios on, I stick with the packs while he hoofs into the yard. Minutes later I hear, ‘Bo, they’re making up an eastbound freight that isn’t called yet; a brakie says an intramodal train should pass and change crew soon; plus I’m monitoring our original units that are refueling.’ We again sit together in the weeds keen that hoboing equals inactive hours chopped by frenzied seconds. He picks a fingernail file from his jeans and carefully cleans his nails. Then a toothbrush. Perhaps the only full towel hauled by a tramp in history scrubs off his soot. ‘Now I feel like a civvie!’ he jabs.
This yard is grand, miles long with about thirty tracks side-to-side packed with car strings either sitting, inbound or outbound for various destinations. Restless, we walk in the direction of travel to the workers’ shack at the yard’s end where brakies and switchies chat and read between jobs. A Call Board there lists the eastbound trains with their ‘call times.’ Freights are assigned call instead of departure times that is when the crew is notified in their rooms that the train is on mainline and ready to man. A crew van picks and drops them at the head locomotive. By watching the van movement, an educated tramp knows when to board a train. The actual departure time after the call varies from a few minutes to an hour or more. The yard workers give the inside story after one tosses out a polysyllable word that doesn’t stink of alcohol. The crew – engineer and conductor– are tighter lipped but typically don’t mind if you climb into an empty boxcar, gondola or grain car.
The shack confirms Diesel’s report without spilling guts to the bull, so we slither between car strings to position between our original sided-freight and the mainline where the intramodal is due. The mountain air is pure except for train diesel. Suddenly Boom - our previous units hook to the freight. We board two grain cars with facing platforms to lay in wait. We are found in the same position an hour later when the intramodal chugs up a few lines over. We transfer to it, but the original mixed-freight sudden starts out of the yard first. Ten minutes later, the intramodal dynamites, so we sit at point zero.
On a good day a tramp steps into a yard and right onto his train. On another day, such as this pretty morn in Laurel, he porks fruitlessly about missing trains and dodging the bull until sunset. At that point, I’ve never had a poor night in a rail yard. It’s a time of sneaky rats under the rustler’s moon when the deck is stacked for the tramp. In early evening, a worker suggests to wait under an overpass where eastbound locos ‘head up’ before backing into a train, and he points toward I-90 a half-mile east. The classic hobo lair is under a bridge where the wide stage of the yard is previewed, the multiple lines converge to two outbound mains, and the train theoretically rolls by slowly to step onto. The bridge provides shelter from sun or rain, booze drinking is hidden as well, and town clowns don’t molest the goddamn tramp because the space appears to be railroad property, while rail workers tell you it’s town property free of the bull. I once invited a Supreme court judge to speak at my sociology class on hobo legalities and, though he spoke eloquently on miscellaneous laws, when it came to bridges he said, ‘My researcher turned up that the jurisdiction of the property under highway bridges is confusing. I’m sorry.’ If for no other reason, we hike to the Laurel overpass.
‘I don’t like this tactic,’ I notify Diesel under the bridge. ‘For these reasons: It’s better to walk a train or at least scope it before trying to board to know which cars are ridable. It’s a quarter-mile dash for the initial cars from under here, and we’ll be seen by the engineer. Usually it must be taken on the fly, and sometimes it’s too fast for that.’ He grunts, and I conclude. ‘However, the cheery fact is just knowing where the units head up in front of us.’ A plan brews to wait for the power and then sprint obliquely into the yard, snake between strings, and board the slow roller. He urges, ‘Let’s do it.’
A strapping Irish tramp under a tall frame-pack and chugging a Bud-Light invades our shade. He paws another can, hands it over, and plops to the dirt. ‘You’re not going to believe it, but I just came down from I-90 trying to hitch a ride. Nobody so much as looked at me for two hours. The hitchhiker’s day is over. Fu__ em! I’ll stick to the rails.’ His merry eyes scan us and, satisfied, he relaxes with the beer. He’s surprised that we came in on the same early morning train. He’d nailed a grain car on it in Helena, Mt.
‘My name’s Long-Haul Tramp,’ and his big mitt engulfs first Diesel’s and then my hand. Slowly, his life unwinds. He left home after a standard childhood at age seventeen with itchy feet. ‘An they still itch!’ he bellows, kicking himself. Now he’s thirty-four and forever on the road, often by freight. ‘There aren’t many of us long-haul tramps left,’ he claims. ‘We’re a dying breed.’ He’s clean, ruddy, ready and slowly getting drunk. ‘I know it,’ he picks up. ‘I’m half-exhausted and half-drunk, a combination for an accident. But hell, I work so I can drink, and when I drink I get itchy feet.’ He chuckles and pulls a fistful of pay stubs from the pack. Diesel flips through them and whistles. This fellow has worked minimum wage at dozens of job types in a hundred places across the nation. ‘Look. I’m ridin’ the fast freight to Fargo, N.D. to get on with the ‘Temp’. It’s a working town where any stiff with an SS card and picture ID willing to show up at 5:30 a.m. at the ‘slave market’ gets a job. You never know the work –digging ditches to washing dishes - that can last one day or a month.’ We’re grateful, but are riding beyond to Chicago.
‘FTRA’ is spray-painted in black on the concrete above our heads. The Freight Train Riders of America is a purported gang of men who move about the country by rail, particularly in the Northwest. The grapevine has that it was founded by homeless Vietnam Vets in a Montana bar in the 1980’s, and spread. If you believe bulls – which I don’t suggest– the FTRA is responsible for numerous murders of transients and freight hoppers, brutal assaults, drugs, theft, and food stamp fraud. If you have railroad tracks running through your town, the dicks avow, you already have FTRA members nearby. Yet these sordid activities have occurred in poor areas near the rails for centuries. The gang of a loose 5,000 and is encountered mostly along the 1,500-mile BNSF High Line from Seattle to Minneapolis where allegedly their faction color-coded bandanas are seen in RR yards, boxcars-in-transit and under bridges – the hobo realm. I personally see more bandanas in an hour on the California school outskirts where I sub-teach than I have in years on the rails. So whom do you believe? We live amid misinformation and my resolution is to leap with common sense into the jaws with fast shoes. I think the FTRA is urban legend.
I probe the tramp about an earlier conversation with the waitress. ‘Be careful on the road,’ she warned. ‘This is Montana, home of wheels and guns!’ The tramp looks up thoughtfully and says, ‘I’ll you with a story. Once I pulled off the road into a little town to look for work. Someone sent me to the church, so I went in and pretended to pray. In came the parson with a .357 Magnum strapped to his hip. He asked what I wanted and I told him work. He got me a job. That’s Montana for you: It doesn’t need security or policemen.’
At dusk, loco lights approach the bridge, stop, and back up. ‘Just like the worker told us, testifies Diesel. ‘Ok, troops, let’s move!’ I cry. Quickly we hump the packs along E. Main St. parallel with the tracks until we pass the double-header engines that clack into a car set. I lead around another sidetrack string shielded from the units, and we climb up-and-down four more strings toward the catchout train. Diesel ails from freight elbow after having climbed many ladders in a week, I gimp on the right leg, and Long-Haul negotiates with a beer in hand. We reach the target train and clamber aboard three sequential grain cars and wait, panting. Abruptly, a through freight pulls to the adjacent line sending the tramp scrambling perhaps knowing something we don’t of freight chess. Our freight highballs first, and we roll at 8 mph under the bridge. A branch rail just beyond it forks south to Kansas City, and only after that do we celebrate with salutes across the facing grain cars that this rattler is bound for Fargo.
Our efficient transport is the BNSF, a single colossus born of some 400 different lines that merged in the last 150 years. I knew the parent lines as Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, and used bookstores shelve hundreds of volumes chronicling the colorful history of their ancestors. Each opened a bit of the American West over which we rattle honored. Peculiarly, BN was known for its leniency with riders while SF was full of ‘hot’ spots before the final merger. I’m curious to find how the extremes homogenized.
Dawn cuts the night. The wide sky of Montana I’ve tried to figure. The visible atmosphere holds a curvature like a high blue bowl under which the train crawls green foothills that abruptly rear to the North Dakota Badlands. Valleys, narrow and wide, snake between rock buttes and domes that were formed during cloudbursts following droughts. Then the land spreads out clean to Fargo.
After the boxcar, the grain car is the King of the Road’s throne. Whereas the former is roomier – large enough for handball – the fact that it’s empty signifies it may be peeled from the mainline before the goal. There are important clues in selecting a grain car: Look at the springs or kick the sides to ensure a load for a soft ride. Only half of those curved-side hoppers have solid 6’x12’ platforms– front and back porches – at either end. Pick one with a cubbyhole within the framework, a 3’ steel teepee. I enjoyed the Irish tramp’s company, but wished him away because his lanky frame and pack wouldn’t squeeze into a cubbyhole and we’d be spotted in light.
I decide to flatten some rail coins after daybreak. The freight sides in the countryside for a priority train, so I bum pennies from Diesel to augment my own change and leap down. The wheel tread is smooth, polished steel about 4’’-wide - like the rail. ‘The art of coin squashing has nuances,’ I yell up. ‘First, ensure the engineer can’t see you. Work on the side away from the empty rail. Walk, as I’m doing, to the forward set of wheels so when the train starts your ladder comes to you. Place the coins on the rail a few inches ahead of the lead wheel, but put the softer nickels ahead of the second wheel of the set. Loaded cars flatten best. Keep your head from protruding parts in case the car punches.’ He hollers from the back porch, ‘Make some ‘fried eggs’ from pennies on dimes!’ I never thought of that, and put them on. Unexpectedly, our brakeline clicks and in seconds an Amtrak zips up the other side. ‘Pick a spot where your train pauses on an incline,’ I continue the instruction, ‘So the train doesn’t leave without you.’ I move deftly now. The coins were laid on the outer rail edge to snatch without ‘greasing the track’. I scoop them and climb onto the passing ladder. We examine the collection: The nickels, flat and double in size, will become fine earrings. The dimes and quarters squash less but retain the impressions for gift souvenirs. The fried eggs didn’t get enough bond pressure and we decide next time a locomotive is needed.
The name ‘Hobo’ started before the Civil War as some men took to the rails as a way of life. Around wartime, railroads were built at a rapid rate and many veterans became hobos. By then the first transcontinental rail stretched to the Pacific. Before the century turn, a depressed economy sent numbers of men and families to the rails looking for something on the horizon. The Great Depression saw the rails blackened by train tramps, and tracks ran to all the bustling markets and industrial cities across the nation. Some commended hobos as the working backbone of the economy, and others said they were a bad lot. I think they’e both, and a brand of compassion was born. A true hobo had a thing he did well: Repair umbrellas, sole shoes, build, or hoe gardens. Literature says that the term Hobo is a compound of hoe and boy, ‘Hello, boy’, or of homo and bonus meaning good fellow. After WWII, the riders declined. Diesel replaced steam during the 1950’s shutting the water tanks, so the trains stopped less frequently. Nonetheless, thousands ride the rails across America during the sunny months as I write these words. The types include Vietnam vets, divorcees, teen runaways, circle tramps who collect food stamps in different towns, nut-house releases, recreational tramps like us, and bona fide hobos in transit from job-to-job like Long-Haul Tramp.
There is a confusion of terms among the hobo ranks, but my use is: Hobo – An itinerant usually unskilled worker who is self-reliant along the rails. Tramp – Whereas a hobo rides to work, a tramp is a migratory non-worker. Long-Haul tramp was an exception by name. A cute differentiation is that hobos and tramps use newspapers for insulation but a hobo reads them first. Bums – They neither ride trains nor work but are the low echelon homeguard surviving on handouts and missions. Diesel and I are just hobby hobos or weekend tramps in quest.
An individual’s most vital need is freedom. Many, as we’ve observed on this trip, don’t realize it and stagnate. With freedom comes the ability to explore one’s extremes, find self-identity and contribute freely to society. Books or travel tickle free men into the libraries, byways and, especially, railways where they touch others with an infectious spirit.
Diesel slips out his member and pees over the side as we slide into Fargo. ‘Piss out a boxcar once, you’re hooked!’
For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings
Visit the Hobo page on www.greatspeculations.com!