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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 5) "Velvet Cushions"
The executives drop from three corners of their dark, rolling coffin just before the blazing foundry door. They alight on cinders on both sides of the rail and are separated by the train backing toward the factory door, and by darkness. Beyond the gaping door the huge foundry smokestacks belch smoke and fire, and I moan thanks the execs got off in time. I now gauge quickly: First, locate the others; second, move from the occupied rail; and third, escape the foundry yard.
We are unable to see each other in the night. I flick on the radio and hear the other two reckon in confusion. ‘Pronto, where are you?’ barks Apple. He answers, ‘I got off the left rear ladder as you descended the right front. So, I must be about a quarter mile behind you on the opposite side of the freight. The last car is passing me…’ I horn in, ‘I got off the right rear, and the last car is coming. In a second, Pronto, you and I will see each other…’
The final car clears, and we wave at each other across the empty rail. Apple, we know, is close by, and we walk toward the retreating train to rendezvous.
The rules of conduct change in an emergency. Each is as terse but set as a chess master before the board. ‘The foundry yard is ½-mile square with a perimeter fence topped by razor wire and interval spotlights,’ I depict hastily. ‘Yes, we’re in the center,’ says Apple. ‘A worker with a lantern saw me get down,’ submits Pronto, adding, ‘He said a camera already spotted us, and no one’s happy about it. ‘Get out of the yard!’ he said, but didn’t advise how.’ Apple takes a deep breath as he breaks into stride from us at the rail. ‘I saw a break in the fence on a road leading from the foundry.’
We strike after him, whispering. ‘Radios on,’ but I warn, ‘Try not to use them in case we’re monitored. Apple proposes, ‘I’ll lead to the break. We’ll angle away from service roads because security will cruise them.’ Pronto adds, ‘We’ll reach and follow the fence to the break, and exit.’ I close with, ‘Apple, lead. Pronto, follow ten yards behind him, and I’ll bring up the rear.’ We file quietly and use hand signals.
Apple guides us behind some corpse machinery and around darkened outbuildings for ten minutes. A siren cuts the silent night. We reach the chain-link fence and shadow it for five more minutes to the yard gate. There we first must pass on the asphalt a one-story check building and then out the open gate. The executives slither around that watch tower and, with sighs of relief, walk to freedom.
Crickets pound our ears from foliage trimming a country lane. We hike the tarmac without direction for fifteen minutes just to put distance between us and the gate. Pronto halts to explore the issue, ‘Where are we going?’ We can either wander aimlessly the moonless countryside, or… ‘I think I’ll go back to that guardhouse,’ he proposes. ‘What!?’ cries Apple. Pronto contends, ‘Disguised as a distressed motorist who ran out of gas, I’ll get the facts we need.’ He dons a baseball cap and asks, ‘Is my face clean?’ Then he leaves his pack, raises his walkie-talkie to indicate it’s on, and strides back toward the gate leaving us under a pine copse.
We hunker anxiously under the boughs for thirty minutes. Shortly the radio squawks, ‘This is radio KHBO with your evening forecast. The break in the clouds you’re expecting is on the horizon, but wait for the next report for it will be clear.’ Pronto has shrewdly coded the message. Five minutes later he steps into the opening wiping his glistening forehead with a pink bandana. ‘Close call,’ he breathes heavily, and squats nearby. ‘I have a feeling the heat is going to come down,’ he rasps. ‘So let’s get away from here in one minute after I catch my wind.’
We exit the woods to jog the rural road for ten minutes to a darkened intersection with a major county road, turn left onto it and dive into thick bushes from oncoming headlights. One sheriff’s car screams, another… and a third flies by. The squad cars race to the foundry a good mile away and turn in where the flames climb the stacks to the stars. Hobo Disaster Response Chief Pronto glimpses his wristwatch and says dryly, ‘Fifteen minutes response time; not bad.’
What happened back there?’ asks a wide-eyed Apple in the bushes. Pronto describes, ‘I sneaked inside the gate and sleuthed around the guardhouse looking for a pay phone. Finding none, I peeked in the front door where a wood desk with monitor screens showed the yard from many angles but the chair was vacant. That explains why we got away clean. I heard a noise down the hall that I followed to a little back room. I walked in and there was a guy with pants at his ankles over a girl reclined on a desk wearing only a brassiere. I pardoned the breach, and told the pair that I’d wait up front until they finished. It’s hard to say who was more compromised: security or me. The guard emerged, and I gave the distressed driver alibi. He provided directions to a gas station and was most happy to see me go.’
Apple gapes at our partner who shrugs. ‘The good news,’ he finishes, ‘Is that we’re just two miles from that freeway we spotted earlier atop the pellet car. The bad news is the guy had bigger balls than I thought and got suspicious at my wrinkled clothes.’ Apple asserts, ‘Those three cop cars prove that out.’ We decide to retreat with hasty honor to the freeway.
A 24-hour mom-and-pop gas station sits like an acorn on the entrance ramp. We wash up in the bathroom basin, and Apple, after telling the cashier that we’re lost hitchhikers, buys a roadmap and discovers we’re still in Utah. ‘There are no buses, nothing until morning,’ he laments to us outside on a curb. ‘The nearest town is five miles south, Provo, where there are Greyhounds and Amtraks, but no major freight yard. It is now 2am.’
I obtain change and phone taxis, the local bus company, Greyhound and Amtrak in order to juggle a plan. Then I report, ‘Let’s take Amtrak from Provo to the next freight division point in Grand Junction, Colorado.’ The pair happily agrees, but the only way to make the 5am Amtrak departure is to hitch or hike five miles to Provo.
Train hoppers infrequently use the Interstates to get from the spot they’re ditched off a freight to the next division point. Nonetheless, our grimy triad cannot hitch I-15, and we’re too bone weary to hike. One by one, our heads droop to chests on the curb at the back of the gas station, and we doze.
In about an hour, a Utah Trooper wheels into the parking lot and parks before Pronto. The headlights cordially dim and a rotund but nimble trooper stalks up to him greeting, ‘I see by your pack that you’re a firefighter. I used to be a smoke jumper myself before becoming a patrolman. May I offer you a ride somewhere?’
Pronto grins ear-to-ear and leans against his firefighter pack with his hands clasped behind his crown like an executive. He tells the trooper a hard-luck story of three road brothers hitching and stranded here, and wishing to catch the morning Amtrak through to Colorado. ‘I’m off duty in ten minutes,’ responds the officer. ‘Just hang out while I call my wife and drive home for the family van.’ True to his word, he returns in a new Ford van and chauffeurs us fifteen minutes to Provo.
He relates en route that 70% of Utahans are Mormon, so ‘It’s ‘a friendly state’. I question the smokestacks throwing flames that we can still see from the van. ‘That’s the Geneva Steel Plant. It was the U.S. government’s largest WWII construction project and still is one of the biggest producers in the world.‘ We keep mum that’s where the executives almost became crispy critters.
Provo is a whistle-stop, just a hard bench beneath a red-and-blue Amtrak sign. We draw straws where the trooper drops us under an amber streetlamp, and Pronto wins the bench, falling quickly. Apple and I stretch out on the damp earth for thirty winks until passengers start to mill for the departure. A rush from the west and the Amtrak Zephyr screeches to a halt at our feet. ‘All aboard!’ cries the conductor in a starched suit with his hand high, and we enter the silver bullet to take rear seats near the lavatory for smell camouflage. The Zephyr toots and expresses east across the Colorado border and up into the Rockies foothills.
Three business castaways, despite appearance and odor, bring the zest of their specialties to the rail. Pronto protects millions from terrorists and tsunamis as Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Emergency Response Unit; on this hobo trip he heads of our medical, emergency and jungle security. Apple crunches and coaxes financial data worth millions out his computers to launch New York investments; here he is our logistics director and memorizer. I’m a retired veterinarian; and today the hobo schoolmaster. Yet, to the Amtrak passengers, we look like prosaic tramps ‘riding the velvet’ of this passenger train. The conductor stretches his palm… ‘Tickets please?
That’s an ironic call. The graying conductor raises his bushy eyebrows on seeing us rumpled and stilted on the seat cushions. He looks astutely about and, seeing no witnesses, withdraws the hand to murmur, ‘’Gentlemen, I was a Union Pacific brakie in Grand Junction before coming aboard Amtrak. I still recognize a ‘tramp on the posh’ (ticket-buying vagabond). I suggest you ask me for the special loophole that allows a 20% discount.’ We wrangle the tickets at a savings. He steps lively to the intra-car door but turns pinching his nose, ‘The first-class bathroom is two cars forward and roomy for cleaning up if you please.’
We take turns there washing with wonderfully hot water and return to the soft seats to sleep for the remaining six hour run into Grand Junction. ‘Gentlemen,’ the conductor suddenly booms as the train brakes. ‘This is your stop, Grand Junction! And I infer you’ll freight east from here, so be smart in the Big (Moffat) Tunnel. Locomotive smoke has digested many hobos there since the tunnel was bored in 1928.’
I have nothing yet to report on Grand Junction… I had grown greener and greener by the mile on the Amtrak ride. Not an allergy response, as Apple suggests, but more likely, as Pronto diagnoses, an ill finale to driving leadership through hard times on winks of sleep. My two partners strong-arm me off the Amtrak onto the Grand Junction platform where I cannot stand alone. ‘Simply, I need medical help or a bed,’ I echo Wiz’s grief three days earlier.
Pronto scouts for a motel or public park but returns shaking his head. ‘No luck near the yard, however inside the yard is a culvert pipe.’ With no freight workers about they support me across sundry tracks and around freight cars to the 4’opening of a 20’ steel pipe. This is the Motel Tramp- out of sight, weather, and never a no-vacancy sign. I teeter in fever at the mouth and launch a demented speech on the chain of authority. ‘The group must pass the fallen leader… Get on down the road, boys. I shall catch up!’ I collapse like a question mark into the opening. Pronto pulls my ears with concern, ‘You’ve got a fever.’ He shakes my wrist, ‘Rapid, shallow pulse.’ He grabs my chin and says softly, ‘Sleep, and wake up refreshed.’ They gently stuff me into the pipe so my feet don’t show.
Pronto walks off chuckling, ‘Does he actually think we’d leave him here?’ and Apple laughs at his side.
(Continued in Part 6)
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