Thanks to my Editors: BlackKnight, DuffieDawg, FuzzyWuzzy & Gandalf4217
The kid was green, so obviously new at being on the rails that everything was still exciting and an adventure to him. Poor sod, he'd get over that soon enough, but I still remembered the thrill of my first ride back in the 1960's, and so I let him enjoy his 'moment'. There would be damned few other ones worthy of remembering later.
"Kid, I don't know what the hell you're doing here, but this ain't the glory days of hobos riding the rails anymore, and there are dumber fucks than you out there now that will cut your pudgy throat in a LA second to take your wallet, VISA card, and if nothing else your sneakers. Kid, if you're looking for an escape, this ain't it. If you're looking for an adventure this definitely ain't it, unless you have a particular liking to be stabbed by four or five strangers in a railyard just on the chance you might have something in your pocket that'll buy them a few beers. Go Home!"
With that I shut my eyes and counted slowly to one hundred to myself and prayed when I opened my eyes again the poor blighter would have jumped off and 'gone back home', wherever the heck it was.
It didn't work, the kid was still there and the freight train was now starting to move out from the railyard, slowly picking up steam (or whatever modern diesel engines pick up instead ... probably torque or something). After about 30 miles per hour or so, jumping from a moving train gets to be scary business and not to be lightly undertaken.
Despite what people think, nothing in life is free, including riding the rails. You might not pay with coin, but if you're not careful you'll be paying with your body or your life instead. Only damned fools and Hollywood stuntmen jump from fully moving trains.
The kid had joined my boxcar while we were parked in the freight yard at Clovis, New Mexico and it had taken him about three tries to get himself into the car. He wasn't quite 'fat', but let's just say instead that he was a tad well-nourished. Unlike me, he hadn't missed a whole lot of meals lately and looked to be just a tad soft. Way too soft for whatever fun he had been planning.
He looked to be in his early 30's, but with a baby face like his, who knows. If he had been younger, I'd have chalked him up as a college dropout looking to explore the country before settling down with the wife, mortgage and the 2.6 children playing in the yard. That would have been me once, and thirty years later my ass was still riding freight cars heading God knows where.
I wasn't all that much older than him, probably, but he was definitely old enough to be my son, and "Kid" seemed to suit him perfectly. We were now stuck together for at least the next two hundred miles or so, and I might as well find out from him just what the hell he was doing on this man's railroad, when he obviously had a wife (and maybe kids) back home.
"Kid, you're a college boy aren't you?" It wasn't really a question, but he nodded his head anyway. "That means you've read books, studied things and sort of have at least a basic idea of the way the world works. Me, I made the mistake of reading Jack Kerouac back in the 1960's and got it into my fool head that the world was ripe for me to explore without any money in my pocket, and thirty years later here I am, still riding the rails and still without a penny in my pocket. I pay no taxes, but I have no one at home waiting for me either with open arms, let alone any open legs. When I die, stabbed in some railyard by some nutcase, or falling under these steel wheels, or breaking my back or neck jumping from a freight car, or even freezing my worthless ass off in some mountain pass in winter, there ain't one damned soul that's going to shed a tear for me."
"Kid, there ain't no 'Big Rock Candy Mountain', now why the fuck are you really here?"
The kid had a story all right, and it was a damned good one, and lasted us darn near until we reached Amarillo, Texas. I had to admit it was 'different', I've heard of at least a thousand tales of men running from the long arm of the law, and another hundred men or so that had run from jealous husbands wielding a knife or a gun, but never had I heard of a jealous boyfriend threatening and planning to kill the husband so he could marry the grieving widow before. And not for a fortune either.
That was low ... maybe I had lived for too long. There was a lot about the modern world that didn't sit too well with me.
In a nutshell, the poor sod had a fairly cute wife that was banging her boss. The fool had known about it, dithered over what to do about it and in the end had done nothing. He allowing himself to be cuckolded, until the day he overheard his wife's lover making plans to do him in, in a particularly nasty way.
It helped that his wife's boyfriend was not just rich, but damn near had more money than God, and could hire professional quality leg-breakers with just a phone call or two. In short, the kid was running for his life, and making his plans up on the spur of the moment. His name was 'Chris', but he was needing to get a new identity and trying to get (and stay) disappeared for a good long time, until a better plan came along.
I've always loved hopeless quests, so this one was right up my alley. As I hoped, this train turned on north up into the Midwest, good, because it was blueberry picking time up north in Minnesota, and by the time we got there we had a plan or two.
For a good part of that year I mentored the poor bastard and taught him how to read the old Hobo signs, not that many except us old-timers still used them. This would tell him at a glance where best to pick up a freight, how to avoid the yards with nastier than usual 'bulls' (railroad company security guards), and most importantly, how to keep moving and stay away from trouble.
As I told him at least a thousand times, riding the rails wasn't safe any more, and more of the younger hobo population seemed to be just batshit crazy - killers that would group together to rob, steal and even kill a penniless bum just for the fun of it. These were very dark days for us old train hobos, it seemed like every bad guy in the world was setting out deliberately to thin our numbers. Us 'old timers' would try and stick together the best we could, and watch out after each other, but more of us kept disappearing each year. Some quitting the road for good, others now probably dead and murdered and now lying in some shallow grave near some lonely railroad tracks. Some probably murdered by wandering serial killers or the ever increasing gangs full of skinhead fuckups like the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America), with their all of their bandana code affiliations.
I warned Chris over and over, "If you see any wearing a bandana, especially a black, red or blue one, get your ass moving away from them and run - leave me if you have to. Those fuckers will stab you just for the fun of watching you bleed."
"No Sandy", I kept telling myself, it was long past time to get off of the road.
We picked berries up north for a few months, got some coins in our pockets and found a 'fixer' in Chicago that turned Chris Duncan into a new (and hopefully safer) Chris Turner. That new ID came in the nick of time because all of a sudden there were a lot of prying folks suddenly asking questions about a young hobo named Chris Duncan. Sharp-eyed men that flashed badges and big money around a bit too fast to be cops. We hopped the first train out of Chicago we could get heading anywhere.
Once we were fairly safe, I found out what had started this sudden interest in him. The idiot had actually used his ATM card, and worse at the bank just across the street from the fleabag joint we were staying! Within just a few hours, private dicks were hassling everyone in the area asking about him and only his new fake ID got him past one sharp witted fellah. They were expecting Chris to still be a pale skinned heavy-set man. Six months on the rails and doing fieldwork had changed his appearance considerably.
This time he got lucky, the next time they might be better prepared.
"There was a lot more money in the account than I had though." He muttered.
I resisted the urge to throw something heavy at him. It was his life and he could take any risks he wanted to. Besides, he knew we needed the money and was freely sharing what he had. He was a good kid ... but still needed to learn some self-preservation skills.
He hadn't been stupid enough to think that his credit and ATM cards weren't being watched, but he had (badly) underestimated how fast his wife's lover could react. Worse, now with just a little easy investigation they'll learn that the kid was hanging in hobo circles and riding the rails. This meant that there would be "Reward" posters for information about him just about everywhere now. The bigger camps and railyards wouldn't be safe anymore. The amount of money that they could offer would tempt virtually any hobo, especially the more thirsty ones.
Fortunately I never had much of a thirst and money, even big money, didn't have much hold on me either. I wished for the hundredth time that the fool kid had left my boxcar that first day back in Clovis. They would be looking for the kid everywhere now and soon would have a pretty good idea where and how.
Later, undoubtedly, my name would start appearing and they'd be looking for us both. Let them ... I knew a couple of good hiding holes a bit off of the beaten track and the sooner we got to one of them the better.
We changed trains a lot for the next week or two and avoided every large town we could. I went alone into a large hobo camp near Little Rock just to get a few supplies and get some information. I got plenty of both.
As I expected there were several large "Missing Person" posters picturing Chris and featuring a $20,000 reward. Casual inquiry revealed that a local PI in Little Rock was passing these out everywhere including the local bus stations and a good many hobo's (especially the FTRA goons) were itching to find and spend that money. I got my supplies and returned to where Chris had hid himself by a very indirect route, stopping often to make sure we weren't followed.
It's insanely dangerous to try and get onto an already moving freight train, those steel wheels are sharp and very unforgiving, but we had no choice. We got onto the first moving train we could find to get out of the area. In fact we stayed on probably one stop too many as I think several bums took a bit too much interest in us in some small northern Alabama town. We were a bit short of grub, but I didn't even take the risk of going into town and we just hit the road fast.
We had someone following us for awhile, but we took to the woods at one point and lost them.
The plan originally had been to pick some winter produce down south, but it was clear that we were just going to now attract too much attention. I knew of a good and probably safe place down in the swamps of southern Florida working on the saw palmetto harvest (strangely much more lucrative than other produce picking), but the trick was going to be getting there. We had to get near a rail line but we knew everyone was looking for us.
Waiting for an eastbound train that I hoped would take us into Florida, Chris undoubtedly saved my life.
I had been feeling a bit off kilter, probably because it had rained for the last week straight and I had the sniffles. We made camp for the night underneath a railway bridge just outside the rail yard. It wasn't really a particularly safe place and I knew it at the time, but I was too wet and miserable at the moment to care.
The local rail bulls here were notorious hard-asses and if we were caught we'd be looking at an automatic thirty-day County Jail sentence at hard labor enriching the coffers of the local boss Sheriff. No thanks. This did mean that our camp site was a logical place for other hobos to congregate, and about 2 a.m. that morning a group of three red- scarved yahoo's joined our camp. The red color meaning FTRA-South gang affiliation and naturally they wanted trouble.
We looked like we were easy pickings, and we were. Even worse, they soon decided that Chris looked enough like his old photo to be worth grabbing.
Chris had standing orders to leave my worthless ass and beat a retreat. I'd get my butt kicked, maybe a bone or two broken, but if I let them take our stuff without too much hassle I'd probably still be alive in the morning. Maybe.
The kid had other ideas. He was tired of being chasing and utterly pissed off and he picked up his stout walking stick and demonstrated the will to use it. That was nice, the FTRA fucks pulled out their knives.
"Run you idiot!" I told him weakly from my sleeping bag as I tried get up so I could perhaps have that same option myself, but the kid wasn't having any of it, and soon things got ugly.
There were some points in the kid's favor, he was in pretty good physical condition by now, wasn't hopped up on drink or drugs like the FTRA's guys usually were, and he was mightily and righteously pissed off indeed. The fact that his long heavy walking stick had a much better reach than a pocket knife soon made the odds even as he whacked the first thug right upside his skull before parrying the thrust of the guy next to him. The third guy, a low life coward that wanted nothing to do with a fair fight, started applying a bit of steel pipe to my back, ribs and sides as I still struggled to get up and make myself useful.
I caught an especially nasty blow to my right arm that prevented the fucker from cracking my skull like a walnut before I tackled him and we wrestled around for awhile, each waiting for the other's buddy to come save our ass. This morning it was my buddy who came to rescue me.
Comparing wounds, we were both frankly a bit fucked up but we considered ourselves lucky. Chris had a slight cut on his side that didn't seem to damage anything important and a few slight defensive slash wounds on his arms, but I definitely now had a broken right arm.
All in all, things could have been so very much worse.
We left them alive, but took anything of value they had (they did have some decent cash money) which was enough to pay for a local county quack to put a cast on my arm, buy a clean set of clothes and some hair coloring, and pay for a couple of Greyhound bus tickets out of the area fast and into Florida. One of the FTRA guys had told me that everyone was indeed on the lookout for us in the area and every railyard was being watched and locked up tighter than usual. This made the risk of taking the bus tolerable by comparison.
The bad news was now they definitely would have my description as well. At least we were now in Florida, and another bus transfer later we were near Miami at the edge of the Everglades at the small swamp camp of an old hobo acquaintance of mine.
'Old Gilmore' kept no ties to the outside world, he didn't even own a TV or radio. His hut didn't even have electricity. He was an old school Okie hobo that had started his travels in the days of the dust bowl and here was where he had retired from the road about ten years ago.
You'll never quite get rich selling saw palmetto, but it paid surprising well to buyers from the vitamin companies. Fishing, crabbing, digging oysters and the odd roasted alligator tail rounded out the rest of his diet and we didn't get hungry. Gilmore didn't have any real true friends, but he respected me and he always need the help these days as he was getting too old to spend all day knee deep in the swamp fishing and shooing away alligators. Here, for at least awhile, we would be safe. We made ourselves useful and he didn't ask any questions.
I couldn't work much for awhile, when harvesting you get paid for your production and output, not by the hour, but Chris looked after me for awhile saying that he 'owed it to me' anyway, for all that I had done to help him, and he kept us financially afloat and going for at least the next two months.
I got the sense though that the kid's days on the rails were about done and we discussed this most evenings. Sure things would quiet down in the railcamps for awhile, but as soon as we hit the road again the excitement would just start up all over again.
If (and that was a big if) we could get ourselves all the way safely across the country I knew a good camping place in northern Oregon that would support us for awhile. There was also a friend up in Maine with a cranberry bog that always needed assistance nearly all year round. On the other hand, somehow it seemed to me that more running and hiding just didn't seem like the right solution. We'd be treading water at best, postponing our problems for another day.
Increasingly, the idea of us splitting up seemed to make more and more sense. Chris had a decent fake ID now and he could get lost in a big city and work a real job again. He would be safe from his pursuers, and the increasing dangers of the road. There was really no reason that he needed to ride the rails going anywhere now.
I would be safer in fact now on my own, I kept telling him. Chris at first was against this, but he soon saw the logic and began spending a good many days up in Miami job hunting. It just seemed the right thing to do.
By springtime, I sensed we were near a final parting. He seemed to press me harder each evening in our camp for me to tell him stories of my early life and the "glory days' of riding the rails. Well, I'd missed those days - way before my time, by the 1960's things were a bit more sordid.
"Surely" he would ask me, "There must have been some woman sometime, somewhere that I had met that would 'keep me at home' and off of the road?"
The problem was, there really hadn't been any. You don't meet many women at hobo railroad camps, and I was a bit too proud even after thirty years of living on the rails to go up to strange houses and beg for food or money. That really limited my romantic opportunities quite a bit.
When pressed, I admitted that long time ago when I was still green to the rails a strange elderly woman in South Texas had told me that I would return back there some day and by the sweat of my brow and dirt in my hands I would win the love of a good and kind woman and find at last my Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Big Rock Candy Mountain? That was a famous song from back when that woman was still a little girl. That's the Hobo's paradise, in a land somewhere far, far away, where there are no evil rail yard bulls, no snow or rain, and the fountains spring forth lemonade or liquor to suit the thirsty hobo's every taste. With no work and no want, the weary hobo could at last take his long deserved rest. Hobos have been singing this song in their camps since the 1920's and Burl Ives had even made a commercial hit with the song sometime around the time I was born.
"No Sandy" I again told myself, "there is no Big Rock Candy Mountain."
Chris further pressed me, "If I found a good paying job here in Florida, where would you go, what would you do?"
Where would I go? Wherever the next freight car took me. What would I do? Tomorrow never knows. I would try and survive, one day to the next. I was getting too old for the rails, too old to stoop and pick crops in the heat and dodge rattlesnakes and alligators in any more palmetto swamps. Maybe I was too old and useless - I wasn't yet 50 years old but most days now I felt near 60.
As a famous actor once said supposedly, "It's not the years, it's the mileage", and boy did I have a lot of very hard mileage.
Naturally, the Kid did have a real job dangling up his sleeve, doing some cooking onboard a grade D or worse cruise ship and I told him to take it and he'd be a damned fool if he didn't. I would get by ... I always had somehow.
He gave me a Post Office box address where I could write him here in Florida, and somehow before we parted for good, I promised that I would try and find that small town in South Texas and pay it one last visit to see if the fortune of the old woman would come true. I've seen stranger things happen.
It was a very awkward goodbye. We both knew it would be for the best, here he would be safe and had a decent paying job that he thought he would enjoy. I would 'sneak' the best I could into the mid-west before appearing in a few hobo camps to muddy up our trail. If I could do it right, no one would have the faintest clue where Chris really was. I would leave different stories in every camp about where Chris had left my camp, and keep hundreds of PI's busy all over the country for naught. Perhaps even some day some good might come out of all of this.
I took the Greyhound bus out of Miami the next day and lived on bus stop ham and cheese sandwiches and stayed well out of sight for nearly a week until I got to Lincoln, Nebraska. Bus stations everywhere are full of middle-age and elderly men and with good clothes on I blended right in. I saw several of Chris's "Missing" bulletins but I didn't pay them much mind. At least they didn't seem to know my name yet.
Changing back into my usual hobo clothes, I pulled my reappearance act at the local hobo camp and was disappointed that no one seemed to be looking for me yet. Even a couple of FTRA thugs paid me no mind. No matter, it was back to 'business as usual', and sooner or later someone would ask me if I was the Sandy traveling with the 'Million Dollar Baby".
Some of the reward amounts I noticed seemed unbelievable. Surely, every bum and hobo had their eyes now peeled looking for the kid. Eventually, a bum in Utah recognized me and asked me where "my friend" was?
"Left me back in Dallas about six weeks ago, the ungrateful bastard." I told him and the hundreds who asked later after him. "We had a bit of a falling out after doing some produce and fruit picking down south. I decided to go west, I think he decided to up northeast, New England, maybe even up to Canada. He mentioned something about a good maple syrup job in a small town somewhere."
I crossed the country back and forth at least five times that year spreading that same bogus story, while being about as obviously visible as I could. Some FTRA-North guys took to following me all summer long, convinced that eventually I would lead them into the promised land of untold riches. I even did my 'normal' winter harvest jobs in Florida but stayed as far away from Miami as possible.
By springtime, I was old news and not even the FTRA folks had any interest in me anymore, but I took no chances and stuck with my full normal migratory work schedule for most of the year.
I was at my friends cranberry bog in Maine working on the autumn harvest when I had a most unusual visitor at my little shack home on the property. I pegged him right away as just another private eye, one of dozens that had tracked me down to question me about Chris, and he got the exact same answers that I'd given all of the rest. This one was smart enough to know that I was lying through my teeth and that tailing me wasn't going to accomplish anything either, but he didn't seem to resent it or take it personally either.
"What if I was to tell you that Chris was never in any danger whatsoever and that his wife just wants him safe at home?" He asked me with a twinkle.
"Ah! But that's just what the evil bastard chasing him wants him to think isn't it?" I replied with a wink of my own, and he laughed before dropping one last bombshell on me before departing.
"By the way, you don't need to mail any more postcards to your friend down in Miami either. Seemed he stopped working at that cruise line job rather suddenly about three weeks ago and didn't leave any forwarding address. The chase goes on, and I bet everyone's sick and tired of it. His wife is in tears again, thinking they were about to be reunited and her lover just feels like even more of a heel. It should be really funny ... except it actually isn't. This hasn't been much fun for me either or for you I bet. You did a great job spreading false reports for over a year and if you ever want a job with my agency it's yours for the asking. You trained that kid well — nobody's going to find him unless he screws up bad or someone else gets very, very lucky."
We shook hands goodbye and he left me his business card which I had promised not to tear up. I didn't notice until after I left that he had also left me a couple of hundred dollars sitting on my small dining table.
I'm a very good judge of character and I decided that this PI actually believed what he had told me, and for the first time I began to wonder if Chris hadn't fled half-cocked and very premature from an otherwise mostly innocent situation.
Losing nearly three years of his life to a 'misunderstanding'. It didn't matter now - I had no way of getting a hold of him. Our paths seemed permanently separate now.
I did resolve that at last I would uphold my final promise to him. I would head down south to Texas and make one last search for my Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The fates aligned with me, the next three trains I hopped all took me south and west heading closer to Texas. The fourth train, mostly loaded with empty petrochemical containers, took me nearly all of the way there deep into Southeast Texas and almost to the coast.
I felt I was somewhere close, but not quite there yet, and it had been a very long time since I had been anywhere near this far south before. There was harvesting in the Rio Grande Valley, but there was an amply supply of Mexicans to do that labor, and hobos were not needed and there were a great many unfriendly Sheriffs in-between.
In the end, I decided to trust my nose; it usually had better sense than the rest of me put together. I had vaguely remembered a town near the coast, but not quite on it, so I just aimed my nose south and determined to keep the Gulf on my left side and marched on forwards. It took awhile to find, but one rainy mid-summer afternoon when I stopped for shelter under a small railroad trestle, I found exactly what I was looking for, a nearly invisible scratched marking on the wood of the trestle with my circled initials on it and dated from 1969.
I had been here before. The town must be nearby, as I now vaguely remembered walking to here to catch a train out of Texas, and the next day I found it. A small backwater rural town of no particular account or importance near the coast called Lovett, Texas.
Things seemed a bit changed since I was last here, folks seemed a bit nicer and the Town Centre definitely looked more prosperous than when I had briefly passed through nearly 30 years ago. The smell of fresh paint and optimism was everywhere. Suited me fine, I could use a fresh coat of each on my own soul.
The first order of business was to find some work, and the first three people I asked all gave me the exact same answer - 'go to the Church'. I expected some trouble with a young lady Deputy Sheriff who politely asked if she could help me, but when I told her I was looking for the Church, she offered to give me a ride directly over there, and then bade me a good day and good luck with my job hunting. Definitely different from the attitude of most Sheriff's offices in most places I had been.
The opportunities available to me for employment via the kindness of the Church did not seem particularly promising. There was a quite successful computer company in town, but I had no skills for that and couldn't even type decently. There was also a revived aviation industry just outside of town a bit at the County airport, but my skills were lacking a bit there too. I joked that I had a fairly strong back and was used to spending all of my time with my fingers in the dirt.
This engendered a loud laugh from a man about my own age who seemed to be the local priest whom everyone called Father Al. He suggested that I go offer my services to a lady by the name of Dr. Rosalyn White, and that he would even offer to drive me over there to meet her himself.