Up on The Range

Up on The Range is where we everything
Remember when the County Fair was in Hibbing?
Six of us went, the girls on our laps
T.J. Swan and Schnapps for them, we had Southern Comfort, Jack and Jim.
A little Columbian with some of the worst homegrown for backup
More friends met us there in Bubba Pender’s pick-up
We had mini-donuts and elephant ears and we made bad decisions behind the carnival trailers
Those two broke up and that one threw up and it went bad from there

Up on The Range is where we everything
Grandpas, Dads and Uncles working swings at the mine
We had our first time and did our first crime
Got our first cars and lied our way into that one bar
Some of us graduated, some dropped out, some died

Some grew roots, some of us couldn’t be held down
We moved or stayed, found our tribes and lived our lives

But we all have it in us, with us, in our being

Up on The Range is where we everything4a21c4b82b4e0fc151c33ed9f8eea843

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The Last Time I Saw Scarface Billy

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I saw Billy at the Bus Stop on Nicolette and Franklin. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but Scarface Billy looked 20 years older. He was on crutches dragging a bum leg in a brace. His face had been always been a cross-hatch of scars, but it looked worse. One eye was milky, blind, and that side of his face was drooping. His once jet-black thick hair had more salt than pepper and it struck me that I never knew how old Billy was…55? Maybe, but he looked 65. He didn’t have many teeth left, but the old tramp had fire blazing from his eyes and muscles still rippled in his forearms. He looked like what he was – an old wolf that, if pushed, would just kill you because he was too old to last in a fight.
I was embarrassed for him to see me in the condition that I was in; I had just come from my twice monthly hair-cut, I had a well-cut Brooks Brother’s suit flipped over the shoulder of my white light-weight Perry Ellis shirt. I was wearing pleated pants and expensive shoes. Hell, even my socks were expensive. He saw me.
“Hey, Soldier!? Is that you, man?”
“Hey, Billy. Yeah man, it’s me.”
“You look like a mark. Spare any change, mister?”
“Fuck you, old man.”
We stood there grinning at each other for a long ten seconds and then he said,
“Buy me a drink and give me a tailor-made smoke, ‘Citizen.’ “
We made our way to The Speakeasy – where all of the two-in-the-afternoon drinkers were pros. All of the men had decades old tattoos and some of the women had all of their teeth. It was where guys like us felt at home…when we were with guys like us. I was 29 years old, a kid in that bar, but I had lived ten men’s lives.
Billy asked about my clothes and I told him that I was married, separated, had a son and a different life than I once did. I was an account executive for print advertising for a publication that had a circulation of 100,000. I bullshitted my way into a job that had a company car and two-hour client lunches on the expense account. But I blew into town in a stolen car, had a warrant out for my arrest, and my life was coming apart.
“Who do you think you’re bullshitting, Soldier? Guys like us, we’ll never be Citizens.”
He called me Soldier because that was my street name when I met him. I was an 18 year-old street punk looking to get schooled in the art of hopping a freight train from Minneapolis to Eugene, Oregon. I rode the rails for the first time with Scarface Billy, Limpin’ Ed, Curly and Jim Forney. There was a girl in that mix too. I brought her along, but she disappeared with Curly when we hit Spookaloo. Billy took me under his wing and taught me how to roll my own cigarettes, make coffee over a fire in a soup can using a tied off clean-sock-pouch. He showed me how to get fifty cents on the dollar for food stamps, how to dive the best fast food dumpsters, and how to drink White Port, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird wine. I discovered Mad Dog 20/20 on my own.
Billy and the other guys knew where all the Salvation Armies, Rescue Missions, soup lines and food banks were in every town that we stopped in along the way. It was their way of life and I was being shown the ropes. I hung with Billy for a couple weeks, saw him open up the forearm of a big Ute with a broken Wild Irish Rose bottle, he was a wolf back then and I hadn’t seen him in the 8 years since.
An hour of drinking draft beer and Bacardi shots and I had stripped down to my wife-beater and threw my Perry Ellis shirt in the trash. We got shitty drunk, played shitty pool, Billy hobbled around the table on crutches, banging peoples shins and pissing off the room. It ain’t easy to get kicked out of the Speakeasy, but we did find ourselves out on the sidewalk in the hot sun of the late afternoon.
I got Billy back to the physical rehab place where he was sleeping, which was supposed to be a sober environment. I left him leaning on a buzzer and telling me not to forget that I would never be a Citizen.
I got arrested a week later and was sent to a work farm for six months.

 

 

My Mother Was a Writer, But I’ve Never Read Her Work.

The Northwoods of Minnesota, in the ’60s and ’70s, was a blue collar enclave of iron mining communities. The women and children worked hard on the home front while the men (and a very few women) worked swing shifts at the mines. With all of the responsibilities of raising four kids and taking care of my Dad’s needs, Mom wrote.

It’s taken me until very recently to realize that therein lies the roots of my writing. One would think that it is a glaringly obvious statement, but her writing was almost never discussed. Ever present, in various locations around the living room, were copies of Redbook, McCalls,  and Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. There were novels by Leon Uris, Anais Nin, William Peter Blatty, Victoria Holt or Mario Puzzo. And then there was the Writer’s Digest – The Bible of writers.

Mom wrote short stories and submitted them to each of the women’s magazines, and received her rejection letters quietly. In fact, her entire writing experience was done quietly. No one ever discussed it. It wasn’t taboo, it just never came up. I was barely aware of it, being so self-absorbed as kids are I do remember her tap tap tapping on her typewriter on days that I was home sick from school. I’ve never read her work. I can only assume that the subject matter would have been appealing to women – based on the magazines that she was submitting to.

She was repressed by time, place, societal norms and expectations. As more time passes since her death a few years ago, I’ve come to see her in a much different light and along with that comes a much deeper appreciation and respect.

She was an avid reader and always encouraged me to do the same, and I did. When I showed an interest in photography, she subscribed to two photography magazines for me. She was a good singer, and when any of us showed an interest in music, she supported it. She was always trying to expand her world. After my father passed away, she married an artist who worked in the painting and sculpture mediums.

She was bigger than her surroundings, but I didn’t appreciate it. I do now, and I am proud of her.2015-05-10 14.17.33

 

When the Rest of the World Found Me and I Found the Rest of the World.

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1979
I was a sixteen-year-old boy walking down the short main street of a northern Minnesota iron mining town, looking for friends or trouble to get into. I saw a new bone-white Lincoln Continental parked, facing me, on the street just ahead of me. I took a couple steps closer and saw that inside was a woman in the passenger seat. She was alone and looking directly at me with a slight grin. I stopped then, and if anyone had been around to see me, they would have wondered why I stood frozen on the sidewalk for what seemed like…it seemed like…time stopped.
She was a black woman in a land where one could drive a hundred miles and not see another, but that wasn’t it. It was her breath taking, exotic, sensual beauty. I swear her eyes were made of dark chocolate and gold, and her skin was a copper tone that I had never seen in a movie or magazine. She wore a white felt narrow brimmed Fedora with a feather sticking from the hat band. The longer I stood there, the bigger her smile got, but neither of us was uncomfortable. Just in the moment. I took in the whole image of her in this fine chariot and I knew that my life had been changed.
It was at that moment when the rest of the world found me, and I found the rest of the world.

First Memories

My first memory is of a  big man in a white T-shirt named Babe, telling me to pick my own switch for an ass beating. I remember going out into the humid Alabama night, chickens at my feet, to pull a branch off of a bush. My five-foot-two mom was fighting for me, and Babe’s parents jumped in the middle of it. My next memory was of me and Mom sitting on a bench at the Greyhound Bus station in the early morning darkness. Babe was begging her to stay. We didn’t.

We went to the South Side of Chicago from there that summer and Mom got a job making triggers at a Smith and Wesson gun factory. When she worked, the downstairs neighbor family babysat me. There was a little girl my age with her afro tied to look like Minnie Mouse. Her Father grabbed her by those tufts once while we were playing, picked her up, and flung her against the wall over my head. I was three years old

The picture in this piece is of me on a tricycle that I got for my third birthday. It got stolen the same day.

We moved to Mom’s homeland then, Minnesota, and things got better.

 

You Ain’t From Here

 

By Eddy Cook

 

 

Chris and I made our way to the Kansas City Southern rail yard and caught a southbound. We were broke, hungry, and were in no mood for the derailment we got caught in later that day. I t was a super low-speed accident. Some tracks were out of alignment and caused the slow-moving train to derail right in the middle of a small town. A crew came out and used a hydraulic lift to raise the three derailed grain cars one at a time as they rebuilt the track beneath them. We laid low and smoked in the back corner of the open box, deep in the shadows so as not to draw attention.

It was some hours later when the train started moving south again. We rode into the night and decided to jump off at Garnet, Kansas, the first town that the train moved slowly enough through to leap off. We figured that maybe hitchhiking was a better option, in which case we would be able to talk our way into a little cash.

At first light we made our way out to the south- bound county road and stuck out our thumbs. Chris and I had hitched before – across the country from Minneapolis to Manhattan, but we had never done it this far south before. We could see right off that salt and pepper was too exotic for Garnett, Kansas. If looks could kill, Chris would have died four times an hour and me maybe just three.

Some local boys in an El Camino came from the North and swerved so close to us that we had to jump in the ditch, and then fantailed dirt on us from the shoulder of the road while the driver tried to keep it on the pavement. They weaved up the road and took a right onto a dirt road. We figured they’d be back, so Chris found a baseball sized rock and I got hold of a stump that I could swing like a mace into their windshield. We put our weapons in the grass nearby and tried again to catch a ride. Traffic was sparse and not having us. Then the El Camino came squealing and spitting back towards us again from the North.

They weren’t playing with us this time – the boy in the passenger seat struggled his way out the open window to get a shot off at us from a sawed-off and Chris and I took three steps and a dive into a heavy bramble of bushes, heavy thorns ripping at our flesh and clothing. They fired but they must have shot high, we didn’t catch any of the scatter shot, and then they were laughing and yelling

 “Nigger Lover!” As they blew by and out of distance.

We discovered that tracks ran parallel to the south bound road right behind the bush line that we jumped into, so we stayed on them and headed back North until we got near and intersection were a train would have to slow down on it’s way through town.

Chris’s eyebrow was gouged and an earlobe was streaming blood. Thorns had driven through the webbing of two of my fingers. We were a sight when the local law rolled up and crooked a finger at us when we neared the crossing.

“Passing through?”

I nodded,

“We’re trying. Figured we’d get off the road and try the train.”

“I’ll bet. Heard about that. I could round up those yahoos if you like.”

“No, but we sure would appreciate it if you would come by and check on us now and then while we try to catch out.”

“Will do. Stay off the road.”

“Will do.”

 

                We built a small fire near the tracks, between a crossing and a short bridge that crossed a river, and turned our backs toward the couple houses in sight, just to set them at ease. We were trying to stay off everyone’s radar. Broke, hungry and nearly out of Bugler tobacco.

                A train went by soon after we made camp, but it was going about five miles an hour too fast to catch while we were running with gear. After dark, another Kansas City Southern blew through and we realized that they were all too fast. We got off in this town, but it didn’t look we would be able to catch out.

                The slowest mover came at around 2 a.m. and we were ready. I would catch one and then roll by Chris, reach out to him, and help him on. I let half the train go by before I decided that there wasn’t going to be an open box and I was going to have to catch a ladder and get in the end compartment of a grain car.

                I ran to keep pace with the iron horse, timing my grab on the ladder. My pack was heavy but I was going to make it. Then the ground dipped about a foot deeper just as I leapt for the ladder and I was stuck holding the bottom rung.

                The train spun me and dragged me, snapping one of my backpack straps – the pack banging off the side of the car as I came into Chris’s view. He yelled and then covered his face. My shoes ripped off my feet, my heels were shredding on the coarse railroad rock and the shining screaming steel wheels were less than a foot away from my head. I remembered the bridge when I saw Chris cover his face, and I turned to see that it was about 30 yards off and coming at me fast. I had one shot, so I bunched up muscles and sprung as hard as I could away from the grinding wheels. The back pack, one strap still on my shoulder, softened my roll a little and I landed about 5 feet away from the bridge abutment.

 I was fucked up. I laid in the rocks doing a slow damage assessment. No breaks. My heels were in agony and I caught gravel and road rash on both cheeks and my chin. I hurt everywhere and just laid there. Cussing. Moaning.

Chris had been looking for me along the tracks and tripped over one of my feet.

“You dead, Soldier?”

“Negative. Got a smoke rolled?”

 

 

Chris helped me up and half-carried me back to where we had been camped, found my shoes along the way, and started a fire. He left with a plastic jug that we used for water, filled it at the restroom in the Sonic down the road, and brought it to me to bathe and doctor my feet. He’d also bought two cigarettes for a quarter from a teenager, and the teenager got a “I sold two cigarettes to a black guy” story. We had a good long smoke and cooked the last of some coffee we carried. I bathed my feet, pulled the rocks out, and then ripped a t-shirt in half and wrapped each foot. I could put them in shoes if I didn’t tie them. We slept hard and hungry that night.

The next day Chris and I spent staying off the street and waiting patiently by the tracks for a slower train. But we were hungry, out of smokes and feeling mean. If something didn’t change soon, we were going outlaw. We needed wheels.

At about five in the evening, we heard the screen door on the back porch of the nearest house slam shut. We watched as a father, a little boy and a little girl each with a container of food, started a slow march through a little field toward us. Dad carried a crock pot, the little boy was in charge of a big salad, and the little girl hustled toward us with a pan of corn bread.

Dad was explaining to us about how his wife couldn’t watch two transients go hungry while they ate so well, but both Chris and I were openly bawling and hardly heard him as each kid left food in front of us and said,

“God bless you, Hobos!” and Dad said to put everything over by a tree when we were done. We spoke of God and so did he, and they went back to their house.

We ate pot roast with potatoes and carrots, and corn bread, and salad, and we wept thankfully and bitterly. We didn’t go outlaw in that town. A train stopped there in Garnet, Kansas that night and we went on to New Orleans both feeling closer to human.