By E.A. Cook
Scarface Billy saw me before I saw him. “Hey Roll-Yer-Own. What’s up, tramp?”
I said “Hi” with my chin, and set my duffel down by his park-bench.
I didn’t expect to see a familiar face in Portland when I crawled out of the boxcar that morning. Night Eyes was sleeping off a drunk under an over-pass when I slipped away and hopped a freight out of Seattle the night before. She wouldn’t cry when she woke-up. Citizens cry. Tramps just move on.
Scarface aimed the neck of his bottle of Thundebird at the other end of the bench, and said,”Sit and light. Chief’s sittin’ there, but he went on a wine run. Been gone awhile.”
I took out the makings, rolled two smokes, and flipped one at Billy. He caught it with his left hand, his right was lifting the bottle to his lips.
“Drink?” He offered in a wine-whisper between swigs. I nodded, reached for the offered bottle, lifted the bottom to the cold, over-cast sky, and let the medicine burn it’s way past my cold heart, into my damaged stomach.
Scarface looked sharply over my shoulder, said”Chief! No!”, when the ham-sized fist found my temple. I half-turned in time to get a glimpse of the big indian before the grey washed over me.
On the way to the ground, I heard “My spot!”. Then the blackness came.
It was dark when I woke up on the ground, right where I fell. Cold rain hit my exposed cheek, while dried blood glued my other cheek to the grass. I hissed the pain through my gritted teeth as I peeled my head from the ground. A young couple on an evening stroll down the bike-path stepped wide and away as they saw me rise from the shadows. Their arrogant, dis-approving eyes watched me closely until they were safely away. “Nasty.” I heard her say. Bitch.
Citizens cry. Tramps just move on.
DERAILED IN KLAMATH
A swear to God disclaimer- This is a completely true story.
I parted the brush into the Hobo Jungle looking for a tramp to tell me which track would take me north from Oroville to K Falls. No one was there, but the clearing was better than most camps. There was a well-made fire pit, the ashes cold to the touch, and on a nearby tree hung a piece of mirror-wedged between two limbs. At about five feet it was at a just right shaving height. There were two cans of Vienna sausages left on a felled tree that served as a bench near the fire and there was fairly clean cardboard laid out on the edge of camp that a tramp could roll a bedroll out on.
I started a fire and filled my beat-up tin coffee pot with my water jug. From the side pocket of the Korean War era rucksack that I carried, I pulled out a pouch full of coffee. The pouch was half a clean tube sock stuffed with coffee and tied at the top. I got the water to boil and dropped the pouch in the water, put a lid on it and set it away from the direct flame to simmer slow.
“You’ve been taught well.”
I looked up when I heard the voice and saw a very old man not twenty feet away from me. It rocked me back on my heels because I hadn’t heard him or seen him walk up. I definitely should have – he had one eye, one hand, and one leg on opposing sides of his body. He was leaning on a crutch, and alongside him was a small three legged dog with no tail. May God strike me dead if I’m lyin’.
He asked if he could join me and I nodded. His stride, with one leg and a crutch, was synchronized so smoothly that it looked like no effort at all. He dropped his duffel near the fire and sat on it across from me. I offered coffee, and he produced a battered tin cup.
The tripod dog layed next to my foot, apparently diggin’ the idea of hanging with new company. The old man didn’t seem to mind. I watched as he layed out a paper on his knee, added tobacco, and massaged the paper into a good looking smoke, as quickly as would have with two hands.
“How old are you, boy?”
He chuckled then and said that the dog was nineteen. She’d had a much rougher road than me, by the looks of her.
He knew which track to watch, he was going to K Falls too, so we waited for a train to be built there, in the meantime we smoked and drank coffee while he told me stories and gave me tips about riding the rails. While telling his tales, he said that he had lost his leg under a train. There was a knife scar above and below his milky eye, so I guessed what happened there. He never mentioned what happened to his hand and I never asked.
“The dog just found me in another jungle when she was a pup. I don’t know what hell she went through.”
A part of the train being built rolled up about one in the afternoon. The old man made his way to the door of an open box that had doors open on both sides, threw his duffel in and grabbed the big iron door handle and vaulted himself in with just the upper body strength of one side of his body and a great leap with his one leg.
“What about the dog?”
“She’ll jump up here when it starts moving.”
It was about a three-foot grade to the box car, and another four feet to the floor of the car. I couldn’t imagine her making it.
A while later, after being banged around back and forth as the train was built, we heard the air being forced in to the brakes in a chain reaction all the way down the track. There were four iron horses at the front blowing diesel smoke, the engine in front revved hard and the train started moving.
The little dog got up from the shade of a big rock and took-off after us. Her two back and one front leg busted ass up the tracks. When she caught up, she hunched her back legs on the fly and leapt the seven feet and landed on the metal floor three legs down, the momentum caused her to slide across and almost out the other door, but the old man stopped her with his crutch across her chest.
“She does that all the time.”
We got drunk on Night Train and smoked and told lies while we steadily climbed into the Klamath Mountains. The railroad tunnels were bored into mountain sides, the diesel smoke from the engines filled the tight space and we choked through handkerchiefs in pitch black darkness until we saw daylight. The more we climbed, the worse the tracks got and it got so that a constant swaying and jerking was just going to be the way of it. The old man said we would get there about 1 a.m., so we drank ’till we passed out. It was the only way to survive the ride.
When I woke-up it was daylight, the train wasn’t moving, and there was a mad racket outside. It was supposed to be one in the morning. I was hung-over, still drunk, dehydrated and I had to piss, so the mystery of the unidentified loud noise that I was hearing, and the sun glaring into the box-car would have to wait until I could whip it out and get my relief.
I stumbled toward the door, leaned on the wall and let fly out the door into…nothing. Wide open sky with no land in sight. A bout of vertigo caused me to let go of myself and grab the door frame with both hands. Just then, the old man and the dog came up along-side me and we all stared for a moment.
“Damn chopper woke me up. Were the hell is it?”
All three of us stepped a little closer to the edge and looked down. We were looking almost straight down the side of a mountain. About one thousand feet down lay freight cars crashed through the tops of ponderosa pines and boulders. Our train. The one we were on.
I looked down the side of the car and saw two cars behind us and the Caboose. In front of us were three cars and a curving quarter mile of destroyed twisted tendrils of track and dislodged railroad ties leading into a tunnel. The train had derailed. The rest of it was down the mountain. There was a helicopter up-righting some of the cars with a big claw, and loading them onto flat-bed trucks. About a dozen hard-hats were milling around the wreckage and one of them looked a thousand feet up the slope at a young tramp with his dick hanging out, an old hobo with missing pieces, and a three legged dog. An image, I’m sure, that would stay with him forever.
The hard hat yelled something to us and started trekking up the slope, waving his hands. Eventually he quit waving, the ground had become so steep and treacherous that he need both hands for the climb.
The old man handed me a bottle, I took a long pull, zipped up my pants, and we both sat in the doorway and rolled cigarettes and smoked while the upset hard hat bitched and cursed his way toward us. The dog laid her head down on her paw and went to sleep.
It took the guy about ten minutes to get up the slope and when he got up to the train he put his hands on his knees and gasped out words to us,
“What the hell… are you men alright? How..shit, I can’t breathe, did you get here?”
I handed him the bottle,
“We got on in Oroville.”
“Well, you can’t be here.”
“But we are.” I handed him the end of my cigarette and he declined.
“Nobody got hurt?”
“We were drunk,” the old man and I said in unison.
He got on the radio then, explained us to his boss, re-explained using different words, and then repeated it one more time. There was radio silence for about ten long seconds and then the boss came back with,
“Another train coming in twenty on track two, put them on it, in the back engine and tell them not to touch a damn thing.”
Hard hat jumped up in the car with us and sat next to the dog. She didn’t budge. Just slept.
Another Burlington Northern iron horse roared through the open mountain tunnel and slowed around the bend towards us. As it pulled up we could see the engineer with his mouth agape as he looked at the wrecked track next to him and the cars down below.
Hard hat talked to the engineer for a while, then came back and showed us which engine to load up on.
“There’s cold water bottles in coolers in there, and a toilet under the front end. Don’t touch anything. Don’t drink, don’t smoke and if the dog messes, clean it up.”
We threw our bedrolls on the floor and kept our heads down as the big diesels roared to life and the air was put to the brakes. When we got to the yard at Klamath Falls it was night, and we didn’t want to meet the local law that we figured must be waiting, so we used the darkness to slip off the train while it was still moving about five miles per hour. The old man stepped down the stairs and leaned into a slow shoulder roll down a grassy slope. He rolled once and was on his knees when I stepped off with all my gear and stayed on my feet at a trot. The little dog jumped and I lost sight of her in the thick dark bushes.
We woke up at the local Rescue Mission the next day. I was feeling like a new man after a night on a real bed. After a breakfast of donated day-old Quarter Pounders and day-old donuts I was ready for whatever was next…after I rolled another smoke.
An excerpt from my autobiography Faces Places and Pain
Spring made me restless. Everything made me restless, but Spring was as good an excuse as any to leave town. I don’t know how we came to be together, but I was creeping the streets with a girl named Ann when I decided to go to California. She wanted to hitchhike with me and I definitely welcomed the company of a sexy, if not a little dim, street girl.
We were walking down the tracks behind and slightly below the surface of the streets of downtown, making our way to the interstate when we ran into another traveler named Curly. He was a burly bearded biker without a hog and ready to pull out too.
“You guys ever done the freight trains before?” I saw the panting dog look he was giving her, everyone had that response. Whatever, she wasn’t mine. We told him we hadn’t and he said he would be glad to show us how to catch one out of town. Sure.
We followed him north for a mile or so to a spot where he said would be the best place to catch one moving slow. We stopped at a camp of three other guys who had a fire going at the base of an embankment near a bridge. The entire rail yard and the tracks going through town were about 50 feet below street level, all the better for those of us who wanted to stay off the radar of cops and citizens.
We introduced ourselves. They called me Soldier back then, and nobody asked me why. An older guy with a ball cap said his name was Jim Forney, I found out later that he had been a top rodeo star through the 70’s until the injuries caught up to him and brought him down.
Limpin’ Ed introduced himself and offered us some coffee. Ed had a short leg and was a lifelong freight train traveler and ranch hand in the winter.
And then there was Scarface Billy. I didn’t know it then, but he would become the Fagan to my Oliver Twist. His face was a roadmap to hell. His Romanesque nose had been broken at least a couple times. Older scars had receded into his cheeks and forehead as though he had been born with them. A few new ones were on the surface- crosshatched and red. One scar was vertical, running down across his eyebrow, upper and lower eyelids and a half-inch down unto his cheekbone giving him a Jonah Hex appearance. The eye was half closed and milky, and I wasn’t sure it was alive anymore. His almost perfect close-cropped combed hair was jet-black except for a shock of white where a scar travelled down from his scalp. His forearms were covered in old faded tattoos and the muscles beneath rolled like snakes under the skin. I wanted to be him.
I asked for a smoke and Billy handed me a pouch of Bugler rolling tobacco and some papers. I didn’t know how to roll a smoke, but I sat on my duffle bag and attempted to. It came out tapered like a joint and the old travelers all showed a look of amusement. Billy shook his head, grabbed the badly wrapped smoke from me, ripped it and dumped it back into the pouch and said,
He sprinkled tobacco evenly across the paper that he held deftly in one hand, cradled it along the middle and index fingers of both hands, and with his thumbs, slowly rolled it into a perfect cylinder leaving the just the gummed edge which he licked and rolled tight.
“That, Youngblood, is a cigarette. You wanna be a Tramp, you gotta roll like one. Take the makings and practice. You got time. We all got nothing but time.”
We waited for a train to go west on the number 6 track. I spent the time rolling and listening to these grizzled veterans of the road tell their stories. The afternoon wore on and we watched an eastbound go by into the yard and later a westbound on the number two track.
Limpin’ Ed nodded at the westbound and said, “That one’s going to Wilmar.”
Afternoon became night and I watched as Scarface Billy opened a baggy of coffee, poured a couple table spoons worth into a clean white sock and tied it off at the top. He set it carefully into a soup can of boiling water and let it steep. Coffee for one. He gave it to Ann and me and recooked the pouch in another can and took it himself.
Our westbound showed up at about two in the morning. We were all awake and ready when it rolled by at about five miles an hour and gaining speed. Billy grabbed his gear and jogged down the tracks east of us and found an open box. Ed told us to spread out and be ready when the box came by. I put Ann in front of me to make sure she got on. Each man reached out to grab the next one going by. Curly caught Ann’s hand, hoisted her up, and I reached out to the door handle of the box, flung my duffle up, and jogged a couple paces until I could vault my feet up. Billy caught my pant leg and I was in. He nodded approval when I stood up.
“You did that like a champ, Soldier. Like you were born to it.” Maybe I was. It felt like living. I had to travel to live, and I was on my way. Somewhere. Somewhere else.
We were traveling courtesy of Burlington Northern on what the others called a Hot Shot. A Hot Shot didn’t stop in every other town it went through but made a non-stop run to a particular town. This one was going to Minot, North Dakota and was supposed to be about a ten hour trip.
We rumbled and rolled and swayed and vibrated our way north and west, sometimes slowing through populated areas but never stopping. Nothing about an empty box car is soft. It was iron top to bottom and not designed for human transport. It was cold at night and dirty. Everyone slept across the car rather than end to end just in case the train stopped suddenly. If your head was near the end of the car when it hit the brakes you could break your neck. Ann and I slept and fucked as best we could, and Curly was never far from us. Ever. Always panting.
We drank White Port and Thunderbird and tepid water from milk jugs. Billy came out with a pack of Marlboros and I grinned as he shook one out for me. He had store-bought, but he made me learn how to roll. Crusty bastard.
We jumped off the box as it slowed down about a mile from the Minot yard. Riding was illegal and no-one wanted to get caught by the local railroad bull.
We made camp along the wall of an abandoned warehouse and one of the tramps came out with some hard bread and baloney. It was all anyone had, and it was shared evenly. Later, we caught another one and rumbled on to Havre, Montana and north to Whitefish. When we got there we were out of Marlboros, food and water, but Jim Forney had food stamps waiting for him at the local Human Services office. When he got them, we all split up and went to every store and convenience store that would take stamps. We each bought a pack of gum for a dime, and pocketed the ninety cents. We ended up with almost six dollars. Wine and tobacco money.
“You don’t spend money on food, Youngblood. That’s what stamps and dumpsters are for.”
We caught a Hot Shot for Spokane and when we arrived there it was night and I was passed out drunk. When they woke me up to jump off, Ann and Curly were gone. Together. Whatever. I’d been alone before.
Billy and I paired up to go dumpster diving. He showed me that once sandwiches spent their time limit under the heat lamp, McDonalds and Burger King threw them away still encased in their Styrofoam containers. Free warm clean food was waiting in the dumpsters. We made our way back with a booty of burgers, but Ed and Jim never did. We didn’t know why. It’s how things went on the road.
Scarface and I ate our fill and drank until we couldn’t anymore and rolled up in our sleeping bags and passed out. When I woke up, Billy was gone. On a rock next to the fire was a new pack of Bugler, a sack of Quarter Pounders and half a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.