Like A 14 year Old Boy Watching Jeremiah Johnson For The First Time.

Whenever I tell a story I want the reader to be swept away, intrigued. To feel the exhilaration that the protagonist does, to be able to smell and taste the darkness, or to feel the concrete in the back alleys or the wind blowing along  forested trail. It’s my hope that the reader had a good ride.

Some folks miss the adventures in this short life and others will die rode hard and put away wet with a smile on their face. I’m writing for both and I hope your experience is like a 14 year old boy seeing Jeremiah Johnson for the first time.

TRAMPS

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An excerpt from my memoir Faces Places and Pain 

Minneapolis 1982

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 the high-rises 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,

“Watch.”

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.

‘Salt & Pepper’ by E A Cook

Parasitic

Minneapolis-1983

     Chris was my road-dog. We’d hitched to New York and back earlier in the year. The warm weather was running out. A harsh Minnesota winter was lurking near-by; time for a road-trip.
     We made our plans, and shared our weed, with a couple of other guys from our circle of survivors. We were going to The Big Easy. The other two guys, Tooth and Mike, wanted to come with us.
     Tooth had just done a two year bit in some joint back-east somewhere, and was road material. The other guy, Mike, was a large, pasty faced queen who just jiggled at the thought of going to Nawlins- Land of the Drag Queens. Me and Chris shared a ” Oh, HELL NO!” look at the thought of the four of us on the side of the road.
Trains. It was the only way. And Mike was Tooth’s…

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COOP

October 5th, 1976

Coop died last monday. I met him the day before in a tramp-camp by the railyard in Grant’s Pass. I had just dropped out of an open box that I rode up from Klamath Falls, and headed straight in the Hobo Jungle in search of some wine and a roll-yer-own.

Coop was sitting on a log by the fire when I “Helloed” the camp. He had wine and tobacco but no papers, I had the papers and a union of souls was born.

He was older, so I listened to him tell his tales of living on the rails for five years. He was a west-coast-tramp, never riding any other line but the north/south BN and UP railways. He liked the west coast and said he never wanted to leave.

He never told me how he ended up on the skids…but I know now. He was larger than life to me. When he spoke, his education was obvious as was his toughness. He had a great sense of humor, but occasionaly got quiet and morose as we drank wine, smoked and enjoyed a night around the fire. Two other tramps wandered in the camp, but saw that we were tuned into eachothers rap and eventually they found another place to land.

It was after midnight when we polished off the wine and we were both getting ready to lay out our bedrolls. ” I’m all done, son.” Coop mumbled, then he handed me a map.

“It’s a treasure map, boy. Believe me when I tell you, that treasure has been a curse to me. Ruined me. I can’t go home to my family becuase of it, and without them what have I got? What have I done?!” He mumbled something else and turned his head, and I could see by the rise and fall of his shoulders that he was sobbing quietly.

I took the map, and without looking at it, I put it in my pack and passed out on my bedroll. I was stone drunk and so was he and I didn’t think much of it. Tramps drink, tell stories, and pass out. It’s what we do.

When I woke up Coop was gone, but all of his gear was still around the camp. It happened alot. Some road dog would wander off drunk in the middle of the night, but they always came back for their gear. I stoked the fire, made some coffee in a soup can using a clean sock for a filter, and smoked the stub of a cigarette while I waited for it to boil.

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t want to leave Coop’s stuff for the vultures. I got up and followed the path out to the yard, hoping I could catch sight of him. I did, and I was horrified. What was left of him was on both sides of the fast rail that trains blew through town on. He had done it on purpose, I was sure of it. I thought back to what he said before we passed out, and I knew he had ended himself.

I had to get out of the area, not wanting to answer any questions from the local law. I went back to camp, removed the map he had given me from my pack, and looked it over. It was simple and well made, and explained well how to get to a spot in the hills east of the I-5 about two miles. He had marked the spot with an X.

It took me all day to get there, over rough country and two streams. Behind a thick grove of Ponderosa Pines grown up on the side of a hill, I found a small cave barely 3 feet high and eight feet deep into the hill. Using my lighter for a torch, I crawled to the back of the cave and found the “treasure.” It was a small duffel with a mother of pearl tie pin attached to the handle. Inside was stacks of money!

I scrambled out of the hole and sat on the pine needle covered forest floor and began counting. $123,000 dollars and a newspaper clipping from 1971 with the headline: MAN JUMPS FROM COMMERCIAL AIRLINER AT 30,000 FEET. 

E.A. Cook