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.