Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hopping Trains

Jerry’s constant need to move, along with the fear that there may be warrants out for skipping parole drove us to the rails. He decided we’d hop a train. Our first accommodation on this leg of our journey that fateful summer was an empty boxcar sitting at the end of the tracks. It was just dusk as we jumped up but as we hauled ourselves inside, it was as black as midnight. We quickly discovered it was already occupied by at least four other hoboes who grumbled warnings at our intrusion on their territory. We scrambled to a corner nearest the door in case we needed a fast escape. Being night blind, I was very apprehensive about my new surroundings, let alone the invisible inhabitants lurking in the shadows. Periodically, faces would appear in the dark, lit by the glowing embers of their cigarettes. The faces weren’t any friendlier than their greetings had been when we came onboard. One large fellow sidled over near us, staying protectively close. I think he realized that I was a girl and felt a brotherly obligation to look out for me. We finally settled into a hesitant silence, broken occasionally with suspicious whispers at the other end of the boxcar. Sometime around midnight or later, we were jolted awake to a loud crash and bumped down the track. Thinking we would finally be on our way, we waited expectantly. Nothing happened. Dozing, we were again awakened by this same jarring shove down the tracks. Wondering what was going on, someone peeked out through the open door, which we had been wisely warned to stay away from at the risk of losing your head if it slammed shut on you.
The lookout announced activity down the track—the bulls were about. At this
everyone tucked further back into their corners and whisperings circulated as to how a bull carries an iron pipe to rouse unsuspecting bums from sleep. Moments later one appeared at the open door. We all sat there frozen in place, holding our breath. He informed us that this car was just going to be bounced around all night and we might want to get in a car on the other line. Relieved that he wasn’t there to bust heads and happy to leave our bumpy bed, we climbed down and scrambled to another car. He advised us to close the door to avoid the attention of the other bulls. Rumors ran wild how hoboes had died in closed boxcars, so the door was left slightly ajar.
Morning greeted us with a rolling start, the train gradually gaining speed, and with the clickety clack music of the wheels on the track singing a good morning to us. We realized we were finally on our way. We were headed north to the Dakotas. The doors on either side were flung wide and a cool, crisp breeze blew across the stifling car. A glorious view of flat farmland stretched out in every direction, with rustic red barns and gray-white farmhouses dotting the landscape. I was exhilarated by the sheer vastness of this country and this new adventure into life during my seventeenth summer.

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