Riding the Rails
By Jeff Baker
I’d ducked into the freight car thinking the train was headed west. By the time I realized we were heading north there was no way to jump off. But I was seventeen that year and had nowhere else to go. We, meant me and the older man I found hiding behind a row of boxes in the train car.
“You really shouldn’t be here, kid,” the man said. His clothes looked shabby, including his jacket and worn shoes. His felt hat looked like he’d slept on it.
“I know,” I said. “I hadn’t expected to be on the road. But my parents split and I didn’t want to be sent off to a boy’s home, so I hit the road. I’ve been on the road for about a year. I turned eighteen last summer.” Except for the reason I cut out most of that was a lie.
“George Peters,” the man said, not extending his hand.
“Bryce Going,” I said. That was a lie too but I was protecting myself.
“I know how you must feel, kid,” Peters said. “I was about sixteen in the early thirties when my folks lost everything they had and I spent the Depression bumming across the country, riding the rails, working to earn my keep and some food along the way. Keeping an eye out for bulls when I hopped a freight. Learning to read the symbols we riders would carve in people’s fences, learning which ones were warnings. It could be rough, but there were moments I wouldn’t have traded. Riding on top of one of these cars as it stretched and travelled across the country with the sun setting.” He shook his head and smiled.
So far, I didn’t have any memories like that. The last year or so had been hectic and unpleasant. I had no problem with running away across the country but I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got there. Wherever there was. I had planned just to go west, maybe to L.A. but I did not have any specific plan. I probably should have. Or maybe I should just stop the wandering.
“Where’s this train going anyway?” I asked.
“I think up to Canada,” George said. “It depends on its mood.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d learned not to push when someone started sounding a little crazy.
We rode on for several more hours, hiding behind the boxes when the train stopped, so, as George put it, “the bulls” wouldn’t find us and throw us off the train. Or worse. It was past ten in the evening by my watch when George said that since the train wouldn’t stop until next morning I should try getting some sleep. I sat down in a corner with one hand on the knife I carried with me. I was taking no chances.
Light shined in my face, waking me. I saw blue sky, felt hard ground and saw a man standing over me. I about jumped up. But I realized I was caught, wherever I was.
“Hold on there fella,” the man said. He must have noticed me tensing up. I was tense, I didn’t know where I was—had I fallen off the train?
“Mind telling me where I am?” I asked cautiously.
“You’re just outside Hawkes, Wisconsin,” the man said. “Mind telling me how you got here?”
I didn’t seem to be hurt. I rubbed my head and decided to come clean.
“I think I got thrown off a train,” I said.
“Train?” the man said. “There’s no train around here, not since they built the airport over in Deadstone.”
“What?” I managed to say. “I got on a train about, well down in Missouri.” I was trying to remember my geography.
“No railroad line has run up through here in almost twenty years,” the man said. “Look for yourself.” He pointed over to where I could see what looked like an old depot building. I could see peeling paint and shattered windows and a caved-in roof. “Storm got the building; they had no reason to repair it.”
I got up and walked over to the building. What caught my attention were the railroad tracks, or what was left of them. They were overgrown with weeds in front of the depot but they trailed off into nothing a few yards away where they had been removed.
“There’s talk of putting in a highway where the tracks were,” the man said, “but for now there’s a bus that comes by once a week.”
I kept staring at the overgrown tracks, and thinking of George. I almost imagined I could hear a train whistle.