Friday, October 5, 2018

Playing the poor hand well...

"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well." - Jack London
Welcome Scott Johnson to the Window. Scott owns Legacy Outfitters in Logansport, Indiana, home of Black Dog Coffee Shop and some of the best art in the area. There's always music, art, books, good coffee, and conviviality there--it's one of our favorite places. And Scott's one of our favorite people. He's smart and hilarious and generous. Likes his bourbon and works with wood--I think he finds the story in wood and saws and sands until it can be read and felt. 
He posted this story on Facebook and I was enthralled. Seriously so. And I wanted to share it and share Scott, too. Come to Legacy Outfitters and meet him. Shake hands with him--it's a good, solid handshake. Buy something beautiful while you're there. Listen to some music or play some music. Have some coffee or a glass of something if it's a beer and wine night. And look around for stories. They're all over the place. 
Thanks for joining us, Scott.
One time I hopped a train.
I was a young man and out west of the Missouri River… just past where the Great Plains begin, and I had been walking down this lonely stretch of highway for more than a few miles. I knew where I was going. I knew my old Ford truck had just snapped its timing chain and I knew that I had to get to a town, call a wrecker and get it hauled in and fixed up. It wasn’t the first time in my life that I had been stranded. All total, I have run out of gas over 80 times. Mostly I did this when I was young but now and then I still let it happen just to make sure I know how to make my way in the world when things get tough. It’s the same reason why from time to time I tell a lie or I steal a little bit. It’s always a good idea to have those skills honed just in case. You never know when you might fall on hard times.
In this particular case, I wasn’t out of gas but I was definitely stranded. I was about 20 miles from anyplace with a telephone and while I had a pistol in my belt and some money in my pocket, I found myself in a fairly tight spot. That old truck that I had walked away from on the side of that lonely highway wasn’t worth the price of a tow and certainly wasn’t worth a new engine which is what I suspected blew when the timing chain broke. I was debating in my mind just what I should do. The responsible person would have just sucked on it and had it hauled in and fixed up and waited for it to break down closer to home, but in those days, I wasn’t the most responsible of young men. So I started walking.
I was actually walking west towards that little town on the horizon when I saw this train crawling down the tracks next to the highway going east. It wasn’t going very fast. There were some coal cars and box cars and it had four engines pulling it so I figured it was in for the long haul.
Now, just the winter before I had read a book by Jack London. His most famous books are probably The Call of the Wild or White Fang, which is even better and The Sea Wolf, which in my opinion is his greatest of all. But that winter I had read The Road.Jack London was once a hobo. Actually he was what is called a Tramp Royal. That means he was one of the most experienced, well traveled, toughest sombitches to ever ride a rail. Jack London could write the words because he had lived the life. He was the real thing. He had frozen over mountains, starved over prairies and been parched over the deserts. He had been around and man, could he get to you. 
He wrote about how to catch and hold a “blind” on a train car and how to keep ahead of a railroad bull and how to make friends with a fireman or brakeman and how to steer clear of engineers and how and when to ditch. I had read about all these things. But up until this moment I had never dared actually do it.
Now here I was walking west toward that little town and there was this big old train moving east…and it just so happened that east is the direction that I really wanted to go. My daughters were very young and I had been gone for almost a month and I was trying to get home. Home was east. East. 
So I stared at this train for a while. I waved at the engineer as it went past and hell, he even waved back. As I watched it, my steps began to slow and pretty soon I realized that I was walking toward the tracks. I stood there for a while wondering if I actually had the gravel to do what I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to hop this train.
At first I just jogged along beside the cars. In those days I was pretty fit and I had been living pretty hard and so keeping up with that train wasn’t very tough. However, it was speeding up slowly and I was getting blown so I knew that soon a decision had to be made. I had my backpack slung and there wasn’t really anything in that old pickup from which I couldn’t walk away so in that moment, I decided. I slid the pack from my back and tossed it up onto the blind of one of the middle cars. I grabbed the rail with one hand and then both and held on tight. I ran with it for another hundred yards or so. Now and then I pulled myself up and let my feet leave the ground to test my nerve but then I let them back down and ran a few more steps. Finally I pulled up, made the first rung and hopped aboard. Man, it was mighty.
It was a beautiful day and as the train picked up speed I just stood there and watched the ties slide under me. The breeze was fresh and it was still before noon so I settled down and looking back now I must have looked like that guy in the Titanic movie, yelling that I was the king of the world. It was perhaps the most free I had ever been…ever have been. I rode that train for miles.
The neat thing about riding a train is that you don’t have to watch the road. You don’t have to pay attention to traffic or your speed or your radio or much of anything else so you get to just sit back and watch. You get to look. You get to see things. You get to think about things. The only thing I didn’t like is looking backwards, so I climbed up on top of that car and looked out at the world ahead of me.
When I became a teacher I once took my class down to the railroad tracks to talk about the size of the universe. In my experience there is nothing that gives you the feeling of infinity more than looking down a railroad track until it disappears to a point. Riding that train and looking out ahead of the engines miles out to the horizon…man, that was infinity. The wind was blowing from the west and I was heading east so it was easy to sit up on there and watch the miles go by. My only regret was that I never even looked back and waved goodbye at that old truck. I have no idea what ever happened to it.
I got sleepy after a while so I climbed back down onto the blind and lay down. I wrapped my belt around the ladder and then around my leg so I couldn’t fall off easily and drifted off for a bit. I felt the train slow and speed up…there were sections of track that were rough and some were as smooth as glass. We passed through small towns and the whistle blew at every crossing but the engines were quite a bit forward so it didn’t wake me much. I woke up thirsty and sore and climbed back up on top. The sun was lower now…at my back so I knew I was still going in the right direction. I didn’t know how far we had come. But I could see that the grazing land was giving way to crop land and I could see small wetlands dotting the landscape.
There is a state that has a motto of 10,000 lakes but before we drained all those wetlands it must have been 10,000,000 lakes. It seemed a shame that I wasn’t on a train a hundred years ago when the sod was thick and the wildlife thicker. Everyone thinks that farmland is so productive but it is not. For miles I saw one species of plant. Corn, or beans….that was it. The only place that still had any biodiversity were the wetlands. That is where all the life was. That is where it has always been. Water. The next set of billionaires are going to be made because of water. We will pay, too…anybody that has ever been thirsty knows how much they would pay for a drink.
I would have paid all I had on me. And more. I was thirsty, man. And I was trapped. You see, getting on a train is one thing but getting off is a whole other set of problems. You have to wait. You don’t get to pull off at the next exit. You have to wait…and you have to be thirsty.
It was dark now when we finally started to slow down to where I thought I could survive ditching. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a town…just a few scattered lights here and there, but we were slowing. The problem was that it was too dark to ditch. Ditching involves jumping from that train into the ditch and hope you don’t hit something too hard. If it’s daylight, it’s problem enough. Usually the grass is tall and you have no idea how many big rocks are lying in wait for you but at night…it is absolutely terrifying. You are actually jumping off into the unknown. You have no idea what you might hit or land in or actually just how far you have to fall. I have heard of hobos that jumped to their death because they ditched into a chasm or headlong into a bridge abutment. But my thirst was getting serious now. My head was pounding and I knew I was dehydrated from the wind beating me all day and I needed to get to ground. I heard the whistle in the distance so I knew there was a crossing ahead. I strained my eyes and hoped like hell we would slow a bit more but we never really did. Not enough anyway. 
Finally it seemed that the ditch was filled with tall grass and we had just passed the crossing so I knew there was a road, so I made a jump for it. I threw my pack off first and then made the leap. You can’t be timid when you jump from a train because you have to be damn sure you clear the track. So you go for it. I wrapped my arms around my head and my hands in front of my face to protect myself as much as I could and I jumped. We were going faster than I thought because when I hit the ground my feet stopped but my upper body kept going so I tumbled hard. I must have gone upside down about three times but I swear I came up standing somehow. My mouth was full of dirt and grass and I had gravel in my pockets. I was just thankful that I didn’t have a railroad spike up my ass.
I had a few scrapes and cuts and it took me about a half hour to find my pack but I finally did.
I straight lined it to the first light I could see that might be a house or a barn and found an old man that opened the door for me and gave me something to drink. It was the best glass of water that I have ever had even to this day. He was a nice old guy. I told him I had broken down a few miles down the road. I didn’t tell him that it was a few hundred miles back down the road, and he pointed me into town. Three miles and an hour and a half later I was in a Days Inn just out of a shower and staring in the mirror at a sunburned and banged up face. Grinning. One time, I hopped a train.

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