Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Freight Train

There are only a few surviving stories in my family about my mother’s preacher father, in his early, drifter days, before he got religion. It’s said that some things about him didn’t change after the conversion; he was always a stern and serious man, full of self-respect and private thoughts. So that, though he died when I was five or six – the first death of my life – in some ways, the Grandad I knew from Sundays in church and play fighting on the living room rug was the same wandering, silent John Hardwrick of family lore.

I can’t remember now just when he was born, or what America it was he grew up in. Some of that information is scribbled somewhere, in notes from my long conversations with my Aunt Audrey. I’ll never know many of the details of his life, but I’ve always known it was a very different life, inside of a very different world.

What I think of most often when I remember Grandad is the train-hopping. It was his preferred way to travel. What must that have been like, in the 1900’s or the 1910’s?

Aunt Audrey said that Grandad liked to ride on the top side of freight cars, that he would ride standing, and looking backward over the country he was travelling through. He was a casual laborer in those days, though intelligent and with some elementary education. He had a travelling companion, a life-long friend who would eventually settle down with him in Detroit. Wade – let’s call him that, as I don’t remember his name - would find himself periodically abandoned. Ever so often, he’d wake on some morning to find that my grandfather was gone. A week or two later, he’d get a telegram from him, saying he’d found work in such and such a place, and he’d set right out to rejoin him. And a few weeks or a couple of months later, the pattern would repeat itself.

It’s said that my Grandad had his spiritual awakening while train hopping. One day, as he rode along in his customary stance, looking backward from a freighter top, he received a clear message to “Sit Down!” I don’t know if it came as a voice or an un-beckoned inspiration, nor what he thought was happening, but he promptly sat, and the next moment he heard and felt the whoosh of a tunnel as the train passed through. Had he taken time to consider that voice, that message, it would have been his last act in life. As it was, he gave it much consideration later, and it transformed his life.

I’ve always thought it would be a thrill to hop a train, but never seriously expected I would do so. The closest I’ve come to sharing my Grandad’s experience is through the hitch-hiking I did in earlier years. That came about as a convenient expedience rather than a choice for adventure. A trucker picked me up near a bus stop on a country road and carried me into Holly Springs, Mississippi. And for several years thereafter it was my own preferred way to travel. When I peer past the romanticism of Grandad’s image, I image that his train-hopping may have come about in a similar way. I like to think that he and I shared the same feeling of freedom as we travelled, that his miles of rails brought him the same sense of overcoming life’s ordinary limitations that I felt on the open highways. Maybe peering off the top of a freight car was something like staring out at the desert night and hearing a single approaching car when it was yet miles away.

When I was approaching fifty, and concerned that I was entering my last days of any kind of adventuring, a colleague and I fantasized about finally hopping a train. He’d grown up with a Grandad and family lore too. He and I were working with street people and quite a few of our clients had hopped a train or two. It had become a thing among drifting youth of a certain disposition, and we were even schooled on some important do’s and do not’s. We’d been nudging our clients into taking on ambitious, outside the box type goals, to broaden their sense of what was out in the world for them, of what was possible. Why not us?

So we planned a week when we’d head west, and go as far as we could for a week before we’d turn back home by more traditional means. It felt like a perfectly stupid thing to do. And like something that would send us not so gently into the certainty of our waning years. I was newly free out of a marriage and reveling at the vast freedom of being single. My buddy was married and, for better or for worse, two weeks before our scheduled departure, his wife put her foot down. No way in Hell was he going away to hop a train. So instead, we went on a canoe trip on Lake Temagami. It was great.


  1. Reading this post, Kirby, reminds me of the Bluefield of my youth. The sounds, the feel of trains, always present, whether bumping against each other, moving through town, belching its smoke, supplying finances for so many (including Donald for a while), all formed part of the permanent sensoryscape of my upbringing. Never once did I ever see a person on those trains passing through Bluefield, though I always heard about train-hopping. Hoppers were part of another world, a different life where trains were not so intimately connected to real life. Train-hopping was part of pre-life, or paused-life, but never reality. I am sorry you had to satisfy your wanderlust (or whatever it might be called) with a more ordinary boating excursion. But, I truly thank you for this foray into a different world.

    1. Thanks for this, Thomps! The details in your comment really bring the beast to life. I'm pretty sure that West Virginia was part of the landscape of my Grandad's travels. You've helped make this piece of family history even richer.