Fifteen years old and thinking I was older.
'Assistant Maintenance Man' at a Public School
Summer Camp. Billy Deitz had just graduated
High School, I thought him the coolest guy
I knew. The first week was ended, the little
kids gone home, a new batch in two days time.
We did our work, cleaned and swept, sweated
in the summer sun. Took the old surplus Jeep
over to the creek and plunged ourselves in.
Deitz had some beer in an Ice chest, I drank
one, my first ever. We shot his .22 for a while
and ate PBJs in the shade. Then we heard it.
A train horn in the mountains is a haunting
call. It does not seem to belong there among
evergreen trees and massive granite boulders.
We drove the hell out of the Jeep and found
our way to the down grade tracks. And there
she was maybe 50 cars long, snaking her way
from the summit of the Sierras out of California
into Nevada. Through the Pass over a hairpin
filled course hugging the skirts of the rock face
mountains, slowly rolling her massive load
pushing her four engines, breaks a screeching
in protest. "Click Clack, Click Clack", her steel
wheels clanging upon the rails, a rhythm like
her train heart beating.
Deitz grabbed his coat and tied it round his waist,
looped a canteen over his head, "Lets go kid!"
I did what he said, and then we were running
along beside the box cars, more a trot than a run,
"Do what I do!" Deitz yelled over his shoulder.
A flat car with some machinery approached and
He grabbed on to it and pulled himself aboard,
I copied his moves and he helped pull me up
and then there we stood on the deck of that
moving, mountain ship, with her grunting and
shaking under our feet. We could feel all her
massive weight and power vibrating up through
that wooden plank deck of the flat bed car,
entering our legs and spines. . . It was thrilling!
I had not had time to think all this through,
"Now what?" I asked some what perplexed
"Reno Kid." Deitz yelled with a grin.
We climbed atop a Box Car, our rail bound
ship crawled out of the upper pass and we
started to descend towards Donner Lake far
Looking behind and ahead it was hard to
understand how they had cut those tracks
out of solid granite rock and how the rails
maintained their frail finger tip grip on the
sheer mountain side.
We ducked nearly flat going through the snow
tunnels, the clearance was tight and it seemed
that a guy could lose his head. The diesel thick
air made us cover mouth and nose with our shirts.
Two tunnels in we noticed our faces getting
smoke blackened. We laughed at the joke.
Soot faced on a boxcar in a tunnel of wood.
Two city kids playing Hobo.
We reached the lower valley, passed the place
where the Donner Party met their grisly end.
Truckee was next and the highway grew close.
We got back down onto the flat car, hunkered
down by machine cargo, more or less out of sight.
I thought of all the down on their luck men that
had ridden those rails, not on a some lark. That
whole Grapes Of Wrath, Woody Guthrie period
of no joke, for real ****. Pushed by poverty and hope.
I must admit at that moment, I felt more alive than
at any other time in my life. I felt grown up, like a man.
Until my belly began to rumble, the speed increased
and the wind began to chill. The Click Clacks of the
wheels quickened and grew irritatingly redundant.
The loud wailing of the engine horn no longer exciting.
Now only hurt my ears.
It was dark by the time we hit Reno, we jumped off
before the train yard. Walked into town with its
bright lights calling the casino gamers to unholy service
and nightly prayer. Proceeded over by hard-bitten
dealers in communal black, with cigarettes dangling
from their unsmiling lips, possessing the empty
dead eyes of the badly used up and down-trodden.
Through the ***** windows, the people there seemed
to possess no joy in their sluggish endeavors.
Both players and dealers all losers, merely Automatons
of those despairing games of chance.
Reno was still rough-hewn in those days, a hard
scrabble place full of cigarette smoke, ******,
card tables, slot machines and not much else.
It seemed to reek of lonely desperation.
Having seen our soot ***** faces in the
window reflection, we washed up in the
cold river that runs through town.
We walked around, ate hot dogs,
Downed a Doctor Pepper.
"Now what Deitz?"
"**** I don't know kid,
first time I ever did anything like this."
"What?" My world collapsed right then,
I thought he was much more than
he turned out to be. Maybe everyone is.
I even started to get a little scared.
No money, no place to stay and apparently,
like most of the denizens there, **** out ah'
luck. I'd never felt that way before, from
mountain high to valley low in two hours.
All that excitement turned to Dread.
We hitched a ride with a long haired
guy of questionable gender, who kept
staring at me in the rearview mirror.
West, to a Truck Stop on the edge of town.
Found a trucker willing to give us a lift
back up to the summit. Jumped in his rig
happy to find, that his cab heater worked.
Badly judged our get out spot, searched
and stumbled around in the shadowy dark,
dim moonlight looking for that **** jeep,
all that friggin' night.
When the guy that ran the camp returned
and found us sleeping at half past two,
in the afternoon in our tent, to say the least,
He was not amused.
Need I say, I felt much older that next day
and a little wiser too.
I wrote this memory for my kids.
may they never jump a freight train
out of ignorant curiosity.