Friday, October 23, 2015

My Son, The Rail Rider

Depression Era Rail Riders

Perhaps it was his west coast roots that drew him, having been born in hilly Thousand Oaks just north of Los Angeles, or a distant call from the restless youths of a century ago, or simply the breath-stopping excitement of conquering a monstrous locomotive.

Whatever it was, my son had to go, had to answer, and leave his Brooklyn abode for a month-long odyssey commencing in Los Angeles. Home of  movie stars, it was his Vine celebrity friend who concocted the idea:

"Hey guys, let's hop trains for the month of August and make a documentary film on rail riding." 

 He invited four of his childhood friends, of whom my son was one, and with a "Holy Crap, that sounds awesome!" they dropped everything and booked a flight to LA.

They sub-let their rooms on Air B&B, took a leave from their jobs and texted their families goodbye despite their moms begging them to reconsider so dangerous an endeavor. The boys turned a deaf ear on big brother-in-uniform's warnings and fathers' disapproval of the whole idea. After all if you get caught, it's a misdemeanor and an unnecessary smudge on your record.




How different from the first freight hoppers. During the Depression, their fathers kicked them out on the street to fend for themselves. One less mouth to feed. At fifteen or younger, the boys were capable of living on their own. The train got them where they needed to go. To this town where rumors of work flew. To this farm where walnut picking would bring in enough for a meal. To this field to harvest tomatoes to keep body and soul together.

1930's Train Hoppers

Decades later, my son voluntarily left his comfortable bed for the cold steel bottom of a boxcar, or worse the frightful underbelly scaffold of a grainer.

Doesn't look pretty.

The group spent a full week planning and researching which routes and lines would take them from the City of Angels to the Big Apple via the northern route. First stop Portland, then Montana, Idaho, eastward to New York. That was the plan - full of unknowns as it was, there was enough in their minds to go for it. The rest they'd figure out along the way like which car to hop, how to hide from the authorities, where to sleep and eat. Luxuries such as washing hands and showering were deliberated later when the citified boys would finally get sick of pebbles in their eyes and soot under their fingernails.

Sleeping bag, check
Neckerchief for toxic exhaust fumes while going through tunnels, check
Video cameras, cellphones, chargers, check
Freeze-dried food, check,
Jacket, check
Hat, check
Tent, check
Glasses to protect eyes from wind and grit, check

All packed, but missing one of their travel companions who got delayed on his flight. Once he arrived they were ready for their LA jumping off point. The tricky part was getting on the right train. Other would be hobos had erroneously hopped one headed to Arizona, intending to go north.

Finally, it was the early morning of their departure. Five young men headed for the station. If they hadn't quite awoken, their racing heartbeats were pumping adrenaline then. Shoes crunched the train yard gravel as they awaited their first ride on the iron labyrinth that would take them through scenery and experiences none of them half expected...

My son, the Rail Rider.

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