STARLIGHT ON THE RAILS
I can hear the whistle blowing
High and lonesome as can be
Outside the rain is softly falling
Tonight its falling just for me
Looking back along the road I've traveled
The miles can tell a million tales
Each year is like some rolling freight train
And cold as starlight on the rails
I think about a wife and family
My home and all the things it means
The black smoke trailing out behind me
Is like a string of broken dreams
A man who lives out on the highway
Is like a clock that can't tell time
A man who spends his life just rambling
Is like a song without a rhyme
Copyright Strike Music
“Hey, Boston Blarney, lend me a dollar so I can go into Gallup and get some Bull Durham and, and, a little something for the head,” yelled out San Antonio Slim over the din of the seemingly endless line of Southern Pacific freight trains running by just then, no more than a hundred yards from the arroyo “jungle” camp that Boston Blarney had stumbled into coming off the hitchhike highway, the Interstate 40 hitchhike highway, a few days before. Pretending that he could no hear over the din Boston Blarney feigned ignorance of the request and went about washing up the last of the dishes, really just tin pans to pile the food on, metal soup cans for washing it down, and “stolen” plastic utensils to put that food to mouth, stolen for those enthralled by the lore of the road, from the local McDonald’s hamburger joint. Like that corporation was going to put out an all points bulletin for the thieves, although maybe they would if they knew it was headed to the confines of the local hobo (bum, tramp, someone told him once of the hierarchical distinctions but they seemed to be distinctions without a difference when he heard them) jungle.
That washing up chore fell to Boston Blarney as the “new boy” in camp and before he had even gotten his bedroll off his sorely-tried back coming off that hard dust Interstate 40 hitchhike road, it was made abundantly clear by the lord of the manor, the mayor of the jungle, Juke Duke, that he was more than welcome to stay for a while, more than welcome to share a portion of the unnameable stew (unnameable, if for no other reason than there were so many unknown ingredients in the mix that to name it would require an act of congress, a regular hobo confab, to do so, so nameless it is), and more than welcome to spread his bedroll under the conforms of the jungle night sky but that he was now, officially, to hold the honorific; chief bottle washer.
So Boston Blarney washes away, and stacks, haphazardly stacks as befits the ramshackle nature of the place, the makeshift dinnerware in a cardboard box to await the next meal as a now slightly perturbed Slim comes closer, along with his bindle buddy, Bender Ben, to repeat the request in that same loud voice, although the last Southern Pacific train is a mere echo in the distance darkening Western night and a regular voiced-request would have been enough, enough for Boston Blarney. This though is the minute that Boston Blarney has been dreading ever since he got into camp, the touch for dough minute. Now see Boston Blarney, hell, William Bradley, Billy Bradley to his friends, on the road, and off. That Boston Blarney thing was put on him by Joe-Boy Jim the first night in camp when Joe-Boy, who was from Maine, from Maine about a million years ago from the look of him, noticed Billy’s Boston accent and his map of Ireland looks and, as is the simple course of things in the jungle that name is now Billy’s forever moniker to the moniker-obsessed residents of the Gallup, New Mexico, ya, that's one of those square states out in the West, jungle, although don’t go looking for a postal code for it, the camp may not be there by the time you figure that out.
Now here are the Boston Blarney facts of life, jungled-up facts of life is that no way is he going to be able to beg off that requested dollar with some lame excuse about being broke, broke broke.(I will use this moniker throughout just in case anybody, anybody Billy does not want to have know his whereabouts, is looking for him. In any case that moniker is better, much better, than the Silly Willy nickname that he carried with him through most of his public school career put on his by some now nameless girl when rhyming simon nicknames where all the rage back in seventh grade.) See everybody knows that San Antonio Slim, who belies his moniker by being about five feet, six inches tall and by weighing in at about two hundred and sixty, maybe, two-seventy so he either must have gotten that name a long time ago, or there is some other story behind its origins, has no dough, no way to get dough, and no way to be holding out on anyone for dough for the simple reason that he has not left the camp in a month so he is a brother in need. Boston Blarney is another case though, even if he is just off the hitchhike highway road, his clothes still look kind of fresh, his looks look kind of fresh (being young and not having dipped deeply in the alcohol bins, for one thing) and so no one, not Slim anyway, is going to buy a broke, broke story.
The problem, the problem Boston Blarney already knows is going to be a problem is that if he gives Slim the dollar straight up every other ‘bo, bum, tramp, and maybe even some self-respecting citizens are going to put the touch on him. He learned, learned the hard way that it does not take long to be broke, broke on the road by freely giving dough to every roadster Tom, Dick, and Harry you run into. “Here, all I have is fifty cents, until my ship comes in,” says Boston Blarney and Slim, along with his “enforcer”, Bender Ben, seem pleased to get that, like that is how much they probably figured they could get anyway. Blarney also knows that he was not the first stop in the touch game otherwise old hard-hand veteran Slim would have bitten harder.
Well, that’s over, for now Blarney says to himself softly out loud, a habit of the single file hitchhike road time when one begins to talk, softly or loudly, to oneself to while away the long side of the road hours when you are stuck between exits in places like Omaha or Davenport on the long trek west. And just as softly to himself he starts to recount where his has been, where he hasn’t been, and the whys of each situation as he unrolls his bedroll to face another night out in the brisk, brisk even for a New England hearty and hale regular brisk boy, great west star-less October night. First things first though, no way would he have hit the road this time, this time after a couple of years off the road, if THAT man, that evil man, that devil deal-making man, one Richard Milhous Nixon, common criminal, had not just vacated, a couple of months back, the Presidency of the United States and had still been in office. After that event, after that hell-raising many months of hubris though, it seemed safe, safe as anything could be in these weird times, to get on with your life. Still, every once in a while, when he was in a city or town, big or small, large enough to have sidewalk newspaper vending machines he would check, no, double check to see if the monster had, perhaps, “risen” again. But Blarney’ luck had held since he took off from Boston in late August on his latest trip west in search of ...
Suddenly, he yelled out, no cried out, “Joyel.” Who was he kidding. Sure getting rid of “Tricky Dick” was part of it, but the pure truth was woman trouble like he didn’t know that from the minute he stepped on to the truck depot at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike at Cambridge and hailed down his first truck. And you knew it too, if you knew Billy Bradley. And if it wasn’t woman trouble, it could have been, would have been, should have been, use the imperative is always woman trouble, unless it was just Billy hubris. Nah, it was woman trouble, chapter and verse. Chapter twenty-seven, verse one, always verse one. And that verse one for Joyel, lately, had been when are we going to settle down from this nomadic existence. And that Joyel drumbeat was getting more insistent since things like the end of the intense American involvement in Vietnam, the demise of one common criminal Richard Milhous Nixon, and the ebbing, yes, face it, the ebbing of the energy for that newer world everybody around them was starting to feel and had decided to scurry back to graduate school, to parents’ home, or to marriage just like in the old days, parent old days.
Blarney needed to think it through, or if not think it through then to at least see if he still had the hitchhike road in him. The plan was to get west (always west, always west, America west) to the Pacific Ocean and see if that old magic wanderlust still held him in its thrall. So with old time hitchhike bedroll washed, basics wrapped within, some dollars (fewer that old Slim would have suspected, if he had suspected much) in his pocket, some longing for Joyel in his heart, honestly, and some longing that he could no speak of, not right that minute anyway, he wandered to that Cambridge destiny point. His plan with the late start, late hitchhike start anyway, was to head to Chicago (a many times run, almost a no thought post-rookie run at one point) then head south fast from there to avoid the erratic rockymountainhigh early winter blast and white-out blocked-in problems. Once south he wanted to pick up Interstate 40 somewhere in Texas or New Mexico and then, basically because it mostly parallels that route “ride the rails,” the Southern Pacific rails into Los Angeles from wherever he could pick up a freight. Although he never previously had much luck with this blessed, folkloric, mystical, old-timey, Wobblie (Industrial Workers of the World, IWW) method of travel a couple of guys, gypsy davey kind of guys, not Wobblie guys, told him about it and that drove part of his manic west desire this time.
As he eased himself down inside his homemade bedroll ready for the night, ready in case tomorrow is the day west, the day west that every jungle camp grapevine keeps yakking about until you get tired of hearing about it and are just happy to wait in non-knowledge, but ready, he started thinking things out like he always did before the sleep of the just knocked him out. Yes sir, chuckling, just waiting for the ride the rails west day that he had been waiting the past several days and which the jungle denizens, with their years of arcane intricate knowledge, useful travel knowledge said “could be any day now,” caught him reminiscing about the past few weeks and, truth to tell, started to see, see a little where Joyel was coming from, the point that she was incessantly trying to make about there now being a sea-change in the way they (meaning him and her, as well as humanity in general) had to look at things if they were to survive. But, see if she had only, only not screamed about it in those twenty-seven different ways she had of analyzing everything, he might have listened, listened a little. Because whatever else she might have, or have not been, sweet old Joyel, was a lightening rod for every trend, every social and political trend that had come down the left-wing path over the past decade or so.
Having grown up in New York City she had imbibed the folk protest music movement early in the Village, had been out front in the civil rights and anti-war struggle early, very early (long before Billy had). She had gone “street” left when others were still willing to half-way (or more) with LBJ, or later, all the way with Bobby Kennedy (as Billy had). So if she was sounding some kind of retreat then it was not just that she was tired (although that might be part of it) but that she “sensed” an “evil” wind of hard times and apathy were ahead. She was signaling, and this is where they had their screaming matches, that the retreat was the prelude to recognition that we had been defeated, no mauled, as she put in one such match.
So, as Billy steadily got drowsier from having taken too many rays in the long hard sun day and was now fading nicely under the cooling western night he started connecting the dots, or at least some dots, as he thought about the hitchhike road of the past several weeks. He, worst, started to see omens where before he just took them as the luck of the road, the tough hitchhike roads. Like how hard it was to get that first ride out of Boston, Cambridge really, at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike down by the Charles River where many trucks, many cross-country traveling trucks begin their journey from a huge depot after being loaded up from some railroad siding and a couple of years ago all you had to do was ask where the trucker was heading, whether he wanted company, and if yes you were off. Otherwise on to the next truck, and success. Now, on his very first speak to, the trucker told him, told him in no uncertain terms, that while he could sure use the “hippie” boy‘s company (made him think of his own son) on the road to Chicago the company (and, as Billy found out later, really the insurance company) had made it plain, adamantly plain that no “passengers” were allowed in the vehicle under penalty of immediate firing. And with that hefty mortgage, two kids in college, and a wife who liked to spent money that settled the issue. But good luck hippie boy, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
He finally got his ride, to Cleveland, but from there to Chicago it was nothing but short, suspicious rides by odd-ball guys, including one whose intent was sexual and who when rebuffed left Billy off in Podunk, Indiana, late at night and with no prospects of being seen by truck or car traffic until daybreak. Oh ya, and one guy, one serious guy, wanted to know if anybody had told him, told sweet-souled Billy Bradley, that he looked a lot like Charles Manson (and in fact there was a little resemblance as he himself noticed later after taking a well-deserved, and needed, bath, although about half the guys in America, and who knows maybe the world in those days, looked a little like Charles Manson, except for those eyes, those evil eyes that spoke of some singularity of purpose, not good).
And thinking about that guy’s comment, a good guy actually, who knew a lot about the old time “beats” (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and had met mad man saint Gregory Corso in New York City), and for old times sake had picked Billy up got Billy thinking about a strange event back in Cambridge about a year before. Although he and Joyel had lived together, off and on, for several years there were periods, one of those chapter twenty-seven, verse one periods when they needed to get away from each other for one reason or another. That had been one of those times. So, as was the usual routine, he looked in the Real Paper for some kind of opening in a communal setting (in short, cheap rent, divided chores, and plenty of partying, or whatever, especially that whatever part). One ad he noticed, one Cambridge-based ad looked very interesting. He called the number, spoke to one person who handed him off to the woman who was handling the roommate situation and after a description of the situation, of the house, and of the people then residing there was told, told nonchalantly, to send his resume for their inspection. Resume, Cambridge, a commune, a resume. Christ! He went crazy at first, but then realized that it was after all Cambridge and you never know about some of those types. He quickly found a very convivial communal situation, a non-resume-seeking communal situation thank you, in down and out Brighton just across the river from hallowed Cambridge but at more than one of those whatever parties that came with this commune he never failed to tell this story, and get gales of laughter in response.
But that was then. And here is where connecting the dots and omens came together. On the road, as in politics, you make a lot of quick friends who give you numbers, telephones numbers, address numbers, whatever numbers, in case you are stuck, or need something, etc. A smart hitchhiker will keep those numbers safely and securely on him for an emergency, or just for a lark. One night Billy got stuck, stuck bad in Moline and called up a number, a number for a commune, he had been given, given just a few weeks before by a road friend, a young guy who gave his name as Injun Joe whom he had traveled with for a couple of days. He called the number, told of his plight and received the following answer- “What’s Injun Joe’s last name, where did you meet him, where do know him from?” Not thinking anything of it Billy said he didn’t know Injun Joe’s last name and described the circumstances that he met Injun Joe under. No sale, no soap, no-go came the reply. Apparently, according to the voice over the telephone, they knew Injun Joe, liked him, but the commune had been “ripped” off recently by “guests” and so unless you had been vetted by the FBI, or some other governmental agency, no dice. That voice did tell Billy to try the Salvation Army or Traveler’s Aid. Thanks, brother. Ya, so Joyel was not totally off the wall, not totally at all.
And then in that micro-second before sound sleep set in Billy went on the counter-offensive. What about those few good days in Austin when a girl he met, an ordinary cheer-leader, two fingers raised Longhorn Texas girl, who was looking to break-out of that debutante Texas thing, let him crash on her floor (that is the way Billy wants that little story told anyway). Or when that Volkswagen bus, that blessed Volkswagen bus stopped for him just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in, as Thomas Wolfe called them, one of the square western states that he now still finds himself imprisoned in, and it was like old times until they got to Red Rock where they wanted to camp for a while (hell, they were probably still there but he needed to move on, move on ocean west).
But Red Rock was more than old time hippie community, including passing the dope freely. Red Rock was where he met Running Bear Smith, who claimed to be a full Apache but who knows(and where did the Smith part come in). Now Running Bear was full of mystery, full of old-time stories about the pride of the dog soldiers, about his ancestors, about the fight against the ravages and greed of the white man. And about the shamanic ceremonial that he learned from his grandfather (his father had been killed, killed in some undisclosed manner when he was very young, about three), about dancing with the spirits of by-gone days, and dancing he added, or Billy added, under the influence of communion wafer peyote buttons. Several days ago, or rather nights, just a few days before he encamped in this broken down jungle Running Bear and he had “walked with the ‘Thunder Gods,’” as Running Bear described it. Billy described it somewhat differently, after the buttons took effect and Running Bear stoked the camp fire with additional wood to make a great blazing flame that jumped off the wall of the cavern adjacent to where they were camping out. The shadows of the flames made “pictures” on the cavern walls, pictures that told a story, told Billy a story that one man could fight off many demons, could count later on many friends coming to his aid, and that the demons could be vanquished. Was that the flame story or the buttons, or Billy’s retort to Joyel? All he knew was that Running Bear’s “magic” was too strong for him and he began “smelling” the ocean some several hundred miles away. Time to leave, time to get to Gallup down the road, and the hobo jungle wait for the ride on the rails.
Just then, just as he was closing accounts on the past several weeks by remembering his reactions on entering this ill-disposed jungle that was in no way like the friendly, brotherly, sisterly Volkswagen encampment at Red Rock old-time stew ball “Wyoming Coyote” yelled, yelled almost in his ear, although Billy knew that he was not yelling at him personally, but that the Southern Pacific was coming through at 4:00AM. The Southern Pacific going clear through to Los Angeles. Billy’s heart pounded. Here he was on the last leg of his journey west, he would be in L.A. by tomorrow night, or early the next morning at the latest. But the heart-pounding was also caused by fear, fear of that run to catch that moving freight train boxcar just right or else maybe fall by the wayside.
This was no abstract fear, some childhood mother-said-no fear, but real enough. On the way down from Chicago, after being enthralled by the gypsy davies talk of “riding the rails” he had decide that he needed to try it out first in order to make sure that he could do it, do it right when a train was moving. Sure he had caught a few trains before but that was always in the yards, with the trains stationary, and anyway as a child of the automobile age, unlike most of the denizens of the jungle he was more comfortable on the hitchhike road than the railroad. So, as practice, he had tried to catch an Illinois Central out of Decatur about a half-mile out just as the train started to pick up steam but before it got under full steam and was not catchable. He ran for it, almost didn’t make it, and cursed, cursed like hell those coffin nails that he smoked, and swore to give them up. So he was afraid, righteously afraid, as he fell asleep.
At 3:30AM someone jolted Billy out of his sleep. He woke with a start fearing someone was trying to rob him, or worst, much worst in a grimy jungle camp trying to sexually assault him, some toothless, piss-panted old drunken geezer catch up in some memory fog. Damn, it was only San Antonio Slim shaking him to wake him up for the Southern Pacific coming, just in case it came a little early, although according to the jungle lore it came on time, with maybe a minute or so off either way. Billy asked for a cigarette and Slim rolled him a choice Bull Durham so smartly that Billy blinked before he realized what Slim had produced. He lit up, inhaled the harsh cigarette smoke deeply, and started to put his gear quickly in order, and give himself a little toilet as well. Suddenly Slim yelled out get ready, apparently he could hear the trains coming down the tracks from several miles away. Nice skill.
The few men (maybe seven or eight) who were heading west that night (not, by the way, Slim he was waiting on a Phoenix local, or something like that maybe, thought Billy, a Valhalla local) started jogging toward the tracks, the tracks no more than one hundred yards from the jungle. The moon, hidden for most of the night under cloud cover, made an appearance as the sound of the trains clicking on the steel track got louder. Billy stopped for a second, pulled something from his back pocket, a small weather-beaten picture of Joyel and him taken in Malibu a few years before in sunnier days, and pressed it into his left hand. He could now see the long-lined train silhouetted against the moonlit desert sands. He started running a little more quickly as the train approached and as he looked for an open boxcar. He found one, grabbed on to its side for all he was worth with one hand then the other and yanked himself onto the floor rolling over a couple of times as he did so. Once he settled in he again unclasped his left hand and looked, looked intensely and at length, at the now crumbled and weather-beaten picture focusing on Joyel’s image. And had Joyel thoughts, hard-headed Joyel thoughts in his head “riding the rails” on the way to the city of angels.