The train snaked its way through a tangle of rail
yards southeast of Tacoma, slowing nearly to a halt as
it navigated the switches. I climbed down the ladder and
jumped off into the rust red canyons of Great Northern
freight cars. The train lumbered on towards Puget Sound.
I wandered out across the serpentine maze of tracks
heading nowhere. Some of the freights were loaded, doors
closed, secured with shiny metal strips any reasonably
mature Robin could have opened with its beak. Quite a
number, though, were empties, their doors opened wide. I
picked a car far back down on a train already coupled to
a line of engines and hopped aboard.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom
and when they did I noticed I wasn't alone. A
featureless form propped against the door side wall
about twenty feet away was quietly regarding me. After
several uncomfortable minutes passed, he finally spoke.
"Where ya bound for, son?"
"I don't know," I replied, after a moment's reflection.
"Well, don't feel too bad about thet," he
returned with a chuckle, "that's the way it is fer
all God's children."
He stood up, grasped his small canvas pack and,
walking with a distinct limp, plodded over and sat down
against the far wall opposite me and facing the door.
"You git a better view of life if you sit where you
can see it," he explained. "C'mon over."
I walked across cautiously and sat down just out of arm's reach. He was an old man crumpled with years. A faded Stetson slouched tiredly above bushy eyebrows capping a weathered visage three days or more in need of a shave. Clad in well worn denims, he seemed amused at my wary scrutiny.
"Name's Bo Svenson," he said gruffly,
extending a gnarled hand.
"Deke Collins," I lied, as we shook.
"Kinda young to be riding the rails, Deke,"
he observed. "Home go ta hell on ya'?"
"I just got tired of stayin'," I responded,
He gave a low chuckle, "Yeah, I been there. When
ya get too long and time's too short there ain't nothin'
to do but leave. Yer the youngest I seen it in so far
though," he added.
"When did you leave, Bo?"
"I was fifteen, first time I hit the
tracks," he said in wistful remembrance.
"Why'd you do it?" I persisted, after a
"Well, my old man and me never got along. Ya'
see he was a country preacher who thought God rose and
set on his side of the earth and only shone on him and
his flock. Now preachers mostly think they live next
door to heaven and maybe they do, but I'll tell ya the
gospel Deke, if you have to live around 'em fer any
length of time, life next door is hell." He paused
for a few moments to light up a smoke and then settled
deeper against the wall. "See, the problem is ya'
gotta be perfect around 'em at all times. Ya' daren't
say shit if ya' got a mouthful, and ya' allas got to be
prayin and thankin' the Lord for each and every morsel
of food ya' swallow and every damn penny that ya'
"Ya can't drink, smoke, chew, or swear and in
short, ya can't do anything at all that might possibly
take the edge off'n life or make yer days
"My old man preached the Christian miseries at
me as early as I can recollect. When that failed ta
'bare fruit fer righteousness,' as he was so damned fond
of sayin', he tried beatin' God into me with a stick.
Well, I finally got big enough to knock him on his pious
butt, was then I left." He fell silent for a
moment, lost in an unseen tangle of yesterdays. "I
never looked back, kid," he sighed. "I hopped
the first freight I could catch and rode the rails fer
the best part of two years."
"Did you knock him on his butt?" I inquired.
"What'd ya' think?" he rejoined with a
"I don't know," I replied. "I guess I
think you walked away."
"There's not much that's worth hittin' yer
parents over, Deke," he said sadly, "or anyone
else for that matter."
"What'd you do for food and clothes on the
"When I'd hit a town, I'd start lookin' for odd
jobs, fences that needed mending, wood that needed
choppin'. I could usually find somethin' to do for
nickels and dimes. That was all people had then, ya
know. Hell, five dollars in them days was a pile. You
could get a bath, shave, haircut...new jeans, shirt, and
jacket, and still have enough left over fer a good meal
and a couple packs of smokes. Sometimes," he
continued wistfully, "I'd stumble across a job
that'd take a week or two to do. Times like that I'd
usually make enough to keep me goin' for a month."
He fell silent for awhile, lost in a past I'd never
"You been ridin' since you were fifteen?" I
"Naw," he chuckled. "World War One
broke out when I was seventeen. I figured 'what the
hell.' I got an old bo to swear he was my father. He
signed my papers, semi legal like, and joined the
"Did you go to war?"
"What was it like?"
"Like life, once you understand it," he
replied with a short laugh, then explained, "War is
just life accelerated. A fella mostly has more fun
quicker, works harder, and dies sooner, ya' see, so all
we're really talking about here is the time. Ya do all
those things when the world's at peace too, it just
takes ya' longer to do 'em."
The box car suddenly lurched several feet forward,
throwing us both sideways. A series of lesser jerks
followed. The protesting screech of metal wheels on
steel rails reverberated in the empty car; we were
We sat in silence for a while, the old man and I,
then he drifted off to sleep. I walked over to the door
and stared out at the passing scenery. Houses soon
thinned out, gradually replaced by unfenced lands and
old growth evergreens. We were, I knew, headed for the
Cascade Foothills. Beyond that, I had no clear idea
about either the train's destination or what I would do
when I got there.
"Is any of this real?" I asked myself,
staring out into the gathering gloom. With time now to
reflect, it seemed decidedly unreal, there were so many
parts to the whole. So many accidents, any one of which,
had they gone the other way would have changed the
"Where would I be today if my parents had never
heard of Armstrong, if my Dad hadn't quit his job, if my
parents hadn't split up?" The 'if's' were endless.
On the other hand, what if none of this was
accidental? What if it was the will of God? Payment in
full for rebellion tendered? That was supremely
possible, more than that, it was damned likely. For this
was, loosely interpreted, just the kind of future the
called and chosen had envisioned for me. Cut off from
family, friends and God. Consigned, if not to outer
darkness, then at least to a physical, spiritual and
emotional twilight. "Free, at last," I
thought. "Headed nowhere, with nowhere to go."
I walked back across the steel deck of the rail car
and sat down next to the old man. He had slumped to one
side, and was resting his head on his travel worn pack.
His eyes were staring at me though, as if he had been
about to speak and at the last minute, changed his mind.
"You okay, Bo?" I asked.
When he didn't answer, I gave him a gentle shake. His
head and shoulders slipped off his pack and he slid to
the floor as limp as a puppet. His body quivered like
Jello from the vibrations of the train. I felt for a
pulse in his neck. There was none. I sat down by his
side, took one of his hands between mine and held onto
it for miles.
In the early hours of morning, just before dawn, the
freight finally stopped somewhere in Eastern Washington.
I hopped off, leaving the old man laying there in that
empty boxcar. He was beyond any help I knew of and,
except for a prayer and a handful of useless tears I
could find no real reason for, he was certainly beyond
The tracks stretched out in all directions. I'd been
south as a child for some of Armstrong's gatherings but,
although the scenery was spectacular, I had no desire to
live there. Canada was less than two hundred miles to
the north, but winter was on the way; besides which, I
had no idea what I'd do once I got there. West was
totally out of the question, I'd just come from there.
The only thing church, family or the state wanted to do
was to beat the Good Lord Jesus, either into or out of
me depending on the circumstance, or lock me in a cage.
East seemed as good as good a choice as any.