29th Birthday


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Catching Out

I jumped on in Spokane.  It was late December and the middle of the night.  The boxcar was dark, dirty, and damp, but empty. The south-facing door was half-open, which was enough for a view and for keeping out of sight.

This was my first go. I came to learn later that there is a diesel-stained esoteric code to this dim-witted activity, and ‘asking around’ might give you advice (however dubious and untested) about choosing cars, tracking routes, and trusting more than luck to keep from being maimed, killed or arrested.

Best to heed unwritten laws such as: jacking the door open with a board or pallet so you won’t lose dangling legs on a sudden stop, checking out the whole train before jumping on to see if there are indeed engines attached, and maybe even bringing along food, water, and sufficient boxcar-appropriate clothing to keep from ending this manly excitement as a smiling corpse in some far-flung sub-zero siding while the engineers keep warm a mile ahead sipping cheap wine and waiting on the midnight train to Omaha, now five hours late, to pass through. Absent such wisdom, however, I endured. And by 4 a.m., we were racing over the winter sagebrush landscape, headed west under a bright full moon that lit up the frosty land for miles around.

Catching On

I knew enough geography to place myself. The mainline tracks roughly parallel U.S. Highway 2, but I had no idea when or even if the freight would stop before the Cascade Mountains. At daybreak, around 7, we squealed down a long grade and soon banged across the Columbia River on an ancient steel bridge. I gathered up my blanket, pulled my stocking cap down tight and jumped off at the switch yard in Wenatchee. Somehow, I got around the back end of the train and managed to avoid attracting the attention of the bundled-up yard workers going about their business. With just enough money for breakfast at the old Owl Café near the tracks, I washed up and then devoured an order of ham and eggs – clearly a meal for a sure-enough gypsy tramp hobo, or whatever I was. I then found the highway to hitchhike back to school and my empty dorm.  I could do this.

The Tunnel of Death

In the years to come, I would take several more freight rides. Some of my friends, also eager to re-frame their stupidity as skillful impetuousness, would choose to sign on.  Pete and I almost got to the Canadian border late one night drinking whiskey and bellowing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with our feet dancing and waving over the boxcar’s edge.  We first had to change trains in Everett to keep from possibly suffocating in the Stevens Pass rail tunnel.  We were smart enough to know about the eight mile long passage but not enough to know if there was enough air to breathe during its passage.  We imagined a big pile of dead tramps on both sides of the track with open mouths and their eyes popping out of their head. When we jumped off to find a train north to Bellingham, a runaway teenager who had been standing by the tracks climbed aboard. He looked confused and not too bright and said he was going to go wherever the train took him.  We wished him luck, but looked at each other and shook our heads.

To our surprise we sped right through Bellingham that night.  We had been warned by the yard worker in Everett we ought not get caught when the mean and unforgiving Canadian customs agents go through all the boxcars at the international border, so we bailed out north of Ferndale as soon as the train slowed enough to allow the liquor to convince us it was safe to jump.  Clearly, the British Columbia immigration jails are full of booze-sotted fools singing old country western songs.

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Birthday Present

On my 29th birthday brother Terry, friend Scott and I rode an auto carrier car south on the Burlington Northern line from the Seattle Interbay yards to Tacoma. We rattled hell-bent down the valley through Duwamish, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Puyallup on a clear autumn day.  “Automotive Racks”, as these rail cars are properly called, are now all steel-sided to prevent vandalism, but back in the day you could climb the outside ladder at sixty or so swaying miles per hour to the top deck and get a hell of a view.  Just don’t try to stand up.

On that trip, two honest-to-god hobos got on as we waited by the old Kingdome.  Davey and “Loose.”  Loose carried a scented, well-traveled duffel bag.  Davey had a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread in a pair of crappy old boots slung over his shoulder.  I noticed one of the boots had a heel missing.  Davey said that those boots got him arrested in Colorado the past year as he was walking in circles and the cop hauled him off to jail for “weaving with the intent to fall over.”

We jumped off in Tacoma then took them out to the 24th Street Tavern across from the yards and bought them drinks. They sure could drink.  And they sure could tell stories – real goddamn hobo stories.  I bought a pack of Camel cigarettes for Davey, though from the way he coughed I was pretty sure he had tuberculosis.  Just our way of saying thanks.

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We phoned my friend Paul who lived in Spanaway. He came over and drove Terry, Scott and I back to my 29th birthday party in North Seattle where my girlfriend Sue was waiting somewhat impatiently. She was thankful in spite of my reeking and reckless condition that I was still alive.  A guy couldn’t ask for a nicer gift.  Some time later I became convinced that chicks dig idiots.  I’m in.  Life is good.

Cincuenta Años Pasados


The Olympic Summer Games were held in México City in 1968 – Fifty Years Ago.  It was an amazing time in history in the United States and throughout the western world.  A radical social change like no one had seen.  Everything became colorful, vivid, outrageous, unsettled and psychedelic overnight.  At these Olympics, the black power fist salute by two U.S. track athletes on the winners’ podium remains an indelible image for many of us now a half century later.  But this was the year our parents decided to take their three boys on a Christmas vacation in México.  At age twenty, it was my first journey out of the country.

Our mother Dorothy was a lady of some style; well-educated and well-read.  As I was growing up she brought me the classic library books such as “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” and “Heidi” (really!) that were must-reads for well-bred youngsters like she had been.  When I was older she apparently adopted a fascination for the currently trendy destinations far from her life as a wife and mother, and she convinced dad that we had to become cosmopolitan.  She then gave me a contemporary and engaging Mexico travel book to read in preparation for our trip, which I devoured with a born-gypsy’s fascination.  And the Devinys jet-setted south of the border.

We were four of us kids. Mike, the youngest, was a junior in high school.  Terry and I attended Gonzaga University which we left under a blanket of snow during what would end up being one of the most severe winters in state history.  Oldest child Kathie was not invited to join us as she had gotten married that year to the son of Stockton, California’s largest J. C. Penney’s store and became disenfranchised from family vacations.  She swept from a fairly uptight white-dress-and-tuxedo summer afternoon to the University of California Berkeley.  Flowers and beads, radical protests, the Free Speech Movement, and thoughtfully vague classes on the lawn where you were free to come and go as long as you wore sandals and hated the establishment.

Apollo 8 was circling the moon on our black and white Spanish-speaking TV as we moved into our vintage hotel on Alameda Square which was lit brightly for the season.  Rather than wait in suspense for the spacecraft to reappear from the dark side, I snuck out with my brother to explore the narrow backstreets of México City.  The blocks were poorly lighted but the air was warm and filled with glorious smells that could not be translated. My more timid sibling Terry watched me order a couple fish dinners and my first legally purchased cerveza. No I.D., no Spanish, no problem. We got somewhat lost but made our way back to the hotel. The next week I learned my very first foreign phrase as we departed the room.  I closed the door and read the attached card which said: “favor de no molestar”.  ‘Please don’t disturb me,’ I am out to conquer the country!

Dad was raised in the thirties and forties, and why he couldn’t master the stick shift on our rental car, I’ll never know. We ground our way south through Cuernavaca to Taxco for the night then motored into Acapulco where I became infected by the hot sands of December.  It’s a terminal condition that flares up as frequently as I let it.  We attended an amateur bullfight at the plaza out of town.  These were young kids and young bulls learning the craft.  I was captivated by the entire event, having read the details, history and culture around this beautiful dance.  The bullfighters would move on to higher levels of competition, perhaps someday to the Plaza de Toros in México City.  The bulls, sadly, not so much.

The 707 idled on the runway to take us home two days after New Years. (You thought 1968 was wild, wait’ll you see 1969!!)   As we waited to board, who comes sauntering through the first class gate but Dean Martin himself?!  Mother swooned as he cast a sleepy-eyed look her way, a cigarette dangling from his dulcet lips.  Dorothy’s cigarette dangled also, then flipped and bounced down the front of her white blouse as her jaw dropped.  She soon regained composure, snuffed out her Salem 100 on the boarding gate floor, and lit another as we walked onto the runway to head home.

Next: The Quaint Little Mexican Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.