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Steve Robertson

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King of the Road Hey, Boy - Hey Boy - HO BO!
By Steve Robertson
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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KING OF THE ROAD
“Hey, Boy.” “Hey Boy.” “Ho, Bo!”
Prose by H. Steven Robertson

“Ever hop a freight train?” Ah, the question that teased a young adventurer’s imagination—‘hop a freight train’? Just standing next to the colossal boxes on wheels, attached to each other like so many elephants in a circus parade, was awe-inspiring. And to think of vaulting into a cavernous maw through massive sliding steel doors, clanking away down seemingly endless rails headed to who knows where, was as enthralling as any fantasy could be. Certain buddies, high school and college, told their tales of such an adventure, and I was envious.
It happened quite by accident in 1966. Having left Newberry College for a winter Christmas break where my parents lived in Miami, Florida, several friends and I were making the rounds of local drive-in restaurants one evening. We were looking for excitement, especially that of the ‘female’ nature. As it happened, I was rarely successful on such outings, but this time proved to be different. She was a classy as she was beautiful. Sandy, for some reason, locked her eyes on my rather inane albeit innocent, wide-eyed gawking stare and smiled disarmingly back. After withstanding the involuntary internal gymnastics this caused my heart, lungs, brain, and other vital organs, I attempted to covertly reassemble them and walked over to where she sat with several equally sophisticated friends.
It has been a long time and I don’t remember what I said—probably something stupid—nonetheless, Sandy was sweet and patient and soon, my awkwardness was forgotten and we evolved into mutual stories of introduction. Turns out, she was a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She was home on vacation as well. Sandy was tall and nicely proportioned. She had long ash-blond hair and twinkling sky blue eyes. Her slightly tanned complexion required very little make-up. Most alluring, however, was her propensity to laugh easily and enjoy the company she was with. A bunch of boys meeting up with a bunch of girls was never a good way to end up ‘one on one,’ so I was relieved when Sandy agreed to go out with me the next night. I could hardly wait!
Over the next few days of vacation, we dated several times and then it was time to return to our respective colleges. About five hundred miles separated Newberry from Florida State, and I didn’t have much confidence in a continuation of the relationship. We did, however, keep in contact by mail.
Several months passed and it was time for spring break at Newberry College. Florida State was on a different schedule, and would still be in session. Although I never had a bunch of money, I always worked at side jobs when football wasn’t in season and after classes and usually had pocket change. Train tickets round trip to Jacksonville, Florida were affordable. Tallahassee was about 180 miles west of Jacksonville; however, the distance didn’t seem insurmountable since I-10 was a straight shot between the two cities. I was convinced it would be easy hitchhiking there and back from the train station in Jacksonville. I wrote Sandy and she invited me to come on down. She was a Tri-Delta and they were having festivities for the fraternities and sororities on campus.
Great—a new adventure, and I loved adventures. I passed the word around and a youngster who was a freshman—I was a junior at the time—offered to accompany me on the journey. Bob and I purchased our tickets and prepared for the trip. Clothes have never been a forte of mine and they weren’t then either. I would only take one small suitcase and what I wore. I did decide to wear a nice outfit including a necktie and a sport coat. After all, I was on the way to meet up with a classy lady. At the time, I wore a 50” long in a jacket and 36” trousers so it was very hard for me to buy clothes anyway.
So packed, as we were, in the morning we begged a ride from my good friend and cohort, George Clark for the thirty or so miles that separated Columbia and Newberry. The train didn’t run through Newberry. Although it has been years now, during my college days I rode trains quite often—and I really enjoyed them. This time was no different and we arrived in Jacksonville around four in the afternoon.
This was back when the train station was located downtown near the junction of I-95 and I-10. It has since been converted into a convention center—which is one hell of a loss to the community. Built in the grand style of railroad stations when trains were a major form of travel, it was magnificent—and huge. Our train nosed in on one of the dozens of tracks that terminated on the north side of the station, next to several other trains upon which passengers were embarking and disembarking. It was awesome to see track after track aligned perpendicular next to one another extending the entire one hundred yards or so down the building. There was a roof over all of them to protect against the weather as well. Swinging doors pivoted to and fro as passengers and redcaps hauling bulky bags and suitcases came through them.
Inside, the ceilings were so high an airplane could have flown around inside. Rows of pew-like seats lined the center of the main area and small shops and ticket counters abounded on either side. The haunting, drawling voice of the announcer over the public address system joined the echoing clopping of our shoes on marble floors as it reverberated through the building informing travelers as to the status of different trains. We must have been like rubbernecking tourists on a street in New York City as we walked through the cavernous depths of the beautiful building.
After a bit of gawking, we found our way out of the building, and I looked around to gain my bearings. This was the first time I’d ever been here at the station. My prior experience was viewing it from the I-95 expressway that passed just to the west. A large silver bridge had been constructed over the myriad of tracks just before I-10 the juncture with I-95. I could see the bridge from outside of the station, however, getting up to the road would prove to be quite a challenge since we tried to go ‘cross country’ for the one-half mile or so distance.
Finally, we climbed the last embankment and found ourselves on the side of I-95, walking toward I-10, which was several hundred yards farther around the corner. We both had nice sport coats and neckties on and a suitcase apiece. It was around five in the afternoon and it would be no time at all until we hitched a ride—or so I naively believed. I had hitchhiked maybe once before in my life…
After staying stationary on the right-of-way of I-10 for a half hour or so, we decided to start walking west. I reasoned that if we got past more of the on-ramps to the expressway, we would increase the likelihood of attracting a car headed for Tallahassee. We walked, and walked and hitched our thumbs. Finally, we got a ride about six or seven in the evening that took us all of four or five miles. Only 175 or so left to go—. We were getting tired, and it was getting later and darker, although there were lights on the side of the expressway.
It looked as if we would never hitch a ride, which seemed impossible. Somebody, out of all of those cars, must be willing to give a couple of nicely dressed young men a ride. I didn’t know quite what to do. Then, around 10:30 this fellow in a station wagon pulled off to the side of the road ahead and backed up to us.
“Where ya’ boys headed?”
“We’re hoping to get to Tallahassee, Sir.”
“Ain’t goin’ that far, boys, but I can get ya’ to Baldwin down the road a piece.”
I knew where Baldwin was. It is at the juncture of US 301 and US 90. We traveled 301 many times when driving between Newberry and Miami. At least that would be twenty something miles further than where we were.
“That would be just fine, Sir, if you don’t mind.”
“Throw them suit cases in the back and hop in then.”
We didn’t have to be told twice and soon, we were on our way down the road. Wow, it felt good to sit down. It had been a long day and we were getting tired. I was a little worried about being let off in Baldwin. It was a very rural town back then and some of the fellows who would be out at this time of night were likely to have a stroke of meanness in them. I knew some of those backwoods fellows would like nothing more than to make sport of a couple of naive college boys. Not only were they envious of a formal education, they didn’t ‘take kindly’ to outsiders. At 245 pounds with a bench press of 400 pounds, and as a highly trained college football player, I don’t know why I was worried; however, there was always the possibility of guns.
The man who picked us up was very kindly. But when I noticed him reach to the seat next to him, I immediately noticed two things. First, he was reaching for the cup to spit out a wad of the tobacco he had stuffed in one cheek. The other was an absolutely huge stainless steel pistol resting next to his leg. Oh, crap! Floated quickly through my head.
The man’s eyes and teeth glowed green in the dash lights as he grinned when he looked over and caught me staring at the gun. I didn’t care to bale out at the speed we were going, but if it was that or the gun, I was out the door. After he had spit out a stream of chaw, he set the cup down and picked the pistol up by the handle. His eyes returned to the road as he leaned over and set the gun under the seat beneath him, then straightened up and put both hands back on the wheel. I don’t know if my exhale was noticeable or not, but I sure as hell breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“Ya’ just cain’t be too cerful’ when ya’ pick up hitchhikers these days. Ya’ never know when they might wanna’ roll ya for your money or steal your car or sumthin’. I had ta’ make shore about ch’all first.”
We made small talk for the next half hour and soon he pulled off of I-10 and drove in to Baldwin on US 90. There was an all-night joint beside the road just east of 301 called The Greasy Spoon and he let us off. It’s still there today but now it is named Everybody’s Restaurant. After retrieving our suitcases, we thanked him for the ride and walked into the place. It was part restaurant, part bar, and part honky-tonk. The colorful jukebox in the center of the room radiated with neon colors and reverberated with heavy country rhythms. The clack of a cue ball hitting pool balls joined the sound of the music. There were about ten people inside, mostly men.
I had filled Bob in on the possibilities and suggested that he keep his mouth shut as much as possible. He wasn’t from Florida or anywhere close and his accent would give him away if he said too much. We were famished and thirsty from the ordeal after leaving the train station. That seemed like eons ago now. I grew up in small towns in Florida and spent most of my time working with laborers in orange groves and on a ranch. Newberry was also more or less rural at the time and the locals had heavy southern accents. North Florida in this area wasn’t much different than South Georgia. I knew the people well, and I was able to lapse into a reasonable countrified Southern, back-woods drawl, which I did.
I ordered two beers and water on the side and a couple of their Greasy Spoon down-home cheeseburgers. I locked myself in the bathroom for a few minutes before being served. Other than the physiological essentials that needed performing, I transferred most of my money and traveler’s checks into my shoes beneath my feet. I stuffed enough in my front pockets to pay for what we ordered then walked back out to claim the food and drinks. If they got my wallet, they wouldn’t get my money.
The beer and water went down in no time and the cheeseburgers were probably the best thing I’d ever put in my mouth. I had to order a second one and so did Bob. In the mean time, I slid a few quarters in the jukebox and selected some Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, which I thought would cause us to look a little more ‘homey’.
A couple things that are close to every backwoodsman’s heart are the size of a man and football. It is true that both often went together. My 6’4” height was a dead giveaway. One of the good ole’ boys sidled over and leaned on his cue stick as he struck up a conversation. I kept my eyes on the cue stick.
“You fellers’re dressed purdy strange ta be in The Greasy Spoon, ain’t cha? Where ya from.”
I thought about getting me a chaw of tobacco, but it would have made me sick as clover stuffed cow. I just drawled back, instead. “Yeah, purdy stupid whach’ll do for a good lookin’ woman, ain’t it? I met this heifer down in Miami, lives in Tallahassee. I thought, Hell, why don’t I just ride the thumb over there from Jacksonville? Cain’t be too hard.
“Y’all look like you might be football players. That right?”
“Yup.”
“Where ya play?”
“South Carolina.” Technically that was true . I didn’t feel like explaining where Newberry was and the University of South Carolina was a southern stronghold as far as football went. The other fellow had taken his pool shots and now it was my new buddy’s turn. When the guy walked up to us, my new buddy offered his hand.
“I’m Eugene, this here’s Frog.” I told them I was Steve and shook their hands. It was easy to see why the other fellow was called frog. If he’d licked his eyebrow with his tongue, I wouldn’t have been surprised. He was squat with dangling arms and legs and he had a very round head. His long, thin mouth seemed to push his cheeks out on either side of his face.
“Frog, these guys is football players from South Carolina. They’s tryin’ to hitch a ride to Tallahassee. They ain’t gonna have much luck is they?”
Although he didn’t say ‘ribit’, Frog affixed two amphibian eyes on me, took a guzzle from his Budweiser and wiped the foam from his ample lips with the back of his hand. Whew, got by on that one. If his serpentine tongue had whipped out and done it, I’d probably have lost it.
“Shucks boys, why do ya want to do that? Why don’t ya just hop a freight?” They’s one right down the road.”
What? Did he just say hop a freight? I’d love to hop a freight. I wonder if this reptilian wonder has plans to send us someplace where they can roll us for our money? “Man, I’ve been wantin’ to hop a freight my whole life. Sure, I want to hop a freight. How do we do it?”
“Hell, Steve. It’s easy. Y’all crossed some tracks ‘bout fifty yards back towards Jacksonville. Jus walk back to them tracks and follow ‘em south for about a hundret yards. Y’all’ll come to the freight yards. There’ll be some fellers thar. Jus’ ask which train is goin west to Tallahassee. Ya’ ain’t sposed to be doin it, but ain’t nobody cares. Jus remember to keep out a sight till the train hooks up and starts a pullin.”
The good ole boys were delighted when I bought them both beers and Bob and I gathered our suitcases and struck out back down the road toward the tracks. It was around midnight and the tracks wound into a curve into darkness. I wasn’t exactly whistling in the dark, but you could see the whites of my eyes if you looked, and I was looking and listening to everything as we walked. If they decided to come at us, I had made up my mind that at least two of them would have a healthy munch of suitcase, and I figured I could outrun any more of them. The night remained calm; however, and soon the darkness gave way to the eerie yellow-orange glow of the train yard, which was lighted by mercury vapor lights.
There were what looked to be a couple dozen pairs of tracks spaced side by side, each with a line of boxcars, stock cars, and other types sitting on them. A fellow was standing there with a clipboard wearing a hard hat. He looked up as we came out of the darkness and watched as we walked towards him. I kept my drawl, but we must have looked pretty strange at this time of night, walking into a freight yard with sport coats and neckties. “How ya doin’? Fellers back at The Greasy Spoon told us you’d probably be able ta show us which one of them trains is goin to Tallahassee. W’ed shore appreciate it if ya would.”
He leaned over, spit out a stream of tobacco juice and pointed toward the tracks. “That’d be the third track over.” With that he turned and walked away.
Well, hell? What now? I told Bob to come on and we walked between the first two tracks of cars and faced the third. There were a number of boxcars right in front of us. Some of the doors were latched closed, but a few were open. I walked over to the closest open one and looked in. It was huge. The landing of the floor came up past my chest as I stood on the ground beside it. It was empty. I threw my suitcase in and vaulted up into it. Bob was close behind.
The first thing I did was to survey the entire interior of the huge metal box. It was empty save dirt, some extra large sheets of cardboard and some scraps of wood that looked as if it could have come from shipping palates. I collected several of the wood scraps and tore off some pieces of cardboard and used these to wedge in the door so it couldn’t be closed and have us locked inside. That really wouldn’t do. Next, Bob and I retired to the back and sat down against a wall. We were exhausted.
We started to feel the cold as our bodies cooled down following the walking. All we had on were the light sport coats and we weren’t prepared for the North Florida March night. I tore several pieces of the cardboard and used them to fashion a makeshift shelter from them and crawled under. Bob followed suit. The floor felt dirty, but I was past caring.
My biggest fear was that we would be locked inside the boxcar. The second was that the train would take off for parts unknown, not remotely in the direction of Tallahassee. Oh, well, too late to worry much about that now. I tried to sleep with one eye open and tossed fitfully for several hours. Somewhere towards morning, probably around 3:30 AM, I felt the boxcar jolt and heard the screeching of protesting rusty wheels and slamming concussions, as the cars were jammed together. It was obvious that an engine was connecting to our row of cars. I jumped up and ran to the door with Bob right behind me.
We didn’t want to be seen so we peeked from the side of the door. There wasn’t much to see because of the row of cars next to ours. After a hundred yards or so, the progress stopped and more groaning, screeching, and slamming ensued as the train reversed directions. A metal boxcar is a noisy creature as the vibrations and squealing reverberating from the metal sides are reflected and amplified like an electric guitar from stereo speakers.
This time, the train picked up speed and the darkness of a moonless night replaced the yellow-orange glow of the mercury vapor lights as we moved out of the freight yard. I could see we were going in a huge arc, but it was disconcerting and I had no idea at all as to which direction on earth we were headed. Oh well, we’d find out soon enough. Now that we were underway, Bob and I returned to our makeshift nests, and I merged into an exhausted deep sleep. The motion plus the steady click-clack of the wheels crossing the junctures between tracks proved to have an overwhelming narcotic affect.
I awoke to the flickering of daylight as the sun was intermittently blocked by trees as the boxcar passed. When I stood up, it was like unfolding a rusty jackknife as the combination of fatigue, hard metal floor, and the position I was in had joined forces to stiffen every joint in my body. I hobbled over to the door and looked out. I had closed it almost all the way the night before to avoid detection. Since that was no longer a problem, I opened it now. The fresh morning air rushing past was invigorating. I recognized nothing outside. I did do a quick estimation of the location of the morning sun, however, and to my relief, determined that at least we were headed west. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that it was just after 7:30 AM. There was nothing to see so I stumbled back over and lay down to catnap a little longer. Bob was still asleep.
I awoke later in the morning and felt much refreshed. I did the two-step over to the door again as the swaying boxcar played with my balance. This time there was a highway running parallel to the tracks on the other side of a thin stand of trees and bushes. Bob joined me in the door and we watched as the train passed road and street crossings, replete with the Doppler affect sound of warning bells as they clanged loudly announcing the presence of the train to cars. We could see the amusement in the faces and the pointing fingers as adults and children espied two guys dressed in sport coats and ties, riding past on a train standing in the door of a box car. Then I saw some familiar landmarks. We were definitely on the correct train. It was traveling along US 90 on the way to Tallahassee. As we were soon to learn, our adventure was not over yet.
Around ten-thirty, the train slowed and it was easy to see that we were entering a large city. It had to be Tallahassee. Bob and I let go a whoop and shook hands (high-fives were a thing of the future). We set our bags next to the door and waited for the train to slow to a stop. It didn’t. It was another thing I hadn’t thought about or planned on.
We crossed a road and the sign read Florida A&M, One Mile. Florida A&M was another college located in Tallahassee, and I knew it wasn’t too far from the campus of Florida State. Now we were passing our intended destination. Looking out, I judged the speed of the train to be about what I could run at top speed. Regardless, I was going to jump.
“Bob, we gotta jump and run for it. This train isn’t gonna stop!”
“What? You’re nuts!”
“Maybe, but I’m still gonna jump. Maybe you feel like walking back from Alabama. I’m gonna jump and run like hell. Make sure you run away from the tracks so if you fall, you won’t roll under the wheels.” With that, I tossed my suitcase into a clump of bushes, sat down on the platform, and launched myself from the door of the boxcar.
I hit the roadbed running. There’s no doubt that I never ran faster in my life. I just about couldn’t keep up, but my legs didn’t fail me and I made it. When I looked back, it was evident Bob hadn’t fared as well. He was rolling in a tight ball. Fortunately, he’d hit some grass and his fall wasn’t too bad. As the last car passed, we crossed over the tracks and headed for the campus.
Since I was a brother at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in Newberry, I knew that I’d be allowed to stay at the Florida State Tau house. The shower was one of the better feelings I’ve ever had. I phoned Sandy and was invited to a sorority dinner that night. I needed to do some serious work on my sport coat—the only one I had.
We could only stay a couple days and I didn’t see much of the girl. I guess after the dinner, her friends made fun of the small town yokel come to visit her in the big city. Plus, I had no car and little money to do anything with, so our options were limited. At any rate, it had been a great adventure.
When it was time to go, I got one of my fraternity brothers to give us a ride to the Tallahassee bus station. As we settled back gratefully into the plush seats and listened to the ‘Hound’s’ big diesel engine as the driver coursed through the gears, it seemed like I heard someone call: “Hey, Boy.” “Hey, Boy.” “Ho, Bo…”


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