Most hobo’s, known as Boes by the Yard Dogs, Railroad Detectives, hit the rails to escape their pasts, moving from place to place, broke and hungry most of the time. The same could be said about college boys
My dad said I was wiry, my friends said I was puny. In a bar, after pointing in the direction of a large girl standing by the jukebox, I asked a big guy if that was his girlfriend or did somebody put a dress on the jukebox? Two well placed left jabs that landed in my midsection made me realize it was his girlfriend and my friends were right, I was puny. After that encounter, my survival instincts kicked in and I began to hang out with the biggest and toughest guys I could find.
One of those tough guys was one of my high school friends and college roommate. He wasn’t the biggest guy by a long shot, but he sure was one of the toughest. His name was Bill Morgan and he was 6’ tall and weighed 170 pounds. He was wiry. He won the Wisconsin State Judo Championship in his weight class 3 years running and the overall state championship in 1968-69 and was selected to the 1968 United States Olympic Team. To do this, he had to beat a one-eyed monster named Dan Riordan from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who weighed in at 275 pounds. Bill got him in a choke hold and we all thought ol’ Dan’s glass eye would pop out before he tapped out. Bill was squeezing so hard his face was redder than Riordan’s.
Unfortunately, for Bill, he re-injured his knee at a practice session in San Francisco and never made it to Japan to compete in the Olympics.
Bill started his college career at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, but decided to leave, or, to be more precise, the dean of the college decided he should leave after he ruined the homecoming parade by dumping a pail of water onto the head of the Homecoming Queen as the procession passed beneath his dormitory window.
Bill said it was probably just as well because he missed his old friends and the last time he came to visit us in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, he hopped on the back step of a tractor trailer rig. Now, this step is simply a bar that is welded on the back of the trailer. It is used to step up onto the trailer bed. It is about 3’x3’ in size, just big enough to sit on. Bill had to hang onto the rung on the back door for over 150 miles in the cold Wisconsin winter. He said after the first couple of hours his arms went dead with fatigue. When the truck finally pulled into a truckstop, Bill jumped off the back. He said it took him over 15 minutes before he was able to open his fingers and thumb so he could hitch a ride the rest of the way.
Bill had a penchant for doing unconventional things like this. One that most folks would consider as unconventional as they get was hopping freight trains. In the Village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, at the bottom of the hill on Watertown Plank Road, the road that runs through the middle of the village, train tracks cross the road. The Milwaukee Road ran their trains on these tracks and occasionally a freight train would come rumbling through at a slow speed and Bill would run out and jump on and ride it for about a mile or so. Before the train could pick up too much speed, he would jump off. This was usually around North Avenue. The rest of us guys would hop in a car and go pick him up. Pretty soon, more and more of us would join him in this unusual and illegal activity. We did it just for the fun of doing it until this became an alternative mode of transportation for us. As kids, we didn’t know the difference between fun and funerals and sometimes with Bill, I had my doubts to which I was heading.
Another friend of ours, while learning the ropes of hopping a freight, grabbed onto a rung that had iced up and he had a difficult time holding on as his heels bumped along over the ties as the train dragged him down the tracks at an increasing rate of speed. He pushed away from the train as hard as he could, falling away from the wheels as he tumbled down the right-of-way into the rocks and cinders dotting the landscape. Luckily he survived with just a few scratches and bruises.
There was another time when a friend of ours, Jim Mills, a tackle on our college football team, wanted to join us the next time we hopped a train and we obliged him. Fortunately, I was unable to make that trip as there was a railroad bull riding in one of the boxcars and they ended up jumping off at a time and speed that wasn’t as opportune as they would have liked it to be.
They landed and rolled into a farmer’s field. Jim twisted his knee. They got up and started to cross a farmer’s field with Jim hobbling behind them when all of a sudden they heard someone yelling, “What in the hell are you doing in my field?” This question was soon followed by a blast from his shotgun. Bill said he never saw ol’ Jim Mills move so fast as he hobbled behind them across the field. Unfortunately for all of them, they didn’t move fast enough as they found the sheriff waiting for them when they exited the field.
I received a call later that day asking if I would mind coming and getting them. They were sitting in the jail. Luckily, no charges were filed and it didn’t cost them any money; however, Jim Mill’s missed playing in two football games due to his injured knee.
Now you would think we would have learned a lesson from that experience, but we didn’t. The next and last time I hopped a freight train was in January of ’67. It was unusually warm for a Wisconsin January and we were wearing only a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt which is unheard of in January in Wisconsin; sometimes even in the summer. The sun had been out all day and the snow was melting. Bill Morgan and I were walking along the downtown streets of LaCrosse next to the train tracks. We were in the middle of one of our sophomore years in college and were restless. It was a little after twelve o’clock and we were discussing what we could do with the rest of the afternoon. There was always the bars, but it was too nice of a day to spend inside a dark place getting wasted.
We were walking across the road when the wigwags went off with its lights swinging and its bell clanging. We could hear the whistle of the train lift in the distance.
We saw the train slow to uncouple a couple of hoppers at the grain elevator on the corner across from where Bill and I were walking. The engineer bumped her ahead and then leaned into the throttle. The old engine groaned and stepped up to a walk. With each stroke, she picked up speed.
Bill and I stopped and looked at each other and nodded. We waited on the crossroad for a rail car to come down the line. We both lit out and set a pace to latch on to the grab iron and swing up. Bill was faster than I was and he reached the hopper car before me and grabbed onto the ladder and easily swung up and stood on the platform on the back of the car. By the time it was my turn to jump on, the train had already picked up speed, so when I got to the grab iron, my feet shot from the ground like a rifle bullet and I found myself hanging by my hands from the third rung from the bottom of the ladder.I nearly tore my arm off. For awhile, I couldn’t go up or down, so I just clung to the ladder in hopes that I could get my feet under me and onto the lower rung before I fell. Luckily I was able to hook the rung with my foot and gather my weight below me and finally crawl up the ladder onto the back platform of the hopper car.
Now, for those of you who have never hopped a freight before, I have to tell you that hopping on a freight train is only half the job. You have to figure out how to stay on once aboard and then get off without killing yourself. We figured this black snake would rumble slowly through town before picking up speed and we would be able to jump off near campus. Well, this train just kept gaining momentum and never once slowed, it only accelerated and we soon realized that we made a serious mistake not jumping when we had the opportunity.
We began to worry a bit when the train started to blast through the small Minnesota towns that dotted the banks of the Mississippi River with the beautiful rocky bluffs on the other side on its way northwest. When would this thing stop, we wondered? The first sign was LaCrescent, then there was Red Wing, Hastings, Winona, and on it went and I don’t know if this is the correct order of the towns as this was fifty years ago, but I do remember those names. When a train slows to a speed that would normally be safe to jump you may not be able to do it if you were crossing a river or gully or what was below you was sheer rocks as was the case on our journey
Soon the stars blinked on overhead like Christmas lights as we sat, listening to the clacking of the wheels as we lumbered through the night. Had we been on this iron beast that long already?
Some of the fun was taken out of the ride when we found ourselves shivering and freezing in a fifty mile an hour wind that was flying off the hopper car. Still, it was a good learning experience, I thought. I learned that intuition may only whisper, but it often speaks the truth and I would have been wise to have listened to it.
We ended up in the Minneapolis switchyards around 2:00 o’clock on a Sunday morning. It was pretty quiet and the smell of creosote filled the air as we jumped off the back of the hopper car that had been home to us that day.
We looked around to see if there were any yard bulls hanging out. We were lucky there wasn’t any around that we saw or that saw us.
We hitch hiked back to LaCrosse the next morning.