Big Lake in the Sky

Desert Rail

by John Michael Gorrindo



Desert Rail is only slightly fictionalized, and essentially autobiographical, taking place in the American west during the Viet Nam War.

Its narrative is preceded by a sober lament some may consider appropriate of an earlier epoch than our own.  For some it may conjure images from Medieval Europe or even the dawning of civilized man.   A more gentile reader who answers to more peaceful callings might deem its base assessment as a one-sided ignoblement of mankind best reserved for reference to that distant past when men were more closely allied to beasts in caves. But no matter the historical trappings, men and their institutions reflexively answer best to instincts of self-preservation.   It is presented simply because it still rings true.

It may seem that its internal logic is anti-spiritual and even perversely celebratory of a blunt carnality evocative of only a cruel illusion that subsumes and sublimates man’s nobler attributes; but nonetheless it is an illusion that has ruled human glands- especially those of the male of the species- as far back as history is able to reveal.  Illusion has proven its power to defy all- including so-called Truth, Righteousness, and Virtue- and its falsity does not preclude it from holding sway over the ultimate behavior and action of men, whether deemed civilized or not.  If only a temporary substitute for a more benign reality heretofore yet realized on earth, it still constitutes certitude.  Such are the roots of both drama and tragedy. Shakespeare quickly comes to mind.

Despite the wondrous catalog of knowledge, technology, compassion, and creative artifacts civilization proudly holds up as its more proper legacy and truer claim to greatness, the blood lust that courses through human veins runs a torrid, undiminished course in close parallel.  Mankind has obeyed a few simple callings, and the most potent comes straight from the blood. These venal roots are simple to suss out and easily traced. Even a tin ear will resonate to the harsh and familiar music.  There is a reason for the term “War Horse.”

The ease with which the author heard and transcribed the call gives pause for horrible wonder. The impulse is ingrained in the marrow, if not beating incessant on the eardrum with mallets the size of Sequoias.  That the bloodlines connecting us all are so polluted by the genealogy of a deadly illusion now threatens the existence of our species en toto.  Survival as a species requires we answer to another call.  Imagination has so far failed us.  How such a thing can be accomplished remains elusive.


Desert Rail

Seventeen is a peculiar age for a young man.  Childhood suddenly seems a thing long past, especially when your country is at war.  The fact that your peers a mere year older are dieing as soldiers in a conflagration overseas clutches one by the throat and yanks what’s left of the babe out of you.  Reality and its acknowledgement are two different things, and if there is anything in this world that brings the two together in a loud clap of thunder it is the lightening that war discharges through the synapses of one’s brain.  To know childhood is over is to become aware that one is old enough to become an instrument of war. 

When according to necessity or will-to-power the leaders our parents answer to herald the call to arms, children are readily turned over for the slaughter, and the babe-turned-man must throw his body into the fight that was not of his making.  From over the edge of the crib the babe falls into the arms of the state, and must at once learn how to protect and defend the country of one’s birth while inuring oneself to the inevitable shedding of blood it necessarily requires.  Blood flows in war as water does in peace, both inexorable realities whose acceptance must be total. To capitulate to the necessity of killing is held divine, a paradigm held mightily aloft as it possesses the power to perform alchemy upon the cruelness that must be embraced, at once glorifying brutality and making it honorable.

That there is no choice lifts duty to the fore.  It breathes life into the warrior’s creed and is its saving grace. Bolstered by ideals of duty, honor, and courage, the babe-turned-soldier must swallow whole these time-honored abstractions in their sum for praise of the path to noble action that justifies the taking of enemy lives for the preservation of their own.  Obedience to the military code and chain of command makes hallowed the process that requires devotion to precepts that have equally applied to all forefathers come before.

Such obedience draws one’s life as a living thread into a universal axis whose indeterminate length spans the human epoch and far beyond. That war has been the creator of all civilizations as well as cause for their demise is as fundamental as breath and heart beat.  This is the universal axis almighty. The babe-in-arms needn’t be told this but trained to act in blind accordance.  One’s youth exalts in the joy of physical action, and as rallied and harnessed by the needs of the state will actualize the heroic life.  Therein lies the intrinsic reward. Youth need not understand why but simply trust in duty’s call.  Once youth commits, the heroic life unfolds.  It is by the energies of instinct’s play that strength is so invested in the process.  As fate and faith hold out another thread of life becomes incorporated into the axis of Life as War

Instinct informs the body truly while mental reflection only serves to pervert the imperatives of civilization.  When mere planets pause to ponder rather than shoot straight down their prescribed orbits in revolution around the sun, they risk falling out into league with another center of gravity.  Free will can rip a planet loose from its rut and groove, but in so transitioning it chills to an absolute zero.  No warrior can stop to question but must allow instinct to be master.  Without a master, the warrior ceases being a man and becomes a brittle statue frozen in form standing outside of a rightfully prescribed time and place, becoming a dead mockery of all good bodily instincts and the honor-bound duty to all things greater.

That a mere boy of seventeen would have to contemplate such things is unthinkable.  Like a half-back having the football shoved into his gut, he must make for the hole in the line and run like hell. That every opposing force of the playing field has only his destruction in mind is natural and the only thing that can save him is his physical strength and instinct of survival; this along with the knowledge that the field generals who have ordered him into play have trained and armed him, and given him a cohort of brothers-in-arms to support his every move.  In these things he trusts and they free him to respond instinctually and without question.

The battle field becomes animated with action and life suddenly becomes real.  Without the game in action, there is no life.  What it means to be at peace no one knows, but it cannot be called life as we have always known it to be. It is either join the ranks in action or merely exist outside as that frozen statue whose gravity is self-centered and immobilized.  Life becomes inertia.  The choice is between the two- life or inertia.  To be acted upon by an external force is to live.  The stay uniformly still in obeisance to an inner gravity is to die.  The master always lies without and draws the body into action.

When there is no war to wage, the bodily energies of a young man call him out nonetheless.  I was drawn on just like every other fool my age. I remember being on the road with a comrade, standing the pair of us on the freeway on-ramp.  With ten dollars between us we would throw ourselves to the untender mercies of America’s highways, sticking out our thumbs in hope of flagging a ride.  My father had dropped us there before heading off to work, more than unhappy to do so given the unforeseen dangers he saw waiting for us out in the desert wilds that stretched out ahead to the east for hundreds of miles.

Saying good-bye to him, he responded by looking up at us from the driver’s seat of his car with a face engraved with abject misgiving and sullen displeasure.  For the ride he gave us that far we thanked him profusely and promised we would take good care. He forced himself to break eye contact, reached forward for the ignition key, turned over the engine, and wheeled his car back around on to the highway off the gravel shoulder. Traveling straight away in the opposite direction we were headed, his tires threw up a cloud of desert dust obscuring our view of the growing gap between us.

In 1970, to be young and male and on the road and wear your hair long made for dangerous sport.  In remote areas where such an image struck both fear and hate and a consternated misunderstanding in the hearts of the indigenous folk, to linger by the side of the road was to invite the kind of attention a seventeen year old wouldn’t care to consider for more than a half-moment of distracted reckoning.

My father had dropped my high school friend Tom and me off in the town of Sparks, Nevada. Sparks is a small suburb of Reno, Nevada, and it was more rolling desert sand than anything smacking of civilization.  The town consisted of a truck stop and a few casinos; some diners and a few houses sparsely scattered on lonely desert lots amongst the sage next to Interstate 80 which resumed its thread eastward at that point, having been momentarily absorbed by Reno’s urban corridor after flowing more or less freely all the way from its starting point in San Francisco.  From Sparks the traveler could see the next stage in the intercontinental route now that it had crossed the Golden State and traversed the mighty Sierra Nevadas.  The Great Basin and its interminable moonscape lie at one’s feet, stretching distances unfathomable towards the east and holding what promises a young man could only imagine if he so dared.

Within minutes after my father’s departure, a much unwanted though predictable visitor arrived on the scene.  He was a Sparks City Sheriff on patrol, and immediately after spotting us, drove straight our way, pulling up to park a judicious distance from where we stood.

The Sheriff stopped his cruiser’s engine and emerged slowly as is customary.  His eyes lie hidden behind dark aviator glasses and he walked with his right hand tucked in between his hip and his gun holster.  The gravel shoulder was ground beneath the treading of his black leather boots.  We could feel the desert’s temperature rise with his every step.  He stopped short of us two arms length’s distance.

“So, tell me; what you boys up to this mornin’?” he asked.

“Oh, we’ve just been dropped off by my father.  We’re going to hitchhike to Salt Lake City to visit some friends,” I replied with a friendly smile.

The Sheriff stood transfixed for a moment, his face frozen with intention.  “You boys wouldn’t happen to be carryin’ any drugs, would ya?”

“Oh, no officer; no sir,” assured my friend. “We don’t have any drugs.”

“How old are you boys?”

“We’re both seventeen,” I said.

“You got some ID?” 

My friend did, as he had a California Drivers License.  I had nothing so legitimate. Some unfortunate accidents I had experienced while learning how to drive had deterred me from completing the process of procuring a license.  My friend, Tom, took out his wallet and showed the officer his.

“So what about you, young fella; you got some form of ID?” he asked me.

“Well, just this student body card.  I’m a student at Tahoe Truckee High School,” I said, handing over the laminated card whose picture pictured a much cleaner-cut youth sans mustache and long hair.

“Truckee, huh? Hmm, you sure this is you?  It don’t look like you.” he said holding the card up and peering at both it and my face that lie in same line of sight above it.

“Oh, yes sir, officer.  That surely is me.”

“Both you guys are minors- and from outta state, huh?”

“Yeah, but we don’t live far from here- just over in Tahoe.  My dad actually lives in Reno and work at Johnny Asquaga’s Nugget here in Sparks,” I said.  “He just dropped us off and headed back to the Nugget for work.  He’s a Keno writer.”  My presence of mind told me instantly I had said enough.  Though I had briefly considered it in the heat of the moment, to have suggested the officer call and confirm this information would have been a grave error.

There is a telling moment in any such confrontation between teenage youth and an officer of the law.  First are the formalities that last for an indeterminate amount of time- expanded or contracted at the hands of the officer’s frame of mind; what cause he thinks worthy of investigation; and what if any damning evidence he thinks might or might not exist as possibly hidden from view.  He breathes the fact that the letter of the law rests in his authority as symbolized by his badge, and its enforcement potentially bound within the form of the gun in his holster and the long shaft of his night stick that swings freely on the opposite hip in its holding ring.  Now if only you would only come unglued in the face of it and lose your composure.

But in reality, these symbols- however concrete and lethal- exist in first light as only threats that languish in inertia until provoked.  Any officer worth his badge doesn’t rush into anything unless hell is in full progress. The factors of intimidation are always by way of introduction:  There is the stare down; then the sullen inquisition; followed often by a seeming lack of rejoinder; some additional questions- often nonsequitor in nature; and penultimately prior to a decision, an evaluation hidden from view.  For the lawman, hopefully these ritual preliminaries will make an easy sift that readies the cull- but first things first. 

As we were minors, he was free to sweep us off the streets, but there was little thrill in that.  Sometimes it was better to face authority that was looking for a rush of adrenaline.  It appeared we didn’t have what it took to trigger his impulses and satisfy that need.

Suspicion is the devil’s domain and field of play, but the grid-iron action is often held up in time out called by the controlling team that stops the clock in order to size-up his opponent.  “Is putting in the first string worth the bother?” the team in control wonders, “Or should we save our stallions for a more worthy foe?”

Fortunately, the officer deemed us harmless enough, even though he may not have believed a word we said.  Seeing is believing, and he believed we were to be reviled. We were hippy trash, plain and simple. Talk just sort of establishes whether there exists an underlying tone that ultimately calls for an officer to proceed towards further investigation such as a search, and maybe then some punitive action.  An officer doesn’t necessarily roust every rag-tag looking hippy just for the hell of it.  There are other priorities to consider. Maybe he was on his way to breakfast or you interrupted his having to deal with something a lot more pressing. He could of shaken us down, called for back-up, and made a bigger scene of things.  But he didn’t.  Under such circumstances, a young man doesn’t stop to question the reprieve he’s been handed, but remains content to ride free on the fact the lawman has lost interest.

“You boys are not to proceed beyond this point.  It’s illegal to hitchhike down on the freeway.  Just remember that.  I expect not to find you here come the end of the day.”  He returned our ID’s and walked back to his waiting cruiser, not saying another word. 

He might as well have taken us in and had the Sheriff’s office call our parents to pick us up, as there was no way we could successfully hitch a ride from where we stood.  We followed his instructions and didn’t move from our location, but what few cars there were simply passed us by, and the morning wore on interminably.

Looking down on the freeway from where we stood perched much higher above it, other hitchhikers materialized over the course of the morning.  It was strangely difficult to ascertain their physical origins. Maybe the desert sun was already playing tricks on our senses. These folks just sort of appeared, strewn up along the straight shot of Interstate 80 over a mile’s length due east; some solo, and others in small groups of two or most rarely, three.

For over two hours no officers had stopped to bother any of them. Tom and I finally built the courage up to walk down the long, steep on-ramp and on to the freeway where all eastbound traffic was to be had.  We knew our only chance was to join their ranks, and so we called our own officer’s bluff.

There are unwritten rules of the road, whether one drives a motorized vehicle, rides a bike, walks as a pedestrian, or tries to hitch a ride.  When it comes to hitchhiking, Mr. Johnny-Come-Lately moves on down to the end of the line.  Cuts ain’t allowed.  Tom and I would have to walk past every group and position ourselves furthest east along the interstate.

There was one natural advantage to that, as it gave us the chance to see and meet who our potential comrades or competition, depending on the case.  The first hitchhikers we met were down at the foot of the on-ramp where it merged with the freeway.  They were two young fellows like us, and friendly enough.  They held a sign simply saying “Denver!”  What we learned most immediately was that having a sign seemed a good idea.  We hadn’t really considered it.

“How long you guys been waiting?” asked Tom.

“Oh, I don’t know.  Don’t have a watch on us.  Since morning anyway,” one of them said.

“Good luck, man,” I said.  The two smiled and waved from their seated position on the asphalt. Now walking on the shoulder of the freeway itself, Tom and I continued on towards the next group. 

“I don’t think sitting down on your ass inspires someone to pick you up- especially if they are borderline willing,” I said to Tom once the two Denver-bound youth were well behind us.

Tom smiled and looked at me with eyes dancing mischievously.  “You can stand- I’ll sit and hold the sign.”

“Gotta make a sign first, Tom!  We’ll have to look for some stray cardboard or something.”

Suddenly we came within sight of some curious happenings on the side of the freeway about a hundred yards ahead.  Down off the shoulder was a short but steep embankment that leveled off before dipping into a swale that was a shallow cement drainage culvert.  Just the other side of the culvert was a toll fence that demarcated the flat freeway frontage that stretched out towards some railroad tracks beyond and to the south.

A bearded hitchhiker was standing down at the fence, talking with another man who stood just on the other side.  As we drew closer, we saw the two men shake hands.  The hitchhiker ran back up the embankment excitedly, and the other man walked away purposefully and in long strides in the opposite direction, eventually crossing over the tracks.

From along each stretch of freeway, a group of other hitchhikers came running from both directions to meet the bearded one at the top of the embankment.

“Whadee say man?  Whatdee say?” one of them asked.

“We gotta deal, boys!” he answered a little breathlessly.

“How much?  How much?”

The bearded man smiled.  “Fifty bucks!  Me and my two friends’ll buy it, but everyone else has to chip in for gas. Hopefully it will get us to Des Moines!”

The news was received with instant enthusiasm.  Some were even jumping up and down like Chicagoites having just learned the Cubs had finally won the World Series.

“When is he bringin’ it by?” asked another.

“He’ll be here in about a half-hour.  He lives a ways away.  See?  He’s walking back to his farm.”  The bearded hitchhiker turned and pointed towards the tall, thin man in a cowboy hat, his boots kicking up dust from beyond the railroad tracks.

Buy this time Tom and I had caught up with the group. “Hey, what’s happening?  What you guys so excited about?” asked Tom.

“I just bought a car off that cowboy I was talking to down by the fence.”

“You did?” I asked.  “How much it cost you?”

“Like I just told the others- fifty!  Straight-up.  Fifty bucks!” the bearded man said smiling like the cat that had just caught the canary.

“You have room for us?” asked Tom.

“I’m going to squeeze in every last person I can.  I can’t say how many that’ll be, but we’ll all soon find out. It’d be a sin to leave anyone out here in this God-forsaken place.  Some of us have been here since yesterday.  You do have to pitch in for gas, though.  That’s all I me and my friends ask for.”

I was a little leery.  “Some of you have actually been out here since yesterday?”

The first to respond was a man standing off to the side.  He suddenly started cackling as if experiencing a short but rapid onset of full-blown madness.  He stooped over and hung his head down low to the ground with knees bent- dipping one shoulder while gesticulating wildly with his other arm fully outstretched groping at the sky above him. This enabled him to lurch his body around, pivoting clumsily on his feet while doing so.  If but only for the lack of a hump, he fully qualified as Quasimodo incarnate. His blond hair was cropped short, and his chapped and sore-ridden face was dried dark brown from overexposure to the elements.  I couldn’t help but wonder if his chapped lips wouldn’t momentarily split open as his hysteria had caused him to break into a lip-renting grin. 

“Jesus!  Who is that?” asked Tom.

“Oh, he’s a just a little disturbed,” replied one of the group.  “Just another mental patient you see populating the highways these days.  It’s a crying shame. Governor Regan just recently cut the state hospital budgets over in California, and lot of patients were released on their own recognizance.”

“Yeah.  I think he was let go from Napa State. The deal is he’s probably been stuck out here for longer than most of us.  Look what the sun’s done to him!” said another.

The bearded man served to put the current topic of conversation to rest.  “Look- the guy is crazy, OK?  But he’s harmless.  Hell, he’s just happy as shit right now like the rest of us! He’ll settle down in a few minutes. Take it from me. He slept alongside me and my friends last night out there in that field.  As a matter of fact, yeah, he does giggle a lot- and for no apparent reason- but he doesn’t really bother anyone and keeps to himself.  I’m giving him a ride like the rest of you.”

I was impressed with the collective ethos of the group that Tom and I had stumbled upon.  In fact, I had become a convert to the cause for solidarity, and suddenly looked forward to sharing a ride with everyone.

We all stood silently and waited patiently save the madcap who continued to gambol and gyrate in gleeful abandon. In good enough time we saw an old sedan enter and rumble it way down the on-ramp.  It pulled over to the shoulder of the interstate and slowed as it approached us. Behind the wheel was the tall, lean, cowboy we had seen earlier down at the fence.  He applied the hand brake, abruptly popped open the door and stood up tall and straight while draping an arm atop the cab.

“Here she is fellas.  1949 Chrysler.  Don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”  He smiled as he tipped his hat in polite salutation, and patted the top of the cab with the open palm of his hand.

Shit,” I said under my breath.

The bearded man promptly walked over to the Chrysler and opened up the two side doors on the passenger side.  There was no back seat, just the chassis shell to sit on.  “Plenty of room back here for everyone,” he said, apparently satisfied.

The cowboy walked around the front of the car and pulled a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket.  “Here’s the pink slip- signed and ready to go.  Just fill yer name in there my friend, and it’s all yers.  Key’s in the ignition.”  He promptly handed over the frayed document to the proud new owner.

“OK, yeah- so let’s see- here’s your money.” The bearded man rummaged through his pocket and produced two twenties and a ten dollar bill. Handing it over in a crumpled wad he added as if only in afterthought, “Anything I need to know about it?” 

“Thank you for that,” said the cowboy smiling, smoothing the bills out before carefully folding them into half twice before slipping them in the back pocket of his dusty jeans. “Naa, nothin’ unusual. Everything’s fine!  Runs good!  Hate to part with it to tell you the truth.  Originally belonged to my brother Bill who is no longer with us I’m sorry to say.  I just wanted to help you fellers out, that’s all.  I reckon Bill would have approved.  He was a good ole soul.”

The bearded man seemed overjoyed, shaking the cowboy’s hand energetically and in deference as if not only the man but also his dead brother had just saved our lives.

“Well, gotta get back to my chores at the ranch, boys.  The wife’s gonna wonder where I run off to. You all take care down the highway, my friends.  Good luck and God speed!”

He tipped his hat once more and with no further adieu, skipped down the side of the embankment towards the culvert.  Crossing over, he leapt up and grabbed the top of the toll fence, scaling it effortlessly; easily leveraging his lanky body up by a pair of strong arms and pivoting his legs over before jumping down to the other side.  His first few steps away from the fence were kind of casual, but soon he broke into a trot as he approached the railroad tracks.

I spied after him and felt a cold tingle run down my spine, even though the temperature was pushing 90 degrees.

It took a few minutes for the group to get organized.  Some had left their bags strewn up the interstate on the shoulder of the road some distance away and ran off to fetch them.  Fortunately there was room for all eleven of us.  We piled into the Chrysler, wedging our bodies and bags in the best we could manage without crushing somebody’s hand, knee, or foot.  This included the madcap, who had settled down a little, but had now started sub-vocalizing profanities while interrupting himself from time to time with low chortles of laughter lodged deep in his throat.

The bearded man took the wheel and turned over the ignition key.  The starter grinded in pain as if forced at gun point to arise from its death bed in an automotive graveyard.  There was no response, and we all held our collective breaths in silence. To say anything would have surely jinxed us all.  The bearded man waited patiently for a moment and tried once more.  The grinding was this time met with a sudden clatter of lifters, rocker arms, and sputtering valves. The engine suddenly roared to life as the driver pumped the petal, its hot breath blowing straight through an exhaust system whose muffler had long ago stopped functioning.

We all cheered, and the driver cried out, “Tally ho, sweet mama!”  Putting the car into gear, it lurched forward and he pulled it on to the pavement.  Picking up speed, we continued to raise our voices in collective support, and the driver jumped up and down in his seat.  “Go, sweet mama!  Go!”

Shifting into third gear, the engine seemed to find its zone of mechanical comfort, and we began to coast at a reasonable freeway speed down the smooth ribbon of pavement that shot straight into the heart of the Nevada desert.

The madcap showed his delight by beating his clenched fists in unison against the chassis boards and with his head bowed over sputtered a never-ending train of profanities in more rapid and accented sforzandos. 

The next town along Interstate 80 was Fernley, some twenty-six miles due east.  We would be stopping there for gas the driver told us as he shouted over the engine’s deep-throated rumble. Seven of us were sandwiched in the back, and with the seat missing our sunken vantage point only offered a view of undifferentiated pure blue sky standing still like an air brush painting as seen by peering up through the windows from a low angle.  Without the aid of landmarks, it was impossible to judge time passing as measured by their coming and going.

The bearded man and his friends in the front seat were frolicking in amusement, remarking as to their great luck and praising the beauty of the wide open spaces that surrounded us. I still held deep reservations, but was diverted from worry as my mind was busy in a fruitless attempt to grasp in comprehension the mental condition of the madcap who sat a foot away.  He was not the sort of human being I had ever had the opportunity to observe in such close proximity.  I had led such a sheltered life- who could blame me?

No sooner had everyone settled in and come to terms with our less than comfortable seating arrangements, the first signs of engine trouble announced themselves. First there were back firings and then the engine started missing.  Sometimes it would die all together. When it did die, the driver would shift into neutral and then turn the key over, hoping for re-ignition before the car reduced too much speed and would have to be pulled over.  Fortunately we were quite close to the Fernley off-ramp when the soon-to-be death throe began.  The Chrysler suddenly lurched, belched a plume of blue smoke out its exhaust pipe and died for a final time as accompanied by a terrible hissing from under the hood. Thankfully we shared the road with few other vehicles, and were rolling over perfectly flat land.  Due to these factors, no one was particularly worried for our safety, but everyone exchanged glances and shared the same look that knew having bought a car off the side of the freeway had all been too good to be true.

With plenty of momentum left, the Chrysler rolled on towards the oncoming ramp and the driver steered it off the interstate.  We were now on an incline, and the car rolled forward smoothly, utterly quiet and dead on arrival.  Suddenly a young man jumped up from behind some bushes off the shoulder and to our right.  He rushed at our slowing vehicle and begged us with outstretched arms to stop and pick him up.

The passenger riding shot gun in the front seat quickly rolled down his window and stuck his head out the window.

“What’s the matter?” he yelled.

“Stop!  Please, stop!  For God’s sake you’ve got to stop and help me!  Please, give me a ride out of this town!”  The young man was alone and completely traumatized as he came running up to the car.

“What happened to you, man?”

“I’ve been stuck on this off-ramp for the last two days.  I’ve been run off the road twice and shot at four times!  They’re gonna come back and eventually kill me!  Please- I’ll do anything.  Just say you’ll give me a ride!  You’re the first friendly faces I’ve seen in days!

“Hey man, we’ve got problems of our own.  Our car just died.  But here, jump in and we’ll coast down into town.  No worries, man!  You can buddy up with us.”  The car was still coasting and the frantic man ran alongside, his hands clinging to the front passenger door’s window frame.

“The rednecks here are bloodthirsty mother fuckers!  They tried to kill me!” he screamed.

“Settle down, man!  The cavalry’s arrived!  Here, jump in!” said the man riding shot gun.

The bearded man stopped the car.  We threw the back door open and the beleaguered hitchhiker scrambled in over the top of several bodies, panting in unbridled fear.  Two front seat passengers jumped out and gave the Chrysler a push downhill.  Jumping back in, the last one in slammed the door behind him and we coasted down the off ramp’s remaining length, running the stop sign at the first intersection we came to.

Steering to the right and in the direction of downtown Fernley, the bearded man pulled the car off the pavement as the road had leveled out and we were slowing towards a standstill.

He applied the emergency brake and before getting out of the car briefly announced he was going to walk into town to find a mechanic.  His face bore sorry disappointment, but even a greater determination.  He strode away defiantly, hell-bound to find someone who could repair his car.  One of his friends scrambled to catch-up and accompany him.

No one else felt the urge to follow.  We all quickly exited the dead Chrysler, and given the ominous news that gun-toting rednecks were on the loose in town, initiated a quick and cursory inspection of our new surroundings, sticking our collective noses into the desert winds that had risen with the arrival of early afternoon.

The train tracks that we had seen running parallel to the freeway in Sparks were still with us, and though Fernley’s downtown structures blocked their actual view, the tops of a long train of box cars could be seen looming above the rooflines of commercial row as they stood in silent stillness just a block south of where we had parked the Chrysler.

The hitchhiker we had just picked up had calmed considerably, and was busy answering questions posed by a few interested parties as to what exactly had happened to him since being let off in Fernley some forty-eight hours previous.  The madcap stood a ways off stunned, the smile wiped off his face.  Suddenly he seemed human.

Not everyone was interested in listening to the details of our new comrade’s ordeals. One in the group had taken a few steps down the road in order to gain a view down the nearest side street that led down to the railroad. A tall, wiry fellow with curly hair who had remained stone-quiet throughout the morning’s adventure, he possessed an air of cold detachment that was greatly reinforced by his beady eyes are set behind a pair of wire rimmed glasses.  All morning he had been content in holding his own counsel while remaining vigilantly observant of everything and everybody around him.  Now that things had come to the quick, he had shown his hand. Preoccupied with the fact a train stood but a block away, it was clear what was on his mind. 

After a brief moment of inspection, the fellow made his decision.  Without a word, he simply walked away from the rest of us.

His departure didn’t go unnoticed.  “Hey!  Where ya goin’?” one of the group called out to him.  He turned around briefly to look at us, and then turning away, headed on down the side street without offering any reply.

“Well how do ya like that?” said another with disdain.  “Yeah, bye to you, too, friend!  Happy trails ya turncoat!”

“He’s going to check out the train.  Stupid idea, man.  I wouldn’t jump a train so close to town- not with all the rednecks we got goin’ here.  Don’t pay it any mind.  It’s a free country. Let him go.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll return with some information.” added yet another.

Tom and I looked at each other, and as friends often do, experienced an instant and silent recognition of being in coincidental agreement.  This loner who had broken away might indeed be the smartest one of the bunch.  At least he was taking initiative.  We hadn’t the moxie to follow him just yet, but we were now busy contemplating the possibility.

A minute later the bearded man’s friend could be seen running back towards us from down commercial row. We all fixed our sight on him, and upon arrival he relayed the news.

“There’s a mechanic just up ahead.  I need you guys to help me push this heap up the road.  A little further on’s a bus station, too.  Continental Trailways has a bus departing for Salt Lake in a couple of hours.  So you all have an option.”

At that point, Tom and I made a snap decision.  “We’re gonna check out the train first,” I said to the group.  Unexpectedly, the umbrage in response to the first to bail was short-lived.  No one expressed any interest in what Tom and I had suddenly decided to do, offering no said opinion or fa-la-ra farewell for that matter.  They were already busy pushing the Chrysler back onto the pavement and down the road leading into town.

Ignored, Tom and I found it that much easier to break away from our erstwhile comrades and walk down the side street towards the train.  A short block later we came upon the intersection of the road running parallel to commercial row and following the tracks.  Crossing the street we stood in front of a rust colored box car and peered down the long train of cars in both directions.  They stretched out as far as the eye could see, and neither of us could make out the leading engine or trailing caboose.

“Do you see signs of a station nearby?” I asked Tom.

“No, I don’t.  It appears we’re on the edge of town here.  Let’s crawl underneath and cross over the tracks.”

Ducking under a car coupling we emerged on the other side.  There were a few isolated houses standing within a short distance away, but we didn’t see a soul.

“Let’s follow the train this way- away from town,” I suggested.

My hunch turned out to bear fruit.  Checking each car as we walked clumsily along the sloping gravel bed that spilled away from the steel rails and wooden ties, we soon came upon an a box car whose giant sliding door was ajar.  Tom and I forced it open a couple of feet, and peering inside, were semi-startled by the sight of the young hitchhiker who had set off alone earlier, sitting on his haunches with his back resting against the box car’s side a few feet away from the door.

With hands grasping the box car’s bed, we leaned our heads a little further inside and looked his way. “Hey, man.  Excuse us, but what are you planning on doing here?” Tom asked timidly.

He was none too happy to see us. “What does it look like I’m doing?” he answered, rolling his eyes with dismay.

“What do you know about this train?  Is it headed somewhere?”  I asked.

“Look, find your own box car, OK?  I didn’t ask you along for the ride.  Please close the door.”

“Hey, look, we didn’t ask to join you, man,” I rejoined.  “We just want to know about this train here.  Is it headed out soon or what?”

Our erstwhile car companion crossed his arms and stared at us disapprovingly over the top rims of his glasses.  “Yeah, I know something about this train,” he said facetiously.
He then withdrew into a sullen state of stubborn silence.  Tom and I ceased our questioning momentarily and nervously glanced around to see if anyone in proximity had noticed our presence. 

“OK, good then. Listen, could you please let us in on some information?  I mean, look. We’re all in this together, right?  This is a bad ass town.  You don’t suppose giving us a little help would do you any harm, do you?  We all need to get the hell out of here somehow.  We have no intention of bothering you.” My face was flushed with an immiscible combination of pleading, self-righteousness, fear, and desperation.

My entreaty and appeal to his humanity seemed to pierce his hardened shell a little.  He heaved a sigh and looked down at the box car’s wooden planked flooring, arms still folded across his long torso.  “Where are you headed?” he asked blankly.

“Salt Lake City,” said Tom.

He finally had the heart to look up and engage us with a measure of respect.  “Yeah, so am I.  And so is this train.” 

Our eyes had finally adjusted to the light, and upon closer inspection we noticed another man slumped over in a corner of the dark box car, a jacket slung around his shoulders, his head cocked over and hanging to the side.  He appeared to be fast asleep.

“Did he tell you that?” I asked.

“No.  He’s out cold.  I ran into a railroad lineman a few minutes ago.  He told me the train is headed to Salt Lake and will be leaving in an hour or so.”

“OK, thanks.  Look, we’ll just be on our way and look for another empty box car,” said Tom.

The hitchhiker unfolded his arms and reaching out with one hand waved the suggestion off.  “No, no- it’s alright,” he relented in resignation.  “Jump on in.  If railroad security spots you they’re likely to either run you off or run you in.  The station’s just a few blocks in closer to town.  Security is lurking around somewhere.  So jump in- right now! And don’t forget to slide the door closed like it was before.”

We thanked him for the invitation, and climbed on board.  Standing up, Tom and I both helped each other slide the box car side door ajar as it had been.

“This is Tom, and I’m John.  Glad to meet you.”

“Yeah, same here. They call me Bob.”  He had folded up his arms once again and made no pretense of sharing a hand shake.

Tom and I took a seat next to each other on the box car floor across from our new friend, Bob.  We lapsed into silence, and collected our thoughts.  There were other questions on our mind, but there was plenty of time for that later.  It was best leave Bob to his hallowed self-absorption and quietude.

Shafts of light leaked in through holes in the box car’s metal corners and up through the cracks between the flooring’s long wooden planks.  The same apertures through which the sun penetrated was shared by the a whistling breeze.  Strong gusts soon began to swirl around the box car and shook its shell like an invisible hand having taken hold.  The whistling waxed and waned in intensity so marking the rise and fall of the desert winds that were steadily growing in strength as the afternoon wore on. Time stood still as we sat in wait, enveloped by this new radically new soundscape. 

In such moments a young traveler understands where the cutting edge is and how close to his hide it is being pared by a hostile hand wielding a sharpened blade. There exists no ambiguity concerning the nature of one’s responsibilities under the circumstance.  In the face of a potentially hostile environment that seems to lie in wait with ambush in mind, one could do much worse than hold up in a metal box car and in quiet, hide.  Both predator and prey spend most of their time in hiding.  In that they do the same, and anticipate as much.  As prey, at least one could count on something predictive of his pursuer’s behavior.

The dynamics are simple enough a child could understand.  In fact, a child would probably react in kind if held up in a box car in the Nevada desert on a hot spring afternoon.  One keeps their mouth shut, their senses keen, and their fear in check.

There was not only the problem to be faced of vigilantes with shotguns slung across a gun rack or the law who would just as soon throw a young hitchhiker to such wolves rather than have to deal with them according to lawful procedure.  There were also those like the man asleep in the opposite corner of the box car that were on the road as well but as unknown quantities couldn’t be counted on as either friend or foe.

Hoboes have never constituted a noble brotherhood.  To murder a man for his coat or his boots or his pocket change or maybe even his lone crust of bread was not uncommon in the history of America’s rails.  In point of fact, it was kind of expected such things could happen. At seventeen, a young man sitting in a metal box car needn’t be advised of such things.  In its face instincts told him so point blank.

Tom and I kept an eye on the sleeping man in the corner, and looked for signs of movement.  For that matter we kept an eye on our new friend, Bob.  His reluctance to share in a hitchhiker’s solidarity and demonstrate an unconditional willingness to engage in mutual support was cause for concern as well.  Of course, he may have harbored a private fear, too.  He was subject to all the same dangers we were.  But he was bigger than both of us, though, and more athletic, too.  In plainer terms, just because Tom and I had an advantage in number didn’t mean he couldn’t kick both our asses.

I privately hoped some of the other castaways we had met on the road might eventually come wandering by and join us, but as time went by, those hopes grew dim. When the train finally lurched forward with a groan and we felt the tug at the box car’s coupling whose narrow clearance closed shut with a clank, our minds emptied of fear for a moment.  But it seemed a false start.  The train resumed a stationary position.  A minute later there was another bigger groan and greater tug, and finally inertia had been broken.  The train creaked and shuttered like the bones of an old man getting out of bed for the first time after a month’s illness.

None of us dared to peer out the box car’s door which was pried open no more than an inch.  The train began to roll more easily and the gentle clatter of steel wheels against a steel rail began to pound out a steady and increasingly rapid pulse and of repetitive rhythm.  Cluh-Clunk!  Cur-Clunk!  Clu-Clunk! Cur-Clunk!

Hitchhiking like baseball is a superstitious sport.  As mentioned earlier, one doesn’t commit to either behavior or words that might result in deadly jinx.  We remained silent rather than indulge in a public display of premature celebration.  Yes, the train was moving, but there had already been one false start.  No, we weren’t out of town yet.  Who knows what might happen- or not happen- next?

We all waited in sustained silence, and after a few minutes, it seemed clear we were actually under way.  It provided some relief, though the train had yet to pick up significant speed.  Bob finally made the first move.  He stood up and walked over to the sliding door.  Grabbing firmly hold of its lip with both hands, he gave it a yank, and it slid back a foot.  He yanked once again, and the door slid more easily, this time maybe two feet.  Placing the palm of one hand on the door he leaned up against it and looked out in silence at the desert rolling by. 

Tom and I soon rose to our feet and found a new place to sit opposite the open door.  The sage rolled by and in the far distance was a convergence of mountain ranges cloaked in blue-black shadows cast on them by the thick mass of cloud cover hanging high in the turbulent atmosphere above.

Looking back at the man sleeping in the corner momentarily, Bob gave the metal door on last yank and then decided to sit at its edge right where he stood.  He didn’t care to notice our presence, and simply stared out ahead towards the front of the train.  As the tracks began to follow a long curve, he poked his head out and looked both to the front and to the rear.

“Eighty,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” Tom asked.

“Eighty cars long I estimate.”

Tom and I edged closer to the open door’s threshold and peeked out in both directions as well.  By this time we had apparently lost fear that Bob might toss us off the train.  If so intentioned, he now had the perfect opportunity.

We were now beyond the reach of civilization and embedded in the heart of the Great Basin.  Those who have never visited may preconceive the Nevada desert to be more or less an expanse of sand, dry rock outcroppings, and sunken playas, but it is a mountainous state.  More than two hundred mountain ranges erupt out of its desert, the tallest peaks among them reaching altitudes over 12,000 feet.  Much of it all seemed to lie directly before us.

The aperture provided by the open box car door was but a pin hole a few magnitudes larger than that of the human eye, and it is a wonder such a tiny opening on the world could take in the immensity the three of us beheld together in mute wonder.  For the time being it had served to quell our concerns for survival, delivering us into a stark but pacifying grandeur. 

Tom and I had never imagined we would be riding the rails across the Great Basin, and the fluke felt to be pure serendipity.  But after an hour’s time the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the desert for no apparent reason.  Languishing dead on the rails with no station or town in site was cause for consternation.  All one could do was wait.  Suddenly the train lurched forward with another groan and began to roll once again, and we found our thinking newly infected with the fresh concern of whether it would be stopping again as it had before.

Sure enough, the engineer brought the train to a halt a short time later, and it seemed a conspiracy was at hand.  There was no earthly way of understanding why. For the balance of the afternoon, we made slow progress across the desert according to these fits and starts.  We started to wonder just how long this ride would be and whether we might die of thirst.

“Do you know where this rail is headed exactly?” I asked Bob. “Does it just kind of run parallel to Interstate 80 straight on to Salt Lake City?”

“They run pretty much parallel across Nevada, but once you approach the Great Salt Lake, the freeway takes a more direct route to the city which is more to the south of the lake.  The rail follows the lake up and around to the north shore and then south down through Provo over on the lake’s eastern side.  Salt Lake City is a good fifty miles south of that.  It’s a much longer ride than by car.”

Bob now seemed amenable to some conversation.  I took advantage the best I could.

“So, do you live in Salt Lake City?”

“Yeah.  I’m a native.  My parents are native, too.”

“This will be my first time visiting.  I can’t really imagine what it’s like.  Really unique place from what I understand.  Do you like living there?”

Bob was warming to the attention.  He smiled for the very first time.  “It was an OK place to grow up.  My family is Mormon, and my dad is the bishop of his ward.  Because my parents had money and a powerful position in the church, it all made life pretty damn easy.  I benefited being a kid and all. I had a great time growing up there. At least I went along with all of it until I got older.”

“Oh yeah?  What happened then?”

“It was a sheltered existence, ya know.  When I finished high school I was itching to travel and experience some adventure.  I also wanted to avoid having to do the Mormon Mission thing which is required of good Mormon males when they’re nineteen. So when I was still seventeen and just out of school I joined the U.S. Army, and a while later qualified for the Green Berets.  I loved it for a while.  Learned outdoor survival techniques, how to rock climb, jump outta airplanes, and stuff like that.  It was cool.  Then our unit got called up to go to Viet Nam.  I didn’t want any part of that.”

“Didn’t you realize you’d be going to Nam?  When did you join up anyway?”

“I’m twenty-two now.  I joined back in ’65.  I was young and ignorant, yeah, but sure- I thought about the possibility.  I didn’t figure the war would escalate so fast though and I wasn’t hip to how fucking nasty the jungle fighting was in Nam.  Man, I hadn’t been paying attention.  I was operating in a kind of bubble.  I guess I kind of thought of the Green Berets as an elite group of Eagle Scouts and we’d just troop around training all the time.”

“What’s the rest of the story?  Did you end up having to go?”

“No.  I came up with a radical plan and fortunately it worked in my favor. I got out of it.”

My attention heightened.  It was now the spring of 1970 and the Viet Nam War was still a depressing fact of life, especially for young men my age.  The draft worried a lot of us.  Soon enough I’d be eighteen and have to register with Selective Service.  At nineteen my name would be tossed in the bin for that year’s draft lottery. If my birth date was amongst those chosen by random then I’d be called up for induction. I was hoping some kind of truce would happen between now and then, but I didn’t hold out much hope.  The last two years had been nightmare- riots had torn apart American cities, the Tet Offensive had turned the tide of the war and prolonged it beyond reckoning, King and Kennedy had been assassinated, and Nixon had become president. There boded little hope for peace in Viet Nam.

“Wow man, that’s incredible.  How did you do manage that?”

Bob now laughed for the very first time.  “I staged a fake suicide attempt.  I wrote a suicide note, and had a friend drop me off at the hospital emergency room after I passed out from taking an overdose of Thorazine.  That’s what they use to bring people down from bad trips on LSD. The doctor’s pumped my stomach out and then reported the suicide attempt to my commanding officers.  It was a hassle, but eventually I was given a medical discharge due to psychological reasons.”

“That’s insane, man! What did the note say?”

“It said I was taking my life because of having been called to duty in Nam.  Pure and simple.  My friend told the doctors he found me at home unconscious along with the note.”  Bob’s wry smile turned on its edge of gotcha.

“So they bought all that?”

“Well, not right away.  I had to go through as series of psychological examinations.  I guess if a lot of soldiers were pulling similar stunts things might have turned out differently.  But this was 1967- three whole years ago.  There weren’t too many instances of Green Berets attempting suicide in fear of going to Nam.  Most of them were gung ho about it as you would expect. My case was kind of celebrated ‘cause it was pretty unusual at the time.  So the army ended up taking my suicide attempt seriously, I guess, or else they just figured I was a liability to the safety of fellow soldiers and would just freak out when put in a war zone.  At any rate, they figured I was too unstable to be a Green Beret.”

I turned my gaze out towards the desert.  The train hadn’t stopped for quite a while and was running full speed.  The sun was low on the western horizon.  A cool was starting to set in, and it felt good.

“I couldn’t kill somebody, man.  I mean, not with foreknowledge,” I said.

Bob laughed.  “You mean with premeditation?  Oh yeah you could!  You’d be surprised.”

“What do they do to you in the army of the Green Berets- do they just kind of brain wash you about killing?”

“It’s presented to you real simple, man.  ‘Kill or be killed.’  And ‘Kill to save your fellow soldier.’  Training kind of makes it all automatic.  There’s no thought involved after a while.  It’s pure reaction according to training.  I guess you could call it brain washing.”

“Well, shit, I’m never going to give ‘em a chance to do that to me.  I’ll take off to Canada if I have to.”

“Well, yeah sure.  If it comes to that, do what you have to.  But don’t think you couldn’t kill somebody if you absolutely had to.  I’m not talking about just being in military combat, man.  Situations arise in civilian life just the same.  What if someone attacked you, wouldn’t you fight back and kill if you had to?  What if you were married and someone attacked your wife or kid? Wouldn’t you kill the mother fucker dead if you had to?”

“I guess so.  But that’s different.”

“No, man- it isn’t different.  Killing is killing.  We call it self-defense- but it’s still killing. The reason doesn’t matter. We’re all perfectly capable of doing it.  Believe me.  It’s natural to life.  It’s dog-eat-dog and killing is natural to survival.”

“Did the army teach you that, or do you just believe that in general?”

“I grew up in a really religious family.  Mormonism is weird and not understood by many people, but Mormons basically believe in the Ten Commandments.  A lot of people don’t realize it, but we’re actually Christians when it comes down to it.  Of course I don’t think killing is right.  Few people do.  But that isn’t the point.  It’s just the way I see life.  It’s one big food chain.  To live, something else has to die.  And that goes for more than just eating.  We will do what it takes to survive- and that includes killing somebody if we have to.  To me, it’s common sense and natural.  The army taught me how to kill, sure, but it didn’t fuck with my mind and teach me any philosophy like that.  It’s just the way I see life and always have.”

I looked over at the man in the corner, still slumped over and asleep.  “Would you throw that guy off the train and let him die in the desert out there if he woke up and attacked you?”

Bob laughed uncontrollably.  “Oh man!  Don’t ask me that- ask yourself that!  I think you know what I would do. And I know you’d do the same.  Nothing to be ashamed of if that’s your problem!”

The sun had set and dark was falling fast.  The temperature both outside and inside the box car was dropping just as quickly.  We all suddenly realized our next endurance test would have to do with the cold- something that hadn’t entered our minds with any seriousness an hour before.

An hour after sunset the darkness became absolute.  It was a moonless night and an overcast had settled in.  There were no heavenly bodies present to keep or spirits engaged or imagination fed; no town lights to be seen anywhere.  By now, the train must have already made its jog north.  We were heading even deeper into the heart of the Great Basin’s most uninhabitable wilderness, edging closer to the Great Salt Lake.  Here the earth was a blend of sand and salt.  What creatures could survive in such an environment?  The open box car door which just a couple of hours ago had offered an unobstructed view of endless desert vistas had transformed into an impenetrable veil of blackness.  Three dimensions had become none.  There was no differentiation between earth and sky.  They no longer seemed to exist at all.

We all fell into silence.  Having only matches but no flashlight, we were bound to tough it out for the next several hours not being able to see a foot in front of us.  Now and then we would poke out heads out the open box car door and see if there was any glimmer of light to be seen anywhere.  Once the train had penetrated the zone of salt that ringed the Great Salt Lake, a strange thing occurred.  The ground had become snowy white.  Its whiteness was so pure that even in the competing blackness of night we could sense its presence and substance without the aid of reflected light. The perceptual sense was eerie and seemed an optical illusion. No, we thought; it’s just our mind playing tricks, because we know there’s salt out there.  But we were all so struck and remarked with equal wonder at how strange it was to see and know it was an earthly white suffocated in total by black.  Soon we became convinced such a perception had to be real.

We tried to sleep. We lied down on the box car’s wooden bed, each covering ourselves with winter jackets that failed miserably in keeping out the cold.  The undampened vibrations of the moving train turned our bodies into shuddering heaps of flesh, our bones rattling to the incessant rhythm of steel wheels on steel rail and wooden ties.

The cold was more severe than we could have imagined, even though we knew in principle the night sapped the desert sands of their accumulated heat from the daytime’s exposure to the sun.  We were saved from even more frigid conditions as the overcast skies acted as a blanket and retained at least a portion of the earth’s heat exchange with the atmosphere above.

I remained sleepless- or so it seemed- and I was quick to rise when I finally noticed the first town lights emerge from the darkness.  The train began to slow and Tom and Bob stirred shortly after.  It seemed inconceivable that the fourth in our company was still asleep.  No one had gone to check on him since we had jumped the train.  I certainly had no idea if he were asleep, unconscious, or dead.

“Where are we?” said Tom blurrily.

Bob stood at the doorway and peered for a long time at the lights looming larger and coming into sharper focus ahead.  “Well, all I can say right now is that there’s a train yard up ahead.  I take that to be a good sign.  It’s a pretty big one, too.  It might be Salt Lake City’s.”

“Where else could it be?” I asked.

“It could be Provo, but the yard looks too big to be Provo’s.”

The closer we approached, the slower the train moved, and the more suspenseful the situation became.  I kept looking to Bob for a resolute answer. 

“Do you still think it’s Salt Lake?” I repeated every couple of minutes.  He declined to answer and remained focused on the yard ahead.

Finally, the train entered the confines of the yard. It was an imposing industrial structure; it’s size more immense than I could conceive any railroad yard could possibly be this far out in the middle of nowhere. Dozens of tall light poles with sodium lamps shining from their housings fixed from way on top cast a murky yellow haze over everything.   

The decision was now at hand.  Bob was prepared. 

“Well, I grew up in Salt Lake City, he said in a calm and confident tone tempered by the rational, “and I’d know its train yard from any other.  This is surely Salt Lake City.  Get ready to jump, boys.  The train may stop, but then again it may not.  I’ll take the lead. If you see me jump, follow right after.  Don’t hesitate.  I must advise you we could get nabbed by yard security.  Just follow me and we’ll make a dash to get clear out of sight. 

The train entered the yard at an uncomfortably high rate of speed considering we might soon be jumping off.  We were covering a good fifteen feet a second.  Bob slid the box car’s sliding door fully open, and the three of us stood on its threshold.  We stared at the train track’s supporting gravel bed below us.   It wasn’t really gravel at all.  It consisted of large oblong rocks that came to a sharp point at both ends.

“This is going to be hell on my bad knee,” lamented Tom.

“See how the gravel bed slopes down at a good angle, Tom?” I said.  “When you touchdown, just go into shoulder roll. Just try to roll down the gravel embankment.  That’ll save your knees.”

“Yeah, and get one of those rocks stuck up my nose!  No thanks!  I plan to just hit the ground running.”

It was now do or die.  “The train ain’t going to stop, boys.  Follow my lead!”  Bob jumped and did as Tom suggested.  He hit the gravel bed with one leg uplifted while the other touched down on the gravel.  Maintaining his balance nicely, he quickly set his legs into running motion and gracefully ran off the steep bed and onto the hard, flat earth of the train yard.

Tom followed, but fell in the process, tumbling over and over until coming to rest on the flat. 

“Have a good sleep, my friend!” I yelled at Hobo Rip Van Winkle still dead or fast asleep in the corner of the box car.  My jump was none too graceful, and I would have taken it back if I could have.  I took a tumble as well, but tumbling had always come natural to me.  Having bad balance as I did had given me a lot of practice, and presently such experience had come in very handy.  I ended up sprawled out on the hard ground and quickly picked myself up.  I immediately checked on Tom, and could see he was limping badly.  His bad knee had just become that much the worse.

The three of us were staggered about thirty yards apart from each other. Bob waved at us frantically, motioning that we follow.  He pointed in the direction he would be going.  I met up with Tom within a few seconds, and he was already legging it, but with great pain and difficulty.  He was hop-skipping more than he was running.  Fortunately Bob slowed down, and the three of us rendezvoused behind a decoupled locomotive car that had been sent up a side track. 

Fortunately, there was no security to be seen.  We soon found our way out of the railroad yard and walking down the streets of the city.

After a few blocks, we came upon a commercial district. Bob looked confused.

I didn’t want to ask, but I had to.  “Bob, is this Salt Lake City- or where the hell are we?”

“I don’t know, yet.  There seems to be some kind of diner up ahead.  We’ll check inside.”

Suddenly, a torrential rain burst from the sky.  With a wounded comrade among us, we couldn’t make quick progress.  Bob and I stood on either side of Tom and draped our arms around his back and underneath both his shoulders.  We lifted him up a little off the ground and the three of us moved in a canter down the street toward the warm lights of the diner.

We pushed open the swinging glass door into the warmly lit diner and ducking inside looked to be three drowned water rats.  Water poured off our clothes, face, and hair directly onto the diner’s clean floor in large puddles. There was only one waitress on duty, and her sole customer sat directly opposite her on the other side of the luncheon counter nursing a cup of black coffee.  We had rudely interrupted their peaceful conversation. I looked up at the wall clock.  It was 3:15 AM. 

“Excuse us folks, we-uhh, well we just got stuck out in the rain storm!  It took us by surprise!  So sorry about all this water we tracked in with us. I for one would really love a cup of coffee!  But first, uhh, listen; this might sound strange, but just what town are we in?”  Bob smiled while bowing a little to the waitress while drying off his wire-rimmed glasses with a red handkerchief.

The waitress stood transfixed.  But the man seated at the lunch counter was eager to respond.

“Hey, yeah pal- why this is beautiful downtown Provo!”  Lolling his head about like a puppet he had difficulty closing his mouth properly and storing his tongue back where it should be.  He was dead drunk. 

Fortunately- or maybe not so- he was a happy, congenial drunk.  “So what you fellas doin’ out so late in this ‘clement weather?  Catch your death of cold out there fur Christ sake!  You need some help or what can I do for you?” 

The three of us sat down at a booth opposite the lunch counter.  The drunk swiveled around on his stool and gripped on to the counter top to keep from sliding off.  Moving his coffee cup out of the way of his swinging elbow, the waitress stood like a sentinel be-hind the counter, ramrod straight; eyes trained on us like targets. 

“Well, we just arrived by train I guess you could say, Mister.  But the funny thing is, it looks like we got a little confused and got off a little early!  Stupid of us! We thought this was Salt Lake City!” said Bob in all good humor.

“Yeah, well- could happen to anybody!  But hell!  That’s no problem my friends.  You’re in luck, ‘cause I’m leavin’ in jus’ a few minutes.  Drivin’ back home to Bountiful. Got plenty of room in my sedan! But I’ll take y’all the way in to Salt Lake.  It’s jus’ another eleven miles.  Got nothin’ better to do and yur in need.  Glad to help out!”  The garbled words poured out of his mouth in slurry cascades, and his eyes rolled in their sockets.

“Gee, Mister, sure, we’d be much obliged!  Could you possibly hold off until we had a hot cup of coffee?”  Bob looked at the waitress smiling and raised his hand in reminder, hoping a second request would prompt her good service. 

“Will that be one cup or what?” She said with thinly veiled disgust.

Tom and I looked at each other.  “Uh, make that three, Ma’am, thanks,” I said.

The hard, wind driven rain persisted and beat harder by the minute against the picture windows of the diner’s store front.  The water ran down the large panes in undulating rivulets blinding our view of anything beyond in the streets of Provo.

The waitress brought us our coffee.  We loaded the cups down with sugar and cream while the magnanimous drunk prattled on in non-sequetorial fashion expounding on a plethora of subjects; all of it half-baked; none of it comprehensible.

We managed to eek out a second cup from the waitress and bolted it down quickly.  After paying the bill and leaving a generous tip, we followed the drunk as he staggered out the front door into the storm.  His car was parked out front.  Bob claimed his spot as the front passenger- which under the circumstances was heroic- and Tom and I slid into the spacious back seat.  We had no idea if we’d survive the drive, but the cushioned seats were so comfortable we didn’t care.  Slumping into heaps, we both sighed heavily and tried to relax.

It is difficult to account for the driving skills of a man who is drunk.  Though few on the basis of principle would care to agree, there is some statistical truth in the observation that sometimes the inebriated manage better than the average sober driver.  Fat chance.  Our gracious benefactor was far beyond the pale, and seemed to be getting drunker by the second.  His blood alcohol content was off the charts.  The rain pelted the windows in such volume and fast fury that the windshield wipers could do no better than wade back and forth across.  I couldn’t make out the road up ahead at all, only the brightly diffused head lamps of oncoming cars.  The three of us had now signed on to something far more dangerous than anything yet encountered on our five hundred mile plus journey.

The man at least seemed to know his way.  Driving too fast but in relative straight lines, he soon had us out on the freeway heading south.  Well, maybe it was the freeway.  It was very hard to tell.  I was so preoccupied with whether we would survive, the constant din of the drunk’s speech never registered beyond that of white noise.

An hour later we crossed over into the city limits of Salt Lake City just as the sun had broached the sky, fully illuminating the broad expanse of the Wasatch Mountains, whose jagged outline made for a lofty horizon scribbled north to south and rising far above the Utah desert to the east.  Their presence announced the easterly boundary of the Great Basin, and the beginning of the greater Rocky Mountain corridor. The rain had stopped and the sky was crystal clear.  Suddenly the three of us were bolstered with a new-born hope of survival.  Bob directed the man into the margins of Salt Lake’s perfectly flat and rectangular downtown grid of streets and avenues.  Within minutes were at his front door. 

We thanked the driver, who to our surprise had regained a measure of sobriety come the light of dawn.  Shutting the car doors behind us, he turned, smiled and waved.  The three of us stood, thanking him with enthusiastic appreciation.   Putting the car into gear, he wheeled the around and headed back to Bountiful. We continued to follow his progress with fondness as if watching a close relative’s final departure from a lengthy visitation until he turned a corner and disappeared.

We found ourselves standing before Bob’s handsome house- a clapboard, two story structure painted white.   The front yard consisted of a red brick walk way bordered on each side by immaculately manicured lawn.  It led straight up to a broad stairway that ascended a few steps onto a spacious wooden porch landing shaded by a roof held aloft by two large columns.  Surrounding the porch a well-tended flower garden grew in beautiful loamy beds of black soil.

Every house in the neighborhood was equally well-cared for and picture perfect.   I suddenly felt conspicuously out of place.  My leather jacket was still soaked and stuck to my body.  Wet clumps of matted hair hung lifeless at my shoulders

Bob invited us to follow him into the house.  We climbed the steps and standing at the doorway, Bob searched his pockets for the front door key.  He came up empty handed.  Taking hold of the brass knocker, he rapped out a short and sharp rhythm on the brass plate and peered inside through the large door’s small grid of double glass panes shaped in a half moon and trimmed in wooden molding.  No one answered.  He rapped again.  Still no response.

“We’ll have to go to my landlord’s house and borrow his key.  My roommates are apparently out,” he said with a smile.

Tom and I followed Bob along the suburban streets beneath the shade of beautiful old trees with broad, leafy canopies that reached out and touched each other from either side.  Nothing stirred. It was perfectly silent.  Maybe it’s Sunday morning, I thought.  Yes- that must be it- it’s Sunday and everyone’s still asleep.  I tried to walk without making a sound.

Reaching the landlord’s house I held on to my breath.  Along the way Bob had told us his landlord was a friend of the family’s and as a favor had rented him a great flat for a very reasonable rate.

“He’s pretty uptight, though,” Bob added.  “Really conservative.  Pro-war; anti-pacifist- the whole scene. He’s a bishop of the Mormon Church just like my dad.  So don’t be surprised if he gives you guys some strange looks.  He really hates long hair by the way. Just be cool.  Stand by and smile and I’ll do all the talking.”  It was becoming clear why Bob’s curly hair was trimmed so short.

“I would have come alone, but it’s better I introduce you.  At least then he’ll know I’ve brought someone home with me.  It’s always best to take the high road with Mr. Evans.  He’s always snooping around our place. For some reason, he doesn’t approve much of us having guests over that he doesn’t know about.”

I was growing very fond of Bob.  His initial surliness had certainly turned 180 degrees on some kind of dime. Why he had suddenly become so hospitable was not something I had cared to reason out.  I had so far trusted his judgment as well, but taking us to wake-up his landlord at dawn on a Sunday morning seemed a terrible mistake.

We arrived within a few minutes and stood at the landlord’s front doorstep.  Bob gently knocked on the door.  A minute later the door opened and there stood the man himself, tall and powerfully built. He was still dressed in his night clothes and wearing an ankle-length plaid robe and slippers.  Not a hair was out of place on the top of his head. He stared at us with alarm, the dilated pupils of his eyes leering at us from behind his gold framed eyeglasses. He clutched a section of Sunday paper in one hand and the door knob in the other.  His stance was protective as if we might violently rush the doorway in order to gain entrance. 

“Excuse me Mr. Evans- I’m so sorry to bother you so early in the morning, sir, but I’ve just arrived from out of town and seem to have misplaced my house key.  Could you be so kind as to lend me a copy?  I promise to bring it back in just a few minutes.”

Mr. Evans stood frozen and his eyes bore into us with a complement of distressed emotions I am want to describe.

“Who are these two?” he demanded harshly.  “Are they guests accompanying you from out of town?”

“Yes, sir.  Please meet Tom and John.  I’ve invited them to visit for the day.”

Mr. Evans continued his cold inspection, scanning Tom and I from head to toe.  “You young men are sure to be from California, aren’t you?” he asked with rhetorical contempt.

“Why yes, sir, we are,” said Tom with perfect candor and respect.

“You know I don’t allow my tenants to house guests,” he said sternly to Bob.  “They can visit for the day, but certainly are not permitted to stay with you overnight.  And remember- there is to be no smoking on the premises. Those are the rules, boys, and I expect you to follow them as would my tenants.  Now, return to the house, and I’ll drop by with a key.”

We thanked him, after which he rapidly shut the door on our faces.  We turned away and walked out to the sidewalk.

“Jesus Christ, Bob!” said Tom in a whisper.  “I think John and I should just get going.  This looks like trouble for all of us. Maybe we could just use your phone, contact our friends, and figure out how to meet them.”

Bob smiled and appeared perfectly relaxed.  “Oh, no, man.  Don’t worry.  Let’s go home and wait for him.  It’ll be alright.  He talks a big game, but he’s really just a big teddy bear.  I’ve known him all my life. He’s always bothered about something. You guys can clean-up, take a rest and call your friends later.”

By the time we returned to the house, so had one of Bob’s roommates.  He let us is, and we followed Bob up a long wooden staircase to their second story flat.

“Wow, this is a great place!” I cried.  Three bedrooms were clustered at the top of the stairs just beyond a hardwood floor on the second story landing.  Off to the left  and through a spacious, entrance finished in tasteful wainscoting was the living room and kitchen. Inspecting the living room, I was amazed to come fact to face with a collection of radical political posters posted all over the walls.  Their Anti-Viet Nam War, and Pro-SDS slogans quickly gauged the household’s political temperature.

To my continuing surprise Bob immediately lit a cigarette, and his roommate started cleaning the seeds out of a handful of marijuana by sifting them out on a shoe box lid with the card stock edge of a pack of rolling papers.

Bob had become expansive now that he was back home.  As Tom and I took a comfortable seat on the sofa, he paced the living room floor’s carpet leisurely, smoking with great pleasure.  After a few drags, he launched into an extemporaneous description of the activities presently preoccupying him and his roommates.

“You find the posters to your liking, heh?  Well, they are courtesy of Nicki, here.”  Nicki looked up and smiled while laying a bead of saliva along the gluey edge of cigarette paper that had just been freshly rolled around a generous pinch of ganja.  He put the joint to the side and started up another.

“Nicki is an old SDS’er. This is a true piece of Americana, guys.  The posters are quite handsome, wouldn’t you say?”  Bob pointed them out with open hand, sweeping his outstretched arm around the room as would a tour docent in a room full of precious paintings in an illustrious art museum.

Nicki lit up both joints he had rolled and started passing them around the room.  “So great you guys could make it all the way out her to Salt Lake.  Good to meet some brothers from California.  Right on, man! Consider me your official welcoming committee!”  Nicki smiled with unrestrained joy and passed a joint over to the couch.

“I don’t get it!” I finally said. “How could you guys?”

“Oh you mean about Mr. Evans and all,” said Bob.  He started laughing uncontrollably.

“Oh just fuck him!” blurted Nicki.  “He’s just a fucking fascist.  Completely ignorant and mindless.  Unfortunately, he’s Salt Lake’s iconic white-uptight male of the species.  He’s the quintessential Mr. Jones from next door who has his head up his ass.”

“Let me guess. You’re from out of town, just like us,” mused Tom.

Nicki held his head back and cackled like a goose as a stream of smoke belched from his lungs and collected in a cloud spreading out along the ceiling. “Ain’t it the ever-lovin’ truth, brother!  Amen to that!  Yeah, I’m from Manhattan.  Somehow I ended up enrolling in the big U here.”

“So the SDS. Students for a Democratic Society, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Nicki.  I was active back in the day, man.  It’s really a bummer. The Weathermen just shred the organization to bits last year.”

“It don’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows….,” sang Bob mockingly, affecting his best impression of Dylan while striking a mad pose, eyes rolling in their sockets.

“So you knew some of the Weathermen?” I asked Nicki.

“Oh, yeah! Sure did.  Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert- all those radicals. I was there at the National SDS Convention in Chicago in June of ’69 when the fucking house came crashing down on us.  Divide and conquer, man- that’s what fucking happened. The Weathermen have succeeded in taking over and now destroying the organization.  I’m not into the heavy-duty violent revolution they were espousing.  I quit after the convention.”

Fully absorbed, I didn’t notice the knock at the front door downstairs.  Bob walked out of the living room to walk downstairs and answer it. 

“Hey John, put out the joint.  I think it’s the landlord knocking at the front door!” said Tom.

Tom and I sat still on the sofa as Nicki got up after stuffing the shoe box full of ganja and dope paraphernalia out of sight under his overstuffed easy chair.  He walked to the head of the stairs and stood silently for a while watching and listening to Bob who was in conversation with Mr. Evans as it turned out, both of them standing together down in the foyer just inside the house and at the foot of the stairs.  Tom and I strained to listen in, but we couldn’t make out what was being said.

Their discussion soon turned disagreeable, though, and their voices began to grow louder and more strident.  Suddenly Nicki erupted, and began to shout down from his position atop the stairs.  He had grabbed on to both wood hand railings, and leaning his body forward began to vent his spleen in fearless rage.

“You listen to me Mr. Landlord!  I know my fucking rights!  You can’t come barging in here without our permission!  You’re the one in violation right now!  Did you ever stop to consider you’re the one breaking the law? What makes you think you can tell us who we can have over as guests and who we can’t!  Are you crazy man?!  That’s a line straight out of the Nazi playbook, man!  Payment of rent constitutes ownership!  You have no right to set foot in our place, Mr. Landlord!  So just turn around and get the fuck out!”

My hair was still plenty wet, but it was beginning to stand on end just the same.

“What’s that I smell up there?” shouted Mr. Evans, who had no desire to address Nicki’s litany of legal points.  “That’s burning tobacco, isn’t it?  You know I don’t allow smoking on the premises!  I’ve made that clear before!” 

“There’s no such stipulation is the fucking lease, man!” ranted Nicki.  “And there ain’t no such city ordinance, either.  If you don’t take my word for it then go see a lawyer and maybe you’ll believe someone who wears a suit and has a certificate hanging on his fucking wall, man!  I know my rights, Mr. Landlord!  Your feet are made of clay and you’re standing on nothing but sand!”

By this time, Tom and I were chortling with laughter.  We left our seats and walked quietly over towards the living room entrance way.  There we saw Bob slowly ascending the staircase, his body turned sideways and head turned and looking down at Mr. Evans.

Nicki backed away from the top of the stairs and let Bob by.  Mr. Evans turned in fury, stomped out of the house and slammed the door behind him.

Nicki started jumping up and down in celebration, springing high off the hardwood flooring on the landing on the top of the stairs.  “Yeowsah!  Yeowsah!  Yeowsah!” he bellowed, one arm raised high and fist clenched in supreme defiance.

Bob reentered the living room and finding the joint he had just been smoking before being so rudely interrupted, relit it and took a long, hard toke.

“That was fucking out of control, man!” I said with amazement.  “What do you think he’ll do now?”

Bob resumed his customary leisure.  He sunk into the sofa, and took another hit.  “Oh, I don’t think he’ll do anything.  He’ll just go home and stew for awhile.  He’ll get over it.”

“Over it?  Aren’t you afraid he’ll just evict you guys?”

“Personally, I could give a shit,” Nicki said, spitting the last three words in our faces.

It was April 15th, 1970.  Tom and I had a week’s break from school as it was Easter vacation.  Less than three weeks later on May 4th, four students were shot dead by National Guardsmen during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State in Ohio.  On May 10th the National Guard Association building in Washington D.C. was bombed by the Weathermen to protest the killings.

The officer in Sparks had actually been right to suspect Tom and I had been carrying drugs.  We had each a couple of tabs of psilocybin stashed in the linings of our jackets.  The spent the night at Bob and Nicki’s and the next day we each ingested one tablet each and went to spend a couple of hours at the LDS temple grounds together with Bob.  He took a tab as well.

The LDS temple is one of America’s most massive building complexes.  When the Mormons build a temple, they do it on a grandiose scale that puts them in league with the Pharaohs and pyramid builders of ancient Egypt.  In fact, the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, declared that God sent down writings to him that were similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics.  I knew there had to be a connection.

The main temple itself is made of white stone whose steeple soars to heights that can amply expand the mind without the aid of psilocybin.  The three of us reeled in ecstatic wonder at its feet, staring up at the pure gold statue of the angel Gabriel blowing his horn from atop the steeple’s pinnacle.

“Blow, Gabriel, blow!” Bob, Tom, and I chanted in unison, watching cumulous clouds rent in half and part to clear a space for the sun to beam down on the golden stature as they flew over the head.

Later that day we finally made contact with our friends- all of whom were girls.  There had been a very good reason for wanting to risk life and limb in order to visit Salt Lake City. We gathered at Bob’s house and all decided to play hearts.  Still strongly under the influence of psychedelics, during the third hand, I shot the moon.  The experience was no less than an epiphany.  I had rarely felt such joy and elation.  I was in tune with the forces of the cosmos.  Everything had aligned according to a harmonic convergence.  The realization struck me that expanding one’s consciousness applied equally to all games of chance.

A few days later Tom and I hitchhiked back to California.  It was less adventurous, as we were picked up by an elderly, retired history teacher.  But it was indeed educational, as he narrated the history of the Indians and pioneers that both shared the lands of the Great Basin as we crossed the desert.  He was one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met.

Back in school, life resumed normalcy.  Coming home every afternoon I faithfully watched Walter Cronkite as he unfailingly gave the latest body count of those killed and wounded in Viet Nam.

In June, Tom and I graduated from high school.  I was approaching my eighteenth birthday, and registered with the Selective Service.  Visiting my podiatrist, I requested he write a letter to the draft board concerning my flat feet.  To my absolute amazement, the board issued me a 4-F status.  I had been given a medical deferment.  The same bad feet that had ruined my junior baseball career had saved me from having to go to war.   Games of chance were becoming a way of life.  When they counted most, I had come out a winner.  Reprieve is sweet- sweeter than vengeance. 

Most of my friends never had to go to Viet Nam.  We were just young enough to dodge the bullet.  The last draftees were taken in 1972, and most I knew made the cut.  But young men are often predisposed to engaging in life-threatening activities whether a war is in progress or not. Tom was one of them.  A few years later and apparently high on cocaine, he lost control of his Harley Davidson, slid off a mountain curve late at night, and hit a tree.  Dead at 27, my best high school friend had died young and left a beautiful corpse.  There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.

I don’t know what happened to Bob, or to Nicki.  In fact, I don’t know what has happened to most of the young men I once knew.  They remain ghostly memories, their ages and faces fixed in time.  There is more parting in life than any other thing I know.

I watch carefully the young men around me now, and with this new generation watch history repeat itself.  Another war is being waged and people innocent and guilty; good and bad, dying uselessly.  The call to war is ceaseless; almost always initially accepted; and almost always eventually regretted.

The most enlightened men and women of the last century have all been believers that mankind will someday evolve as a species informed by a higher consciousness, and will answer to a higher calling.

I remain skeptical as I see the influences of the sages of the 20th century slowly eroding.  Simultaneously both history’s most war-torn and enlightened time, it is a century now being slowly forgotten.  There is good reason why history is bound to repeat itself.

So the cards remained in full shuffle, and the players play on- some with strategic deliberateness, others content to go for broke hoping to shoot the moon.  They bid to destroy each other and emerge the victor. I never did shot the moon before or after that game in Salt Lake City.  The cards have never been stacked like that since.  But the game is still in play and the odds remain the same.  Bored to death by it all, I’ve stopped playing.  It’s now somebody else’s turn.