Those who lived within earshot of the railroad would usually be put to sleep by the clacking of the iron wheels passing over the rail joints. It was an age-old rhythm, a song often without words. It drew the listeners away from their world. Where was the train bound? Where did it come from? Hank, Woody, Eric and Bob…and a hundred others heard the music. With the advent of seamless rails, the music has stopped.
More than one lonely and desperate man or woman or kid would rise up…get dressed, and vanish with the train when it slowed or stopped. Sometimes they came home, most often they didn’t. The iron wheels were the call of the wild and the restless answered.
A true listener could easily tell if the train was on a freight or passenger run. Was the sound light, full of people or was it dark, heavy and full of coal, or steel or logs?
On the freight lines, a breed of men rode the train in a car at the far end, the caboose. Here, swaying and rocking to the subtle changes in directions, these hardened and unshaven men would sit and wait for the next stop. In the winter, they would sit near the coal stove to fight off the icy blasts of a Missouri winter. In the sultry summer, aching to breath moving air, they would sit in the open of the platform that was the last true end of the train.
One might page through a cheap copy of a girlie magazine. Some sat quietly and read from the Bible. They played cards. They napped. They slept, rocking like a baby they barely recall seeing, holding or being.
Usually, though, in the hours after midnight, one fellow would reach into his sack and pull out a bottle of pitiable rye. The bottle would be passed…no wiping needed.
Somewhere along the line, a home waited for these souls. A wife, a lover, a lonely son, a daughter about to run away with a worthless dishwasher, a mangy dog and a kitchen with plastic table cloths. Some went to nothing more than a small 12′ x 12′ rented room in a boarding house that needed painting, on a side street not far from the station, hard by a saloon.
A man or two might not get off at all. In some town, any town, there were warrants for his arrest. He would ride on, change shifts somewhere and disappear into the night.
Many of these men who were short in the cash and honesty department could hold no real job or own a skill.
One skill they all did have was the ability to stare into ones eyes or a camera lens without blinking or grinning. They could not know someone decades later would stare back at them.