Riding the Rails
It was unbelievable, but conservative Republican military and vigilante groups were pushing American liberalism to the point of extinction. The Democratic Party no longer existed. Liberal leadership was evaporating in the face of incarceration, conversion, and annihilation. And it was happening everywhere in the United States.
“You better believe it,” Swoboda explained. “America, as we know it, has ceased to exist. We've had reports of actual warfare being waged in some big cities because they have been resistant to the new reactionary laws.”
Clearly, my fate was now out of my hands. I was powerless to do anything except trust Swoboda. As he drove through the Montana wilderness, I hated this helplessness and dependency I was now feeling.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Swoboda said reassuringly, “I’ll get out of here. But you can’t continue to hitchhike—everybody knows your face. You can’t take a plane or train or a bus—again, because you’re recognizable. And since I don’t have a car to loan you, you can’t drive. You’ll have to find some other way out. Let me noodle this for a minute or two.”
After a few more miles passed in silence, Swoboda came up with a great idea. “Have you ever ridden the rails or jumped in an empty boxcar and ridden a freight train illegally?” he inquired. "I think that's the only way I can get you out of this place."
My answer must have surprised him. “Matter of fact, I have,” I said. “A long time ago a college roommate and I rode boxcars as a lark during semester break. We traveled inside empty freight cars; but we also sneaked into the last locomotive of the four-engine tandem that was pulling the train. I preferred being in the locomotive cab where it was warm and comfortable. We traveled about 1,500 miles until we became so hungry we had to leave the train to find food. But, we learned our lesson. We ended up buying Amtrak tickets home.”
“Well, there's a Montana Rail Link freight train that leaves Bozeman once a night on its way to Chicago,” Swoboda explained. “Bozeman’s about fifty miles up the road. Maybe you can relive your college experience by riding a freight car all the way to the Windy City.”
“I seem to have no other choice,” I replied. “It’s been a long time, but I’ll take a stab at it.”
“Good, then let’s do it,” he said. “But first, you’ll need some immediate help. You’ll need cash, some new clothes, and maybe a slight change of appearance—and, of course, you’ll need food. My house is in Gardiner, a little town on the way. We’ll stop there first.”
A short while later the Chevy pulled into the driveway of a small, nondescript tract house. Swoboda locked the car and entered his home. Even though it was pitch black outside, I was still careful about my surroundings. I inspected the area carefully before leaving the car and following him inside.
“We can’t stay long. We have to get to Bozeman before 11 o’clock. That’s when the train leaves,” Swoboda said. “I’ll fix you an omelet and some coffee while you shower. I suggest you use some of my hair coloring to change your salt-and-pepper hair to dark brown. And don’t shave that beard you’ve grown since you arrived, whiskers make a good disguise. Also, here are some of my civilian duds; you can’t dress like a Peacemaker when you ride the rails.”
By the time my host had prepared the meal—plus a half-dozen sandwiches and a Thermos of hot coffee for the trip to Chicago—I emerged from the bathroom ready to press on. “Wow, with all that dirt cleaned off and a change of clothes, you look like a different man,” Swoboda joked. “Sit down and eat.” I didn’t dawdle over the meal.
Soon we were in the white truck heading for Bozeman. “Here, I can spare $100,” Swoboda said. “Take it. You may need it before you reach the safe house in Chicago.”
“Why Chicago? And what safe house?” I inquired.
“The underground has been organizing for months because we saw this move by the Republicans coming. We've created a web of private residences throughout the country, and Chicago is one of our central points. Most are inconspicuous homes and apartments located in average neighborhoods,” Swoboda explained. “Because they’re so normal-looking the cops and the neighbors overlook us. It’s dangerous, but that’s how we hide liberals on the run. It’s a lot like the old Underground Railway of slavery days. It also reminds some old-timers of the safe houses used by military deserters and Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s.”
On a small piece of paper Swoboda had written a Chicago address. “Here’s your destination. The woman who lives there is named Deborah Ricketts. Tell her your story, and tell her I sent you. She’ll know what to do.” I pocketed the address, still unsure of what was happening and what I could do about it.
As we drove, I had to ask Swoboda one important question. “Tell me,” I said, “back on the trip from Los Angeles to Yellowstone, there was an incident at our first restroom stop. A male prisoner appears to have been shot while escaping, and I think you were the guard who killed him. Am I wrong?”
Swoboda flashed a quirky smile. “Guilty as charged…and you fell for it,” he replied. “That was all an act meant to intimidate you prisoners into silence. We rehearsed that killing so many times in Peacemaker boot camp. I didn’t shoot anyone. The escapee was actually another Peacemaker posing as a liberal so we could pull off the charade. In fact, Peacemakers still perform that stunt for each new busload of prisoners. Works every time.”
Bozeman was a small university town made smaller by the fact that most students were away on summer recess, and many of those who remained had apparently been recruited for work in several POA camps nearby. “We’re lucky there aren’t many people hanging around tonight,” Swoboda observed. “Most of the younger residents are working at Camp Limbaugh—or at Camp Jim DeMint in Grand Teton, and Camp Laura Ingraham up in Glacier National Park.”
Swoboda drove slowly through the town, careful not to arouse the curiosity of the police. He stopped near a small railroad freight yard. “There it is, not very big, but it should work for you. Since you’ve done this before, I’ll let you out here. You can climb in an open boxcar or break into a sealed car—which ever is easier.
“No matter how you do it, you have to reach Chicago. American freedom is dying. Our people are either converted or in jail. You may be our last hope. Mike Tenney, you just may be the last American liberal.”
After a handshake and my expression of gratitude, I exited the truck and walked into the freight yard. Swoboda pulled away from the curb, made a U-turn, and headed back home. I felt very alone and very vulnerable. I had one shot at getting out of this place, and I had to succeed. But after more than two decades my train-hopping skills were rusty.
Inconspicuously, I made my way to a string of about a dozen freight cars and coal carriers coupled together with a caboose at the end. There was no light, except near the front of the train where workers were busy packing crates into the two boxcars. I walked toward the freight cars at the rear of the line. Fortunately, several of them had their doors wide open and were empty.
It was too soon to make my move, so I retreated to an unlit area of the yard and watched the rest of the loading process. I didn’t want to be spotted by a railroad detective, and I wasn't ready to hide in a car only to have a company inspector unknowingly slide the door shut with me hiding inside. I had heard stories of hoboes found dead in boxcars in which they had been inadvertently locked for weeks.
In less than twenty minutes the Chicago-bound train arrived. It quickly maneuvered to couple up with the Bozeman additions. Now I made my move. No one had bothered to close the open doors on three freight cars, so I chose the middle boxcar and jumped in. Before entering, however, I picked up a long, thick piece of wood. By placing it on the floor between the sliding door and its locking mechanism, the wood became a safety device preventing the heavy door from accidentally locking me inside.
It was dark inside the car, and except for junk from previous usage, it was empty. All I could see were a few large pieces of cardboard that looked like they once were containers for new kitchen appliances, an empty pop bottle or two, a few metal bands that once held packages together, and several dried up tumbleweeds that must have blown in during a haul through desert country. This would be my new apartment until I reached Chicago.
I had been in that car for only a few minutes when the train began making a loud banging noise as the engineer continued the coupling process. As each boxcar was pushed backward to link forcefully with the one behind, the resultant sound of steel smashing into steel cascaded from the front to the rear of the line of cars. It was eerie. It reminded me of a thunderclap, rolling across a stormy sky, becoming progressively louder until reaching the listener, then fading as it continued its journey through the clouds.
But this coupling noise had a physical aspect, too, for when each freight car collided and linked, the crash momentarily shook everything inside. When the coupling action hit my car, the sudden shaking almost knocked me off my feet.
This is when I discovered that I was not alone. As I staggered to regain my equilibrium, I glimpsed the figure of a man crouched obscurely in a corner of the car. It was a bit unnerving because I thought the car was empty. "Damn," I mumbled to myself, "I didn't know there was anyone else here." My first thought was to leave and enter another one. But the train was already starting to roll forward, and I wasn’t sure I could safely jump into a moving boxcar.
"Don't worry, I don’t bite," said the figure in the corner. "Sorry to have frightened you. I've been riding this car for a couple days from the coast. And you kinda scared me, too, when you jumped aboard. I'm headin’ for Minneapolis, goin’ home. How about you?"
As I began to reply, I felt the train picking up speed, leaving Bozeman and moving east. I turned to the stranger. "I'm just goin’ east, like you," I remarked. I then moved to the opposite end of the car and sat with my back against the wall, facing the shadowy man with whom I was sharing the ride.
As the train passed the few Bozeman business establishments that were still open, the light from their neon signs allowed me quick glances at a slight, elderly man with long gray hair and shabby clothes. I tried to size up this travelling companion. I was bigger and younger, so he appeared to be no physical threat. But his presence required caution.
He didn't look like a Peacemaker, but these days everyone was suspect. Was he still a menace? Was he working undercover for the authorities? What if he carried a weapon? What if he discovered my true identity? And even if he were only a drifter with no agenda, would he inform the police once he left this train?
My mind raced with questions, and I was worried about the answers I might soon discover.
I sat in silence for many miles, bouncing up and down on the cold wooden floor of the freight car. The stranger broke the tension. “Not too comfortable, is it?” he remarked. “Tell you what: grab a few of those tumbleweeds and throw a sheet of cardboard over them and you’ll have yourself a hobo mattress, Sure does cushion a hard ride—almost like sleepin’ on a Sealy.”
I followed his advice. He was right, at least about the cushioning effect of this makeshift mattress. “Thanks for the hint,” I said.
This exchange slightly relaxed the tension in the boxcar. "You're in for a long, black ride until we cross the plains," the stranger said. "We may as well get to know each other. Talk between men on the rails breaks the monotony, makes the hours go by faster. I can tell you're a newbie. I've jumped boxcars for years, but you, you're a newcomer, not too hip to this life."
I just gazed toward the stranger and made no attempt to respond to his social overtures.
A few miles later the old man spoke again. "My name’s Nick. Actually, it's Nicholas Robertson, but most people I meet just call me Nick. Some folks call me a hobo because I travel like this. But, I'm not, really. I’m just an average guy, a bit down on my luck right now. But, I don't let that stop me. I get around."
There was something honest in the man’s friendly attitude that I found disarming. It generated a cautious trust in me. "I'm Smith, that's my name—just call me Smith," I told Nick. "I'm movin’ east. Lookin' for somethin’ better. Maybe I'll find it, maybe I won't." I responded as vaguely as I could.
It was the beginning of an odd conversation. Here were two strangers sitting uncomfortably on either end of a bouncing boxcar as it sped into the open plains on a starless night. All that saved if from being a dialogue between two blind men was the light from an occasional highway crossing which allowed a burst of light into the car. In those quick moments, we actually saw each other. It reassured me that my riding mate was not advancing on me.
It was Nick who first raised the matter of politics, and it unnerved me. "You know much about what's goin' down in the country?" he asked. "I mean, I sure don't keep up with politics—waste of time and energy. But I've seen some queer things the last week or so. I've seen military vehicle everywhere—airplanes and helicopters, too—lots of buses with their windows curtained up. Can't figure it out for the life of me. I've traveled a lot, but never seen this kind of activity before."
"Can't help you very much," I replied. "Haven't read a paper or seen TV in quite a while. Maybe it's just some kind of military training maneuvers, you know, just keeping ready in case some foreign enemy attacks us."
Nick's response was puzzling. "Hah," he said. "No foreign enemy can attack this country. Besides, who’d begin their attack here in the middle of nowhere? Attack us in Montana? Attack us in Wyoming? Don't you think an enemy would start in California or New York or Washington D.C.? Nah, it ain't gonna happen out here. No, Smith, I think there's something else goin’ on. I just don't know what."
I would have loved to tell old Nick about my experiences, but I dared not be so open. Instead, I continued to feign ignorance. "Well, I can't say,” I remarked, “But you never can tell, if they take Helena today, can Cheyenne be far behind?"
It was a feeble attempt at levity, and I heard Nick laugh politely. "No, seriously, Smith, I think something's afoot in the United States," he said. "The other night, when the railroad was skirting around San Francisco, I saw lots of flames coming from the direction of the city. I figured it was a factory on fire, maybe an oil depot explosion. But, now that I think of it, it was too bright, too large a fire, even for an oil dump. I guess it could have been another earthquake." The old man stopped in mid-thought. "Are we having some kind of domestic unrest, maybe like those urban riots in the 1960s?" he asked.
"I don't know," I answered. "I didn't hear about anything like that, and I sure didn't see anything like that either."
The boxcar fell silent. Neither of us carried the dialogue forward. I was afraid to say more, fearful that I might inadvertently expose myself. And I wasn't sure of Nick’s motive in pushing the small talk toward politics. All I wanted was for the old man to shut up and leave the train.
Nick broke the short silence. "You know, Smith, all politics is rubbish. Why can't people just live their lives free, the way living is supposed to be. Instead, they're busy restricting each other’s liberty. I think that deep down inside people fear freedom, especially other peoples' freedom,” he contended.
“Then there's money,” Nick quickly added. “You make money and they grab it through taxes—unless you make gobs of cash, then you get to make the tax laws and you ease up on taxing yourself—and just go after the little fella’s money.
"And if you take a political stand one way or the other, you're left hanging in the breeze. Half the people hate you because they disagree with you, and the other half lets you dangle in the wind because they don't want to share the abuse you’re gettin'."
"Man, it's not that bad," I interrupted. “We have a free country here. We have our liberties, laws and elections. Just look at me and you, we’re free."
"Me and you?" replied Nick. "Are you crazy? We're cold and sore, stuck in an empty freight car about a five miles from East Jesus. If this is the best liberty can do, I'll take tyranny.
"I don't do this because I like it, man. I do it because I have to. I have to travel like this because I have no money—otherwise I'd fly first class. And I do this not because I need to be somewhere else, but because I need to assert my humanity, my essence as a free man. Boxcars let me declare to the world that I am supposed to be free, I want to be free, and, damn it, I insist upon being free.”
The old man was on a talking binge. "How can you speak about freedom and elections and laws? Everything now is so controlled, so rigid. Society is only afraid of people like you and me because we’re still loose. We’re like wild antelope darting across the Dakota plains. Yeah, we’re gloriously unfettered, but we’re also powerless to change our world.
“Just look at how we are controlled,” Nick explained. “We’re bought off. They give us fantastic electronic tools, and we let them take away our clean air. We get TV that’s in HD and 3-D, we get Velcro and electric cars and plastic picture phones. But the price is overcrowded cities, pollution in our water, inedible food, and inadequate educations for our kids. Ah, there’s so much mediocrity in our lives, but we can blissfully share the banality via emails and Tweets and Twits and whatever electric gizmos they invent next.
“Do you remember the National Lottery set up by the federal government last year?” he inquired. "That was just a gimmick, a ruse aimed at controlling working-class Americans. Don’t you see, man: they let one or two people win $1 million each week, and that keeps the masses patient for their turn. Ha, ha, ha. What a joke. Your odds are one in 200 million. May as well try to catch a lightning bolt in a jar,” he explained. “But it keeps the masses distracted and quiet.”
I couldn't take it anymore. "What do you mean?" I erupted. "Don't you believe in the American system, at least in its theoretical aspects? Don't you think this is a free country in which free men and women make their own fortunes? And if it is imperfect, don't you think the citizens have the right, even obligation, to improve society by electing good people who will do good things? Someone once said it right: democracy isn't the perfect system of government, but it’s better than any other system."
"Come on, Smith, cut the grade-school civics," Nick answered. "You've been indoctrinated. Well, that's to be expected. You went through their public schools where you got your young brains fried, dyed, and laid to the side. You saluted the flag with your hand over your heart. You learned American history as a manifestation of the God thing.
No matter that the slaughter of Indians, Negroes, Chinese, and Mexicans was basic to the country's birth and expansion, you learned that this country was the new Eden, the greatest place on Earth. And a model for the world—you know, ‘shining city on a hill’ and all that malarkey.
“And then, my friend, you were trained to sing hymns to the State—the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and that supreme presumption, God, Bless America. Not only have you been living in this country, you were shaped by government employees, school teachers, to worship the place.
"It's absurd, Smith. I tell you, it's damned absurd. How else can you understand a public almost happy to send its sons and daughters to kill or to die in war after war after war. And what's the excuse the public accepts for this insanity? Fighting Evil? Stopping would-be aggressors? Spreading American ideals? They asked us to help them? Truth and justice; mom and apple pie? I go for God, country and my baby? All B.S., Smith.
“The State is God, Smith, and politicians are its Messengers. And the citizens, they’re trained to be True Believers. This is almost like ancient Rome when the Emperor claimed to be a God, and the citizens ate it up.
The conversation or, I should say Nick’s cynical political science discourse, went on like this for about an hour. Fortunately, his screed petered out and he eventually fell asleep. I slept, too.
With the daylight Nick prepared to leave the train. “We’ll be passing through Omaha in a minute,” he explained as he gathered his meager belongings and looked out the door. “This train is non-stop to Chicago, so to get to Minneapolis, I have to jump off when it slows down rolling through the city. Later today I’ll pick up a freight goin’ north to Minnesota.”
As the train slowed to pass safely through the industrial section of Omaha, the old man looked for an opportune place to leap. “Well, take it easy…but take it,” he said with a wry smile on his face just before he slipped from the car. And then he was gone. I stuck my head out of the boxcar door and motioned farewell. He responded with a hardy wave.
The remainder of the trip to Chicago was arduous, but free of Nick’s political lecturing. Fortunately, it was a non-stop, but it still took another twelve hours; and it was increasingly uncomfortable. As for that hobo mattress, it was no Sealy. It helped a little, but no matter how I positioned my body, hour after hour of bouncing on an unforgiving wooden floor made me extremely sore.
The train moved hurriedly through the flat land of Midwest. Not much to see except farms and the occasional river, and definitely nothing to do. Night travel had been cool and sightless. Travelling in the daytime presented its own problems. It meant avoidance of the open door for fear of being seen by someone on the ground. There was also the problem of nourishment. While I was appreciative of the food and coffee provided by Swoboda, tepid coffee and peanut butter sandwiches grew tiresome.
In those daytime instances where I was able look out the door, I could see that something major was underway everywhere. Even in the most rural areas there were military vehicles on the move. Jeeps, personnel carriers filled with soldiers, Humvees, and even trucks dragging artillery pieces: it resembled a scene in a science fiction movie when the military mobilizes to fight the alien invaders.
I also saw plenty of propaganda signs along the way. They reminded me of the billboards I encountered on the bus ride from Los Angeles to Yellowstone. “President Birch, Bring Us Together” and “America for Conservatives” were typical messages. But many of signs bore messages that were more sinister. “Death to Liberals” and “Die, Democrat, Die” were among the most scary. In just a few days, it seemed, the nationwide assault against liberals had moved from detention to annihilation.
After what seemed an eternity, the train reached Chicago, or at least the freight yard in Franklin Park, a northwestern suburb near the city’s principal airport, O’Hare Field. It was a massive rail facility with scores of tracks and empty freight trains parked everywhere.
I was as sleepy as I was stiff, but I had to reach Deborah Ricketts’s safe house. As the train slowed to a stop, I slid off using the technique I saw Nick use. Maneuvering my way around boxcars and locomotives, I left the yard and made my way to a large highway that bordered the area.
If this was Chicago, it wasn’t what I expected. The streets were empty. No people, no cars or trucks in sight. It was so bizarre to be walking down the middle of a deserted thoroughfare during rush hour. On the horizon, however, I found the answer. In what resembled a scene from Gone with the Wind, I saw thick smoke billowing skyward. From the Southside to the Northside, Chicago was ablaze.
I began walking toward the chaos. After a mile or so, it all became clearer to me. I watched as aircraft flew low over the city and fired rockets and dropped bombs. I heard spasms of machine-gun fire, too. And there were several loud explosions followed by flames and heavy smoke. It meant one thing: Republicans were waging war on Chicago. This must have been what Swoboda meant when he said political resistance in the big cities had forced the conservatives into full-scale combat.
I walked for about a half-hour until I found myself approaching military units assembled in a large open field. Here I recognized various U.S. Army and Marine Corps infantry outfits as well as artillery and tank groups. There were also units of the Illinois National Guard drawn, apparently, from downstate and suburban counties.
The most macabre combatants I encountered were people who had formed paramilitary contingents. I soon learned that these were the Birch Brigades, volunteer contingents that answered the call of President Birch to assist the armed forces in crushing the liberals.
Like Revolutionary War and Civil War re-enactors, the overwhelmingly-male Brigades had catchy names and appeared more eager to fight than the formally-trained soldiers. Some came from local cities and villages such as the 6th Schaumburg Rifles, the 24th Bensenville Lancers, and the 1st Cicero Rangers who called themselves the All Whites. Others bore names of counties, social organizations, and some—like the Sigma Nu Pistoleros—were even drawn from local college fraternities. Still others, such as the 5th Iowa Irregulars and the 3rd Wisconsin Artillery, came from neighboring states that had already been purged of liberals.
In a variety of colorful costumes they scooted around the staging area showing off a swirl of greens, blues, reds, blacks, whites, and even plaids. The uniforms of the 3rd Kane County Artillery resembled those worn by Zouaves during the Civil War. The Orland Park Lancers appeared to have modeled their costumes after the blue and white clothing worn by Colonial troops during the Revolutionary War. And the Naperville Rough Riders were, predictably, dressed like Teddy Roosevelt’s famed unit from the Spanish-American War.
One of the most flamboyant groups was the 4th DuPage County Motorized Cavalry, nicknamed the “Screaming Mimis.” They wore emerald green uniforms with wide-brimmed hats topped with enormous white shakoes. The Mimis looked like something from a poorly-costumed local opera, except this company carried firearms and seemed intent upon conquering Chicago. Their “cavalry” consisted of their personal automobiles which they drove to carry out assignments. Their present orders, I learned, were actually issued by the U.S. Army General in charge of this Battle of Chicago.
According to orders, Screaming Mimi irregulars were to drive into city neighborhoods and shoot the tires of parked cars. Disabling automobiles meant that liberals could not easily escape the Army and Marine foot soldiers when they eventually launched their door-to-door assault on the city.
I approached one of the Mimis about getting safely into Chicago. “Any chance of getting a lift into the city?” I asked. “I’m trying to get to Kenmore Avenue.”
“What block?” he asked.
“4200 North,” I responded, careful to give him an incorrect block on Kenmore.
“That’s Uptown. We haven’t completely cleansed that area yet. But, we can get you pretty close. Why do you want to go there? You’re not one of those Commie liberals, are you?” the Mimi inquired.
I thought fast. “Are you kidding me?” I answered. “My cousin lives there. I’m trying to convince him to surrender and join the new and improved America. You know these Chicago liberals, they need a bit of coaxing. But after all that strafing and bombing, I’ll bet he’s ready to convert.”
“Great, tell him to get with the program. OK, get in. You can ride to Uptown with me. Watch us destroy their chance of escape—there’s no getting around the might of conservatives,” he cackled menacingly.
I found myself in the backseat of a beautiful Cadillac SUV being driven into a war zone. The Mimi driver held the steering wheel with his right hand while in his left hand he grasped an automatic weapon. As he drove down narrow side streets, he fired a stream of bullets at the tires of every car parked on one side of the street. Then he doubled back, spraying bullets at the tires of autos parked on the opposite side of the street.
“Yah hoo, this is great,” he yelled ecstatically. “Killing liberals for Christ! Oh, man, do I hate them liberals. This ought to teach ‘em not to mess with real Americans.” He ended his rant by sticking his head out of the window and yelling what he later explained was the 4th DuPage’s legendary signature war whoop, a protracted cry of
“S c r e a m i n g M i m i s R u l e!”
I think the driver was trying to impress me with his prowess. “Great fun, huh?” he said to me.
“Yeah, go Mimis,” I replied with just a hint of sarcasm.
My chauffer, however, was too preoccupied to catch my subtlety. “You gotta be careful around here. Them liberals have rifles. They’re likely to shoot you if they suspect you’re against them. I’ll leave you on this corner. Just keep walking due east. Kenmore is about five blocks from here.”
In parting, he offered me one last piece of advice. “Once you pass Clark Street, you’re in enemy territory. Keep your hands in plain sight and walk straight ahead. That way they’ll know you’re not packin’ heat. Maybe you'll end up alive. Good luck, stranger. All Power to Republicans.”
Copyright © 2012 J. Fred MacDonald - All Rights Reserved.