I started traveling just fresh out of diapers. My mother has photos of me at the age of 3 in a harness attached to a cable that ran from our house to the garage so I wouldn’t wander off. I started hitchhiking around Wisconsin in high school just for the thrill. When you grow up in a town of only 3,500, you are desperate for adventure. The Air Force assured me I would see the world but I ended up being stationed in a smaller town than I came from. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break.
Four days after graduating from high school and three months before enlisting I hitchhiked down to Chicago, where I got a job as an elevator operator at the YMCA hotel in The Loop. To you younger people, there was a time when they actually had human elevator operators. I even wore a uniform. (You know you’re old when you start using the term “younger people.”) Living at the YMCA was definitely a culture shock. It was the first time I ever met anyone who wasn’t German, white, a Christian and straight. It was the most exciting experience of my young life!
After two weeks of asking people what floor they wanted I was ready to hit the road again. I hitchhiked out to California at a time when there were still orange groves in the valleys and oil wells in supermarket parking lots. I envied the kids growing up in California because they had Disneyland and the beaches. Now I was finally body surfing in Huntington Beach. Life couldn’t get any better. Later I learned that those California kids envied me because after school I could go rabbit hunting or fishing. Sounds like Coeur d’Alene?
It wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that I took up cross country hitchhiking again. I was in a VW bus somewhere in Oklahoma, along with a half dozen other hippies, when I was invited to accompany them to an outdoor rock concert on the East Coast. I declined, assuring them anything cool was only happening in California. They dropped me off and headed to Woodstock. I was such an idiot.
I would never recommend hopping a freight train today but there was a time when it was the coolest mode of transportation. It was 1971 and I was on summer break from college. I hitchhiked down to Chicago and up through Detroit to Toronto, where I hopped a freight train to Montreal. The most scenic trip of my life. If you really want to see all the splendor of a country take a train. Passenger trains are the epitome of comfort but freight trains, because of the load they’re carrying, have a constant forward and backward bumping motion. Sleeping in a boxcar is hardly a night at the Hilton.
They used to have huge chalkboards next to the train station where all the locomotive numbers along with their destinations were listed. If you planned on hopping a freight train you looked for the term “Hot Shot,” which meant it was non-stop. Then you’d find that locomotive and hide in one of the cars until the train left the yard. I soon learned never to ride near the locomotive because your face would be caked with black soot after passing through tunnels. You looked like a member of a traveling minstrel show.
I loved siting in an open boxcar with my legs dangling over the side as the train crawled through small towns early in the morning. I was certain that drivers stopped on the other side of the crossing gate envied me as they trekked to boring, pointless jobs. I realize now they just considered me another bum on a train. They were the smart ones.
It’s easy to show up for work if you love your job but how many of us are that lucky? It takes a special kind of courage to show up every day at a job you’re not crazy about and still do your best. Congress should create a federal holiday to celebrate people that brave. Maybe your job was exciting and challenging at first but now it’s more boring than a telethon for toe fungus.
If that sounds like your job and I had my life to live over, I would want to be just like you. Your family and friends must be very proud of you. You are a true hero.
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Tom Neuhoff is a regular contributor to The Press. He cracks jokes and waxes sentimental, often at the same time.