This week marks the anniversary of a couple of recent mass shootings: The massacre of innocents in Uvalde, Texas, last year, and the slaughter of transit workers in San Jose two years ago. Naturally there will be coverage of the anniversaries. We’ll revisit the trauma. We’ll hear hopes and prayers that we’ve learned something about how to prevent similar tragedies.
The anniversaries made me think about how many dates mark major mass shootings. I kind of had it in the back of my head that you could make up a calendar of all these episodes where, when you look back just a little way, you could see the hundreds of lives taken, the thousands upon thousands altered forever, at the whim of well-armed strangers. What I had in mind was something like the Roman Catholic calendar of saints’ feast days. Or more darkly, one of those “page-a-day” calendars. This one would be “A Massacre a Day.”
It sounds like fun of the grimly ironic sort, if you don’t think about the people involved. But when I sat down to write down the incidents I recall off the top of my head — starting with one in 1966 and then continuing through those that occurred over the many years I’ve been in newsrooms — there’s little irony and no fun involved. The most sobering thing is that there have been so many of these mass killings in recent years that each new one seems to be making less of an impression.
Here’s the list, in calendar order — 36 separate dates (which, just. to be clear, I had to look up). I suppose the really grim thing about this is that if you searched a little and went beyond the most notorious recent and historic incidents, you’d probably have no problem filling up a 365-day calendar.
It’s a little strange to look at this as a long-time Californian (or at least a long-time Californai resident. Are they the same thing?).
Pat Brown was a really important figure in state government through the mid-1960s, and there are several things I immediately associate with him: the State Water Project, for instance, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. And the fact he took office in a period where the state was growing like crazy. But what, specifically, would have made me, a fifth-grader in the Chicago suburbs, write the governor’s office for a picture? Maybe I had heard mention of him as a potential running mate for President Johnson in 1964 (yes, I would haver been paying attention). Maybe I heard some other news item or an approving remark from my parents. I have no real idea.
This arrived in the mail in March 1965 — probably the same week that I got the first picture in my collection, the portrait of Otto Kerner. Brown was in his second term, having beaten Richard “You Won’t Have” Nixon (to Kick Around Anymore) in 1962. Standing for his third term as governor, he wasn’t so lucky. In 1966, Brown lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just three of the state’s 58 counties (San Francisco, Alameda and Plumas).
Brown: It was 1917 when I was in the seventh grade they had these four-minute speeches for the sale of Liberty Bonds. We had to write a speech and then we had to deliver it. I’ll never forget that I made the speech and I ended up by saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the kids at school started calling me “Patrick Henry” Brown. It’s an amazing thing how they shortened it to “Pat.”
Q.: How did you see that at the time, as derisive or as something that was …?
Brown: Oh no, it was friendly, very friendly. It usually is when they give you a nickname. It was a fortuitous thing that happened because I think “Pat” Brown helped me later on in political life. It gave me an Irish connotation which was really somewhat undeserved because I was half German and half Irish.
Of course, I should mention Bernice Layne Brown, the governor’s wife, also pictured above. She and her husband were both San Francisco natives. Her official biography mentions that they eloped to Reno when they were in their early 20s. The short writeup also says this: “Bernice was ambivalent toward politics. The Governor’s Office confirmed this in a 1960 press release which stated, ‘Mrs. Brown frankly admits she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make.'”
Not mentioned in the official biography: The Browns were parents to the state’s longest-serving governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. But you knew that.
The way I remember it is I was home from school — I was a fifth-grader at Talala School in Park Forest, in Chicago’s south suburbs. I’m sure I was bored and looking for something to do — I wasn’t that sick. I was as interested in politics as any fifth-grader — well, not counting my former classmate Billy Houlihan, whose father, John J. Houlihan, was getting ready to run for the Illinois House of Representatives (he won and wound up serving four terms). I’ve forgotten my specific motivation on the long-ago day in question, but I sat down and wrote a letter to Otto Kerner, who had recently begun his second term as governor, congratulating him on his victory and asking for an autographed picture.
The portrait above, with a short letter acknowledging my note, arrived a week or two or three later. I was inspired, and a hobby of sorts was born. I started writing to other politicians who were in the news: Edward Brooke, the Republican Massachusetts attorney general who became the first popularly elected Black U.S. senator and the first to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction; Pat Brown, the Democratic governor of California; Nelson Rockefeller, the “liberal” Republican governor of New York.
Soon, I started going down the list of members of the U.S. Senate. The notes I sent were brief and to the point, written in my imperfect Palmer method cursive on a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper: “May I please have an autograph of Governor X or Senator Y?” — not much more than that. I was pretty unaware of the politics of a lot of the senators whose portraits I was requesting. So I sent away for pictures of Richard B. Russell of Georgia and John McClellan of Arkansas, two of the staunchest segregationists in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” (Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, is an effective antidote to that “greatest deliberative body” nonsense.) But I also wrote to Bobby Kennedy’s and Gene McCarthy’s offices.
After collecting about 60 or 70 of these signed pictures, I got bored with the project. I was still passionately interested in what was happening in politics — in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, especially — but the interest took other forms: going with my mother to the weekly peace vigil at the post office in Park Forest, for instance.
What is there to remember about the man in this particular portrait?
Kerner became a national figure in 1967 when President Johnson appointed him to lead a commission studying the causes of the widespread riots of that summer — the ones that always come to mind were in Detroit and Newark. The resulting report unflinchingly concluded that the nation’s long history of white racism, oppression and abuse of Black people drove the 1967 uprisings. (“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”)
The report was a little too unflinching for Johnson’s taste, and he declined to publicly endorse its conclusions or support its call for a sweeping program of investments to address the effects of past discrimination.
Still, before Kerner’s second term as governor was over, Johnson nominated him to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Kerner’s undoing was not long in coming: He was indicted in 1972 for conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud and perjury. The indictment said that early in his first term, he had agreed to set favorable racing dates for a Chicago-area horse track in exchange for stock in the track, which he later sold at a significant profit. Kerner was convicted on 17 counts. On appeal, all but four of the counts, all for mail fraud, were thrown out. But he was sentenced to three years in prison — a sentence that was cut short by the discovery he was suffering from lung cancer. He died in May 1976.
Kerner’s New York Times obit mentions that some supporters never believed he was guilty, and many others remained sympathetic to him after his fall. A few months before Kerner died, the Times reported, “Chicago journalists organized a ‘newsmen’s testimonial dinner to Otto Kerner.'”
“‘We like the guy personally, no matter what he’s done, and we thought it would be a shame if someone didn’t do something for him,’ said Steve Schickel, a television reporter for station WLS-TV. “
From a short visit to Virginia City, Nevada, in The Last Summer Before the Pandemic. (Caution: the following contains explicit details of gruesome Gold Rush-era saloon violence. )
We spent a couple minutes on the main street, but when I spotted the cemeteries on the north end of town, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. The carving on this monument drew my eye — it’s exquisite but restrained. I was slow to appreciate the inverted torches at the four corners. The inverted torch, a common motif on cemetery monuments, is said to symbolize death; the flame, eternal life.
As to Major George E. Ferrend: Who was he?
Below is an account of his passing, drawn from a January 1875 number of the London Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. The LIS&DN, which neglects to mention that Ferrend died in Virginia City, was republishing an account carried in a newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette, in turn, appears to have borrowed its story from a somewhat more detailed account published Dec. 9, 1874, the day after Ferrend’s death, in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. None of the stories I’ve found mention his wife, who according to the monument died two months after her husband.
Among incidents not recounted here is Ferrend’s role as a second in an 1863 duel between the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and the editor of a rival publication. The Enterprise employed Mark Twain at the time.
Here’s the story recounting Major Ferrend’s life and demise:
DESPERATE END OF A DESPERATE LIFE
The death of an Englishman in California is reported by the San Francisco Call. On the morning of the 26th ult., Major George E. Ferrend, a well-known citizen of San Francisco and famous everywhere or the Pacific coast, shot himself in the head, and thus put an end to an eventful career.
Major Ferrend was born in Lancashire and was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He entered the Army, but owing to trouble of some kind sold out. He then went to Buenos Ayres, where he was the leading spirit in a revolution which was successful, but was subsequently driven out of the country, and came to California.
In June 1853, he left Sacramento with a company he had raised and joined General Walker in his Nicaragua expedition. With Walker, whose chief of artillery he was, he performed prodigies of valour, particularly distinguishing himself at the battle of Rivas, where at times he was a host in himself, loading and firing a gun which sent scores of the enemy to the ground at each discharge. During the Nicaragua campaign he was wounded 13 times, but these wounds were but a few of many others, for on his body there were 48 scars of wounds received in battles and personal conflicts at various times.
He had especially one terrible personal encounter in Camptonville, California, about the year 1858 with a man of desperate character, during which he received a most serious wound with an axe. He had previously had some trouble with this man, and it was understood that when they again met, they should “meet fighting.”
The desperado shortly after came into a saloon, armed with an axe, where he saw the major pleasantly sitting in his shirt sleeves with a large knife in his hand. As the desperado advanced, the major rose and stood warily watching his foe and perfectly motionless, save that he constantly turned the wrist of the hand that held the knife, so that the weapon disagreeably flashed in the eyes of his opponent.
All of a sudden, as the desperado’s eye was fixed on the knife, the major sprang forward with the leap of a tiger and drove the knife not through the heart but through the whole body of his foe, the point projecting at his back. At the same moment, the blade point projecting the axe was buried in the small of the major’s back. Both fell on the floor together.
The desperado was dead, but the major, contrary to expectation, recovered, and was as ready as ever for fresh exploits and adventures. His numerous deeds of daring would fill a volume. He ultimately settled in San Francisco, where he accumulated a considerable amount of property.
After shooting himself in the head, he lingered for a few hours and assigned as a reason for the act he had committed that he feared he would ultimately become insane owing to one of the wounds he had received which affected his head.
The major was proprietor of a well-known saloon bearing his name, he was much esteemed by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance, and his death has greatly shocked the whole community of San Francisco. The only wish he expressed in his last moments was that “he might die a man.” He need hardly have troubled himself on this score, for whatever may have been his errors there was certainly nothing feminine in his nature. — Pall Mall Gazette
You never know where you’ll be when the next mass shooting or schoolhouse slaughter takes place.
We’re out of town on a family visit. Around noon, I went out for a walk. I got an alert on my phone about some breaking news: a school shooting a few hundred miles away. The only question I have after seeing something like that is not, “How could it happen?” It’s, “How bad will it be?”
About the same time I was taking in that news, I started to hear sirens. I happened to be walking up the street toward a high school. A fire truck passed, then an ambulance. I wondered with a certain dread whether they might be responding to something at the school, and if so, whether the “something” involved firearms.
But there were no more emergency vehicles rushing toward the school, and I encountered a bunch of kids going about their day in what I took to be a happy, unconcerned way — just enjoying their friends and their day.
So at this hour, at any rate, tragedy is far away, out of earshot. But never out of mind.
Part 1 covered the San Francisco Zephyr trip from Chicago to Denver. Part 2 took me from Denver to around Evanston, Wyoming — the southwestern corner of the state. This part —the last! — picks up with me in the dome car — a car with expansive windows and skylights to accommodate meditative scenery gawking — sitting in what I describe here as a “lounge” — part of the car that was arranged in side-facing sofas.
I had been watching a couple in the dining car. The woman, a sort of plain-faced New Englander in her late twenties, now sat across the aisle from me in the dome car. The guy with her, probably in his mid-thirties, was suave Tom Wolfe radical chic: uninflated.1 He was leading her along, she was laughing and having a good time, and I thought, “How nice.” He was making excellent progress when a third party arrived on the scene.
The new arrival was a writer for a New Jersey paper, and had dropped in a brief conversation with Rodeo and me that he’d been to the North Pole. He was carrying a copy of “Luce and His Empire” with him, which he would momentarily open when he closed his mouth.
Well, he arrived, and I thought with interest that Tom Wolfe could be counted out of this business. The writer (Newark, I’ll call him) was successfully putting his foot in the door, and Tom couldn’t stop him.
They talked about some trivial things, and came to the Donner Pass, recalling there had been a train marooned there in the 1950s (1956, I think2). Tom went off to fetch a bottle of port he had acquired along the way, and on his return joined a discussion between the girl (Boston), Newark, and a guy on my side of the aisle on the expansion and contraction of freezing liquids. My friend was really mixed up about what he was saying, and Tom, Newark and Boston were finding him amusing.
Then they got back to Donner Pass.
“When was that? 1952?”
“1956, I think.”
“Yeah, that’s where the digger Indians sat watched the Donner Party go through their thing, isn’t it?” the guy next to me said.
“The digger Indians just hung out up there and watched the people eat each other, man.”
“But Indians don’t ‘hang out.'”
And that comment by Tom evidently offended my neighbor, because he didn’t participate in the conversation of the wine drinkers (Newark had graciously accepted his own invitation to share the wine with the romantic couple) except to add a comment about “Governor Ronald Raygun.”
I had been watching the land move by outside while picking up snatches of this repartee, and now we were in Utah. The hills were now mountains of rock, there were canyons, and snow-covered streambeds below. We were in the Rocky Mountains.
The guy next to me asked if I wanted a beer, and I said, “OK.” He was a tall guy who was also riding in my car; with glasses, red hair, and a red beard. He came back, and we drank our beer, and told each other where we were going, where we were from, etc. He had come from Chicago and was bound for Frisco.3
We talked about the deepness of the moonlight on the mountain, and “hanging out” there, and a lot of good things. His name was John Sweeney, and his father was a Chicago cop, Tom Sweeney, and had been in Studs Terkel’s book “Division Street.”4
I went for a second round because John was, as it developed, tripping. Amazing! No wonder he had been having a struggle with freezing liquids. We continued to watch and talk and everything, and I was getting a little drunk and liking it.
We talked about a lot of things you talk about in Chicago: WFMT, what a great and valuable thing it is; the police, whom John didn’t like at all; the crooked government and the beauty of the lakefront. And hanging out.
Some observations he made:
“Hamm’s is a lousy scab beer.”
“During the King riots, I was driving a junky old Buick, and it broke down on the Kennedy expressway and I had to get off at Cabrini-Green. There were squads rolling down the street, and dudes poking shotguns out of windows. I figured I had more to fear from the pigs than from the dudes around there. I’d be driving down the street in this old beat-up machine, and they were running alongside the car telling me ‘right on!’ There was one place they were looting a liquor store, they ran up and were pushing beers through the window at me. It was all right, you know.”
Looking then at the rocks we passed, he’d say, “It’d be all right to hang out up there.”
The black and white bleakness of the Wasatch Range rose up in the moonlight. It was all rock, and black where there was no snow. The train rolled past the lonely towns on I-80, all under the moon — it was the moon, the country of Frederic Remington.
And every once in a while, the voices of Newark and Boston, minus Tom (who had taken a powder at the strong advances of Newark) drifted our way.
We found out that Boston was a scientist (macro-biologist, I think (?)) and was going to some sort of conference in San Francisco. Newark stuck to his journalist story (the Star-Ledger5), but was just taking a week off from his daily column to skirt around the country by train. How nice!
Then John told me that “the god-damn idiot who tried to tell me that Indians don’t hang out” had made advances toward him during the evening. So I related my experience [with the amputee], and we were both relieved to find out it had happened to someone else.
Newark was continuing his campaign, asking Boston (quite phallically) where the dagger on Orion was. “Where’s the dagger?”
The mountains rose higher, and as we made the approach to Ogden, two peaks jutted high above the plain we rode on. Black and white, you could see the deep snow in relief on their summits. They must have been 6,000 feet high, seemingly right behind the town of Ogden.
Street lights strung right to the base of the mountains; there was nothing but darkness above. Where there was snow on the ledges, you could see the mountains, but otherwise they hid themselves under the full moon and the stars.
We started out of Ogden on the Southern Pacific the third and last leg of the trip. Within half an hour of leaving Ogden and the Wasatch Towers behind us, we were starting over the causeway across Great Salt Lake. The water sparkled darkly, was uninviting; there were only snow- and brush-covered hills in the distance now, and despite the noise in the car, everything had an air of dead silence.
John had gone back to the coach, and I lay on the seat and looked through the panels of the dome at the stars, watched them wheel as the train rounded bends in the track. Pretty soon, having lost interest in the Boston-Newark affair, and being tired (and a little drunk), I went back to my coach to sleep. I saw no more of Utah, and slept until we were about 25 miles east of Reno, thereby missing almost the whole state of Nevada.
And waking up (it was Sunday) we were still beside Interstate 80 (now heavily laden with signs for casinos).
We stopped first in Sparks, Nevada (six miles outside of Reno) and I have no idea why. It was a dirty little town with little or nothing that made an impression (except the men, who all looked desert-tough Nevada types; were wiry thin and sunburned, wearing faded denim and cowboy hats).
Reno was a dump. I thought there was supposed to be something big and special about it, but I couldn’t see anything to justify its reputation. But there must be something there, because two hundred people boarded the train; these were all California week-enders I guess, most of them just couples, and a few who had come with their kids.
There was one guy I remember in particular, whom I saw as he was getting on. He was wearing a cream-colored western suit with string tie, white shirt, and matching hat. The shape of his head was what really made me notice him: it was as close to cubic as it could come, like a block of granite, and sat on an almost non-existent neck hidden somewhere in his shirt collar. Everything about this man suggested the image of stone: his heavy, squared jaw, his nose, his forehead, even his obsidian black eyes. He had his wife with him, but somehow I didn’t note any of her physical details. She could have had a face right off of Mount Fillmore6 and remained unimpressive beside her husband.
I ate a heavy breakfast amid all the weekend gamblers, and then went to the dome car, and sat with a couple from Laramie. The guy was a trainman, and was just on a little vacation with his wife, I guess. They didn’t talk to me much (or at all) and I really didn’t say much to them, either.
But the train was rising now, up the abrupt eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Creeks foamed down the hillside beside us, there began to be thicker stands of pine on the slopes, and there was a lot of snow as we climbed higher under still cloudy skies.
Up and up we went, through a tunnel and a switchback, and to the west blue sky could be seen. As we cleared four thousand feet the sun came out, the clouds were just a grey band below us.
The trees seemed to get bigger, the snow much deeper as we progressed toward the Donner Pass. I’d know what kind of trees they were, but they stood like spikes 180 feet high, with their branches laden with snow. There was snow standing two feet deep on the crossarms of the telegraph poles, making the oldtimer who’d gotten on way back in Cheyenne say, “The snow doesn’t stay like that in Wyoming, does it? We have that little breeze up there,” with his grin, and eyes watery from the brightness of the snow in the sun.
There was a man reading a book behind me, a book about this rail route, and he kept telling us what lay ahead — the snow sheds, tunnels, view of Donner Lake — and I sort of wondered what kind of enjoyment he was getting from it (perhaps an immense amount).
Soon after he announced we would be skirting Donner Lake, we were, two thousand feet above it. It lay frozen and cold, the only sign of life (and it was an outstanding one) was a string of cottages and summer homes along its shores.
My mother gave me a book entitled “The Donner Party” for my last birthday; it begins with the lines, “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer…” and I thought of the dirt farmers from central Illinois who struggled here so long ago beneath the weight of an October storm.
The trees seemed there highest here, the snow the deepest. I said to the woman from Laramie, ” My God, those trees are hearty,” and she nodded. I felt tears welling in my eyes for a minute or two, but they didn’t roll down my cheeks, as I wanted them to. For a moment I saw or felt something there. I don’t know what: “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer….”
The Southern Pacific wound through the mountains, now slowly down, and past a wreck. which re-inflated the Cheyenne old-timer with more story-telling energy. (Most of the stories I heard were about a train coming around the bend in a blinding snowstorm to find a wreck place inconveniently in its path).
We went through the clouds again, passed through Truckee8, and were headed for the Valley and Sacramento. I went to my coach and slept, waking up in Sacramento.
The sun broke out again as we went southwest toward Oakland, and it looked beautiful: many of the fields were under water; there were a few ducks in the flood (and thousands of decoys), and red-tail hawks glided in the sky between the soft green hills of the coast ranges.
The whole country, palm trees, bright blue sky with the purest white clouds sailing above, looked like a sort of paradise. (I’m not sure exactly what kind — advertisers’?). It reminded me of the part in “The Grapes of Wrath” where the Joads come to a ridge-top on Route 66 and see a Canaan-like scene before them. But it’s not clean; there is always something to remind you you’re in the middle of civilization: earth movers levelling a far off hill for a highway, or a junkyard overflowing with wrecked cars.
And we hit the bay and the tracks moved down alongside it. We passed lots of fishermen on the rocks (and the rocks were in the sun) who smiled and waved as we passed. We continued, farther and farther along the shore, and I thought, “Damn, this thing is big.”
On the highway next to the tracks we saw ads for all the motels in Oakland and San Francisco. We passed through refineries, and the Sherwin-Williams factory, through water-front communities and too-neat tract developments. “When do we get there?”
The train slowed, and finally stopped. Everyone anxiously asking, “Is this it?”
Then the announcement: “Oakland 16th Street Station.”
“This is it!”
Another announcement: “A bus will take you from here to San Francisco.”
I was very nervous all this time about my luggage [which consisted of a frame backpack and accouterments] — whether it would be destroyed or simply lost. But I saw it safe and secure on the luggage wagon outside.
I boarded the designated bus, and just as I saw them stow my pack, I was Rol9 outside. I climbed out, retrieved my luggage, and … California.
The meaning of “uninflated” here is lost to time. Maybe I meant he was an “uninflated” — less than impressive? — version of Tom Wolfe? Your thoughts welcome.
1952, actually, which someone in the trio’s conversation says.
“Frisco.” There — I said it. Possible explanatory circumstance: Maybe I was quoting my companion.
After coming across this a week or so ago (January 2023), I went and found an online copy of “Division Street: America” and tried to look up Tom Sweeney. There’s no one in the book by that name. But there is an interview with a Chicago cop named “Tom Kearney.” Terkel says in his introduction that he had used pseudonyms for most of his interviewees, so my guess is that “Kearney” was actually Sweeney. Further evidence: In the interview, conducted in 1966 or so, Kearney mentions having a 22-year-old son. That would square with the age of John Sweeney, who I would guess was in his late 20s when we met in 1973.
An actual paper in Newark, New Jersey. In 2023, I might have asked this person’s name and then looked up what he’d been writing.
Fillmore? I think I meant Rushmore.
The work (mis)quoted is indeed called “The Donner Party,” by George Keithley, who taught for decades at Chico State. It’s a book length poem about the epic of suffering endured by said group of emigrants from the Midwest to California in 1846-47. The actual first lines are: “I am George Donner, a dirt farmer/who left the snowy fields/around Springfield, Illinois/in the fullness of my life/and abandoned the land/where we had been successful/and prosperous people.” I note that the way I quote the line matches precisely the meter of “my name is Jan Jansen/I live in Wisconsin….”
I’ve placed Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Pass. Maybe I was referring to Colfax here
Rol Healey, a childhood friend of my mom’s from the 8300 block of South May Street in Chicago, met me in Oakland. Rol was a high school English teacher in San Jose who put me up during my Bay Area stay. He was a fantastic host — that first night in the Bay Area, he and a fellow teacher took me over to North Beach and City Lights Books. We also visiting Monterey (pre-aquarium), San Juan Bautista, and Yosemite. Rol was one of the reasons I came away with the idea that the Bay Area was an amazing place.
Part 2 of my 1973 train travelogue ended with an uncomfortable episode, and relating it made me uncomfortable all over again, even 50 years later.
Here was the scene: A man in his 40s or 50s, distinguished by his harassed demeanor, single leg and crutches, stops and asks a teenager, a total stranger, to join him in the men’s room “for a smoke.” Why was it uncomfortable? Well, I didn’t smoke, for one thing. For another: Is there any other way to interpret that as something other than a proposition? I thought after I transcribed that passage the other day, “Maybe he just needed some help with his prosthesis or something” or, “Maybe that was just his way of being friendly.” But he didn’t have a prosthesis. And it seemed from his behavior with other passengers as though he were capable of just sitting in the lounge car and striking up a conversation without being creepy about it. I have no idea, though, how many other passengers he might have invited to join him in the men’s room.
Later in that 1973 trip and for much of the rest of the decade, I hitch-hiked a good deal. Maybe it goes without saying, but I experienced this kind of proposition often enough to make me wary. From talking to other hitch-hikers, men and women, I assume that was true for most of us. Getting hit on almost seemed like a feature of that kind of travel, something you almost had to expect and know how to respond to. Still, it could be unsettling, just like the episode with the guy on the train.
Usually the advance was pretty low key — someone picking you up, maybe shaking your hand, and saying something like, “You have a nice firm handshake. Would you like to stop by my trailer for a massage?” Usually the men making the suggestions, and they were always men, were not insistent. “Would you like to party? No — well, OK.” Occasionally, though, they’d be insistent and then some.
Hitch-hiking through Reno late one night — yes, I often hitch-hiked all night, which I don’t hold up as an example of my faultless good sense — a guy picked me up and said he was headed a good distance east. I’d been in the car for only a few minutes, though, when he started to ask me some questions: “Do you like T-shirts?” “Uh … yeah, I like T-shirts OK.” “How about … white T-shirts?” “Um … well, I guess I like colored T-shirts. … ” “You do?”
I’ve always wondered whether “T-shirts” was some sort of code I wasn’t in on. I guess it was, because he told me he’d be getting off the freeway to go to his place and he wanted me to come with him. We were now in the desert and well outside the city limits. Being out in the middle of nowhere with this T-shirt guy and whatever he had in mind? No thanks. I insisted on getting out of the car immediately. He dropped me some distance before the next exit, and drove off. A few minutes later, he pulled up on the other side of the freeway, headed back toward town. He shouted that he had a gun and was going to shoot me.
If the idea was to put a scare into me, it worked. I ran down into the ditch alongside the road and stayed there until I looked over the edge and saw his car was gone — I’m not sure if it was two minutes or five minutes later. I didn’t know what to do after I see he’d left, so I started walking back toward town myself. I figured if I had to walk all the way back to town in the middle of the night — it was a good 10 miles at least — there might be a bus or train or something I could catch. But walking back was scary, too: As every car approached, and there were only a few at this hour, I wondered if it was the T-shirt guy with his gun.
After half an hour, someone did stop. I don’t remember anything about that ride except the driver took me to Lovelock, about 80 miles east, and I was very relieved to be off that stretch of freeway.
Continuing the mini-saga of my first trip west in January 1973. Part 1 ended with the Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr just rolling out of Denver in the snow. As I transcribe this, I’m successfully suppressing every editorial impulse to jump in and correct the worst of the punctuation and other errors I see. But I am including a couple of bracketed inserts where I think my generic references to some of the people I mention are confusing.
Crossing into Wyoming, there was little change from the Colorado ranch-land. We started to go through low scrub hills just before Cheyenne, and the tracks on both sides were flanked by rows of snow fences.
Cheyenne: It was snowing there, too. It looked like a small town (I guess it has about 50,000 people), but all I could see was down streets ending at the tracks. A few people got on there: a young guy, a picture (to me) of the rodeo cowboy. He was thin built and small-boned, his face was freckled, and he had a redness in his cheeks. His hair was short cut and wavy light-brown above a pair of clear grey eyes.
The other (that caught my attention), was an old Wyoming railroad man1. He was about seventy-five, I’d say: he climbed on, taking off his cream-colored Stetson. I saw his face, I still see it: a red bulb for a nose, a watery glitter behind his spectacles, seemingly coming from behind his eyes. And a grin that seemed never to leave his face. His eyes were the indicator of the grin: they told me if it was mirthful, bored, or derisive, and I saw all three.
And the train moved off westward, again. I went to lunch with my friend from Green River, and the young rodeo star, and another kid (going from Denver to Ogden, I think) sat at the same table.
We talked: The rodeo man was going to Rock Springs where a friend was going to meet him and drive him to his hometown (Cokeville2) where he was picking his car up en route to Jackson. He wasn’t a rodeo star at all.
The other kid (Denver-Ogden) was out of school and was travelling around. Mostly, the four of us talked about Wyoming. It’s vastness, and loneliness. The incredible wilderness to the north,, the Tetons.
At one point: (Denver-Ogden) [said,]”I didn’t think Wyoming had any mountains,” in a puzzled sort of way.
Rodeo replied, “Heck, the whole state is a mountain.” It turned out he was out of school, too, and was just kicking around on the money he had earned on a construction job. He had a lot to say; I listened to him and was pretty fascinated.
“Well, a couple of weeks ago I saw a guy drawing down on an eagle with a .22. I had a 30-ought-six with me, so I just dropped a couple of shots next to him, and he took off.
“I’ve only shot towards a man twice in my life. The other time was, well, we have a lot of trouble with Utah fishermen. We had a lake and stream on the ranch I was working, and these guys come and fish them. It’s OK except when we have feed growing, because these guys drive their four-wheeled trucks and jeeps down there and rip everything up.
“So one time this guy came down, and I politely told him to get off, and not to fish there. Well, he left, and parked his car outside our fence, and walked back in. I came back to make sure he was gone, and he was there. So I politely told him to get off again. And he started to walk off, but as soon as I was out of sight, he walked back down.
“I came back a third time and found him. I was carrying a .22 hand-gun, so I took it out and layed about five shots into the water right front of him. He ran all the way out, saying, ‘I’ll get the sheriff on you, you god-damned fool!’
“He went into town and got the town constable and told him ‘Some crazy, god-damned idiot was shooting at me on the range.’ So the constable asked him to describe the guy. When he heard the description, he laughed and said, ‘Get out of here. That crazy fool was my son!'” And so on.
And crossing southern Wyoming, I got my first taste of the west. Crossing the country of Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, and the riders of the Pony Express. The day was cloudy, the snow had stopped, and the Union Pacific moved slowly upward; through high and dry range hills covered with four feet of snow.
In the dome car,I heard the old railroad man talking about wrecks (we were stopped for one just out of Medicine Bow, right off of Route 30). The sky was clearing, the sun shining bright off the hills and meeting the sky on a ridge top. Antelope ran from the right of way as the train moved through: tiny, springing creatures darting on the white fields. Deer, bounding over fences, grey in their winter hide, and looking for food under the deep snow cover. Everybody pointed to an animal running the brow of a ridge a hundred yards from the train. Bobcat, fox, coyote?
The trainman said it was a fox, and smiled when anybody suggested anything else. I thought it was a coyote, and my rodeo friend agreed. “I never saw a fox run like that before.”
Towards dark we pulled through Rollins3, passing and running alongside Interstate 80. I could tell it was going to be a clear night, and it made me feel good. And we went over the Continental Divide, and started heading for the Pacific.
At dark I went to dinner; I shook hands with my friends from Rock Springs and Green River, and headed through the cars to the diner. This was my celebration dinner, and I ordered a steak, and it was pretty good.
At Denver, a one-legged guy got on who was going to Oakland. He had a tired, harassed-looking face, and was having a pretty tough time hobbling down the aisles of the train on his crutches.
I saw him in the dining car talking to a long-haired guy in his mid-twenties who was headed for San Francisco. I was finishing my dinner when he [the one-legged man] walked past me and stopped, saying, “Young man, come back to the men’s room and have a smoke,” and I nodded, feeling very confused. At the same time I nodded, I thought, “Here’s a come-on” and simultaneously, “Forget this shit.”
I paid my check and walked back, and he was sitting with the same [long-haired] guy in the dome car, and as soon as he saw me, said, “Come on.” He started off down the aisle, but I sat down where he had been and tried to talk to the other guy. “Where you going,” I asked. “San Francisco.” I told him, “Yeah, that’s where I’m going, too,” which didn’t seem to thrill him. Meanwhile, the one-legged man walked all the way to the end of the car before realizing I was not behind him, and returned.
“My name is Jack,” he said as he sat down opposite me. “How’re ya doing,” I replied. And after about two minutes, after Jack had engaged himself in conversation, I took off back to my car. He didn’t follow, but I was afraid he would, and afraid to go back to the dome car because he was there.
End of Part 2.
I’m a little hazy on how I decided this gentleman was a railroad man. I’m sure he must have said something I overheard to that effect. Later, I describe him talking about train wrecks along this part of the route.
Look up “Cokeville elementary school hostage crisis.”
I arrived in the Bay Area for the first time 50 years ago this month. I was 18 and had never been more than a few miles west of the Mississippi River. On summer evenings sometimes I’d see clouds building in the west and thought maybe that’s what the Rockies might look like on the horizon. After working for eight months at my first job — as a copyboy at Chicago Today — and saving most of what I earned, I bought a ticket from Chicago to Oakland on Amtrak.
I was moderately serious about keeping a journal, and I wrote a long entry about the train ride west. From the dates in my notebook, I can see I didn’t write the narrative until about three weeks after the fact. So while I think I believed everything happened just the way I related it, and I feel that I must have worked from notes of some kind — my notebook is remarkably free of scratch-outs and rewriting — some of the details about people and places may have become lost by the time I wrote it all down. Reading the account now, I can see a few mistakes. For instance, I put the town of Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Summit, and I seem to have been confused about Bay Area geography. What follows is the first partof the entry, complete with botched spelling and punctuation, embarrassing asides, vague semi-true historical details, and with notes where I feel the need to explain or correct something.
The date on the journal entry in my notebook is February 9, 1973, when I was visiting with a family friend up in Twain Harte, Tuolumne County. I believe the train I was taking, the California Zephyr, pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, January 19 and arrived in Oakland almost exactly 48 hours later.
West on the Train
The train rolls out slow from Chicago’s center, and gathers its speed through the West Side. The afternoon is cloudy and is turning dark as you enter the Prairie, past the grey, dirty town of Aurora.
Familiar Illinois country: neon lamps scattered across the rich farmlands. Farms and their houses stand close by the lights, in the deep dusk you can see a few as the Burlington opens up. The farmers sit inside the houses and wait for the warmness of March and April to break the dormancy of the winter earth; or, impatient, they wait for the furrows to dry so their combines can take out last year’s corn and soybeans without sinking.
They might see the train running west beneath their big sky; red lights flash at rural crossings, cars wait for your thirty-second passing, and go on. The land is unchanged as you head west, pulling into Galesburg at 7 o’clock. The station is small and dimly lit, the town looks quiet, a few neon signs flashing down quiet main streets.
And you continue,. You’re coming to Iowa. The train stops at Knoxville; “I didn’t know we stopped here;” ah, well, Burlington next.1 Eating a turkey sandwich with a middle-aged couple from the Quad Cities, talking on the expense and extent of the Midwest night life. Out the window, the reflection of the broad Mississippi River. The “Father of Waters,” flowing to New Orleans, by Memphis, St. Louis, New Madrid, Vicksburg, river towns along the way. Picking up the Missouri and Ohio and smaller streams along the way. I’ve never been more than 30 miles past this in my life; it’s a real border.
I stop in the dome car after dinner, and sit. The sky is clearing now, there’s a full moon riding in the clear Iowa sky. I’m going. I really am. And the excitement is there, a good feeling from talking to the people in the diner. What a feeling. Iowa’s farmlands slide by under the moon. We stop in a town (Ottumwa? Osceola?) and people at a crossing wave. I wave back but they can’t see me.
Into Creston, Iowa, back in my coach. The Strand theater stands a block from the tracks, its marquee dark. Even this excites me: I remember Phillips and Robinson2 going to the Strand, maybe this is the same one? They saw “Change of Habit,” with Elvis Presley. What excitement.
The land along the tracks alternates between dry, rolling hills and long, flat stretches. The moon lights all: the water standing in the turned up fields, the tall hillside grasses; small creeks all through Iowa shine with the fullness of the moon.
It was late, and I was getting tired, so before we got to Omaha I tried to sleep. It was sort of uncomfortable, but I didn’t mind much. I tried sleeping “stretched” across two seats, but that didn’t make it, so I sat up and watched as we crossed another dark river, the Missouri, and moved towards Omaha. i think it was around one in the morning by this time, and about nine hours out of Chicago; I kept thinking we weren’t going too fast.
An old lady got on in Aurora, who looked like she was about eighty, and whose eyesight was failing her. Everytime she left the car, she’d come back and have a lot of trouble finding her seat. It seemed incredible that she was finding her car everytime (because by the way most people looked when they walked through, it was obvious that they were sort of confused).
Her troubles were compounded after they turned off the lights for the night. There was a kid who was going to Omaha who helped her out a couple of times. She left her seat for a while after he got off though, and a middle-aged serviceman took it (someone had taken his old seat). She returned in the dark, and found him sitting in her seat. So she went to sit in another place, only to remember she left her shoes in her original seat.
Being awake, I saw she was having some kind of trouble, and got up and said to her, “Yes, that’s where you were sitting.” She replied that she knew, “but he’s sleeping over my shoes. I guess I’ll get them tomorrow.” All she said was in a hoarse, almost child-like whisper. That’s what she reminded me of in a way, a small child on a long trip without his parents. She walked away then, down the aisle, and went to sleep.
And I tried. I dozed off, and woke up in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska. A woman was changing seats on the downtown side of the train, trying to see something. It was the same woman I had asked the time of in Omaha.
“Is this Lincoln?” I asked, knowing already that it was. “Yes, I lived here, that’s why I’m trying to see out. I wonder if it’s changed any.” She was middle-aged; her hair was a greying shade; in the dim light I really wasn’t sure what color it was. She wore glasses, and her face had a set expression on it, I don’t know, a neutral half-smile. She was the kind of person you think looks older than they really are.
I didn’t think Lincoln looked very interesting, so I went to sleep again, and woke up several times during the night. I was able to tell it had turned cloudy; I woke up around dawn, in time to see the cloudy, blue light of Saturday morning covering the range country of the Nebraska Sand Hills. This is the country where half of the fleeing Cheyenne tribe got lost and surrendered in November, 1876. This is the country where they died two months later in the sub-zero January plains.3
I went up to the dome car again, and saw us pass the “Welcome to Colorado” sign on the highway parallel to us. Colorado! The snow started just as we crossed the state line (or so it seemed) and got worse all the way into Denver, where they had about five inches down, and the heavy snow still coming down.
I went to breakfast at the first call, right after we entered Colorado, and met a kid from Green River, Wyoming (he’d gotten on in Galesburg). He was letting me in on all the facts of life in a small Wyoming town (there isn’t any other kind).
Yes, there are only about two people per square mile in Wyoming. “There used to be three trains a day coming through town, now there’s only this one three times a week.”
“We had a motorcycle group once; we just rode around. One time we went to Salt Lake. The cops there don’t like you; they didn’t like us. We rode in, and just went around the city. After dark a cop came up to us and said, ‘If you’re looking for a place to sleep, you can go over to the park and I won’t arrest you. You may have your head smashed in with a rock after you’re asleep, or get stabbed or killed or something, but I won’t bother you.'”
He had been visiting with his sister , who lives in Rock Island [Illinois]. He was there for a couple of days, killing time, and hitting all the bars on the Iowa side of the river. Now he was going back to Wyoming, and he was pretty glad.
“It’s great up there. My brother had a party once, with drugs and everything. When the police tried to come and get them, they just took some dynamite and blew up the road in front of them. “
The Burlington Northern stretches across the almost endless American plains, along the North Platte River in Nebraska, sometimes crossing the route of the Pony Express. In the days of the railroad, when steam was king and unquestioned, there was the Burlington and the Great Northern. The former ran its crack passenger carriers down this line; the famous “Zephyr.”
But after World War II, and before I was born, the railroads started on a long down grade, losing their battle against air travel, resigning themselves to the category of anachronisms.
The steam days ended in the middle fifties, and new diesel powerhouses wound the trains down the steel rails. There was the Illinois Central: “City of New Orleans,” “Panama Limited,” and “Floridian”4; the Louisiana and Nashville5: the “Humming Bird”; the Burlington Northern: the “Zephyr.” And they ran on their rails to the line of the horizon and were gone, and the big skies in the middle of the continent were cut at sunset by long, silver vapor trails high above the rich farmlands; and in the red dusty summer dusks, the last shrill whistle echoed, before I was born.
Now there is Amtrak, and passenger service barely survives. But the lore at the railroad crossings, bright red lights flashing in the prairie darkness at midnight, made me take the train, and we were pulling into Denver now in the snow.
I got off for about five minutes there, and got a copy of the last issue of Life, and a Sports Illustrated. Pretty soon we were backing out of Denver and transferring to the Union Pacific line, which would carry us through northern Colorado to Cheyenne and across the southern range of Wyoming. Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River, and Evanston.
End of Part 1.
1. This is confused. We would have passed through Knoxville, Illinois, before Galesburg, not after. Did the train make an unscheduled stop at Knoxville? I don’t recall, but probably not. The next stop after Galesburg, for the record, was Monmouth, Illinois, not Burlington (Iowa).
2. High school friends and neighbors.
3. In fact: We were well south of the Sand Hills. We were even farther away from the area where half of the Northern Cheyenne band of Indians were captured during their flight from Oklahoma. And that event — the surrender I mention — happened in late October 1878, not November 1876. The “the sub-zero January plains” refers to the Cheyennes’ desperate attempt to escape from Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska, in January 1879, and the massacre that followed. At the time, I think my reading on the topic consisted of the historical novel “The Last Frontier,” by Howard Fast.
4. “The Floridian” was not an Illinois Central train; it appears to have been a train invented by Amtrak to continue service between Chicago and Miami.
5. The L&N was actually the Louisville and Nashville.
“Forum,” KQED’s daily discussion show, is doing reruns this holiday week. And today one of the topics covered was titled “Would You Consider Becoming Compost?” The subject was a new California law that allows people to choose to compost their remains instead of embalming and burying or cremating them. One of the guests was from Recompose, a Seattle company that does “ecological death care,” aka human composting. One of the facts she shared is that the company’s process renders a body into about one cubic yard of soil — enough to comfortably fit in the bed of a pickup truck. That sounds like a lot of “material”; she explained that the volume is due to soil used in the composting process.
Composting sounds all right to me. And the show topic reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of poetry, a section from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It comes from the famous “I sound my barbaric yawp” passage:
I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Ah — what an optimistic vision of how we might persist on this Earth we love and link ourselves to the future and future-kind. I am not looking for an epitaph just yet, but those last three lines certainly ring in my mind.
Whitman touched more than once on the process that would allow him to “bequeath myself to the dirt.” In “This Compost,” he mused on how the earth disposes of “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations? Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” He marvels at the “chemistry” that purifies these leavings and turns them into new growth and life so that “when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.”
Given his declared enthusiasm for the soil and leaving himself to future generations, it’s kind of ironic that Whitman wound up building a tomb in a Camden, New Jersey, cemetery for his final resting place (his brother George, a Union officer in the Civil War, and other family members are also interred there).
If you want to visit, the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden is pretty easy to find. Failing to fetch him at first, check your map apps. He’s stopped right there, waiting for you.