I went to a small New England college, Williams, only a few miles from North Adams, Massachusetts. But, you see, mister, there was a girl going to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence who I was head over heels for. I had met her at a concert in Central Park in New York the previous July and was hell-bent on seeing her as much as possible.
My Guinevere was was about 140 miles away, but for me, like many college kids at the time, neither in nor out of the privileged class, travel was expensive and difficult. Without a car, getting to Providence was something like Admiral Byrd’s expedition without all the ice. The direct route took forever and was cheap. The faster route, through Boston, was more expensive but took only 3 hours to complete.
Coincidentally, “Remy” (short for Remington, tangential heir to the arms manufacturing fortune), a prep school friend of mine from Connecticut days was also at Williams. He was adventuresome and romantically inclined just as I was. Together we hatched a plot to hop a freight train to Providence.
We set out on a warm September Friday around 5 AM. The first obstacle was getting to North Adams and the Hoosac Tunnel, which we figured would take us through to Springfield, Mass. The obstacle proved daunting. We walked the 5 plus miles to the mouth of the tunnel, panting under the weight of our rucksacks. But we were Cassady and Kerouac, on the road, on the rails, on the march like strapping young men of any time. We were both dressed in the youth uniform of faded blue jeans and denim work shirts. Our hair was long enough to make a quiet statement about the crazy Vietnam War though not enough to make us look like real freaks.
The Hoosac is one of the 7 man-made wonders of the Northeastern United States, still the longest continuous travel tunnel this side of the Rockies. As “Providence” would have it, a 4-car train, faded old red caboose tagging along behind it, crept slowly into view. Remy and I hopped on an open flat car. Not 30 seconds later, the train screeched to a halt at the mouth of the tunnel. We waited and waited – 45 minutes so we estimated. When at last the donkey engine revved up, the little train-that-possibly-could lurched and clanked; off we went, the diesel exhaust filling our lungs.
The Berkshires were huge rolling quilts of autumn colors. We chain-smoked Vantage cigarettes. We didn’t know better. We drank from our canteens in those days before store-bought bottled water. The train was clipping along at 30, 35 miles per hour. It was sunny but the chill of the rushing wind made us glad we had brought bulky, high-necked Irish sweaters.
Around what we judged to be Chicopee, the engineer slammed the brakes on and we tumbled face down onto our bellies. Some sort of signal changed and we slowly worked our way into the Springfield yards. End of the line for this leg, we decided. After some dithering about how to get on to Worcester, we finally decided to act like nice suburban boys instead of hobos. I hailed a workman and gave him a line of bullshit about doing a college paper on traveling by freight.
At first you could see he was leery of getting in trouble. But after a severe rubbing of his chin, he pointed us to a string of boxcars, some with open doors, but without an engine. Remy raised his eyebrow at him. “Buncha cats cat it lahst week clean to Wuhstah,” he said. What else could we do but take the advice and leave him with innocent thank you’s?
We picked a tastefully suitable boxcar, a brightly painted Bangor & Aroostook State of Maine in red-white-and-blue stripes. We smoked some more cigarettes and a bit of hashish from a little chrome pipe camouflaged as a thick industrial bolt. Dozing in the slanting sun that shone through the open door, we were awakened by a jolt. “Locomotive,” I said. Remy nodded and closed his eyes.
We weren’t prepared for this part of the ride. The train started slowly enough to clear the yard and then picked up speed till we estimated we were rumbling along close to 50. Let me tell you, those tracks needed plenty of work. Bouncing, swaying, careening, using every trick not to fall out of the wide open door, we finally descended to the flatland between the hills of Worcester into an incredibly massive set of rail yards. Once I heard somewhere, they were the biggest in the country.
The big problem was that the Worcester yards were crawling with people. Gnarled railroad workers, men in uniform, but for some reason a lot of women, which, at the time, didn’t gibe with hiring practices. Warily we “de-trained.”
It was then that I noticed how dirty and grimy Remy looked. “Asshole,” he said. “You think you’re like some Snow White?”
We found ourselves in the midst of a movie shoot. As we shambled up, we came face-to-face with two actors dressed as railroad bums from the 1930s. One even had his belongings tied up in a bandana on a long pole. “Who are you two?” some exasperated young chick with a clipboard said, an assistant type.
Sort of thinking out loud, she said, “Next freight to Providence?”
A nebbishy man with another clipboard came hustling over, running a pencil down a long, complicated-looking list. Before you could say “Casey Jones,” we were sliding along the Blackstone River on an open flatcar again. (The abandoned Triad Bridge we crossed in fall of ’71 is pictured at left.)
It was September and 82 degrees. Two hours later we pulled into Providence and for 2 bucks paid out completely in small change wrangled a ride from a cabbie to the school where my lady love was.
At the dorm we made inquiries. Sophie Millstein? She went home to her parents’ house for the weekend at the last minute.
“Some guy from Williams was supposed to come down here on a freight train or some shit,” the dorm-mate said, “But Sophie thought that was just a line.”
Dorm-mate laughed. She had a nice smile and a multicolored scarf wrapped around her head like Joanie Mitchell on an album cover. She was kind of sexy in a pale New England way.
“You really got here by freight train?”
“We need a place to crash,” I said shaking her hand a little too long.
Remy raised his eyebrow. Those were the times.