May 4, 2016

Memoir Excerpt By Bruce F. Rosen: "Disappearing on a Freight Train" from If You Ever Need Me, I Won't Be Far Away

An award-winning writer, Bruce F. Rosen shares the same publisher as literary greats Allen Ginsberg, Laurence Ferlinghetti, and William Saroyan.  Featured on The Today Show and the cover of Personal Excellence and Publisher’s Weekly, he has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His “slice of life” pieces ran on BBC Radio.  His mother, Alma Rose, who was a psychic that read tea leaves for, among others, Marlon Brando, inspired this memoir which is dedicated to her.  This excerpt showcases his best friend from his youth, who lives on, only, in the author’s memories. Please visit his website:

Disappearing on a Freight Train

    Checking in is not something that I did for my mom when I was 16 years old, a few
months before my father left for Canada for good. I could no longer handle his daily
threats to take something away from me if I didn’t cut my hair, or change my friends and
clothes, or stop surfing. My anger and resentment toward him was building and I was
acquiring a strong wanderlust. I had heard one too many times his refrain to my mom
that, “either he goes or I go.” So, one afternoon, I filled a duffel bag full of clothes, threw
in a couple of canned goods, sneaked a couple of $20 bills from my mom’s purse, and set
out on an adventure that became one of the most traumatic periods in my mom’s life. I
told my mom that I would be gone for a while, and that I was planning to hitchhike to
New York to visit my cousin, Sephra. Sephra’s life sounded like a lot of fun; she ran her
father’s business, and her father was the widely known and respected, Sam Herman, one
of the top jazz arrangers in the world. Sephra had been telling me about the interesting,
exciting people she had been working with—Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, George
Benson, Sarah Vaughn and others—and I just had to get away from this father of mine.
My mom looked at me like I was out of my mind when I told her this, and she clearly did
not believe me. I was prepared go alone, but a good friend of mine, Steve Pencille,
wanted to come along.
    Steve was a very good-looking kid; the girls were crazy about him. He was almost
one hundred percent Native American—Cherokee—with a dash of French for accent. He
had thick black hair, green eyes, a complexion that was, perhaps, a shade lighter than
olive, lean and fit, and could definitely take care of himself if it came to that. I knew that
he would be the ideal traveling companion for this kind of trip. Steve loaded up his bag,
said goodbye to no one and joined me down by the railroad tracks, where we stuck out
our thumbs for a ride headed east toward the desert.
    It was May, 1971, and we had decided that we had finished school for the year. Not
long before this, I had been introduced to the mind-altering substances of Panama Red
and black Afghanistan hash. And in the process, I discovered that music could sound
much different than it ever had. Under the effect of Panama Red marijuana—indeed it
really was red, many strains of red leaf running through it—I listened to Jim Hendrix’
“Electric Ladyland” for the first time using headphones. It was electrifying; no other
word can describe it. The song “Crosstown Traffic” screeched through my brain. I
journeyed to distant lands as Jimmy sang, “Have you ever been (to Electric Ladyland?)”
sung in a bluesy, ballad sort of way that felt like soft velvet. Then there was the, “No
reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke, there are some here among us who think
that life is but a joke,” of “All Along the Watchtower”—scintillating, as he gave us this
electrified vision of a Jimmy Hendrix world of jokers, demons and seers.
    Under the influence of the black Afghanistan hash, I heard the “Led Zeppelin 1”
album for the first time. Has there ever been a more fully realized debut album? I think
not. The hard, sharp, electric exclamation marks, followed by John Bonham’s pounding
beat as we go into Robert Plants high, piercing crescendo in the song “Good Times Bad
Times,” and it introduced me to a musical ecstasy of which I had to have more. And, as I
vibrated to the energy of it, I was put into a mood where I just had to run, had to travel,
had to ramble. The song is followed by, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and as I listened
to the deep bluesy tones of it, I thought about how I would tell my girlfriend, Debbie, of
the straight, waist-length hair and the awesome hips—I had the words, “Debbie Love,”
painted across my bedroom wall—that I would be off for a while. “Dazed and Confused,”
“Your Time is Gonna Come,” “Communication Breakdown,” has there ever been a more
paradigm-shattering album?—Well maybe the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts
Club Band,” totally mind-bending at the time—let alone debut album? I was ready to
move, I was ready to travel.
    A few rides took us to the edge of the desert, to the town of Indio. We spent the first
night in a little ravine near the road, tucked into our sleeping bags. Steve and myself
broke some Coke bottles in half, so that we would have some jagged glass edges by our
sides as weapons should it be needed. It was cold that night, a lot colder than I had
anticipated; my army jacket, replete with an ironed-on marijuana leaf on the back, the
words underneath it saying, “Cannabis Sativa,” didn’t keep me as warm as it should have.
    The following morning we realized that we didn’t have enough food to keep us
going, so we filled our bags with oranges and apples from a fruit stall that we found in
the center of town. We were quick and darted away before anyone could discover our
theft. We tried to continue hitchhiking, but after a couple of hours there hadn’t been any
offering of a ride. We were close to the railroad tracks and not far from a stopping place
for trains. In short order a train came to a crossing and stopped, remained there for quite a
while. “Steve,” I said, “let’s grab this train; let’s hop trains to New York.” Without
thinking, this raven-haired adventurer, Native American explorer said, “Yeah, great idea,
let’s do it!” We ran over to the train, jogging quickly up and down its length to find the
most comfortable car for transport. We discovered a series of flat cars with an indentation
down the middle, the bottom of which held a pulley for the brakes. The car offered some
shelter in the form of a fruit truck that rested atop the flat car—giving us a ceiling as
shelter from the elements. There remained some room on either side of the car, affording
us the opportunity to dangle our legs along the side and stare into the wilderness. We
decided on that car and jumped on it, just as the train was beginning to move.
    In a couple of hours we were looking at the Salton Sea, a big lake in the middle of
the desert that I had always heard of but had never seen. It was impressive; I hadn’t
realized that it would be so large. The ride continued into the night, our second night on
the journey. The indentation in the middle of the flat car looked like it would be a
comfortable sleeping place on first glance, but it didn’t fulfill its promise. All night long,
just as I was falling asleep, the pulley would move up and down, moving against various
parts of my back and spine. I slept, but it certainly wasn’t a good night’s sleep. We awoke
to the sunrise over the Arizona desert; and it was a sight to behold. The freedom and the
wide-open landscape, cactus as far as the eye could see, reddish mountains in the
distance, permitted my mind to wander, my mind to open, my soul to expand. But as the
day went on there was a creeping anxiety that, probably, there were people back home
worrying about me. And, of course, there was no way to let anyone know my
whereabouts. However, I relegated these thoughts to the back of my mind, as I allowed
myself the freedom to enjoy this journey. As we continued, we ate the canned chili that
we heated with matches and sticks, enjoyed our bounty of fruit, and enjoyed each other’s
company. I’ll never forget the look on Steve’s face that afternoon as he sat off by himself,
his Native American soul coming alive and being reborn in the desert of his ancestry, just
gazing intensely into the distance. He was like an animal that had been released back into
its natural habitat—thoughts from whence he came were nowhere in his mind.
    Day became night, and as the night grew darker, we found ourselves in the Tucson
train yard. We had run out of peanut butter and were getting low on water—
reinforcements were definitely in order. There was a little grocery store across the road
from the train station, and to get there meant jumping off the train, running across some
tracks, jumping over another train and darting across the road. This had to be done
quickly, and I volunteered to do the job, Steve staying behind to direct me back to the
proper train with his voice. The excursion was further complicated by floodlights, which
were trained on the trains in the yard to find stowaways, such as ourselves. And
everywhere in the train yard were posted signs that described the penalties and fines that
would be imposed on those guilty of illegal entry upon trains. The challenge was
daunting, but I took it on. I darted out of the train, across some tracks, jumped on and
then out of the other side of the flat car on another train, ran across the road, purchased a
jar of peanut butter and jelly mixed together in one jar—how efficient—purchased some
water, and ran back holding a large bag. I returned the way I came, the experience very
treacherous as I tried to stay low beneath the floodlights. As I looked into the distance,
my train started moving—and it was starting to pick up speed pretty quickly. I started to
lose sight of our place on the train when Steve spotted me and yelled his location. I found
him, jumped on the flat car just before him, and climbed onto our car. I barely made it
onto the train; it had really started to move quickly. As I think about it now, it is no
exaggeration or fantasy to say that this was a dangerous maneuver. I got back to our car,
Steve giving me a huge hug. I sat there for a moment, contemplating the bravery of what
I had done. In Steve’s Native American eyes, I had shown my worth, and would forever
be seen by him as a warrior. I had earned his respect, and it was revealed in his eyes.
    I slept that night a little better than I had the previous night, but the pulley continued
to move up and down our backs. When we awoke we were in the Red desert of Texas.
There was very little vegetation, just red desert sand. About mid-day, the train stopped,
and didn’t start again for a few hours. We were truly in the middle of nowhere, not a
road, nor a city or a telephone pole within miles and miles and miles. We sat in that red
dirt desert, eating our spoils, peanut butter and jelly in the one jar on some bread. We still
had plenty of oranges, and they were delicious. Eventually the train started moving, and
by the next morning we found ourselves in the train yard of El Paso. This was a safer
train yard, much more open and spread out than the one in Tucson. There were no
floodlights, but of course it was daytime. I was starting to feel the pangs of anxiety a bit
more acutely—I was now starting to have a strong sense that my mom was worrying
about me. I knew that I had to call her and let her know that I was okay. Steve had no
interest in finding a phone, but I made my way over to one and managed to call home.
The phone rang and rang and rang, but no one answered—no answering machines in
those days. About an hour later I called again; still no answer. The time had come to
catch another train—and this one was bound for Chicago. We’d go to Chicago, and then
continue on to New York. This train did not have a flat car, but a large open boxcar filled
with hay. I slept so-so that night, the floor rather hard, and there was not enough hay to do
much softening of the ground. This was a pretty fast train and made very few stops, and
when it did stop, it was only for a moment. Within a couple of days we were in
Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri. Somewhere in Missouri it started to rain, and it rained very
hard. Dampness permeated the car, and I was starting to wheeze from the combination of
dampness and straw. I had had serious asthma as a kid, but had not had an attack for a
few years. Now I was having an asthma attack. I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping for air—
and I was becoming quite afraid. I took long, slow breaths, and after awhile—easily one
of the longest hours of my life—the attack started to lift. A few hours later, I was in the
clear. I hid the attack from Steve—I didn’t want him to become alarmed, and I guess I
did not want him to see any weakness in me. But the attack changed my perspective on
this trip. I was becoming acutely aware that my mom was worrying about me greatly, and
I was beginning to decide that I would turn around and come back when we hit Chicago.
I did not tell Steve of my plans, but I kept hearing the words in my head saying, “Bruce,
the only way to go back is to do it; it won’t happen if you keep going in this direction.”
As I was hearing these words, I also kept hearing the words to that Bob Dylan song,
“Like A Rolling Stone”: “How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home, a
complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” The words were playing in my mind over and
over again. They were sending me a message that I had to return.
    We made our way into Illinois, and stopped in the outskirts of East Moline, Illinois.
There was a little canteen store outside the train tracks, and I went in to get some change.
    I went to the phone booth and called my mom. This time she answered. “Brucie, is
that you?” “Yeah, Mom, it’s me; I’m in East Moline, Illinois, not far from Chicago.”
“Brucie, I have been worried sick over you; I didn’t know if you were alive or dead. Are
you all right? Did you have an asthma attack? I have a feeling that you did.” “Yeah Mom,
I’m okay, and yes I did have an asthma attack. But I got through it okay. I’m going to
come home, Mom, but I’m going to do it the way I came. I’ll hop freight trains back.”
“No you won’t, Brucie,” she yelled at me.” “Are you near a store or any place that has a
phone number?” “There are some stores around me,” I answered. “Don’t hang up the
phone, leave it off the hook, run over and get a phone number for me, please!” she
exclaimed nervously and urgently. “And give me the phone number to the phone booth
where you are if we get disconnected.” I gave her the number, and assured her that if we
were to get disconnected, I would definitely call back. I brought back the phone number
from the little grocery store, and within a minute she had arranged for a person to watch
over me, bring me to a Western Union station where funds would be wired, and organize
a plane ticket for my return to Southern California. I called her back to tell her that,
really, I would prefer to come back the way I traveled—to make it back on my own. But,
obviously, she’d have none of it. “All right Mom, I’ll take your plane back. I’ll be back
soon; and I’m really looking forward to seeing you.” “I can’t wait to see you too, Brucie;
I’m so thankful that you’re all right,” and she started crying loudly. I don’t think that I
had ever heard my mom cry before, and I was startled by this. I was tired, drained from
the asthma attack, and her tears shocked me into a new reality. I had felt that she had
worried about me—I just did not realize it was this severe.
    The guy brought me to the Western Union station to pick up the money, then up to
his apartment where I was fed before catching the plane ride later that evening. But
before going off with him, I had a heart-to-heart with Steve, telling him that I was
heading back. I described how my mom was going out of her mind, and suggested that he
call his parents as well. But he would have none of it. He was going to continue. “I really
want to go back the way I came,” I told him, “but my mom is insisting. I am going to fly
back tonight.” We embraced, shook hands, hugged—looking into each other’s eyes and
recognizing the warrior in the other.
    We made it back to the guy’s apartment, which was upstairs from a post office.
When I went to use his restroom, I saw my face in a mirror for the first time since
leaving, although I had gained a hint of my appearance when I saw my reflection on the
metal of the telephone. It was caked with grease. I must have been quite a sight: that
grease-stained army jacket with the cannabis leaf on the back; long frizzed-out curly
black hair, encircled by a Jimmy Hendrix-style headband. I grabbed a towel and washed
my face. I walked back into the front room, and was greeted by a huge, heavyset woman
with very short, boyish-length brown hair—she was so large she basically filled the entire
bed. The guy introduced me to her as Bertha. “Bertha,” he said to her as he introduced
me—”I’ve got a real hippy for you here; he just hopped trains across the country. You
want some of this?” Then he looked over at me, saying, “You want some of Bertha?”
“It’s okay,” I answered a bit shyly. I’m ready to get moving on home.” Bertha then
looked over at me and smiled. “Maybe, I will have a bit of him,” she said. He’s pretty
cute.” “Thanks, Bertha, maybe I’ll come back and see you some day,” I answered. “You
do that,” she said, “you be sure and do that.”
    That evening, I was home; it had taken me about five days to make it that far, and I
was back in about three-and-a-half hours. My father looked away when he saw me;
apparently he had shut down his emotions, trying not to show any fear. But clearly, he
had to have been worried. My mom, sister Heidi, and brothers were there to greet me at
the airport—and boy did they show their love. I don’t think that I had ever seen that much
joy on my mom’s face as when she first laid eyes on me that night. About a month later,
Steve Pencille returned, arriving by train the way he started. He had landed in Chicago,
making a living by parking cars, then sleeping in them. He came over to my place when
he arrived back, and we smoked a bit of that black Afghan hash. We went into my room
and left the headphones off: blasting out of my speakers were the driving opening lines to
“Good Times, Bad Times,” Robert Plant’s searing singing, Bonham’s drums pounding,
Jimmy Page’s guitar slicing the air.
~Bruce F. Rosen

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