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The Day Uncle Duke Saved Minneapolis (or Maybe St. Paul)

Not long ago, our son Beau Baylor asked me a leading question. One to which he had obviously given considerable thought.

“Dad,” he queried, “you were never much on planning, were you?” I’m pretty sure he already knew the answer, but he asked it anyway.

Fairly predictably, I was unprepared for the question. Had not ever given it much thought. But the truth of it was pretty quickly evident, even to me. I had left behind a fairly broad trail of evidence.

“No, son,” I admitted, “planning was never my strong suit. Not anything I put a lot of effort into. Truth be known, I seldom did much research. I would generally conjure up a direction of sorts, feel my way along, blunder ahead, allow the Universe to do what it must and then try to be as happy as I could with the results.”

One never likes to admit such character flaws to an offspring. It is always preferable to speak from a position of insight and wisdom. “Plan wisely, my son. As I always have,” I would rather have said. “It is the secret to a successful life.”

But no, I had to admit that most of my plans over the years had been pretty much open-ended. Though this was, I have to say, mostly intentional. I prided myself on my flexibility—my ability to slide more or less seamlessly into Plan B. Or C. Or perhaps K or L.

I just wanted desperately to avoid becoming one of those over-planners who removed so much of the surprise and serendipitousness from Life. I had a fair number of friends who put a lot of effort into very specific Life goals and directions. Life goals and directions which would then get bollixed up in short order. And then they would have to reboot, replan, retool, divorce, reload, redesign, remarry, recalibrate, relaunch and re-divorce. It always seemed pretty dramatic and involved a lot of angst, suffering and attorney fees.

Or even worse, it would work out and they were then on a trajectory which inevitably, it seemed to me, carried them somewhere they no longer wanted to go. No, sir. I judged that ‘no plan’ was the best plan, and I held rigidly to that belief.

 The other part of it was that I was a Poet. And Poets don’t need no stinkin’ plan. That was my perception. Not that I ever intended to write any serious poetry, mind you or try to get published or anything. I just aspired to BE a Poet. You know, hitch-hike around, observe Life, go to whacked out parties, drink cheap wine, meet a lot of weird people and loose women and accumulate a bunch of whacked out, weird stories, many of which would involve loose women. 

I wanted to feel stuff, you know, to see America through the window of a Greyhound Bus. I wanted to get crumby blue-collar jobs, experience poverty (in a sort of tangential, existential way) and thereby know and understand Love and Wisdom in all its most primordial forms. I was looking for that sweet, sad, sorrowful, vulnerable, old Soul of America. The one that we all shared. The one that could bring us all together.

 To that end, I was in the process of acquiring myself an English degree which would render me, I hoped, some understanding of poetry and literature and consequently some insights into what that old American soul would look like. And perhaps a means of expressing myself and describing it when I saw it.

 I already had a good traveling bag and a big fold-up map of the whole of North America. I had a growing attraction to the open road and and a desire to experience an unending sky, so I was pretty well along the way to becoming a Romantic Vagabond. That was my plan. Such as it was.

There would be, I admit, both then and now, some holes in this plan. But I would patch them up as I went. Or so the theory went.

And to be truthful, having envisioned that then, and looking back on it now—the likely holes and the unlikely patches--I can’t think of anything I would change. It may not have been what you’d call a solid or well-thought-out plan--bone headed and naive would be a better description--but I contend that I learned a lot of stuff which I would not have learned had I planned better.

A case in point is my summer in Minneapolis.

It was toward the end of the Spring semester of my junior year in college when I began to think about my plans for that summer. Of which there were none. I had not applied for the good jobs, the desirable jobs, the high paying ones. The ones you were supposed to start applying for right after Christmas. Many of my responsible classmates had done just that and had their summers all lined up.

I, on the other hand, had no prospects, other than going back to work in the cheese plant in my hometown.

It was in this moment of panic and despair when I got a letter from my old roommate, Mike, who had transferred to the University of Minnesota after our freshman year. “Come on up to Minneapolis,” he urged. “My roommate’s moving out, and there are plenty of summer jobs. It’ll be great.”

Well, I needed no further encouragement. As soon as my last exam was over, I set a course for Minnesota, The Land of 10,000 Lakes. “It’ll be great,” I repeated all the way up there. I could hear the loons calling me.

It turned out Mike had a ramshackle apartment in a locality called Seven Corners in Minneapolis. It was at the time the favored neighborhood for hard-core hippies, beatniks and anti-establishment heroes, scalawags, scoundrels and scofflaws of all sorts as well as discriminating thieves, roustabouts, junkies and winos of all cravings and predilections. It was the place to be for aspiring writers, troubadours, hookers, poets and collectors of weird stories. Some luck, huh!! I always did think that luck was way better than planning.

We lived upstairs over the legendary Triangle Bar which sat astraddle one of the Seven Corners. It was an early haunt of Bob Dylan, and it was rumored that he still dropped in from time to time. I frequented it and kept a sharp lookout for him. If and when he did show up, why I’d buy him a beer and we could talk Romantic Vagabond shit on into the night. Though I was not lucky in this endeavor, I persevered throughout that summer.

But I did get a job, almost right away, with the Chicago-Northwest Railroad. I was hired on as a switchman at $2.20/hr.  Hallelujah. I was Rich. My train had come in.

Switchmen are the guys (It was indeed all men at the time.) who work with a switch-engine operator and reshuffle the long freights that come into various metropolitan rail yards. They throw switches and put together trains in the right order. These 5 cars go to Cleveland, these 6 go to Chicago, these 12 go to Detroit, etc. At night, you would signal and communicate with the engine operator with your switchman’s lantern. Essentially, you would take cars from one long freight train and put them together into other long freight trains.

It was a pretty cool job as these things go. Or it would have been, but I was at the very bottom of what was called the ‘extra board’. Which meant that I always got the least desirable shift--the graveyard shift. So it was always pitch dark when I got there.

And it was almost always a different yard, so I could never see where I was or know where I was supposed to be. So a command of “Take these three hoppers over to Old Line #4 and bring back those two flatcars from the Highball Line” had the significance of a Sumatran folk song.  Huh?

Additionally, the foremen were cranky and mean and held a general disdain for ‘college boys’ in the first place and were pretty vocal in their opinions. I was doing my best, but I confess I gave them little reason to change their views. So I was lost and friendless for a good part of the summer.

But eventually, I got to know some of the crews and some of the yards, and I will say that I was a fairly decent switchman towards the end of the summer.

Which brings me to the climax of this story. Which is how I single-handedly saved the City of Minneapolis. Or maybe it was St. Paul. I was never quite sure where I was. As I mentioned, it was pretty damn dark most of the time, and the tracks crisscrossed back and forth over the line between the two.

Anyway, it was the Clear Lake Yard, I remember that.  And I had been sent to ride a bunch of gondolas filled with potash down the Mainline to park them until we needed them. The engineer backed me down, and I dutifully disconnected them and began to climb back on for the ride back up the line.

Well, I didn’t know much, but I knew those cars were supposed to stay put after I cut them loose. Right where we left them. The air brakes should have kicked in and kept them in place. But the whole lot of them began drifting slowly down the Mainline. I watched them for a moment as they began coasting away, and then realized that this track sliced straight through the middle of downtown Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was the middle of the night, but an unexpected runaway freight train barreling through a major metropolis would not have a happy ending.

So I began chasing the cars down the track. I hopped on the first one I came to, climbed the ladder to the top of the car where the break wheel was. I cranked it down as hard and as fast as I could, until it wouldn’t crank anymore. But we weren’t slowing down a whit. If anything, we were picking up speed. Potash weighs a lot, and momentum down an inclined, frictionless track tends to increase without a lot of braking power. More than one measly hand brake anyway.

So I climbed down the ladder as fast as I could, hopped off and began chasing the next car. As I mentioned, we were picking up speed, so I was stretching it out pretty good to catch up. But I hopped on, climbed up and cranked the second one down. Still nothing.

We were now rolling along at a good clip, and it was all I could do to catch the next one. And the one after that. But I didn’t really see any other way around it, so I kept at it until finally, after jumping the fifth or maybe the sixth car, we began to slow down. And as I cranked on the very last of them, we came to a halt.

I sat on the top of that car to catch my breath for a moment, and I could see that we were on the edge of a residential neighborhood. About that time, the rest of the crew came running down the track. As I recall it, I was sitting up there, on top of the last gondola, smoking a cigarette. Kind of posing, I guess. I felt like the guy who saved the Titanic. I figured the film crews would be along directly, and I would be famous by sunup. I expected a mayor’s commendation down the road, perhaps a small monetary reward for my bravery and overall fortitude.      

Well, let’s just say that didn’t happen. The foreman barked at me and ordered me to get my ass down and run back up the track to get the switch engine operator so we could pull all this evidence of a colossal switching yard fuck-up back where it was supposed to be. And nobody was to say NOTHING about this to NOBODY!!

So that’s what I did, and that’s pretty much where it ended. There weren’t no commendations or rewards. The foreman never did thank me for saving his ass. A couple of my crew mates did say “Good work, kid”, but that was it.

Course I did get this story. Which is mostly true. And it sort of makes my point. See, you can’t plan for these things. You can only ride the four winds, pay attention, hope for the best and write down what you saw.

So,'re right. I didn't have much of a plan. And the path I took was often awkward and disjointed at times, a little clunkier than it needed to be. But on the whole, it has actually been passably entertaining. I never met Bob Dylan. But I could've. And if I must say, it's all turned out fairly famously. 

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