Digital Tavern: Hoppin Freights-Prologue

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Photo -1971 Heidelberg Germany  Mustafa at 16


Graduating from an American High School in Heidelberg Germany in 1973, my family spent that summer travelling and camping in a Volkswagon camper around the Mediterranean coast of Spain and France, where I learned how my dad would pass vehicles in his loaded up Volkswagen camper driving mountain roads. He would make a long sweeping increase in speed and then just as he got behind the car in front, he would pull out and pass. Sometimes he would pull out and then pull straight back in. Sometimes he would change his mind half way through the pass and hit the breaks and then get back in line. It worked well but scared the shit out of my mom. When it was time to leave, they put me on a plane in Lisbon to NYC.  I had a Gibson SG guitar, a parcel of records and one suitcase. It was that brown solid samsonite with solid handle from the 50s. After sleeping the night in Kennedy airport with straps tying m belongings to my body, I then got on a bus to Ithaca, New York where I went to Cornell on a tuition scholarship.


I was self sufficient at 18 but not coming from money  meant that I  washed dishes through college and was frugal. Part of frugal meant not owning a car so my preferred method of transportation was hitchhiking. Although it was clear that its heydays were past I could still successfully get myself from one place to the other with my thumb. Only a few times was I concerned about being abused, generally my main concern was the driving capability of the driver. Sometimes they just didnt look like they paid attention.  One notable exception was when I had hitched a ride down highway CA1 along the california coast out of Big Sur and I noticed the guy that picked me up had what looked like a model 1911 colt  next to his seat and he made movements which suggested he was either thinking of accessing it or just wanted me to see it. Then I noticed as I looked over, his zip was down and his limp dick was hanging out of his pants. Reminded me of the song “this is my pistol this is my gun, this is for killing and this is for fun” Anyway, I started to make plans. I decided that if he reached for that pistol that I would strike him in the throat and try to get at it, the pistol that is, before he did, understanding that we may end up going over the seawall down a long way to the rocks below. He was a little weird to talk to but nothing ever happened, except every once in awhile he would adjust down there. I suppose maybe the zipper could get uncomfortable. There were one or two just as disconcerting episodes but with the number of miles I have hitchhiked I claim the rate of such events was quite low, certainly it never changed my habits. Indeed, for the most part, my experiences were good and I had many, and I mean very many, extremely rewarding experiences. I got to meet people of many different shapes and forms and have travelled all over the US- on almost nothing.


At the onset of Christmas break at Cornell a snow storm came in and i was stranded in my dorm room, absolutely alone for 2 days contemplating my 1.4 average and its possible effect on my scholarship. No alcohol, no weed, and can you say “Here’s Johnny!”. On the third day my buddy showed up in his yellow 65 Ford Falcon and said, want to come to Tully for Christmas? Tully, south of Syracuse, has the distinction of being in a Twilight Zone episode and being the home of my lacrosse buddy. He picked up his pot plant from his room and we hopped in his car and drove on a beautiful sunfilled snow covered highway to Tully when we got pulled over by a policemen. I watched carefully as he rounded car, I opened up the door a crack and slide the pot plant from between my legs outside the car. When the cop approached he said “ Are you *********? From Tully?” By buddy smiled and answered in the affirmative and then the cop said. I heard you were playin ball for Cornell. How is that going? This went on for a little bit, and then we said our goodbyes and the cop went back to his car. But he didnt move, so we got nervous and drove off leaving a 3 foot tall pot plant standing on the side of a New York highway. It was a funny lonely sight in our rearview mirror.

After spending Christmas evening in a bar, Christmas morning I put my thumb out and set out for the Fort Dix base where I could catch a standby flight (free for army brats) home to Germany. Somewhere in Pennsylvania on a cold cold night I was picked up by a Vietnamese woman who dropped me off at the Fort Dix base where i spent 5 days waiting for a ride on a C125. It was so cold I think she saved my life. I thought it was a little funny that 4 years earlier my dad was killing Vietnamese but she was very nice and also gave me a snack. When I finally got on that big plane  I sat behind some artillary pieces among two little rows of wooden chairs filled with army brats.


My grades did improve but only during my junior year, so although I got accepted to graduate school in 1977  at The University of Arizona, it covered tuition only. So I worked and saved as much as I could until I was to leave New York and hitchike to my new life in Arizona.  Since I had very little money, for the first two months I slept in the desert and hitchiked into school every day. I was a pretty stinky student I suppose. After two months a professor offered me a fellowship so I bought a little 350 honda motorcycle and rented a room  in  a house way out east of Tucson in the desert.  I had a room,  a little pink desk, a mattress and plenty of scorpions, spiders, and snakes. I was in heaven.


Soon I added  Steinbeck, Hemmingay, Woodie Guthrie, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson,, among many others,  to Bob Dylan and  the Grateful Dead of my music and reading. The Dead were coming to Tempe, near Phoenix, so a friend of mine borrowed his girlfriend’s car to drive us up. We stopped at a gas station, purchased two quarts of oil and topped off the oil as we were strongly instructed to do.  With our backpacks and a full tank and crankcase, we lit up a joint and hit the road.  The  hot  arizona breeze  blowing in our faces, young and free math nerds, we were indeed living the dream -until the car started acting up after about 50 miles. We looked down to see the oil warniing light on and we pulled over. It did not look or smell good and wouldnt start so we decided to send me hitchhiking to the nearest gas station for some oil. We pooled our meager resources and came up with enough to do so and I stuck out my thumb.  Soon enough an Arizona State Trooper pulled over and said “you boys know its illegal to hitchhike? I said no, and asked him how long is the walk to the next gas station. He laughed and said for me to get in. Now, this policemen was big, I mean really big, say a 250-300 lb 6’5” black man, a little overweight but not fat, certainly very strong. And of course, remember I was already high, and a  21 year old tall blond blue eyed devil.  We got along great. We chatted about this and that and he took me to the gas station, I purchased my oil and to my surprise he waited for me and gave me  a ride back to the car. On the way there (I swear to God, cross my heart and hope to die) he pulled  over in the median, handed me the speed gun, and asked me if anyone was speeding. I said,”Nope, theyre all less than 70” . He told me that the speed limit was 60 and I nervously told him “Oh, I wasnt driving” He laughed and I ran the speedgun and we chatted for a while and then he drove me to the car. After filling the oil, the car still wouldnt start, so he up and drove us to the concert hall. This huge black state trooper personally delivering these two stoned raggedy white boys to a grateful dead concert. It was hysterical. It was also one of those experiences that have given me faith in humans, even big black arizona state trooper humans. It is one of many from by travels. Before we departed, I took a photo of my buddy leaning in the window with the cop pretending to write us a ticket, with big smiles on everyone’s faces.   As usual, the concert was great, especially Stella Blue, I Know You Rider, Friend of the Devil and St. Stephen, and when it was done we hitchhiked home, getting a ride in the back of a pickup truck driven by some cowboys. I can still remember the way that cool desert air felt and smelled on that drive home.  We did get in trouble for burning out the motor of my buddy’s girlfriends car though. 


But this story is about hoppin freights. The hitching is just a sort of warm up.

Eventually I moved to graduate school in New York City in 1980. My stipend was 4000 per year and my rent was 200 per month for one bedroom in an extremely small, dirty,  two bedroom apartment in Soho. I had a fire escape out my window and a Korean grocery store open all night below and my  serious work hours were from 10pm to 4am. Then I slept till noon.  Now I was really in heaven.


One day a fellow grad student, a racially Japanese, tall, long jet black haired,  Portugese speaking Brazilian topologist named Washington told me that he would like to see America. I told him if that was the case then he should come with me and we could hop freights from the Bronx to LA. He asked if I knew how that worked and I admitted i didnt have a clue but back then I was fearless and figured I would just figure it out. Which is what we did.  At this time I had this theory that my eating habits were primarily to feed nervous tension generated by my required mental tasks and so when breaks would come I would experiment with going without food. I always drank water but could easily go three days without food. So I head out to traverse the great American continent with $100 in my backpack. No cell phone, no credit card, just $100 and few changes of underwear, pants, t-shirts, a lightweight jacket, a few munchies and a bottle of water, and one morning we took the subway to the Bronx train station and  stepped  out onto the tracks.


 Yes! Let the journey begin. I had worked at  a US military trainyard in Germany in my youth, so I felt comfortable here and found a breakman and approached him and asked. “Can you tell me which one will take us towards LA?” You can imagine the look on his face. After he figured out we were serious he said there is a highball over there that’ll take you down the eastern seaboard and then you can catch something to Arkansas and Tennessee. He said, but mind you stay away from conductors and  yard police. Generally breakmen will steer you well.  I had chosen well. We went among the many tracks and trains and slithered over to the highball, jumped in an open box car and settled down for the wait.


And wait we did, something we learned we had to get used to for the whole trip. After 4 or 5 hours we heard some creeks and groans and bangs and eventually it started to move. I never timed it. But this process can take a very long time. This was a relatively long train, but later on we would find ourselves on some really long ones. We also learned we needed  to carry alot of water. I quickly started travelling with a gallon jug. 


The trip from the Bronx to LA took us 2 and half weeks.  At the time we observed that we had serious adventures every single day and said that some day we  should write about them. That was nearly 40  years ago and, although my memory is getting worse as I age,  I know i can recount a few, for they are seared in my brain. I will save those for the next installment.





Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 13, 2018 - 10:04am
I am playing bass
Ric Wells Added Sep 13, 2018 - 10:38am
Loved my Gibson SG. Mine was red like Santanas at the time. Funny how hitching and music seemed to go hand in hand. Also it was nice to find out most people were and are nice kind and helpful. Good addition to the Tavern.
Stone-Eater Added Sep 13, 2018 - 10:43am
Great stuff :) Who the hell is NOT musician here ?
The Burghal Hidage Added Sep 13, 2018 - 10:47am
I suspected as much....I have some other stuff you need to read friend.
great tales! 
The Burghal Hidage Added Sep 13, 2018 - 10:47am
Have to ask: Who's the greatest bass player?
opher goodwin Added Sep 13, 2018 - 11:29am
Wow Mustafa I nearly got killed on that coast road between SF and LA. That's a tale. I'll write that up.
I've never ridden the blinds though. That's something.
Quite a tale. I've know a few good cops and some mean bastards. There's good and bad everywhere I guess.
Great bass!
A great addition to the collection!
Draw another pint or two! I'n enjoying this.
opher goodwin Added Sep 13, 2018 - 11:30am
Unfortunately I have to confess I am not a musician! Music has just been a huge part of my life! Couldn't live without it.
opher goodwin Added Sep 13, 2018 - 11:31am
Mustafa - I just bought a 21 CD set of live Dead concerts from 71 - 71 Dead! Gonna get into them soon. They arrived yesterday!
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 13, 2018 - 9:03pm
Thanks Ric and Stone Eater, yeah, Santana had the stuff.
Ive always had good luck getting along with people. I think it comes from the moving every year of the army brat. We used to call it
being transfered.
Burghal, greatest bassist, I wouldnt know but I suspect it would be jazz, 
Jimmy Garrison or Charley Mingus. Always liked Ron Carter and Stanley Clarke.
Opher, I was a dead head, Ive seen them half a dozen times, always had a good time. Used to do a decent version of Ripple.
Some of those live recordings are pretty fine, used to have some myself.
Glad you enjoyed my tale.
Nobody's Sweetheart Added Sep 13, 2018 - 11:04pm
Mustafa, awesome post! You've clearly been around! I will always have a special place in my heart for Heidelberg!
Katharine Otto Added Sep 13, 2018 - 11:50pm
I'm not a musician, sad to say.  My budding career as a concert pianist (as I remember it) was abruptly terminated in high school when my father moved the piano to the garage, where it promptly went out of tune.  My practicing interfered with his TV watching.  Alas. 
There's decided gender inequality when it comes to hitchhiking, and possibly freight-train hopping, too, although I've always had a fantasy about hopping freight trains.  I recently read The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, in which he did both.  
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 14, 2018 - 12:00am
re:"There's decided gender inequality when it comes to hitchhiking"
You will get no argument from me there. Although, I have had several female hitchhiking partners and together we were pretty successful. It also  was fun sharing it with someone. We never had to do the 
hide me in the bushes thing.
One of the biggest advantages of the trains IS that they dont pick you, you pick them. You would simply have to contend with who found out you were there. One of the things we learned is to not be friendly among the hobos. They are a loner bunch. But I suspect that if  a group found out about a woman travelling alone, you might need to be able to use some real force. As you might guess,  some people who are afraid to hitchhike for fear of getting picked up by the police use the trains.
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 14, 2018 - 12:01am
Michael, B. When did you get to Heidelberg? in what capacity?
Nobody's Sweetheart Added Sep 14, 2018 - 12:07am
@ Mustafa - I was stationed in Germany when in the Army, and visited Heidelberg several times. I have a picture somewhere of me atop what has to be the largest wine keg in the world, lol. I have nothing but fond memories of that beautiful city, which warrants a lengthy essay in and of itself.
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 14, 2018 - 12:33am
Michael, B. I graduate high school at the Heidelberg Castle and it has some very huge wine casks. Heidelberg has some very fine taverns with alot of brass. The beer is very pretty and tasty.  I think I can taste one of those right now. Thanks for the memory.   
Flying Junior Added Sep 14, 2018 - 3:39am
Best bassist?  Jack Bruce of course!
Flying Junior Added Sep 14, 2018 - 3:47am
I have seen a California CHP give that type of treatment to a cute girl.  You take the cake.  I bet that big black cop and you were having a time!
Back then cops couldn't always tell if a body was stoned.  Sounds like a magic night.  I saw the dead twice.  In my town with the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  We were ten years old.  My dad took us home after the Grateful Dead played Truckin.  Then I saw them in 1985 in Irvine when they were at the top of their game as a cult following.  All of my young life someone was always trying to educate me about music.  I guess I was a Tabula Rasa.  I had a friend in Pacific Beach who explained the Grateful Dead phenomenon to me, lovingly dropping the needle on the record cut by cut.  Now when I listen to American Beauty I wonder how I could have missed so much so long ago.
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 14, 2018 - 7:51am
Flying Junior, Ive seen people try to explain the dead scene before. I dont think it works. I really enjoyed it, that and the music.
Next to American Beauty there is Workingmans Dead, Skeletons and Roses, Europe 72, Wake of the Flood and the very prescient 
Blues for Allah
Jack Bruce, yeah my first favorite
Stone-Eater Added Sep 14, 2018 - 8:10am
Nope. For Rock the best bassist is Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big)....
Stone-Eater Added Sep 14, 2018 - 8:12am
Blues for Allah is actually my fav Dead album, and "Help is on its way" the best track IMHO...
opher goodwin Added Sep 14, 2018 - 8:58am
Best bass player! - Jack Bruce and Norman Watt-Roy!
Best GD album - Blues For Allah!
Yeah - right on! Keep on Truckin' guys.
opher goodwin Added Sep 14, 2018 - 9:01am
Mustapha - I last saw Further (GD) in Bill G raham's stadium in San Fran in Jan 2016. Quite a tale. They were amazing! I have a triple CD of the gig that I bought on the night!!
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 14, 2018 - 10:15am
Opher,  never made to Grahams, sounds real fine.
Scarlet Begonias  puts me in the mood every time:
'She had rings on her fingers and bell on her shoes!
But Bertha was the name of my 62 four door Corvair I bought for $300 in  1978. She was also good to me.
Stone Eater, Help  on the Way, mighty fine.

The Burghal Hidage Added Sep 15, 2018 - 11:59am
Can't beat a Martin D18 with a Fender amp
Bassists...Phil Lesh, certainly. Chris Squire from Yes.....come on Opher! Can't believe you missed this one: Steve Hanley from The Fall
Leroy Added Sep 15, 2018 - 2:57pm
Fascinating story, Mustafa.  What an adventure!
Mustafa Kemal Added Sep 15, 2018 - 6:07pm
"Can't beat a Martin D18"
Well, except maybe a D28, but Ive never owned a D18
opher goodwin Added Sep 19, 2018 - 7:55am
I walked past the original BGs back in 1971. It still had billing for Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service - but it was shut and they were old billings. That would have been quite a night!
opher goodwin Added Sep 19, 2018 - 7:56am
Burger - yes - excellent - but I still prefer Norman Watt-Roy!
Koshersalaami Added Oct 21, 2018 - 7:57pm
Also a musician. In my case mostly keys, though I owned a D28 for many years, had to pawn it a few years ago, bought a used Hummingbird and discovered to my surprise that I prefer it. I got into my first real bar band in my fifties - plenty of basement bands before that and experiences in a bunch of other genres with other instruments - as varied as klezmer, Renaissance and Baroque, and five piece jazz standards with female vocal, and that’s not the whole list.  I’m almost precisely your age. Didn’t share your experiences, though. Saw the Dead three times and the Jerry Garcia band once but wasn’t much into them, best concert I saw them in was Watkins Glen. However, a band I played with for many years plays a lot of Dead, so I ended up enjoying a lot of their material but more as a player than as a listener. The band was in Greensboro, NC, which my family moved away from two years ago for my wife’s work to a little west of Binghamton, NY, so Ithaca and Tully aren’t all that far. I still drive back to Greensboro to play with them once in a while, especially an annual outdoor festival they founded to benefit the local food bank. 
I’m a little surprised Jaco Pastorius isn’t in the conversation about bassists. In rock, I’d have to agree about Chris Squire though from a taste standpoint believe it or not I like McCartney. 
Speaking of Squire: If you’ve never tripped over it, check out the interview with him on YouTube where he talks about meeting Jimi Hendrix. It’s really good. He’s an unexpectedly good storyteller.