Friday, November 1, 2019

Flashback 1986: Cross-country train rider won't let life pass by

      Not everything is online. This story was published 33 years ago, and came to mind—thanks to a wetware retrieval algorithm—when a friend introduced me to the local Amtrak spokesman. I wanted to show him this, one of my favorite stories, found while taking Amtrak to Alderson, West Virginia, to interview anti-nuclear activist Jean Gump in prison. I was sitting in bar car at midnight, chatting with a conductor, and he said, "If you want a story, that guy lives on the train." "On here a lot?" I replied. "No," he said. "He LIVES on the TRAIN." So I went over and talked with the man. If this story seems long—it's three times the length of a regular column today—that's how we rolled in those days. I was pleased with how it begins almost like a camp fire story.

     If you find yourself traveling on an Amtrak train, say the Empire Builder to Seattle, or the Cardinal to Washington, D.C., or the Crescent down to New Orleans, visit the club car.
     While there, look for a man with an eye patch and shaved head, an old man, but powerfully built. If you see someone fitting that description, go up and talk to him. For this is your chance to meet a real-life legend, Loren Chester "Beetle" Bailey.
     Beetle Bailey rides the rails. At almost any minute of almost every day, he is on an Amtrak train. His days are spent looking out the window of the club car, chatting with conductors, sipping tea or a beer, thinking his thoughts. The 73-year-old Bailey makes his home on Amtrak trains, and has for most of the last nine years.
     This is a man almost constantly in motion. On Christmas Eve he left Montreal, arriving in New York City on Christmas morning. That afternoon he departed New York, reaching Chicago the next day at 8:08 a.m.
     On that visit, he stopped in Chicago for nine hours—a long time, considering that in five earlier visits to Chicago this month, he spent a combined total of only 14 hours and 22 minutes here. At 5:15 p.m. he left Chicago for Los Angeles, arriving there three days later. Two hours and 20 minutes after pulling into Los Angeles, he was headed north toward Seattle.
     "Mr. Bailey is one of the most colorful characters I've met on the rails," said Mario Patti, an Amtrak supervisor and 12-year veteran of train work. "I haven't come across anyone like Mr. Bailey. He always has a story or a song or a little harmonica playing."
     Bailey—who Amtrak personnel refer to not by his nickname, but as "Mr. Bailey"—is the sort of person who's easy to notice. Besides the patch covering his left eye, he has a three-inch heel on his right boot, both reminders of an active life fraught with injuries. He sports a bit of a pot belly now, the downside of sitting on the trains. Yet his forearms remain muscular and developed from years of manual labor. He wears a watch on each wrist, the right one set to Pacific Time, the left to Eastern Standard Time. A third timepiece, a pocket watch, rests in the breast pocket of his denim vest.
     "When you're had three grips stolen, you keep your valuables with you," Bailey says in a voice so soft a stranger might have to lean forward to hear above the clanking of the train wheels. But listening to him is well worth the effort. Within minutes of striking up a conversation—with Bailey talking amiably, asking questions, gesturing with his hands, laughing—the man with the eye patch is a stranger no more.
     "I've tried my hand at everything," he says. "A friend of mine once said: `Bailey, to have had all the jobs that you've had, you'd have to be 2,000 years old.' "
     Asked his age, Bailey pulls out a dog-eared passport. "Best ID you can get, young man." Born in 1913 in Minneapolis, Bailey began delivering newspapers on three different routes when he was 8.
     As far back as he can remember, he always has loved trains. His first paycheck was spent on model trains.
     His childhood remembrances are razor sharp, whether in describing how to make a crystal radio set out of an oatmeal box, or explaining "shinny," a form of field hockey played in Minnesota 60 years ago.
     "We used a condensed milk can for a puck," he says. "They called it 'shinny' because you were always getting whacked in the shins. Of course, sometimes a kid would get carried away and hit somebody in the nose."
     Bailey dropped out of school in ninth grade to go to work as a blacksmith's helper. Then he became a welder. Bailey's love of trains led him to work as a roundhouse helper, preparing the giant steam locomotives to make their runs. More than 50 years later, Bailey recalls the routine exactly.
     "We'd clean out the ash, start fires in the engines, throw in greasy waste, then throw coal in," he says. "When the cast iron heated up, it started expanding. The ground would be shuddering a mile around, the whole roundhouse shaking."
     In 1933 Bailey was in a motorcycle accident that shattered his hip and leg and put him in a body cast for a year. It was the first of many injuries that would dog Bailey and twist his body, but not keep him from a life of physical work or dampen his spirits.
     While working as an engineer mechanic at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, he learned to fly, taking newly repaired planes on shake-down flights with test pilots, even after another accident almost cost him his left eye.
     Bailey's love of planes and aviation joined his passion for trains. But in 1968, Bailey injured his back, and could no longer work. He retired on an Air Force disability pension, and was in and out of hospitals, for his back, his feet, his hip.
     In 1977 he got out of the hospital after a particular lengthy stay, and on an impulse he got aboard an Amtrak train, and except for another lengthy hospital stay in 1981 he has been riding ever since.
     Bailey travels light, with a small suitcase or "grip" tucked under his seat. Inside are a change of underclothes, a shirt, a razor and little else. He carries his medicines with him, to prevent theft, and keeps a trunk in the baggage compartment.
     When he set out on the rails, he discarded a lifetime's worth of possessions, except for two footlockers now in storage. He doesn't miss any of it—"I never used it; they were just memories," he says—though he does wish he had a particular photograph.
      "At Williams Field they wanted to take a picture of a P-80, and I was nearby, and they said: `Bailey, get in the picture.' So I posed in front of the plane. But I never asked for a copy of the picture."
     Using only an excursion pass, Bailey rides Amtrak nonstop. When asked about Bailey, an Amtrak official at first smugly explained that what Bailey was doing was impossible—the $250, 45-day excursion fare requires passengers to stop at no more than three destinations and cover no stretch of track twice in the same direction. Asked to check the computer, the official returned and said: "My jaw is hanging open. I've never seen anything like this before. This is incredible."
     Bailey circumvents the limits of the pass by planning his wanderings so he covers almost every route in the country, and being sure that whenever he arrives at a station, he leaves on the first train out, so it does not count as a "destination." After all this time on the rails, Bailey often knows the train schedules better than some Amtrak employees.
      Providing he always is on the next train out, Bailey can travel as long as he wants. He even has developed a game, where he tries to beat his own record of most miles in a 30-day period.
     "He's traveled 34,407 miles in 30 days," said Amtrak supervisor Patti, adding that most of that was done out West, where trains can average 90 miles an hour. With unlimited funds it would be easier, but he finds a way to do it for $250, which also is a feat. For him, this country's too small."
      Bailey thoroughly enjoys train travel—not only scenery, but also the people. Asked for his favorite memory, looking back over nine years of almost constant travel, he thinks of a time many people would have considered an inconvenience.
      "On the Sunset Limited to L.A.," he says. "We were halfway to El Rio when a freight was derailed in front of us. We got stuck behind it. We were supposed to get into L.A. at 4:30 in the morning. Now it was eight hours later. It was a train crowded with students. I played the harmonica, we played cards, we set out blankets on the shady side of the train and had a picnic. Sometimes a crowded train is a good train. At 4 in the afternoon, nine Greyhound buses were brought up to take us to L.A. Only 40 people went on the buses. I asked when (the train) would be able to go on, and they said about 7:30. I said I was staying on the train, and about 20 people got off the buses. They had to take eight buses back, empty. It turned out to be one the nicest trains I ever rode on because people got very well acquainted. It shows that sometimes under adverse circumstances, people's best sides come out."
      The same could be said about Bailey. While some might find his constant traveling sad, this is the solution to what could have been a painful, isolated retirement. Asked if he is ever tempted to get off and visit the cities he passes through, Bailey says, "Yeah, sure I do. But when you are on crutches, with a torn-up back, you just go to a hotel room and watch TV. I can't drive. I can't ride the bus. This I can enjoy."
     Bailey has a steady routine on the trains. He wakes early, sometimes takes a sponge bath in a restroom (not frequently enough for some passengers, according to conductors, who add that this is the only complaint ever heard about him). He spends most of the day in the club car, looking out the window, reading and talking to people. He'll be discussing President Reagan's most recent actions one minute, entertaining a small child, who asks if he's a pirate, another.
     At night, he has a few beers to help him sleep, then he goes back to his seat, reclines it all the way back and hooks his toes under the seat in front of him, making it "just like a traction bed."
     But perhaps the most amazing thing about Bailey is that, given his nomadic lifestyle, he is neither lonely nor sad. He has many friends among train employees and frequent train travelers, and keeps up with his three children and eight grandchildren. However, he and his wife split up in 1977 when he went on the rails.
      "He's a rather complex man," said his sister Fern Reeves, 65, who lives in Paso Robles, Calif. "Although he plays the harmonica for the children on the train, he's well versed in classical music and he was studying to become a concert pianist at one time.
      "I suppose (he gets lonely). Everyone who travels by himself must be lonely at one time or another, but he likes it and he knows all the train men. He gets letters - I get them here for him - and his friends will say: `Gee, Chet, we haven't heard from you in couple of years, are you still out there?'
      "I'm sure he was in a great deal of pain throughout his life. He comes from a family—we're all kind of stoic; Chet and I talk about this. My mother was kind of stoic. My father said only babies cry. We've learned to endure pain, and Chet certainly did. Sometimes people who encounter him have no idea the kind of pain he is in most of the time. He's a remarkable man.
      "He'd be perfectly happy if he dies there on the road. He is well-liked, helpful and keeps the children entertained, which always makes train men happy," said Reeves, a retired schoolteacher planning to join him for a stint before she begins traveling the rails in Europe.
      For Bailey, he looks back on his life with satisfaction.
     "I had a chance to go to Vienna, to Paris. I blew it all," he says. "That's life. I still like that music—Chopin, Mussorgsky - I used to have a Walkman and some tapes, but they were stolen in my last grip. I never made a lot of money; I just had a lot of fun."
      But despite Bailey's carefree attitude, or perhaps because of it, he often has a deep impact on the people he meets. Amtrak's Patti, whenever he has a moment or two free, likes to sit and chat with Bailey.
      "He reads the latest books. He has knowledge in all sorts of directions—music, literature, mechanics, gold panning," said Patti. "He seems to be a happy guy. He's happy doing this. It's not sad for him. I've always respected him, and never had any problems. He's always been very courteous—someone who deserves respect.
      "The thing is, in a few years, these kind of people will not be around anymore. He is one of the last of his generation. He's just that type of a person, who knows a lot because he has experienced a lot. I'm definitely glad I met him, and I'm glad that I probably will meet him again."
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 31, 1986


  1. Wow. Thank you. That could go on for another few hundred pages

  2. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a delightful life and so very nicely described.


  4. To me perpetual traveling would be a form of hell. But, different strokes.

    1. Your reaction brings to mind how I felt after that famous fictional tale "The Man Without a Country", which I read when I was very young. It both saddened and upset me...but that guy was being punished. This dude did it by choice. Gotta wonder whether or not Chet eventually died while "on the road" (as in railroad) or else had to quit traveling and live with his sister because of his disabilities. If so, he was probably miserable in his final days.

      My cousin did the same thing in the late 70s, but only for a few months. He was newly divorced and traveled solo, but he was never alone for long. He was not yet thirty and he looked like a Jewish version of Elvis. I heard more than a few lurid (and X-rated) tales. Use your imagination.

      Mr. S, this is one of your best. I'm guessing this was not in the Sun-Times, but maybe in a magazine instead? Hence the length. If the paper ever goes into the dumper, you definitely ought to consider freelancing again. This story have could have easily become book-length. I love trains, and own a lot of railroading books. I'd have bought it in a heartbeat.

    2. Thanks Grizz. No, it was in the Sun-Times. I somehow left that out of the date at the end; I'll have to tuck it in. We had a big features section—we forget what a phone book the thing was, at one point. I'm amazed at how consistent my tone is, over the years. I was 26 when I wrote this. Not bad, for a kid.

    3. I haven't forgotten at all what the features section was like in the Seventies and Eighties. I'd have killed to have been allowed to transfer to that department. I begged and pleaded for even as much as a tryout, but it was no dice. I was knifed by somebody who was before your time (1977). It's not paranoia--I saw her inter-office memos. I think I'd have succeeded, had I gotten the chance, but I didn't. No need to go into the whys and wherefores. This isn't the place.

      I will say this, though--nearly everybody who rose through the ranks in those times came to Chicago from elsewhere, usually someplace smaller. Most native talent, with very few exceptions, got the crappy end of the stick. I believe I know why, but again, this is not the venue for that.

  5. this story leaves me wanting more!

  6. Beautiful story. Left me wanting more. Like other commentators, can't help thinking what an interesting even fascinating life story of a book it might have been. Im also impressed by the maturity of your writing at 26 years old.


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