Monday, June 28, 2010

Lillian Alling: Trainspotting

In the opera Lillian Alling, Lillian finds herself somewhere in the great expanse of the midwest in the summertime, and encounters another traveller on her trip to "North of Dakota". Asking how she might get there and how far it might be, he replies that she might want to hop a freight train passing by to speed her journey.

How are we going to get a freight train on stage? Just you wait and see...

In the 1920's it would not have been unusual to find a person riding the rails by illegially and secretly jumping onto a passing train and hiding in or on the freight cars. It had been a common practice as far back as the Civil War and would rise dramatically with the onset of the Great Depression (1929-1939).

Our opera takes place before the Great Depression, but at a time when cross country travel was mostly via train, rather than automobile, bus or certainly air travel. At the time, rail travel would not have been cheap (comparatively) and it would be very unlikely that Lillian could have afforded it. However, it would not have been uncommon for a number of itinerant workers to "hop a freight" while trying to make it from one job to another, often following the harvest cycles. These travellers were often known as "hobos".

Hobos, tramps and bums - there's a difference!
There's actually a hierarchy of nomenclature for the itinerant worker of no fixed address. A Hobo is a travelling worker of no fixed address outside of a work camp associated with a job (usually agricultural). A Tramp is a travelling homeless person who will work if forced to gain food or shelter. A Bum is a person with neither home nor intention to work who will rely on handouts to get by. All three would commonlly ride the rails from place to place during the time period of the opera. It's estimated that at the time of our opera there would have been between 500,000 and 700,000 hobos on the rails, making Lillian's fictional encounter a very likely one in real life. Even today, it is believed that at least 20,000 people still live the hobo lifestyle, and in Britt, Iowa there is an annual National Hobo Convention to celebrate and assist those who have chosen to "decide your own life".

How to hop a freight
First of all -- don't. It's illegal and very dangerous. The days of slow moving, open sided covered box cars are long gone. Today's trains are faster, heavier, intermodal containers or lorries with open bottoms. Hopping a freight is illegal in all states (and presumably all provinces) and trespassing on rail property carries a heavy fine and/or jail time. Many a hobo lost life or limb falling under the wheels of a train car, getting smashed between cars or their couplings, or ending up dead from hypothermia or suffocation after getting trapped inside a car.

But if you simply must try it - check here for some tips

Hobo Lingo
Over the decades a colourful slang of its own developed amongst those riding the rails. Here's some fun ones you might want to learn (full list here):

Angellina - an inexperienced kid
Bull - a rail officer, to be avoided at all costs
Cannonball - a fast train
Flip - to board a moving train
Grease the Track - to be run over by a train
Reefer - a contraction of "refrigerated car"
Catch the Westbound - to die

"That Angellina tried to flip a cannonball to get away from that bull, but instead he greased the tracks under the reefer and caught the westbound."

As a headline for this post, it makes a great word, especially since the film. However, strictly speaking, what Lillian does in the opera is "freight hopping" and not "trainspotting", which is the practice of documenting sightings of trains as a hobby.

Watch a fantastic film called Emperor of the North, starring Lee Marvin, Earnest Borgnine and a young Keith Carradine. In it, Lee Marvin tries to ride Earnest Borgnine's train all the way to Portland to win a bet, all the while trying to shake young Carradine, a wannabe hobo. It's got fightin' and cussin' and a good deal of silliness, plus a fantastic climactic fight at the very end. Directed by Robert Aldrich in 1973, it is a gem and well worth seeking out. (In Vancouver you can get it a Happy Bats Cinema)

~ all images from Emperor of the North, Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin (again), and a really scary looking Ernest Borgnine