LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON - ERIC BEETNER
Just where the hell did she think she was going anyhow? Standing by the side of the road, holding out a cardboard sign that says ‘San Francisco’ on it.
But is that really where you’re headed?
I say if you take to the open road to put a destination on it, it's just cheating yourself out of half the journey. My Daddy always said you can’t find yourself unless you go out lookin’.
So, while I admire this young girl for taking the first few steps out the door, I can’t abide by her choice of destinations. It’s not the city itself that bothers me; it’s the idea of knowing where it’s all going to end. None of us really do. Subsequently, to teach her the lesson, there she sits - lays really - dead in the trunk of my car.
Now, just so you don’t think that I am unaware of the irony that my lesson will never be fully appreciated by a dead girl, let me just explain that I am aware of the inconsistencies in my actions. But, please allow me, this is part of my journey.
My Daddy rode the rails. As a young man of eighteen during the waning days of the Great Depression, he took to the boxcars and made his way out west, then north, then back east and then a big loop back to right outside Joliet, Illinois, where he finally got off and raised a family.
In that time, he told me late one night when I was mature enough to understand such things, he killed three men.
The first he killed because if he didn’t that man was going to kill him. They found themselves occupying the same box car one night and this other fellow felt he had some sort of territorial right to it, although they were both there illegally in the first place. And when he started into a dialogue about charging my Daddy rent in the form of his pair of shoes, well, my daddy said no. This upset the other fellow and a knife fight ensued. You didn’t dare get on the rails without carrying a knife of one fashion or another. This other fellow had made one of his own from the hunk of metal he found laying on the ground at a switchyard and my daddy had his Pop’s fishing knife used for gutting.
Right away, my Daddy started with the advantage and, when you added in the fact that my Daddy had only been on the rails for about two weeks and this fellow had been riding since going on three years, well, then there was no fight to be had, weak from hunger as this other fellow was.
Daddy tossed his body off a bridge hoping it would go down into the river and be washed far away but heaving the dead weight of a man, even though he only figured to be about a hundred and fifteen pounds, proved too much and the other fellow landed on the deck of the wooden bridge, left there to rot when the sun come up the next morning. This girl sitting, sorry – laying – in my trunk right now is number twenty-seven as far as I can remember. One thing I did learn from my Daddy is that killing a man is enough in the act of doing it to make you remember it forever so no need writing anything down.
He stopped at three.
If I knew then what I know now about the numbness of it all and the downright repetitive nature of the business, then I would have told him that, in fact, they do all tend to blend together as one. Pretty much everyone says the same stuff. No one really sees it coming and I’m sure every one of these kids I pick up on the road has been told by their own Mommas not to go out hitchhiking. I’m sure they all been told not to smoke either but about ninety percent of them do. Always the second question: Where you going? and Got any cigarettes? The second man my daddy killed was a worker for the Burlington Northern railroad. He came up on Daddy sleeping it off in a car just outside of Lawrence, Kansas. This guy was awfully rude, according to Daddy, and threatened to haul him off to jail. My Daddy was a good speaker. Momma always said he had a silver tongue. He could not under any circumstances, however, talk this man from the Burlington Northern into letting him just go on his merry way.
Finally he just picked up his pack and started out back across the tracks and past the switch house. This guy follows him. He won’t give it up. He has blood in his eye from a ruptured vessel so he looks meaner than usual even though Daddy had never seen him before. He assumed he could not look this unpleasant every day of his life. He had a handlebar mustache thick with wax that looked like it took time each morning before he came to work.
Now spit was collecting in the ringlets as he screamed out at my daddy to stop walking away and he was going to call in the yard security. Daddy just walked calmly, he didn’t run from no man. The Burlington Northern man carries this big stick for just such a purpose as to chase away hobos. Well, here he comes with it at my Daddy, his feet crunching in the pieces of slate they laid between the tracks so Daddy can hear him coming up fast. So my daddy spins around with his knife out and catches this guy right in the gut. Daddy said he was coming so fast if he had been just one second later he would have gotten clocked on the head and been sent to jail for the weekend. But Daddy did his spin that one second earlier and stopped that guy dead in his tracks so close to him that he could smell the wax on his face. That knife, remember, was made for gutting so when this guy’s knees buckled from the wound to the gut, that knife just cut through him like a Christmas ham and my daddy pulling it out only made it slice faster so, by the time this Burlington Northern guy had hit the ground, he had been split open from his belt to his shirt pocket and right up through all three buttons on his vest.
Daddy heard the rumble of another train and didn’t even stop to see which way it was headed, he just ran over and hopped on. He never saw that man officially be pronounced dead but he knew a wound like that only produces one outcome.
Don’t ask me how I started strangling. I even have my Granddaddy’s old fishing knife. More dull now but still would do the trick. It’s the blood I don’t like. And it’s the lesson. If you want someone to hear you and to learn anything, you need to have their attention for a few moments. I have seen the intense focus on their faces and I know that whatever I say is exactly what they are going to be thinking when they go see St. Peter. Maybe, in my own small way, I provide a few answers to Peter’s questions. I’d like to think I help people get in. I know I won’t be going. Then again, if I really do help then Peter will be glad to meet me. Thanks for all the guests, he’ll say, and then he’ll wave me on in.
This girl was a Meth tweaker. I seen enough of it to know one by the time my tires stop on the soft shoulder. They’re always out of it, too. I guess they score the stuff and then hole up for a while until it runs out and then have to hit the road to score again or to get on with their journey to wherever it is they think they might be going.
I never did see the point to any of that stuff. Why speed up the journey if you don’t know where you’re going to? You’ll miss an awful lot along the way. When I took to hitchhiking, the drivers used to love getting a guy like me. “Where to?” they’d ask because I didn’t have no stupid cardboard sign. “Anywhere at all.” I’d say.
It was a trucker who first showed me what Meth can do to you. He was a long-time tweaker and it showed in his baggy eyes. Those people can look so tired and completely awake all at once. Their face is long and sagging but the whites of their eyes have a glaze over them and, behind it, they are moving faster than you or I. He started talking about stuff and I felt like I didn’t want to be there and then he reached for my crotch and a whole lot of stuff happened and, well, he’s dead and I’m not. Enough said. That was number one and, like I say, this gal here is number twenty-seven or thereabouts.
The one thing about the tweakers is that everyone kind of expects them to turn up dead. It’s never on the news. I think someone finds them and sees that some sort of foul play was involved and I imagine a big fat State Trooper standing over a body and shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Well, that figures.” Good kids from good families make the evening news but those kids don’t go out hitchhiking with cardboard signs.
The third man my Daddy killed was outside a bar in Moline, Illinois. It was for a good cause, too. Daddy was inside drinking a few with the local boys after a day of good honest labor. This was after he quit the rails but before he got married and all that. He found a good job at a grain silo and worked there for eight months before he hopped the train one final time. But, anyway, this guy, this drunk jerk redneck son-of-a-bitch, he comes into the bar or wait, no, he was already there. That’s right. He’s already there getting’ good and liquored up since long before Daddy and his crew come in. He’s got his wife with him and the drunker he gets, the meaner he gets and the uglier his language and manner becomes.
Daddy said the gal was real cute and that’s how come he kept looking over to the booth they were sitting in. This redneck starts to become real loud, too. Everyone is there just trying to enjoy a beer on a Friday night and this scumbag is making trouble and saying awful things to his woman. He hurls a few more insults and then he hauls off and smacks his lady. Well, this just isn’t done where I come from.Daddy taught me that. He was fixing to teach this redneck a lesson, too.
He and a few of his buddies waited until the redneck left and then they followed him out to the parking lot. Daddy confronted him and told him he shouldn’t be talking to a woman like that and that you never, ever hit a woman, not ever. This drunk bastard takes a poke at my Daddy. The wife runs. She’s seen this song and dance before. The two buddies my Daddy has with him step and grab up this drunk and hold him. Daddy takes a punch to this guy's gut and then another and then another. Well, Daddy don’t know this guy has a mild case of diverticulitis, which is something with the gallbladder or something and that goes ahead and ruptures and this guy is dead by the time the ambulance reaches the hospital. That night, Daddy is on the train and headed for Joliet.
So there you go. His journey brought him to my Mom and then I was born and here I am. If he had hopped that first rail and said, “I’m going to California.” and then just plain and simple got off when he got there, he would have missed half the journey of his life. You can’t just hop off the train car and stop moving forward whenever you like it because you’re just flat-out leaving your life behind. That train still keeps moving without you on it. So does your life, keep going, I mean. If you stop to take a breather, you may never get back on. So that’s my lesson. You can’t know where you’re going on the road to finding yourself.
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how many more young people I’ll pick up and have to teach a lesson to. I don’t know when it’s going to end. I’ll let the world tell me. I know I’m not in control. I’m not supposed to be. Larger forces are at work here. There’s more road to drive. More people to meet. More lives to change.
Death is a change of life. Don’t get all preachy and tell me it isn’t because it is. It’s the ultimate. If you run away from home to make a big change in your life and you end up dead on the side of the road in west Nevada then, brother, your life has taken a diversion. You can thank me later at the pearly gates.
BIO: Eric Beetner is an Editor, Producer, Director and Screenwriter in Los Angeles. He has sold several scripts but none have made it to the screen, like most writers in Hollywood. He wrote and directed his own film 'Taking Your Life', which played well on the festival circuit and can be found on Indieflix.com. Some of his music videos and short films can be found at ericbeetner.com.