Scott Sparling

Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire

Climbing Rex Hill

Posted on Feb 21st, 2011.

The last time I took a freight trip with Iron Legs Burk was in 1989. I cut out of work early and met him on the railroad bridge that crosses the Willamette River south of Portland. We figured the train would slow for the bridge – enough, we hoped, to let us jump it.

By ’89, freights were running without cabooses. Instead of a cab, there was a flatcar with a dinky red light at the end of the train. The set-up was tragic and pathetic – the noble caboose discarded. But it made catching a ride somewhat easier. We just let the whole train pass, then chased down the flatcar.

Jesse, aka Iron Legs, climbed on first, then I grabbed the short rear ladder. I’d lost a step, maybe, and my momentum didn’t quite carry me all the way up, so Jesse put out a hand and gave a pull. That was the first and only time I ever needed help hopping a freight, and maybe a good signal that it was time to hang it up.

When we got to McMinnville, we hopped out, walked through town, and hit a bar, and eventually called my girlfriend for a ride back to Portland. It’s possible I’d forgotten to tell her about our freight plans, because she was not happy about having to drop everything and come pick us up. But she did. We’re still together and it remains on the list of bad things I’ve done.

It was a beautiful ride, though. A crisp August day through great country. That’s me in what we used to call a deep-dish gondola. If you look closely, you can see the trestle we’re crossing. Iron Legs Burk says this photo was taken climbing Rex Hill near Newberg, Oregon, and I believe him.

Photo by D.C. Jesse Burkhardt

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Summer, freights, bars, girlfriends: "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry."

Posted in Trains

Bad Advice for Writers

Posted on Feb 19th, 2011.

Writing a novel? First, you’ll need one of these. The Kaypro II. It comes with 64 KB of RAM and two double-sided, double-density drives for your 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. Encased in aluminum, and at just 29 pounds, it’s completely portable. Mine set me back about $1,800, but the price may have come down since 1983.

Sure, you could go cheap and try to write your masterpiece on a typewriter, but that’s gonna take forever. With the Kaypro, you can cut your novel-writing time to under three decades, tops. Sounds unbelievable, but I did it, and you can too.

 

 

Here’s what makes the Kaypro such a time-saver. Let’s say you’ve written the following paragraph as a first draft.

“Dexter Company had the school photo business from all over the state; Slater’s job was to develop rolls of photo paper. He ran a machine called the Silva, twenty-five feet of tanks and drums and torque, and he worked in the dark, listening to the hum and talking to the machine, his eight hours of competence and solitude, his rap and discourse in the dark. The whine of the rollers sometimes reminded him of freight trains crossing the Rockies, metal grinding against metal like the sound of violins being played under water. After he was fired, he imagined the Silva on the hot desert land outside Dexter Company, decaying, fulgent, a strange tribute to the gods or some fantastic drum set of the industrial age, after everyone got tired of the music.”

The first thing you’re going to want to cut is that line about violins being played under water. No one knows what that sounds like, with the possible exception of Lloyd Bridges. Who, sadly, is no longer with us.

On your old Selectric, you’d have to retype the whole thing just to lose that one phrase. Not so with the Kaypro. Simply mark the beginning of the phrase with ^KB. Then hit ^F repeatedly until you come to the end of the phrase. Mark it with ^KK and then enter ^KY. Magically, the offending phrase disappears. Or you could move the phrase somewhere else with just another 13 keystrokes.

Next you’ll want to change Slater’s name to Stryker, and then to Trager, and then to Stone, and then back to Slater. You’ll want to get rid of that part about “fulgent,” too. Also that whole section about “rap and discourse in the dark.” That’s a little weird. Take that out. Then put it back in. Then out. See how easy the Kaypro makes everything? Suddenly you have a zillion choices for every single line.

Later you may realize that it’s not Slater who works in the photo lab, but some other character, and it’s not in the desert, but Northern Michigan. You may decide to cut the passage entirely. No worries. The Kaypro runs on the reliable CP/M operating system. However, depending on how much time has passed, your floppy disks will need to be converted to Apple’s operating system before you can make any changes to your novel, or work on it in any way, including simply reading it. And while computer science has not yet invented a way to convert CP/M to Apple, you can get some mail-order software from Ohio that will convert everything to MS/DOS, supposedly, if you can find an old Dell or something. Then you could convert that into Apple…or you could just retype the whole damn thing. 

If you still have that Selectric.

 

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Bonus bad advice: To get a Kaypro II of your own, build a time machine, travel to 1983 and bring one back "Duty Free."

Posted in Writing

Happy Birthday, Segerfile

Posted on Feb 11th, 2011.

Thirteen years ago, I needed to take a break from working on my novel. It was 1997. The web existed, but barely -- there was no Google, no Facebook, no LOLCats. The Internet was empty, compared to today. To get my mind off Wire to Wire, I did what any born-in-Michigan, proud-of-the-Motor-City writer might do: I decided to start a website about Bob Seger. 

It wasn't meant to be a big deal. I figured I'd spend about six months on the site. Today, Segerfile.com turns thirteen years old. 

I was lucky in a couple of crucial ways. First of all, no one else was writing about Seger online at the time. I had a monopoly. I'd go to the public library here in Portland, search out old Seger articles on microfilm, copy them down, come home and post them on my site. That was the 1997 version of Google Alerts.

Even luckier, though, was the fact that Seger was staying completely out of sight at the time. He wasn't touring. He wasn't releasing new material. Mostly, he was being a dad, raising his kids. 

The absence of real Seger news, which at first seemed frustrating, turned into a good thing. It forced me to become an essayist, rather than a reporter. The writing took on personality, became humorous, even sarcastic. The people who returned to the site came back, I think, not because there was news, but because it was fun to read. At least, that's how it seemed to me. 

The focus of this site, scottsparling.net, is Wire to Wire. But for one night only, join me as The Segerfile celebrates 13 years online by sampling a few of my favorite posts. And remember to do this

The Seger vs. Springsteen Complexo-Meter World Exclusive(TM)

Are there folks out there who really like Bruce's music, but just wish it was, well, a little less confusing? Does "Born to Run" leave you scratching your head? No problem! Just buy one of Bob's CD's. You'll find it in the "Rock Music for Dummies" section…more

I've Got Tonight

What a party! All my celebrity friends showed up, plus quite a few people I probably ought to recognize, but don't. After about ten hours, though, things went a little sour. I was happily playing foosball with Sheena Easton, when I must have blacked out…more

Listen All Night to the Wind

The trees are swaying tonight, which means the floor is moving a little, too. It's late and I'm in my treehouse, and there's music coming in on the wind. The party that I hear is 2,500 miles away at the Waldorf-Astoria, where Seger is being inducted into the Hall of Fame…more

Fortunate Son

The traffic clears and we get going again, and this is what I hope for: That my son will grow up and have his own kids and his own music, and one day, out of pure love and enthusiasm, he'll punch up the volume, turn to his kids and say "Listen"…more

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Harp jumps a freight in Wire to Wire and calls it his Crosscut hop. Call him Lucifer, if you think you should.

Posted in Music

Riding the Ann Arbor

Posted on Jan 31st, 2011.

A postcard from my wife – well, she was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just finished our only freight ride together: hopping the Ann Arbor Railroad from southern Michigan to Frankfort, where Wire to Wire is set. (It’s called Wolverine in the book.) The 250-mile trip took 24 hours.

The postcard is to my parents. They knew we were hopping freight. They didn’t know about us getting caught when we tried to change cars at Whitmore Lake, or the ankle bracelet lost in a boxcar, or the angry engineer who threw us off the train in Owosso, or how we sat at an all-night donut shop with no idea what to do next until the young brakeman happened to come in and told us how to sneak back into the yards. Parents don’t need those kind of details. The note my girlfriend/wife wrote – that the trip was “easy and hard” – says it all.

Frankfort/Elberta is where the Lake Michigan railroad ferries dock. We spent a few nights sleeping on the beach and in the trailer my parents kept in a small camp up north, then rode the ferry to Wisconsin, where we ran into a lot more things that were easy and hard, and parted ways – but not for long – in Milwaukee.

The schematic is something Iron Legs Burk and I found in a locker years later in the abandoned engine house in Elberta. It was helpful in writing Wire to Wire in that it showed the dimensions of the ferries. And for the phrase, “twin screw,” which turns up in some dialogue. “The old twin screw.” Two propellers, that is.

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Sometimes love was a train and vice versa, but mostly it wasn't: "If Love Was A Train," by Michelle Shocked

Posted in Trains | Wire to Wire

Listen to the track

Posted on Jan 21st, 2011.

Trains change when you’re close enough to touch them. The sound is different, for one thing. The roar that seems like a single thing from afar turns out to have ten layers, at least, and sometimes more. There are multiple saxophones going, and many guitars and drummers, and there are even delicate parts that are hard to hear until they hook you and then become hard not to hear.

The sound changes again if you’re actually on the train, because the interplay of train and track is reversed.

The thing to remember is that trains play the track. Like a bow on a string, except they’re both made of steel. When you’re on the train, you hear the specific rhythm of your car – and the three or four cars around you – hitting all kinds of track. The iron rail gives a little under the weight of the train, and as you move down the line, the wheels hit the joints between rails in an ever-changing drum solo.

When you’re on the ground, what you hear is the same section of track being hit by all different kinds of cars. The pattern is a little more predictable, but just as hypnotic. For me, anyway, and maybe for you too.

Warren Zevon’s brilliant lyrics to “Nighttime in the Switchin’ Yard” got this perfectly:

Listen to the train

Listen to the train

Listen to the train

Listen to the track!

Listen to the track, he said. Only someone who had actually listened, carefully and specifically, to a moving freight would get that distinction. When I first heard that line, I wondered why Zevon would write a lyric that would only make sense – only really ring true – for people like Iron Legs Burk and me, people who had actually ridden freights. But maybe I was giving us too much credit.

Anyway, nothing sounds better than a certain kind of train, unless it’s a great train song. Wire to Wire is full of music, but not train songs per se, so to rectify that, I put a list up on the site. The minute you do something like that, you know you’re gonna leave out some good ones. And sure enough, after just a couple of weeks, readers have suggested several additions.

Mike M. – a longtime reader of my other site – says I should add “The City of New Orleans,” the Arlo Guthrie version. Good call. The list has already been revised.

Fellow writer Nicole R. suggests “Train Song” by Tom Waits: “I know he's someone people either love or hate, but this song is pretty awesome and perfect for his voice.” Agreed.

From Christine P. comes “Bob Dylan's Dream” – he is, after all, on a train headed west, she points out.

And Ears Two – well known to readers of the Segerfile – suggests…well, about fifteen different train songs. As you might expect from someone with encyclopedic pop music knowledge. Many of his nominees will be added in the future.

I’m dead certain the list isn’t complete yet. What else did I miss? Let me know.

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In other music feedback, Mike M. points out that “Alice’s Restaurant” was released the year before “2+2=?” – making it an earlier antiwar song than Seger’s track. Fair enough, though I would put “Alice’s Restaurant” more in the folk rock category. Which raises a question: Why was it okay for folk artists to release antiwar protest songs all through the 1960s, while the subject seemed to be off-limits for other genres until about 1969, when Edwin Starr broke through with "War (What Is It Good For?)"

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Iron Legs Burk on the road. "Train Man," by the Bob Seger System. 

… Keep reading »

Posted in Music | Trains