In March of 2003 my friend Chris and I went to Minneapolis to see the Detroit Red Wings take on the Minnesota Wild. It was just days after the start of the Iraq War, and my 25th birthday. Along the way we made a detour to Iowa to spend the night with a friend of Chris’s, Ragman.
Ragman had lived a pretty interesting life to that point. He served in the Navy where he picked up some Apollo astronauts after a moon mission. As a hobo he rode the rails across the country. When Chris and I visited Ragman was living in a trailer in Boone, Iowa (the birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower), and needed to make it to “drink-driving” class in the morning.
He greeted us with a case of Busch Light and a chicken dinner. After spending over 10 hours on the road, a beer and a meal was just what we needed. While eating dinner Ragman said he wanted to take us to see the highest double track railroad bridge in America. Boone is the perfect place for a former hobo, the Union Pacific runs through town and a railyard is near the downtown area. At one point in its past the town hosted two other railways, but the Union Pacific is all that remains.
Ragman was not kidding. The Kate Shelley High Bridge (built in 1902, named in 1912) was indeed one of the highest double track railroad bridges in the country, and it definitely towered over the dirt road we had stopped on to view it. Because we were just days into the Iraq War we were greeted by a local sheriff with a shotgun. It is probably pretty unusual for three scruffy looking guys to stop and look at a bridge, especially one that carries the Union Pacific railroad. Ragman let the sheriff know that we just wanted to look at the bridge, and we soon left. I wanted to take a picture, especially when a train passed by, but I figured that might be asking for trouble.
The original Kate Shelley High Bridge was the first bridge (and only bridge until 1976) named after a woman. Shelley was 16 years old in 1881 when she heard a train crash during a flood near Boone, and knowing a passenger train would soon be arriving, risked her life to sound an alarm to stop the incoming train. She saved 200 passengers, and continued to live in the area until her death in 1912.
When we returned to Ragman’s trailer, we continued to drink and Ragman decided to introduce us to the world of Hawkwind. The house next door to Ragman could not have been more than 10 feet away, but Ragman cranked his record player and we listened to Hawkwind at full volume for an entire album. Which album I have no idea, but it was loud. So loud that I felt like I was either going to go deaf, or the police we going to arrive and arrest us for plotting to blow-up a bridge and noise violations. After Hawkwind we listened to the latest from the Dropkick Murphys and watched a Jimi Hendrix video (you can see it on the table in the photo).
At some point Chris and I decided we needed to get some sleep. We had been in a car for 10 hours, been at Ragman’s for at least five more, and had a four hour drive to Minneapolis still ahead of us. We also knew that Ragman needed to get to his class in a few hours, and probably should get some sleep, but Ragman decided to get his guitar.
Ragman is a folk musician, and a pretty decent one as well. I have only hung-out with Ragman on a couple of occasions, but he appears happiest when he has a guitar in hand. So essentially Ragman serended us while we pretended to sleep because we could not actually fall asleep with him playing. We must not have been drunk enough. Ragman on the other hand must have drunk at least half of the case, and was still going.
During the early morning hours Ragman did two things that still seem unbelievable to me. First, he managed to dropped a beer straight down, so it landed without spilling. Unfortunately it did land open side down, so when he reached down to grab it he spilled it all over his carpet. Second, after we thought he had finally fallen asleep in his chair we noticed he was still holding a beer. Chris decided to take the beer out of his hand, but as soon as he touched the can Ragman put a vice grip on it. He soon woke up and made his way into his bedroom.
I do not remember if I got any sleep that night. I think Ragman snuck in a few hours before leaving for his “drink-driving” class, and if Chris got anymore than a couple hours I would be surprised. He left us some coffee to drink and we started our journey to the Twin Cities where we caught Jay Farrar at First Avenue, and watched the Red Wings lose 4-0.
It is rare to meet genuine people anymore, but I can honestly say that Ragman is one of the most genuine people I will ever meet. If this had been anyone else I could easily have been annoyed with everything that was happening, but it just all seemed to make sense that we would see a tall railroad bridge, drink Busch Light, play loud English 70’s rock, and listen to Ragman sing during a visit to his house. I kind of expected it to happen that way, and looking back after nine years I am glad that it did.
Here’s a video of Ragman at the Crow Union Music Festival in 2010: