This is about my first job with an actual paycheck, the first job that taught me the difference between wages and take-home pay. Some of the following words and sentences and punctuation were taken from an article I wrote about five years ago.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, it was my job as a pretend Indian, employed in the service of the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, to attack the train, terrorize the showgirls and threaten the passengers with a rubber tomahawk, before being dispatched by armed conductors. Most of the time the blood was fake.
Note: I’m mostly going to use the word “Indian” instead of the more appropriate “Native American,” because none of us were actual Native Americans (though some of my comrades claimed to have Cherokee blood) and it would be wrong (as if getting paid to perpetuate a racist stereotype wasn’t wrong enough) to refer to the cartoon characters we played as “Native Americans.” Also, “Indian” is shorter.
The job was the path of least resistance because my big brother was already working there at the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, so I had an easy “in,” which meant I didn’t have to go out and schlep around for a job at a fast food joint or warehouse or factory (no, that would come later). Nor did I have to go to my father to ask for a job at a bowling alley (also later). Besides, at 16 the idea of playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’ with virtually no adult supervision, with access to guns (real guns) and diesel fuel and liquor and drugs and pretty girls somehow appealed to me.
We didn’t consider ourselves “actors.” If anything, we were poorly paid grease-painted stuntmen employed in one of the most exploitive, politically incorrect and morally reprehensible forms of live entertainment imaginable. Every show ended with the twisted bodies of fake Indians littering the ground while the conductors holstered their pistols, the showgirls fanned themselves and the train steamed off, blowing a triumphant whistle. It really was kind of evil and I’ll probably spend eternity in the hell of a million sun dances for saying this, but it was the most fun I ever had working. Or rather, “working.”
We were several miles away from the authorities, on the back side of the mountain, a bunch of teen boys engaged in a tourism-industry version of Lord of the Flies, and thankfully I wasn’t Piggy. No, that role went to a kid named Bud (name changed, just in case the real guy happens to find this and has gotten really big and holds grudges). He truly earned the disdain thrown at him. His first day on the job, Bud announced, “I am an expert horseman, and I expect to ride a horse in every show.” The thing is, every kid on that job wanted to ride the horse, so we took turns. And Bud, the expert horseman, got thrown from one of these old, trained, mostly tame animals before he even left the barn.
The last time I saw Bud before he walked off the job, he was hogtied, mostly naked, to a hitching post in the middle of the fake Western town that we called the Set. I could hear him screaming as the train pulled into the Set while I rode past on the horse waving my tomahawk.
We did something like one show every 45 minutes, sometimes two an hour when they were running two trains during busy weekends. Usually, depending on which day of the week it was, or how many guys were sick, injured or otherwise avoiding work, we’d have at least five or six Indians to attack the train, sometimes a few more, sometimes just one (that’s a story by itself — the short version is, I ran through three train cars by myself and was ultimately finished off in a hail of invisible bullets as three conductors opened fire).
Here’s the basic plot structure of the show, devised by a couple of kids from the local community college.
Passengers would board the train and each car had an armed conductor/cowboy plus a pretty showgirl wearing a tear-away dress. Conductors and showgirls followed a basic script that propelled the story to its violent climax. Just before the train pulled into the Set, a screaming Indian or two would burst out of the woods on horseback and ride past the cars waving tomahawks. As the train pulled into the Set, passengers saw a sheriff tied to a stake behind a fire pit, yelling for help. Then a wild Indian would sprint from behind one of the buildings with a dixie cup filled with diesel fuel that he’d throw on the fire to make big, shiny flames (you know, just like they did in the Old West).
The conductors would rush off the train to save the sheriff, and then the pesky Indians would jump out from their hiding places and run through the cars, chasing the screaming showgirls. At least one of the Indians would catch a showgirl by the back of her dress, and she would literally run out of the dress. Standing there in a corset that usually defied gravity to conceal her lulus (usually, but not always — the passengers did not have to pay extra for this, either), she’d grab the dress from the dumbfounded Indian and start beating him with it, chasing him back into the safety of a gun battle.
Meanwhile, around the Set we’d staged a number of different one-on-one battles, some hand-to-hand skirmishing here and there, a few nifty stunts, guys falling off roofs or down steps as they were gunned down by conductors, sometimes spitting up blood (that was our own personal touch — strawberry daiquiri looks pretty disgusting when you let it drool out of your mouth as you clutch your stomach and fall to the ground). But it almost always ended with the sheriff being killed by one of the Indians, the conductors gunning down almost everyone else, except for the horsemen, who sat atop their mounts yelling like idiots while the train chugged off the Set.
The whole thing left itself open to plenty of improvisation (the blood spewing, for example). Sometimes, an Indian would get on his knees and beg for mercy only to be shot by all the conductors at once. Or the conductors would yell, a la Monty Python, “Run away!” as they retreated to the train. And sometimes, a guy would ride his motorcycle instead of a horse. Which brings me to the last day.
The last show of the season on Labor Day was our chance to let all hell break loose. Instead of scraps of wood in the fire pit, we used railroad ties. Instead of a dixie cup of diesel fuel, we used a bucket. There was the motorcycle guy. There was a guy with his entire drum kit at center stage, jamming out on the porch in front of the buildings. There was mescaline. And there were seven Indians in their skivvies, marching out of the covered bridge, single file, singing, “Heigh ho, heigh ho …” One conductor fired at us and we all dropped dead like dominoes.
The passengers probably didn’t get their money’s worth, but we were only getting paid about $1.75 an hour, so what the hell. The miracle is, no one got killed and we got rehired the next summer.