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In the fall of 1976 I was a young boatswain with the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston. One weekend I joined some crewmates for a camping trip to the Maine woods. Sunday evening as we headed home it began to rain, the interior of the car turning moodily dark and the radio crackling with the static of distant thunderstorms. But over the din I heard something through the speaker that caught my attention, the tail end of a haunting lyric: "… twenty-six thousand tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty."

"Hey, quiet!" I shouted, and the driver pulled the car to the shoulder. The four of us sat in the darkness straining to hear, the song paralyzing us with awe. It was a song of shipwreck, of fear and of the perils of the sea. It was a song about us!

The ballad was of course "The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald," by Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday at 84. And even though I had been familiar at the time with Gord's body of work up until then, I instantly became one of his greatest admirers. Over the next 40 years I would develop an even deeper appreciation of his music — his ballads of ships and sailors, of Canada, of lost love, and especially his songs about freight trains.

A few years later, now a civilian and living back home in Minneapolis, I fell in with a pack of like-minded dreamers who called themselves "Boxcar Buffoons." Every September we Buffoons would heed Gord's call and set off to see the world from the vantage point of a westbound freight train. Along the way we sang the refrains of songs like "Early Morning Rain," "Steel Rail Blues," and "Alberta Bound." Gord's anthem to his native country — the Canadian Railroad Trilogy — became our anthem, too, as we rolled through the mountains singing:


"There was a time in this fair land, when the railroad did not run,

When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun.

Long before the white man, and long before the wheel

When the green dark forest was too silent to be real."


One September, having grown complacent from our many sojourns across the American Rockies, we decided we needed to try the Canadian side of the border. Three of us hopped a freight to Portal, N.D., where we jumped off to clear customs. (We'd been warned about crossing the border illegally.) When the customs agents realized what we were up to, an immigration officer was summoned from a rear office. His demeanor was decidedly more businesslike than that of the other agents and he got right to the point:

"You understand that riding freight trains in Canada is illegal, eh?"

We assured him that we did, that in fact it was illegal in the U.S. as well. He continued:

"Then you must also know that I could arrest you right now and you'd spend the rest of your weekend in jail. You like the sound of that?"

No one said anything. Would he really do that? I decided it was time to play our trump card. "Sir, if I may?" I began. "Sir, one of your fellow countrymen — Mr. Gordon Lightfoot — has recorded quite a few songs about riding freight trains across Canada." And I went to list any number of Gord's hits, songs that every true Canadian loves and knows by heart. For effect, I concluded with a line from one of my own favorites, "Early Morning Rain," which I sang:

"You can't jump a jet plane, like you can a freight train."

The agent's eyebrows lifted in wonder but then he leaned across the counter separating us. "I got news for you, son," he said. "Old Gordo's spent some time in jail for some of the stunts he's pulled up here. I wouldn't be so eager to use him as a reference."

Uh-oh — was that true? Had I found the lone Lightfoot defector in all of Canada? But as the agent studied me I sensed a change of his opinion of us, that the mere mention of Gord's name had somehow disarmed him.

"Get the hell out of here," he said quietly. "And I'd better not see you get back on that train out there."

Well, he never did see us get back on that particular train, but we later caught another westbounder all the way to Vancouver, perhaps the greatest freight train trip I would ever experience. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I'd like to think that Gordon Lightfoot made it happen. And I am forever grateful.

Rest in peace, Gord.

John Halter lives in St. Paul.