The Story Behind “The Short Way Back”

By Doug Adair © 2015

Many years ago when I was a college student, I had a job as an RA or Resident Assistant. I was in charge of 38 guys who lived on one floor in a large dormitory on campus. Instead of calling me Doug Adair, they called me DA – the RA. Working as an RA is an experience I will always remember. I had one of the most extraordinary collections of young men ever assembled in one place, at one time. Although, I suppose everyone who’s ever been an RA feels the same way about their own experience as an RA. While I had a bunch of real characters on my floor, there was one guy in particular who I will never forget.

We called him “the King”. He was very intelligent but also incredibly eccentric. He was as “thin as a rail” (this is an important part of the story and I’ll tell you more about this later). He had a “shock” of crazy, un-kempt hair and wild, penetrating eyes embedded in dark circles, almost like a raccoon. He wore mismatched, wrinkled, funky smelling clothes that he kept “organized” in piles on the floor of his room and also under his bed. He spoke in a gravely, cartoon-like voice and he used the F-word in almost every sentence he spoke like “Aw, for F#%!, Adair. Why the F#%! do I need this F#%!’n class anyway? What the F#%!’n difference will it make? F#%! Is it gonna make me F#%!’n wealthy?”

The King was clearly a piece of work! He would do weird things like get up early on a Tuesday morning and, instead of going to class, he would hitchhike to his hometown a couple of hours away. When he got there, he would go to his local bank and withdraw $10 from his savings account. He would then hitchhike back to the university—stopping at roadhouses and taverns along the way and spending all $10 (a bottle of beer was pretty cheap back then) by the time he arrived back on campus that night.

I also remember one time in the dorm when he knocked on my door at almost midnight on a Sunday night during a fierce snowstorm in the middle of January. He wanted to tell me he had decided to start a beer can collection (which was a popular thing to do back in those days). I said that’s great and he said, “yep, I’m gonna get started right now.” And off he went into brutally cold winds and snow-drifted alleys to rummage through frozen trash barrels in pursuit of collectible beer cans.

I have one story in particular I want to tell you about the King. I even wrote a song and have produced a video called “The Short Way Back” which recounts the story. Before I tell you the story and you see the video and hear the song, I want to say upfront that I am not endorsing the King’s behavior and I definitely want to discourage anyone else from doing what the King did. So, enjoy the story and the song but, please! please! please!, don’t be stupid enough to try this yourself.

When the university would close down during the summer, I used to stay in town because I sang and played music in local bars and worked a number of part-time jobs in town and on campus. Early on one Monday morning, I read a story in the local newspaper about a student from the university who’d been run over by a railroad engine and 40 boxcars of a railroad train on Saturday night.

Miraculously, the student was not injured except for a couple of scrapes. He had been uptown drinking that night and was walking back home along the railroad tracks before he passed out, flat on his back, in between the rails. The local Police did not arrest him but instead told him to go home and sleep it off. When I read the story, even though the name of the student wasn’t identified, I knew immediately it had to be the King.

You see, a couple weeks earlier, the King had come by my house with a 12-pack of beer to hang out with me. Once you’re an RA for someone like the King, you’re always gonna be his RA. I think RAs call someone like the King a “lifelong resident”. The King continued to call me and visit me well after I had resigned from my job as an RA and had moved into a house near the campus. Because his impromptu visit came during summer break when there was almost no one else in town, I actually appreciated having some company that evening. We sat drinking beer and talking for 3 or 4 hours about old times with the guys on our dorm floor, politics of the day, the real meaning of Bob Dylan’s songs, the King’s ex-girlfriend Zelda, and other pertinent stuff like that.

When the King got up to leave, I offered to give him a ride in my car to the edge of town where he was living in a development of manufactured homes (or what we used to call trailers). He said no thanks. He was going to take “the short way back”, walking along the railroad tracks, as he said did every day. So, when I read the story in the newspaper, I just knew it had to be the King.

A couple days later, I was taking care of some business on campus and was just about to enter the Student Center when I saw the King. I called out to him. “Hey King, get over here. I’ve got a question to ask you. Are you the guy who got run over by a train?”

The King immediately replied, “Aw for F#%!, Adair. How do you know about that?” I said, “Well, I read it in the newspaper and I was certain it was you.” He said, “Aw for F#%! Adair. You mean there’s a story in the newspaper?” I said, “Yes, I think it’s probably been in newspapers all over the country by now but the story doesn’t reveal your name”.

I said, “How bad did you get hurt? The newspaper said you had some minor scrapes.” The King replied, “Aw for F#%!, Adair. I didn’t get hurt at all. I had some cuts and scratches on my chest. The cops thought the train caused ‘em but I told them, no, I got those cuts and scratches the week before when I was crawling through junk cars in a junkyard that runs along the railroad tracks, looking for coins in the cracks of the seats.”

I went on to say, “You’re story is really amazing. If newspapers and radio and TV stations, especially programs like the Tonight Show, find out who you are, they’ll want to interview you for sure. You can probably become famous and make lots of money too.” He then said, “Aw for F#%!, Adair, I don’t want anybody to know about this. It’s too embarrassing! Please don’t ever tell anybody that it was me who got run over by the train. Okay?”

Well, just seconds later, who else, but the President of the university, comes walking into the Student Center. To be honest, most students rarely, if ever, saw the President out walking around on campus. Of course, there I was standing in the entrance of the Student Center with the King and his “shock” of crazy, un-kempt hair; his wild, penetrating eyes embedded in dark circles like a raccoon; and his mis-matched, wrinkled and funky smelling clothes.

I happened to know the President pretty well because I was a leader of a student organization that produced concerts, film festivals, events and other activities programs. The President came up to say hello and asked my how my summer was going. I was caught completely off-guard and even though I was embarrassed to be standing there with the King, I felt obliged to introduce him to the President as a student who had been one of my residents when I was an RA.

The first words to come out of the King’s mouth were – “Hey Mr. President! Did you hear about the guy who got run over by a train?” The President replied in a concerned voice, “Yes, in fact, I did. It’s quite an incredible story.” The King then replied in his most gravely, most cartoon-like voice, “well, you’re looking at him!”

Well, so much for keeping secrets, huh? I guess the King is no different from the rest of us. We all want our full 15 minutes of fame if we can get it—and why not a little wealth too—if it just happens to come along with the fame.