I Knew Him When He Gandydanced: Chris Mulkey


Chris Mulkey

Movie Star Chris Mulkey

Clontarf, Minnesota, is a spot in the road. It was settled by the Irish, and is located in far western Minnesota, close to the border of North Dakota. It really was just a spot in the road in the summer of 1967, when I turned 21. The population was still only 164 in the 2010 census. Trains went past at 50 to 70 mph on the Great Northern Railroad, not even slowing down. Clontarf had a grocery store, a community center, and a few teen-agers when I was there. It was there that I met Chris Mulkey and George Finney. The three of us worked throwing steel plates and driving spikes for the Great Northern Railroad, the summer of 1967.
Chris and George were buddies, and still are. They took me in and we worked together in the morning throwing 13-lb. railroad track plates. The plates, which hold the rails in place on the cross ties, were what was left once the old railroad track (clickety-clack) was removed. We threw the iron plates to the side so another crew behind us could gather them up. It was very hot work.
Chris was planning to go to Hollywood. Meanwhile, he acted out fantasies while we worked. He and George would work like crazy to get ahead of the old timers behind us, who were running a machine which put down new plates. Suddenly, when we were far enough ahead, Chris would yell, “I can’t take it any more!” He would throw down his gloves and turn and run off into the fields alongside the tracks. George would raise his special crowbar and shoot Chris in the back, “Rat-tat-tat-a-tat!” and Mulkey would die in the fields a gory death. The old men hated this, but just in time, we would get back to work and stay just ahead. The old men never caught us.
After the Great Northern Railroad fed us lunch in the sun, we would go back to a flat car. We would turn in our crowbars and pick up our spike mauls. These specialized iron mallets had heads about a foot long, and one end about one inch in diameter. If you hit a spike just right, with sufficient force, you could drive a spike all the way into the crosstie through the new 13-lb. plates in only three, or sometimes two, licks. You had to hit it perfectly for that to happen. We always took our shirts off because it was very hot work.
While we had spent the morning gathering up the old track and plates, another crew riding on a train with lots of flatbeds came along behind us and tossed off onto the ground a “ribbon rail,” each section of which was a quarter of a mile long. The rails would be placed into the plates and ready for us to drive the spikes holding the rail in place. It took us all afternoon to do this.
When we got off work, we were driven back to Clontarf where the Railroad had set up two or three railroad bunk cars, each full of bunk beds stacked three high. We would use a hose to rinse ourselves off, then after cooling off a bit we would put on shirts and go to the one country store in town, if you could call Clontarf a town back then. I would buy a quart of chocolate milk and drink it all in one sitting. Mulkey would fool around with my mandolin, and he and George would think up mischief.
One Saturday we hitchhiked to nearby Fargo, North Dakota. George and Chris ran around in the public park like a couple of little boys, playing Batman and Superman. George was Batman and Chris could pose just exactly like Superman, wearing a huge heroic smile, every tooth showing, with his hands on his hips and leaning backward. When we went to cross the street to go shopping, Chris pulled out his big red Railroad bandanna and pretended to be the starter at the Indianapolis 500. When the light turned green, Chris waved his bandanna like a racecar flag for the cars to take off.
Chris did indeed go to Hollywood. George went to Hollywood and became a successful song writer. Chris was in the first Rambo movie with Sylvester Stallone; in Broken Arrow with John Travolta; in Rainman; in Radio as the bad guy; and so on. You can see the list of his forty or so movies at http://www.fandango.com/chrismulkey/filmography/p103748 and can read about him in Wikipedia. He has put out several CDs of original blues music, has his own band, is a big fan of Elvis, and has always steered clear of movies which he felt would compromise his deep Catholic faith. He is happily married to Karen, a movie actress herself, and has two super children.
He is currently on the TV show “Grimm,” an NBC series, playing Bart, the father of Monroe. But I knew him when he was Chris Mulkey the loco gandydancer, running to escape work through the fields alongside the railroad track, and being shot down by George Finney with his spike maul. He never make it under George’s deadly pretend gunner’s eye, always getting shot down; but Chris sure did make it in Hollywood.

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