By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The older men make a pupil of Mischke. Tell him how they picked apples in Washington for six weeks, took the money, and lived on it for a year. How they cashed in food stamps on bills that came to a buck eighty, or three ninety, and put the change toward alcohol and tobacco. About the luxuries of the grain cars, the Cadillacs of the rails. The heaviest cars, the smoothest rides. That the romance of the boxcar is but a mirage. Too rickety. Goes back and forth. Jostles the brain. But most importantly, how to handle the rail-yard bulls. How in the semis that ride on the flatbeds, you can hide up in the wheel well. Room enough for a man and his knapsack. What to do with the guys who might come to stop him. How to get away. How to hide.
The cartography of the Montana rail lines is an inexact science, and no one knows if they're near a reservation when they encounter a group of Native Americans, hostile and drunk and loitering near the tracks. With the train stopped, O'Keefe tells Mischke that their height advantage in the railcar will put the Natives' heads right at the lip, should they try to get on. "Kick 'em in the throat," O'Keefe advises. "Hard as you can." Mischke nods, though he knows it isn't in him. He's 17 years old.
"I'M TAKING ALL THIS IN," Mischke says now, "trying to remember everything. They took me under their wing. They protected me. They told me what they thought were important truths they wanted me to learn. They told me the whole story of the rails. And what I learned was that it was free. It was fun. It was easy. Like jumping on the back of a whale." He laughs. "It felt like the antithesis of school, and work, and all the things in life that seemed oppressing. Ultimate freedom."
Mischke is intensely concerned with liberty. He adores it, abhors elements of life that mean to curtail it, and always has. He was born September 19, 1962, and as a grade-schooler at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, he viewed school as a prison, the jailors hell-bent on quarantining him into intellectual cells much too confining. He imagined elaborate prison breaks, thinking himself a convicted innocent, a Steve McQueen in schoolboy navies. He sent threatening letters to the principal, constructed firecracker bombs, and blew through the crossing-guard flags on his bicycle. "Today they'd track you down," he says. "But then, they just thought, 'Who is this nut?'"
Mischke's distaste for the institution is still audible. It seems to sour in his mouth as he speaks. "The compartmentalization of it," he laments. "The rigidity of it, the lack of freedom in terms of one's own ability to think differently than the teacher. I was very aware early on that the world was so much bigger than school could present it."
As a teenager, Mischke enrolled in Cretin High School, St. Paul's most vaunted and disciplinarian Catholic military academy. It was 1977, a time when Catholic brothers and ROTC colonels were free to administer corporal punishment to the student body with all manner of implements—paddles, yardsticks, and bare hands. His time at the school was a tinderbox, in which sparks could be made against any surface, and by the end of his freshman year, Mischke's contempt for authority had become intractable.
In German class, a boy behind Mischke threw an eraser at the chalkboard. The professor misidentified Mischke as the culprit and backhanded him across the head. Mischke shoved his desk, ramming the professor in the legs.
Reporting to Sgt. Klaus Mahler, he made a stiff salute, asking instead for Colonel Klink. Mahler grabbed Mischke in a chokehold, lifting him off his feet. "That's not a place to be grabbed and picked up," Mischke says. "I felt I could be decapitated. They held me against the wall, and I thought, 'I know you get to keep your job by doing that, and I know that if I swing at you, I lose my position. But on a moral level, swinging at you right now, in the grand scheme, is not only warranted but is mandatory.'" He swung, and missed.
Another day, while goofing in the hall with a fellow student, he was grabbed by a passing professor who smashed Mischke's head against a nearby locker, shouting in steady time with the blows, "WE! DO! NOT! DO! THIS! DO! YOU! UN! DER! STAND!"
"And the honest answer," he says, "was no. I knew that if I answered no, I'd get the basketball treatment again." He pantomimes the dribbling of a ball while knocking his temple with a knuckle. "But I was more interested in the honest reaction at that point. So I said, 'No. I do not understand.'"
The beating continued. Mischke chuckles. "Eventually, much like McCain, I succumbed under torture."
His tenure at Cretin was short. He graduated from Highland Park High School and pursued his journalism degree at St. John's and St. Thomas universities. His father, Maurice Mischke, was the publisher of The Highland Villager, a man who subscribed to four daily newspapers and 20 magazines a month. It was a home in which periodicals by the hundreds were carefully archived by date, the way a druggist might arrange his newsstand. Life. National Geographic. Time. Stacks upon stacks of The New York Times. By the age of seven, Mischke was printing his own newspaper, titled TSM, for "Tommy's Super Magazine," from a makeshift bedroom office.