|Back in those times, on days that you weren't going to school, boys would leave their homes in the morning and not return until suppertime. In those glorious days, parents weren't concerned that someone would snatch your kids, and children were expected to stay outside all day, out of your parents' way. At age 11, I had a paper route that required me and my brother, Steve, who was 10, to meet the newspaper distributor on Sunday mornings at 3 a.m. so that we could pick up our newspapers, put the final Sunday paper together out of bundles of separate sections, including the comics and all the advertising inserts, and then deliver it to all our customers by 6 in the morning. With that kind of responsibility, my brother and I weren't afraid to wander and explore new areas.
We had a buddy our age, Walter Huber, who lived in the neighborhood and served as an altar boy at Christ the King Cathedral with Steve and me. We also went to school together at Christ the King Elementary, where stern nuns constantly warned us of the dangers of the world. It was a scary time, we were constantly cautioned, because the Russians could start World War III at any time and atomic bombs would rain upon us. Outside our classroom was a yellow triangular sign that told us a fallout shelter was in the basement of the school.
We regularly had drills where we marched in a somewhat orderly procession into the fallout shelter, with the nuns admonishing us to hurry because we never knew when the bombs would drop.
Several of our neighbors were putting in home fallout shelters, evidenced by dump trucks hauling tons of dirt out of their backyards. No one in our blue-collar neighborhood could afford a swimming pool, but a fallout shelter, now that was a different thing. It could mean the difference between life and death for your family.
Besides the nuns and the neighborhood fallout shelters, there was also Nikita Khrushchev. There he was staring down at us from the cardboard advertisements inside the Atlanta Transit System trolleys and buses. "We will bury you," he scolded us with an angry Russian grimace and the picture in the advertisement always showed him banging a shoe. We assumed it was one of his shoes. This was, as I recall, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, when we really came close to nuclear war. We were saved by President Kennedy, the nuns told us, and we were continually reminded that he was Catholic, too.
So, as we boys thought, if we were all going to die in an atomic conflagration, or, as the nuns constantly reminded us also, we were going to hell for impure thoughts, then why not have some adventure? And adventure meant railroad tracks, just across from dirty Peachtree Creek that ran near our neighborhood.
We used a two-foot diameter clay sewer pipe to cross over the creek. We knew where to negotiate the creek, because we had come down to the area before to shoot our BB guns at the giant Norwegian rats in the creek. I don't think we ever hurt them, but it was great sport anyway. There was an ancient stone trestle support that dated back from the War Between the States. The local story was that Sherman, the hated Yankee general that burned Atlanta, had also set fire to the wooden trestle to stop the Confederate trains. All that survived were the stone supports. We boys would climb up the 15 feet or so to get to the top of the support and it would provide a commanding view of the creek and the trains nearby. The support was right below the Southern Railway double-track trestle so that we looked up to the Southern trains as they rumbled across the trestle. The view from the support looked over the creek and onto the tracks of the Seaboard Coastline Railroad. When trains came by on either track, we could hear them from miles away as they blasted their horns approaching us; then it felt like a tornado as they rushed past us and the gritty wind from the train blew into our faces.
It was a warm summer day in 1961, a Saturday afternoon, when we crossed over Peachtree Creek to inspect a stopped Seaboard Air Line freight train. We could see the locomotives far ahead, heading towards an area we had never explored. We were curious about where this direction of tracks went, so we climbed into an empty boxcar and waited. But not for long, because the train jolted to a start, and Walter, who was standing in the doorway, almost fell out. Being young, we didnt worry about being cut in two or losing an arm under the steel wheels of the car. We were fearless.
It was exciting to pass under the Piedmont Road Bridge, a bridge we had crossed over many times. Always with my dad driving (my mom wouldn't drive) the family car, a 1955 baby blue Chevy station wagon that my mom called "Jess," after a favorite horse her dad had worked on the family farm in Vermont.
Beyond the Piedmont Road Bridge past the Spur Gas Station was the unknown. Adventure beckoned us.
What also made this trip different was that the trains we normally hopped into downtown Atlanta belonged to the Southern Railway, with F9 and E9 diesels painted in bright green, gold, and white livery. We were going on a different set of tracks today, they crossed under the Southern Railway trestle that spanned Peachtree Creek. The train we were on belonged to the Seaboard Air Line, with its diesel engines, all GP-9's, painted battleship gray. The GP stood for general purpose and they were ugly locomotives compared to the sleek F-9's and E-9's of the Southern. Southern Railway did have some GP-9's, but theirs were different from the Seaboard's. The Southern GP-9s had the long end of the locomotive forward to protect the crew in the event of a collision. The Seaboard GP-9's had the short nose up front.
As we embarked on this Saturday day trip, I had told my little band that we would only go out several miles, jump off the train, and hike back in time to play some baseball at the park.
That was the plan anyway, to see where the tracks went, beyond Piedmont Road. The Seaboard Air Line had different plans for us, however, as the train built up speed. We could only sit in the boxcar, and wait. Wait for it to slow down enough for us to jump out. Several miles went by and it was obvious my plan wasn't going to work.
"What if," my brother asked, "this train never slows down?" Worry, something highly unusual in my 11-year-old brain, began to creep in.
An hour passed, according to my Timex watch that had been my Confirmation present. I quickly figured out that we would not be able to walk home. Looking over at Steve and Walter, their worried faces showed they realized the same thing.
|We could hear the train's horn, two long notes, and one short, and then another long, as the train roared through the crossings. This train was in a hurry to get somewhere. It was exhilarating to sit just inside the doorway and watch the world go by. We went through small Georgia towns and waved at startled motorists at the crossings. We three were clearly somewhere we were not supposed to be, and it was delicious.
As the train journey progressed, my brother found a piece of cardboard and swept our little area of the car. After all, it looked like we were going to be there for a while. It was no longer fun to wave at crossings and it was now past 3 pm. We had a dollar in change among us, enough for some nickel cokes and moon pies to tide us over til supper. If in fact we could get back for supper. Steve and I also started worrying about our dad, a firm believer in the use of the belt for major breaches of discipline. Our train trip would clearly qualify as a belt offense if our Dad discovered what we were doing.
We felt the train lurch and the train began to slow down. The loud boom of the drawbars banging together as the engineer applied his air brakes, signaled it was time to get off the train. It was now or never, it looked like.
The train was coming around a right hand curve and ahead was a bridge on a slight incline. The train slowed down even more, but it was still moving. The right of way sloped down to the creek the trestle crossed and the entire area was overgrown with Kudzu, a lush, green vine and an accidental import from the orient that had overrun the South. Trains had been known to stall on the tracks after the fast growing Kudzu had lapped over onto the rails. I hoped the Kudzu would cushion our jump.
The train continued to slow down. I calculated it was going about 20 miles per hour, based on watching my Dads driving and the speedometer. I addressed my brother and Walter.
"We've gotta jump!"
My brother started crying. After all, he was 10. Walter nodded his head because he knew we had no choice. Who knew when the train would slow down again? We stood at the doorway and could see the diesels ahead as they passed clear of the bridge. There were four of them; it was a long train and they began spewing thick, black smoke. The car lurched again, as the slack ran out. That meant the speed would go back up once the train cleared the hill.
I shoved my brother, Steve, and he landed in the Kudzu and rolled and rolled. Walter looked at me and jumped, yelling, "Geronimo!" I followed.
Kids today wear helmets to ride bikes, must always be strapped in while riding in the family car, and generally eschew danger of any kind, unless it's part of a video game. It was different back in my childhood. We didn't have video games, or even TV, we certainly didn't wear bike helmets, and cars didn't even have seat belts.
But we survived somehow.
I fell hard into the Kudzu, rolled, and somersaulted 100 feet down the embankment. The Kudzu was four to five inches thick and that helped.
We heard hollering and looked up the hill to see the conductor waving his fist at us out of the caboose cupola window. He was yelling, "Stay off the train!" He climbed down from the cupola and came out onto the platform, where the brakeman, who started hollering obscenities at us, joined him. We didnt understand some of the words, but it was clear that they didn't want us on the train.
"What if they call the railroad police?" Walter blurted out. The feared railroad police.
Walter sat down in the Kudzu next to me. None of us had ended up in the creek, which was fortunate. Not only because wet clothes would have been uncomfortable, and there was always the fear of moccasins, but also because creeks back then in Georgia were nothing more than raw sewage and industrial waste. We had often seen pipes spewing the dirty water into the creek alongside the track on our normal route into downtown Atlanta. We figured it wasn't different anywhere else.
Steve had been lying flat on his back about fifteen feet away. He was whimpering. He sat up and hollered, "Damn you Bill! I'm not doing that again!"
I was startled. It was a word we had heard before, but none of us had used it in our strict Catholic households. We weren't even sure what it meant, but we knew it was something bad. We had first heard "damn" used when a disgruntled fan behind Steve and I lamented another loss by our beloved Atlanta Crackers at Ponce De Leon Ballpark.
"Damn the Crackers!" he hollered, "They cant play baseball worth a damn." We had also noticed that the unhappy fan smelled of beer, and slurred his words. Some of his beer had sloshed onto me, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Sorry kid."
I asked my dad what "damn" meant, and he gave me a dirty look. "Don't ever use that word again!" he said and gave me that scary father glare.
"Yes sir," I said, and I put the word in my memory bank. Now here was my brother using a forbidden word, but I couldn't be mad at him, because I had talked him into our trek. And here we were with no way to get home, unless we hopped another train and I didn't know if I could talk even Walter into trying that, much less Steve.
"How are we going to get home?" Steve questioned me. He had an angry look on his face. Steve and I had always been close, not just in years, but everything else; we had a paper route together, we were altar boys together, and we were not just brothers. We were best friends.
Not that we looked anything alike. My mom was from Vermont, with dark features and jet-black hair. My dad, from Augusta, Georgia, was blond haired (before he became completely bald) and fair. I took after my dad, my brother Steve looked like my mom. He was so dark;
I often kidded him about being from Puerto Rico. He would get mad at me when I called him a Puerto Rican. But now, he was really mad. And he had reason to be. I had gotten us into a real mess.
"Lets move under the bridge and wait for another train, I said. The leader should have a plan and that was mine.
"What if the railroad police come?" Walter was still worried about that.
I replied, "At least they'll take us home." I wasn't so sure I wanted to get back on a train.
We got down under the bridge. Steve had a cut on his right elbow, Walters lip was bleeding, and I had sprained my right ankle. At least nobody had broken anything.
The Seaboard Air Line, unlike the Southern Railway, had a single-track main line. On the Southern, trains were going back and forth all day and night, it seemed, on the double track line. There was a Southern switchyard right near our neighborhood and the Southern trains reduced their speed to go through the switchyard, and then slowed to go through the Atlanta train stations: first Brookwood Station, a suburban station, and then Terminal Station. The Union Station was used by the Central of Georgia. The slow speed of the Southern trains made it easy to get on and off. But the Seaboard, as we learned, didn't have yards in the area to slow their trains down.
It was now 4:30 in the afternoon. We were hungry, but we were nowhere near a town. We all just wanted to get back home. We waited for a while to see if a train was coming from the opposite direction, but after an hour passed and there were no trains in either direction, we realized we would have to start walking. It would be dark in less than four hours. We then heard a train horn in the distance, going in the direction of Atlanta. We heard it again, much closer. It was going fast.
It was a passenger train and it roared over us as we crouched under the bridge. We hoped that no one flushed the toilet over us. Back then, the toilets discharged right onto the tracks, not into a holding tank. We saw feces and toilet paper on the tracks all the time. There was no Environmental Protection Agency in the 1960's.
A half-hour of walking along the tracks passed, and Steve and Walter looked at me for a new idea. At least, I thought cheerfully, the railroad police weren't looking for us.
"Let's hitchhike," I suggested. We had done it before when we wanted to save bus fare to get to the Techwood Theatre for the Saturday double features.
It was a ten-cent fare to ride the Atlanta trackless trolley, which was Atlanta's name for its electric buses, down Peachtree Street to the Techwood Theatre. When we hitchhiked, though, it saved the fare and we could use it for popcorn and a coke. Or better yet, we could walk over to the Varsity Drive Inn and eat chilidogs and homemade onion rings, topped off by a frosted orange drink. No, hitchhiking had its advantages and it wasn't that hard to do.
To hitchhike, we just stood by the road and stuck our thumbs out. But we had never been this far out. We had no idea where we were. There were miles of track in both directions, and no sign of any civilization whatsoever.
No one said anything and we continued walking back towards Piedmont Road and our neighborhood. Several miles down the tracks, we came to another bridge, a highway bridge. A gas station sat next to the bridge; it was another Spur Station alongside the tracks. A path etched out in the red clay ran up to the station. I wondered why there would be a path.
"Let's see where we are," I said and started up the trail. Walter and Steve followed without argument. It was 5:15 pm. We were running out of daylight.
The station sat on a busy road, a good sign, and the gas pumps were busy. There were three attendants and they pumped the gas, washed windshields, and checked under the hood. Inside the small office, a Coke dispenser and a Tom's snack machine crowded alongside racks of oil and automotive products. Glass bottles of recycled oil were on the shelves along with cans of new motor oil.
We waited in the small office, hoping one of the attendants would point us in the right direction. I got a map of Georgia and we spread it out on a small desk. It might as well have been in Greek. We didn't know where to even begin.
An attendant walked in with the name "Alvin" stitched over his left breast pocket. "Hey," he hollered, "You gotta buy that map! It's a quarter." Apparently you had to buy the map if you weren't buying gas. It was obvious we weren't in a position to buy gas.
"Mister," I asked, with trepidation in my voice, "Can you tell us how to get to Atlanta?"
"Atlanta," he boomed, as another attendant walked in. His name was Fred.
"What's going on?" Fred asked.
"Damn, Fred, these boys want to get to Atlanta." There was that word again.
"Are you boys runaways?" It was Alvin.
"No sir," I answered. We sure werent runaways. We wanted to get back home.
"How do you aim to get back to Atlanta?" Fred asked.
"Hitchhike," Walter said reluctantly. I was glad he spoke up. This was getting out of hand.
"That highway out there," Fred pointed to the road out the office window, "it'll take you right back to Atlanta."
"Yes sir, thank you sir." I stammered, as we all hurried out. There was a water fountain outside the office; we all got some water, and we hurried across the road.
We stuck our thumbs out and waited.
We got quizzical looks from the motorists, as they drove by. No one stopped, however. It was ten til six. We knew our parents would be looking for us. It was almost suppertime. They would be getting worried. Here we were, outside a gas station, trying to hitchhike home. We still didnt know where we were.
We found out where we were when a police car pulled up. "Winder Police," it said on the door of the black 1957 Chevy four-door Bellaire. I knew my cars. The policeman was white haired with a pencil thin white mustache. He smiled at us and motioned for us to get in the car. Didnt say a word to us. I got in the front and Walter and Steve got in the back. Had the railroad reported us, I thought?
He had pulled off the highway with his red bubble gum light on.
"Where you boys going?" He asked.
"We're just trying to get home, sir," I responded.
"Are you boys runaways?"
"No sir." I answered emphatically and figured Alvin and Fred had called the police.
The policeman shifted the car into drive and turned around. He reported into the radio that he was "bringing in three runaways."
"We're not runaways," Steve cried. This wasn't turning out good. Not only would we get whippings, we would never be let out of the house again!
I turned and looked at my brother and Walter. I was kind of excited, as this was my first ride in a police car. Walter seemed to be enjoying it in a way, too. He waved at a middle-aged couple staring at us who were in a 58 Cadillac.
"Don't be doing that," the cop told Walter. Apparently there was a rule about being a prisoner and waving to people on the outside. The policeman pulled into a parking lot and parked at a one-story brick building that was behind City Hall. He told us to get out and we followed him through a screen door, and he guided us into an office. The door had a metal plate on it that said, "Chief of Police." There were two plain wooden chairs in front of the chief's desk.
Walter and Steve grabbed the two chairs. The policeman brought a metal folding chair in and I sat down in it. We waited until the chief spoke. It was getting dark outside.
The chief said, "Your folks must be getting worried."
"Yes sir," all three of us spoke. There was no getting around it. We needed help to get home.
"I'm gonna have to call your folks. How long y'all been gone?"
"Since this morning," I said, "but we didn't run away. We just hopped a freight train and went too far. We weren't running away."
Steve and Walter both piped up with, "That's right," and the chief and the officer exchanged glances. I wasn't sure they believed us.
"Well, let's call your folks. What's your phone number boy?" The chief looked at me.
"Cedar7-0248," I replied.
"Cedar7-5502," Walter said.
The chief looked at Steve. Steve pointed to me and said, "He's my brother."
The chief snorted, "Y'all sure don't look alike." He picked up the phone and dialed my home phone. I cringed as the chief waited for an answer. The chief identified himself and told my dad he had Steve and me in Winder. He then asked if we were runaways.
"Humph," he said, "they sure look like runaways."
More questions by my dad, apparently as to how we got there. The chief told him we had caught a train.
There was silence on the other end as my father absorbed all this. Then my dad must have asked for directions because the chief rattled off the best way to get to Winder from Atlanta.
"Should take you about two hours, just come on out 316," the chief said. He hung up the phone and called Walter's dad. All we could do then was wait in the chief's office. The chief told us not to touch anything. My father arrived, and he and the chief had a long private talk. We were herded into Jess after the chief and my dad shook hands. It was a long, quiet drive back home. Thankfully, Walter rode back with us and my dad really couldn't whip us in front of Walter and it gave him time to cool down.
After our punishment had been meted out and we were allowed to venture outside the house, we never caught a train in that direction again.
But there was no way I was ever giving up my quest for adventure, and trains.
©2005, William J. Brotherton
About the Author
©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.