The squeal of metal wheels on rusting rails … it was music to our ears. It meant that the slow moving freight train was moving through town. A small fleet of tank cars moved twice daily from the big chemical company on the out skirts of town, to the short yard behind the high school. “Hopping” a train was right of passage for the small group of friends I had. While the cars looked like they were slow-moving, up close the chipped paint, the broken steps and hand holds look more daunting. The hardest thing are the wheels. You just know that they will be unforgiving if you should slip.
“Quick, quick!”, run to the sound, but don’t let the engineer see you! Crunching over the cinder rocks, backpacks slung over one-shoulder (because in my youth, no-one wore a backpack with both straps!); get your hands on first, hook one foot and swing the other up onto a ladder rung. Done right, it looks effortless. Done wrong, well, much laughter was the final result! It was a fun respite from walking that final half mile to school.
The other fun thing to do during the winter months, that involved trains, as an initiation rite we devised for the younger kids who wanted to join into out “gang”. The gang was a group of five to seven geeks who loved to play Dudgeons & Dragons, full-contact street hockey and a mirada of other “medieval” styled games. The fun little game was to fill the guy’s head with all kinds of gibberish about the express trains on the old Pennsylvania Broadway could suck you into their wheels if you got too close. The proof was the yellow line painted on the elevated station platform. So what we would do is after working the brain game for a while, and when there was some fresh snow on the ground, we convince the new guy to stand inside the I-beam of the high tension wire support; facing the oncoming trains. When the Amtrak comes, it’s moving at 70-80 mph and coming out of a turn. What happens next is the guy see the train coming, and it kicks up a cloud of snow – total whiteout. It’s almost as if you’re being drawn into those wheels – the ones that never sounded so loud before!
Growing up around trains, one of my fondest memories of time spent with my father was sitting on the back stoop watching the Tropicana trains. The boxcars where full of orange juice cartons. The refer cars (as they call refrigerator cars) were painted white with green doors and colorful hula-girls on the side. We would count the cars. It’s really a fun way to train-spot. I remember trains of 75, 100 and 150 cars. It’s rare that you see long freight trains anymore. Overland trucking is killing the railways.
I still long for the long trains of my youth. A time before the internet, before video games; a time we played outside during the day and worked out minds at night playing imaginary non-board games. Simpler times, better times.