The Mysterious Magnetism of the Railroad

“Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock.”

There is something inside every young boy that is drawn to the railroad tracks. This attraction is only made stronger by the boundaries set by Mothers and the signs that read “No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted”. Growing up about 100 yards from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, neither my Mother’s warnings nor the mysterious signs deterred me from exploring the railroad tracks. Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. So anything you do on posted property is sweetened by the fact that you are not supposed to be there.

Some of my earliest memories of the railroad were rushing outside to see some of the last passenger trains pass by our house. My mom even took some pictures of those sleek silver trains. I also remember being petrified of the noise of the train at my great grandmother’s house. Her house was even closer to the railroad tracks than ours and also closer to a road crossing, which meant the train had to signal. I must have been two years old when the train came barreling by in front of the house blasting the whistle.  I was sitting on the front porch swing and I remember the noise of the whistle being painful. This was the only time that I remember being scared of a train. Somehow Grandmother’s train was meaner than ours.

I don’t ever remember being scared of the train at our house.  You kind of have to get used to the noise when you live so close to the rails. Our ancient house would shake whenever the train rolled by, and the Doppler Effect would cancel out any sound in the house so that it felt simultaneously loud and quiet, you could feel the compression of the air. We learned to suspend conversation as the train went by. The shaking was especially bad in the upstairs part of the house. We never really thought about how inconvenient this was, we had just learned to live with it. However, to a guest the train was quite disconcerting, especially in the middle of the night. My brother had a friend over that was awakened in a couple of ways by the midnight train. He thought with his whole heart that the rapture of the church was taking place as the train thundered by outside, sounding it’s trumpet and shaking every house on the street with fury and terror.

The railroad was my introduction to crime. Not only did I trespass, I destroyed government property by placing pennies on the track. Sometimes Honest Abe would look like a mule after he’d been stretched a good two inches and you were lucky enough to find your penny. This being an expensive hobby and too much like gambling since the odds were clearly in the trains favor, I quickly gave it up. I did not, however, give up on one of my first ventures into crime: Throwing rocks at trains. Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock. I never felt comfortable throwing rocks at moving trains or tank cars. Even criminals have some morals.

The crime that we never really got over was trespassing, or as we called it, walking the tracks. One of our favorite haunts was an abandoned railroad steam platform by the creek about a mile North-West of my house. You had to slide down the steep embankment of the tracks right before the tracks crossed an old arched brick bridge. Directly under the bridge the bed of the creek was concrete and only about shin deep. The platform was about halfway up the embankment. If you were standing on the tracks it was about thirty five feet from the creek. The platform was made of concrete and had the remnant of a crane base which would hoist water to steam engines from the concrete box in the creek situated at the base of the concrete platform.finalfort.jpg Diesel Engines replaced steam long before my time, so this platform had been neglected for forty or so years and it was a veritable paradise for boys. We had a real fort shaded from the tracks with heavy foliage, a swimming and fishing hole, and the thrill of getting caught any moment. I remember falling headfirst from the platform into the concrete box once. It was winter and we were bundled up, perhaps I was a little clumsy from all the extra clothes. I was leaning over the edge of the platform to get a good look into the box, which was a good twelve feet down. It was interesting to watching the crystal clear water roll into the four feet square box and swirl. I lost my balance and fell headfirst, I must have hit my shoulder on the box and spun around because I landed flat of my back in the freezing water. It’s a miracle that I didn’t break my neck or anything else. I learned later that week that someone had been praying for me about the same time that I fell.

My friend and I had a brilliant idea of trying to ride our bicycles on the rail road. I do not recommend this. I also do not recommend modifying a go-cart so that it would sit on the rails.

We must have walked a hundred miles on those old railroad tracks, heading down to the platform to play, or on past it to the steel bridge where the water was deeper and the fishing was better, hiding in the brush if we heard a train coming. Most of the time in the sweltering heat. I can still see the heat waves rising up off the track and blurring the track like the reflection in the water after you throw in a rock. We spent hours on the track, seeing how long you could walk a rail, looking for stray rusty rail road spikes. I still have one on my bookshelf. Once we were going to try to collect railroad spikes and sell them for scrap metal. We got one five gallon bucket full and quit. Do you know how much a five gallon bucket full of rusty steel weighs? I also found a rusty hand held counter, probably dropped by some rail worker years ago. I used it to count cars after that, I still have it somewhere.

About a mile south of my childhood home the Norfolk Southern line crossed the CSX line. If you got on the CSX line at the crossing it was only two miles North East from the Coosa River. The Norfolk Southern line continues South and doesn’t cross the river for another six miles. From time to time we would walk to the river on the CSX to go fishing. We didn’t do that very often because six miles round trip is a long way to walk in order to fish for thirty minutes without a bite. We really weren’t going to fish, we were going to be going somewhere. Your feet get tired after walking on the railroad tracks for a mile or so. And none of us ever packed enough water either.

We would sometimes follow the creek through the woods to the river and then walk home on the CSX tracks. This way we wouldn’t have to backtrack the same way and the scenery would be different for the whole trip. Plus we had the added thrill of trespassing on Mr. Tom Bell’s land and not just the CSX and Norfolk Southern railway property. We had a red-haired friend named Chip that lived close to the crossing and he went with us once. Chip’s mom had a cell phone and he had talked her into letting him take it with us in case of emergency. We weren’t really worried about emergency, but it seemed more official to have a cell phone. In the late ’90s you might as well have said Chip had an airplane, since cell phones were still a relatively new novelty and expensive to operate. On the way back from the river we happened upon the carcass of a dog long since dead. If a dog ever gets in front of a train on the tracks it will try to outrun it instead of getting off the tracks. I’ve found more than one dead dog on the railroad. Ordinarily, we would have kept on trekking, because as I remember, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was scalding us and Chip’s fair skin was already burnt to a crisp. But this particular dead dog had a collar with a phone number on the tag. And we had a cell phone. This called for a council, so we sat down on the rails and began to deliberate. Was this warrant enough for us to use the cell phone? Wouldn’t you want to know what had happened to your beloved pet? We all decided that calling was the Christian thing to do. So Chip called. We all sat with rapt attention as Chip dialed the phone.

“It’s ringing.” Chip said. We all nodded gravely.

When the lady answered the phone Chip’s face lit up. The conversation went something like this.

“This is Chip. We found your dog on the railroad tracks. It’s dead. It’s been dead a looong time.”

There was a pause and then the lady said something.

“Just thought that you’d like to know.”

A shorter pause.

“Bye.”

This was one of my first lessons in diplomacy. Perhaps we could have elected a different spokesperson, but it was Chip’s cell phone. There’s the right thing to do and then there’s the right way to do it.

The track directly in front of my house was a double track and good bit of time there were empty boxcars parked on the side track. One of the coolest sounds you will ever hear is a mile long train taking off from a dead stop. There is slack in all of the couplings and when the train takes off the slack is let out one car at a time with a tremendous bang. The bang travels from car to car down the line. It’s an impressive musical piece that played heavily in the soundtrack of my childhood. With parked trains in front of my house more days than not, my curiosity soon overcame any fear I had of rail workers early on in life, and I must say that I’ve been in quite a few boxcars. One thing that you’ll notice about a boxcar when you get up close is how high they are off the ground. You can easily hunker down and walk under a boxcar. One thing your mom will notice after you’ve been playing in an empty boxcar is how filthy your clothes are.

As often as I played on the empty boxcars, I never was really tempted to ride a moving train. My Uncle Melvin once hopped on a slow moving train to save himself from having to walk so far to his hunting grounds. He told me, “It’s easy to get on when the train ain’t moving too fast, but you’ll be a couple a miles away in just a minute when it gets up to speed and It’s a little harder to get off when you’re going that fast. You don’t stop when you jump out, you just keep rolling and rolling.” Melvin was still laying on the ground in pain when my Dad, who did not jump on the train, finally walked to where Melvin had bailed off.

My friend Jared and I were walking to the platform one day when one of the rail riding pickup trucks crept up behind us. We had been caught.

“You boys know that you’re trespassing?” The driver asked.

“No.” We lied. I say we lied, but we never really thought that what we were doing was trespassing. We’d been playing on these tracks for years and sort of thought that we owned them. I always thought those signs were for bad guys and didn’t really apply to fun loving boys.

“You see how quietly we snuck up on you in this truck. We could have run over you. Y’all go on home and don’t let me catch you on these tracks again.”

We said yes sir and high tailed it back home.

From then on we took the service road out of town a few hundred feet to where the track wasn’t so visible from the main road, the grocery store, police department, town hall, and, well basically the whole town. This was the service road that the trucks used in order get onto the rails and it ran parallel to the tracks and was heavily shaded by trees which provided us plenty of cover. The service road took us right by the water tower. This water tower was probably built in the 1930’s and was the tallest structure in the town. It was painted a silvery grey and had a roof that covered the catwalk around the tank. This roof and the ten foot chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire gave the water tower a decidedly severe watchtower look. From time to time the tank would overflow and water would spill out of the tower. If this happened in the winter time there would be a frozen waterfall pouring out of the water tower.WaterTowerVin.jpg

One day a friend and I chanced to walk by the water tower on our way to the fort and noticed that a tree had fallen across the chain-link fence, which was too much for our curiosity. We decided it would be best to come back after dark and climb it rather than let the whole town see us climbing it in the middle of the day. On one of the four legs of the water tower there was a ladder that followed the angle of the leg all the way up to the tank where the ladder went from slanted to straight up to the platform. Now when you’ve been climbing a ladder in the dark for about a hundred feet it starts to feel like you’re climbing straight up, no matter what the angle, and by the time you get to the part of the ladder that is straight up, you feel like you start to climb backwards. I clung to the dew wet ladder at the point where the angle changed, looking up at the rusty platform, looking down into the darkness below, and then around me for miles. The bright moon lit up the quaint little town and I could see for miles. I was waiting for the last little bit of courage I needed to climb that last ten feet straight up to the catwalk. It never came. I hope that you’re not disappointed, but I would like to remind you that this is a story about rail roads and not water towers and if you have a better water tower story I would love to hear it.

I think one of the things that drew us to the rail road so much was that it was an escape. Not that we had bad families, or terrible lives, or even hated the town, all of which would make for great fiction writing. We just wanted to go, and the railroad took us. At my boring adult job my office window faces the railroad tracks. Whenever things get a bit dull I look out at the railroad track for inspiration. I’ve always wondered how far those tracks would take you, if you wanted to go.