Bargain Town

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers.

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers. There were no murderers except for the man across the street from our house who was crazy and would shoot squirrels with a .30 06 and eventually went to prison for shooting his wife one afternoon with a .45. And of course there was the lady down the street that ended up going to prison for hiring a hitman to knock off someone, the details are a little fuzzy since that happened before my time. Maybe it wasn’t as safe as I remember, but we certainly didn’t worry about anything as children. Besides that, we only ever played with Jared and Creed, the two neighbor kids down the street. And Bargain Town, the town drunk.

Perhaps you don’t know, but Bargain Town was a chain of dollar stores in central Alabama.  I only remember the one in Childersburg, but I say chain to sound more prestigious. I don’t know who gave him the name Bargain Town, but it stuck. When my brother found out his name was Wayne Edwards and called him Mr. Edwards being respectful, Bargain Town got upset and retorted, “You ain’t gotta call me Mr. Edderds, son! Bargain Town, or just plain ole B.T. is good enough.” Bargain Town was perpetually inebriated. Zach once watched him trip over a sales receipt in the parking lot of the local grocery store where he bought his beer. I think he was about 6’3” if he ever stood up straight, but he was stooped over from the burden of a lifetime of poor decisions. He probably weighed 160 lbs even without a haircut, as his dark hair was usually a month late for an appointment with the barber. He always had a trucker hat, the kind with the foam front and mesh in the back. His eyes were beady and black and his skin looked like wrinkled leather, another testament of his hard living. He had a twitch in his face and his hands were very shaky from years of alcoholism. He was a faithful Milwaukee’s Best drinker and rolled his own cigarettes with Bugle Boy Tobacco. It was quite a scene to watch him roll a cigarette since he struggled so much with his shaky hands. He would bite his tongue to keep his face from shaking, and on a good day only spilled about half an ounce of tobacco. Bargain Town looked like a weather beaten scarecrow walking down the street always carrying a case of “Momma’s Best.” His gangling limbs were made all the more unwieldy, due to his extreme skinniness. He was a gaunt caricature to be sure, but harmless.

I first remember meeting Bargain Town in a game of hide and seek at Jared and Creed’s house. It was my turn to search for the other three boys when a voice came from across the road, “He’s over there behind ‘em bushes.” Startled, I whipped around to see who had spoken. There sat Bargain Town, Indian style drinking a can of beer. He was in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture. We were petrified of Tom Bell, who was about 85 years old and owned half of Vincent, and was half blind with age. Legend has it that he had boasted, “Vincent is as big as I want it to be.” I’m not sure why we were so afraid of Mr. Bell, probably because we thought he was going to catch us playing on his land, which we were all to guilty of doing, it being a shortcut to the river and all. This fear was only exacerbated by the fact the Mr. Bell had nearly killed Jared with his ancient Ford truck one day when Jared burst out of the woods on a bicycle. Fortunately Jared got away with only a broken arm. The fact that Bargain Town was sitting in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture so casually, in broad daylight made him an instant hero in my eight year old mind. Here was a man who was immune to the crippling fear of Mr. Tom Bell. Bargain Town flippantly tossed his empty beer can into Mr. Bell’s pasture, stood up, took what seemed like two steps to the fence that stood about five yards away, and throwing his leg in front of him stepped over the decrepit barbed wire fence. We went on to find all of the boys.

From then on, it seemed like just about every time we were playing, Bargain Town was with us. Whether we were fishing, walking the tracks, or just playing in the pasture. Sometimes Clemmy came too. Clemmy was Bargain Town’s girlfriend, I think. She was about the same age and looked like a raisin. She didn’t talk much. They had another friend named Peanut that had a car. I’m not sure what Peanut’s name was, but he stank to high heaven. I could smell him three aisles away at the grocery store. We didn’t hang out with Peanut.

Bargain Town talked with a peculiar idiosyncrasy in that he finished every sentence with “and evah’thang”, or “and evah gol’dang thang”, or more colorfully “and evah G.D. thang.” Oddly enough he would use the initials and the full vulgarity equally. This made for interesting conversation.

I remember one day Jared, Creed, Zach and I were walking down the railroad tracks on our way to our favorite swimming hole. We had just passed the water tower and were at the intersection where the service road crossed the railroad tracks, when we were hailed by Bargain Town to “hold up”. Looking over into the field, another of Tom Bell’s, we saw where Bargain Town had constructed a tent by draping a blue tarp over a round bale of hay. We waited for Bargain Town to come and meet us, he gathering all of his accoutrements, namely his case of beer and cigarette ingredients. He finally made it to the crossing and I guess the fifty yard trek had winded him because he said, “Hol’ on a minute boys, I got to set down and have me a col’beer, an’ evah’thang.” Bargain Town did not drink beer, he drank “col’beer.”

Bargain Town was a bit of a philosopher. It was a bit hard to follow a drunken man with a wandering dialect when you are eight or nine years old, but I did my best. He said to me that it was not good to not talk, “You keep all that in ye head, an’evah’thang, and never let it out, an’evah’thang, and then one day it all comes out and it blows up! an’ evah’G.D.’thang.” He usually saved the G.D. for the finale, and thus drove his point home. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. I guess me not talking made him nervous.

Once He finished his beer he stood up and said, “Where y’all headed?”  We told him that we were going swimming in the creek. “That creek ain’t deep enough, let me take you to the spring, an’evah’thang.” So we discussed it amongst ourselves and as our usual swimming hole was only about knee deep in most places we thought that it was a good idea and agreed to let Bargain Town lead us to deeper waters. We did not take into account that this spring was right in the middle of Tom Bell’s pasture, so we were nervous the whole trip.

We finally did arrive without Mr. Bell noticing and firing up his Old Ford to run us down ( I make him much more of a villain than he was, he was in fact a kind man who had beautiful handwriting, if that makes a difference.) The spring was in the middle of the creek that was surrounded by trees. Bargain Town flopped down and began to roll a cigarette, “There she is boys, I’ll be in after I have myself a col’beer an’evah’thang.” We began to strip down to our trunks and wade into the water. The water was freezing, even in August, and the spring was deep, but not very wide. The most amazing thing about a spring like that is how crystal clear the water is. We were having a big time ducking each other under the water and playing Marco Polo when someone pointed out that B.T. was turned away from us and taking off his shirt. It doesn’t seem odd or out of place to take your shirt off to go swimming, but in all our years hanging with B.T., he had never been swimming with us and thus we had never seen him without his shirt. We were shocked by what we saw. I’m not talking about the extreme farmer’s tan, because we all sported one of those, but the long scar on his back that ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. He had told us about being in the “Pen”. He would get upset if you didn’t use his lingo on a lot of things, I learned that “jail” or “prison” were quite offensive terms to someone who had done time in the “Pen”, or Penitentiary, although I still struggle to make out the difference. “I used to help cook in the Pen, an’evah’thang. They wouldn’t wash the beans and they’d be bugs and worms an’evah’thang in ‘um. You always ‘post to wash ye beans ‘fore you eat’em an’evah,thang.” Although we had heard this story a few times, none of us had ever dared to ask him why he had been in the “Pen”. Here we sat in the water looking at the proof of how he got in. We stared in wonder. Finally someone bucked up the courage to ask him how he got that scar. “Somebody cut me.” This is all the answer we got, but it seems that I heard the story from an adult when I told them about the scar.

We were told that Bargain Town had been in a bar fight. Someone had followed him into the bathroom and slashed his back with a jackknife. Bargain Town in turn broke the toilet tank lid over the knifeman’s head. This may have been why he ended up in the Pen.

I think it was less out of being stingy and more out of respect that Bargain Town never offered us alcohol or cigarettes. He was not evangelistic in his bad habits, but rather knew that he was a sinner and realized that we were untainted from the vices that bore down so hard on him. Bargain Town was from a generation which still believed in right and wrong and he knew that he was wrong. Even with this knowledge he could not break free from the consequences nor the grip of a life time of bad decisions. It’s pitiful to think about now that I’m an adult and this should be reason enough for anyone to avoid alcohol.

As I got older, I got a job at the local grocery store. We no longer went on long walks through the woods with Bargain Town, pausing every hundred yards or so to wait on him as he had a col’beer, but I still saw him a couple of times a week as he came in to get groceries and beer. Mostly beer. Since he didn’t have a car and was never sober enough to drive anyway, sometimes he would come to the store with Peanut, whose stench preceded him. But more often than not, he came alone. One day I was stocking the milk in the cooler, one of my only duties at the store on the evening shift, when I noticed Bargain Town walk in the front door, which could be seen from behind the milk shelf in the cooler at the back of the store. I knew that he was going to come get a case of Milwaukee’s Best so I decided to mess with him a little. As he stumbled over to the beer case and reached in to retrieve a case of beer, I held down each case that he grabbed for a few seconds as he struggled to pull it out. I put on my best ghost voice and said as spookily as I could, “Bargain Town!” He wheeled around and looked down the aisle both ways wondering who had called him. I said his name again, and he jerked around and hunkered down to look through the beer shelf. He recognized me and realized that I had been pulling his leg. “Shoowee! I thought my Momma’s Best was talking to me!” For the rest of the evening I wondered what Momma’s Best had told him over the years.

I would not recommend that you let your children roam around town with the town drunk, especially these days. I know that Mr. Edwards would have not let anyone bother us, and I don’t think he would have let us partake in his bad habits even if we had begged him, stingy would have taken up where honor left off. Through the eyes of a young child I watched first hand as Bargain Town struggled through life with the crushing weight of alcohol addiction. I watched him stumble over the lines in the road, and try catch his balance while standing still. I watched the involuntary twitching in his face and his trembling hands as he tried to roll his own cigarettes. I watched him week after week buy case upon case of the cheapest beer sold at our little grocery store. Somehow I don’t believe that this was the life he had hoped for as a young man. Maybe it was, but I doubt it. Although us boys spent far too much time romping around town with a drunken man fifty years our senior, at least none of us turned out to be alcoholics. I think Bargain Town would be glad to know that.

Floating the Creek

“One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad.”

One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad. I have never been much of a fisherman, but I still enjoyed going, I was just always ready to come home a lot sooner than Zach and Dad ever were. Dad would announce that we were going fishing on Monday to build anticipation for the week. Friday night Zach and Dad would bring all of the fishing tackle into the living room and waste their time by re-spooling their reels with fresh fishing line. I’d have to hold the spool of line on a pencil as Zach reeled it onto the reel. They would carefully select a lure and piddle around in the myriad of tackle boxes.  Saturday morning after we loaded the boat with all of our fishing rods and tackle boxes, was when the real preparation started. We would swing by the BP to fuel the boat, fill a cooler with ice, and more importantly make our snack selections. I’m not sure who made the rules of what is proper fishing fare, but we sure stuck to them as if they were handed down from Mt. Sinai by the Lord himself. Vienna Sausages, potted meat, and saltine crackers are the staple diet of avid fisherman. Vienna sausages is spelled just like the capitol of Austria but pronounced “Vie-Eena”. Saying it like the capitol of Austria will make you sound like a city slicker and destroy your credibility on the river. This fishing diet is best appreciated with a canned coke and a pack of saltine crackers. You could also pack some bologna sandwiches-again, not pronounced like the Italian city, but “baloney.” Chips are permissible, but real fisherman lean toward the standard saltine. I am not a real fisherman and would usually make a more flamboyant selection like Doritos, or Pizza flavored nacho chips. Dad’s drink of choice was Pepsi, while Zach would get Dr. Pepper. I got Dr. Pepper because Zach did.

My philosophy of fishing has always been pretty simple, catch one fish, and dig into the potted meat, Vienna sausages, and cold cokes. I was usually ready to go home about four hours before anyone else was.

The first boat Dad had was an old brown fiberglass boat with stick steering. We soon graduated to an aluminum boat with a steering wheel for steering. The aluminum boat was a much needed upgrade where many fond memories were made, but I guess the most memorable boat we had was an aluminum flat bottom boat that Dad had procured from my Uncle Johnny.  After a couple of tubes of calk we used that death trap to “float the creek”. Kelly Creek flows into the Coosa river a mile or so South of the Logan Martin Dam. Kelly Creek is only a couple of yards short of being a river, rivers being measured in length.

The biggest difference in going fishing in the River and floating the Creek is the logistics. In the river, you drive yourself to the boat landing, launch the boat, and then return to the same location and the comfort of your truck and boat trailer when you’re finished fishing. When you float the creek, you have to con someone into dropping you off at the crack of dawn at point A up the creek and then picking you up at point B later in the day. Sounds simple enough these days, but you should try it without a cell phone for a more realistic effect.

The first time we floated the creek, we manhandled the boat into the back of the truck and drove down a dead end road where the frame of an old steel bridge still spanned the creek. It would take the rest of the day for us to reach the boat launch on Kelly Creek which was five or seven miles away. The landing was about a mile from the river. This dead end road was the closest access to the creek, but not at all ideal for launching a boat. How bad you want to go fishing is reciprocal to your willingness to carry a flatbed aluminum boat half a mile through the bushes and down a cliff. The manufacturers were kind enough to put handles on the boat. It probably wasn’t as bad as I remember since my job was to carry the tackle boxes and cooler, and we were too excited to complain about paltry things like briars and torn clothes.

There are a number of marked differences between fishing in the river and fishing in the creek. For starters, the Coosa River was a good five hundred feet wide, whereas Kelly Creek might be fifty feet wide at the widest point, and much narrower in general, which meant that for the most part you were in the shade for the whole day on the creek. The river was a good deal deeper too, some places up to forty feet. We had to get out and carry the boat across rocks in some places on the creek and the deepest point might have been fifteen feet. I loved how quiet it was on the creek. You hardly hear any cars or engines it’s just you and the creek. It also helps if you are with people that you love. I do not consider myself a sportsman today, but this aspect of many outdoor activities is still incredibly appealing.

Floating the creek was more memorable than fishing in the river for a few reasons, the biggest being that you were committed to it, you couldn’t crank the outboard motor and go home. Even on the river when our motor died once, there was someone to tow you home. Not having a motor wasn’t a big deal since you were floating with the current, but if you needed a helping hand from a stranger you were out of luck. You hardly saw anyone on the creek until you were about a mile from the river.

The narrower and shallower creek was also more challenging. On our maiden voyage down the creek we had just rounded a bend when we encountered one of our first challenges, a huge oak tree had fallen across the creek and there was only about eighteen inches of clearance from the water. Zach and Dad stopped fishing. I stopped eating. We all stared at the tree across the river not saying a word.  A duck with four or five ducklings paddled under the tree.

“What are we going to do boys?” Dad asked.

“Let’s do what the ducks did.” I finally piped up since Zach was not offering any ideas.

We all laid down flat of our backs and slid under the oak tree. I remember Dad having to pull us through since we got wedged under there a couple of times. It’s a wonder a water moccasin didn’t drop down into the boat with us.

Being a shallow body of water, there are a number of places on Kelly Creek where there are white water rapids, which would be fun if you were in a kayak, but is a downright nuisance in a flat bottom boat. The first time we came upon the rapids we decided to “shoot” them rather than get out and carry the boat. Everything went fine. We zipped right through the rapids without so much as a bang and by the time we got to the next set of rapids, we had thrown caution to the wind and were hoping for the same outcome. We braced ourselves as Zach tried to steer us to what seemed like the best route, but the rapids sucked us in and the boat grounded on the rocks with a thump. We rocked the boat to try to free ourselves, but the boat wouldn’t budge. We decided the boat was too heavy so I got out in order to lighten it, but the boat still held fast. Zach got out, but the boat still wouldn’t budge. As Dad was standing up to step out, the boat lunged forward and he fell flat of his back in the stern, snapping a fishing rod as water rushed into the boat. He was soaking wet, but most concerned about his waterlogged wallet. When Zach and I recovered from laughter, we decided in might be time to have lunch. We were able to sail on smoothly for the rest of the day though it was a long four hours for Dad to sit in his sopping wet clothes.

As the day wore on we could hear voices from other fishermen who were coming up the creek from the landing, it’s pretty cool how far the water will carry a voice. When we finally met up with the other boat we got to witness one of the guys set the hook and fight a humongous fish for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally got the fish netted he realized that it wasn’t what he had hoped for, “It’s a drum.” He said, one of the least desirable species in the river. He used a more colorful adjective than I feel comfortable even writing, which was unnecessary since his voice carried the most disappointing emotion that I’d heard all day.

I hope my Dad wasn’t as disappointed when one day he woke me up to go fishing on a Saturday and I told him, “I don’t want to go fishing. I don’t like fishing. I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.” I imagine that this revelation stung him a bit as he and Zach loaded up the boat without me for the first of many fishing trips. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you like and what you do just to be with the people you love. I’m going through the same thing with my boy now. Since he was about four minutes old, we could tell that he loved to be outside. He’s only been fishing about three times, but he already loves it. It looks like I’m going to have to endure a few more fishing trips just to spend time with my little outdoors man. That’ll be alright though, I’ll pack plenty of snacks.wesfish

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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.

Ghost Stories

“The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.”

I’ve heard a good many ghost stories in my life, some of which kept me up all night. If you’re interested I’ll give you the tried and true formula for telling the perfect ghost story. This works 100% of the time, if you’re in the third grade. Once you know the formula, you can take turns making up ghost stories on the spot with your friends the next time you have someone “spending the night” with you. If you’re a grown up it’s probably too late since you lost most of your imagination somewhere before you started caring about the opposite sex and after you realized that using deodorant and brushing your teeth might not just be for the weekends.

Rule number one for telling a good ghost story is establishing when the story happened. You don’t want your audience to be so worried about when the story might have taken place that they miss major plot developments.  For a solid opening, I like to use “Once upon a time.” After vaguely establishing the time, it’s good to pause for a dramatic effect before coming in more intensely with where the story might have happened. I usually go for “In the deep dark woods.” I’m getting scared just writing this right now. Now that we’ve created the perfect spooky setting your audience should be sufficiently hooked and want to hear the rest of your story, now it’s time to real them in with the details. For our next line we need to establish who or what the story is about. A ghost story is only as good as it’s villain. You might try a line like “There lived a man.” You might even throw an adjective in for good measure, “There lived an old man.” The more time you spend on describing the villain the better your villain will be, but don’t spend too time with details, you want to make them wonder. We’ll give him long bushy eyebrows, a lazy eye and bad leg that causes him to limp. Now would be a good time to practice your onomatopoeia as you describe the sound made when he walked across the dirty floor in his decaying cabin. For extra credit you can describe how he received the bad leg, “In a gunfight”, or “on the railroad”, are always good choices if you get stumped. Our next step requires action, what did the old man do? Did he collect toenails, kidnap dogs and cut off their ears, or just knock on doors and run away? Whatever he did, it needs to be something that relates to all of your audience. We’ll go with “Turned off the lights whenever you went to the bathroom.” Now you can wrap up your story with, “And if you’ve ever been in the bathroom and the lights go out, you’ll know it was the old man!” Maybe throw in a little scream at the end for good measure. It helps if later during the sleepover you can cut off the lights while someone is going to the restroom.

It seems humorous writing about it as an adult, but I remember being genuinely scared of improvised ghost stories, even if I was the one telling them. It’s good to know when to stop telling ghost stories and go to bed so you won’t be too scared to sleep. My rule of thumb is to stop whenever I start getting scared at my own story telling. The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.

I remember being quite upset by a ghost story on the 5th grade field trip to a camp in North Alabama. The camp counselor told us that the cabins we were sleeping in were built on Indian Burial mounds that had to be excavated before they were able to start building the campgrounds. During this excavation they found a skeleton that was missing a hand. No one knows for sure, but they think that this hand was lost during initial excavation when they discovered the burial mounds. The counselor told us that every once in a while they saw a skeleton hand, supposedly searching for the missing body. Every time that they had seen the hand they had also heard the Chickasaw Death Whisper. The counselor had been gradually lowering his voice and we were on the edge of our seat with anticipation. He said, “This is how the Chickasaw Death Whisper goes,” and after a slight pause he yelled at the top of his lungs.

A little unconventional, I know, because he deviated from the usual ghost story formula, but I was so scared that night that I eventually got in the bunk with my friend and I didn’t care what anybody said. Perhaps my imagination was a little over active from not having a television in our home. Many of the other students laughed harder than they had screamed once they got over their initial fright. Feel free to tell this one some place I’ve never been.

I remember telling ghost stories with our neighbors, Jared and Creed numerous times. Jared and Creed had a popup camper that they would take on vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. I know they went to the Great Smoky Mountains because while they were gone I fed their Blue Tick hounds and I still have a pack of Great Smoky Mountain playing cards that Jared brought back as a thank you gesture. I’m sure Mr. McDaniel appreciated the break from his shift work for Alabama Power at the Logan Martin Dam. There was a leak in the dam and his job was to pump concrete into the hole. He’d been pumping concrete for about 30 years. Whenever they got ready to go on vacation, they would air out the popup camper in the basement and this was the perfect place to tell ghost stories. We all four piled into the camper and began the time honored swapping of improvised ghost stories. Zach told one and we all laughed, he was always to jolly of a story teller to be all that scary. Creed told one and it must have been pretty scary, because Jared moved to the back of the camper where Creed and Zach were, leaving me in the front. Now it was Jared’s turn to tell a story. I think he was still doing character development on his villain when I decided that it would be a little safer on the other side of the camper with the other three boys. As I crossed over to the other side the trailer tipped swiftly backwards and the tongue banged against the ceiling of the basement right beneath the living room where Mr. McDaniel was trying to catch up on his sleep in the recliner. Mr. McDaniel was jarred awake by the commotion in the basement and stormed downstairs. We were more afraid of Mr. McDaniel than any ghost story villain our imaginations could drum up, mainly because Mr. McDaniel was real, and at the moment, he was “real mad”. He looked at each of us in turn as we were piling out of the camper, then he said to Zach and Me, “Boys, it might be a good time for y’all to go on home.” We quickly obliged him. I hope his vacation brought his blood pressure down.

In the rural community that I grew up in legends were still very much alive. These legends spawned grown up ghost stories that were terrifying to children. What’s even scarier than that is that many adults still whole heartedly believed that they were true. One example that comes to mind was the legend of The White Thang. I’m sure I should spell it “Thing”, but that isn’t how I heard it spoken. The White Thang was a fantastic white creature that lived on the mountain and terrorized the community. Sort of. No one ever fully saw the White Thang, they just described it as a flash of white. What people were able to describe in detail was the ear splitting noise that the creature made. Some said is sounded like a woman screaming, or a panther. It was taken so seriously by the community that I remember it making the newspaper at least three times in my life. There isn’t much to tell, maybe that’s why it was so widely believed and what makes it so scary, the fear of the unknown. All of the stories about the White Thang were pretty similar. Someone was on the mountain hunting and they heard a scream like a woman and saw a flash of white, or someone was fetching wood late at night and heard a wild screech and saw a flash of white. It may have been an albino panther or mountain lion. There was never enough moon light for anyone to get a good glimpse of the creature. More likely there was too much moonshine. Whatever it was, many people of Sterrett, Alabama swore up and down that it was real and they had heard it and seen it, or at least a credible relative you had seen it. The White Thang might be more believable than some people’s credible relatives.

I haven’t told or heard a good ghost story since the last time I went camping as a teenager. I think I finally realized that I don’t like being frightened. These days I shy away from ghost stories in general because real life is scary enough.

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