No sooner had we settled in the empty scrap car then the hissing of air brakes and screeching of steel wheels on steel tracks filled the air like some great metallic beast protesting the pull on its reins. The slow train we hoped would take us back home grew slower, and with a loud chain reaction clanging of couplings, stopped. Next came the crunching of stone under boot and the jingle of keys. The crunching and jingling came closer, until that too stopped—at the ladder outside the scrap car we sat in. Then the telltale scraping and slapping of boots and hands climbing the ladder. We stared up at the rim of the car, about six feet from where we sat on its floor. The first thing to appear over the rim was a gloved hand. The next was a bare hand—holding a gun.
“I oughta blow your fuckin’ brains out, nobody’d ever know the difference,” said the grizzled-faced man wearing an oil-stained blue and white striped railroad cap. He glared down at us. We stared up at him, our eyes looking-down-the-barrel-of-a-gun wide.
“What ya got in there, Joe?” a voice asked from outside the car.
“I got three of ‘em.”
“Ah, let ‘em go,” said the voice.
The gun-pointing Joe eyeballed us for what seemed like a hundred years, then, without a word, disappeared down the ladder. I finally took my first breath since the crunching and jingling had stopped outside our car, and whispered “Holy shit.”
On the southern edge of the housing projects was a Penn Central railroad yard, where long rows of graffiti-covered, mostly empty boxcars, hopper cars, flat cars and scrap cars rested.
For us kids living in the projects, the railyard was a giant playground. We could scamper up, across, under and around those train cars like chipmunks playing on a rock pile. No railroad dicks or local cops could catch us. We’d find an empty boxcar in the middle of the lines of cars and make it a clubhouse. We furnished it with stolen lawn chairs, and built a bar with scrap wood. We made a loft and plunked down a couple old mattresses. This was where we hung out, where we had keg parties, smoked, drank, puked, fought and fucked.
Sometimes, a switcher engine would pull a line of full boxcars into the yard. We became experts at snapping the metal bands that served pathetically as locks. It was like opening a giant Christmas present, never knowing what we would find. Many times, it was booze. Cases stacked to the ceiling of Gold Bell Muscatel and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, Canadian Mist and Seagram’s whisky. We’d stash cases of it in our boxcar and take bottles to the South Shore neighborhood to sell to the rich kids.
At the far side of the yard ran three sets of main tracks on raised stone beds. These tracks ran eastward toward Buffalo and westward toward Cleveland, a hundred or so miles either way, making Erie about the halfway point between them.
It was on these main tracks that we hopped trains. Most of the time they were moving too fast, but sometimes they had to slow down to allow a train headed in the opposite direction enough time to switch tracks.
We’d run alongside the train, its groaning, clanking, and hissing making it seem alive as it stampeded by us. The grayish-white stones of the rail bed, sharp on the bottom of sneakers. Legs and heart pumping hard, arms stretching, stretching, fingers extended, the feel of cool metal as they wrapped around the ladder rung, and then lifted off the ground like a spider catching a breeze on a thread of silk.
Most times, we’d ride a few hundred yards and jump off before the train picked up speed.
The warm May sun and cloudless blue sky tag-teamed me with temptation. It was 1972. I was fifteen and hungry for adventure.
“Let’s skip,” I said. Fuzzy pulled a pack of Kools from his shirt pocket, thumped it on his hand, pulled the filtered end sticking out the farthest with his lips. “Hell, yeah,” he said, striking a match. “I’m in.” Johnny looked at me and his eyes quickly darted away, as was his nature. A flicker of a smile lit his face. “Okay,” he said. We changed our course from school to the tracks.
Johnny lived two doors down from me in the same row house. He was a skinny, quiet kid with a round Charlie Brown head and sad blue eyes. I always had the feeling his dad didn’t like him much. One time, as my dad and I were walking out of Kroger’s grocery store, Johnny and his dad were walking out in front of us. I don’t know what happened, but Johnny’s dad kicked Johnny hard in the ass. My dad walked up to Johnny’s and said, “If I ever see you do that again, I’m going to kick you in your ass.”Driving home, Dad explained to me that kicking someone like that was one of the most humiliating things you could do to them. Then he explained what humiliating meant.
Johnny was a natural artist, and could draw pretty much anything. He once drew a picture of a Playboy centerfold realistic enough to jack off to. He was also a firebug and burned down a couple of boxcars, which pissed the rest of us off because of the police attention it brought.
Fuzzy, a year older than me, and a junior in the same high school, was two pink eyes shy of albino. His skin was white as a sunless ass in late summer. He wore his ivory-colored hair shoulder length, which exploded away from his ears in frizzy puffs that reminded me of cotton candy. His eyebrows and eyelashes were the same color as his hair, and they gave the appearance of not having any. He lived a couple blocks from Johnny and me.
We hung around the boxcar awhile, then walked along the tracks, seeing who could go the farthest balancing on the rail before falling off. I was good at this and always won.
“This is boring.” I said, “Let’s hop a train. Let’s hop a train and take it to wherever it stops.”
“Got nothing better to do,” Fuzzy said. “Let’s go.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Johnny.
We didn’t have to wait long before one lumbered toward us from the west. Hunching behind a group of poplar saplings, we waited until the engine was well past us and then scrambled alongside a boxcar that had its door halfway open. One at a time, we grabbed the car’s long handle and pulled ourselves up and inside.
The train picked up speed and soon the factories and traffic-congested railroad crossings dissolved into green rows of grapevines and wide open fields. The dust-flecked sun slicing through the open door was warm on our faces, and the clank-ka-dee-clank, clank-ka-dee-clank of train on track was soothing—it felt like freedom.
After a couple hours of hobo happiness, the train slowed and we hopped off, landing with a bone-jarring jolt, our legs spinning to keep up with the forward momentum. We left the tracks and walked into a seedy neighborhood full of dirty, blistered, wood-lapped and rust-colored brick houses. We found a small corner store and with our combined change, bought three bottles of Coke, a greasy bag of Wise potato chips and a Dolly Madison cherry pie. The clerk was eyeing us as if he knew we were train hoppers. Outside the store’s door, on the sidewalk, sat a blue, rust-pitted newspaper box. Through its smudged window I read The Buffalo News.
“Climb down outta there you three.”
Joe must have changed his mind and decided to blow our fuckin’ brains out, I thought, Or turn us over to the cops. We looked at each other like we’d just been called for our turn at the gallows. One by one we crawled over the rim and down the ladder. Joe waited for us all to come out of the scrap car and face him. His faded blue eyes bored into ours. “Where are you kids from?”
“The projects,” I replied.
“I don’t mean that, goddammit! What city are you from?”
“Erie, Pennsylvania, sir.” Fuzzy answered, giving me a dirty look.
“Follow me.” He led us toward the back of the train. He stopped at an open boxcar, turned and growled, “Get in and sit down.” We sat on the edge, our legs dangling out the open door.
“Do you know what kind of people ride these rails?” Joe asked.
“Like us,” I answered.
“No, you little dumbass! People that would kill you, but before they killed you, they would do bad things to you, and then kill you and toss your bodies to the side of the tracks like sacks of shit. Or leave them in a boxcar until somebody found them by the stink and flies, and nobody would ever find out who did it, because they would be hundreds of miles away before you were found. Do you understand that?”
Joe seemed even more pissed now, so I decided not to try to impress him with any more answers. He pushed his stained railroad cap back on his head. His salt-and-pepper hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, surely from the exertion of trying not to blow our fuckin’ brains out. He let his words sink in, pulled a pack of Camels from a shirt pocket that had greasy fingerprints on it, tapped it a couple times, and then offered them to us. We each took one. He stuck one in his mouth, struck a match, dragged hard, then held it to ours, lighting them with its cherry.
“This train is going to make a stop in Lackawanna, New York, and when it does, the railroad police will search it. These guys carry clubs. They never know who or what kind of people they might run into and they don’t take any chances. They will beat your asses with those clubs if they find you. Do you understand that?”
I kept mum so as not to piss Joe off any more then he already was if I didn’t get the answer right again, but nodded that I understood. Johnny and Fuzzy were nodding too.
“When the train starts slowing down, you three squeeze yourselves into the darkest corner of this boxcar, and don’t make a peep until it starts moving again—that is, if they don’t find you.”
With that, Joe, still wearing his I outta blow your fuckin’ brains out face, turned and walked toward the caboose.
“Shit,” Fuzzy said, “we shouda went to school.”
I looked at Johnny. His sad eyes looked scared; I wondered if Joe reminded him of his dad.
Soon we heard the clang of each car’s couplings as the slack was jerked out by the car in front of it, one by one, until ours lurched forward. The same dust-flecked sun sliced through the doorway, the same clank-ka-dee-clank, clank-ka-dee-clank of the train on track. Only this time it didn’t feel like freedom.
After leaving the corner store we wandered around awhile, but it wasn’t the sightseeing I had pictured when I suggested hopping a train that morning. The neighborhood seemed almost deserted, and the few people that were around looked through us like we were ghosts. A dark grime clung to everything, making the place seem colorless. Many of the houses had boarded up windows; their matchbox yards high with weeds or packed hard with dirt. A few rusted Chevys and Fords leaned against the curbs. Every now and then a crying baby, a barking dog, or a train whistle sounded in the distance. A stink hung in the air like a fart in an elevator. The place reminded me of dirty feet.
“Let’s get the hell outta here,” I said.
“Oookaaaay,” Fuzzy Coke-burped.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “Let’s catch a train back home.”
The train yard was bigger than ours back home, and busier. It was more open, with few places to hide while waiting for a slow train. An hour or so went by with no luck.
The sun was high and hot when Fuzzy whispered, “Here comes one.”
We watched the train creeping toward us from the east, heading in the direction of home.
“It’s too short,” I said. “There ain’t enough distance from the engine or caboose. They’ll spot us.”
“This might be the only chance we get,” Fuzzy said. “Do ya wanna get stuck like we did in Cleveland last summer?”
I thought back to the train seven of us hopped last summer. We’d plan to ride it a couple miles down the tracks and jump off at Peninsula Drive, then walk the short distance to the beach. But the train got moving too fast and by the time it slowed down enough to get off we were just outside Cleveland. We waited and waited and no slow train came along to hop back, so we split up in twos and threes and hitchhiked, most of us not getting back until the next day.
“Okay,” I said, “But I don’t like it. See that scrap car in the middle? Let’s go for that.”
I had a squeezy feeling in my gut as the train shuddered to a stop, like the kind I used to get sitting on a bench outside the principal’s office waiting for his door to open. We had melted into a fleshy blob in a shadowed corner of the boxcar. Fuzzy’s armpits smelled like onions on a MacDonald’s hamburger; Johnny was breathing too hard, and if someone were holding a gun to my head and told me to spit or die, I’d die. It felt like we were little kids, hiding in plain view with our eyes shut, thinking nobody could see us. I thought about all the times I’d taunted the railroad cops from a distance, standing on top of a boxcar yelling things like: Fuck you railroad dicks, you couldn’t catch a one-legged granny wearing a combat boot. Then I’d turn around, drop my drawers, and wave my bare ass at them.
If we’re caught and one of these guys recognize my ass, I thought, I’m really in for it.
It seemed like forever before we heard stone compacting under foot. We’d hear a few steps, then a pause, more steps, closer now, then another pause. Finally, the steps paused outside our boxcar. Two hairy arms and a big club poke through the door, resting on the car’s wooden floor, followed by a head. Somebody’s stomach growled and it sounded like rolling thunder. I hated it for its betrayal, even though it may have been mine. The head turned to the left, and then slowly swiveled to the right like an owl hunting field mice. It stopped, and stared into our corner. My heart was gonging in my ears. His predatory eyes staring right into mine, Oh, shit this is it, I thought. I closed my eyes, waiting for the shout: “Over here, I got three of ‘em.” But when I opened my eyes, he was gone, and I could hear his footsteps walking by our boxcar. Still, we didn’t move or make a peep, just as Joe instructed. After a few minutes the footsteps came back, and again, they paused outside our car, the head popping in, taking a quick look, and then carried away by the fading steps.
The train lay on the track like a snake sunning itself on a rock, while we fermented in the dark corner of its belly. The stagnant air was filled with the oniony stench of Fuzzy’s armpits, and I wasn’t sure if Johnny was even breathing. Then, the exhaling hiss of air brakes, the clanking of jerked couplings, and the grind of steel on steel as the wheels slowly turned.
We were moving fast again and the breeze coming through the door was as refreshing as the menthol from Fuzzy’s last Kool on my fear-parched throat. I took another drag and passed it to Johnny. “Damn,” I said, “I thought for sure that guy saw us.” Johnny blew a cloud of smoke that followed his gaze out the boxcar door and passed the cigarette back to Fuzzy, sitting Indian-style next to him.
“Fuck this,” Fuzzy said, “I ain’t never hopping another goddamn train again. I thought I was going to piss myself back there.”
Once again the train slowed and stopped, but not at a depot. I knew by the vineyards, stretching out from the tracks, that we were in North East, about ten miles outside Erie.
Joe stepped from the caboose and walked down the line of cars. “Come with me,” he said, when he reached us. We hopped out and followed him, pretty sure he no longer planned on blowing our fuckin’ brains out or turning us over to the cops. He climbed up the two iron steps to the caboose’s rear deck, waving for us to follow.
It wasn’t the first time the three of us had been inside a caboose. Whenever the railroad was stupid enough to leave one parked in our yard over night, we’d pillage it. The most prized plunder were the wooden crates full of blasting caps and railroad flares. The blasting caps were small red packets — a little bigger than a book of matches – filled with black powder and used to signal the engine to stop when hooking up lines of cars. Two metal bands were unwrapped from the packet and strapped to the track rail. Each cap was the equivalent of a quarter stick of dynamite. We exploded them by throwing a cinder block on them. The flares were red sticks that looked like dynamite, also used for signaling. We’d peel the cap off the top, and using the coarse surface at the end of the cap, strike it like a match, careful to hold it at an angle so as not to get burned by the dripping sulfur. A few of us had scars on our hands from being careless. A bright red flame would shoot out, and we’d wave them like giant Fourth of July sparklers. They were what Johnny used to burn down the two boxcars.
There were two bunk beds bolted to a wall on one side of the caboose, on the other sat a squatty, black, coal stove with a pipe going up and out the ceiling. Joe pulled a cooler out from under a small table that was bolted to the floor. The cooler had been white at one time, but was now a smudgy caramel-color from oil- and grease-stained hands. He took out two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and handed a half to each of us, keeping one for himself. They were baloney with mayonnaise, on soft white bread. I wasn’t big on mayonnaise, but it seemed like days since I’d eaten the couple bites of cherry pie and few handfuls of chips. I gobbled it down wishing there was more. Then he filled three funnel-shaped paper cups from a water cooler and handed them to us. When we were done Joe stood up and walked out of the caboose. We followed. He hadn’t said a word since he got us out of the boxcar.
Once back inside the boxcar, Joe stood outside the door, staring at us for a bit. Again, pulling his Camels from his shirt pocket, tapping out three and lighting them. Finally he spoke. “The train is stopping at the depot in Erie. Get off when it comes to a complete stop, and don’t ever let me catch you three on my train again.” Walking away, he shouted over his shoulder, “And stay off the fuckin’ tracks!”
We started walking the two or three miles home from the depot, down the access road that ran alongside the main tracks. We could hear the train slowly coming up behind us. The engine’s horn blew a long admonishment as it passed. The scrap car where we first met Joe followed, and then the boxcar that probably still smelled like McDonald’s onions. At last, the caboose swayed by. Joe was standing on the rear deck, gripping the handrail. His right hand lifted and he pointed his index finger at us, as if reminding us of what he’d do to our brains if he ever caught us again. Then the rest of his fingers and thumb joined the index finger and they all lifted skyward. So did the corners of his mouth. We smiled—and waved back.
Terry Dawley is a lifelong resident of Erie, Pennsylvania with the exception of a three year stint in the US Navy. He served as an Erie police officer for thirteen years and retired after absorbing too much lead through holes he wasn’t born with. He then decided to take up writing, where there is even a greater risk of getting shot down. He is a member of both Pennwriters and Fellowship of the Quill writing groups, and is a recent award winner in the Memoir/Personal Essay category of The Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition.