The great train adventure

I’ve told this story before in this space. It was many years ago, and I only had three readers then. Thanks Mom! I decided to rewrite it and tell the story again.

It is not possible to rewrite history, although there are some who will try. Be assured, these events did indeed happen. My rewriting this tale is merely an attempt to better the prose, as practice-I feel-has made me a better writer.

I apologized once not long ago to my mom for being such a difficult child. She looked genuinely surprised by my admission, and assured me I was one of the easy ones. I will leave it to my older brother and five younger sisters to discern which of them may have been most difficult, as apparently it was not I.

When I was a child, I had the wanderlust. I daydreamed of faraway places and exotic destinations. This wanderlust surely led to my participation in the great train adventure. I was fifteen.

A friend of mine had just suffered a very hard breakup with his girlfriend. He had decided to go back to Sioux Falls, where he lived during his early youth, before moving to Iowa with his parents. I guess it didn’t take much to convince me to go along. Because of the aforementioned romantic sense of adventure, I was the one who chose our mode of transportation.

I won’t fault my great uncle Ed for his love of Buckhorn beer. I sat listening intently as he regaled me with stories of riding the rails during the great depression. I sat captivated while listening to his quixotic tales of adventure riding boxcars from town to town around the country. Uncle Ed wasn’t really a hobo; he was just an opportunist who needed to get from point A to point B cheaply. It was the great depression, and he didn’t have money to pay a legitimate fare. He told me once he was tossed off a moving train by a band of ruffian hobos because he couldn’t produce a “union card.”

My friend and I waited along the tracks west of town. We passed the time until a slow moving freight train ambled towards us. Here was our chance. A partially open box car provided the opportunity. We jumped into the boxcar, and managed to slide the heavy door closed most of the way, without sealing out daylight completely. We were off on our great adventure.

Bump, bang, the behemoth began to accelerate, taking up slack in the couplers of the cars in the lineup. Slowly we gained speed. The two of us pulled against the unwilling door to widen the five inch gap we left in the doorway. We watched as we rolled past the houses, farms, and fields; past the graveyards of rusted automobiles. .

All at once the boxcar began wild side-to-side oscillations, and we were thrown to the left side of our rolling refuge. The train was taking a hard turn to the north. Our journey was now headed in a new direction.

We continued for some time longer, I can’t remember the time frame now, only the events. Idealistic, and unsure-our nervous banter kept time to the side-to-side swaying of the boxcar and the click-clack of the joints in the rails as the cold wheels rumbled beneath the floor.

Dust and dirt covered the floor of our boxcar. Faded markings hinted of a prouder time. A peculiar “old wood” smell permeated the slat wood flooring and ply-sheet walls. A family of spiders sought cover in one corner, amongst some rotted wood remnants. An empty whiskey bottle told of a previous traveler.

Bump, bang, bump, the train was slowing down, and the action of taking up slack in all those couplers compressing between cars pitched us forward in our hideaway. One more even BIGGER bang, as all the slack in those couplers was taken, and it was obvious we had come to a stop.

Some few moments passed, and we heard the rising intensity of the laboring locomotive as the train reversed and pushed our car the other way. Soon, another bump, another bang, and the train again rolled to a stop.

There was some activity around us, and we could hear the efforts of what seemed another locomotive moving away from us. We sat motionless for what seemed an eternity. We finally garnered enough courage to slide the door of our boxcar open a little farther, far enough to survey our situation.

Peering left, then right, it was apparent our car had been dropped off on some rail siding with four other now orphaned boxcars. We were stranded. We slid the door open farther and jumped out. “Just where are we,” we both wondered aloud?

Old brick buildings and pieces and parts of derelict machinery and railroad equipment lined the siding. The acrid odor of creosote soaked ties and diesel assaulted our noses. An old brown dog ambled down the siding peering over his shoulder to keep us in sight. A brilliant blue sky and intense midday sun forced our eyes to adjust from the dank dimness of the train car. There was a large wooden sign fastened to the side of one open building which housed an enormous pile of new lumber. “Eldora Lumber” was readable in dull blue letters on the ancient and faded sign. It was obvious we were now only part of the way to Sioux Falls, and must use a different mode of transportation-our thumbs.

Gentle reader, you have to understand when I was fifteen, it was a kinder, gentler time. It was a time when hitch-hiking wasn’t nearly the risk one would take today while trying to secure a ride with outstretched arm and thumb. Besides, as young people tend to be, we were fearless and invincible.

We walked and walked and walked. Nobody would stop for us. Outstretched arms ached and facial muscles grew weary from producing a practiced look of disbelief as yet more cars whizzed past us. We walked some more. Then we walked even farther. Eventually we saw a sign that read “Iowa Falls.” Beyond that sign was another-“Boy’s Reformatory, do not pick up hitch-hikers.” Eldora was the home for bad boys, and passing motorists had no idea if we were, or weren’t. We walked some more. Cars zipped by us without pause. We walked still farther.

I remember we were walking along Hwy 20. We knew it was a good road to take towards Sioux Falls. We walked past the turn-off for Iowa Falls. We walked until we came to a bridge over a small creek. Tired and weary, we walked to the far end of the concrete railing and adopted the stance of lazy hitch-hikers-sitting, outstretched arm and thumb, hopeful looks upon our faces.

We must have been a sight to those passing motorists. I wonder what they thought in the brief instant they passed us. Were these runaway boys, or were they men? I’m sure they were as uncertain of the answer as we. Perhaps they sensed our angst-too young for Woodstock; too old for Sesame Street.

Eventually a man stopped and picked us up. Once he heard the short version of our tale, astonished, he asked, “You walked all the way from Eldora? “That’s thirteen miles I believe,” he exclaimed.

We were rescued, tired, and couldn’t get far enough, fast enough from Eldora. The sun was beginning to set. We’d been on the road (and the rails) all day We were on our way to Sioux Falls, and not a moment too soon.

Until next time–

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In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 – 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at mike@aweiowa.com via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.