Finding something to do on a boring afternoon took some effort in a small town, sometimes. There is a thin line between stupid and fearless, sometimes. It just depended on what you found to do. Some things are just too big for a boy, or anyone for that matter, to turn down.
It was a warm afternoon in the small town of Riley. There wasn’t a city pool or much of a park at the time, so we had to figure out our own fun for the afternoon.
A couple friends and I wandered around town talking and looking for something to do. We found ourselves at the creek which ran through town and played around in the water and mud for a bit. The water was always fun and a good way to cool off. After a while, though, even this lost its attraction. So we left the creek and walked toward the south side of town where the local grain elevator was.
It was a great place to explore because there was a lot of equipment parked around the area, as well as the grain elevator itself. We climbed on the big sprayer equipment and other implements. I could just imagine myself driving across the countryside on this oversized piece of equipment.
We explored around the elevator itself. This one was an old design built with wood and an exterior covered with sheets of tin. We weren’t vandals, just explorers. Therefore, we didn’t break or steal anything. We would try to open doors and hatches, just to be able to look inside.
It was great fun because these structures had lots of places that a group of young boys could walk or crawl into while exploring.
It was late afternoon and we’d been goofing around the elevator for over an hour and had decided to leave. All the cool stuff had been explored, or so we thought…………
We began to walk back into town when I heard a faint far-off sound. It was hard to distinguish from other noise at first, but as we stood there it got louder. It was a distant rumble of some great machine.
I walked back to the railroad tracks which laid beside the elevator and stared down the line to the east. I could see the waves of heat billowing from the rails and ballast rock. It was difficult to see past the distortion caused by the heat waves, but soon I could see a large form moving toward us along the rails.
This was a line owned by the Rock Island Railroad. It wasn’t too busy and the tracks weren’t in great shape. When you looked down the line you could see that the rails were bent and crooked. Consequently, the trains didn’t go very fast on it.
As the locomotive passed through crossings it would blow its horn to announce itself. We stood there and waited for the train to arrive. Suddenly, the situation had changed and we had something that grabbed our attention and wouldn’t let go.
The locomotive lumbered along with it’s desil generators rumbling so loud that you could feel it literally pound your chest. It was awe-inspiring as it went past us. It was so huge! Literally as big as a house. All I could do was stand there and gawk at it. We were only a couple yards from the train so we saw the engineer in his window.
We all waved at him and he waved back. This made my whole day! He’d noticed us. That was awesome! He then blew the trains horn as he went through the crossing next to the elevator.
The train horn was an all-together higher level of sound. I thought my ears would explode as the horn sounded. It was overpowering and impressive.
Everything about the train was impressive because it was all so big and heavy. The wheels on the train cars were nearly as tall as one of us. They were very intimidating and made of heavy steel. They squeaked loudly and clanged as they rolled along the steel rails.
As we stood there watching the cars roll by it occurred to me that if someone fell between the cars or under one of those wheeels it would cut you in half with no effort whatsoever. The thought of danger seemed to add to the allure. It seemed to pull me toward it like a big magnet.
I was enthralled by the entire experience. You don’t just see a locomotive or train, you feel it. It is so much larger and powerful than anything else I had ever been around. The noise of this huge machine literally reverberated off my chest. It seemed to be alive as it rambled along the tracks rocking from side to side on the old rails.
We stood there watching the cars roll by. The train didn’t seem to be stopping, but just passing through. This was disappointing because I thought we might have gotten a chance to climb up on the cars and explore them. As they rolled by, I noticed that they all had ladders or steps on each corner.
I had an, HO scale, model train in the basement of the parsonage that I worked on and played with, but this was real life. Standing there made me feel so insignificant next to the moving train.
Suddenly………out of the blue…….without even thinking about it………..I found myself running along beside the next car. At first I was just going to see if I could run as fast as the train.
I instinctively reached out, however, and grabbed the ladder on the end of a flat car. At that point I had a few quick choices to make. I could let go………. hang on and be drug by the train……… or choice number three…….
I chose number three.
I swung myself up on the ladder and magically I was riding a train!……It was thrilling! I yelled to my friends to jump on and after several seconds of running and yelling encouragement, they had both climbed on as well.
At first I was a little worried that the engineer had seen us climb onto the train because it wasn’t that long, but the train continued moving. The three of us stood there on that flat car rolling along the tracks, over the main crossing and past houses. Several people along the way probably wondered how those three knuckleheaded kids got onto that train as we went by and waved.
There was a car stopped at the next railroad crossing. They just stared at the three of us standing on the flat car, hair blowing in the wind, and grins from ear to ear.
We knew the area well enough to know that the next town of much size was Clay Center, which was over 20 miles down the track. It became quickly apparent that going to Clay Center was not the best choice. It was Saturday and my parents were busy getting things ready for church the next morning.
An unexpected collect call from Clay Center and a drive to pick us up would have gone over very badly.
When I decided to get on the moving train, I hadn’t had any time to think things out. It suddenly struck me that the chances were pretty good in such a small town that even as we were riding the rails someone could have easily recognized us and were calling Mom and Dad at that very moment.
I could just imagine Moms reaction to someone on the phone telling her they’d just waved at her son, John, riding a westbound Rock Island Train. I’ve said before that Mom was pretty tough and it took a lot to rattle her, but this might have caused her head to explode or spin around 360 degrees! She would probably call the police or worse yet, she might drive to Clay Center and be there to meet us upon our arrival.
We’d be better off getting nabbed by the police because they have to write reports, take pictures, and follow the constitution. Mother had no such requirement! I was safer being caught by the police, definitely!
Due to the degraded state of the tracks the train continued along fairly slowly. It sort of rocked side to side like a ship as it rolled along the crooked tracks. I told the guys that we probably ought to jump before the train speeded up or got too far from town.
A mile or two outside of town I climbed down on the ladder and got ready to jump. It was a bit intense because I was hanging on next to the couplers which were huge steel pieces that held the cars together. They squeaked and clanged as the cars rolled along. Below them you could see the wooden tyes passing by. I knew that to fall in that area meant a most gruesome ending, so I tightened my grip on the ladder.
The best idea seemed to be avoiding the trees that grew along the side of the tracks. I hung out and could see a clearing coming up. I crouched on the ladder, ready to leap……….just as we got to the clearing………..right before I jumped……..I saw that the clearing was……….actually a bridge over a creek.
I stopped my jump just in time! My heart got even more excited at the point because a jump would have meant a 30 foot drop to a shallow creek below and a rocky bottom……SPLAT!!!!
For once in my life “Look before you leap” was the right choice.
The train continued to lumber along and a short time past the trestle, we came to another open area. It was clear of trees and fairly level, so I lept from the ladder on the side of the train car. I kept thinking that I wanted to make sure that I was far enough away to avoid those huge steel wheels.
I landed on the gravel and rolled down the side of the railroad embankment. If you’ve ever looked at the “gravel” it is actually 3 inch granite rocks with no small fines mixed in. It was like rolling across sandpaper.
I got up with scrapes up and down my arms and legs. I watched as my two friends, Ernie and Mike, made the same jumps with similar outcomes.
I decided that I was lucky to have not suffered any major injuries. I was more concerned that someone had recognized me as I rode by at the railroad crossing. I could just hear Mom yelling at Dad to get in the car. “We’ve got to intercept John in Clay Center. He’s riding the rails!”
Of course Dad, being the joker he was probably would have replied, “Why would we want to go to Clay Center, we might actually catch him?”
I always loved the trains and I will not swear that we didn’t ride the trains more than once. There wasn’t much to do in a town of 950, so the railroad provided a big temptation. I noted that bridge we had gone over in the back of my mind for a future adventure.
In the end we walked out of the woods to the local highway and then walked back to town. Mom was still at the house, so luckily no one had called her.
I still love trains, but remember how much it hurt to land on that granite ballast rock. Mom asked about the scrapes and gashes, but I told her it was from playing football. She wasn’t an idiot, so she probably knew I was making up a big story. Unless we were playing football in a gravel parking lot, we wouldn’t have gotten scrapes and gashes like those.
She knew a good excuse had value and was willing to settle for that.