Riding the Rails – Fragment From an Unpublished Novel

by Mark Hahn


. . . my mind wandered into the distant past. I imagined that I heard Hughie Johnson scream out in the dark of night nearly twenty-five years ago. When I was fourteen years old, Hughie, I and a few other boys in the neighborhood had a sort of bicycle gang. We would ride through the woods, down the power pole path and across the fields to different secret spots. We would also ride down to the railroad tracks — a place our parents told us was strictly off-limits.

Every evening there were three trains that passed on the tracks, a 3:40 and 4:05 westbound and a 5:15 eastbound. We would ride our bikes to where the tracks crossed over Old River Rd. There was an abandoned spur there and a deserted switching tower. This was smashed up and covered with graffiti. The rusted iron door was padlocked closed, but someone had pried the corner open. All of us were skinny enough to squeeze through except Daniel Smith. Inside we would climb the rusted iron steps to the small upper platform. There was a steel stool sitting in front of the rusted control panel. A few of the switches had been broken off. The floor was strewn with beer cans and broken glass.

For a while, Hughie and I would bring our slingshots and bags of walnuts we had stolen from home to shot against the side of the passing boxcars. They didn’t do any damage when they hit, but they made a beautiful sound as they shattered and exploded on impact. We fantasized about fighting behind German lines during World War II and destroying munitions trains — really, we were playing Hogan’s Heroes.

One day after Hughie and I got into trouble for vandalizing a construction site near our homes, we went up to the switching tower and watched the trains rumble by. We didn’t nail them with walnuts though because we were making more important plans. We both decided to run away from home. The trains would be our way out. We could ride them all over the country we thought, just like the hobos did in old movies.

There was a bend in the tracks about a half-mile past Old River Rd. All trains slowed down as they passed in front of our switching tower. We watched as the 3:40 rolled by. We figured that we could both catch the ladder hanging off different boxcars and climb up to the roof. That was how we had seen it done in the movies. We decided to try it on the 4:05. We climbed out of the switching tower and hid in the bushes.

When we heard the 4:05 coming, we gave each other a smile and a nod. The train came rumbling down the tracks. I slapped Hughie on the back of his shoulders as I took off running toward the train. I caught up with the train, grabbed the ladder high and swung my feet up to the bottom rung of the steel ladder hanging off the side of the oxide red boxcar. I had actually made it!

I climbed up to the top of the car and turned back to see where Hughie was. I saw him picking himself off the rocks at the side of the tracks.

I jumped up and down and waved my hands at him screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”

It was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. I could have ridden that train for miles and miles with the wind in my face and no control over where I was going.

When the train reached the curve in the tracks it slowed down some more. I climbed down and jumped off the bottom of the ladder. I slipped and fell as I hit the rocks, but I didn’t get hurt. I went running back to Hughie as proud and excited as I could be. When I got to Hughie, I could see that he was banged up pretty bad. His jeans were torn in the knee. His knee was all gashed and bloody and one of his elbows was also covered with blood. It looked like he might have been crying too though he tried to hide it from me.

He told me, “I just couldn’t get myself up. I held on and tried to run along for a while, but I tripped on the rocks and lost my grip.”

I asked him how he grabbed on and I told him that he had grabbed on too low. I told him that I had grabbed on as high as I could and that I didn’t have any problem swinging my feet up to the ladder.

I told him, “Next time you’ll do it. No problem. It was so cool! I ain’t never done anything cooler!”

We didn’t try it again until the weekend because then we could stay out later and we didn’tt have to worry about getting home.

Danny wanted to come too, although everyone else was too scared — either scared of getting hurt or scared of getting caught. When I was young, I never imagined that I could get hurt or caught. I figured I could out run almost anyone so there wasn’t much chance of getting caught. I explained to Danny how I got on the ladder so he wouldn’t fall off like Hughie had.

After thinking about it, we decided that we would have to catch one of the later trains. We realized that someone would probably see us on top of the train during the day and call the cops. We didn’t know the schedule of the night trains, but we heard their whistles in the night from our homes. The trains ran all night.

All three of us hid in the bushes and waited for the train. We had all put on our adolescent camo-commando-gear so that we would be harder to spot.  When a train rattled by, all three of us dashed out and caught hold of a ladder and climbed up. It was a little harder to do at night, but there weren’t any casualties.

Once we were on the roofs of different boxcars, we all started uncontrollably screaming and hooting like loons while we madly jumped up and down in the air — it was absolutely fantastic moment. The sounds, the smells and the motion of the huge boxcars made us feel like we were riding some dark all-powerful beast. We felt like dragon slayers who had conquered our prey and reveled in its quivering surrender beneath us. To this day that memory is both beautiful and powerful.

Danny was the first one who had the courage to jump from car to car. On fact, he didn’t hesitate for a minute. I saw him just start running and leaping beautifully from one car to another until he was on the same car as Hughie. I was a little afraid of jumping because I was much smaller than Danny and had much shorter legs, but since Danny did it, I felt I had to show that I could do it too. I was petrified as I leapt into the air toward the edge of the other boxcar.  I jumped and almost fell. I was barely able to cling to the traction grating on the boxcar roof and keep myself from sliding off the edge. As I dragged my legs up onto the roof, I looked down and saw the steel couplers grinding together in the near darkness. The blur of tracks slid out of sight under the car. I knew that it would be certain death had I fallen. I dragged myself up and jumped to the car were Danny and Hughie were standing.

The three of stood there on the roof laughing and boasting and slapping each other’s shoulders. Then we all made exaggerated flying postures, holding out our arms and facing into the wind. Being up on top of this slowly moving train made us feel like we were experiencing a new world.

We glided through the night within a new and separate reality. We had left behind our mundane white middle-class life by our fearless leap into the unknown.

For an extended part of my youth, riding the trains captured my heart like a narcotic. We got bolder and bolder. We rode the trains farther and farther past familiar places. We tried to use a compass, but we were never sure what direction the train would take at a switch. We never knew exactly how we would get home. When we jumped off a train we often had no idea when another would pass in the opposite direction.

Luckily, George, another friend that joined our group after hearing us brag at school, had an older hippie sister named Hillary who would come rescue us in an all out emergency. It only happened a couple times. Once we got stuck on a train for almost two hours because it was moving too fast to jump off of. We ended up in a strange town and had to call Hillary to pick us up get home. She was really pissed at us.

The train had taken us through some open country with long straight track where the train could go up to 65 miles per hour. There was nothing that we could do but hang on and hope we came to a populated area where it would again slow down. Riding the trains was truly a fantastic experience until one hot balmy night in June.

We road the trains through the early evening and had taken a switch through an unknown region with rivers and small valleys. It was exciting riding the trains over long bridges because you couldn’t see the bridge unless you looked right over the edge. The clanking steel train seemed to fly above the river with us standing with our arms stretched out like airplane wings.

We saw the lights in front of us as the train slowed around a bend. Then we slowly entered into a stock yard with trains moving in and out. Control towers rose out of the disorder of tracks and miss-matched cars. Giant lights lit up the whole area like a shopping mall. Our train passed a tall cement control tower and we saw the operator as he squinted his eyes in disbelief upon seeing four boys on the roof of the passing boxcar. Then we saw him yelling into his heavy black phone.

We knew we were caught. My heart was pounding as I looked around for a way out. I yelled to my friends, “How the hell are we going to get out of this?”

Hughie yelled back, “we’ve got to get off the train.”

The four of us scrambled down the iron ladders on the sides of the boxcar and two of us got off on each side. We didn’t plan on breaking up, but we weren’t thinking much about anything other than saving our own skins. Hughie and I didn’t see George or Daniel, so we just took off together. We ran between the trains for a while and didn’t see anyone. Then we came to a row of thick bushes.

I told Hughie, “We’ll be safe if we hide in the bushes and stay still. They can’t catch us if they don’t see us. After a while they’ll figure we got away and they’ll stop looking.”

Hughie replied, “As long as the cops don’t get us, I’ll deal with my parents later. If they get caught, we can always say that George and Daniel lied about us being here.”

We stayed there, crouched in the bushes, for what seemed an eternity, but it was probably only five or ten minutes. Then we heard muffled yells and some running footsteps on the broken gravel. Guards were chasing George and Daniel. We could see their feet when we looked through the wheels of the sleeping train cars. The footsteps trailed of into the distance until we couldn’t hear them anymore. Hughie and I didn’t say a word. We just prayed that they got away. We couldn’t move because we knew that more guards were probably somewhere near.

Just then we saw the tail of a flashlight as it flashed in the bushes just down the row from us. We heard the guard calling for us, “Come on boys. Just come on out. We have your friends already, so just come out so we can call your parents and you can all go home. Why do you want to make this hard on yourselves?”

We could see the guard moving from bush to bush with his flashlight — slowly coming down the row toward us. When he got within ten feet of us I knew we had to make a run for it. I gestured to Hughie to follow me and whispered, “Now!”

We bolted under a row of boxcars and heard the guard yelling at us to stop. The next line of boxcars was slowly moving. I saw the guard climbing under the boxcars after us. I looked at the moving cars a figured we could make it under them. I told Hughie, “We can make it,” and dashed under the moving car and came out the other side. Hughie followed me.

Then I heard a thud followed by a single groan. Hughie had struck his head on a steel overhang on the underside of the car and fell down in pain. I turned to help him, but before I could get to him the boxcar lurched forward and I heard Hughie scream. Then I heard the sound of his flesh and bones being crushed under the weight of the car as the wheels rolled over his legs. By the time I got to him Hughie had passed out in shock, blood was spurting out of the shredded remains of his pant-legs.

While I stood there in horror, a guard ran up behind me and grabbed me around my chest. Another guard was at his side.

He saw Hughie lying there and shouted out, “Jesus fucking Christ! We got to get an ambulance.”

The guard holding me let go, but I just stood there. One of the guards called someone on his walkie-talkie and they shouted back and forth. Someone found some old wire and used it to tie off Hughie’s stumps. This stemmed the bleeding. He could have died on the spot.

Two more guards came running with a stretcher. They put Hughie on it and belted him down. Hughie made incoherent gurgling noises as they moved him. A guard picked up Hughie’s shoes, his feet still in them.  He lashed these onto a separate stretcher while muttering something about possibly reattaching them later. One of Hughie’s legs was severed above the knee and the other down near his ankle.

We ran along side the stretcher and got to a waiting ambulance. They hooked up an IV to Hughie and checked his vital signs. It didn’t look good. We rushed him to the hospital. One of the guards dragged me along and told me I would have to talk to the police at the hospital.

When we got there, I saw Hughie wheeled through the double doors and out of sight. I didn’t see Him again for several days. The police came in and asked all kinds of questions. The first was, of course, who were we and what were our parent’s phone numbers. They called our parents right away. The police couldn’t believe that we were actually riding the trains.

Hughie’s mother arrived at the hospital before mine and she was hysterical. She started screaming at me when she saw me.

She lost it and started yelling, “Why did you little bastards have to drag my Hughie along with you? He never would have done this if it wasn’t for you. I hope you’re satisfied now that you’ve ruined his life forever.”

I stood there and felt like shit. Hughie was following me when it happened. It probably was my fault. I wondered why we had to run. If we would have just given ourselves up, Hughie would still have his legs and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal compared to what had happened. I had gotten into trouble many times before and it never felt as awful as this. The picture of Hughie being carried off on one stretcher with his legs strapped onto another one would certainly stay with me my entire life. Even as an adolescent, I knew that I could never erase it from my mind.

I started crying. Reality was just too hard to deal with. I felt like a lost little kid.

Then my parents entered the emergency room. My father just shook his head and said, “Let’s go and get you in the car.”

He didn’t say a thing as we walked to the car, but when we got in he said, “Your mother and I are very disappointed in you. What the hell were you thinking anyway? Are you boys brain dead or what? Are you stupid? What if it would have been you and not Hughie?”

I sat there not saying a word. I remembered all the close calls and everything that made riding the trains so exciting, but I couldn’t get Hughie’s painful scream out of my mind, that and the image of him being wheeled through the double doors at the hospital with a flat bloody sheet were his legs should have been.