IF THE TRAIN SHOULD JUMP THE TRACKS – 1984 10 YEARS OLD
Had they beat that ass, this book would have been shorter; instead the heat was back on us four weeks later. The sting of our first arrest wore off a bit faster than one might guess.
Although some old-school corporal punishment might have prevented future felonies, in my opinion, it would have been a short-lived victory. You can’t beat out industrious ingenuity; it only gets buried to resurface as another bad habit, potentially worse than the first. We were mini MacGyvers, and unlike our Swiss Knife-carrying friend, we had no moral hang-ups when it came to firearms. Had our parents forced us inside we would have just brought this behavior to the basement and potentially started a meth lab. Freedom was a better long-term strategy.
As official outlaws, we needed a hideout. Not far from our house was quite possibly the coolest hideout any young ruffian could ask for. Brian, Steve, and I, along with four other members of our crew, took up residence in a set of boxcars that were stored off to the side of the main tracks. They were homely at first, but we spruced the place up with couches, a swing set, secret compartments, and a touch of spray paint. Interior decorating only kept us entertained for so long.
The three of us quickly figured out the schedules of all the trains and could interpret the different light signals in the control box. Since we knew when they were coming, an ambush was unavoidable. At first, it was innocent activities such as flattening pennies. There is no need to call MythBusters; a penny will not derail a train. This is an urban legend for kids who did not have sex in high school and whose parents wear golf shirts while drinking white zinfandel on the veranda. In fact, quarters, nuts, bolts, rocks, and trees will not derail a train, although I do not recommend trying it.
After testing everything known to man, we mounted a full-scale attack four times a day on passing trains, pelting them with rocks, spare railroad spikes, and buckets of paint. I love the edgy rebellious kids nowadays who are daring enough to spray paint their initials on the backside of an abandoned building. These are the same kids who will later complain at the clubhouse about their exhaustion from driving a miniature car two miles while drinking a six-pack of Bud Heavy and swinging a club at a small white stationary ball with dimples. Their dad was probably killed in a slap fight. Try throwing a gallon of purple paint at a white train car going 50 mph. It is daring, unique, and artistic. It was Jackson Pollock but faster, cheaper, and on tour across the country 24/7.
Although I excelled in physics, what happened next defies logic. The four o’clock was being ambushed from the convenience of our hideout. Brian looked over to signal the caboose was coming. The caboose, the sweet spot of the ambush, occasionally blessed us with an operator to harass. Between us sat a five-gallon bucket of rocks, compliments of the train companies themselves. Granite chunks littered the tracks, and they were practically begging for it if you ask me.
As the car approached, I chunked my rock at the front to try to squeeze my rock between the last car and the caboose. I hit my target, but only the steel. The caboose made a better noise when you hit it, or least we thought it did. Brian waited until the caboose was directly broad side to release the hounds.
This magical piece of granite did not actually strike the caboose. It skimmed directly parallel to the back wall of the caboose. Given the wall was moving from right to left at 50 mph and the rock was thrown directly forward, it should have been impossible for the rock to fly parallel to the back wall. It wasn’t.
This little anomaly of physics made the Kennedy lone gunman theory seem more plausible. The only explanation I can come up with is the mystical rock was caught in the back draft made by the wind and pulled forward in what amounted to the sickest curveball ever thrown. Unbeknownst to us, the caboose operator was getting some shuteye as the train whizzed across the country. He was propped against the back wall in a wooden chair. His alarm clock was about to go off.
As I have mentioned before, Brian had a cannon for an arm. This rock was realistically doing 55 mph, and with the train moving in a different direction at 50 mph it carried significant force. The conductor took it straight in the jaw. He fell like Nancy Kerrigan if Bo Jackson was swinging the bat instead of Tonya’s white trash ex-husband. Thank God he did not fall off the train and get killed; this story would not be nearly as funny.
Several seconds passed while he shook it off and put together what the hell had happened. The caboose was now a hundred feet away and moving rapidly. He struggled to his feet, grabbed the rock, and while shaking it at Brian, yelled out a phrase that is as vivid in my mind today as when I was ten years old.
“I’m gonna make you eat this!”
As the train disappeared into the sunset, silence filled the hideout. We had just witnessed something special and we needed to mark it with the appropriate amount of respect. This was quite possibly the greatest throw in the history of delinquency. It would only be rivaled by Steve’s Money Shot the following year. Everyone congratulated Brian as if he had just pitched a perfect game in the World Series. I was so proud of him, yet jealous that I had not thrown the kill shot.
Being industrious, ingenious little bastards and quick to fill the void left by the Great Throw, we turned to learning everything there was to know about the mechanics of a train car, assisted by Steve’s realistic train set at home. We learned how to separate the cars and release a variety of brakes to set the cars in motion.
The result: Thousands of tons of steel on the move with ten-year-olds at the helm. We rolled the train cars down the tracks and assembled them in a variety of configurations. There was always someone ready to hit the brakes to keep them from going all the way down the hill. Yes, we were riding them. Later this would become a major form of transportation for us.
After watching them stop and go in the hoodlum version of Red-Light, Green-Light, we decided to see what would happen if we let them continue down the hill. Luckily, the smart train people had built a contraption called a derailer to prevent these cars from going onto the main tracks and causing a real train disaster. We were not aware of this contraption.
Our set of 20 train cars, including our three huts, began to pick up speed. We ran alongside the cars to see if we could keep up. Suddenly, hell rained down on us. It is impossible to fully appreciate the noise a derailed train makes unless you have been there. I have been there, and let me tell you, it was emotional.
Everyone quickly realized what was going on. Cars began to topple. Most of us leaped at full speed off the steep cliff into a large mass of conveniently placed kudzu. It is moments like this when I believe in God. This kudzu was like jumping into a pile of feather pillows.
We did a quick headcount and realized that besides a few scratches, everyone was okay. We hid in a thicket of trees a few hundred yards away to consider the incident. Although Steve was the third voting member of the gang, Brian and I were the only ones with a RAP sheet, and everyone looked to us for advice.
After the fire, Brian and I sat up many nights and discussed what we could have done different. It never crossed our minds to not do it in the first place. We covered strategies, escapes, and communication with adults. During this debriefing session, we produced the survival plan for the rest of our childhood. One might call this our mission statement. It consisted of three points.
First: Always be one step ahead of all adults. Normal adults cannot think like young thugs no matter how hard they try. Second: Run, run, and run some more. Do not look back and do not get caught. We were Chariots of Fire minus the shitty piano music. Lastly: If caught, lie, lie, and lie some more. Never admit anything, never rat on a friend, and never back down.
We now shared this mission statement with the group. Its merits were agreed upon and everyone bought in. Sworn to secrecy, the gang left the scene and agreed not to meet for a few weeks until the heat blew over. As we were leaving, Brian and I looked back at the carnage. Over half the cars were on their side with the others bent over in lewd positions.
“That was a cool hut, wasn’t it,” Brian said.
Brian and I barely spoke to each other about the incident for fear of being overheard. Everyone kept his oath.
Several weeks passed and we had all but forgotten the derailment. Brian and I were throwing a football in the front yard when a plain car — the kind of plain that draws attention to itself — approached our driveway. The driver rolled down his window and asked where one of our friends lived. After I obliged, he asked if I knew where Nathan Weathington lived. I quickly answered, “Hey, that’s me!” I thought I had won something. What a dumb-ass.
The undercover Smokey quickly slid his car sideways to block our escape. It was a nice and necessary maneuver. He now knew where we lived, so we were instantly to the third bullet point of our mission statement. Outwitting and out running were already off the table. The man was stern, and his physique told us he would not be easily distracted by fresh donuts like our rounder local fuzz. Our first experience with the feds.
Our parents were not home. The man led us inside to our dining room, his de facto interrogation room. Once again, we had our rights read at the dining room table while in cuffs and cutoffs. Talk about déjà vu.
Then the rapid-fire questions started. Had we ever been to the train tracks? No. Had we ever thrown rocks at trains? No. Had we ever placed things on the railroad tracks? No. Had we ever derailed a train? No. Deny, deny, deny. We were holding our own against this criminal mastermind.
“Are you sure you know nothing about any train cars up at the dirt field?” the Smokey asked.
“Yessir,” we both remarked.
This is when he opened his briefcase and things went off the rails <Insert comedy drummer here>. He placed a set of photos on the table showing the gang in a variety of compromising positions. Those bastards had hidden on top of the oil tankers 100 yards away up 75 feet in the air and photographed us with what must have been one hell of a telephoto lens.
The pictures showed Brian, Steve, and me putting stuff on the tracks, pelting the train cars with rocks, and operating the brakes on the cars. Regrettably, they did not have a photo of Brian’s miraculous caboose shot. Come to think of it, that is probably when the surveillance started. Our deny, deny, deny strategy was getting harder, harder, harder.
Smokey then told us he knew about our earlier conviction and figured this incident might send us to Y.D.C. If you were a typical child, you would not know what Y.D.C. stands for. It stands for Youth Detention Center, a.k.a. Juvie. This put a lump in my throat. I was not ready for group showers.
Brian and I were losing hope when Larry walked through the door. I did not even hear him drive up. He looked over at us in complete confusion, rightfully so. When the man turned to face him, Larry asked, “Jonathan, what are you doing here?”
Being the head football coach and man about town in general meant my dad knew everyone within a fifty-mile radius. In addition, if you were interested in football or had ever played football, his network increased to include several surrounding states.
“What’s going on, Jonathan?”
“Are these your sons?”
“I’m afraid so, what’d they do?”
“It’s pretty serious.”
Turns out my dad and “Jonathan” were football chums from high school. My dad grabbed them both a beer and they went to the back deck. They left us at the dining room table alone. This is a tactic called “sweating them out” that we have been the victims of many times since.
In fact, fifteen years later, a company employed this technique on Brian during an interview for a sales position. He quickly recognized this method and got up and left. As he was walking out, the interviewer ran after him and frantically asked where he was going. Brian informed him he did not have time for their childish bullshit and to quit screwing around with him. They did not even bother with the rest of the candidates and hired him on the spot. He is now the top rep in their company.
After an hour or so, they both returned. Jonathan said his goodbyes, uncuffed us and left out the front door. We had indeed been officially arrested. We had, however, avoided gang rape, which is always a good thing. The saving of our buttholes was due to the simple fact that my dad was the lead blocker for Jonathan who played tailback in high school. God bless football. We were now on not-so-top-secret double probation.
During football season my dad barely had time to breathe. I can only guess he did not have the energy to beat us or even to properly yell at us. He looked exhausted and went to bed as soon as my mom made it home.
“Really? It hasn’t been a month,” she said.
“We’re really sorry. It was an accident.”
“What should I do with you two?”
“I don’t know,” I said with my head hung. It killed both of us to see Mom upset.
“Go to your room. We can talk about this tomorrow morning. I need a glass of wine right now.”
The next day our parents compared notes with Steve’s parents. Although we all now had police records, Brian’s and my second of the summer, there were more pressing issues at hand. Jonathan let us off light, but the train company still wanted us to pay to get the cars back on the tracks. Our parents could not afford to put a toy train back on its tracks and they were worried.
Luckily, Steve’s mom was a social worker and had been around other juvenile delinquents in a courtroom. She explained to the train official that the boxcar was an “attractive nuisance”, which I think meant it was the most badass ten-year-old hideout on the planet. Apparently, this was the magic phrase.
There were still a variety of stipulations to our probation which overlapped the requirements of the first probation. We were not allowed within 100 feet of railroad tracks until we were 18 years old unless our parents were driving us over them. This is difficult in a town surrounded on all sides by train tracks.
After the train incident, we went underground like the A-Team, and our mug shots never surfaced again until high school.
But if you egg the principal’s wife at point blank range you should expect something to go down.