Box-Car Portly Goes to Wichita

Since this came up in second place in the poll on which of the Portly Parables I might share next, here goes. (Some of you may be relieved to know that this story will have little, if any, socio-political significance whatsoever.)

Before we begin, you must raise your right hand and repeat after me: "I, [your name], do solemnly swear that I will never, ever, ever tell this story to Portly's Mother, lest my most beloved part of my anatomy shrivel and fall off."

Oh. Better add an "Amen" there, just for good measure.

I've told my mother most of the stupid, dangerous stuff I did as a kid. With the exception of this story. Somehow, I have an intuitive sense that, even though this story occurred over 35 years ago, it would haunt her dreams. (Don't worry -- it's not gorey or anything -- it's just one of those motherly nightmare things.)

*Now magically sealing the energetic field around my blog to prevent mother-leakage.*

There. I think we can begin now.

School was out, and an unexpected June mugginess had descended over our town. I had a learner's permit in my pocket and a few weeks to wait until I turned 16.

My parents -- both teachers -- both veterans of three previous teenagers, were never perplexed when I left the house from dawn to dusk on such days. In fact, I imagine they were relieved. I was now two years from graduation, when their 25-year gauntlet as guardians of their spawn would shift to something more gently advisory, less stringently vigilant.

As for me, I'd learned well from my siblings -- how far I could stretch a curfew, which behaviors were likely to evoke full-on ancestral wrath, and which would elicit only a faux-disapproving glance in public, followed by a private chuckle at my audacity. I got good grades, and when I did raise hell, I managed to cover my tracks well enough that the parental-units were usually none the wiser.

So it was, that, on Summer days like this, I wandered my world with a fair degree of freedom.

I was with three friends that day, doing what is now known as "fucking around" (nothing sexual involved). I believe we called it "hanging out" or "shitting around" in those days.

Where I grew up, nearly every place that could actually be called a "town" had active railroad traffic through it. Even the teeny-tiny places had a grain-elevator, with the requisite steel rails running by. The town we had moved to the Summer before, when I was 14, was larger than any place I had lived in the past, and so, had several parallel sets of tracks running east to west right through the middle of town. (When I go back to visit, I still wake and sigh deliciously to the lonely wail of train whistles in the night. We don't have that here.)

The trains had to slow down through town. They crossed Commercial Street just south of the business district, and although there were a few underpasses, most intersections had the traditional clanging lights and cross-arms.

For the life of me, I can't remember who named this game, or exactly when I learned it. I had watched it done when I was younger in another town, and I know for sure that I had first tried it out personally the previous Fall, when I was new to town and anxious to impress and acquire friends.

The game is called "Catch the Train".

You wait for the train to slow down as it passes through town, run alongside an open box-car (or a closed box car with a ladder going up one end) and either jump into the car, or grab the ladder, ride to the other end of town, and jump off before the train starts accelerating as it slides off into the open prairie.

(Now you know why you must never, ever, ever tell Portly's Mother this story.)

In retrospect, I think now that the railroads must have already been dying. There were nearly always open, empty, box-cars -- most of them in grave disrepair -- rusty, smelly . . . . romantic.

On this particular muggy day, we were doing what we had done every day since school let out: First, we tried to score some pot -- if successful, we hung out at the graveyard -- if unsuccessful, we played Catch the Train.

We had already agreed that this day's game was remarkably unchallenging, as the engine pulling the car we had jumped into was completely stopped, but we figured "What-the-Hell -- a ride across town is better than hanging out at Sonic!"

So, we settled in and waited for the train to get moving again. Which it eventually did, after we had perched inside that fucking easy-bake oven of a box-car for what seemed like forever, too scared to dangle our feet out one of the doors, in case a yardman came by.

We boarded this car sometime around 1 pm. It was hot in there. No -- I mean -- it was H-O-T hot in there. When the train finally started moving, the movement of air around our cut-offs and tank-tops was an incredible relief, and we watched the town roll slowly by, only daring to approach the open doors once we had crossed the main drag (you never know when your mom might be the first person in line at the cross-arms).

We were approaching the edge of town, and we all lined up on our butts on the north door of the car, ready to jump out. This box-car had doors open on either side, but the south embankment had a bit of a drop-off.

Funny thing though. As the train approached our usual dropping-off point (out by what is now "Bel-Air Drive", but what was, at that time, an open field), the train started accelerating to "No fucking way am I jumping off" speed.

After a couple minutes of teenage freak-out, we all relaxed. "Hey, it'll have to slow down through Strong City. We can hitch back from there. No prob. It'll be an adventure!" Strong City was 20 miles away. No prob.

We settled in to enjoy the ride through the Flint Hills (which are, IMO, truly lovely at any time of year, and one of the things I miss about Kansas, in addition to the train-whistles). A hot breeze whooshed through the car, and we probably said a lot of stupid shit (that pot would have come in handy about now).

Before we got to Strong City, though, without slowing at all, the train turned South. Doug said: "Do you remember what the letters on the side of the train were?" (His dad had some railroady-connection.).

More teenaged freak-out "What do you mean?! Why are you asking that!? Oh My God! Where are we going!?" Doug managed to get us calmed down fairly quickly (he was a lovely, laid-back pot-head who would later hi-jack me on his motorcycle and take me out to the water-plant to get stoned -- I realize now that maybe he had a crush on me, but I was clueless about that shit. And stoned.)

Doug explained to us that we were probably on the Santa Fe freight line, and that it was fine, because it went through a whole bunch of towns and would have to slow down sometime, and when it did, we could jump off and either wait for a freight-line going the other direction, or hitch-hike home. No prob.

Well, he was right about some things.

The train did go through a whole bunch of towns.

But it never slowed down.

After we watched three or four grain-elevators and as many cross-barred intersections with cars stacked up at them go by, I started to feel the stirrings of that uniquely teen-aged version of the "Oh Shit Response" rising in my gut.

Plus, I had to pee.

Our cheery banter died out to occasional desperate exclamations of "It has to stop sometime, right?", and now-hollow reiterations of "No prob!" "It's an adventure!"

Inside, I was thinking: "El Dorado. They have to stop in El Dorado! Don't they? What time is it? How long have we been on the train? Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. How the hell am I going to explain this?"

We did reach El Dorado -- and we kept right on going. Didn't slow down (at least, not enough to ensure a jump-off free of broken bones). Didn't stop. Just turned West again.

From my adult perspective of this experience, I now realize that the conductor was probably trying to "make up time" after the long delay in my home town. At the time, however, I don't think I was experiencing much empathy for the conductor. In fact, I don't think I even had a concept that there was someone whose job it was to drive the train. I was just rolling through an ever-increasing miasma of adolescent freak-out . . . . accompanied by breath-taking scenery.

I think this was the moment that we started to plan. I had actually ridden the train all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I was, at this point, not ready to rule this out as our final destination, sometime tomorrow morning. My friends (especially Doug) were more practical -- they were attempting to come up with a story that we would all tell our parents that was so easy to remember, and so plausible, that there would be no possible way that They could trip us up. Preferably a story where we were helpless victims of something so scary that our parents would just be relieved that we were safe.

And then it happened. The train started to slow down. To really slow down. And finally, to stop.

We jumped the fuck out of that box-car immediately.

And found ourselves standing in a huge train-yard somewhere just north of Wichita, Kansas (90 miles or so from our home town).

There were something like 15 parallel tracks (try to just imagine some CGI version of this where the parallel train tracks are running infinitely off into the distance on each side, cluttered with many, many, many trains facing different directions, because this is how it seemed to my hormonally-saturated brain during this moment of anticipated parental outrage).

There are trains with car after car loaded with cattle shoving and stinking and shitting and bawling. There are trains sitting empty and forlorn which look as if they are never, ever, ever moving from this spot. There are trains slowly rolling through with closed, then open, then closed, then open box-cars. We are four young idiots, standing in this chaos.

Terri has a bright idea. "There!" she says, "That one's pointed the other way!!"

Thank God for Doug. Nerdy, pot-head Doug. Doug of the inherited railway wisdom. Doug of the laconic, no-prob demeanor. If not for him, I might have hurled myself from a train that day in the middle of the Flint Hills, in a fit of pubescent panic and need-to-pee.

"No," he said. He turned back to look at the insignia on the box-car we had jumped out of. "We need that line -- but headed East. Everybody look for that symbol." (Train buffs will probably know that we were riding what was then the Santa Fe line, now the BNSF -- and that the Santa Fe cross was all you needed to ID your line.)

It's kind of a miracle that we didn't come into any contact with adults there. We three girls squatted somewhere hidden to take a welcome leak. I imagine Doug relieved himself somewhere, too, as we fanned out a bit (but not too far!) to search for the magical, mystical Santa Fe cross.

We stepped over, or crawled under, massive metal linkages (REMEMBER -- DO NOT TELL MY MOTHER!) to a stopped train on the tracks, which was, at least for the moment, pointed homeward, and in possession of the correct insignia. We had to go way further toward the engine than any of us were comfortable with to find an open car, but there were grownups milling around up toward the engine, so we figured it was not just parked for the night. The back cars were filled with cattle, and Doug assured us that they weren't likely to just leave them sitting there.

At this point there was a lot of "Are you sure?" and "What if it goes off in another direction?", but in the end, we crawled into an even stinkier, rustier box-car and sat there, hoping that the fucking train was actually going to move, and move in the right direction, and slow down when it got to our town.

Dinner at my house was served 5:30 pm. Every night. Dinner was like the early-evening bed-check -- if you weren't there, you had better by god have notified everyone of where, and with whom, you would be taking sustenance -- because everyone knew you could DIE if you didn't eat three squares a day.

Keep in mind: Cellular phones were barely a twinkle in the eye of an unborn geek at this time, and while it's true that pay-phones only cost a dime, a collect long-distance phone call fell, in my family's valuation scheme, somewhere between King's-Ransom and kidney-donation.

So, I simply had to get home in time for dinner. Failure was not an option.

And the train began to move. Very slowly at first, and we held our breaths every time it seemed to falter, waiting for the dreadful track switch that might have us hurtling off to Oklahoma City, or Lubboch, or Santa Fe.

But no. It went right back the way we'd come.

It did, however, slow down to perfect jumping-off speed at every fucking town we'd come through on our way to Wichita, as I was shrieking "Come on! Come on! Get this thing moving!!! What TIME is it!?!?!"

I don't really remember the ride home. This, I suppose, is what happens when we are so projected into some future event (dinner, 5:30) that we don't notice what is happening in the moment.

The train slowed down for our town. Finally. At last. We considered jumping off at the West end of town, just to be certain sure, but Doug encouraged us to wait until we were closer to downtown, where we could all walk home in a leisurely manner. Since he had "saved" us, we listened, but jumped off a half-mile or so away from where we'd boarded.

I got home around 5:20.

I never played Catch the Train again.

DO NOT tell my mom.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:55 PM  


FriĆ°vin said... December 31, 2007 at 9:55 AM  

This was a wonderfully grueling read. :lol:

splord said... December 31, 2007 at 10:34 AM  

Wow. All I ever did was watch the trains go by and wonder where they were going, or maybe put a penny or two on the tracks, the few times I was near them.

And I promise not to tell your Momma.

Anonymous said... December 31, 2007 at 1:11 PM  

That totally warmed my cockles.

If you don't put these in print ... I'll be very cross with you! Perhaps a graphic novel ala Tales from the Crypt ... only without the undead bits.


Steve said... December 31, 2007 at 4:14 PM  

Now I know why i voted for this one (the other one was great as well but something about trains)

Have a happy New Year Portly

Beppie said... January 1, 2008 at 8:36 PM  

That was so cool. I never did anything like that, but if I ever have kids, I hope they get up to something like it and live to tell the tale. :)

John said... January 2, 2008 at 2:53 PM  

You really know how to spin a tale.
I love it.

Petulant said... January 2, 2008 at 5:47 PM  

I don't know if I was more excited that you made it home in time for dinner or you FINALLY got to pee. I suspect the peeing.

Misfit Farms said... January 4, 2008 at 7:17 PM  

Wonderful story, well told, and quite appreciated by a fellow Kansan with a misspent youth! Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said... December 2, 2008 at 9:52 PM  

Such a totally wonderful, story of a misspent day! It makes my youthful transgressions seem puny.


Dr. Psycho said... December 3, 2008 at 6:44 PM  

I live in Oregon, in a town where we are fortunate enough to have two rail lines cross right in the middle of town. They park, they switch, I think they may even make up trains here, in a small sort of way.

Naturally, kids (high school, elementary school, the local university) hop freights all the time. Riding out to what passes for a seaport on the Oregon coast was a favorite. My brother did it, my classmates did it, my own kids did it. Not me, though.

Especially not after the college student slipped under a moving car and lost his leg at the hip. It wasn't so much the horrible injury as his butt-headed essay in the university paper defending his foolish choice (and its lousy execution) by saying, "You have to take chances if you want to grow".

Several people wrote in to say that in the real spirit of that phrase, "taking chances" means exposing yourself to emotional pain, not physical mayhem. But nobody was quite mean enough to say, "Well, you took a chance, and got smaller."

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