[This will probably be the toughest one so far... but it's the one we've been waiting for. Right?]
Chapter X: The Tracks
"Uh, NO!", Red said, "Daddy, what is he talking about? Grandpa?"
Jack and JJ looked at each other and then they both looked at James. James just smiled back, innocently and said; "I can't believe you haven't told Red about the train." And then to Red he said;"Everybody knows about the train, Red. With all the weird stuff you talk about with your Grandpa I'm surprised this hasn't come up."
Red was nearly beside herself now. Perhaps it was because she hadn't been included in this deep dark secret - she thought that at least her Grandpa would have told her - with all they talk about, and all. Or, more likely she was upset that Jimmy knew the secret and she didn't. Either way she said; "Would somebody like to tell me what this is all about? Now!"
Jack begins the storyJack puts the brush and bucket down and he sits on a saw horse that holds one of the scaffolding boards. JJ leans on the (unpainted) corner of the shed. He nods towards Jack and sighs.
"JJ was about your age, Red." Jack begins. "He and I used to like to take walks; you know we'd just take off walking and see where the path leads. Our favorite walk was along the old railroad tracks that used to be where the snowmobile trail is now. There's something about railroad tracks that attracts kids - of all ages. Maybe it's the link to other places or the connection to legends of travel and adventure with hobo's and carpetbaggers. Or maybe it's the sense of being around something so massive and powerful as a locomotive."
"Or maybe", JJ interrupted, " just that it's walk on the rail like a tightrope or the challenge of walking on the railroad ties, which is almost harder than balancing on the rails because they're randomly spaced and you are constantly changing the length of your step. "
"Well, for whatever reason," Jack continued, "it was our favorite place to walk. And we'd find ourselves climbing the bank to that trestle up the road there, every couple days during the summer (or winter; it didn't matter). Sometimes we'd walk into town and sometimes we'd head off the other direction towards the river and sit on the old bridge and watch for fish."
"That sounds pretty dangerous, Jack." Jimmy said. "Weren't you afraid of getting trapped on the bridge by a train? I saw the movie 'Stand by Me' and a kid got killed on a train bridge."
"No, James," Jack said, "by then those tracks were abandoned. There were no more trains running around here any more."
"I don't ever remember seeing a train on those tracks. " JJ said.
"No, the local railroad went out of business years before you were even born."
"Then why were the tracks still there?" Asked Red.
"I guess it didn't pay to take them out. And who would do it? The railroad was out of business. The tracks were probably owned by some larger railroad that bought out the foreclosure" Jack said.
JJ said; "And it wasn't until years later when someone got the idea for the government to buy up the right-of-way and put in a public snowmobile trail - I think it was after I graduated."
"Okay guys, we get it. " Jimmy interrupted, "The tracks were abandoned." And then aside to Red; " I still think it was stupid to sit on a rotten old bridge."
Red gave him a disgusted look and Jimmy shrugged and continued to Jack; "So what does this have to do with the story, Jack?"
"I'm getting to that James," Jack continued, "Besides, I thought you already knew the whole story. "
"I do. "Assured Jimmy, "I just can't wait to hear the spin you guys put on it."
"Hmm, " Jack nodded knowingly, "I see. Anyway, one day JJ had a friend over and they both wanted to go 'walk the tracks'. So off we went."
"It was Billy Thompson." JJ added. "He was my best friend in Jr High and he almost lived over there during the summer."
"Yes, Billy Thompson. " Jack smiled. "He was a very nice kid. So polite." Jack was looking at Jimmy when he said 'polite'. "
"Dad, he wasn't really that nice." JJ said." He just put on that act for adults. He was really kind of a trouble-maker, you know. Some of his stunts he came up with got us into a lot of trouble - or, I should say they got me into a lot of trouble. "
"Well I guess that's true. But you were never in real trouble." Jack laughed. "It was mostly just harmless fun and you know, 'boys will be boys' sorts of things."
"But you were still close friends, even if he kept getting you in trouble? " Red asked.
"Yeah, we were. He wasn't mean or anything like that and, like Grandpa said, he was fun to be around. It's just that he had no fear. You know? No fear at all."
"And he loved that old railroad trestle over the river." Jack continued. "He would climb up on those beams and swing around like a monkey. Scared me to death sometimes."
Jack thought for a moment as he remembered. He shook his head to clear the memory and then he continued; "And that's where we were headed that day. I was telling the kids about how the trains used to run on these tracks when I was a kid."
[Here we disolve into Jack, JJ and Billy walking on the tracks and Jack continues.]
"You know, Billy, when I was your age the train passed here twice a day. It carried passengers and freight from the Tri Cities to Williamston. It stopped in our town and in all the towns along the way. It was how people traveled. It was how we got our mail and packages. For many people it was how they got to and from work, or school or how they went shopping, or to the doctor or just how they went from one place to the next. It went one way in the morning and back at night. Seven days a week, every day of the year. "
"Wow, Mr. P. , " Billy said as he walked on one of the rails; balancing like a tightrope walker, " That's amazing. But wasn't it inconvenient for people to have to wait for the train. I mean they'd be stuck wherever they went for the whole day."
"They'd have to plan ahead - that's for sure" Said JJ as he balanced on the other rail trying to see who could stay on the longest - Billy or him.
"For many people it was the only way they could travel. " Jack continued. "Most people didn't have cars back then."
"Your kidding. " Billy said with wonder - perhaps a little too much 'wonder'. But Jack didn't seem to notice.
"No, " Jack continued, "the only alternative was for people to walk. Or ride horseback or carriage. The train was a wonderful convenience in it's time. You know, if you were walking and the train came along you could flag it down and it would stop and pick you up."
"Was it free, Mr P.?" Billy smiled; a little proud of himself for the rhyme.
"Not free, but it only cost a few cents to ride to the next town."
"Dad said that the trains used to pick up milk at the farms along the way." JJ said to Billy as he lost his balance and stepped off the track.
"That was before my time, " Jack said. " but yes, many farmers sent their milk to the creamery via the train. But that was usually a separate train from the passenger/freight train that ran every day. It was a local service run by the creameries."
"They even called these trains 'Milk Trains'." J.J. added as he stepped back up onto the rail with his hands outstretched for balance and his eyes riveted on the rail in front of him. Billy had not fallen yet and JJ was determined to stay on the rail from here to the bridge.
"It's hard to believe that they were the center of everything for so many years before cars, trucks and good roads."
"Dad?" JJ said quietly after he slipped off the rail he was balancing on. "
"Uh, look at these rails. Should they be shinny?"
[and here we go....]
Jack looked down at the tracks sure enough the rails were polished to a mirror-like finish. These steel rails are not painted and they dull quickly in the weather. When the train goes over the rails the steel wheels wear against the steel track and both wheel and track rub against each other under tons of pressure and wear the track smooth. And after 20 years of exposure to the weather and with no train wheels to polish them, they had gotten a thick coating of rust. JJ and Jack had noticed this many times because the rust made them easier to balance on without slipping off.
But now these tracks were definitely shiny. Jack squatted down and rubbed the rail with his fingers to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Sure enough it was smooth as glass.
Suddenly there was a rumbling and then an ear-piercing roar of a train whistle. Jack yelled; "Billy! Get off the track! Jump!" as he grabbed JJ by the arm and pulled him into the ditch. They barely made it before a huge black iron locomotive rumbled past them in a cloud of steam and smoke. As they watched in wonder, the coal car rolled past followed by a mail car, a freight car, and then two passenger cars. People were sitting in the seats or standing by the doors. Some waved at them as they passed.
Jack and JJ were too stunned to smile - much less wave back. They sat there in the ditch with mouths open and eyes wide. They must have been quite a sight to those folks on the train - whoever (or whatever) they were. The train wasn't moving fast but soon the caboose passed and Jack yelled; " Billy, are you okay?"
Billy yelled back; "I'm fine Mr. P. But what the hell is that?"
"Billy!" Jack called. "Language."
"Sorry Mr. P." Billy said as he climbed up out of the far ditch.
JJ and Jack were climbing up their side of the ditch. They were watching the train as it went on down the track.
JJ said; "Dad, this isn't possible - is it?"
"No, I don't see how it could be." Jack answered.
They stood and watched for a while. They stayed well away from the tracks for fear that there might be another train.
"It's stopping up there." Billy said, "Let's go see."
"Yeah, maybe somebody on the train can tell us what's going on." JJ added. "But why is it stopping?"
Jack said; "That's the old Nelson farm. I wonder if they're loading milk."
"Cool!" Billy cried as he took off running towards the train.
It had come to a stop about 300 yards up the track and JJ started running after Billy - never one to be left behind. Jack followed in a trot but he wasn't sure it was a good idea. None of this made any sense at all. But there the train was and who could argue that it was something worth investigating. Certainly not Jack.
"Wait up guys!" Jack called. But the kids had already covered half the distance. As Jack ran to catch up, he had a nagging idea that the train would probably disappear before they got to it anyway. But he ran faster - just in case - he didn't want the kids to get to it without him.
It didn't disappear. The kids were walking past the caboose as Jack caught up. It's always an awesome sight to stand next to a train - even in a museum. But an operating train takes on a life of it's own. It seems to have such power and mass even when it's standing still. And the sounds of the steam engine - even 6 cars away - with hissing of the steam and the creaking and groaning of hot metal as it builds pressure in preparation for the next pull. The clanking of milk cans as the men transfer them from a wagon, parked next to the train, onto the freight car; exchanging empty cans for full ones. And the voices if the people calling out salutations and exchanging news of previous day. All in all the train was a life force passing through a quiet countryside. A monstrous, but yet friendly giant.
Everyone was so intent on their business and conversation that they didn't seem to notice Jack and the boys as they called out their questions; "What train is this?" "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "What year is this?"
All fair questions to which there didn't seem to be an answer. Or ,at least, not one that anyone felt like giving. Perhaps the questions seemed so bizarre to these people that they thought these folks were addled or something.
The train whistle blew and the wagon started back towards the farm. With a loud rush of steam the engine strained against the load and the train began moving. Billy shouted; "Let's get on and see where it's going." As he grabbed the hand rail on the back of the front passenger car and swung up onto the steps.
Jack yelled; "Billy get down right now! We don't know anything about this thing." And he grabbed JJ's arm before he could follow Billy. "Don't even think about it." Jack said sternly.
Billy laughed and waved as the train picked up speed. "It's okay Mr. P," He yelled, "I'll find out what's going on and call you from Oakwood."
[Okay, now I've done it.]
[To be continued....]