Back The Tracks – Part 2 – On The Rails

Philadelphia, PA – The early 70s

I remember reading Stephen King’s book, Different Seasons many years later than the events described here. There was that one story entitled, The Body. It always reminded me of how it was when I hung out with my friends when we were young. It was later made into the film, Stand By Me. That story hits as about as close as anything we experienced as kids.

Having a place that was wild and uncivilized adjacent to our picture-perfect neighborhood was always a lure. I remember as a little boy my dad and I would sometimes go back the tracks and cross them over into the woods that lay on the other side. He would puff his cigar and we’d chat and go on a short explore.

There was a fallen tree that lay at the edge of the woods and we would always go back and visit it. I used to call it the whale shark, because it was large, grey, and looked like a fallen marine leviathan. It was fat at one end and broken which resembled a mouth. Along the tapering back of the wooden beast, was a thick broken branch that jutted upward that resembled a huge dorsal fin.

I still like the smell of cigars to this day because they remind me of my time with my father.

I was later told a story that when my older sister and I were really little, dad was carrying us down the embankment that led to the tracks. He was going to take us over to the other side to run around and play in the fields. He had lost his footing on the embankment and started to fall. As he slipped down the hill, he held us both aloft as he took the full brunt of the fall. He got a little banged up, but we both walked away without a scratch.

A classic tale of a lion protecting his cubs.

Let’s proceed with this chapter.

We’d line up all of the bottles and cans we could find on the rails and have contests to see who could break the most by throwing rocks at them. If a train approached you simply ran for cover. There were so many stories back then about the tracks. Horror stories. Like if you stood too close to a speeding freight train the force could suck you under the wheels and you’d surely be squished. We saw what a train could do to a penny if you put it on the rail when a train went by. It would completely flatten and stretch the penny thin. I heard all sorts of terrible tales and legends from other kids about the perils of the train tracks.

There were three sets of rails. The furthest was for the commuter passenger trains, the middle track was for utility purposes and passing, and the main rail closest to us was only for freight trains.

Some other horror stories I heard were gruesome. The story of the two boys who wanted to make a cable car that ran across the tracks from one embankment to the other. They held onto a metal cable and attempted to toss it across to the other side. The cable hit the high wires that the pantagraphs of the passenger trains used for power. Once the metal cable touched the high wires the kids’ bodies burned all the weeds as their dead bodies rolled down the hill.

What is Pantograph? How they are used in Electric Rail Engines? | by Shubhranshu Mishra | Medium

Or, the one about the kid who stepped into between the switch track and the main rail. It snapped shut crushing his foot and trapping him where he remained until he was later run over by a train and killed.

Railroad switch - Wikipedia

Or, this kid who urinated off a bridge and the urine hit the high wire, and voltage traveled up the stream and into his “lightning rod” and electrocuted him. There are 25,000 volts traveling through those overhead wires all day long.

I remember a tragic story where there were a few boxcars just sitting on the middle track on their own. Some kids climbed onto them to explore. One kid was standing on top of the boxcar and his head hit the high wire, and he sadly lost his life. I didn’t know the boy, but it was a terrible day for his friends and family. It showed us all how fragile life can be at any age.

You tell those kinds of stories to little boys and that hits hard. We were very careful playing back the tracks. But it never stopped us from going there and our parents were cool letting us play back there on the tracks all of the time. But life was full of danger for kids back then. But all we thought of was “I”. Invincible. Immune. Indestructible. Immortal.

But not all of us were so lucky back then.

You can read about another poor soul by clicking here:

Innocence Lost

It was so cool. You’re 10 years old, probably weigh around 60 lbs. tops. You’re small and light. You’d be back the tracks playing with your friends and then you’d hear a distant rumbling. If you were lucky, you saw the train coming in the distance. As an unspoken rule, anyone who saw a train coming instinctively yelled, “Train!” to alert his tribe. We all cleared out of there and found cover.

Normally, it was incredibly quiet back there, but when the train approached and roared by at full speed it was an absolute spectacle. The sheer size, speed, and power of that machine were incredible to witness. You see trains in the distance and see them in movies and on TV, but when you’re standing 10 feet from a speeding freight train, it’s like a giant Precambrian monster has come to claim you all. The noise was deafening and you could actually see the rails move up and down across the railroad ties from the sheer weight of the passing freight cars. We would always all stand quietly and let the behemoth pass. Powerless to do anything. Counting each freight car as it passed, sometimes losing count, but most times the number exceeded 100 cars long.

Our parents told us that the first rail went to New York. That always seemed cool to me. There was my little neighborhood on the edge of forever. I could walk down my street and cross Hasbrook Avenue and head back to the lot. We’d walk down the embankment that had long ago been carved out by men who built the railroad. I’d look down the rails and know that it was a direct line to New York. I lived in Philly but had no real concept of the size of the city. Just what I saw when my mom would take me into town. I got on a passenger train (Reading line) with her at the Cheltenham station by Martins Mill road, and off we went. When the doors opened again I’d be in the Reading Terminal in center city. We might as well stepped into a time machine back then. You get in, close the door, and appear somewhere else that looks completely different from your usual surroundings. All tall buildings and bustling people.

My father used to say, “You have to pay attention in school and make something of yourself so you don’t end up like one of those guys in Reading Terminal.” (Homeless, bums, panhandlers, etc.) Funny how back then it was like that. Now Suburban Station is the main hub because the trains no longer go to Reading Terminal. That place is now a thriving open market that’s a thriving tourist destination. Now, I’d love to end up like one of the guys in Reading Terminal. A successful business owner! How things change.

But the idea you could follow that straight train track to New York always intrigued me. What if there was some way we could board one of the boxcars and stowaway to Manhattan? A simple thing like that. Just kids who grew up on the right street near such power and might beyond the trees.

I always liked the notion of living in a quiet peaceful neighborhood. It was clean and safe. But just beyond the end of our block was something wild and dangerous.

But it belonged to us.

 

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