Tuesday, March 07, 2006
MY WIFE and I watched a fascinating documentary on Saturday. Called Riding The Rails, it was about the quarter-million or so teenagers who became hobos during the depression of the 1930s. There are firsthand accounts from some of these kids, now elderly men and women, about how they hopped aboard freight trains, risking their lives and limbs in the hope of finding a better existence somewhere down the line. Archival footage from the era, as well as a soundtrack by great blues musicians of the period – Doc Watson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee – make this a show well worth watching.
I once hopped a freight train.
(I’ll give my Mom a chance to get up off the floor here. And, Mom? Just keep saying to yourself, "This all happened thirty years ago. My son is now a nice Christian gentleman who knows what he did then was utterly moronic.")
My experience in this regard had no profound social significance. I was just stupid, as were my friends who accompanied me.
The Bakers Chocolate factory, on the Neponset River in Dorchester, Massachusetts, has long since closed its doors. However, when it was still a going concern, a rail line had serviced it. Long freight trains, their cars full to the brim with cocoa beans, would come into the plant area and unload their cargoes into a set of huge cement silos.
When the company decided to relocate to the Midwest, those buildings that weren’t just abandoned to rats and pigeons were sold to smaller companies. There was a print shop; a gym; a trucking company. The state of Massachusetts bought the administration building and turned it into a welfare office. One of the nicer complexes was redone as an apartment building. Central to this tale, though, is the only one of these buildings that still had access to the rail spur. It had been bought by a beer distributorship.
The trains that arrived now were full of beer. To teenage boys, some of whom had a slight larcenous streak, this was a much more interesting proposition than trains full of cocoa beans.
The way that the trains had to enter and exit the spur presented interesting possibilities for relocation of beer. At one time, there had been a roundhouse for the trains to reverse direction in. It had been located across Central Avenue from the factory. However, when the factory closed its doors and trains full of cocoa beans stopped coming, the acreage where the roundhouse stood was sold and a shopping center built. Shortly thereafter, the beer distributorship opened. Trains came again, but they now had nowhere to turn around. They had to run in reverse to leave the area.
In order to get the right image in your mind for the rest of this story, you’ll need to picture a medium-sized river. Train tracks run parallel to the river on the shore of either side. A bridge across the river connects the two sets of tracks. The factory complex is across the river.
The arriving train first travels in a straight line, all the way down the set of tracks on the opposite side of the river from the factory, until the last freight car clears a switch track at the bridge. A switchman disembarks and throws the switch. The engineer then backs up across the bridge. He continues backing the train, in a long semi-circle, all the way down the second set of tracks, on the other side of the river parallel to the first set of tracks, until his engine pulls clear of a second switch. That switch is thrown and, at this point, the engineer can once again drive the train forward, onto a spur that leads to the beer distributorship building. The spur is behind the huge cement silos mentioned earlier.
We boys from the neighborhood had been watching this operation for years now. We knew the schedule of arrivals and departures, as well as how long it took to perform each maneuver. We knew that each train carried a crew of only two: an engineer and a switchman. It was fun to watch a big old freight train do this curious arabesque of the rails. Whatever knowledge we had acquired had been by osmosis rather than a deliberate collecting of facts for use in thievery. We had no scheme in mind. We had no scheme in mind until we all turned 16 or 17, that is. That’s when we realized there was an opportunity for free beer that summer.
We thought it out. There were three times when a hit could be made, but two of them were no good. The first was when the train stopped on the opposite side of the river, before backing over the bridge. The second was when the train stopped backing up on the other side of the river. The third was when the train stopped to unload. Also, we had to contend with the way the doors of the freights were sealed, with a small band of metal that let anyone know if the freight had been tampered with on its journey.
The first stop was no good because the switchman disembarked as soon as the train stopped and he then headed back to the switch. There might have been enough time to open a freight car between the stop and his appearance at the end of the train, but not enough time to do anything once the door to the freight was open. In any case, even if we could boost the beer then, there was no place to go with it except across the bridge into the factory complex - which would be overrun with angry beer distributors once the yelling started - or back up the tracks toward the town of Milton. We doubted we could outrun an angry switchman, along railroad tracks with a wall on one side and a river on the other, while carrying cases of beer. We weren’t about to risk having to swim in the Neponset to get away, and that was a likely scenario no matter which of those escape routes we attempted.
The second stop was no good, either. Even though the switchman and the engineer would both be at the opposite end of the train for this switch, we would have had to have opened the freight car - and taken the beer - right in full view of Central Avenue, and all of the pedestrians and cars at the shopping center, as that was where the train backed to before stopping. This was at least as bad as the first scenario.
This left the third option, that being when the train came to a full stop to unload. While this might have appeared impossibly dangerous, being in such close proximity to the actual distributorship and a large number of workers, it was actually the perfect spot, for three reasons:
1) Both the engineer and the switchman left the train then, to enter the building. Nobody was watching the train for at least five minutes while they went inside and shot the shit with the loading dock guys. Usually, it would be well more than five minutes, but we knew we had at least that long and that would be long enough.
2) The train was completely out of sight of the street once it moved behind the silos. Nobody would be able to see us.
3) Since there was no way for us to actually transport the beer back into the neighborhood during the daylight hours without being seen, we needed a place to hide it. We knew that nobody ever went inside of the chocolate silos since they had been abandoned - nobody except us, that is, as we had taken to exploring around in them - so all we had to do was grab the beer and walk a short distance to a door in the silos and stash it there.
(I feel as though I should mention here that we weren’t normally thieves. We had the usual inclination towards petty larceny that is common in most boys, but that’s all. We had no profit motive. We weren’t really poor, so that wasn’t our excuse, either. More than anything else, we decided to do this because it was an adventure. We wanted to see if we could do it because it was there, just like the guy who climbed Everest. Also, since we couldn’t legally buy beer, we figured this was as easy [if not easier] as finding someone to buy it for us at the package store. It was wrong, of course, but we weren’t really malicious in our intent.)
Anyway, one of us appropriated a pair of wirecutters from his house and we waited for the train down at the bridge. We felt the rails vibrate as we heard the train approach, so we all scooted underneath the bridge, where there was a small bit of dry land to sit on while we waited for the train to cross the river.
The train came and did its dance; down one set of rails, back across the bridge, down the other set and then forward onto the spur and behind the silos. When the train passed over the bridge, with us underneath, it was pretty damned scary. We were about three feet from the bottom of the train. It was loud as all get out and even though we had seen the train pass over this very strong iron bridge hundreds of times, I still couldn’t help thinking that it would be one horrible way to die if the bridge decided to give out this time. Just as I was thinking this thought, a heavy black three-inch-long or so rivet actually fell from above me, landing a couple of feet to my right. Whether this had popped from the bridge, or the train itself, or had just been sitting on the bridge and been jostled loose by the train, I don’t know, but it wasn’t comforting.
After the train had passed completely by overhead, we climbed out and watched it finish its journey. We then crossed the bridge ourselves and ran towards the spur behind the silos, making sure that nobody saw us from the street. After a quick look up the tracks to be sure nobody was watching from the beer distributorship, the fellow with the wirecutters put them to use, snapping the steel band on the last boxcar. We slid open the door, as slowly and as quietly as possible, and there it was. Paydirt! Case after case of golden cans of Miller High Life! We each grabbed a case, scurried back past the end of the train, then took a left and headed towards the door of the silos. We went inside and put the beer in a stack over by the wall.
We now waited for the train to be unloaded. We wondered what they’d say when they found the last car open and five cases of beer missing. We were pretty sure there’d be some swearing, but overall we didn’t think they’d put up much fuss over five cases from a big trainload. And we were right. We heard a “sonovabitch!” and the door to the car slam shut, but that was about it.
Since we had nothing better to do while the train was unloaded, we all sat back and cracked open a can of our ill-gotten gain. Let me tell you – you haven’t lived until you’ve had piss-warm Miller High Life from a can. But, hey, we were 16 or 17 and it was beer. We sat in the semi-darkness drinking, smoking, and enjoying the feeling of being dangerous desperadoes.
After a while (after about three cans each) the train began backing away from the loading dock. It repeated its odd little dance, this time in reverse. It backed down to the street and then went forward towards the bridge. As the train entered the bridge and we were sure neither the engineer nor the switchman could see us, we left the silos, staggering just a bit as we were hit by the heat of the summer sun.
We walked along at a short distance behind the train and crossed the bridge after it. When the train stopped, and the switchman got out to throw the switch one more time, we hustled under the bridge again, this time trying to stifle a fair amount of laughter.
While we sat under the bridge, the thought occurred to us – all at the same time, it seemed – that it might be interesting to take a short ride on the train. We had never seen it go more than five or ten miles an hour, so we figured we could hop off whenever we wanted. We decided to do it. We watched as the switchman walked back up to the engine and climbed in. As the train began backing slowly down the track, we readied ourselves.
We saw the engine pass and we came out from under the bridge. There was a ledge of sorts on the front of the engine and plenty of room for us all to climb aboard and stand there. There were even handy bars and such to hold onto for balance. The crew couldn’t see us since the engine was taller than we were. We jogged along the tracks and, one by one, we hopped aboard and grabbed onto the bars to steady ourselves.
I’ve got to tell you that, as stupid as it was, it was a rush riding like that in the open air on that locomotive. We rode on past Milton, by Butler Street in Lower Mills, through an underpass that led to tracks along the river by Granite Avenue, and then past the Keystone apartment buildings. The train entered a straightaway stretch of less populated area and picked up a bit of speed. I would guess we were now going along at about 20 miles per hour.
Understand that the train is still going backwards, as it had nowhere to turn around. We were getting a little concerned with how far we had gone, and how we were going to get back when we got off, if we could get off, and we now had to grab onto the train pretty tightly because of the speed. We figured with a cargo of beer that the train had originally come from Milwaukee. While we didn’t expect that that was where we’d end up, we really didn’t know when we might be able to disembark safely at this point.
We cruised along, passing Neponset Circle, then the Savin Hill MBTA station. The Southeast Expressway was now to our left as we ran parallel to the MBTA tracks on our right. As we approached Columbia station, the train started to slow. We figured this was as good a time as any to get the heck off – maybe our only real good chance for a while - so we got ready to jump. Then the train came to a complete stop. We were now afraid that one of the crew had seen us and was coming for us. We hopped off and ran back up the tracks a little way, watching.
It turned out that this was where the train reversed direction before heading home – wherever home was. The switchman got out and threw a switch. The train lurched forward, onto another track. Another switch was thrown and then it backed up slowly towards where we stood. We took a few slow steps backward, giving our recent ride some room. Before it really came close to us, though, it had cleared the switch and our beer train left for parts unknown.
We had ridden about five miles. Now we had to get home.
We had a couple of choices. We could walk up to Columbia Station or back to Savin Hill. One problem presented itself, though; we had no money for carfare. Hard to believe that between us we couldn’t scratch up $2.50 or whatever it would have cost for the five of us to ride in those days, but that’s the way it was. Since we all couldn’t pay, we decided that we’d all sneak into one of the stations together. We figured if we got caught, those of us with money would then pay and the others would do whatever they had to do to get home. In other words, it was one for all, all for one, and if that didn’t work, every man for himself.
If you’re familiar with the MBTA, Boston’s public transit system, you know that the Red Line actually has two branches; one heads to Ashmont (which was near our neighborhood) and the other to Braintree. At that time, the Braintree branch was not yet carrying passengers. It had been built along the freight railroad right-of-way where we now were, but wasn’t scheduled to open for another month or so. With no subway trains to worry about, and with the knowledge that the only freight that used this road was the one we had just hopped off of, we didn’t feel we were in any danger. We decided to walk back to Savin Hill, about a half-mile distant. That way, if some of us had to walk all the way, we’d be closer to home. Savin Hill station also looked as though it would be easier to hop the fence to. Although Columbia was closer to us, there was barbed wire everywhere. We started walking.
About halfway there, we felt the tracks start to vibrate. There was nothing in front of us. We turned around quickly and saw that a subway train was slowly coming from the other direction, on our tracks!
We hopped to one side quickly and stood with our backs against the fence that separated the rails from the expressway. There was no danger of being hit. There was plenty of room between where we stood and where the train would pass us. We’d let it pass and then continue on our way. However, as the train neared where we stood, it slowed and then came to a complete stop.
The MBTA wasn’t operating passenger service on these lines yet, but they were running training classes for the operators. The motorman leaned out of his window and cursed a blue streak at us, telling us what damned fools we were. Heck, we knew that. He told us we were lucky he didn’t have us arrested, but there wouldn’t be another train along here for at least an hour, so we’d better hurry our asses up and get wherever the hell we were going and get the hell off the tracks before we got our fool asses run over and he closed his window and left towards Quincy.
After he left, we came to the realization that we had been - and still were - walking tracks with a live third rail. Until that time, we had assumed there was no danger, since there was supposedly no service on these tracks, but we now knew that if we tripped and fell we could end up fried. We walked onward, but very carefully, towards Savin Hill.
When we got to Savin Hill, we had to cross three electrified third rails to reach the platform – two on the side of the fence where we were now and the one we would encounter when we hopped the fence. We very gingerly stepped over the first one, then the second one, climbed the fence with an iron grip, lest we fall backwards onto 600 volts, and then jumped from the top of the fence far clear of the other live rail – a couple of us (me included) skinning a knee as we landed, since we had made so sure of clearing the live rail that we couldn’t properly land on our feet.
We boosted ourselves up onto the platform, saw after a short while that nobody else was in the station or had seen us, and we lit up celebratory cigarettes. We were sober, tired, dirty and, if not wholly remorseful, at least somewhat more knowledgeable than we had been a couple of hours ago. We caught the train and got home without further stupidity.
Personally, I didn’t have any more of the beer. I felt bad about taking it and, more important than that, it tasted horrible. I also never hopped another freight train.
This ranks right up there with the most moronic episodes of my life. I’d say it’s about tied with the time I actually walked all the way through a railroad tunnel. My friend Mark and I were near Kenmore Square one Sunday, and we wanted to get to a place in the Back Bay, and…
No, I haven’t the time to write about that now. You’ll just have to wait. I promise I won’t do anything stupid enough to get myself killed in the meantime.
Soon, with more better stuff.