Hopping trains fools no one but myself

I’ll never hop a train again.

Got dragged and nearly fell beneath a train before finally letting go of a freight car’s’ metal hand holds. Don’t know how far my legs scraped and bumped along the wooden beams and fistfuls of rocks strewn from track to track. Don’t remember how long I lay on the ground, long after the train rolled by, thanking God for letting such a foolish boy like me to continue to live.

Think I was 12, maybe 13. Remember the “gang” I was trying to impress would sing the Gary “US” Bonds song “New Orleans,” as we’d hike through the train tunnel near the Philadelphia Art Museum. Played a lot on the rocks of the museum, in the Fairmount section. Swam and waded in the fountains along the steps leading up to the museum.

But hopping a train is nothing like scaling the walls to the museum. There’s a certain thrill one would get in “making” the train, and getting a ride from one place to another. In addition, it proved you were “tough” and could hang out with the tough guys.

Had to fight one of them to be accepted. His name was Billy Van Horn. No one won, but because I “held my own” with someone two years older than myself, I got a reputation for being a fighter.  It felt good to get respect. I never got a big head or anything. It just allowed me to be myself and not worry about fitting in. I became “one” of the guys, several of whom might be considered “bad” but only to “goody-two-shoes” who never took chances.

And jumping onto a moving train is chancy, let me tell you. You have to run along and time it just right to grab the “ladder-like” bars on the side of a freight car. Once you got a good grip, you’d hop up to the lower rung, placing both feet on the metal, and hold on for dear life as the train picked up speed and you hoped it would slow down when it got to where you wanted to jump off. Don’t believe the movies where you see someone jumping from a fast-moving train and walking away unhurt and not a little sore from hitting the ground where rocks and debris lie. I always got hurt if I failed to get my legs moving fast enough while departing from a train.


But I remember “hanging out” with Tommy Van Horn, Billy’s younger brother, as well as a couple other delinquent types. We were walking on the tracks that paralleled the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia’s Boat House Row all the way to East Falls where there was a public swimming pool.

A train came by. No one tried to hop it. It was going too fast. But not too fast for me. Hopping this one would be a challenge, something the guys would talk about and add to the reputation I was developing. That I was a “little crazy,” but more importantly, that I had a “lot of heart.”

I ran with the train. It was going fast. But I grabbed the handles and continue to keep pace step by step and all I had to do was take one or two more steps and jump to get aboard  . . .  when I stumbled.

Too afraid to let go, I hung on, as the train dragged me, dragged my legs. I thought I would die at the curve, that my body somehow would be thrown beneath the train and onto the tracks where metal wheels would run over me. Is this what it’ll be like at War when some Viet Cong is shooting at you and you’re uncertain of your next move, but know you must take some action for fear no action would be worse?

I “let go,” figuratively and literally. I let my fate up to God, asking for forgiveness for hanging with the wrong crowd and promised to reform. Van Horn got to me first. He thought I was dead. I had not moved for several long minutes as he ran up to me.

He called my name. I did not respond immediately. Others joined us. Someone touched my back as I lie face down on the side of the tracks. I slowly spoke and assured everyone I had no broken bones or major cuts.

Forgot all about my promise to God later that day when Van Horn recounted my adventures to others, and I sat in silence, smiling and quietly taking in the admiration for such a daring act. Many years would pass before I could look back and wonder why God protected such a fool like me. And I am ever so grateful.

11 comments on “Hopping trains fools no one but myself

  1. kim says:

    I grew up in a rural area and have many train stories, but never tried to jump one! You were one lucky kid!!

    Lived near a beach with train tracks running along it. If you got stuck in the wrong section of the beach and the tide came in there was no alternative but to walk the windy tracks back. Had more than a few near misses.

    You have brought back some good memories– and some disturbing ones too. 🙂 One can’t help but wonder– why am I alive when others were killed along the very same stretch of track.


  2. Phil says:

    Once when I was a boy, a train was stopped at a crossing near my house, and I was on the other side, with my bike. Silly me. I threw the bike over the connector between two boxcars, and then climbed over after it. To this day I think what a lucky kid I was.




  3. At that age there’s nothing that feels better than getting street creds with your gang, is there? I’m convinced a lot of us have guardian angels. There’s so much we do as kids that really should have killed us. I have a few stories like that too – just as I’m positive most guys do.


    • contoveros says:

      It’s part of our makeup, even though we may not want to share it sometimes. I like the concept of a guardian angel. How the hell did we make it this far, I’ll never know. Perhaps we are destined to aid others along their path and we’re needed despite our inate stupidness.

      Glad to hear there is more than one silly fool out there besides myself.

      michael j


  4. saradode says:

    “…HOLY FOOLS: Figures who subvert prevailing orthodoxy and orthopraxis in order to point to the truth which lies beyond immediate conformity. The holy fool endeavours to express the insistence of all religions that detachment from the standards of the world is the sine qua non of advance into truth.”

    Maybe that’s why… 🙂

    (And, while looking it up, I just also learned that the Greek word for “Holy Fool” is “salos.” Just thought that you’d want to know that!)




    • contoveros says:


      “. . . subvert prevailing orthodoxy . . .”

      Yeah, that’s the ticket. The only way to see truth is to point one self “beyond immediate conformity.”

      The holy fool insists we become detached from the teachings of traditional religions in order to find the truth all religions seek to advance.

      Don’t know where “salos” comes in. Still seeking truth in living each day and being more in the moment. Being “stupid happy” with the present moment.

      michael j


    • contoveros says:

      The Feast day of St. Isidora, one of the earliest “holy fools,” is celebrated by the Eastern Catholic Church on May 10, the day I had written this piece and you replied with this concept I never heard of, but am strongly drawn to now.

      Also learned that St Francis of Assisi was considered a “holy fool.” I chose him for my confirmation name and my love for animals. I feel I may have been playing this role much of my life without knowing it.


      michael j


      • saradode says:

        Cool! As I just wrote to Chris, I really don’t know where in my psyche that came from–it just kind of popped up in my head, so I went and looked it up. (Gee–things just popping into MY psyche?!! How very unusual!! 🙂 )

        I love that the Feast Day was on the same day as the post! Isn’t it great when stuff like that happens?



        • contoveros says:


          Can’t believe we are so in tune with this phenomena. Like walking on air learning things step by step that crop up from thin air.

          Nancy, you are a true seer!

          michael j


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