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.