August of ’70 was waning when Jimmy Auld and I decided to hop a freight train to New York.* The idea was a bad one. My best ideas always are. Good ideas, I have found, are overrated. We were nineteen, dumber than dead owls, and didn’t know squat about trains or, for that matter, life. We hadn’t been there yet.
We went to the Pot Yards-the Potomac Rail Yards in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, northern terminus for the old Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac, now closed-and looked through a high chain-link fence. It was getting dark.
I was a skinny country kid with a crazy streak and a paranoid delusion that I was secretly Jack Kerouac. I may have been right. Jimmy was a head case. He had been valedictorian at King George High, where we had been rivals for Alpha Wise-Ass. He would kill himself eight years later by swimming into the Rappahannock River at midnight in January. Between he had a few productive years of transcontinental hitchhiking, motorcycling across the Western deserts, indulging a gargantuan appetite for drugs, and discovering late in life that he was homosexual.
I know, I know. But the times were different then.
After dark we went over the fence. The Y of barbed wire at the top of fences was easy if you knew how. On the other side, box cars and gondolas loomed against the light pollution of nearby Washington. The yard smelled of creosote and insulation. We fell prey to an exhilarating sense of being where we weren’t supposed to be.
We sat in a patch of shadow and wondered what to do next. It’s one thing to want an adventure, another to know how to have it. Fog rolled in from somewhere and put halos around lights. The night cooled in the coming autumn. A yard mule howled and wheedle-wheedled in the drifting mist, big diesels surging as it moved cars around. The mass and raw power exalted us. All good, but how did you actually hop a train?
Cinders crunched. An old black man was walking along the tracks with a plastic jug of water. We chatted. I forget his story. He was down on his luck and living in an abandoned building, I think. He didn’t know what trains were going north. Ask the yard crew, he said; they’d help us. And they did. People in the low demographics will give you a huss. They know the need.
He said goodbye and walked down the tracks.
Jimmy got up his nerve to ask a yard guy who approached with a flashlight. He pointed to a line of cars and said, “That one. She’s going to New York City.”
We chose a boxcar with that for whatever reason had cardboard on the floor and a door open just enough to let us slip in. It was stupid. If someone had closed the door we could have died of thirst before anyone found us.
Then, nothing. The yard mule howled, dim figures moved in the night, but the train sat there. Half an hour later, still nothing. We lay on the cardboard to sleep. Finally the beast began to move. You could hear the couplings go tight along the line of cars, bangbang bangBang! then metallic creaking as she started laboriously to roll.
The rest of the night it moved and stopped, being a local, moved and stopped. We woke up briefly from time to time and went back to sleep. I don’t know how long we drowzed after it stopped. It didn’t matter. On the road you don’t have to be anywhere. Come late morning, we hopped out, eager to finagle our way to Manhattan.
We were still in the Pot Yards. A yard engine had been pushing us up and down the yard all night, putting together a train.
Some adventures work better than others.
The next try we made it. This time we picked a gondola with a couple of huge pieces of machinery, generators I thought, chained down. I hoped the chains were healthy. A freight is a huge merciless machine that will squash you like a bug if you get in the wrong place. We realized this. We just didn’t know where the wrong places were.
A crazy exaltation comes with rattling through the evening on a pounding, clattering monster as if it belonged to you. It was a big feeling. We hopped around the generators, whooped like wild Indians, and decided to climb from the gon onto the roof of the box car in front of us. It wasn’t smart. We weren’t either, so it seemed about right. Statistically it wasn’t dangerous. The swaying ladder on the box was within reach. With both hands on a rung it would be hard to fall under the wheels. Well, fairly hard.
Don’t try it at home. Some things are best left to idiots.
We were as gods-atop a shaking whanging steel python, hollering like maniacs in the wind blast. Outside the rules lies a freedom most people don’t notice. The hurtling thunderbolt was pure muscle yet we had tamed it?we thought. We could smell the passing forest. Isolated houses flashed by and I felt the strings on my face.
Strings, distinct cords hanging from something we had passed under.
From some dim forgotten cranny of my mind there popped up one of those crucial datums you don’t know you have. As a kid I’d read everything within reach, without judgment. Somewhere, maybe in some seven-year-old’s Big Book of Trains, I learned that strings meant you were coming to a tunnel. They were a night warning to train crew.
I shrieked at Jimmy and tackled him. A moment later we indeed went through a tunnel. We’d have hit the concrete at fifty and dripped in globs onto local newspapers.
Now, I may get email from a dozen train crew saying, Fred, you’re full of it, there ain’t no such strings and there’s no tunnel between DC and New York. I never verified my string memory. Jimmy and I hopped some other trains and it is barely possible the tunnel adventure happened on another run. But there were strings, and there was a tunnel.
Tell your kids to read more.
Some day I’ll tell you what happened in the Village and the Waverly yards and sailing back on a flat car through Philadelphia in the Cagle Cape and how you could tell the passing factories by their smell-tires, chocolate-chip cookies, something based on petroleum. Meanwhile it’s a pretty good rule in life: When you feel strings, duck.
*On thought, this had to be before 1970 but, since I’ve posted it, I’ll leave it: Fred