The reason that people like me (parents of teenagers) worry about them when they’re out is that we remember back to the things we were doing at that age.  We then believe we have plenty of justification for worry.  Most of the time, teenaged boys are doing nothing out of the ordinary but when they cross the line, they do it in style.

At least I did.

I am always the first to point out that I was a totally good kid; never creating any problems for anybody.  And yet, even with no adventurous tendencies, I managed to do some things that make for interesting stories.  This one involves a freight train.

I have a nephew named Kent who is more friend and brother than he is a nephew.  The fact that he is a nephew is just a quirk of timing. We both have always had a passing fancy for trains and once we got old enough to drive ourselves around, we would occasionally indulge in a bit of railroad-type sightseeing.  This particular time was during the Thanksgiving holiday in Camden, Arkansas.  If you’re looking for something interesting to do, Camden would not be the place to turn to but we were there anyway.  I hadn’t seen him for quite awhile since we were both in college so we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.  We headed for the tracks.

There were really only two railroads: the Southern Pacific and the Cotton Belt lines crossed in Camden and so there was the occasional freight train but apparently not very many on Thanksgiving.  We walked along the tracks for awhile, talking among ourselves and soon came upon a caboose on a side track.  Well, this was interesting to us; neither of us had ever seen one up close so we climbed up on the back porch thing that cabooses have and peeked in the door.  Lo and behold, the door was unlocked! Here was an opportunity seldom to be repeated.  I’m pretty sure we were breaking a law or two but we opened the door and went in.  We were genuinely curious about what a caboose looked like on the inside.  Indeed it was pretty interesting to anyone interested in trains.  I must say that we were careful not to disturb anything.  That is until I saw the metal bin marked “TORPEDOES”.

I had a vague idea built up from something an uncle had told me that a railroad torpedo was a signaling device.  It was an antiquated system used to signal an engineer that he needed to slow down and was an explosive device that was to be attached to a rail; when the locomotive ran over it, it would make a loud bang to signal the engineer to slow down.

In my hand, they looked like any other firework wrapped in paper with little twisty-tie straps coming out to attach them to the rails.  Well, this was another opportunity not to be missed.  We took one and jumped back down to the tracks.  I lost no time in attaching it to the rail.  Then Kent asked the obvious question:  “Now what do we do?”  I looked around.

All around the track were a number of steel plates.  These appeared to be the things that are spiked down to the wooden crossties and to which the rails are attached.  Perhaps this is a way to allow for rail expansion during the hot summers.  Anyway a number of them had been replaced and the old ones were thrown aside.  I hoisted up one of these (which was a lot heavier than I expected it to be) and threw it at the torpedo.  And missed.  I did this a number of times.  Finally, I realized that Kent was going to college on a football scholarship – he had gigantic weightlifter arms so I turned over the steel plate throwing to him.  He had no trouble heaving it but his accuracy was no better than mine.  After all, he had not played quarterback – he was a defensive player. We were both a little afraid of just dropping it from above since we didn’t know just how powerful this explosion would be.  We soon gave up and walked away.  We strolled towards the Ouachita river.

The railroad crossed the Ouachita on an old truss-type trestle and we decided to walk across it.  As we got out over the river, we realized that it was totally open between the rails and crossties.  It was made for trains and obviously not intended for humans to walk across but it was easy enough to walk from one tie to another.  It was exactly like that scene in “Stand By Me.”  As you may recall, a train came along in that movie. That’s exactly what happened this time too.

We were walking along talking about life – and probably girls – when I heard a rumble.  It was a few moments before it registered in my brain as to what it was. We both turned and saw it about half a mile away coming around the bend just as it let loose with a blast from its horn.  It wasn’t going very fast since it had just come through town but we didn’t know that.  We were halfway across the trestle and I started things off by yelling “SHIT!”  Then we both took off in opposite directions.  I thought he was with me for awhile but realized later that he was heading back to town and I was continuing on.  You don’t want your legs to fall down between the crossties so you step carefully but it’s surprising how fast you can go when you have to.  Jumping off was not even considered; I’m not a good swimmer and we were pretty high up.  I was almost across when I heard it:  BANG!  The torpedo!

DOUBLE SHIT!

I had attached the torpedo to the “real” track and not the side track and now if I didn’t get run over by the train or knocked off into the river, I was going to get arrested for trespassing, theft, and falsely signaling an emergency stop.  This is the sort of thing that really gets your heart rate up.  I made it to the other side of the river in good time; the train was going very slowly it turns out and wasn’t nearly to the trestle yet but he sounded his horn again which made me sprint the last few yards where the gravel roadbed began and I dove off to the side.  I scrambled down the side of the tracks with an eye to hiding somewhere; my little wimpy mind was imagining scenes of getting caught out in the middle of nowhere by a crazy railroad bull from Pinkerton’s like in the western movies and my body being found months later and miles away downriver.  But as I peeked up over the edge of the trestle, I saw that the train was not showing any signs of slowing down and that underbrush looked an awful lot like poison ivy so I stood my ground out of sight below the edge of the trestle.

It’s amazing how loud an oncoming freight train is.  I had never stood within a few feet of the tracks as a train approached without being inside a car and the sound kept getting louder and louder until it felt like the rocks under my feet were vibrating and the bridge itself was rumbling.  The horn sounded again and I thought my head would explode from the sound.  The sound became loud enough to make my stomach rumble and I figured that the engines would certainly be past me now so I ventured out from below the edge of the trestle and off to one side to see where the engines were.  Wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t waited long enough and the engineer and I were eye to eye for a moment as he passed.  I gritted my teeth.

He smiled and waived and drove on.

I’ve heard that freight trains are hard to stop and take quite a long time to actually come to a halt and he would not have been able to stop within a mile of that point.  I guess he probably saw me and surmised the situation.  Plus, those torpedoes were antiquated even then; he no doubt had radio communication and knew what was up and drove on without giving us a second thought.  But I didn’t know that at the time. At that point, I was busy trying to decide whether to throw up or pass out.  In the end I did neither.

The train passed on by and I watched it go.  As it passed on down the tracks and it finally got quiet, I climbed back up onto the tracks and looked back toward town.  There was Kent looking back at me from his side.  I yelled “You Okay?” and he responded “Yeah.”  I walked back across one crosstie at a time trying to keep my legs from trembling.  With the train gone, it got quiet again like those densely forested areas usually are; very little sound except the occasional bird call. This left me a good opportunity to think about it all.

One year later, I was a groomsman in a friend’s wedding and had the opportunity to meet his Dad who was an engineer.  Not the college-educated stuff-designing engineer but the train-driving kind.  He told me that he loved his job and that he always drove the same route all the time.  Every engineer knows his tracks like the back of his own hands and is always pretty aware of the conditions.  I caved in and told him this whole story which gave him a pretty good laugh.  He was actually surprised that the sidetracked caboose actually had any torpedoes in it at all and that they weren’t used any more.  He assured me that the engineer of that train was probably amused by it all and soon forgot about it.  But, as I said before, I didn’t know that at the time.

When I got back across, we had a pretty good laugh about it.  Kent had apparently had more presence of mind than I had and he didn’t even try to hide.  He just stood there like an interested spectator with his hands on his hips and waived jovially to the engineer. He correctly understood that if you’re trying to get away with something, it’s best not to look guilty.

Granted, when the torpedo went off near him, he nearly crapped his pants but he managed to look sufficiently innocent and friendly as the engine went by. I never asked him how he felt about it but I was shaky about that for quite some minutes but, being about 20 years old, I soon got over it and began to think back on how exciting it was and how I needed to do more things like that to get the old heart pumping.

And that -that last sentence about how after the shock wore off I felt that it was fun and should do more stuff like that – that is why I worry about my teenagers.

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