Illinois Buzz and the Trestle of Doom
The lonesome train whistle could be heard each night from far away. It was just a faint sound in my bedroom; but once I had heard it, it became the stuff of dreams and wonder. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a train engineer. He told me that the whistle was a warning and that a train was hard to stop. My mother and I lived with my grandparents for several months during the Korean War. He would take me on rides in the train. I was far too young to ride in the engine, but received much attention from the porters in the club car. Once, one played songs for me on his harmonica while a couple others sang along. I remember it as great fun and sleeping on the train was easy. It had a gentle sway and the “clack, clack, clack……clack, clack, clack” to lull one to sleep. Now, just eight years later, I was wondering who or what was being warned each night at about the same time. Was it a big turn in the track? A train is supposed to sound off at big turns. Crossings too….and trestles. Maybe there was livestock on the track? No, not every night at the same time. I wanted to know.
I convinced two friends of mine, Jan and Eugene, that we could make a day of it, that we should find the reason for the whistle in the night. They heard it each night too. If we could find the track, we could find the reason. We would “pack up” with all the necessities in our army surplus packs or on our surplus canteen belts. Compass, knives, hatchets, rope, bandages, snacks and water and a roll of toilet paper….just in case. Eugene’s father was a “man’s man” (see short story: “A Not So Good Friday”), so to speak, and he recommended each of us carry a whistle, in case we got separated or lost. Made sense. We did.
As we trudged East through the woods in the fairly early morning, around eight o'clock or so, we were checking out some active squirrel nests and rabbits when Jan had noticed that many birds seemed to be flying in one direction. Once he pointed it out to Eugene and me, we watched too. He was right. So, as curious youngsters will, we walked South, carefully marking our way through the woods. You see, we were all active Cub Scouts from the same den, so were familiar with the necessities of a long hike and avoiding getting lost. Besides, we read magazines like True, Saga, Adventure and Sports Afield at the drug store and barber shop. We hadn’t walked far when the woods opened up to many treeless acres. Eureka! Spreading for acres in three directions were dewberry vines, dense thorny vines, taller than we were, that curled and reached out to grab at your clothing…and offer their glorious bounty. Each was loaded with fat, juicy, dark purple or dark red dewberries.
With no regard for snakes or bugs, we ate until our lips were stained and until we realized we could come back with containers and take them home. I told Jan and Eugene that Mrs. Hart would surely appreciate a bunch of dewberries. She could sell them or make pies to sell. Mrs. Hart was an older black woman who sold produce and some baked goods from a mule-drawn wagon as she drove through the neighborhoods. Rufus, the mule, wore bells and she sang spirituals as she rode along. She sold a lot of produce and was known to have won many church baking contests. When Eugene asked what was the hurry, Jan told him, “They will rot on the vine if we don’t hurry, or the birds and varmints will eat them all.” He was right. We hurried. Mrs. Hart’s grandson, Jake, was a very good student and a real good baseball player…he had played baseball with us several times; so, just three days later, he would help us in a massive harvest of berries. Mrs. Hart gave each of our mothers a deep-dish dewberry pie a few days after the harvest. Man, was it good….with a little vanilla ice cream on the side. Yum! We told Jake to be sure to remember how to get there. Jan and Eugene and I were service brats and would move away pretty soon, but he or his younger brothers would be there year after year to harvest all that sweet goodness. I’d bet they did too.
Anyway, despite the good fortune of the berry field, we had not found the source of the lonesome whistle. Remembering how to find the berries again, we set out. We came to a low land area, a little “marshy” in places and thick with trees and wild elephant ears. Some of the elephant ears were very tall and huge, probably as big as a real elephant’s ear. As we muddled our way through, never once thinking of quick sand or snakes, I happened to slip on something. I managed to catch myself from falling and looked down to see what was so slippery. A spring! A large rock, shiny, perfectly round and domed, was protruding from the ground. In the perfect center of the dome there was a fountain of water coming from a hole about three-eighths of an inch in diameter. It spewed upward about four or five inches, then fell upon the rock. No telling how many years it had been a spring, but the flow had almost perfectly rounded the rock and a moat of sorts had formed around it. At the lowest point in the circumference of the moat, the water would drain away, making its own tiny stream. That tiny stream ran into one a bit larger that was several feet away that ran into a small creek that ran a few yards to the Tallapoosa River. I found out the name later. It was getting pretty muggy and the acid from all those berries had given us a bit of “dry mouth”, so we each drank spring water caught in smaller elephant ears. Man, it was so cold and tasted so clean and pure.
The Tallapoosa was an old river, I suppose. It had steep, overgrown banks and some current. It was shallow at the time, but we didn’t know that yet. We followed the river for maybe half a mile. We were getting too far from home and we knew it. Each of us was thinking of trying again another day. Jan said, “Man, if we hadn’t stopped for all those berries…”; while Eugene piped in with, “But they were so good!” Suddenly, there it was….a train trestle. It was seventy-five or eighty yards long and raised from the surrounding landscape on both ends. North of the trestle, less than a quarter mile, we could see the large, sweeping turn in the tracks. This was the site of the lonesome whistle blowing each night! We talked about the find excitedly, about the adventure of it all. Then Eugene said, “We have to get to the other side. That’s part of the mission.” We weren’t sure why, but Jan and I knew he was right.
We were walking across the trestle to visit the other side when danger loomed large. A train was coming around the big turn. There was no whistle warning and it was coming fast. What to do? Run! Jan and Eugene were both slimmer and faster and, anyway, I was bringing up the rear. We started running toward the train because we were closer to that side; but, because I was chubbier and less nimble, it became clear that I would not make it in time. The train’s air horns were blaring. Obviously, the engineer was aware that we were on his track. I stopped, turned, and started running back from whence we had come. Now, the big air horns seemed right behind me and I could hear metal on metal. The engineer was trying to slow it down. Without so much as looking back, I jumped down between two railroad ties and locked my arms locked tightly around one of them. It’s quite a reach for an 4’ 9” eleven year old. I was hanging high above the river as the train rolled overhead. Clack, clack, clack….clack, clack, clack! I knew I was in the middle, so I tried to pull myself up, hoping I could get high enough to see if the end of the train was getting close. My arms were getting tired. I managed to pull myself up just high enough. The noise was deafening. As I looked down the length of the train, I could not see the end. Then, something hot hit me in the face. It was probably some hot oil off a wheel or something, but it was all I could take. My arms ached and I decided I would have better luck in the river. I let go of the railroad tie.
It was a long drop to the water. That’s when I found out it was shallow. When I gathered my wits from the long drop, I could hear Jan and Eugene yelling to me to come to shore. I was up to my chest in water, but up to my knees is silt at the bottom of the river. The silt created a suction when I tried to pull one of my legs out. Couldn’t do it. Tried to squat and spring out of the silt. Couldn’t do it. In retrospect, I guess I was lucky I hadn’t broken my legs or something; but the silt had saved me. Now it was a trap.
I called to Jan and Eugene to throw me a rope. They had managed to work their way down the bank to the river’s edge. Eugene told me I had the rope. “Well, crap!” He was right. I slid out of my pack long enough to get the rope from one of its loops, then put it back on. Have you ever tried to throw a rope….just a rope? Can’t throw one very far; particularly if you are eleven years old and up to your chest in the river. Just then, a baby alligator surfaced and looked at me. It was only about fifteen inches long or so, and fighting the current a bit. It clacked its teeth at me a couple of times. I remembered my jungle movies. I took my hunting knife from its sheath, carefully held it by the blade, and bopped that little alligator on the nose a couple of times. It swam away. I turned back to the task of freeing myself from the silt. Realizing I needed something heavy that I could tie to the rope and throw, I tied the rope around my hunting knife. I alerted Jan and Eugene that I was about to throw the knife and let it fly. It made it to the shallow edge of the river and Eugene found it. The two of them grabbed the rope and tried to pull me in, but the slope of the bank was impeding any progress. Jan put the rope around a tree growing on the bank and started pulling in the opposite direction, using the tree and the slope to their advantage….and mine.
Glop! My legs were free. I started to plod and dog paddle to the shore as they continued to pull on the rope. Still in the current and about 20 feet or so from shore, Eugene suddenly exclaimed, “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” and pointed. I turned to see the Mama Alligator coming down the bank on the other side. That brat had told his mama that I hit him on the nose. Jan and Eugene were pulling in earnest and I was making the best progress I could. I safely stumbled into the shallows. Mama was about fifteen feet behind, but apparently intimidated by the three of us, she made no further advance. She just stared at us with only her eyes and nose above the water. In unison, Jan and Eugene both said, “Man, that was close.” I was just glad to be alive and out of the river.
I untied my knife and put it away. I wound up the rope and put it back on my pack. Jan asked, “Ready? Got everything?” I paused for a long moment, looked at my friends and asked, “Did you notice that engineer didn’t stop to see if I was alive or not?” Jan exclaimed, “By God…that’s right. He should have stopped!” I calmly said, “My grandfather said the schedule is the most important thing….bein’ on time. This guy must have been a little behind today.” Still today, I think he should have stopped to see if he killed me or not.
My clothes dried on the way home, but the river had infused a lot of dirt. I got home and changed clothes while my mother was ironing. I took the dirty ones outside and used the power nozzle on them. They were much cleaner and I hung them on the fence to dry. Later my mother asked how I got so wet and dirty. I told her I fell in the creek while I was hunting crawdads. The lie worked. If I had told her what really happened, she would have never let me leave the house again. My dad was much more understanding about a boy’s adventures. I told him about the berry field and he got very excited. He loved dewberries with cream. It was a special treat when he was a kid. Told him about the spring and drinking from elephant ears. He said, “I’m off on Friday, you can show me.” We visited all the places, the spring and the trestle. He took a fishing line bobber and tied it to a long string, then dropped it from the edge of the trestle. Fifty-four feet to the water. “That’s quite a drop, son.” “When the oil hit me in the face, I gave up.” He laughed. As we looked down on the river from the trestle, he suddenly grabbed my arm. “Look! Look!” We could see the mama alligator lazing in a sunny spot on the slope of the bank. Now my entire story had credibility. If there had been any doubt of my voracity, it was banished. He squatted down to my level, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Boy, you had the adventure of a lifetime….and you were brave. Never forget it.”
He was proud… and I have not.