As a child, I lived in a housing development that backed up to a freight train track. I can remember the sound of the horns and then the deep rumble of the train as it got close. Of course, we were told not to go near the tracks, but being curious children, my brother and I would love exploring over them. Although I never dared to climb onto a stopped train car, my imagination went there in this story.
Summertime was almost too boring for me as a child. Without school, I had no schedule other than my meals and bedtime. Sure I had a few chores, but for the most part I was free to play outside. Once the weeks slid into July, the heat forced us into the shade. I had a buddy that moved into the house across the street when I was five. Stue, his parents called him. It sounded funny to me at first, but I got used to it plenty quick. We became like brothers, spending all our spare time together. It was the year we turned six that we became famous in our little town of Stratford, Indiana located just a few miles outside of Fort Wayne.
It all started on a Thursday afternoon. Stue and I collaborated our schedules and found that we both had the largest amount of time free just after lunch. We were very serious and wanted to pretend we were hobos for the afternoon.
“Mark, if you tell your Mom that you are having lunch at my house and I tell my Mom that I am having lunch at your house – we are free. Our moms won’t worry and we can have lunch on the train like a hobo,” Stue suggested to me as we sat under the shade of the oak tree in my back yard.
“But we don’t have any lunch.” I was a little hesitant to totally agree on the project. At first, climbing on the parked box car sounded like an adventure but now that Stue was actually planning on doing it in a couple of hours, I was starting to get a little worried that I might get in trouble for lying about lunch.
“How about you get a couple of apples and I will get stuff for making sandwiches. I think my Mom is out shopping right now and my sister doesn’t care what I do, so I could do it now and put it in my backpack.” Stue was a real salesman now that I think back on the day.
“Okay, let’s meet out back behind the shed around lunchtime.”
“What time is lunchtime?”
“I don’t know. Maybe twelve o’clock?”
“Okay, I’ll be back there at twelve o’clock.” Stue took off running in his bare feet for his house across the street.
I got up a little slower and headed for the house. I didn’t know what time it was so I went in the kitchen and asked my Mom.
“Why Mark, it is just about 11:30. What are you up to?” she asked.
“Nothing. Just thinking about eating an apple,” I said as I picked one out of the bowl on the counter.
“An apple now will spoil your appetite, Mark.”
“Can I eat lunch at Stue’s house?” I asked.
My mother looked at me for a long second like she was mad at me. “Does Stue’s Mom know about this?” she asked.
“Yup. I think she’s making peanut butter sandwiches.”
“Okay, but you be good and use your manners.”
She turned away from me to wash something in the sink. I slipped two apples from the bowl and ran up to my bedroom to get my old overalls. They were a little short, but they fit. I wanted to feel like a hobo. I ran out the back door barefoot and let the screen door slam behind me. I could hear my Mom calling out after me but I kept running.
Stue wasn’t behind the shed yet, so I sat on the ground and watched ants crawling across a stick. After a few minutes he showed up with a pillowcase in his hand.
“Whatcha got a pillowcase for?” I asked.
“It’s got our stuff in it. I got peanut butter sandwiches, some cookies, some saltines and a bottle of water.“ Stue looked pretty proud of himself and sat there looking at me with a big grin on his face.
“What? Why are you looking like that?”
“I got a surprise.”
“Are you crazy! We can’t drink beer. “
“Why not? We are supposed to be hobos and they drink beer. Besides, no one is going to see us so how would they know?”
“I guess.” I didn’t want to ruin Stue’s excitement and after thinking about it, I kind of liked the idea, too. I put my apples in his sack and we peaked around to make sure no one could see us. We ran through a little strip of trees that buffered my yard from the train tracks. The gravel hurt our feet so we walked carefully up to the wooden ties. The train was parked and we couldn’t see anyone in sight. One of the box cars’ side doors was open slightly so we chose it for our adventure.
The floor of the boxcar was high for us so I clasped my hands together and gave Stue a boost up. He had to use all his strength to get the door to slide open more and then pulled me up after I handed up the pillowcase. The box car was empty and pretty hot but we didn’t care.
Stue opened his pillowcase and pulled out the bottle of beer.
“That bottle looks strange,” I mentioned.
“Why?” Stue asked holding up the bottle to inspect it. “It says ja, i, m, Jim,” he read, sounding out the letters, “Jim Ba,ee,ah,em, Jim Bee, ahm. No Jim Beam.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. My dad only drank beer from cans so I didn’t know anything about this beer.
“We don’t have any cups so we have to drink out of the bottle.” Stue announced.
“I don’t care,” I said as I crossed my legs and leaned back against the inside of the boxcar. I watched Stue as he lifted the bottle to his lips and poured the gold liquid in his mouth. His face contorted and he swallowed in a hard gulp. He started coughing and his face went beet red.
“Are you okay?” I asked. His reaction made me a little intrepid of drinking the beer.
“That is really strong beer. I don’t know how Dad drinks it. He gulps it, but it burns my throat. Here you try.”
When he put it that way, I felt like I had to prove to him that I could do it, so I lifted the bottle to my lips and forced myself to take two swallows. It was liquid fire! I gasped for air and tears flowed from my eyes.
“Aughhh! That’s crazy!” I wanted to say it was horrible, but I wanted to be tougher than him. “Are you going to do it again?” I asked.
“Yup. Just like a hobo.” He took the bottle and poured a smaller amount this time. “Yeehaw!”
I laughed at him. “Let me do it.” I poured some more into my mouth, “Yeehaw!” I imitated and went into coughing and laughing.
“I’m feeling kind of rubbery,” Stue said as he stretched his arms out.
“I’m feeling hungry. Where are those sandwiches?” I asked as I reached for the pillowcase. I noticed that my eyes moved a little slowly when I looked back at Stue. “I feel a little funny, too. Maybe we are getting drunk.”
“Well, we should. Hobos are always drunk, just like pirates.” Stue said as he took another sip.
“Hey, don’t hog it. I want to be drunk too.” I took another swallow and then bit into the peanut butter sandwich to help sooth my throat. I started giggling.
“This is a pee nut butter sandwich.” I found it too funny.
“You are stupid,” Stue said as he started laughing. “You are a nasty fart face.”
We couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing. Just when I thought I could relax and stop, I would hear Stue starting to giggle again and I would start all over. My face hurt and my belly ached.
“I need some more beer,” Stue said as he rolled over on his stomach and reached for the bottle. “Have shome more fa- fart face hobobo.” His words were sounding funny and we laughed some more.
“No, you are a poop shmeller hobobo,” I said and I took a big swallow in between my laughing. I tried to set the bottle down, but the floor seemed crooked. “Whoa, I think this train is slanting.” I laid flat on the floor and closed my eyes. I felt very dizzy.
I don’t remember anything else until I woke and the train felt like it was swaying again. I opened my eyes, but everything was dark.
“Stue?” I reached around, “Stue?” This time I said it a little louder. I heard a grunt and then felt his leg. “Stue, wake up. It’s night time.”
“I don’t feel so good. The train keeps moving,” he groaned.
“It is moving, Stue. It’s night time,” I insisted. He didn’t answer so I lay back down and closed my eyes. I was too tired to care much about anything.
The sunlight woke me up the second time, but when I opened my eyes, the pain in my head was hurting me.
“Mom?” I needed her to fix my head.
“Mark? Where are we? Does your head hurt too?” Stue asked.
Slowly I sat up and looked out the train door, to see trees flying past. “Oh, no. Mom doesn’t know where we are. I think we are lost.” I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I was terrified. Mark was looking at me in confusion.
“We’re lost?” he asked and then he too started crying. After a few minutes, we calmed down a little and just looked out the door. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe ask the police for help when the train stops?”
“But what if they send us to jail for being on the train and getting drunk?”
It was too horrible and I started crying again, which made Stue cry too. We hugged our knees and watched the countryside rolling by.
“Look, we are slowing down!” Stue said.
I watched not sure if I was happy or more scared than before. Where were we and what were we going to do here? I stuck my head out the doorway of the boxcar and looked ahead. I could see buildings that looked like a factory or something.
“Do we jump off when the train slows down or do we wait until it stops?” I asked Stue.
“I think better wait until it stops. There are so many rocks on the side,” he said.
We waited until the train came to a complete stop and then helped each other jump down. We had passed a road with some stores on it so we headed back towards that. Neither of us had any money but we were very thirsty. We walked what seemed like miles but was probably only one mile before we found a gas station that had a bathroom we could use. We gulped handfuls of water from the faucet, glad to quench our thirst. Stue poured out the remainder of what we thought was beer and filled the bottle with water for later.
“So where are we?” Stue asked me.
“I have no idea. We could ask somebody. Maybe the guy behind the counter will tell us,” I suggested.
We walked up to the line behind the counter. When it was our turn, I looked up at the man and asked him where we were. He said the name of the town but it didn’t mean anything to me. I was not sure what I expected but I was so disappointed I wanted to cry again. Stue spoke up and asked if we were close to Stratford. The clerk looked at us impatiently and told he had never heard of it. Crushed, we left the station and walked back in the direction of the tracks.
“Look. There’s a phone. Maybe we could call home!” Stue broke our silence with excitement in his voice.
“Yeah! Let’s!” and we raced each other to the phone. I pulled the phone from the holder and listened. There was a faint dial tone. “What’s your number?”
“I don’t know. I thought you knew yours,” Stue hit me in anger.
“I never have to call home.” I tried to excuse myself. “I’ll try hitting the 0 button.” I pressed it and I was relieved to hear an operator’s voice.
“How may I help you?” a lady’s voice finally asked after a series of clicks.
“I am trying to call my home, but I don’t remember the number. “
“Would you like me to connect you to the Information Operator?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I just want to call home.”
“How old are you?”
“I am six. Can you tell me the number for Mrs. Jackson?”
“What is her first name?”
“Um. Stue, what is my mom’s first name?”
“I don’t know. Tell her your Dad’s name.”
“Do you have a number for Mark Jackson?” That was easy – I had the same name as he did.
“I have several Mark Jacksons. Do you have a town?” she asked.
“Yes, in Stratford.”
“I don’t show any town named Stratford in Illinois. Are you sure?”
“Illinois! No I am from Indiana. Are we in Illinois?”
“I am sorry. I am still not showing any number for a Mark Jackson in Stratford, Illinois. Maybe you could ask an adult to help you,” She suggested.
“What’s wrong?” Stue asked.
I hung up the phone. “She couldn’t find any number. I don’t know what to do, now.”
“We have to ask a policeman. Dad always says if I am in trouble to call the police.” I picked up the phone again and pushed the 0 button again. This time I asked the operator for the police. A couple of seconds later a man answered the phone and asked me where I was. I didn’t know but I gave him the name of the gas station where we used the bathroom. He told us to wait and a police car would come and pick us up.
About twenty minutes later, a black and white police car pulled up to the gas station and we ran over. A policeman got out of the front seat and walked towards us. “Are you the boys that called for help?”
“Yes. We are lost.” Stue answered.
“Well, come with me to the station and we will get ahold of your parents. “ He held the back door open for us. We were thrilled. A real police car. He told us to put on our seatbelts and then started asking us questions. He wanted to know our names, where we lived, our phone numbers, our parents’ names and he entered everything into a computer he had in his front seat. His radio went off a couple of times and I felt like I was part of a television show.
Finally, he turned around in his seat and looked at us. “How did you get here? You are almost five hundred miles from home.”
We were dumbfounded. He might as well have said we were on the moon. Five hundred miles away! How on earth were we supposed to get back? We just sat and stared at him.
“How did you get here?” He asked us again.
Stue spoke up, “We fell asleep on the train and when we woke up we were here.”
“The train? A freight train? How did you get on that? You do know it’s against the law to jump trains.”
“We’re sorry. We didn’t know it was against the law. We just climbed on a boxcar behind my house and pretended we were hobos having a picnic.” I was now terrified. The policeman said we broke the law. I was sure he was taking us to jail.
I sat as still as I could trying to think of a way to get out of the car. We had to get away from the police. I didn’t want to go to jail.
When the policeman pulled into the police station, he told us we could go inside and he would help us reach our parents, but I just knew he was going to lock us up. As soon as the car stopped, he got out and opened the back door for us. I followed behind him but turned to Stue and mouthed, “Let’s run.” We turned and raced as fast as we could to get away from the officer.
“Hey, kids. Stop!” We heard him call us but we didn’t turn around until we were sure we had lost him.
“Why did we run away?” Stue asked as soon as he caught his breath.
“He was going to put us in jail because we broke the law and got on the train.”
Stue just stared at me again, and then tears started rolling down his face. “I just want to be home.”
The sight of him crying, made me cry too, and we sat huddled on a city bench, hugging our knees.
“We just have to get back on the train again and take it home.” I stated calmly.
“But it’s against the law. What if we get caught? How do we get back on the train anyhow?”
“I don’t know but it got us here and it’s the only way I know to get back home.” I stood up and looked at Stue. “Let’s try again.”
He stood up and started walking with me and we retraced our steps back to the train yard. We figured that we would have to cross the tracks and get on a train that was headed back towards home. We had no idea that it might go in another direction. There was no train on the right set of tracks. We found a hidden area where there were a couple of buckets we could use as seats while we waited for the train to come. After about an hour, we heard the rumble of the train and then saw it come into view.
We ran along the edge of the tracks when it stopped on the other side of the station. No one seemed to notice us and we ran back to where there were the same types of boxcars as we jumped before. We tried to find one with the side door open, but all the train cars seemed full of stuff and closed up tight. Finally, we got to the last car – an engine car and climbed up the steps. There was no one inside and so we decided that we would try to stay there.
“I’m starving,” Stue said once we got over the excitement of climbing on the train, knowing we could get caught.
“Hey, we still have the apples I brought,” I said reaching into our little hobo bag. They weren’t much, but we were sure happy for them. We decided to drink the water slowly so it would last.
After sitting on the train for about an hour, we felt the jolt and then a shudder. Soon we were clipping along the tracks with a regular rhythm. The sound soon put us to sleep in spite of our fear and hunger. I had counted the number of hours that we had been on the train the first time and knew that we should be close to home after about ten hours. I wasn’t sure of the exact time when the train started moving, but it seemed like it must have been close to ten o’clock in the morning. Since the sun set close to nine, I was going to start watching for our town’s water tower about then.
We took time to have a little fun and sat in the drivers’ chairs and pretended we were driving the train, but there was no way either of us was going to touch any of the controls. We only wanted to get home. The chairs were comfortable and the windows were big. As the sun started to set, we started scanning the countryside out the side windows, looking for anything that might look like home. I was worried that the train might not stop again near our house, but I was banking on the fact that I saw it parked back there several times a week.
“What if the train doesn’t stop in our town,” Stue asked as the sky got darker and darker.
“I don’t know, maybe we’ll jump off,” I replied.
“Do you think we can?”
“What else can we do? I’m not going to another town again.”
We both became silent and stared out the windows.
“Look! I see the water tower.” Stue shouted, pointing to the large blue tower off in the distance. The town’s name, Stratford was printed in large black letters and even though the sky was almost dark, we could still make out the letters easily.
“I guess we are going to have to jump,” I said, walking over to the doorway.
“No, wait. We are slowing down,” Stue said. “Look at how fast the trees are going now.”
The sound of the train whistle carried back to us from the front of the train. Stue slid the door open and looked ahead. He could see the red flashing lights of the train crossing and the train slowed to a crawl, blasting away on its horn.
“We gotta jump now. That’s Market Street up there at the light and we are going farther away from our houses now. “
I looked at Stue and he looked at me. “Okay. You first,” I said.
I heard him yell and then let go of the train’s handrail. I couldn’t wait another second and jumped and yelled too. The gravel slipped under my feet and I tumbled head over heels down the side of the ditch along the tracks. I stood up and brushed off a couple of scrapes and ran back to Stue.
“Are you okay, Stue?”
“Uh huh. I hurt my ankle a little but I can still walk.”
We headed down the tracks half walking and half running. It was dark out and we could see lights on in my house as we approached my back yard.
“Mom! Dad!” I shouted, trying to not cry but overcome with relief at seeing the friendliness of my backyard.
There were cars in the driveway and then I saw the police car. I stopped Stue and told him to wait.
“Did they come to arrest us?” Fear flooded my body and I could barely breathe.
“Come on, Mark. Our parents are in there.” He pulled me into the back door, letting the screen door slam behind us.
To say that we were welcomed home would have been an understatement. Not only did our parents spend the night looking for us along with many friends from the town, but they had received a phone call from the police in the town where our train had stopped. We cried together and then stuffed ourselves with spaghetti someone brought over. The next morning, our pictures were on the front page of the town newspaper with the headline, Two Local Boys Found, Just Killing Time.
It was fun to be famous, but it was more relieving just to be home.