• James Eichenlaub

Death in Altoona, PA - Jimbo's Last Ride

You have to be born back in the '50s or earlier to remember the original 12th Street bridge that brought you from 9th to 10th Avenue over top of the railroad tracks and passing trains? The bridge, constructed of steel with high rails on either side, had wooden planks that resembled rail ties and were soaked with creosote to keep them from rotting. Ah! The odor of creosote is unforgettable! To this day, every time I come across that odor, I'm taken back to that bridge, walking across as a small child and carefully stepping over the cracks between the planks as I peeked through to the tracks miles below us. I would grip my grandfather's hand, fearing that we might somehow fall through.

It was 1956, or maybe 1957, somewhere close to turning or being five years old, that (Pop) John M. Eichenlaub took me for my first train trip. As you are likely aware, the rail industry pulled the steam locomotive from service in mid-1957. Consequently, my introduction to travel by train came at the end of the steam and coal-driven engines, and Pop hated seeing it happen. He cursed the new era and swore it would or could never compete with steam.

John Matthew Eichenlaub c1960

Pop, my grandfather on my dad's side, was a crusty old curmudgeon that was never without a pint of whiskey in his suit-coat pocket and a couple of cigars to go with it. He wore the same tired suit every day, and I do not recall him ever having it cleaned. To give you an indication of his character, besides his being a heavy drinker, a total bad-ass, unafraid of anyone, he also hated Eisenhower, our president at the time. Well, one day, we were in the post office downtown, and as he walked past it, Pop spit on Ike's picture hanging on the stairwell wall with all these people going in and out of the post office without a care of who saw him do it.

Like Young Sheldon, I DID NOT APPROVE! Gross!

P.R.R. Shop Yard 9th Ave. Altoona

That spring morning in 56 or 57, Pop and I left our hovel on 9th Avenue next to the old Victoria hotel on the corner of 14th Street, not far from Altoona High School. The shop yards were across the street from our house, so we had only to follow that high, wooden fence all the way up to the P.R.R. Infirmary building on 12th Streat, where we turned onto the bridge and crossed to the train station that fronted 10th Avenue.

At the foot of the stairs near the train station sat what appeared to me to be but a wooden box set up as a newsstand that offered an assortment of newspapers, magazines, gum, candy, cigars, cigarettes, etc. (Someone recently recalled the name of it, but I've forgotten again.) So, Pop stopped to have a look. After stuffing a newspaper and a couple of cigars into his coat pockets, Pop gestured to a shelf in the back, and the man inside handed me a HUGE Peppermint Patty candy bar. Not the dinky kind you buy today for $1.50, but one of those QUARTER-POUNDERS that you used to get for a nickel; enough to give a kid my size a six-hour sugar high and put a diabetic into a sound coma. I tried stuffing it away as Pop did his stash, but my pockets weren't big enough, so Pop kept it in with his cigars.

P.R.R. Passenger shed, Altoona, Demolished 1960

Holding my hand once more, we walked toward the station, passing beneath the train shed as we approached. At the time, there were only a few baggage wagons sitting about waiting for the next train to arrive, so we went inside to wait. The smell of cigars and newspaper ink filled the air. Ladies, all seemingly dressed high-fashioned, and men in suit and tie, sat reading their newspapers and magazines as they waited.

Pop stepped up to a window that had a small half-moon hole at the bottom, showed the man his lifetime pass, and paid him 5-cents for my ticket. Yes! We were ready to depart for Johnstown, PA., which meant hotdogs with saurkraut at his favorite bar, a couple of sips of beer from his glass, and a trip to the park in the middle of town where I could sit on the cannons and feed the pigeons and squirrels while Pop sipped and smoked and read more of his newspaper.

Riding that train for the first time is a memory that will live with me to my dying breath. That massive K-4 engine came huffing and clanging into the station as the announcement came over the speakers. I soon found Pop hastily dragging me outside to board the train, evidently having particular seating in mind, assuming so from his haste.

As we passed through the swinging double doors of the station house, directly in front of my eyes sat that massive engine with wheels taller than a grown man, spewing steam and the sweet stench of grease. Being dragged along with my mouth hanging open looking behind me, I gawked at the giant machine and immediately fell in love with everything about trains. Nothing on Earth, thought I, could be as mighty and majestic looking as that colossal K-4 that waited to haul us over the mountains.

The trip was exciting, to say the least. As we rounded the Horseshoe Curve, I discovered why Pop wanted these particular seats. As we rounded the curve at Kittanning Point, I was able to see the engines huffing and puffing that black coal smoke as we ascended the grade. My face pressed against the glass until the train reached the opposite side curve and disappeared from view, rounding the bend toward Tunnel Hill. From that point, we could clearly see Kittanning Reservoir, looking back, toward Altoona. From there on, periodically, the engines would come into view again and again so that my greasy nose prints covered the window by the time we arrived in Johnstown.

It was a short walk from the Johnstown station across the Walnut Street bridge, where we turned left onto Locust and walked three short blocks to Central Park. Somewhere along the way was a favorite watering hole where Pop would take us for a beer and a hotdog. No hotdog ever tasted better than those we had smothered in saurkraut. Pop would allow me to take an occasional sip of his beer and combine the two flavors that, to this day, make my mouth water when I recall the taste of them together. I do, on occasion, indulge myself just to bring myself back to the time.

Back in those days, one went to the park specifically to feed the pigeons and squirrels. Today, of course, it is politically incorrect to do so, which means the fun of being at the park suffered an ignominious death at the hands of the bureaucrats. But back then, Pop bought a large bag of peanuts, and I climbed up and sat on the canons where flocks of pigeons and herds of squirrels gather around me to be fed. Like a vagabond from a Mary Poppins movie, by the time we boarded the train that evening for the return trip, spotted with pigeon poo, and my hands and face were filthy with the dirt from the monuments and statues that I'd climbed over.

On a train after dark, the windows provide little in the way of entertainment, so Pop lit a cigar, took a couple of sips from his whisky bottle, and then bought a cheese sandwich and coffee for me as the porter passed. (Yes, I have been drinking coffee since my memories set to indexing within my hippocampus, i.e., since I was born.) Anyway, having finished my delectable repast-by-car-light amid the cigar smoke and delicious white noise of the rail car, I fell asleep curled up adjacent to Pop, who comically slept with his mouth hanging open as his head tipped back and rocked side-to-side with the rhythm of the train.

1427 9th Avenue, Altoona (home in 1957)

When Pop awakened me from my comfortable contortion on the double seat opposite him, I discovered that I had wet myself and left behind a relatively moist cushion for the next unwary passenger who might occupy it. I was disheveled with pigeon poo on my jacket from the bird-feeding frenzy and now wearing pee'd uncomfortably cold pants. Fortunately, the pants were dark, and the wet spot was invisible to the eye.

We stepped onto the cobblestone next to the off-boarding train and turned toward the lights of the bridge that brought us to our journey earlier that day. Pop, of course, was unaware of the wet nature of my trousers as I groggily slogged along holding his hand. With eyes half-closed to sleep, we arrived at the warmth of our hovel. Whether carried or stumbling there myself, I ended up quickly tucked into my mattress on the floor of the sewing room, where I was instantly asleep.

Not too many years before my retirement, my work provided me with a very poignant saying that I could immediately identify with as it brought me right back to that trip with Pop.


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