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  • James Eichenlaub

How To Ride A Train Without a Ticket

According to one source, "In 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the farmstead of David Robeson, paying him $11,000 for land worth about $2,500 for farming purposes." This later became known as the city of Altoona, PA, where we were born and raised.


The railroad is in my blood, to some degree, having lived most of my life within walking distance of the tracks, and in some cases, within spitting distance. Consequently, friends, relatives, and I spent many hours of our young lives in and around the shop yards, hiking along the tracks, and/or looking for relics of the days-gong-by rail industry.


One spring or summer afternoon of our early teen years, my nephew Richard and I walked along 10th Avenue behind the old Wolf's Furniture building when a freight train rolled into the yard on the far side of the tracks and began slowing, presumably to stop.



As it passed, Richard saw that one of the boxcar doors was slightly ajar, and the car appeared to be full of something. Of course, we had no idea what and threw our speculations back and forth as to what it might be, and in the end deduced that whatever it was, we could use some!

As we continued our stroll down through town and hooked up onto 11th Avenue for a little window shopping, the train slowly rolled to a stop. This, of course, was long before WINDOWS software was conceived; so we were looking at what was behind the windows in the stores; the closest thing we had to on-line shopping back then and where browsing actually involved movement.


Between us, we had enough money to visit Woolworth's where we could pop a balloon for a free banana split. Neither he nor I were that lucky, but we did get some discount, which ate up most of our pocket money but left us with a sufficient amount for other minor entertainments. Leaving Woolworth's, we continued our walk through town until we came to the so-called 'Penny' Arcade across from the Logan theater. Once inside, we relinquished our few remaining coins to one of the mechanical monsters that accepted copper and silver sacrifices, and that was that. NOW, WHAT?


After giving it a few seconds of serious contemplation, and since we were still in the neighborhood, we decidedly went back to 10th Avenue to have another look at the rails where we saw the freight train stop earlier. The train was still sitting there, and surprisingly enough, that very same open boxcar sat almost directly across the tracks in front of us.

Uh oh! Richard's delinquency quickly began bubbling to the surface.


As we walked along, he spotted a portion of the fence bent away with an opening wide enough to crawl through. We presumed a hobo, wanting in and out of the yards, made the opening as it was nearly hidden by the weeds and brush. Tipping an imaginary hat to the purveyor of our good fortune, we slipped through the crack to the rail-side of the fence.


Seriously, who watches for teenaged boys to run across five or six lines of track in the mid-afternoon? Nobody, right? And so, with the 12th Street bridge in plain view not a quarter-mile distant, we skedaddled across the open rails toward the standing boxcar door which sucked us in like two wads of loose cat hair up a Hoover. Inside the stifling hot car were stacks and stacks of bags and boxes, all laid out and strapped to wooden pallets, and not a single one of them accessible without a crowbar. However, it became a small form of amusement to climb on top and jump from one stack to the other to survey the entire cargo.


Still, as we moved away from the door, the car became eerily dark at either end. When I saw what appeared to be the vague outline of someone sitting against the wall at one end of the car, I immediately leaped and hopped back to the open door where I told Richard about what I saw. Of course, Richard 'the Lion Heart' immediately wanted to investigate and insisted on returning to the scene of the enigma. Personally, I was ready to search for another form of fun.


Just as he determined a course of action and prepared himself for battle, we suddenly heard the rumble of the cars being pulled taught. The thunderous sound begins when the engine moves forward, and all of the railcars in succession are jerked into submission to follow. Quickly rolling towards us, our car heaved, and we were yanked off our feet and dropped onto the stack on which we stood; the train began to move.


Jumping onto the deck, we ran to the door opening and paused. HOW COOL IS THIS! We were now hobos and looked at one another with the same question in our eyes, "Should we ride it or not?" I mean, seriously, we can jump off any time we want, right? So there we stood until the train rolled through and past the Juniata shops as it began to gather speed. Still not too fast to jump if you don't mind being torn apart by rail ties and gravel, we could escape, but thought it better at the moment to not. So we just stood by the open door and watched hobo entertainment pass before us.


As you might guess, it wasn't until civilization disappeared that we began to question our decision. Now the only thing passing the door were trees and another train moving in the opposite direction. Suddenly, this was not cool after all, but neither of us would admit to our trepidation about where or when we would end up. On we rode like Poncho and Lefty until a short time later when, at last, the train appeared to be slowing again. We stood at the door contemplating our exit and in that same instant heard a chilling sound float toward us from behind, as it were, amid the odor of cigarette smoke. Neither dared to look back.


"What the hell are you boys doin in my boxcar," the voice came forward in a sort-of high pitched Walter Brennen tone.


We turned with me half expecting to see Amos McCoy. Instead, there stood before us our very first (and last) hobo-in-a-boxcar experience. The bo never told us his name, and we never asked. He simply became "the bo we met in a boxcar."


"We uz just ridin, I guess," I answered. "Just messin around, and the train started goin."

"Well, you'd better get off here, or you're gonna have one helluva long walk back if yer goin back to Altoona," said bo. "The next station ya kin off at after this is Harrisburg."


About that time, civilization returned, and we saw that our first (and last) hobo ride carried us all the way to Tyrone. By this time, the train was again barely moving, and bo went to the opposite side of the car and jerked the door open.


"Git out over here," he snapped, "I don't want the yard bulls to see youse, or they'll come looking for more."


Gripping the ladder, we lowered ourselves to the gravel and stepped off into the trees. We watched bo close the door behind us as the car slowly rolled away. The train was extremely long, and it took some time to pass. So as we waited, we talked about how to get back home. Should we wait for another train? We have no money; a cab would cost too much; how far was it to walk; which road do we take. Nothing but questions without answers. Once the train passed, we walked across the railbeds, through the trees opposite, and out onto the street.

We walked back to the train station and sat on a bench for some time, trying to figure a way home. Left without a choice, I picked up a payphone and dialed '0' for the operator.

"Hello, yes, I need to make a collect call from Jimmy to 814-944-blah blah blah blah," I said.

It was well after dark when my bother, Terry, arrived at the station and drove us back home to our respective homes and bedrooms for a couple of days of time-out!

Of course, those were different times. In those days, a "time-out" was a sports metaphor and had nothing to do with punishment. So our sentence lasted until we left our bed the following morning and found reprieves granted for both, leaving us with little else but to plan new adventures!

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