• James Eichenlaub

Ticket to Ride - Or Not

Updated: Mar 5

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. Consequently, 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 Altoona, PA, 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.

11th Avenue Altoona c1960's

Between us, we had enough money to visit Woolworth's where we could pop a balloon for a free banana split. Although neither were that lucky, we did get a small discount, which ate up most of our pocket money. Still, we left us with a sufficient amount for other minor entertainments. Leaving Woolworth's, we continued our walk down 11th Avenue 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.

Oh no! Here we go! 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 the weeds and brush nearly hid it. 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. Like two wads of loose cat hair up a Hoover, within seconds, we were inside the stifling hot car where stacks and stacks of bags and boxes were all laid out and strapped to wooden pallets, each stacked six feet high. Not a single one of them was accessible without a crowbar, knife, or some other tool. However, as a consolation, it became a small form of amusement to climb on top and jump from one stack to the other to survey the entire cargo.

Moving away from the small crack of light from the partially opened door, the car became eerily dark at either end. As I approached the forward-facing end of the car, I saw what appeared to be the vague outline of someone sitting against the wall behind one of the many stacks of cargo, and I immediately leaped and hopped back to the open door where I told Richard what I saw.

Of course, Richard 'the Lion Heart' immediately wanted to investigate and insisted on returning to what I hoped was a figment of the imagination. Also, personally, I was now ready to search for some other form of fun and entertainment outside this bake-oven! It felt like 100° inside.

Just as he determined a course of action and prepared himself for battle with a spook, we heard the sudden rumble of the cars being pulled taught. A thunderous sound that occurs when the engine moves forward and all of the railcars in succession are jerked into submission and made to follow. Rolling towards us like a distant but very fast-moving storm. Within seconds our car heaved, and we were yanked off our feet and dropped onto the stack on which we stood. The train began inching forward as we glanced back and forth from one another to the door.

Jumping from our stack onto the deck, we ran to the door opening and paused. "HOW COOL IS THIS!" I said as we slid the door wider. We were now hobos and looked at one another with the same question in our eyes, "Should we ride it or not?" Eyebrows raised in question.

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, so we could escape if we wanted, but thought it better at the moment to not. We stood by the open door and watched hobo television pass before our eyes as the warm summer air swirled around us.

"What the hell are you boys doin in my boxcar,"

As you might guess, it wasn't until civilization disappeared that we began to question our decision. Juniata was gone, and 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, the train appeared to be slowing. We stood at the door contemplating our exit when, like a spirit calling to us from amid the cargo, we heard a chilling voice float from behind amid the odor of creosote and a sudden waft of cigarette smoke. Frozen by the sudden chill of an unexpected voice, 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, the kind you would hear before you did "the Curly dance." We turned together, with me half expecting to see Amos McCoy. Instead, there stood before us our very first (and last) hobo-in-a-boxcar experience. A long-bearded, furry-looking, bespectacled man who never told us his name, and we never asked. He just became "the bo we met in a boxcar."

"We uz just ridin, I guess," I answered in my best non-quivering voice. "Just messin around, and the train started goin."

"Well, you looked like a couple idiots hopping around on top those pallets! You'd better plan on git'n off here, or you're gonna have one helluva long walk if yer goin back to Altoona," he said. "The next station ya kin off at after this is Harrisburg. It won't slow down again til then."

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

"Git out over here," he snapped, "I don't want the yard bulls to see you'se, or they'll come lookin for others. Now git! En stay off the trains, ya ken hurt bad messin around here!" Gripping the edge of the door, we lowered ourselves to the gravel and stepped off into the trees.

We watched as Amos the hobo closed 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 to our respective homes and bedrooms. A couple of days in lock-up was to be our punishment!

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

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