Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chapter 2 – Army Tanks and Hopping Trains

When I was growing up, about 14 years of age, our house was exactly one mile from the Susquehanna River. Where it went past our town, the Susquehanna was exactly one mile wide.

There were islands scattered across the river, mostly small tracts of land. Some were large, like Three Mile Island, where the famous nuclear power plant accident occurred. But most were only a hundred feet by a hundred feet or so. They all had a lot of trees on them, and they were a fun place to canoe to and spend the day with my friends. We would paddle our canoe over to one of these small islands and then hike to the middle and be surrounded by trees. We would pull our canoe out of the water and drag it out of sight, and no one would know we even existed. We would lie down on the soft ground, look through the tree tops toward the sky, and wish we were hobos, traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad trains that crossed the river not too far away. The Rockville Bridge is now over 100 years old, and at the time, it was the longest stone masonry arch railroad bridge in the world.
For some reason, the trains always crossed the bridge rather slowly. Because the bridge was a mile wide, when the trains would cross the bridge, you could hear the clicketly clack clickety clack of the wheels for a very long time. Late at night, while lying in my bed, I could hear the wheels for what seemed like hours. The sound would put me to sleep, dreaming about jumping onto one of the trains and ending up who knows where. I didn’t care where I’d end up, I just thought about the great adventures that awaited me. And the excitement I felt when I thought about what it would be like to actually hop a moving train stayed with me until I couldn’t resist any longer. At the age of 15, I knew it was nor or never. I decided I was going to be a hobo for a day, and steal a ride on one of these trains that were so close.

One Saturday, after paddling our canoe over to one of the islands, my friend Siggy and I were lying on our backs, looking up, when I said “Hey Sig, I’m going to hop a train! Wanna come with me??” Siggy thought about it for at least one tenth of a millisecond and said “Sure!”

I had already devised a plan weeks earlier. Where the Rockville bridge crosses the river, at its nearest location to my house, the bridge takes the conductor’s choice of turns. The tracks make a sharp left and a sharp right turn. They don’t go straight, toward my house. There is a mountain range in the way so it can’t go straight. The Pennsylvania Railroad company had constructed what my father called a “humping yard” right where the trains were required to make their turns. This was an area about the size of a football field, in the middle of nowhere. The trains coming across the river could stop here and have cars removed or added to the train. And about 90 percent of the time. there was usually nobody around except for the two or three old timers who did the work of attaching and detaching cars. The trains had to go even slower to make the sharp turns than they did while crossing the bridge, so I just knew this would be the perfect place where Siggy and I could hop aboard one of the slow moving trains and not be thrown off to lose a leg or an arm or worse being cut off by the rolling wheels.

So Siggy and I made plans to meet the following Saturday. I asked my mother to drive me to my friend John Stanley’s house. I told her that he was having a party to celebrate his 15th birthday, and that I’d be there all day. I told her that Siggy was invited too, and that Sig and I would walk to Sig’s house when the party was over and sleep there. Siggy’s mother thought he was going to sleep at my house. The plan was in place!

On Saturday, my mother drove me to Siggy’s house. Then Siggy’s mother drove us both over to John Stanley’s house. We rang the bell and John answered the door, asking us “what are you guys doing here?” We told him to let us in so Siggy’s mother could drive away, confident that we were in the house. John’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother who worked on Saturdays. We told him what we were up to, and waited five minutes to make sure Siggy’s mother was long gone. We then said good-bye to John, and began the two mile walk to the humping yard.

When we finally arrived at the humping yard, we could not believe our eyes. We didn’t see anybody there, not even the old-timer railroad employees. And lo and behold, there were four flatbed railroad cars, and each contained two army tanks. Green Sherman army tanks!

We both scrambled up onto one of the flatbed cars and hopped up onto a tank. We figured these tanks were going to Viet Nam, this being 1966. We simply had to try to get inside one of the tanks, and upon trying to lift the entry hatch, it was obvious this tank was not locked. Can one lock an army tank? We didn’t know, but we were certainly happy once we were both inside the tank, away from any eyes that we were not aware of. We played in there for about 15 minutes, when all of a sudden we heard voices. We had left the entry hatch open which we were sure would give us away. We could hear the old-timers talking, and they never noticed the hatch. But they were very close, and seemed to be inspecting the railroad cars, and not what was on top of the railroad cars. We could hear one old-timer holler “READY” and within a minute or two, Siggy and I felt a jerk that shook us quite hard. These railroad cars had just been humped, or attached, to a train that was going to take them away.

We knew we couldn’t just jump out, because the old-timers would have beaten us up. At least that’s what we’d heard for years. They say that if the old-timer railroad employees catch hobos, they beat them up. We didn’t know if this were true or not, but we weren’t taking any chances. Very carefully, I popped my head out of the hatch. I couldn’t see anybody and we were moving about five miles an hour, so I closed the hatch with Sig and me still inside.

The train started moving faster and faster, and we had no idea where we were going. For all we knew, the next time we’d be able to get out of the tank, we’d be on a boat to Viet Nam. We knew we couldn’t just hop off the train now, as it was moving too fast. I finally opened up the hatch again and stuck my head out. We were surrounded on both sides by nothing but forest, and it looked like the train was going 50 miles an hour.

I closed the hatch again, and Siggy and I contemplated what to do next. We were laughing our heads off, and we kept telling each other we were laughing too loud, that someone would hear us. Sure. We were inside a Sherman tank, going 50 miles an hour on top of a railroad car, and thinking someone could hear us. If we dared to climb out of the tank and stand on the top of it and shoot a bazooka off, nobody would hear anything.

We were deep in the woods, and it felt like we were traveling toward the east. Philadelphia, then maybe New Jersey or New York. Someplace that we would have to be able to get back home from. Anywhere but Viet Nam.

After about 30 minutes, the train began to slow down. I was able to pop my head out again, and I hollered “Sig, my friend, I think we’re in a bit of trouble.”

There is a US Army post near central Pennsylvania. It’s called the Indiantown Gap Military Reservation. It’s really big, something like twenty thousand acres, situated in the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The 5th Infantry trained there before they went to fight in the Korean War. During the Viet Nam war, the Reserve Officers Training Corp used it for summer training. The fort was founded in 1755. It was very secure, so we knew we weren’t going to be able to simply walk out of the place.

We were on a train, inside a Sherman army tank, and we were now, unfortunately, rolling slowly on the tracks inside a secure army post. I just knew Siggy and I were probably going to be gunned down before the day was over. I had visions of the two of us climbing down out of the tank, off the flatbed, and then running as fast as we could for the fence. Pop pop pop pop pop! I could already hear the bullets coming our way. No “halt, who goes there?” Just my friend Siggy and me, shot to pieces, dead, lying in a pile of 14-year-old’s blood and guts and brain matter. And I knew my parents were not going to be happy about this.

We stayed inside the tank until the train came to a complete stop. We discussed our options, and it seemed that the only real option we had was to try to wait until dark, and then sneak out of the tank and make a break for a way off the base. We waited for what seemed like a week until we were sure it was dark. We were happy that my mother thought I was at Siggy’s house, and that Siggy’s mother thought he was sleeping at my house. That bought us about 12 hours to get home.

We slowly opened up the hatch of that Sherman tank, expecting to be in the dark. But the place was lit up like it was midday! There were spot lights and flood lights and neon lights and about 50 army guys milling about. I slowly closed the hatch again, and Sig  and I once again discussed our options. Now, Siggy being almost a year younger that me, said “Tommy, you got us into this, you figure out a way to get us out of here.” So I hatched up a couple of ideas. One, I figured these tanks were going to end up someplace other than Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, so we could simply remain inside the tank and wait for the train to move again. But this could take some time and we might starve to death. We both had the munchies way back when Sig and I were still walking to the humping yard, and we ate all of our food before we even spotted the tanks. Two, we could sneak out of the tank when we thought it was about 2 AM. I figured most everyone would be asleep and we’d have a lot less army men to hide from. We could then say, if we were spotted, that we were visiting our dad here and couldn’t sleep. If they asked us who our dad was, we would say Sergeant Smith. I figured that just had to be someone on this base named Sergeant Smith. I figured the guards would hold us until morning, then go get Sergeant Smith. By then, I figured we’d have made our escape out the front gate.

Siggy told me both of my ideas were crazy, and that if we chose either one of them, we were going to die. Siggy definitely  did not want to die yet, because he had just met a girl that he liked a lot and he wanted to see more of her. We knew this was the end of this escapade. I popped out the tank’s hatch first and shouted “hello, boys!”

Upon hearing that and seeing me, all hell broke loose. Rifles were pointed at me and I was ordered to get out of the tank and onto the ground. They didn’t know that Siggy was still in there, and I didn’t tell them. The army men didn’t know what to make of me at first, and I had about 20 rifles pointed at me. All of a sudden, Siggy popped his head out of the tank, and within seconds at least 15 army men jumped up onto the flatbed and then hopped onto the tank. They had their guns pointing into the now empty hatch, menacingly hollering “come out of there!”

When they realized the tank was empty, that Sig and I were their only two infiltrators, we were taken to the base’s holding cells and separated. I didn’t see Siggy again for several hours. There a very tall man named Captain Lewis interrogated me, wanting to know who I was, where I came from, how I got here, what my plans were once I got here. I wanted to make up a big story, something about how I thought the war in Viet Nam was a fight against Communism and that I snuck onto the base to enlist in the army to go over there and kill the commie bastards.

But what came out of my mouth was actually the truth. I told Captain Lewis how we had plans to hop a train, but we saw these tanks and instead wanted to check them out, having never seen a tank up close before. I told him how the train started moving with Sig and me inside one of the tanks, how we thought about jumping off the moving train but it was going too fast, and how we ended up here in the clink.

Captain Lewis bought my story hook, line and sinker, which I hoped he would since it was the truth. But Siggy was a different matter. I knew that Siggy had an incredible imagination. I had no idea what he was telling the army man that was interrogating him. The previous summer, Siggy and I, at about age 13, hitch-hiked, on a major highway, about 30 miles to Hershey Park, which is in the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where they make the chocolate candy, but they also had a really cool amusement park with a great old wooden roller coaster called the Comet. It cost about fifty cents back then to ride the Comet, and we had 12 dollars between us.

We were not too successful in hitch-hiking, and we ended up walking about half way there. At the time, there was not much civilization between where we started from and Hershey. There weren’t 7-11’s back then. It was summer, and summertime in central Pennsylvania was hot and humid. By the time we got to the small town of Hershey, we were tired, hot, sweaty and very thirsty. The first building we came upon was a bar, a drinking establishment.

Siggy said, “let’s go get some water!” So we ran into the building and walked right up to the bar. Siggy’s mind was always someplace other than where his body was, and he got to the bar a step before I did. He said to the man behind the bar, “I’ll have a Rolling Rock, please.” The bartender looked at Sig, then looked at me, then looked at Sig again, and said, “What?!?” Siggy replied, “I’ll take a Rolling Rock, my good man.” The bartender did not think this was funny at all, and Siggy did not mean it to sound funny. Sig asked the bartender, “What is your problem, my good man?” With that, the bartender replied “How old are you, young fella?” Sig replied that he was 23, and had been sick as a child, hence his short stature.

With that, the bartender came out from behind the bar, grabbed us both by our shirt collars, and physically, shall we say, escorted us out of the bar. I landed on my rear end about 10 feet from the door. And we didn’t even get any water!

So I had visions of the story Siggy was telling off in another room to his army questioner. I thought he’d be telling them we were midgets from Russia, that we were dropped onto an island in the Susquehanna River where we set up camp to monitor army tank traffic for Nikita Khrushchev.  We then crawled into one of the tanks in a bid to sneak into an army fort to count the number of tanks headed to Viet Nam.

It turns out Siggy told them the exact same story I told them, and they believed us. Some of the army men thought our adventure was so funny that they wanted to contact the local newspaper and TV stations. We begged them not to do that. Then they asked us how they could contact our parents. It was now about 5 AM, and my parents would still be in bed asleep. If they called my house now, my parents would know that I had lied, that I was not sleeping at Sig’s house. They would find out there was never a party at John Stanley’s house, and I’d probably never be allowed to see either Sig or John ever again, let alone daylight.

We begged the army men to just escort us to the base’s front gate so we could be on our way. We promised we’d never do anything like hopping a train and infiltrating a US Army Military Fort ever again. But they would not simply let us go. They claimed that they had to release us to an adult relative. So I hatched another plan real quick.

I had a half-brother, Bob, who lived in the same town I did. Our mothers were different, but we had the same father. Bob was 14 years older than me, making him 28 years old at the time. The army men let me call him at 5 AM. I explained everything that we’d gone through, and he came to the base and picked us up within one hour. He laughed his head off, and I had to make him promise he would never tell our father. To this day, I think he has kept his promise.

Bob drove us back to town, and dropped me off at my house and then drove Siggy to his house. I waited for him to drive away then entered my house. When my mother saw me walk in the door, she wondered what I was doing home so early. I told her that Siggy’s mom dropped me off because she had something unexpected come up and they had to drive to Baltimore right away. Siggy told his mother the same story, and we both were home safe and sound. I got into my bed and slept until dinnertime.


1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh. These stories... they're killing me! They HAVE to be a TV Series...or a book. They just have to be! :)