I grew up in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania and always lived near the railroad.
The Cumberland Valley Railroad ran right through the center of town, and had been built to connect the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers. It had a definite impact on local manufacturing, and businesses began to sprout up in Shippensburg. The railroad also connected the community with Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York City.
We all remember having to sit in our cars or stand by the curb waiting until the train passed. As the years passed, townsfolk started complaining how ridiculous it was to have a train running right through the middle of town!
And then my Dad told me about placing a penny on the tracks before a train came along. I remember the first time he showed me and gave me the resulting flat penny. I was in awe of the whole thing.
My friends and I always had a fascination with the railroad tracks and trains. These were the days before television. Most of us were avid readers which fueled our imaginations and resulted in very creative play. We’d often wander through the local baseball field to the rear of the L’aiglon Factory where the trains passed within 50 feet of the buildings.
One day, I spied a huge fire along the tracks behind the factory. Thinking the fire needed to be put out, I quickly rounded up my friends Joanna and Phillip, and we ran over to tackle the flames. Most likely it was a bonfire to burn trash from the factory, but we didn’t realize that. It was a huge fire, and thick clouds of black smoke were rising into the air. The heat was tremendous, and the smoke was suffocating, but we kids put out that fire! We were so brave and so proud of ourselves. I remember coming home covered in dirt and soot; I was filthy. Of course my parents wanted to know why, but they didn’t scold me. I have an inkling they were snickering behind my back.
Another afternoon around dinner time, there was a knock at our back door. My mother answered it, and there stood a “hobo” who politely asked if my mother could spare some food. She asked him to wait outside, came in, and made him a sandwich. She gave him something to drink and several pieces of fruit. He thanked her profusely and headed back towards the tracks to catch the next train passing through. Hobos were common in those days, and they would hitch rides to their destination.
My friend, Nancy, lived right across a field from the railroad. We decided to explore one day and discovered a magical woods running parallel to the tracks. We built hideaways using branches and twigs. We cut trails through the woods, and we dreamed up fantasies and took on the leading roles in those fantasies. One day while we were playing there, we spied a hobo walking towards us on the tracks. It frightened us, but we decided to hide and spy on him. He came closer and closer, and our hearts were pounding. We didn’t know whether to run or stay hidden. We stood our ground and hunkered down behind the brush. Suddenly I stood up and yelled, “Dad! What are you doing here!?” He laughed and laughed and told me that he just wanted to see where we were playing. I’d told him so much about this magical place, and I know he was concerned for our safety.
And then there was the time Nancy and I were running along the tracks towards our hidden kingdom when I stepped on a rusty nail protruding from a piece of 2 x 4. Fortunately, because we were running so fast, I ran right out of the nail. I was wearing sneakers, and the nail had gone right through the rubber sole into my foot. Naturally it bled pretty profusely, and Nancy had to help me get back to her house where her mother immediately called my parents who came for me and took me right to the doctor.
My friend Sharon was the daughter of one of the local physicians. Her parents were strict, and I was always getting her into trouble. We used to play in a small overgrown area near the tracks where we allowed our imagination to run wild. When Sharon told me she had to go home to pee, I told her it was OK to go in the weeds and pee, promising her I wouldn’t look. She did that, and several days later came down with a bad case of poison ivy all over her privates. To this day she has an eagle eye for spotting poison ivy.
Life along the railroad tracks was exciting and often magical when left to the wild imagination of avid young readers.