Local Vocal: All Aboard!

by Barry Koplen

Visiting Greensboro is usually an adventure for me. What I cannot find in Danville is plentiful there. Even so, my Virginia home and its secluded five acres minutes from town remains my balancing refuge. Travelwise, it is less than an hour from Greensboro’s restored Elm Street. Chances are that it is less than that on the Amtrak fleet once it leaves that part of Danville that all but borders on the North Carolina line.

Although I have never traveled to Greensboro by rail (though I have passed through it en route to Georgia and South Carolina), I have thought of doing that. In fact, after reading ‘“I Hear A Train A-Coming’” by Amy Kingsley in Greensboro’s YES! Weekly [Jan. 18], I started feeling as cozy with that idea as when I retrieve memories of Joan Baez crooning about the ‘Danville train’.

Kingsley’s article about hopping railroad cars was a dark piece about the rigors of long rides and their unpredictable destinations. She included stats about deaths and injuries to non-paying riders that made those trips seem like potentially gruesome hitchhikes. Hoboes Beware! might have served as a suitable title.

What I would tell Ms. Kingsley is that there was a gentler time for hopping freights, a time when trains were not cropped of their cabooses like bob-tailed dogs. That’s when I earned my merit badge for riding the rails.

Forty years ago I stared at the quaint Emory train station, about a hundred yards from my first floor dorm room window. For months, I watched as trains slowed to a stop as if by habit rather than necessity. Seldom did either passengers or packages find their way on board. Not once did I question why such a fancy university would want railroad tracks as a border for the closely cut backyard of its freshmen dorms. Instead, train sounds seemed a reliable melody, a backdrop for salad days that would come and go too quickly.

That train and its station were a constant comfort my freshman year. Small wonder that it appeared to me to be so accessible, much easier to catch than my dormmate’s elusive knuckle ball that, if missed, might roll as far as the roadbed.

Some days I would watch the quiet train inch away from the station. Perhaps its slow departure reminded me of Huck Finn’s mild-mannered Mississippi River. My carefree and completely insulated surroundings coaxed lyrical thoughts of that familiar train. One day it came to me that I could hop aboard as easily I could get carried away by the rhythm of a Walt Whitman poem.

So I did.

Timidly, I approached the honorable uniformed governor of the little red car in the rear and, most respectfully, asked for permission to climb into an empty freight coupled close to his. With an amused ‘“be careful’” he nodded and watched as I climbed onto the wide-open car.

Inside were cool spacious shadows and a bare wooden floor. I felt invisible and safe as I had when I would steal away to hide in a basement corner of my boyhood home so many years ago. Appreciatively, I leaned out of the car and waved a thank you to the man in the caboose. He saluted me.

Minutes later the train sped through parts of Atlanta I had never seen. As I rode by unsuspecting neighborhoods, I waved at surprised pedestrians as well as at stopped cars behind swing gates and flashing lights. Standing next to the open door, I was enjoying the best ride I had ever had anywhere in America.

Many of the people I waved to waved back. One in particular, dressed in a dark suit, not only waved but seemed to run toward the train shouting and pointing at me. Although I lost sight of the man as we rounded a curve, I looked back at the caboose, saw the conductor and shrugged. He yelled to me that I had been spotted by a railroad detective and that I had better get off. As straining brakes slowed the train, I received another message. Around the bend, at the next stop, police were waiting for me.

Grateful for that saving tip, I crouched to hop off. Carefully I picked a spot away from the crossties and the thicket of briars that laid in wait. Confident that the train was moving slow enough, I jumped. Landing harder than expected, I lost my footing then fell and rolled like a poorly trained acrobat.

Other than a few scratches, I was unharmed. Stealthily, I crawled near the track and eyed the stopped train about a quarter of a mile away. Searching ‘my car’ were a pair of inspectors with silvery handcuffs. Carefully I slid away from the tracks, stood up, dusted off my jeans, and caught an automobile ride back to the university.

Until I read Ms. Kingsley’s article, I had not thought of wanting to catch another freight. Too much has changed. Most of the small stations have been closed and most riders appear to be in harm’s way.

Just that once, so long ago, my unprinted ticket afforded me an adventure I will never forget and that even Greensboro will never be able to duplicate.

The writer lives in Danville, Va.