Monday, August 20, 2007

Railroad Tracks

Freight trains used to haul mountains of coal from the mines of Sloss Hollow. The coal boon that began back in the 1800’s brought in settlers from all over this country and from Europe to find work in the mines. Tin roofed camp houses were built on both sides of the railroad tracks which dissected the mining camp. Most of the men who lived in Sloss would get up long before daylight and walk down those tracks to labor all day scratching coal with picks and shovels and when they came home in the evenings they were as black the coal they dug.

By the time our family moved there in the mid fifties, the mines had played out so the trains stopped for the most part. The old steel rails that ran through the heart of Sloss Hollow were rusty from disuse. Sage grass and bitterweed with tiny yellow flowers grew through the gravel roadbed and there was always a faint smell of creosote which is a highly toxic chemical used to keep the cross ties from rotting. We all played on those old tracks so much that it's a wonder we didn't grow extra fingers or maybe a third ear out of the middle of our foreheads.
Every now and then we'd hear the low moan of the train horn and rumble of the huge steel wheels and we knew the train was headed for West Pratt. Kids from all over the camp would bail out of their houses and run down by the tracks to watch the spectacle. One warm summer day we heard the train coming and I ran back into the house to get a Buffalo Nickel out of my bank. I then raced outside and put the coin on the tracks. I stood back several feet and waited to see what would happen. Some of the kids ran down the tracks to meet the train and then trotted along beside the slow moving beast. The engineer laid down on the horn and it was so loud that we all clapped our hands over our ears. The old railroad man would smile and lean out the window to look back toward the caboose. I guess he was making sure none of us hair brained kids tried to run under the boxcars.
After the train passed I looked for my nickel but it was not on the track. A bunch of the other kids joined into the search and then someone exclaimed here it is and when I picked it up, it was still hot. It was as big as a quarter and almost as thin as a stamp. There were markings on the coin but you would never have guessed it was a buffalo.
Those trains left a lasting imprint on my psyche - woven into the fabric of my young life.
In the early 70’s I was working for a small weekly newspaper and I got the opportunity to write a story about trains. The assignment had me riding with the engineer in the huge engine of a freight train. The beast ambled from Birmingham to Parish and the countryside wobbled by in slow motion. I was mesmerized by the journey. At one point as we approached a small community that was situated near the tracks, I saw a group of barefoot kids playing nearby. The engineer let me blow the horn and when I did the kids clapped their hands over their ears as the howled with laughter. The sight brought a smile to my face and as I leaned out the cab and looked toward the caboose, I wondered if any of them had ever put a nickel on the tracks.

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