I Was On My Way Home

Only four more city blocks from South Chicago’s Englewood Union Station to the garage roof in his back yard, Carl was running out of luck.  And weapons.

It all started on the bus.  Carl knew they were trouble when he looked up from his Sun Times and saw them getting on.  His first reaction was to make himself smaller.  Bury his nose in the newspaper, try not to look up, not look at them, not look like he noticed them in any way.  Maybe they’d work their routine on the other passengers if he didn’t look up.  Maybe they’d miss his quick exit at State Street.  If he could make it to the tracks he’d probably be all right.

Carl had stayed in the gym longer than the others.  Practicing his moves, his shots.  Barely six feet tall, with his father’s reddish hair and his mother’s blue eyes, and 155 pounds, he had to work hard just to hang on as a sub.  He’d barely made the Mt. Carmel junior varsity basketball team in his second year, but rarely got in a game.  One day coach would look his way down the bench and send him out there.  Though he thought God had more important prayers to answer, he prayed anyway.  Lord, if I do get in a game, help me play well and not make a fool of myself.

The dark and the cold drizzle surprised Carl when he left the school after his shower.  He shrugged into the jacket his mother made him take with him that morning.  She was right.  Better to have it and the knit cap he’d stored in the inside pocket last April.  Remembering that freak April snow, he slipped the cap over his wet hair and wondered why it had taken Chicago weather almost to the beginning of November to admit the cold and gloomy.

He slid his lanky self a bit lower in the plastic bus seat, arranging his newspaper like a sideways tent so nobody could see his face.  Normally there were other Catholic white kids riding the 63rd Street bus from Stony Island to points west, away from the colored sections of the near South Side.  Kids who were involved in sports or other after school activities stayed later than the throngs that got on the busses, the rich freshman and sophomores who took the Illinois Central trains to the suburbs, and the rich juniors and seniors who drove their cars away as soon as school ended.  And there were usually several guys held over in  Father Finan’s “Jug,” Mt. Carmel’s version of detention, jail, writing essays on why they were in Jug.

Where are all the other kids that usually ride this bus?

No other kids tonight.  The big green and white bus was empty when Carl got on.  Lights on, door open – empty.  Turned out the driver was buying himself coffee and a donut to go in the diner on the corner.

When he and his friends were all aboard, they grabbed the huge bench and several of the surrounding seats at the very back end of the bus.  This night Carl took a middle seat nearest the back door.  Three quick steps and a push and he’d be out if any trouble started.

All the running, jumping, wind sprints, fast break drills; often breathing hard at first, but lately feeling as though he could ask his body to jump any obstacle, run any distance.  He’d spring up three flights of stairs to Physics class and not notice any effect on his breathing or his legs.  Carl felt invincible until he had to leave the school and deal with the crazies in South Chicago.  His route to and from Mt. Carmel took him through some of the toughest neighborhoods, almost all of them with a seemingly endless supply of colored kids looking for trouble, some organized, some just marauding gangs.  Fifty city blocks or so separated his house from Mt. Carmel, a Catholic boys high school.  Fifty blocks of hostile territory Carl negotiated twice a day on a green and white CTA, Chicago Transit Authority bus.

Still hiding behind his newspaper, he glanced sideways out the window.  Had to be a hundred bars, some with fancy names like tavern or pub, on 63rd Street between Stony Island and State Streets.  In front of almost every bar stood small groups of black men smoking cigarettes and drinking from a small grocery bag they passed back and forth; the same scene day or night, rain or snow, gray or bright.

The kids he was worried about, six of them, stayed in the front of the bus, some sitting, others standing.  They spread out a bit, rowdy, talking to each other at high volume.  They gradually closed in on each other as some of the other, older passengers moved to be further away from them.  One rail thin black man with short gray hair slipped into the seat next to Carl and let out a loud sigh.  Carl stayed behind his newspaper.

When the bus stopped at Cottage Grove, about the halfway point for Carl’s trip, the trouble started.

By this time twenty or so other passengers, about a even split colored and white, had gotten on the bus as it made its stops between Stoney Island and Cottage Grove.  Carl and the six boys he was worried about were the only young people.  He guessed that the bus driver and the others were at least in their forties; the man who sat next to him fifty or more.  He also guessed the six boys now making their way to the back of the bus were close to his age – sixteen.

Carl, when he thought about older people at all, didn’t think colored and white people were all that different, didn’t think any people were all that different.  Everybody had to deal with the same kinds of problems; school, parents, jobs, whatever.  The older ones all seemed to look tired, out of shape, bored.  It was the younger ones of every color that engaged  Carl’s defense plans.

As the boys made their way back they had comments for each of the older passengers.  “Hey old man.  Gonna get any tonight?”  “Pretty mama, they work you too hard today?”

When they noticed Carl, the comments stopped.  Carl thought of coach’s words.  “Be like a bird.  You can see out of the corner of your eye without turning your head.  Notice things.  Plan ahead.  Anticipate.  That’s what will make you basketball players instead of just a bunch of kids playing basketball.”   Without turning his head, Carl saw them pass by, turn to him one by one, and move further back; no words, just looks.

The contrast between the noise they’d been making and the dead silence gripped Carl’s heart.

I can’t make a stand against six kids on this bus, or anywhere else.  Another ten minutes to State Street.  Jump off now and I’m in their territory.  One good thing – they’re not wearing gang jackets.  Another ten minutes and I make a run for it.

Now Carl could hear the boys behind him.  Their high volume had been turned down to whispers.  He figured that could only mean they were deciding what to do about him.  With him.  To him.

Got to do something now.

He got up and moved to the front of the bus.  As he made his way he  handed his newspaper to the gray-haired man who had taken the seat next to him.  Carl sat next to an elderly woman on the sideways front bench seat, and leaned his arm across the knee-high partition separating the front entrance stairs from the bench seat.

“State Street coming up?” Carl said to the bus driver.

The big man turned to Carl.  “I seen you on this bus before.  You don’t know where State Street at by now?”

Carl nodded and tilted his head quickly toward the back of the bus.  “I may have to get off in a hurry.  I’m late, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.”

The driver looked up at his rear view mirror.  Carl thought the driver was reading him all right, understanding that he had to distance himself from those boys.  For an instant Carl feared that the black bus driver had once been like those boys in the back and was now trying to decide whose side he would take.

The moment passed when the driver gave the briefest of nods and whispered: “When we come up on State Street I’ll stop a little before whether they’s cars or not.  You shoot out the door and I’ll lock up and go slow the rest of the way to the corner before I stop and open the doors again.”

Carl let out a sigh of relief.  “Thanks.”  He glanced quickly toward the back and wasn’t surprised to see the six boys all standing and giving him The Look.  He thought about his escape route.  He’d used it routinely for almost a year, ever since he’d been beat up one night on Stewart Street at 61st Place, not forty yards from his front door.  Right now he had no choice; he had to use the tracks, and do it on the run.  He would jump off the bus, run across 63rd or State, whichever one had the green light.  With luck, there’d be little or no traffic and he could cross them both diagonally.

No matter.  If the lights don’t cooperate I’ll just dodge the cars. 

He had three blocks to run before reaching the 63rd Street entrance to where the tracks of three railroads crossed, the entrance to Englewood Union Station, the railroad crossing that had given the Englewood neighborhood of South Chicago its original name: The Triangle.  The Rock Island, Pennsylvania, and New York Central Railroads converged there, about ten city blocks from Carl’s home.

Carl had spent hours at Englewood Union.  Fascinated by trains since his uncle had given him a set of Lionel toy trains, he knew his way around and knew many of the clerks, baggage handlers, waitresses, mechanics, and even Mr. Briggs, the Station Master.  If the kids from the bus followed him, he’d get somebody to hide him in one of the dozens of places that he knew would be nearly impossible to find for kids who didn’t know anything about the station.

He tried not to look toward the back of the bus, feeling that the lack of noise meant they were not moving.  Yet.  He fiddled with his gym bag and looked out the front window of the bus hoping the State Street sign would pop into view soon.  He heard some noise, looked back, and saw two of the boys standing and facing the other four, who were staring at him.  When they stood, all six started walking toward the front of the bus.

Carl realized if he jumped out here he’d have five blocks to run instead of three, but the approach of the six made his mind up for him.

“Can you let me out here?” he said.

Carl heard the horns from the cars behind the bus as the driver pulled over, stopped, and opened the front door.  As he jumped out he heard the hiss of the door closing behind him.  He also heard the boys, running now and shouting at the driver to open the door.  He hit the street and ran.  He didn’t bother with the sidewalk.  Not many people around, but he didn’t want to waste time bumping into somebody or have some other kid decide to slow him down, some black kid who saw a white kid running along the sidewalk in a black neighborhood being chased by six other black kids.  He took off between the row of parked cars and the waiting row of traffic.

Coming up on State Street he couldn’t hear anybody chasing him, but he didn’t want to slow down by turning around to look.  He quickened his pace to make a green light and felt the weight of his gym bag pull against his left arm.

Damn gym bag might just end up tossed. 

Carl managed a grin when thought of some 63rd Street wino scurrying off with his gym bag only to find his sweaty jockstrap and other gear and a geometry book instead of anything of value.

He reached the corner of 63rd and State wondering where he’d get the money for a new pair of gym shoes and other stuff, wondering what Brother John would have to say about losing a geometry book, when a driver decided to turn in his path and he glanced off the front fender and tumbled next to the curb.

His left leg and hip stung as he struggled to his feet, still clutching his gym bag.  He took off running and heard somebody yell, but he was already across State and running again.

Can’t be too bad.  I’m up and moving just as fast as I was before I fell.

He noticed a throbbing and ran his fingers under his cap and through his hair above his right ear.  Felt damp.

Hair must still be damp from my shower. 

But the wetness on his fingers was red.

Must have smacked my head back there. 

He clamped his ski cap down and ran.

In a few minutes that seemed a much longer time, Carl reached the station entrance and reached for the door handle.  He looked back and saw them in the light of the railroad overpass he’d just finished running under.  Four of them were loping along and two were straggling ten or fifteen yards behind.

Thanks, coach.  Thanks for all that running and those wind sprints you made us do.

Carl yanked the door open and blew by an elderly couple to the top of the stairs and into the main part of the station.  A small assortment of people sitting, standing, waiting, watched him slip and slide on the marble floor as he ran, making his way to the baggage area.  If any of the waiting passengers were surprised to see a young man running through the station, none showed it.

There was no one at the baggage counter, not even Merle, who ran the department.

Must be a train out there.  They must all be picking and loading baggage.

Carl hoisted himself to the counter, slid across, and sat on the floor to catch his breath.  Now that he had stopped running and was hidden from view of anyone in the station, he noticed how much his leg hurt.  He started rubbing his leg and felt a trickle roll down his neck.  He opened his gym bag and patted his neck with his still-wet towel.  The towel showed bright red when he brought it away from his neck.

Damn.  I’m alone, soaking wet, my leg hurts, and my head’s bleeding.

He was afraid to move.  Carl was hidden, but there was no one to help if those kids found him.  He reached down into his gym bag under his shoes and felt around until he found the metal chain.  It was a heavy, bright choke chain, the kind dog trainers used, about eighteen inches in length, with large metal rings on both ends.  He slipped the rings around the middle finger of his right hand and slapped the chain gently into his left hand a few times.  He felt better.  Weapon #1 was ready.

Who will find me first, those kids or my friends?

Carl pictured the boys wandering around the station trying to figure out where he’d gone.  Most of the people in the station, passengers and people who worked there, were white, so the boys might feel a little uncomfortable, might just give up their chase.

He wondered what Ron Benford would say about all this.  Ron of the light brown skin, one of only two “black” kids in Carl’s class at Mt. Carmel and one of Carl’s three best friends.  Ron would probably listen, he always listened, smile his bright smile, and tell Carl he should change schools if he didn’t like riding with “colored folk” through “colored folk” territory.  He’d be kidding, of course, as he always did when confronted with Chicago’s black/white relationships.

Ron and Carl had had this conversation many times.  “You would say ‘colored’ instead of black, because you’re far from black,” Carl would say.

“Yeah.  I actually prefer ‘colored,’ because that word includes all people of color, even your pasty pink-white ass,” he’d say.

And they’d laugh.

But for Carl, being the only pasty-pink colored kid his age for several city blocks in any direction from his house had long since become a real problem.  And travelling to and from school was also a problem.  Especially today, sitting on the baggage room floor of Englewood Union Station wondering whether his pasty-pink ass was about to be kicked by a bunch of other colored kids.  Again.

The pain in his leg had eased a bit, and Carl was relieved to see that the cut on his head had apparently stopped bleeding.  The towel he’d been holding against his head came back free of any new blood stain.

“Hey!  What you doin’ sitting there on the floor like a beggar?”

Carl jerked at the sound and smacked his elbow into the back of the counter.

“Christ, Wally,” he said.  “How’d you sneak up on me like that?”

“What the hell happened to you, kid?  Here.  Come on over and sit on a real chair.”

Carl stayed on the floor.  “You see any colored kids out there?” he said, pointing his thumb back over the counter like a hitchhiker.

“Not there.  Saw some nigger kids wandering around out on the platform.  Come on over here where I can take a look at that head.”  Basically a good guy, Wally Pierce was one of the older baggage handlers.  He was also basically a burly Mississippi redneck moved to the big city for work.  He’d signed up with Merle years ago and never moved on.  His Mississippi attitudes and language hadn’t moved on either.

Carl stood, slightly alarmed at how dizzy he felt.  The dizziness went away quickly and he sat down by Wally, making sure he was still out of sight from the main station area.

“Those boys do that to you?” Wally said.

“Naw.  I was running along 63rd and some guy bumped me.”

“A car?  You got hit by a car?  You get his name and license plate?  Did he stop?”

“Enough with the questions.  I was too busy trying to get away from those kids.  I just got up and kept running.  I just want to lose those kids and get home.  I gotta get out of her before those kids find me.”

“You sit right there while I go get the nurse,” Wally said.  “Cuts on the head are nuthin’ to fool with.  I’ll be right back.”

Is it just me, or is this place almost deserted just when it would be helpful if the usual hundred or more people were milling around out there?  Can’t stay here.  There’s only the counter and one other way out.  Those kids come around the corner there’s no way I can lose them.

He barely opened the door Wally had just slammed behind him and peered out at a shiny maroon Pennsylvania passenger train, wet, but brightened by its own lights and the reflected lampposts on the station platform.  He could see past the end of the train down the empty tracks, see most of his usual route home.

Clear.  Ten city blocks down the tracks, hop down on to the garage roof, hang-jump from the roof to the back yard and into the house.  Safe.

Four sets of Pennsylvania Railroad tracks ran diagonally from Englewood Union Station to Carl’s home close to 61st Place and Stewart Street, across from Englewood High School, and on through a neighborhood that been mostly Irish when Carl’s mother remarried and they’d moved into the big house.  Six years later Carl’s family and the Daugherty’s, who lived a few blocks further north, were the only white families north of 63rd Street and east of Normal Boulevard, or it seemed so to Carl.  If there were other white families they didn’t have any kids his age or he and Jimmy Daugherty would have sought them out for mutual protection if nothing else.

Carl opened the door a bit more.  Still clear.  He tossed his gym bag on a shelf  between some suitcases.  Merle and Wally would know it was his and they’d keep it safe for him.  He’d pick it up in the morning.

He checked both directions again and started trotting along the platform, always amazed at how little attention the waiting passengers paid a young guy running along a train platform, jumping off the end, running down the tracks and disappearing into the night.  Apparently nobody cared.

Twenty yards from the end of the platform one of his pursuers stepped out from behind a baggage cart.  Carl kept running.  The kid looked Carl’s age and size and stood grinning as Carl approached.

The kid said: “Got a cigarette, Jim?”

Sneaky bastards spread out around the station.  Carl sped up.

The kid flicked open a switchblade, waved it around a little.  “Say, Jim.  Hold up a minute.”

The kid was standing in the middle of the platform.  As he closed in, Carl imagined he was on a fast break and the kid was between him and the basket.  He faked right and went left, catching the kid’s knife hand with the choke chain.  The kid yelled as the knife clattered across the platform and fell onto the track.

Though Carl had carried the chain since he was caught without a weapon and clobbered a few years back, and though he’d waved it around a few times to discourage a few other potential clobberers, he’d never actually hit anybody with it.  The force of the swing he’d taken had jammed the end rings into his finger so hard he almost opened his hand to drop the chain.

But he held on and kept running, leaving the kid standing on the platform yelling about his hand.  But by that time Carl was too far down the tracks to hear him.  He slipped the chain off and rubbed his fingers while he ran.

He settled into a steady trot, careful to not slip on the wet rocks and ties holding the four sets of tracks that made up the roadbed the big steam and diesel engines used to pull their trains.  The roadbed was elevated; above street level and high enough to allow cars, trucks and people to go under a series of overpasses, called viaducts in Chicago English.  Carl had use the overhead route to get in and out of his neighborhood for several years.

He thought about the times he’d seen knives come out.

Never that fast.  Usually took a while, a few remarks back and forth before they came out.  And they usually were more for show.  These kids weren’t fooling around.

He kept racing into the dark.  It was hard going.  The rocks that held the ties and rails in place were uneven.  When he reached the first viaduct he stopped to look back at the station.  He’d already run almost three city blocks  and was barely able to make out the figures on the platform he’d jumped from.  He was surrounded by wet darkness.

Seven blocks to go.  The fifth rib.  Count the steel ribs that support the viaduct.

He felt behind the fifth rib and drew out the old baseball bat he and Jim had stashed there a few months ago.  Weapon #2 was ready.

He crouched down and behind what little cover the viaduct provided and again looked back at the station, looking for any signs of movement between him and the station’s lights.

There!  He couldn’t tell how many, but he was sure he saw movement.  Has to be them.  Wasted too much time here.  But it’s too dark for them to see me.  And I’m on familiar ground.  At least I hope so. 

Carl got up and ran.

At least I’ve got this bat.  I’ve never seen those kids; they can’t know where I live.  They’re on my territory.  I know these tracks and they don’t.

Carl had learned a loping running style, keeping his knees bent so he could quickly adjust when his footing gave way.  He ran two blocks to the next viaduct and reached behind the fifth rib; nothing there.  He wiped at his forehead with his sleeve, wondering whether the damp he felt was sweat, blood, or the drizzle that had been weak when he’d gotten on the bus but was now turning into all out rain.  He looked back at the station and saw nothing moving.  He started to get up when he heard footsteps on the rocks and voices.

“Watch where you running!  You went right where I was steppin’.”

Carl was horrified.  He thought he had a big lead, but the voices were close and getting closer.  He carefully eased himself back against and behind what little protection the steel bridge offered.  He held his breath.

“Where that boy?  He run so fast he invisible.”

“Ain’t no invisible.  He jus’ know where he goin’ and we don’t.”

“Man, shut up and run.  I ain’t seen nobody could outrun us yet.”

He watched four shadows go by on the second track.

Where are the other two?  That one I hit.  He’s going for help and one went with him.

Carl’s pursuers kept going.  They might have seen him if they’d turned around, but they didn’t.

But now they’re between me and home.  Now what?

He didn’t move until he could no longer hear them, then slid away staying close to the viaduct edge and hoping they didn’t turn around and see his shadow between them and the station lights, the same way he’d tried to track their progress.

He turned to make sure he could no longer see them and instead saw a headlight on a train engine.  He knew what came next, a loud and lonely sounding whistle to warn that a train was approaching the platforms and  crossover tracks at Englewood Union Station.

Carl’s pursuers were stopped; frozen in the light from the powerful searchlight of the oncoming train, no doubt trying to figure out which track it was on and whether they were on that track.  He watched them point to the far side of the roadbed and quickly move there.

Bud knew from the sound of its whistle that the oncoming train was a freight train, one with those lonesome, wailing steam whistles that sent a shiver down his back, while the newer diesel locomotives had horns that sounded like the ones on the ships on Lake Michigan.  The diesels were on passenger trains.  So Carl knew freight trains heading toward the station were on the second track, the one the colored boys had been on.  From the train’s headlight he could tell the boys had scurried to the far side of the roadbed.  That was a break for Carl.  He knew that freight trains slowed as they approached the stations and the crossovers, and that the oncoming train would be between him and those boys.

Carl knew all this because he had spent hours watching, dreaming, waving, and often scampering up on the roadbed to talk with the engineers and other train people when the big locomotives stopped right next to his back yard.  The trains always slowed, and often stopped because Englewood Union was very busy.  Carl knew that the signal lights by the sides of the tracks meant the same thing any traffic light meant; green is stop, red is go, and yellow means caution.

Almost too late Carl remembered the freight train was slowing.  He saw   the boys on the far side pointing at him and starting to move his way.  Another decision.  Was the train long enough for him to keep it between him and get all the way home before the train’s caboose, its last car, went by?  What if the train came to a compete stop?  He’d lost track of the time.

Was this the regular freight train that was about twenty city blocks long and only slowed down, or one of the several smaller trains that came by with only a few empty boxcars and a caboose and stopped for several minutes?

Carl’s answer came quickly when he saw the red side lights of a caboose about a block behind the locomotive, and if it stopped he’d be standing there holding a bat watching four colored kids determined to kick his butt run right up to him in the middle of his secret route home, at night, thirty feet above street level, with not a soul to help him.

To Carl’s relief, the train slowed, but didn’t stop.   Now it was a race for those kids to get to Carl’s side of the four-track roadbed before the train blocked their way.

Staying on his side of the roadbed, Carl ran toward the train.

Great night for a train ride.

Carl had already hopped on several slow-moving freight trains with the carelessness of the young, to save himself the trouble of having to walk to or from Englewood Union Station.  This train was heading the wrong way, back toward the station, but he had no choice.  It was either get to the train first, grab a cold wet ladder rung and pull himself up and on one of the freight cars, or get stomped.  Or worse.

He hopped over the first track on an angle that would put him next to the back end of a freight car he recognized as a coal hopper.  When he was even with the ladder on the side of the coal hopper and moving at the same speed, he grabbed the ladder and climbed up far enough to see over the tops of the rest of the train and discovered he was on the third car of an eight car train; seven coal hoppers and a caboose.  The light from the small raised section of the caboose cast a glow over the empty coal hoppers.  Carl guessed the train would stop a few blocks past the station where he knew empty cars sat waiting to make up a new freight train.

He tried to see the four kids he was trying to avoid, hoping to see them standing alongside track two waiting for the train to go by.  He couldn’t see them.

No way those kids would hop this train.  They couldn’t see me hop it. 

He was surprised to hear the train whistle blow again and noticed it was speeding up.  He slowly took two steps down on the ladder.

Too late.  Train’s moving too fast.  Jump off now I could get hurt.  And those kids might find me.  Hope this thing slows down before Pennsylvania.

As the train blew by Englewood Union a few people standing on the platform looked his way.  One little girl waved at him.

Carl still held on to the bat.  He slipped it between the side of the coal car and the ladder to use it as an extra place to hold on by sliding his arms behind it.  Cold, wet, and hanging on, he had to smile.

Those kids must think I’m a magical white boy that can disappear up on the railroad tracks.  Who were they?  And why’d the knife come out so fast?  And how am I going to get home?

An hour that seemed like three or four hours went by.  The train hadn’t slowed since it sped by Englewood Union.  Carl recognized the freight yard between East Chicago and Gary, Indiana whiz by.  He watched the train signals, hoping for a red.  Even a yellow might slow it down enough for him to jump off.  The rain pelted him.  Without the glow of city lights he could barely make out the shape of the coal hopper he was hanging on.

And the noise!  The engineer blew the whistle at every crossing.  The racket from the wheels made his head hurt.  If the train had boxcars or flatcars he might have tried to make his way back to the caboose.  Tell the yardies his story and hope for the best.  But the coal hoppers were too dangerous.  Huge, dirty, empty rectangular boxes, their insides sloped down to the doors at the bottom that opened to spill out the coal they carried.  The insides offered no footing and allowed no crossing from car to car.  Carl was stuck on the ladder.

At last he heard the couplers clang together.  That meant the train was slowing down.  He peered ahead to see the lights of what looked like a loading track next to a large building.  When the train slowed enough he dropped from the ladder and scampered across the adjoining track, flattening himself on the ground next to the far rail just before the caboose trundled by.  When he thought the caboose was far enough from him, Carl raised up to see whether he could start running.

He saw two yardies standing on the back porch of the caboose, one leaning out and facing forward to check the train’s arrival, the other smoking a cigarette and fussing with something on the back door of the caboose.

Now.  Move it while they’re still on the train and moving away.

He picked himself up, dropped the bat, and ran along in a crouch.  He was shivering cold.  The sloshing of his soggy shoes made more noise than the other sounds of his running.  He remembered there were some lights a few minutes before the train had slowed.

Maybe somebody will let me use a phone. 

His head was aching, his arms and legs stiff, but he began to warm up as he ran.  As he settled into a rhythm he couldn’t help feeling a bit smug and a bit scared at the same time.

Got lucky this time.  Outfoxed those kids.  But – can’t keep hopping freight trains.  And where am I?

He was coming up to a road.  The crossing gates were down and several cars were stopped.  He slipped to one side and turned just as a passenger train came zooming by.  He reached the road and decided he’d had enough of trains for one night, stuck his thumb out, and began walking  past the waiting cars.

Indiana plates.  At least it’s not Ohio or Pennsylvania.  Must have been hanging on to that ladder a shorter time than I thought.

A car door opened.  “Get in, son.  You look like you could use a ride.”

I must be tired.  How else could I have not noticed the light on top and SOUTH BEND PD on the side of the car?

The South Bend cops got him dried off and warmed up.  A woman with a badge put a bandage on his head.

After calling his mother, they put him on a bus back to Chicago, but not before he sat facing a white-haired man he thought had to be too old to be chasing bad guys.  And while he told his story it seemed like every cop in South Bend stopped by to raise eyebrows and put on other surprised faces when he told them yes, he had held on to the ladder of a coal hopper, with no gloves, in the rain, in the dark, on a freight train from south Chicago to South Bend.

The white-haired old guy turned out to be the Chief of Police.  He told Carl somebody at Englewood Union had reported a kid hanging on to a ladder on the side of a freight train.

“My guy who took the call told me it was probably some runaway,” the Chief said.

“Nope.  Not a runaway,” Carl said.  “I was on my way home when these six colored kids I didn’t even know got on this bus.  They didn’t seem very friendly.”


An Assist From An Early “Flash Mob”

A friend posted a video of the Air Force Band doing a Christmas flash mob scene at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  It reminded me of a story that needs telling.

In my first year at the Air Force Academy (you are referred to as a Doolie, 4th Classman, Dilfob, Squat, Numbnut, and other even less gracious names).  Doolies are required to perform all manner of odd tasks such as handling the hot drinks at meals (the “hot pilot”), post the comic strip Peanuts on the squadron bulletin board early each morning (a task I included in my novel, “All Fools Down”), retrieve all manner of things at the behest of any upperclassman, and so on.

If you visit the Academy, be sure to witness the Wing formation for a meal.  The entire cadet Wing assembles in front of the dormitory building (Vandenburg Hall), marches to the dining hall (Mitchell Hall), enters and is seated and ready for the meal, all within about a 5-7 minute time period.  If you’re lucky, the Academy’s band, consisting of a group of musicians who are not cadets, will play a march or two while this is all going on.

One day at lunch, after an unusually uninspired march made us a little less enthusiastic about the whole thing, an upperclassman at my table requested that I do something about the music.  “Mr. Bohlin,” he said, “See what you can do about getting us some music with a little more – what’s the word I’m looking for – a little more swagger.  A little more zip to it.  Think you can do that?”

Surprising him more than a little, I replied that I thought I could.  What he didn’t know was that I had a friend in the band.  George S. was his name, and George and I went through regular Air Force basic training together at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas.  I had happened to run into George right before reporting in as a doolie that June of 1959, and George had reminded me that his Air Force assignment was as a trombone player.  Up to then I had lost track of him after basic.

So I got on the phone and reached old pal George to ask him whether he could spice up the music for the next day’s march to lunch.  He remembered I’d helped him a little in basic and told me to watch and listen.

Good old George.  When the band struck up the Saint Louis Blues in march tempo the next day, every cadet stood up as tall as could be and strutted on along the terrazzo, the level for the main entrances to most of the buildings.  When we sat down to eat there was quite the buzz about the day’s marching music.

The upperclassman who asked me to request something with more zip inquired: “Mr. Bohlin.  Are you responsible for our much better marching music today?  I mean, the Saint Louis Blues.  Absolutely terrific.”

Now that was high praise from an upperclassman to a doolie.  The Air Force Academy’s Honor Code, “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate among us those who do” was in full effect from the moment we raised our hands to be sworn in as cadets.

“Yes sir!” I said.

After a brief look of mild surprise, he said: “And how, may I ask, were you able to accomplish that task?”

“Sir, may I speak freely?” I said.


“Sir, I propose to keep that my secret.  Besides, you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Two,” he said, which meant I could go back to eating my lunch.  As I did so I noticed grins all around the table.  Peripheral vision is a good thing when you’re a doolie, eating at attention while sitting on the last half-inch of your chair.

I was asked to spice up the march music several more times that year, and each time my man George managed to have the band play something that had us all in full strut mode marching to lunch or dinner.

Months later, when the doolies who had made it through their first year to become 3rd classmen were “recognized” as once again relatively normal human beings by their upperclassmen, the cadet who had asked me how I’d managed to get the band to play that music shook my hand and said “OK.  You can tell me now.”

When I told him how it was done he smiled, offered me a handshake and congratulations, and said: “I have to go tell the others.  That’s some story and you’re one lucky you-know-what.”

Not exactly a flash mob, but I sure got a lot of mileage out of having a pal from basic….

Op-Ed: Support Your Local Law Enforcement Officer

My experience as a Federal law enforcement officer was limited to a few years, long ago, but my experience included dozens of arrests for violations of Federal laws.  I can report without hesitation that every single arrest I and my fellow officers made was different, and for every one I was trained to be alert to the possibilities that the person being arrested would most likely not want to be arrested, might resist, and might resist with deadly force.
Which leads me to my opinion that nobody has the right to verbally or physically abuse a police officer; certainly not reach for the officer’s weapon.  My definition of nobody includes males and females of all races, colors, creeds, national origin, and religion.
Police officers are not trained to fire warning shots or attempt to wound.  Warning shots can go through walls and kill innocent people.  Police officers are not trained to wound; that sort of thing only happens in movies and television shows.
One thing the movies and television shows do get right most of the time: the police officer’s job is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous.  Everyone who has ever served knows of a relative, friend or acquaintance killed in the line of duty.   My Grandmother’s cousin, a Chicago police officer, was killed attempting to break up a robbery many years ago.  Two friends I served with (one was a training school classmate) were killed trying to arrest a bank robber in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960’s.
I’d wager there are very few American law enforcement organizations that do not have an honor roll of members killed in the line of duty.
When a police officer is properly exercising his or her authority, an American citizen should follow that officer’s directions.  Any question about whether the officer is properly exercising his or her authority is not to be raised at the moment of confrontation, but rather after the heat of the moment has passed.
A decent human being understands that civilized people suppress disagreement with a police officer’s directions until the situation has cooled down and can be handled without verbal or physical abuse on the part of either the police officer or the other party.  A good cop understands the need to treat people with respect.
Respect is needed on both sides of encounters with police.