Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trains

I’d always heard that girls mature faster than boys. For years I thought that was a rumor started by our 8th grade math teacher. I figured she was annoyed because some of the guys made fun of Liberace, whom she admired.
I coach middle school kids. Many of the boys are wild and reckless. The girls are more focused. I wondered if there was truth to what I’d thought was a rumor.
Dooley’s been a teacher for years, so I asked her: “Do females mature faster than males?”  She told me: “it’s true; not just a rumor started by Mrs. _______.” I asked: “When do guys catch up?” Without hesitating, Dooley replied: “never.”
 I guess Dooley’s a Liberace fan.
The maturity thing made me think about Watseka, trains, and train tracks. Trust me; it’s not a big leap. Watseka is a train town. Trains and tracks figured into many of the memories I’ve received from you folks.
The tracks that form the crossing in Watseka were originally the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Mainline (north/south) and the Toledo, Peoria & Western (east/west). Crossings were an ideal place to put grain elevators, factories, and depots. With a crossing, Watseka was destined to be the epi-center of Iroquois County. Railroad travel opened the Midwest and Watseka to a new influx of people and businesses. Trains increased farm productivity because crops could be shipped to more markets. 
The crossing also guaranteed there would be plenty of opportunities to engage in mischief for young men with too much testosterone.  The trains and train equipment around Watseka allowed for what Rod Wagner calls the “the hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploits” of our youth. Basically, Rod is describing adrenaline inducing activities.
One of our classmates “borrowed” a railroad handcart. He rode that thing up and down the tracks over and over again with his buddies. They looked just like the guys in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”.  They kept that cart for a while. I’ve talked to the guys who used it the most.  They tell a story about a day a train bore down on them when they had the cart on the trestle.  Apparently they worked the cart’s lever at light speed to safely beat that train. One of those guys says that ever since that day he can “rapidly inflate the rear tires of a farm tractor with a bicycle pump.”
Remember “train bombs”?  They were impact triggered devices; palm sized packages with metal strips attached. I don’t know anything about their practical purpose.  They could be found too often by young men with nothing to do. One curious thrill seeker decided to pound on one with a sledgehammer. The bomb exploded and peppered the kid with powder and debris. For a few weeks, he looked like he had the measles. The explosion was loud enough to cause temporary hearing loss. That wasn’t all bad because the guy couldn’t hear his cohorts laughing at him. Deafness spared him the addition of insult to his injuries.
Trestles: there were at least two near Watseka that were pretty attractive. Some of the ladies have reported being on and around these.  Objectively, trestles were just the next step up from Legion Park’s playground equipment. Anybody remember climbing high over Sugar Creek on the girders under the trestle? Remember doing this while the trains were going overhead?  I think that counts as a “hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploit” of youth.
I watched several guys from our class hop trains. The activity required running along side a moving train on loose rocks. The runner had to avoid tripping on ties while getting a grip on a side ladder or vaulting himself into a box car.  Thankfully (miraculously) the guys I saw engage in this sport all survived. As far as I know they kept all their moving parts. Two of them, however, let their adrenaline get ahead of their intellect. They hopped a particularly fast mover. The train picked up speed.  When the scared hungry pair was finally able to get off north of Momence, they hopped the first southbound train they could catch. They spent their return trip getting their stories straight about why they weren’t home for dinner.
If you lived in Watseka you heard trains during the night. I liked that sound. Even now, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I catch myself listening for trains.
Somebody might say if there’d been more to do Watseka boys wouldn’t have engaged in “hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploits.” That’s not true. If you ask the guys who did all this stuff why they did it, they say “because it was there.” Maybe, because it was there, there wasn’t any better place to be a kid. 
By the way, I’ve stayed in touch with two of the guys I saw hop trains. Both of them still engage in adrenaline inducing activities. Of course, in their forties, they deny those activities are stupid. They deny that engaging in them has anything to do with hormones.  I’m not going to ask Dooley for her opinion about it.