“Did you get it, Sue?”
“Yes! I photocopied part of the freight train schedule. Look here, Billy, this Missouri-Kansas-Texas freight starts in Joplin on 15th Street just West of Main Street and goes straight to Galena, then turns North to Pittsburg. It leaves at 11 AM every day except Sunday.”
“Yep. And there’s a return MKT train on the same route every day stopping in Joplin at 5 PM. This looks like our ticket.”
Though Sue and Billy were very good friends, Billy was quick to point out that they were not boyfriend/girlfriend. More like partners in crime – co-conspirators. Both fourteen-year-olds had been expelled from grammar school more than once including one time together after a joint caper.
This stage of their lives was like driving Westbound through Kansas on US Route 50. Western Kansas is flat as a pool table and almost as scenic. Through puberty’s rearview mirror, childhood recedes into back-of-the-mind reaches of lost past: closer than they appear. Ahead, solitary, stabbing the horizon, looms adulthood’s Pikes Peak – soaring and seductive, distant and daunting. Certainly Over 14. Still seeming just out of reach.
The two schemers aimed to step up to alcohol, specifically beer. Legal drinking age was 21 in Missouri but only 18 in Kansas. Billy had met some shady characters from East Joplin and bought a fake driver’s license showing Sue as 18.
But they had only their bikes for transportation. Sure, Route 66 passed through Joplin on Seventh Street. And only a few miles West, it crossed the state line and entered the Kansas town of Galena. But it was not legal nor, more cogently, safe to ride bikes on US 66. Also, rolling up to a bar on bikes shows a highly questionable look. There used to be a streetcar line between Joplin and Galena but it stopped running a little more than a decade ago, before the war. They rejected taking a Greyhound bus. Where’s the fun in that? No, plainly the only possible choice for a proper big adventure was hopping a freight.
“Okay, Thursday morning then, Sue?”
Thursday found both conspirators full of excited anticipation. They rode their bikes past their grammar school at Eighth Street and on South to 15th. There they hid their bikes behind a switching equipment shed alongside the tracks. The train was already made up but had no locomotive yet. Walking alongside the train, they found an empty boxcar with its sliding door open. Clambering aboard they heard a raspy voice:
“Runnin’ away from home?” Mike was a hobo by trade. His goal in life was to avoid having a goal in life. His customary beat was along the Kansas City Southern tracks – Kansas City through Joplin down to New Orleans. Occasionally, he liked to take a side trip on MKT from Joplin on up to Pittsburgh, Kansas. He called it his sabbatical. No sevens involved. Nor was Mike particularly biblical or studious. Just hobo enterprise. He sat at one end of the boxcar, resting against his backpack. He stroked his scraggly beard and said: “Or maybe elopin’?”
Both youngsters flushed as Sue said: “Oh no! No! Nothing like that!” Under her breath: “Yet.” Aloud: “We’re just going to Galena to get some beer.”
Continuing to stroke his beard, Mike said: “Yeah, y’all look a mite young fer elopin’. Or beer. My name’s Mike.”
“I’m Billy and I’m older than I look. This here is Sue; she’s just a friend, not my girlfriend. Pleased to meet you, Mike. Where are you headed?”
“Pittsburgh. I’m sorta on Sabbatical. I know a couple of houses up there that hand out really good food. At one is a pair of retired old-maid school marms. Sisters. At the other is an old widder lady with a dozen or more cats. I go up there two, three times a year. I usually work the KCS tracks. How come y’all ain’t in school?”
“Billy and I are playing hooky today. School’s a crashing bore. The things they are teaching us we already learned. We sneak in library books about more interesting stuff. Skipping a day of school, so what? It’s not like we’re missing anything worth a hoot.”
The boxcar lurched and jolted its passengers as a locomotive hooked up. The big diesel revved and roared, giving the boxcar a second lurch as the train started toward Galena and beer mecca. Sue said: “We’re going to jump off in Galena and I’ll buy a cold six pack. I have a fake driver’s license showing me as 18. We can only get 3.2 beer but that’s OK.”
“Don’t jump off in Galena. Ain’t safe, train’s too fast there. Wait past Galena ‘til after that big curve turnin’ North toward Pittsburgh. This train stops to pick up cars at a sidin’ there. It’s only a mile or so West of Galena. Wait at that sidin’ goin’ back. Return train stops to drop cars there.”
Sue said: “Thanks for the information.”
At the siding they parted ways with Mike and walked a mile and a half into Galena. At a liquor store on the corner of South Main and 7th, Sue bought beer. They walked a ways back West and drank their beers under some shade trees in a cemetery. Sue said: “I thought it was okay but nothing special. How about you?”
“Yeah, same here.”
They caught the afternoon return train and got back to Joplin at 5. Billy rode his bike straight to his newspaper route pickup point and made his deliveries. He got home about an hour late. His mother said: “Why are you late? We’ve already had dinner.”
“Paper drop-off was late.”
“Okay, sit down. I saved you a plate.”
This story germinated from my memory of a road trip when I was fourteen years old. My parents, my sister, and I drove from Joplin, Missouri to Colorado. That trip made real to me something I had only read about. How frustrated the pioneers were with the tantalizing sight of Pikes Peak. Leaving the safety and comfort of civilization behind, they sought a new life while dreading its dangers and new demands. But they were now bogged down on this vast plain. Plodding along day after day in their covered wagons, it seemed they would never reach Pikes Peak.
I now see that drive to CO as a metaphor for adolescence – at puberty, leaving the safety and comfort of childhood in the rearview mirror, reaching timorously toward adulthood’s shining peak: its freedom, its dangers, and its greater responsibilities. Restless, bogged down in their teens, Sue and Billy long for adult experiences: beer, romance (Sue now, Billy later, maybe). So, they concoct an adventure which is a childish version of adult activities.
Through ignorance and juvenile lack of judgment, they are headed for a rough landing in Galena. Ironically, they are saved from injury by hobo Mike, a parody of adulthood. Afterwards, both Sue and Billy judge ‘it’ as ‘nothing special’. The referent of ‘it’ is ambiguous; they mean both their taste of beer and their taste of “adulthood” via this whole caper. After their return, Billy works his paper route, a kid’s job. Gratefully, he retreats into his mother’s nurture.
Dean Z. Douthat is a retired engineer residing in a senior living facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan