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 . . .
Riding the rails in 1940
By Carl Baumann, BHS '43
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A favorite diversion during ninth-grade social studies class was counting cars on the freight trains which frequently passed by on the far side of the Bergenfield High School athletic field... There were usually between 50 and 100 of them, and you could guesstimate the numbers before the actual count-down by observing the speed of the train, the number of steam engines up front, and the vehemence of their huffs and puffs...Certain of us would wager sticks of gum on these numbers, and I soon got to be a frequent chewer. I put my gums where my mouth was, so to speak...

Sometimes I'd daydream about what it might be like to "hop a freight," but being relatively satisfied with life where I was, didn't envision any elsewhere destinations.

But one Friday evening, while walking to a basketball game at the neighboring Dumont High School about a mile north of my home, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a really slow freight approaching upgrade from the south. Dumont High School was also next to the train tracks so I thought, Why walk when I might ride?
A jog to the next grade crossing got me access to the tracks just as the freight huffed into view at about 
10-12 mph... I could run that fast, at least for a while, so when the train seemed about half past me, the optimum distance between the eyes of the  engineer up front and the brakeman in the caboose, I sprinted alongside, grabbed a ladder-hold on the back end of a boxcar, and hopped up onto my first (and last) freight... I was "riding the rails," as they would say.

The deed having been done, and not sure about what to do next, I just hung on for dear life as the train unexpectedly began picking up speed... The up-grade through Bergenfield had crested at the Dumont town line and then began a downgrade run, accelerating the "slow freight" to about 40 mph as it passed by the Dumont High School.  At that speed I wasn't about to jump off.  Surely it would slow down somewhere soon, hopefully still in Dumont, but that was not to be...

So on I hung as on we rolled, past Dumont, Haworth and Harrington Park, leaving suburbia behind and still picking up speed as we passed the New Jersey-New York state line at Tappan... We were in open country about 15 miles north when a halt in the chugging sounds up front and the squeal of brakes below me signaled a prayed-for reduction in speed. When the train slowed down to about 15 mph and held steady as the chugging sounds resumed, I and my now-aching arms decided this was about as good as it would get and jumped off. (That was a smart move -- I later learned that train wasn't scheduled for a full stop till it reached Newburgh, 35 miles farther north).  I hit the ground running, but not quite fast enough, and tumbled in the ballast, skinning various body parts and tearing up the clothing which covered them.

Not knowing quite where I was, I followed the nearest lights in the dark and came upon the village of Orangeburg, N.Y., and eventually its bus station.  YES!  There would be one last midnight bus passing through Bergenfield on its way to New York City, and the fare was 25 cents... A pocket search yeilded the 15 cents my Dad had given me for admission to the basketball game. I surveyed the faces in the waiting room and spotted a friendly looking middle-aged man who looked like he might possibly be the father of a 14-year-old dope like me...I told him my tale, strait and true, and he gave me the needed dime. My offer to mail it back to him brought forth an amused grin, and the words "Never mind!"

The bus let me off a half-mile from home. When I tried sneaking into the house at about 1 a.m. (two hours past curfew) my Mom was waiting up for me. "Where have you been?" she demanded. I decided to tell her the truth. It had helped earlier with my surrogate dad -- maybe it would help again now with Mom... I don't remember what she said. She just covered up my scrapes with iodine and bandaids, and then we both went to bed -- me to peaceful, thankful sleep, and she to I don't know what... 

My real Dad, having apparently given up worrying about my whereabouts, slept through it all, at least I think he did. Maybe he was just playing possum, letting my Mom deal with me. I'll never know for sure, this side of Heaven... I do know I never hopped a freight again, and it wasn't because anyone told me not to. 

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