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First train trip - part 2


Before we were long out of Reading, our train was on a double track mainline and making good time, too. We had accelerated to about 50 mph, definitely the fastest that we had gone so far. "I didn't know freight trains went this fast," said Tom. I got up off the floor and stood in the doorway looking down at the track next to us. It was just past 10 o'clock, and since we were rolling through the Pennsylvania foothills, there wasn't much to see. Every now and then we'd pass a lineside industry or a cut of cars on a siding, but for the most part, the view out the door left me feeling that we were on a fast train to nowhere. Suddenly, a bright flash of light sped past me from right to left, followed by the roar of diesel engines. Scared shitless, I threw myself back onto the floor of the car. Another freight train going in the opposite direction, and seemingly going just as fast as we were, was now rumbling by just a few feet away. Sprawled out on the floor, I looked at the others. "You alright?" asked Tom. "Yeah... I just didn't see it comin'..." I was now content to sit against the opposite side of the car and let someone else enjoy the nighttime countryside. We soon encountered the second tunnel of our train ride. This one was much longer than the Flat Rock Tunnel back in Philly, and this time we could smell the exhaust from the diesel engines. The fumes were far from overwhelming, but nonetheless, the fresh air on the other side was a welcome relief. After a noticeable drop in speed, we again began to wonder where we were. Matt and Steve were standing in the doorway looking for clues. Our train had been following the course of a stream or small river for the last several miles, and we now seemed to be entering a somewhat industrialized area. "Looks like part of a steel mill over there," Matt said, pointing to an industrial complex on the opposite hillside. "We're probably in Bethlehem," said Steve. "Or maybe Allentown?" asked Tom. "Why would we go way out to Reading if the train was headed for Bethlehem?" Matt asked, directing the question at me. "I don't know," I confessed. "Maybe this ain't Bethlehem." The view out the other side of our boxcar probably would have been a tremendous help, perhaps offering sight of a massive industrial complex with a "Bethlehem Steel" sign in big, white letters. As it was, we could only guess, and I was certainly hoping that we were a lot farther from Philly than Bethlehem. Our train slowed down to about 5 miles an hour as we entered a yard area. The yard was dimly lit, but by now our eyes were well-adjusted. There was a cut of cars on the track next to ours, and thanks to several gondolas, we could see that there was another cut of cars on the next track over. I got the impression that this was a busy area. We soon came to the end of the neighboring consist, and our train slowly proceeded out of the yard. About a quarter-mile down the track, the brakes were applied, and the train came screeching to a halt. By now it about 11 o'clock, we were all getting hungry, and we had been on the train for about five hours. "Whaddya say, guys, should we hop off?" asked Steve. "Let's hang for a while," I suggested. "Maybe we won't sit here that long." From our boxcar, all we could see was a steep embankment next to our train. It was heavily overgrown with trees and weeds, so it did not look like a good place to detrain. We settled back, rationed out what little food we had, and washed it down with the last of the peach schnapps.

"You know," said Steve, "if this is Bethlehem, then we could probably spend the night at Lehigh." "Lehigh?" Tom asked. "Yeah. Lehigh University. They have a Pi Lambda Phi chapter there, and they'd probably be willing to put us up." "Have you ever been there?", asked Matt. "Oh yeah," said Steve. "They're a cool bunch of guys. If we can find the campus, I can find their house. Practically the whole campus is built on a hillside, and the Pi Lam house is at the very top of the hill." About half an hour after we came to a stop, the train was once again jerked into motion. This time, however, we were moving in reverse back towards the freight yard. "Yo, man, why are we going backwards?" asked Tom. "I don't know," I said, "but I don't like it." Soon we were back in the yard, but on a different track. When the train finally came to a stop, we decided to hop off. We put the lids on the sterno, packed everything up, grabbed our backpacks, and jumped from our boxcar. "Let's see if we can figure out where the hell we are," said Steve. Matt pleaded, "Who cares where we are - let's get some food." There was another long string of cars next to us, and at first we felt like we were lost in a linear maze of boxcars, hoppers, and tank cars. We looked between and beneath the cars in our train and didn't see another string of cars on the other side. We decided to hop the couplers between two of the cars. Fortunately, we found ourselves at the edge of the yard. Looking to our right, we saw a streetlight on a telephone pole down the tracks a bit, and it looked as though there was a road leading up a hill and out of the yard. Between us and the road there was an old, decrepit structure off to the left, set back away from the tracks. We walked towards the road, and as we approached the old building, I could tell that it had a peculiar roof and a curved rear wall. Just barely above a whisper, I uttered, "oh... my... god..." Tom had heard me. "What's up, Lance?" "Check it out... an old roundhouse! And complete with a turntable and pit!" Since the turntable was oriented somewhat parallel to the front of the roundhouse, I insisted that everyone walk across it. When I got to the middle of the span, I paused, rested my elbows on the railings and just stared for a minute into the stalls, hoping, perhaps, to see the ghost of an old Mikado... "Yo, Lance!" yelled Tom. "Wake up, man, we're outta here... goddamn, you'd think he would've had enough trains for one night..." We followed the road up the hill and out of the freight yard. A couple of cops directed us to the nearest source of food, a Seven-Eleven convenience store. When we got to the "Sev", we piled our backpacks in front of the store. We were filthy! Upon entering the store, we noticed that the only other customers were these two old men over by the coffee machines. We ordered hot dogs and grabbed some junk food and soft drinks. As we were paying for everything, Steve asked the guy behind the counter, "By the way, this IS Bethlehem, isn't it?" The guy just looked at as, eyebrows raised. "You guys don't know where you are?" he asked. By now, the two old-timers were right behind us in line, waiting to pay for their coffees. "Well, uh, actually," started Steve, "we've been out hiking all night and, uh, we must've got lost or somethin'." "Yeah, this is Bethlehem," replied the cashier. "We wouldn't happen to be anywhere near Lehigh University, would we?" Steve asked. "Aw, noooo..." the guy said. "You must be a good mile, mile and a half from campus." "A mile and a half?" said Tom. "That's nothin'. My god, we've come the whole way from Philadelphia." Overhearing this, one of the old timers spoke up: "Philadelphia? You guys must be awful tired if you hiked the whole way from Philadelphia." Since these two old guys seemed pretty harmless, and since Steve was now getting directions to Lehigh from the cashier, we decided to fess up. "Actually," I said, "we took a Conrail freight train up from Philly. We just hopped off in that freight yard down over the hill." Obviously surprised, the two old guys looked at one another. "We just brought a train up from Camden. Pulled in about an hour ago." It was two of the crew members from our train! "Yeah," I said. "But we stayed on the train, and after a while they backed it into the yard. That's when we decided to hop off." "Good choice," said the one guy. "That train's waiting for classification. Who knows when they'll shove it over the hump..." "And what about Reading?" asked Matt. "Why'd we stop in Reading?" "Had to drop off some cars that were headed west to Harrisburg. Where'd you guys hop the train, anyway?" one of them asked. "You know that real long bridge by 30th Street Station?" I said. "We climbed aboard an empty boxcar while the train was sitting on the bridge." "Oh my god, they caught us on the high line!" exclaimed the one. It was the first time I had ever heard the bridge referred to as the "high line". They explained that westbound trains from Camden NJ have to pull onto the high line from the North East Corridor tracks that cross the Schuylkill River. The power then runs around the length of the train, couples to the other end, and pulls the train north (west) along the River. We boarded while they were waiting for orders to proceed. "As long as no one got hurt," said one of them. They wished us well, we said goodbye, and made our way to Lehigh's campus. Steve led us up the hill on which the campus is built. It was quite a hike, especially after our trip. As we approached the Pi Lam house, we could tell that something was going on inside even though it was now about 12:30. "Hey, it looks like they're having a party," said Matt. Indeed they were. We walked in, introduced ourselves to the first people we saw wearing fraternity letters, and told them our story. Impressed, they said that they'd be happy to put us up for the night. They explained that classes for them started on Monday, and everyone was just getting back to campus after summer break. That was the reason for the party, and we were welcome to help ourselves to the keg. After risking life and limb to hop a train, spending five hours on a Conrail freight headed for God-knows-where, stopping a softball game in Reading, stumbling across an ancient roundhouse, talking to our the crew of our train, and hiking a mile and a half to get here, we had come to find one of life's truly great rewards: free beer! We all got showers, a place to crash, and the next morning, they even made us breakfast. Someone told us about a daily bus that leaves for Philadelphia every day around 3:00 PM, and we decided that the bus was probably our best bet for returning. We walked to the bus station, purchased our $6 tickets, and were back in Philadelphia by 5:30 that afternoon. Total trip time: a little less than 24 hours.

Three weeks later, I was hanging out in Steve's room. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we were watching college football. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. "Come in," said Steve. It was Finney. "Yo, Finney, what's up, man?" Finney was one of our fraternity brothers who was currently on co-op (that's the "work" part of Drexel's work-study programs). He was now employed up in Reading, had relocated there, and was just visiting the house for the weekend. We just talked for a while when, out of nowhere, Finney says, "Hey, Lance, you're kinda into trains and all that, aren't you?" "Yeah. Kinda." "I got one for ya. Listen to this. A couple weeks ago I'm playing softball with this team that I'm on at work. It was a night game, in the late innings, and there was a frieght train rolling by out past the outfield. Then these crazy guys in a boxcar start yellin' and screamin' and carryin' on. We had to stop the game while everybody looked to see what all the noise was. You ever heard of anybody doin' anything like that?" Unable to speak, I just looked at Steve. "Finney," said Steve, "you ain't gonna believe this..."