Once out the front door of Grandma’s house we were free to explore, and explore we usually did. A dirt road ran in front of her yard and then ran south to a dead-end at the railroad tracks. What do four kids do when presented with the mischievous possibilities of a railroad track and parked trains? Explore of course. It is here that we discovered the black metal bands we turned into whistles. Once we had worn out the novelty of the whistles, we turned our attention to the trains.
Standing next to a train on the tracks is quite a different experience than seeing one from a distance. They are huge; standing taller than our house from the ground to the top of the car. Even though I was intimidated at first, I still had to climb the ladder on the back of the car and see what it was like on the top. Vicki warned me, “Mommy and Daddy won’t like it if they find out we’re climbing on these trains. They’re dangerous.” My flippant response, “They won’t find out unless somebody tells on me,” was typical of our adventures. If we waited for Mom or Dad to approve of our every activity, we wouldn’t have any fun at all. Up the ladder I went.
Finally on top of the box car, I was surprised at how unsteady the top of the train was. I had a difficult time finding my footing and at this moment I began to realize how misleading movies and television were. I had seen numerous cowboy heroes, running up and down the tops of trains, seemingly without effort. Jumping from car to car in pursuit of or being chased by the outlaws they were dueling with, appeared on the big screen to be like a casual jog down the sidewalk. I cautiously began edging forward; constantly aware of the possibility of falling off (the fall being much greater looking down from the top of the car than perceived at ground level), one eye on the ground and the other on the metal walkway underneath my feet (the top of the car was round, not flat, and made for difficult walking). I found myself repeatedly catching my balance along the way, small gusts of wind stopping me in my tracks.
“Wonnie, I’m coming up too,” Timmy called to me from the ladder on the back of the train. I was too afraid to turn around to answer him, so I said under my breath, “Okay”. Vicki stayed on the ground (Kathy remained back at the house with the cousins) and Timmy didn’t last too long before he scurried back down the ladder to safety. I only made it halfway before I decided that I too had experienced enough of the top of this train for a lifetime. The turnaround was tricky, but squatting down and holding on to whatever I could grab made it feasible and I eventually made it back to the ladder. I was relieved to get back on solid ground, but soon I was confidently walking around as if I had accomplished some great feat.
The morning was still young and being done with the trains we decided to hike to the river to see what new things we might discover there. Between us and the river was a large, open pasture, surrounded by barbed wire fences. It looked to be a ten minute walk through the tall grass and amidst the cow pies, sprinkled throughout like strategically placed land mines. After a few snags on the barbed wire, we made it over the fence and as we began the trek across the field I suddenly stopped. “What’s wong Wonnie? Why did you stop?” Timmy asked. Vicki too stopped, but only because I had. I answered in a calm, measured voice, “There’s a large Angus bull standing over on the other side of the field.” As I was scared of most things, the list too exhaustive to cover here, the bull was no exception. We stood for a moment and observed the bull as he walked in the same direction we were moving. If we continued on our current path, a run in with the bull was highly likely based on the current trajectory.
Vicki encouraged me, “He hasn’t seen us yet, so let’s keep going.” Timmy, not any less scared than I was of the two thousand pound behemoth, was convinced and added, “Yeah, Wonnie. He won’t get us if he doesn’t see us” (such wisdom coming from a lad of eight). They both made much sense, so we continued on our way to the river. As we walked I had mixed feelings; the excitement of the river and what discovery lie ahead, and the dread of the bull, always one eye glancing his way to avoid any sudden surprises. Shortly, I noticed the bull changing directions and heading straight toward us (he wasn’t running or acting like he was disturbed in any way, but I was spooked nonetheless). I excitedly said, “Let’s get out of here. The bull’s coming toward us!” We all three ran to the edge of the field, parallel to where we were standing only moments before, and hopped over the barbed wire fence once again. By changing our route we added a few minutes to our walk, but those minutes were insignificant in time and may have saved a life, mine particularly, making the sacrifice well worth it. At one point the bull drew close enough to reveal his evil red eyes and strands of smoke rolling from his nostrils; further validating my fears and convincing me that I had made the right decision. Being in safety on the other side of the fence we decided to throw a few dirt clods the bull’s way, but his attitude was one of indifference. I think he may have stuck out his tongue as he turned and walked away.
We were only a few yards from the river now and I became excited as glimpses of water came into sight (all bodies of water excite my imagination as I think of the fishing, swimming, and exploring possibilities in every encounter). At this point of the Big Piney River, being near its source, the water was not flowing freely and the river was made up of a series of shallow stretches with a few deeper pools dispersed at random. In the shallow areas the water was no more than two feet deep and standing on the bank we could see small fish, minnows, tadpoles and crawdads as they made their way to and fro; intertwined within the ecosystem that makes up the river. I was more stimulated by the fish, bass and sunfish being plentiful, but because I didn’t have a fishing pole I had to look for other interests.
[Grandma Bay’s home was a gathering place for the entire Bay clan; cousins, uncles and aunts as well as great aunts and uncles. By this time in our adventure we had been joined by our cousins, brothers David and Vernon. Like our other cousins, these two often didn’t know what to make of us and so they spent much of their time in our company observing; like scientists taking notes during an experiment involving rare insects. The first time they encountered us running across a gravel road without any shoes, they were stunned. We were anything but dull.]
We decided to take off our shoes and go wading (yes we did wear shoes from time to time). The water was cool and felt good, but the rocks were sharp and made the wade upstream painful and the occasional patch of moss on the rocks created an extremely slick surface and falling down was always a possibility. We had seen plenty of crawdads scurrying along the bottom, always just out of reach a few feet in front of us, and noticed that they had a tendency to disappear under a rock when we got too close. “Let’s see if we can catch a crawdad,” Vicki suggested. I was wary of the little creatures; especially the pincers attached to each front leg, but was willing to play along and replied, “Okay. How do we do it?” Vicki came up with a plan similar to the one we executed back in L.A., when we pursued, trapped and caught the alligator lizard (later “accidentally” killed with an axe by Timmy). One of us would “chase” the crawdad toward the other person who would wait patiently for the unwitting prey to be driven in their direction. I was to be the cattle dog in this exercise, while Vicki would wait alertly on the other end, ready to grab the crawdad as it scooted backward; unaware of the pending danger awaiting it.
Timmy decided to go off on his own and began turning over the larger rocks on the bottom of the river. His activity created a mass movement of crawdads as they scurried around trying to find a new place to hide. At one point one of these spooked crawdads ended up on top of Vicki’s foot leading to a blood curdling scream, “AAAhhhh! There’s a crawdad on my foot!” (The scream caused all of nature to pause; even the cows in the adjoining field stopped chewing their cud for a brief moment. They were used to the sound of screech owls at night, but this sound was totally foreign and gave the bovines pause.) At this point I wasn’t about to play Dudley Do-Right and rescue the fair maiden in distress as I was more concerned with what was going on in the water below me, keenly surveying my feet and the surrounding gravel and rocks; not wanting to face the same peril that had visited itself upon my unsuspecting sister.
Once the screaming had subsided and the water had been restored to its normal clarity, we returned to our quest of catching the elusive crustaceans known in our part of the country as crawdads. It wasn’t long before I had pushed a crawdad to Vicki and as she crouched on her knees, she reached slowly down into the water; making sure she stayed behind the creature, far away from the pincers constantly reaching out for something to grasp. She finally made her move and grabbed the crawdad just behind its head and as she stood up she lifted it out of the water for all of us to see.
It was now Timmy’s turn to scream, as he noticed a large gash on Vicki’s knee and blood flowing profusely down her leg and into the stream. “Vicki, youh wegs bweeding!” Timmy shouted. I too saw the blood and decided that the best place for me was somewhere else (I was afraid of blood). I nervously said to Vicki, “Timmy and me will run and get some help. Just sit on the bank and wait and we’ll go get Daddy.” Leaving our sister all alone, to bleed out and die, appears to be a cowardly act, but we both knew that neither of us could be of much help staying behind and that if she had any chance at all it would be with the grownups back at Grandma’s house. David and Vernon, not being paramedics, decided to follow us. Vicki sat on the bank, bleeding and crying. To this day she wonders why we abandoned her, and no explanation seems to satisfy her.
Timmy and I, along with the cousins, seemed to have super human strength and endurance as we ran back to Grandma’s house; down the river bank, over barbed wire fences, across wide open fields (not only did we avoid the cow pies, but the bull didn’t faze us either; we flew by him so fast he didn’t even look up from his grazing), finally to the railroad tracks and the remaining distance home; up the dirt road to the front yard. Once on the porch we nearly ripped the screen door off its hinges and breathlessly stood in the front room where all the adults were relaxing away the lazy afternoon. To no one in particular I stammered, “Vicki’s bleeding! She’s down by the river. Somebody come and get her!” Dad wasn’t in the room at the time, but Uncle Vernon asked, “Where is she?” After explaining the best we could the location of our dying sister, Uncle Vernon ran out the door and took off in his car.
So back we ran (David and Vernon wisely stayed behind with the rest of the family and enjoyed some of Grandma’s delicious fried chicken and biscuits with homemade apple butter), over the same terrain we had previously traversed, not allowing anything to slow us down; not the deep grass (running in the deeper grass presented a bit of a challenge; if you ran normally the grass would grab your legs and trip you, so you had to swing your feet out to the side and run in what resembled a gallop, similar to a high hurdler in track), not barbed wire fences, and not even killer bulls. We were on a mission to save our sister’s life.
Uncle Vernon, meanwhile, drove as far as he could to a spot near the river, but then had to climb a fence and cross a field in order to reach Vicki sitting on the gravel bar, tears drying on her dirt streaked cheeks. When he finally reached her, he grabbed her in his arms and carried her across the field and back to the waiting automobile (Uncle Vernon would always be one of Vicki’s favorites for saving her life). From there they went straight to a doctor who used six stitches to sew up the wound.
By the time Timmy and me had arrived back at the spot where we left Vicki, to our astonishment no one was there; so back we went, across the fields, over the fences and past the killer bull; finally arriving at Grandma’s with Vicki sitting in the middle of the room, the center of everyone’s attention. I was a bit envious of the attention being lavished on Vicki, but remembering the huge gash and ample supply of blood, I decided that she deserved all the attention she could garner and so I joined in with the rest of the family. We all slept well that night, the sound of the midnight train and the stifling heat of the upstairs bedroom notwithstanding. (Grandma’s house was without an air conditioner; the three speed box fan was only good for moving the hot summer air from one side of the room to the other.)
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Always a Little Heathen” to be completed by the end of 2013. My inaugural book, “Little Heathens” will be available in stores June 18th of 2013. The Kindle version as well as the book are both available on Amazon.
*This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.