Never Stood So Tall

I guess I know as much about the Fourth of July as nearly anyone, unless it's Willis or Jay, or Casey, of course.

Casey was the engineer who drove the big locomotive from Mt. Vernon to Miller every week to unload grain at the mill, and then backed up the whole nine miles to Mt. Vernon.

I don't know that his name was really Casey, but all train engineers are called Casey. Everyone knows that, and he seemed happy enough with it.

Casey wore striped overalls, and a striped engineer's hat, always clean in the morning, but black with coal dust at night, his face and hands, too, so that he looked sort of like a big friendly panther by the time to start home.

It was July 4, 1944, and Willis, Jay and I had ridden our bicycles the two miles north on highway 39 to Copeland's store to buy our fireworks, and now we had walked barefoot down the railroad tracks to Archie's pond. No self respecting eight year old boy in Miller would dare wear shoes in the summertime for fear of being called a sissy, and we certainly were not sissies, though we walked carefully on the burning hot rails heated by the July sun.

After an hour or so, we reached the pond and walked through the weeds to the water. We wrapped the fuses of two or three cherry bombs together, tied the bundle to a rock, lit the fuses with a kitchen match, and threw the bomb out into the pond -- the perfect depth charge to sink one of Hitler's submarines. After a moment, the brown muddy water would come roiling up, and in our minds we had done our part for the war effort.

Then we heard the train whistle, and here came Casey up the track, blowing the whistle at us and waving. Now, we saw something we had never seen before -- there was an American flag fastened to the cowcatcher, and blowing in the wind.

As we stood there transfixed as always by the monstrous machine, Casey began to pull the throttle back, and, wonder of wonders! He stopped the train! Right there in the middle of nowhere!

"Boys," he yelled to us out of the window of the cab, "Wanna ride 'er into town?"

Did we wanna ride 'er into town? Did we ever!

All three of us stumbled and fell several times in our headlong flight to reach the engine. Casey leaned down and helped us scramble up into the cab, and when he had us where he wanted us, he said, "OK, Joe Lee, you drive. Willis, you shovel coal into the firebox, here, and Jay, you keep the bell ringing. Here, pull the whistle chain, now, too. Let's go to Miller, now, boys, let's go!"

Jay blew the whistle, Willis started shoveling coal, and I pushed the throttle forward.

Valves clicked, steam hissed, black smoke poured from the smokestack, and the massive wheels began to spin against the rails. "Chuff", said the engine, "Chuff, Chuff!", and slowly it began to move, picking up speed until the wheels no longer slipped, and the train began rocking along the roadbed, going ever so fast! We thought it must be going a hundred miles an hour, maybe two hundred, but looking back after fifty some years, it was probably only about forty.

But the power! The awesome power! We could feel the power through our bare feet up into our legs and on up into our bodies. The comic books must be wrong. Not even Superman could stop a train like this!

Shortly, Casey yelled in my ear, "Joe Lee, when you reach a white sign on a pole, start pulling the throttle back. I did, and the train began to slow. Willis stopped shoveling coal, but Jay kept ringing the bell. "Jay," said Casey, "Just as soon as you see main street, sound the whistle."

When Jay pulled the whistle chain, a good long blast, Casey said, "OK, Joe Lee, I'll take her in now," and he took over the throttle and eased the massive locomotive across main street and into the siding at the mill.

When the train stopped, and the hissing of steam had died down, he said, "Boys, you stay here, I want to talk to you."

He climbed down out of the cab and went over to talk for a moment to the workers at the mill about unloading the cars. Then he came back.

"Sit down, boys, right where you are. Did you notice the flag I put on the front of the engine today?" We sat down on the grimy coal dust covered steel floor of the cab and nodded.

"Well, here's what that flag is for, boys."

He told us how we were once just 13 colonies, and how we belonged to England, and how King George III was a tyrant, and how we had to get free of the tyranny, and he told us of Paul Revere, and Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams and George Washington. He recited portions of the Declaration of Independence to us, and told us how it was signed on July 4, 1776, and he told us how we almost lost the Revolutionary War. He made sure we understood what it was all about, and from time to time as he spoke, tears rolled down his cheeks, and we little boys were so entranced, that tears rolled down our cheeks, too, and our coal dust covered faces looked more like zebras than panthers.

Finally, the cars were unloaded, and it was time for Casey to go. He helped us down from the cab. Then he reversed the engine, the steam hissed, and we watched him back away, the American Flag waving as if to say, "Don't forget, boys, don't forget."

We little boys looked at each other and knew we would never forget. We laughed at our filthy faces, and while we might at one time have been dirtier, we had never stood so tall -- even barefoot.

[ by Joe Edwards (frogwilly@webtv.net) -- from 'Heartwarmers' ]


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