Monday, November 5, 2012

Running The Rails

Photo from online archives of Addison Railroad Historical Society.

 Larry laid the wooden handled paring knife alongside several others on the back porch step, dropped the whetstone in his lap and scrubbed his palms down the sides of his trousers.

He had been puttering in the woodshed when sister Lizzie came out to ring the dinner bell, and while washing up at the black iron sink near the door he over-heard Mother fussing that her trusty knife was 'dull as a hoe.'
Lizzie was placing utensils at the side of each white ironstone plate on the table, Mother was dishing up hot food from the cookstove as Larry ambled in, sniffing appreciatively.
A clatter at the back door signaled the arrival of Father and the older boys.
Hands were hastily scrubbed, and dried on the faded roller towel.  No one lost any time in gathering round the big table.
Nothing about the meal suggested the financial hard times that prevailed. Nearly everything on the table had been grown or produced right there on the farm.
There were new potatoes, boiled in their brown jackets, a steaming heap of corn on the cob. Sliced tomatoes gleamed red in the center of a willow-patterned platter, with disks of pale cucumbers resting around the edge.
Chairs scraped back and then creaked as the family settled into their accustomed places.  Mother carefully landed a heavy bowl of milk gravy in the center of the table--gravy rich with the drippings and browned bits of home cured bacon.
Platters and bowls made their way from hand to hand around the table, followed by the butter dish, the salt and pepper shakers.
Appetites were hearty and the simple food was good.
As the last traces of gravy were mopped from the plates with slices of bread, Mother glanced down the table at Larry. 
"I'd like you to sharpen the knives right after dinner. They've all gotten dull and I keep forgetting to mention it."
With dinner finished, Father headed for a 15 minute rest in his favorite rocker; The older boys lifted their caps from the pegs by the door and went out.
The old enameled dishpans clattered in the pantry sink, steam rising as Mother poured boiling water from the heavy teakettle, ladeled in cold from the pail on the shelf, testing it with a cautious finger before nodding to Lizzie that the plates could go in.
She collected up half a dozen knives and handed Larry the whetstone.

Sitting on the back step in the mellow sunshine, Larry worked carefully with precise motions of the whetstone, stopping to delicately test each blade against his thumb.  He sharpened  two paring knives, the slender knife used for cleaning fish, a wicked looking butcher knife, and the two old bone-handled knives which Father declared had been around longer than he had lived.
For good measure, Larry dug his Barlow jackknife from the depths of his pants pocket and touched up those blades as well. Any boy knew that a dull pocket knife was nearly worthless.

His task done, Larry tossed the whetstone idly from one hand to the other and squinted up at the sky.
He thought that a late August day could hardly be more perfect.
Plump white clouds pillowed comfortably against an expanse of blue; scarcely a breeze stirred.  Gone was the sweltering humidity of July and early August, leaving sun that warmed without searing, air that was fresh and mild.
It was an afternoon for fishing in the North Branch which looped through quiet meadows a mere mile or so down the road.
As he entertained this thought, Larry heard the sound of a car halting on the road which ran past the farmhouse. As the car went on its way a boy appeared at the edge of the porch, his face creasing into a wide grin as he spied Larry.
"Hi, Bob," greeted Larry.  "I was just thinking about going fishing.  What do you think?"
He stood, gathering up the array of knives.
Bob Wissell trailed him into the ktichen, explaining, "Dad has an errand at Larrabee's Point.  He said I could stay all afternoon and walk home."

Lizzie was hanging up her dish towel as the boys entered.
"We're going fishing," Larry announced, "Get your duds changed."
Mother, settling with the basket of socks to be darned, nodded approval and Lizzie charged up the stairs to change her cotton dress for a pair of Larry's old trousers.
Larry rummaged out the flat Prince Albert tobacco can which held an assortment of fish hooks and sinkers, used his newly sharpened Barlow to cut several lenghts of heavy cord from the ball that rolled about in a pantry drawer.
He found a rusty tin in the shed and with Bob and Lizzie trailing him, soon turned up earth worms in the rich brown soil at the edge of the garden.
It was not an afternoon for hurrying.
The children's feet kicked up road dust, the air was heavy with the scent of goldenrod already in bloom. Bees bumbled lazily in  heads of red clover and purple vetch which leaned from the verge.
They passed the  schoolyard, knee deep in grass gone unmowed since late May.
"Only a week til school starts," said Bob cheerfully.
 Larry grumbled, "School shouldn't start til snow flies! I'd rather be outdoors than in any old school!"
Lizzie smiled and gave a little skip--school meant seeing friends.

At Houghs' Crossing the children climbed a rail fence and followed a cowpath through green pasture, heading for their favorite fishing hole on the North Branch brook.
It was quiet under the saplings which edged the brook.  Water bugs skidded across the surface of the stream which flowed past with hardly a bubble. A slim green snake rustled through the grass at the edge of the brook and disappeared.
Larry cut three slender branches from a shad tree, skinning off twigs and leaves.
He unrolled the lines from his pocket, doled out sinkers and hooks.
He selected a fat worm from the tin and made a production of securing it to his hook.
Larry spat on the worm and rolled his eyes solemnly at Bob and Lizzie.
"You have to spit on the worms if you want to catch the big ones," he instructed. "A big perch or two will be awfully nice for supper, fried up with some left-over potatoes."

But an hour of dangling their lines didn't result in much success.  Larry had one medium sized perch, Bob landed a small one, Lizzie hooked two which she called 'babies' and tossed  back into the water.
"I think the fish are asleep," said Larry disgustedly, "we might as well go home."
He turned the remaining worms out on the moist earth at the water's edge, tucked the lines, hooks and all into the tobacco can.
As they approached the pasture fence Larry said suddenly, "Lets take a shortcut over the railroad tracks."
The afternoon which had started so perfectly seemed to have gone a bit flat. The loop of track wouldn't really shorten the walk home, it would simply create a detour, turning them back onto the dirt road below the school house.
Lizzie's eyes widened a bit with doubt, but Bob said, "Yes, let's!"

Climbing the steep embankment to the tracks was a matter of scrabbling through underbrush, pulling themselves up by grasping at the velvety trunks of sumac, digging into the gravel with heels and toes. 
Larry reached the top first and leaned down to give Lizzie a hand.  Ahead of them  the tracks curved sinuously, metal gleaming in the dappled sunlight. A thick growth of brush on either side crowded in, uncut and kept from swallowing the space only by the passage of the train cars which had scraped through leaving small twigs and branches broken and jagged. There would be no walking beside the tracks, but the children's feet soon caught the measure of the railroad ties. They swung along, not hurrying, talking, laughing, telling stories, high above the pasture in the narrow green and gleaming space.

It was Bob who heard it first, walking a few paces behind Lizzie.
"Listen," he ordered sharply. "Is that the train behind us?"
"Can't be," said Larry, but he knew it was--the afternoon train headed for Larrabee's Point with its cargo of milk, cheese, and produce held on ice, goods that would be transferred across Lake Champlain for delivery in city places that were only names on the big maps that could be pulled down from their rollers above the schoolhouse blackboards.
Behind them the train's whistle hooted as it looped down the slope by Hough's Crossing.
Larry looked to either side, hoping to see a break in the thick tangle of briars and brush which hemmed them in.
"Come on," he ordered, "Run! We'll beat the train to the road."
They ran, discarding the fish after a few yards.
The soles of hand-me-down shoes go thin and slick with wear--it seemed that their flying feet skimmed  off the railroad ties, skittered onto the intervals of gravel and cinders, slowing them.
"Run! RUN!" croaked Larry.
Behind him Bob gasped, "HURRY!"

The little train had chuffed up the incline beyond the Crossing and was gaining on the children. The tremor of its approach vibrated through shoe leather, jarring the small bones of their feet and ankles.
The train whistle shrieked again and Larry risked a look over his shoulder.
They knew the engineer, Linus Bearor, a neighbor whose father farmed a few miles beyond the Warren Farm where Larry and Lizzie lived.
Linus had his head out the window of the engine's cab.
"Get off the track," he roared. "I can't stop the train!"

Larry and Lizzie ran abreast, legs pumping, arms swinging.
They could hear the huffing and puffing of Bob as he lunged along at their heels.
Behind them the train whistle tooted, tooted again, a screech of doom.
Lizzie stumbled and Larry shot out an arm, seizing her wrist, tugging her along until she found
her stride again.
In that moment their eyes met, locked, shied away to fasten again on the shining curve of the tracks.
"It's all over," was the wordless communcation between them, but still their feet pounded on.

Larry's breath tore at his throat; his lungs felt as though they might burst through the wall of his chest.
In that one glance he had registered the streaks of tears and sweat on Lizzie's face and knew his own looked the same.
Bob's shoulder jostled against his, the younger boy's gasps audible in spite of the train's rumble as it lumbered ever closer.
Ahead of them was the creamery--and there--yes!--ahead on the left was a slight break in the
crowding brush.
Larry yanked at Lizzie's sleeve.  "Jump!" he rasped.
Pulling Lizzie with him, Larry leaped over the rails. They landed heavily in gravel, Bob nearly on top of them, and lay, winded and shaking, as the train bore down. The earth shuddered beneath them, the frantic scream of the train's whistle cut the air again.
As the train rumbled past Linus Bearor leaned out of the cab. His face beneath his striped railroad cap was nearly as red as the neckerchief at his throat.
Somehow he made himself heard above the clattering throb of the train.
In a truly dreadful voice he bellowed, "You kids! Stay the HELL off these tracks or you will get KILLED!"
They lay huddled, unmindful of stones and cinders beneath them until the train, still hooting dementedly, disappeared around the bend.
Larry tried to stand up and found that the quaking of the ground as the train approached had somehow lodged in his legs.
Lizzie, her eyes wide, was scrubbing at her wet, dirty face with her shirt tail.
Bob, bent nearly double, gasped, 'Stitch in my side."
Silence returned slowly, settling over the embankment in heavy sweetness.
Larry got his legs under him, found his voice. He would have given much for a drink of cold water freshly raised from the well at the farm.
"I guess we need to get home," he quavered as the quiet deepened and their breath slowed.
"Do we have to go down the track?" asked Bob.
Larry shook his head by way of answering, and began to pick his way down the embankment.
In the end, they stumbled, slid, went the rest of the way down on their bottoms, fending off the scratching brambles and clinging branches as best they could.
Landing in the soft spongy green of the meadow, they took stock.
Larry spoke first. "That old cow catcher nearly got us!" he exclaimed.
"Not your fault," ventured Bob with a loyalty that only increased Larry's chagrin.
"Bad timing," he mumbled. "Should have remembered the afternoon train."
They trudged toward the road, climbed the fence.
Bees still hummed, busy in the purple clumps of New England asters.
A breeze riffled the long grass at the roadside, overhead the pillows of clouds sailed gently now
in their bed of blue.
"Walk you home, Bob?" Larry asked.
Bob thought a moment, then his slow smile stretched his grimy face.
"No, " he said. "You're halfway home from here, I"m almost halfway home in the other direction. I"m just going to walk kinda slow."
He strode off a few paces, turned to wave.
"Too bad we don't have fish for supper!" he chuckled.

Larry and Lizzie stood side by side in the dusty road, til Bob was hidden beyond a dip in the landscape.
Lizzie sighed, and braced her shoulders.
"Linus was awfully mad at us, " she stated, "and I was scared.  I think I'm still scared!"
The breeze picked up a bit and carried the faint mournful whistle of the train.
"Train's almost to the lake," Larry muttered. "I shouldn't be surprised if Linus pays Father a visit.  I don't think we've heard the last of this."
He patted his trouser pockets. By some miracle his Barlow knife and the tobacco tin holding the fishing gear were still with him.
"Come on, Liz," urged Larry, his voice gruff. "No fish for supper, but a bowl of bread and milk would taste good about now."

cropped and scribbled on from the vintage Orwell map @
I am indebted again to Cousin Tom Archer who took down the notes for this story from his Mom, almost word for word.
It took me several sessions with old maps trying to conjure up in memory the lay of the land between Houghs Crossing and the Warren Farm  where my dad,
Larry and his younger sister, Liz were born and raised.
As always I've imagined the details which I hope create a valid setting for this tale.
I wonder if the engineer, Linus Bearor, a neighbor to my grandparents, could have stopped the train if the children hadn't had the wits to finally roll off the track. As Aunt Liz said, "Maybe that whistle helped us run a little faster."
Maybe Linus hoped a lesson of safety would be learned.

Lawrence Gilbert Desjadon
4 November, 1916-24 August, 2009
Last photo of Larry and Sharon
August, 2006


  1. Sharon, as usual, fantastic! I can see the sky, feel the sun and breeze, hear the bees in the asters, and feel my heart thumping as they try to race the train! Your talent never misses to paint a beautiful picture and often conjures up memories of our own childhood days on farms, some lazy and some exhausting! God bless you for sharing your talents and thanks Tom for listing to Lizzie! Cousin Pat McGrath

    1. Cousin Pat; Your own fine writing of family stories as well as shared genealogy 'finds' is an inspiration to me.

  2. As usual, thanks Sharon for sharing your talents in telling a story so beautifully that one can see the sky, feel the breeze, hear the bees and experience your heart pounding as you try to out race a train! Thanks to you, Tom, for listening to and taking notes from Lizzie so this could be made possible! Makes one remember things from our own childhood (jumping from the forbidden hayloft and missing the end of the upturned pitch fork by 2 inches !!) that we should probably write about! God bless you both!!!! Cousin Pat

    1. Pat; Your 2 comments followed each other--I daresay one of them appeared to be 'stuck' somewhere. Since I"m basking in your affirmation, I have published both.
      The details that I use to embellish the 'bones' of the stories are gleaned from all the seasons of growing up in Orwell, Vermont.

  3. Oh my goodness that was gripping! Thank goodness Larry got off that track in time, or you would not be here now to tell the tale.

    Your description of the farmhouse meal was so good it made me hungry!

    1. Ann; I am finding out so much about my Dad's childhood now--after he is gone. It appears that he was a mischief-maker--and must surely have taxed his guardian angel!
      The meal was described from memories of the mid-day summer meals at the home of my maternal grandfather--next door to where I grew up.

  4. Loved the story and the picture of Larry (born the same year as my mother).

    1. Lillian; Thank you! I wish I had a good photo of Larry as a little boy--only a few very faded ones of him in a group of other children.

  5. I can only echo what everyone else has already said. I felt like I was there too, and will now be off to bed with my heart thumping just as Larry's was! I'm so glad they were all good runners . . .

    Brilliantly written. My muse has left me in recent months.

    1. Jennie; I hope your 'muse' will return--I miss your stories!
      I became very caught up in the drama while writing this.

  6. As usual I have no idea where my comment went....I SAID I love the food description! Great details as always made me feel as i were there AND I love that picture of you and Grampa. :)