by Harold Wayne Bowman
Back in 61 I had some friends, crazy Roy, James, and his really crazy brother, Goof. We spent a lot of time down on the river, next to the railroad tracks. We ran there daily to hop the trains our mothers dared us to go near. I swore I wouldn't but I did. We ran along to match the speed of slow moving freights. We leapt on and for a while we were hobos and free. We often dared and swam the river with no clothes. I swam it once and had no power to return. I sneaked, and skulked from bush to bush to hide my skinny, fleshless, bony ass. It took me three hours to walk the distance I swam in fifteen minutes.
Bravery and guts were expected in 1961. The slightest twist of fate or turn of luck could have sent me down a different road. We were lucky. Our childish sins might have ruined our chances to become good men.
I pissed on drunks in cobblestone alleyways. I pissed on drunks till one turned round to become my father. The shame of it kept us both from ever naming the sin in daylight. Though, he begged me to forgive him when I curled in next to him for comfort in the night. It seemed funny that he should ask me forgiveness. Wasn't I the one who sinned?
I guess we can excuse the past, at least the sins. All we really do is forgive, and try to build a wall against the pain of what we've done.
I spent a lot of time those summers catching rats, sentencing them to death, and executing them. They were the sacrifices for my sins. I put on layers of my clothes, and still more layers of my fathers. He died some months before. I hoped to ward off the plague that comes from rats. I covered my feet with heavy rubber boots; my hands with work gloves. I wrapped my face with layers like the mummies in Egypt's tombs. The signal that I was ready was, "ring a round the rosies."
We all chanted, "Ring around the rosies. Pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, all fall down."
The layers of clothes were so when the sewer lid was lifted I could jump feet first down into a hole to grab the fleeing, silk gray bodies of the rats. They were much to slow to get away from single-minded, agile hands. I often grabbed the tail and felt the savage bites that champed on cotton, wool, and leather.
When I emerged I'd have at least one, sometimes two fat rats to sacrifice on the rails to the god of summer nights. We tied them to the shiny steel railroad tracks with fishing line. Hundred pound test was over-kill, but it was our hedge against the chance they might escape. I, deftly, looped the line around the head and tied it, careful not to choke off the air. That wasn't some humane gesture. It was merely to insure he did not die till the train put out his lights. Next, I tied the tail after twisting it in on itself. Both ends were secured to the spikes that held the ties in place. Once tied we scurried back to the wall that over-looked the tracks to wait the fast freight, or the passenger train.
The first time we killed a rat like that it was a complete disaster. We stood right next to it. When the train hit we were sprayed with blood and guts and hair.
After several summers to perfect our technique we could easily avoid the mess. Waiting raincoats and umbrellas protected us from the crud that blew our way. We lined up along the rock wall above the tracks. We must have looked like the Marx Brothers sitting there in our raincoats and open umbrellas on perfectly sunny days.
Once we lined up in our savage garb only to be surprised that no guts landed near us that day. Our disappointment was great since we had each, except for Goof, tied down a furious fat rat. Goof was to stupid to go down the hole, or maybe he was to smart. As we sat there in our collective gloom a loud crash was followed by three more that made us leap for safety. When we recovered ourselves we turned our attention to what had caused the crash. Each of us in turn peeped over the rock wall to see the commotion. Three cars had rear-ended a bus that had slammed on its brakes suddenly. Bloody faces on top of limping bodies emerged from the bus to lay down on the sidewalk. The people in the cars were also faceless because of the blood. Each driver was clutching his neck in pain. We turned to each other with that, " What the hell happened look." Crazy Roy was the first to figure out the cause of the great disaster of 61. Rat guts, assholes, and eyeballs had obscured the windshield of the K bus.
Roy pulled James down. James pulled Goof down, and since Goof didn't have good sense Roy came back for me. Not a word passed through our terror. We plastered ourselves against the wall. We slid sideways along the rough rock wall. We didn't dare come off the wall till we reached the iron ladder a quarter mile away. We scampered up the ladder just as the sirens began to wail. There would be hell to pay. We scattered the minute our feet hit the sidewalk.
We didn't dare speak of our parts in the worst wreck ever. We were so scared that we didn't meet, or speak for the rest of the summer. I didn't know it then, but that was the end of the friendship with those boys. We never reconnected. It was as if that one incident had our friendship like we killed the rats.
I spent a lot of time in my room for fear the cops would recognize me from the wanted posters I was sure would be on the post office wall. I had visions of four little mug shots above, "wanted dead, or alive." My mother was sure I had turned into a hermit because of my father's death when the truth be known I was relieved.
I got the news that Roy had fallen off the oil tanks and broken both his legs. He was evidently braver than I was. He was laid up for months. James and Goof moved away after the house of the one black family burned to the ground. That took the heat off the crash of 61. I was freed by the over shadowing consequences of that event. Maybe it was an accident, but I have my doubts.
They questioned everyone about the fire. My mother told the cops I had been in my room since about the time of the crash earlier in the summer. I slunk back to my room sure that she had put them on to me. I read my first big book that summer, The Dude Ranger. I guess it primed the pump. I can't remember where I got it, but I read Gone With the Wind in one sitting. When I went back to school that fall I should have been tanned, but I was pale as a ghost.
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