By Ralph Hood
I recently was reminded of the 1950s and the Altamaha River where we Boy Scouts camped, hunted, fished, and disobeyed our scoutmasters by crossing the river on the nearby railroad trestle. My mind leaped back almost 70 years to the dark night I was certain that my death on that trestle was imminent.
Crossing the trestle at night was a rite of passage. We took the new boys across the trestle and enjoyed evil pleasure in scaring them horribly.
We discussed what we would do if a train came while we were in midtrestle. We knew it was too high to jump from trestle to river. We all had theories, the most prevalent being that there was room to lie on the side of the track, outside the rails, without being hurt. We had all tried it—when there was no train coming—and believed that it would work. We knew it would take courage to lie there without moving, but we also knew that we, of course, had that courage.
Walking the trestle at night had its problems. If you used a flashlight it was easy to get confused between the tops of cross ties and the gaps between. It was almost like being hypnotized.
In the depths of this misconception, you actually had to feel with your feet to be sure which was which. (It was widely believed by those who had not tried it, that this optical illusion could be avoided by walking in the dark without the flashlight, but we didn’t believe a word of it.)
On the night of my near death, we had walked all the way across the trestle and were midpoint in our return. I felt helplessly for each step. At that point someone shouted, “Look!”
There was a train in front of us, not yet on the trestle but headed our way! You could see the headlight coming round the bend.
Sadly, I must admit that the emergency plan never entered my mind. I never considered it. I—who had heretofore been unable to walk at more than a slow creep because of my optical confusion—then ran full tilt across those ties trying desperately to reach the end of the trestle before the train did. In absolute full panic I dashed toward that train at full gallop, oblivious of gaps between ties and of darkness itself.
I made it. I dove from the end of the trestle into gravel and dirt, rolled a few times, then arose scratched and bruised but alive by the very skin of my teeth.
Immediately I realized something was amiss. Where was the train, the screaming whistle, the roar of the locomotive?
There was nothing. It wasn’t a train after all, but only a one-eyed car on the road beside the train track.
I was much abashed.