Aug 192012

Sometime during the summer of 1979 several Colorado sprint car regulars, myself included, towed up to Black Hills Speedway in Rapid City, South Dakota. Our purpose for doing so was to participate in a special open wheel event held there, for sprint car racing was not regularly done at that track at that time. I can’t recall all of the names of the drivers that went along, but one person that I do recall was a fellow driver by the name of Harold Maynard. Harold’s car, number 50, is shown in the picture to the right. My car, number 4w, is in the background. As I recall, it was a fairly uneventful event except for something that happened during one of the heat races.

Those of you that are familiar with sprint car racing know that races are almost always held at night on a clay track that has been watered down and packed smooth so that the surface is tacky. 600 horsepower sprint cars can really get going on a track like that. Such was not the case at this particular race. Not only was the race held in the early afternoon of a hot summer day, but the track had not been adequately watered or packed down. Whatever tackiness there might have been went away during hot laps. After time trials were completed the track was as slick as an ice rink.

I think every driver there spun out at least once, including me. One of my spin-outs (assuming I had more than one – which is likely) took place coming off of two – that’s right, I said OFF of two – in fact, way off of two – about midway down the back-stretch to be honest. I don’t know how one spins out in the middle of the back stretch but trust me, I managed.

Here’s where things got interesting – but first let me explain to those of you that might not be knowledgeable of the workings of a Sprint Car or Midget that they don’t have starters, flywheels, or clutches folks. If you spin out, and in the process kill the engine, you don’t just crank them up and drive out of danger. If you are in some part of a banked turn, and you are turned the right way, you might be able to snap the in/out box loose and roll to the infield, but if you are sitting (cross-ways) in the middle of the flat back stretch at Black Hills Speedway in Rapid City, South Dakota, you get to sit right where you are until a push truck comes to your rescue.

I’ve had my share of watching the little missiles (other race cars) coming at me while sitting dead still in the middle of a track and I’m here to tell you, one never quite gets used to it. Now I don’t want to come off as overly dramatic about all this because it’s usually not all that much of a problem; the yellow is thrown, you hold your breath for a bit while a few cars pass within an inch or two of you at breakneck speed, or at worst (usually) they see you at the last moment, swerve to try and avoid you, and instead slide sideways into you. Sometimes that’s not too bad, and at other times, well… you get the point. Whatever the outcome, when the push truck can safely get on the track you will be pushed off, go to the back of the pack, and start over whenever the flagman gets everyone lined up and throws the green again.

So there I sat – right in the middle of the back stretch and cross-ways on top of it, watching the cars coming toward me off of two at, flat out, full tilt, race speed. They kept coming, and coming, and coming. I don’t recall how many times I saw some of the same cars more than once, but it was enough to make me realize that something was not exactly right. Somehow this realization caused me to turn my head in the direction of the flag stand which was clear across the infield on the far side along the front stretch.

What I saw was a sight to behold and one I will never forget. The flagman was vigorously waving the yellow flag with one hand AND the GREEN FLAG with the other. All I could think was – what the hell does that mean? I can tell you what my fellow racers must have thought it meant; Go faster! That’s what.

Somewhere along the way my friend Harold Mainard who was not racing that particular heat ran from out of the infield and across the front stretch to reach the flag stand. Upon getting within earshot of the flagman he shouted: What are you doing! – What does yellow AND green mean! The man replied in a shout, “it means continue racing, but race with caution” – to which Harold replied: Caution hell! We race with reckless abandon! Throw the damn yellow!

He did, and here more than thirty years later I have written this little story for you.


 Posted by at 11:49 AM
Jul 182012

This Cessna 150, number N2957J is nearly identical to N2907J referred to in the story. N2907J was also blue and white.

Flying an airplane, at least a small one, is not all that difficult. You pretty much taxi it from the ramp to the runway, point it reasonably straight down the centerline, make sure the elevator trim is not too badly misadjusted, apply full power, keep a little pressure on the right rudder pedal, and the thing will just go right on up, up and away. After the wheels leave the ground, as long as you don’t let the nose get too far above the horizon, don’t jack it over too far and pull back on the yoke while turning out of the pattern, or make a few other critical mis-steps you will eventually get up to a nice cruising altitude. Once that is accomplished you can fly all over the place without exposing yourself to much danger at all. The problem of getting the thing back on the ground still remains, however.

This is commonly called “landing.” In terms of comfort, landings can range anywhere from a smooth chirp-chirp  of the landing gear to a bone rattling controlled crash. In my case, most of my landings have been smooth and uneventful, however some have ranged outside the parameters that most people would use to define a “normal” landing. One comes to mind that falls into the controlled crash category, and that is what this story is about.

The final step in acquiring a private pilot license in this country is to successfully complete a “check ride” with a duly authorized Federal Aviation Administration examiner. One of the many training requirements leading up to the final check ride is the completion of a rather lengthy multi-leg cross country journey. A trip I made that entailed travelling from my home base at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport to Daytona, Florida, then to Tampa International Airport, and then from Tampa back to my home base at Ft. Lauderdale easily satisfied the minimum FAA requirements. On the morning of March the 4th, 1973 I arrived at the Fixed Base Operators office, completed all the pre-flight necessities, boarded a Cessna 150, number N2907J, and set out for Daytona.

As I recall, the trip up to Daytona was uneventful aside from a little patchy ground fog. I had worried that such a thing might impede my ability to land at a small airport along the way should I have any sort of in-flight emergency. No such emergency was in the offing, so I landed at Daytona, fueled up, had a cup of coffee and a snack, and took off for Tampa International Airport. As with the short journey from Ft. Lauderdale to Daytona, the trip across to Tampa was also uneventful; the ground fog had completely cleared off, and the day was bright and sunny. Things were going real good – so far.

Some miles northeast of the Tampa airport I made contact with the control tower and requested permission to land. I was approved to approach “straight in” to what is now runway 19L. I began my descent, and in just a few minutes the runway came into view. By this time I was down to the prescribed pattern altitude of 800 feet, and had already started to apply the flaps, so I announced to the tower that I was on “final for runway one nine left.” A short, cryptic reply something like: “two nine zero seven Juliet – clear to land – one nine left” was received. Good. No announcements like: “make good time – be advised Delta heavy on final behind you” were included in the last message from the tower, so I could take my own sweet time and put that bad boy Cessna right down on the numbers. Never mind that a Cessna 150 can land in only a few hundred feet, and runway 19L was a whopping 8,300 feet long.

About this time I must have thought: Bosh! there was no need to use up all that runway! – I’ll just set down before the numbers – way before. I decided I was going to put that thing as short of the numbers as had ever been done. Why? Because they were there; that’s why. Reader, you have probably determined that things were getting ready to take a turn for the worse about that time. You are right.

Beginning pilots are taught a simple two step trick they can use to insure that they touch down reasonably close to where they intend to. It works like this: 1) focus on the white runway designation numbers; 2) if the numbers begin to appear to move towards you and under the nose of the airplane you are too high – reduce throttle and trim the elevator wheel a little bit; the glide path will steepen, and the numbers will freeze right on the nose if you do it just right. If the numbers appear to move away from you and above the nose of the aircraft you are too low. Just do the opposite – apply power to lessen the steepness of the glide path.

A normal landing almost always consists of a more-or-less continuous adjustment of the glide path; it’s rarely a set it and forget it type of operation. By the way, rarely do you actually land on the numbers if that is the point you chose to “freeze” the end of your glide path on. You usually touch-down a considerable distance beyond the numbers. This is because of a phenomenon that develops when you get real close to the ground that is known as “ground effect.” That’s a fancy way of saying there’s a sort of rolling bubble of air under your wings that is compressed a bit. Since airplanes generally land with a considerable “nose up” attitude this means the wings are inclined also. This “bubble” of air is being sort of pushed along by the inclined wings and has to go somewhere, so some part of it rolls up over the leading edge of the wings and provides “lift” to the aircraft. This additional “lift” makes them want to keep on flying. That’s why you seem to glide a long, long way down the runway when you land in a passenger jet. Okay, enough with the aeronautical course already. As you’ll soon find out, I’m not qualified to teach it anyway.

So there I was, bent on touching down on the first few feet of the runway. So what did I do? I picked the very end of the runway as my focus point. In a perfect world everything would have worked out just fine; the ground effect I spoke about in the previous paragraph would have carried me fifty or a hundred feet down the runway past my focus point and I would have landed somewhere short of the numbers, or at worst right on them.

As I passed over Hillsboro Boulevard I had full flaps on and was intently focussed on the very end of the runway. At just about that time my eye caught the airspeed indicator – not good. I was right down to stall speed and settling. I was in a predicament there was no escape from, and I knew it. I couldn’t surrender altitude for airspeed by lowering the nose because, well, there wasn’t any altitude left to speak of, and I couldn’t apply any power to get a little altitude because I had already firewalled the thing. This is called being “behind the power curve.” The only thing I didn’t do was panic (well, not completely) and pull the yoke back to gain altitude. That would have resulted in an instant stall and a straight down drop of fifty feet or so. There’s no telling how much damage would have been visited upon me and the aircraft if I had done that.

KaBang! I was on the ground – one hundred feet or so short of the runway! Through a combination of reasoned intention and sheer panic I managed to haul the yoke back in order to keep the nose wheel up. I think the sheer panic part of the last sentence caused me to rotate my feet forward on the rudder pedals thus applying the brakes – locked solid. Folks I mean LOCKED!

Locking ones brakes on a small airplane is not normally all that bad of a thing. In fact, you use one brake at a time to lock a wheel while making tight turns in the ramp area, so you really can’t hurt much. Well, that is until we come to that part about the end of the runway sitting about eight inches above the surface of the earth. That’s a different story.

After my initial really hard contact with Mother Earth I bounced and skidded forward with my nose in the air, and my main gear in intermittent contact with the ground. Unfortunately luck wasn’t on my side when the main gear got to the end of the runway. Both wheels struck it simultaneously; the wheels didn’t spin one iota, but the tires and tubes did. Yep, that ‘s what I said; the wheels stayed as stationary as an anvil and the tires and tubes spun right around them. This resulted in clipping the valve stems of both tubes off just as clean as a chopped carrot. It also resulted in two tires as flat as a tortilla and a little rougher ride than normal over the first hundred feet or so of the runway. I didn’t abuse the remaining 8,200 feet.

Somewhere along the way I had managed to kill the engine with the magneto toggle, so there I sat. Not knowing that the tires were flat, after a moment or two I decided the thing wasn’t going to blow up, so I decided to crank up and taxi right on off like nothing ever happened. To my surprise the thing fired right up – but – it wouldn’t move an inch. In just another moment the air traffic controller advised me to “take the first turnoff and taxi to the ramp.” I replied advising him that the thing wouldn’t move, and that I needed to get out and see if I could find out what was wrong. He advised me to do so. After discovering that both main tires were flat it was with a pretty sheepish voice that I called the tower to tell them what was wrong.

When all was said and done one of the fixed base operators sent a pickup truck loaded with two dollies and a rope to tow me in to their shop for repairs. Somehow the driver and I managed to jam the dollies under the flat tires, attach the rope to the nose gear, and through a series of unexplainable gyrations make our way to the shop. Two new tubes and $200 or so later I made my way toward Ft. Lauderdale. On the way I heard every rattle, snap, pop and crack that an airplane can make. I thought the engine was going to fall out with every sound, but it didn’t, and I arrived safely home well after dark.

Thirteen days later, on March 17th, 1973 I passed my check ride with a score of 90. I don’t know where I lost 10 points – probably on landing proficiency. WW II

 Posted by at 2:53 PM
Jun 272012

Stationmaster Frank Gergley delivers "strict orders" to a trainman aboard locomotive #1776 running as common manifest train #78 as it passes through Ft. Collins, Colorado, in the summer of 1976. This Burlington Northern owned locomotive was painted in patriotic colors in celebration of the nation's bicentennial. The trainman holds his arm out so that it will pass through a loop of string upon which the train orders are tied. The string is looped around a "train order wye stick" being held by Mr. Gergley. If you click on the picture to see a larger image you will notice that Mr. Gergley is holding another wye stick in his right hand. This is so that he can deliver orders to the conductor when the caboose goes by.

It seems that everything to do with railroading is dangerous in some way or other. Surely the occupations of locomotive engineers, brakemen, track-men, or any of the other lines of work having to do with the rolling stock or maintenance of the rails upon which trains run are among the most dangerous of all occupations.

All of the dangers trainmen are daily exposed to occur inside a corridor only 4′-81/2” wide. In the United States such is the width between the inside edges of a set of “standard gauge” railroad tracks. Everything, it seems, is made of big pieces of heavy steel, and because of the heaviness, everything that is moving is moving with an almost unstoppable inertia. Everything, it seems, will hurt you bad or even kill you if you are not on your guard all the time. It is a very dangerous business.

Few are the locomotive engineers with time in service of more than just a few years that have not suffered the misfortune of staring helplessly through the front window of their cab as their train plowed straight into the side of a vehicle of some type, almost always seriously injuring or even killing everyone inside the thing.

Having had the experience of riding in the cab of a locomotive at different times, observing engineers at work, I can tell you it is not an occupation for the faint of heart. Seeing vehicles stopped on the track or attempting to beat the train at a crossing is as common a sight to an engineer as the sight of dirt is to a farmer. Almost without fail, on every run over a mainline track an engineer will be faced at least once with a decision about whether to attempt an emergency stop in order to keep from striking a vehicle at a crossing, or to leave the throttle set as it is and continue. There is no in-between. They do not throttle back in an effort to give a crossing vehicle an extra quarter or half second. They are always far too close to the endangered object for such an action to make one iota of difference, there is too much inertia, with few exceptions such a thing is not done. They either soldier on and hope for the best or they “dynamite” the thing, and still hope for the best.

“Dynamite” is a term used by some railroaders to say that a train has been placed in an emergency stop condition. One would say: “He dynamited the thing but …”  The word “but” is often followed by the words “it was too late” or, “it didn’t do any good.”

So that you can have sufficient knowledge to fully understand events I will tell you about later in this story I will briefly digress to explain in general terms how a train is propelled along a track, as well as how one is placed in an emergency stop condition.

A modern locomotive is powered by a diesel engine that drives an electrical generator which in turn provides current to electrically driven “traction” motors located down near the very bottom of the unit that, through a geared mechanism, turn the locomotive driving wheels. The amount of power applied is controlled by a horizontally positioned lever that is moved forward by the engineer through notches that are numbered from one through eight. Eight is the fastest setting. When an engineer has the throttle in number eight he is said to be “highballin’ it.”

When a train is placed in an emergency stop condition by an engineer the following chain of events is set into motion nearly simultaneously:

1) The polarity of electrical current being fed to the traction motors is reversed, thereby turning them into power generators that make energy instead of use it. The electrical current, and resulting heat, thus produced by the traction motors on account of the momentum of the slowing, but still moving, train is dissipated through a series of mesh grids. The grids are cooled by giant fans that suck air through them to expel the heat through the top of the locomotive housing. Think of them as giant hair driers on steroids. This process is called “dynamic braking.” A train utilizing dynamic braking will emit a very loud humming sound. It is a very distinctive sound. Dynamic braking is used to slow the train in the ordinary course of train operations as well. You will often hear it when a train runs along a downgrade.

2) The “air” is released in one sudden gush. You may have heard the term “he set the air” and might have thought that meant the engineer was applying the brakes by the use of air that he controls through a running compressor. That is not the case. It is just the opposite. Here I will digress a second time to better explain how air-brakes operate:

A train, before it can move, has to literally be “pumped up.” You may have noticed the heavy rubber hoses hanging off each end of train cars, one connected to another on the next car in line and so on. These hoses and associated piping under the train cars are in place to provide high pressure air to dual action pneumatic piston/cylinder and linkage assemblies on each truck on each car in the train to provide braking action when needed. It is a “fail safe” system that operates just exactly opposite to what most people would think the process should be. In short, as long as air pressure is maintained throughout the length of the train the brake shoes are held off of the wheels and it will roll freely. When air pressure is lost by a failure in the system or is intentionally released by the engineer the brakes shoes will set against the wheels and the train will come to a stop. Eventually. This ingenious system is called the “Westinghouse Air-brake System” and has been in use on trains in the United States since the 1870s. The next time you hear a sudden very loud gush of air coming from a train you will know that the air brakes have been “set” – most likely full on.

Now, continuing with another item in the chain of events:

3) Though the main (white) headlight is always illuminated when a locomotive engine is moving, during an emergency stop procedure a red spotlight that is located just below the main headlight will illuminate. The red light is aptly named an “emergency light.”  You should not be standing in the middle of a railroad track or sitting in a vehicle astride one at a crossing in the first place, but if you happen to be so situated, and you see that red light, there is a pretty good chance it is the last thing you will ever see. Remember that.

4) The engineer actuates the trains air horn and allows it to run continuously until the danger is past or … Remember that too.

Returning to my narrative, though to date at least, a red train emergency light has not been the last view I have witnessed, or the sound of a train horn the last thing I have heard, I have in fact had the unpleasant experience of seeing and hearing them in operation.

Sometime during the late autumn of 1976 I was employed by the Colorado & Southern Railroad as one of eight track supervisors responsible for inspecting a considerable portion of the companies rails and other roadbed equipment to insure the components fell within specifications set forth by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Though my total area of responsibility also included auxiliary tracks running to Leadville, Golden, and Greeley, Colorado, my main responsibility lay with continuously inspecting the mainline running from Denver, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the time I lived in Ft. Collins, Colorado, which is a little north of halfway between Denver and Cheyenne. During the regular course of a work week my partner, Manual Garcia, and I would carry out our inspection duties by traveling southbound in a hi-rail truck over the line from Ft. Collins to Denver and return via I-25. On the following day we would run the line to Cheyenne and return south to Ft. Collins by the same interstate.

During our inspection tour we would watch for things developing that needed ordinary maintenance, such as sagging rails through habitually soggy areas, cross-ties that had deteriorated to the point of needing to be replaced, too many loose spikes in too small of a stretch of track, and a myriad of other maintenance items. Our main concern however was to watch for items that posed an immediate danger to the rolling stock; things that could lead to a derailment; such as broken rails, sun kinks, washouts, broken angle bars or bars that had worked loose and fallen off, and a host of other things that could cause trouble.

At the time the Colorado & Southern ran two regularly scheduled common manifest freight trains over the mainline. Train #77 ran from Houston Texas to Seattle Washington, and Train #78 ran the opposite direction from the same cities. Though they ran northbound and southbound through the region Manuel and I were responsible for, they were considered westbound and eastbound trains. Train #77 was considered westbound, Train #78 was considered eastbound.

Having only recently been promoted to the position of track supervisor, it may have been that my eagerness to learn all about my new job by asking questions of Manual about this numbering and direction system at the wrong place and time, led to confusion that helped to setup a chain of events that resulted in a near disaster for us, a train crew, and a bright green hi-rail truck. An account of the event follows.

We were on the mainline traveling out of Ft. Collins bound for Cheyenne running about fifteen miles per hour, and just as as we descended a slight downgrade a little north of the community of Wellington, Colorado, there, in a curved section of the track Manuel spotted a couple of bolts lying in the center of the roadbed that had worked loose from a set of angle bars. This was a common occurrence that we often saw as many as three or four times a day. Sometimes we would stop and re-insert the bolts and tighten them up ourselves, or at other times we would call out a track gang to take care of it. It all depended on how far away the track gang was, what they might be doing that day, when the next train was due through the area and so on.

In this case, on this day, we knew we had a train due out of Ft. Collins sometime during the morning so we stopped to re-insert the bolts. As it happened I had been driving the hi-rail and Manuel had been attempting to communicate with the train by radio. It was well beyond the “call time” for the train and Manuel had already expressed some concern to me about not being able to raise it in spite of several attempts. He was well familiar with how well the radio worked at different places throughout the entire span from Denver to Cheyenne and knew that he should have been able to reach them if they were, in fact, underway.

Train #77 that is. That is if he were actually calling for Train #77. He wasn’t. He was calling for Train #78, a train that was not even “called” at that point and most likely wouldn’t be until sometime in the late afternoon, after the one he should have been calling, Train #77, had arrived in Cheyenne.

Bolts missing from an angle bar just such as this one prompted Manual to tell me to stop our hi-rail vehicle so that we could replace them. Notice that the bolts alternate directions so that two of them are always facing a different direction for each end of the ends of the rails they connect. This is done to insure that only two bolts stand a chance of being clipped off in the event a set of trucks derails causing the wheels to run alongside the rail rather than on it. If the angle bars were not bolted on in this pattern there is some chance the derailed wheels could clip off the nut end of all four bolts rather than just two. Though not desirable, one bolt in each rail end will hold the rail string together.

Though Manuel had reservations and felt sure something was wrong he instructed me to stop so that we could insert the bolts, tighten them, and be on our way. In this case I had driven past the rail section that we needed to repair, stopped the truck, left the motor running, got out, leaving my door open as we always did, and stepped around to the back of the truck. Manuel, for his part retrieved a long handle “speed wrench” from the back of the truck and met me where I was standing so that we could re-insert the bolts and tighten them up.

Just as we set to work Manuel said, “I sure wish I could raise that train, I just don’t understand it.” Those words were immediately interrupted by a loud hum, the sound of a huge gush of air, a train horn blowing continuously, a view of dust and rocks being blown out from under a fast moving train with a bright red emergency light illuminated, not more than two or possibly three hundred feet away. During the course of all of those sights and sounds I managed to shout, “Never mind, there it is!”

I have no idea what Manuel said or did in the next instant because I was already well on my way to the truck. In the next instant I had clambered in, put the thing in gear and had begun feathering the accelerator to get the thing up to speed. This is a touchy thing to do given that most of the weight of the truck is on the hi-rail wheels rather than on the regular driving wheels. If I had tromped on the accelerator too hard the wheels would have simply spun and I would have just sat there. That was not what I had in mind at that moment in my life. Fortunately the truck began to move right away so I continued to nurse the accelerator as far down as I could get it without risking any slippage. All the while I  sat slightly crosswise in the seat holding the door open while looking back at the approaching train.

The human brain is a marvelous thing. It is downright uncanny how well we humans can discern the slightest change in the velocity of a moving object, or perhaps better said, the velocities of moving objects. I don’t know how many things we can track and analyze at once but I know for sure than we can do a pretty good job of tracking at least two of them for that is exactly what I was doing as I accelerated the hi-rail up to speed.

I had made up my mind the instant I headed for the truck that I would try to save the thing by running it up the track out of reach of the train, but I wasn’t going to risk bodily injury if I had to bail out. I knew that if I didn’t let the train get too – too close to me before bailing out, and if I hadn’t gotten to going too fast in the hi-rail, I would be okay because the train would just knock the truck up-track from me. It would have probably derailed and gotten all torn up, but I would just tumble along the ditch a little ways and be fine. All the crashing would be up-track of me so to speak.

Over the course of a few seconds I accelerated the truck while watching the train get closer and closer. I don’t know what speed I got up to, all I know is that I felt like I was within reasonably safe jumping speed, probably no more than twelve or maybe as much as fifteen miles per hour. The train, slowing all the time but still going faster than I was, edged up to within about eight or ten feet of me, which by the way, was just about exactly all I felt like I should tolerate. I was set to jump. Then! I detected the slightest widening of the gap between us and knew I had him beat! Life is good.

I never did see the train stop, I simply motored on up the track a mile or so to a road crossing, stopped, got out and raised the hi-rail wheels up, got back in and drove the truck off of the track and onto the intersecting road. In a little while the train came along at ten miles per hour or so, and the engineer leaned out of the cab and made a swiping motion across his forehead with the palm of his hand. It continued slowly on until the caboose which Manuel had caught a ride on came by. Just as it passed over the road crossing he stepped off, and the conductor riding in the cupola of the caboose leaned out the side window, smiled real big, and threw a roll of toilet paper out to me.


On the surface one might say the action I took was a foolish thing to do. Maybe, maybe not; in some ways it was just another day on the railroad. During the three years I worked for the Colorado & Southern I experienced a number of close calls. On one occasion, while working a big train wreck in the middle of a blizzard, in the middle of the night, a wrecked flat car stacked up in a pyramid with another wrecked car fell to the ground not five feet from me. In the same night, while walking down the track checking the gage of the rails I was nearly run over by a car that was being “dropped” downhill into Loveland, Colorado. “Dropped” means to be let go to run freely along the track. Train crews are familiar enough with their territory to know where a dropped car will come to a stop. It would be a good idea for them to let someone know when they are going to do such a thing. Incidentally, for those of you that like to walk along a track on a hike or some such activity like that, DON’T DO IT.  A train will slip up on you before you know it.

On another occasion I barely made a siding and got the switch thrown back to the mainline before a fast freight came barreling by. If that thing had run in on me you wouldn’t be reading this story. That one was all my fault.

There were a couple of other incidents along the way; the excitement those events provided was all about the same so there’s no need to dwell upon it and write out separate reports; you pretty much get the idea, railroading is a very dangerous business!

 Posted by at 9:07 PM
Jun 192012
Thomas’ 2nd Grade Picture

Sometime ago as I was going about my life in what I suppose was an average way, I answered an incoming call on my cell phone. Upon flipping the phone open I noticed the call was from area code 205. To me, an out-of-state Alabama area code. Now there was nothing particularly remarkable about that, for in our fast paced modern world pretty much everyone I know takes and makes calls all over the country about as often as we talk to a friend across town.

What was remarkable to me was the way the conversation proceeded after my opening “Hello.” The voice on the other end simply said “Hello Wesley this is Woodie” to which I replied “Hey Woodie, how are you doing.” The tone of the conversation and the underlying familiarity with which we communicated was not any different than speaking with one of my two sisters, the both of which I speak with frequently even though they live a long way off.

Woodie, on the other hand is someone whom I have known for over sixty years but have only spoken with a handful of times since our school days. Yet, after those days, and with only a few widely separated and limited conversations over the course of many years, we conversed with each other with the same ease and familiarity that two old friends would have if they had spoken with each other only the day before. There were no introductory explanations along the lines of “do you remember me from when we went to school together” or any such thing like that. She knew I would know her just exactly as we knew each other when we began first grade together all those years ago. We spoke for a few minutes regarding our upcoming 50th class reunion and concluded our conversation.

And so there is the end of that as far as Woodie goes, for she was not involved in the events described in the story I am about to tell you. I have only written those introductory sentences here so that you can have a glimpse into the sort of culture, or perhaps “kinship” is a better word to use, that children from the small town of Marion, Alabama, shared among my beginning class of 1949, and to a large degree, that we still share to this day. I believe that degree of kindred-ship is a special thing that is not common and perhaps even extinct in any group of classmates anywhere that started school together more than two or three years after my group. The monumental cultural changes wrought by the civil strife of the 1960’s and beyond saw to that.


During the school term of 1953/1954 it was always with a certain dread that I would enter my classroom on the west side of Marion Elementary School, walk across the room and stand upon my tiptoes to peer out one of the several large windows that were set into the wall high above the oiled hardwood floor. From this vantage point I would peer across Spring Street to a faded red clay and mixed stone makeshift parking lot that ran slightly uphill from north to south along the edge of the street. The area was bordered on the far west side by a row of scraggly bushes and was only wide enough and long enough to accommodate a few cars parked parallel.

The purpose of this morning exercise, in which I was usually joined by some of the other classmates, all with probably different degrees of emotion, was to stand watch until a black 1940’s vintage five window coupe appeared coming up the hill along West Monroe Street, turned right onto Spring Street and puttered to a stop in the parking area. Our teacher’s car. Upon stopping, a dowdy looking short woman with closely permed curly grey hair, usually outfitted in a black dress, would emerge from the car, open the trunk and go about her morning ritual of removing bricks she carried with her to place behind all four tires of the car. Just common red building bricks. “Brickbats” we sometimes called them back then.

The arrival of Mrs. Henry’s car signaled for me utter despair, for I will here confess that my relationship with her was not a happy one, and if the fault is all mine, then, so it is.

Another of my classmates that in all probability stood watch with about the same sense of foreboding that I did was a tall, slim, freckled, blond haired boy whom I will call Thomas, though that is not the name we called him by at the time. Thomas was a timid sort of boy who spoke with a significant stutter. He was a farm boy whose family most likely lived and worked as tenement farmers upon one of the many farms that surrounded Marion during that time.

It so happened that on a certain day, as vivid in my memory as the moment the event I am telling you about actually happened, Thomas was called to the front of the room to write out a sentence that Mrs. Henry had verbally given to him. I do not remember the words of the sentence actually called out, but given the grade level we were in at the time, it is sufficient to say that it was one similar to “Jack and Jill ran up the hill”  – which Thomas dutifully wrote upon the blackboard:


Upon completing the sentence, Thomas, not realizing he had written the two “N’s” backwards merely turned towards Mrs. Henry to await further instructions. Mrs. Henry then instructed Thomas to read off and correct what he had printed on the board.

Thomas complied in his stuttering kind of way something like this: “Jaaa – Jaa – Jaa Jack! an – an – and Ji – Ji – Jill . . .” and so on until he completed the sentence, but making no effort to correct his writing on the board for the simple reason that he could not see anything wrong with it. Whereupon Mrs. Henry repeated her instructions again. This cycle of trial and failure went on for three or four times until Mrs. Henry gave up in utter frustration and instructed Thomas to sit down. This was followed by a question to the class at large asking if anyone knew what the problem was. Of course by this time everyone in the class knew what was wrong so nearly every hand went up in a bid to be called upon to step forward and make the correction. As an aside I will tell you my hand was not among those eager volunteers.

Somewhere in the midst of this final scene my gaze fell upon some of my classmates. Today I do not remember the names of any of the witnesses to the event for they were different than my beloved first grade class of 1949. Among that class was Lynn, later to be class valedictorian and eventually a successful IT engineer for a large defense contractor. There was Woodie, always admired, fair to everyone, and when grown, successful in life. Thad, a war hero. Kirtley, a military intelligence officer and later a successful lawyer in Marion. And finally, Thomas, who at that moment  was a tearful, hurt, and embarrassed boy. One I knew as a friend that we all called “Franklin Crews” who on May 6th 1968, while serving as a Staff Sergeant in the US Army, was killed during hostile action in South Vietnam.

Thomas Franklin Crews’ name is memorialized upon a bronze placard fastened to a bulkhead skirting the quarterdeck of the Battleship USS Alabama, BB-60. The ship is permanently moored in Mobile Bay, Alabama.


Thomas Franklin Crews
Staff Sergeant
Army of the United States
16 September 1942 – 06 May 1968
Marion, Alabama

The text shown following is copied from under the principal of creative commons.

Notes from The Virtual Wall

In May of 1968, the North Vietnamese launched what has been called their “Tet II” offensive, striking 119 provincial and district capitals, military installations, and major cities including Saigon. Unlike Tet I, which was primarily a Viet Cong uprising, Tet II was almost entirely an NVA affair.The battle of Dai Do actually began on April 30 with the ambush of a US Navy utility boat by elements of the 320th NVA Division at the junction of the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet rivers. Since Battalion Landing Team 2/4 was in the area, it was ordered to eliminate the threat to the crucial waterway.

Faced by three Regiments of the 320th NVA Division, BLT 2/4 was forced to fall back to defensive positions north of the river, but they stopped the enemy attack. NVA reinforcements were turned back by men of the Army’s 3rd Bn, 21st Infantry, Americal Division, which occupied blocking positions at Nhi Ha to the northeast.

The NVA attempt to open an invasion corridor into South Vietnam had failed. The “Magnificent Bastards” of 2/4 Marines and the 3/21st Infantry had saved the day, for if they had failed the NVA would have been free to overrun the major supply bases at Dong Ha and Quang Tri and the entire DMZ defenses would have been undermined. However, the cost had been high. The Marines and sailors suffered 89 dead and another 297 seriously wounded, while Army forces at Nhi Ha sustained 28 deaths and 130 wounded. But the enemy suffered even greater losses – not only did the NVA fail to achieve their objective, they also left 1,568 bodies on the battlefield.

Alpha Company, 3/21st Infantry, lost twelve men in the fighting on 06 May 1968:

  • 2LT William B. Kimball, Parlin, NJ
  • SFC George L. Dale, Gorham, NH
  • SSG Thomas F. Crews, Marion, AL
  • SGT Terrance W. Allen, Bay City, MI
  • SGT David L. Betebenner, Alba, MO
  • SGT Sydney W. Klemmer, Owatonna, MN
  • SP4 Terry H. Alderson, Fort Worth, TX
  • SP4 Curtis E. Bandy, Denver, CO
  • SP4 Allan G. Barnes, Greer, SC
  • SP4 John A. Johnson, Chicago, IL
  • SP4 Allen A. Straus, Omaha, NE
  • SP4 Richard F. Turpin, Roseville, MI

 Posted by at 11:39 AM
Jun 022012

A typical Cushman Eagle. This one has been highly customized with the addition of after market chrome etc. Image downloaded from the Internet and is used under the principle of creative commons.

During the summer of 1957 life through my then thirteen year old eyes was good in my hometown of Marion Alabama. “Ike” Eisenhower was President, the Korean War had settled into a stalemate and the Vietnam War had not yet begun. Life in Marion at that time was not too far removed from the way it is depicted on the ever popular TV series, “The Andy Griffith Show.” Not quite as rural perhaps, after all, unlike Mayberry, Marion was and still is the county seat and therefore possesses a courthouse, we had and still have two colleges, even then almost all of our streets were paved, and at the time we had a public swimming pool right in town – two of them actually, a “baby pool” and a “big pool.”

Though clouds were gathering on the horizon that would eventually break into a storm that forever changed the culture of that time, our way of life during that day was stable and not threatened by very much at all. The famed Jimmy Wilson crime had occurred right in the midst of us in July of the very summer of 1957 yet most children my age probably knew nothing at all about it. Generally speaking, as a population, we were living good, we were loving life, and we were having fun.

“Fun” – for a boy – then, was not very complicated; especially if one owned what almost any self respecting teenage boy of that time would have considered to be the ultimate possession. A Cushman Eagle Motorcycle. Though some people may differ with me and hold out that a Cushman Eagle is properly called a “motor scooter” I beg to differ. In my mind the chief defining characteristic that sets a motorcycle apart from a motor scooter is the fact that one mounts a motorcycle much like one mounts a horse. That is, you throw your leg up and over the seat of a motorcycle just as you would the saddle of a horse. It happens that that is exactly how one has to mount a Cushman Eagle. Therefore, to me, it is a motorcycle.

A motor scooter is not so much mounted as it is stepped through and set upon; somewhat like getting onto a girls bicycle. Trust me, these differences, subtle that they may be, are important things in the mind of a thirteen year old boy. A Cushman Eagle Motorcycle was the thing to own during the summer of 1957.

The pride of ownership of the three individuals that actually owned a Cushman Eagle in our town was especially evident. They constituted a  much admired and looked up to fraternity of fourteen and fifteen year old teenage boys that one would see zipping around all over town; usually with a pretty teenage girl holding the lucky rider tightly around the waist while sitting astride the luggage carrier which was just behind the genuine “saddle seat”  – unlike the cushion bench seat on a mere motor scooter.

A typical run would start out from where they were most often parked on the corner close to Marion’s Rexall drugstore and proceed south along Washington Street, along the way passing Jimmy Morton’s Hotdog Stand, the Neely Theatre, Sialom Baptist Church, the Pan-Am Station, the Swimming Pool and Ice House, *MI’s Football Field, then a right turn onto Murfee Street at the Windmill Gas Station – immediately u-turn at the Dairy Queen, get back onto Washington Street and proceed northbound, re-passing all of the landmarks that were passed while southbound, and then continue past the Courthouse, Scrugg’s Drugstore, the Yellow Front, Dozier’s Hardware, Tidwell’s Garage, the Methodist Church and Monk Moore’s house, u-turn at the fork in the road at Willie Wilborn’s House and cruise back to the drugstore for a refreshing salty dog served by Lawrence at the soda fountain. Rexall Drugs was always called “the drugstore” – the other two in town were simply called “Scruggs” and “Barkers.” On some rides the fortunate fraternity might have even veered off the main drag once in awhile to ride by the Judson College Campus to see what they could see. Every so often they would ride out to the Fire Tower just for the fun of it – then pull Jailhouse Hill on the way back into town – probably for no other reason than “because it was there.”

Lynn Warren, Rusty Harrell, and Rudy Harrison were the proud possessors of the much coveted type of motorcycle under discussion here. Notice that my name is not among them.

Oh how envious I was! I wanted one of those things so bad I could practically taste it. A few things stood in my way though: I wasn’t going to be fourteen until September, I didn’t have money to buy one, I had, in my view, a somewhat over protective mother, and finally, though I had learned to broad-slide a car pretty good on one of my father’s dirt race tracks while growing up from the age of six to the ripe old age of thirteen, I had never piloted a motorized two wheel conveyance of any kind whatsoever.

I made a plan that went something like this: If I could just live from the late spring – early summer of 1957 until September I would be fourteen so that problem would be solved. As far as the lack of money problem was concerned I had a paper route that paid a little something. If I could manage to improve my subscription collection rate for nearly all of my customers that would help out too. Never mind that sometimes they didn’t get their paper at all, or of the ones that did, the most of them ended up in the grass that was still wet from the morning dew or, if not that at least in the shrubbery. The over protective mother thing: whine and plead. And finally, that not knowing how to ride thing . . . hum, let me think . . . hum, well come to think of it, maybe I didn’t have a complete plan.

Rusty Harrell is the fourth from the right in the middle row. In the back row Lynn Warren is the fourth from the left and Rudy Harrison is the third from the right. This picture was probably taken a year or two before the events described in the story took place. You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

Fate, that ever present partner in all things human came to my rescue. At that time of the year Little League Baseball was in full swing, a practice session was in progress on a corner of the football field right on the very northeast corner of the MI campus near the intersection of Wilkerson Drive and Washington Street, and Rusty Harrell was there with his Cushman – Eagle – Motorcycle!

Opportunity had knocked. That troubling not knowing how to ride issue was about to be solved. This would also help out with the over protective mother problem. I am sure she would have, in her side of the sure-to-be argument, put forth a statement like: “why Wesley, you don’t even know how to ride a motorcycle and here you are wanting to buy one” – something like that. With just a little stretch of the truth of my soon-to-be riding experience I could easily put that kind of reasoning aside.

Though nowadays I like to think that I would have had knowledge enough on that bygone day to have secured a ride upon the beast by employing some skillful degree of wheedling with Rusty, the truth is that I just begged and begged until he couldn’t stand it anymore, gave up, and let me take my place upon the monster. All eight horsepower of it.

There I sat. He had left it running and in neutral for me – or so I assumed. I say, there I sat with my feet flat upon the ground, the thing was vibrating my very soul while rumbling and growling just as loud as can be – maybe even loud enough to cover up the sound of my rapidly pounding heart. I was so excited I could hardly breathe. Rusty was shouting a few instructions to me; pointing out the gear positions for the tank mounted shift lever, operation of the foot-pedal clutch which was on the left side of the machine, where the brakes were located and how to apply them, how to slowly apply power by rolling the handlebar throttle grip toward me – slowly, there was something about some sort of combination clutch arrangement having to do with a centrifugal clutch and a foot clutch – some mention that you didn’t have to use the clutch to get started, that it would start moving from a dead stop etc. etc. Rusty finished speaking. I had hardly heard a word he said, and whatever I did hear I assure you I certainly didn’t understand any of it – especially about that newfangled **clutch thingy.

I barely, slowly, rolled the throttle toward me. The next thing I knew my feet were snatched off the ground so far that if my elbows had not gotten in the way of my kneecaps on their way up I would surely have somersaulted backwards off the thing, and to make a bad start worse, I was headed straight for an entire team of little league baseball players as fast as the thing would go – at least go in first gear – which it had been in all along. Which by the way is pretty dang fast I tell you.

The speed I was going had me pushed back so far that my arms were stretched out as far as they could go – which also means I was holding the throttle wide open. I couldn’t roll it forward – and I couldn’t let go either. Now there’s a catch 22 if there ever was one.

Somehow the thing must have gotten a mind of its own about what direction it wanted to go. With me hanging on for dear life it made a sashay through the infield (there were no casualties later reported) and then veered off and headed due north and up an incline directly towards Wilkerson Drive, a street with 6” tall concrete curbs on both sides I might add. Oh, let’s backup a second here and modify that word “incline” I used just now. Let’s use ramp, yeah, ramp’s a good word; as in Evel Knievel Motorcycle Jumping Ramp.

So, up the incline, err ramp I flew and launched off into mid-air. Where or if I landed anywhere between the curb lines of Wilkerson Drive is unknown to me. If I did jump the entire street, thus clearing both 6” curbs whilst airborne, whether by accident or not, I’ll hold out that that’s a pretty good jump for an inexperienced thirteen year old rider, I don’t care what you see on Motocross TV shows now-a-days.

Upon clearing Wilkerson Drive I found myself still thundering along at full throttle, going right across the well groomed and landscaped yard of the home of one of Marion’s, shall we say, “finer” citizens. The home was a rather stately structure I might add. I’ll also add that I was headed straight for it. Just before crashing through the front shrubbery, the front wall, and into the living room became a real possibility I managed to gain enough control to careen off to the left and travel a little way into the neighbor’s yard. It was only then that I managed to roll off the throttle and putter back toward Wilkerson Drive. I bumped down the curb on the north side of the road and wobbled to a stop hard up against the other curb on the ball-field side where Rusty and about half the population of Marion were waiting for me.

I never rode another Cushman Eagle after that. Not that I would have ever had an opportunity to ride one that belonged to Rusty or anyone else in Marion mind you.  In the end the motorcycle was undamaged and It probably didn’t take too long for nature to replace a few tiger lilies and the blossoms I knocked off the azalea bushes and a couple of crepe myrtles. After all this time I’m sure the small furrows I plowed through the yards have healed up too.

I’ll close by saying that I probably never thanked Rusty, so in place of that I will here dedicate this short little story to him. A skinny, dark complected boy who has gone on now. One who once owned a Cushman Eagle Motorcycle.


* MI is what the locals of that time called Marion Military Institute. The full abbreviation is of course MMI but we never called it that.

**A Cushman Eagle of the model talked about here is equipped with a hybrid sort of clutch. It is one that disengages at idle speed and engages when the motor is revved up, therefore it can be left in gear and started rolling from a dead stop by the use of the throttle alone. The foot-pedal clutch part of the assembly is generally only used to shift up to second gear after one is well underway – though it can be used to “scratch off” from a dead stop in first gear.

 Posted by at 8:34 AM