First, it was the trains. Doolan always wanted to go down to the tracks, especially late afternoon around 4:30 when the big freighter would roll through. Doolan and I would go to the Woodbury station, where, I had been told by some old-timer, a couple of sets of tracks went through back in the old days when trains were king. But now it was the 1960s, and there were highways everywhere and everybody could drive their own cars to Philadelphia to work at the shipyard or shop downtown or see the Phillies.
Doolan and I waited on the platform of the old depot, stepping out between the two rails now and then to look for the light from the engine. The paint on the posts and walls was old and cracked, and what used to be white was now gray and sooty. The roof sagged a bit, and only one man worked inside the place. We peeked through the grated window into the office, a dingy place where an old guy with a green eye shade sat hunched over a desk. When he turned toward the window, we’d walk away so he wouldn’t holler at us for bothering him.
It was fun to keep looking for the train light, and when the freighter got closer the old guy would come out of the office with a wooden stick bowed around like a number 9, with a paper note attached to the loop. There was another clue: The signal lights a few hundred yards up flashed from three across to three in a diagonal line. The signal lights were near an old siding that used to run to the vacant, old turreted brick building that was once a patent medicine factory. The old place was just a dilapidated eyesore now, a home for rats and pigeons and some said spirits of the old workers.
Doolan was between the rails and the old guy told to get the hell off or he’d call the police or his parents, but Doolan said he didn’t care because he didn’t have any parents. I just shut up. I could see the engine light. I was hoping for two engines, maybe even three, but that only happened on a real lucky day.
I saw Doolan reach in his pocket and he pulled out a penny. He waited until the old guy looked around and skittered to the rail and put the coin on it. The bells rang, the crossing gates went down and the ground started to tremble. I felt a jolt of excitement, joy and thrill as the whistle blasted twice and the big, black diesel roared our way.
"Back, get back or it’ll suck you under!" the old guy ordered as he stepped to the edge of the platform, holding the end of his number 9 stick high. The engineer thrust his arm out of his window and his fist went right through the loop. In a single motion, he unfastened the loop, took out the note and flipped the stick back to the platform. The old guy shuffled to the end of the platform and picked the stick up. On the way back he cast a glance at us as if to say "Get lost."
We stayed because this was the best part of the experience, watching the tankers, box cars and flat cars whoosh by, feeling their trucks pounding the rail joints with a thump-thump-thump-thump, feeling the breeze kicked up by the rushing metal until the caboose flew past. We both counted: 49 cars in all.
Doolan walked to the rail and picked up his penny, now squashed and kind of smeared so old Abe Lincoln’s face could barely be seen and what was left made him look real wide.
"Let’s wait for the next one," said Doolan. "See if the passenger train is one or two cars today."
I didn’t know if he had parents or not, and wasn’t even sure where Doolan lived. He always just kept walking after we went to the tracks, down the block past the cookie-cutter houses in our neighborhood, before turning and disappearing. Doolan was absent from school a lot, always had messed-up hair and sometimes forgot his tie, but the nuns didn’t seem to care. At lunch time, or maybe right after school, he’d say, "Let’s go to the tracks today."
At 5:15 the passenger car came. This day, it was only a single car, bright aluminum except for the top where the diesel smoke turned it dirty gray and black. On the sides below the windows there was black lettering, Pennsylvania Reading & Seashore Lines. The diesel-powered car rolled to a stop and a few men in business suits made their way down the steps and walked toward their cars, which were parked across the tracks from the station. Doolan and I waited for the conductor’s sing-songy "’board," and the lone silver car was soon off, down the tracks and past the old factories. We waited for the three amber lights on the signal tower to switch from a diagonal pattern to horizontal as the train passed. As it whizzed by, they changed. But today something was different. Just two lights came on, one at each side, like a set of big eyes, staring down the tracks at us.
Our station visits had been an almost every-day event, but after a while we got tired of the old guy’s dirty looks and his telling us we’d get sucked under. Some other boys told us the bridge a few hundred yards before the station was a keen place to go because there was nobody there to boss us around and give us the eye. Besides, said one of the boys, there was a dead cat there, probably hit by a train, and it was so dead you could see its skeleton, but don’t get too close because of the maggots and stink.
The day after Eddie told us about the cat, Doolan was in school. I knew he wanted to get to the tracks first thing after class to see the cat, and I’d been thinking about it all day too, especially during math. As soon as the last bell rang, Doolan and I were out the door and on our way to the bridge. Eddie, a pudgy kid with a flat-top, called out from behind before we got off the school grounds, "Goin’ to see the cat? Wait up."
It seemed like a small eternity before he caught up with us, so we started trotting when he got there. "I’ll show you where it is," Eddie promised.
The bridge crossed about 50 feet above the tracks, with high, thick concrete walls that made it impossible to look over the sides. Steep slopes angled down from the abutments toward the tracks. On one side of the rails was a stone wall seven or eight feet high and just a few feet from the tracks.
We were barely there before Eddie had his head on a rail. Doolan asked him what he was doing.
"I saw it on TV," Eddie said in his booming voice. "The Indians, they could hear a train miles away by listening like this. Now shut up so I can hear."
"Where’s the cat?" said Doolan. "The one with the skeleton?"
Eddie waited a few more moments until he was sure he heard nothing and then got up.
"Get some sticks," he ordered.
You needed sticks whenever you found a dead cat or possum or rat because you never wanted to touch it because of the germs or something that would make you die. We all knew this so we hunted around in the brush until we found some sticks.
"C’mon," said Eddie, "I’ll show you where."
With the concentration of a professional hunting guide, he led us into the thicket, kicking here and there, until he found the spot where the dead weeds were flattened down, and stopped.
"Look, the bones," he said, jabbing lightly at the carcass.
We stood around the dead cat looking in awe, taking a poke now and again to see if the matted fur would peel back. After a few minutes of prodding and poking, Eddie looked up, and seeing the engine’s light off in the distance announced, "She’s coming! You’s guys got a penny?"
Doolan fumbled around in his pocket and found two cents, and he and Eddie started running toward the tracks. I was still staring at the cat, sort of mesmerized and not paying attention to the train’s whistle, when something glinting from the ground near the cat’s hardened paw caught my eye. I flicked it toward me with my stick and picked it up. It looked like a coin, marked by a black eagle with drooping wings. I flipped it over and there was no mark on the other side, just a couple of dots.
"I’ve got a penny, or something," I called. I could feel by the rumble that the freighter was getting closer, and sprinted to the tracks so I could get my coin flattened too.
Eddie had carefully placed Doolan’s two cents in the dead middle of the rail and, with the engine now in clearly sight, I put mine down too. The whistle blasted as if to say, "Get clear, stupid kids!"
As the seconds passed and the train hurtled closer, I sprang toward the tracks _ I don’t know why_ and snatched my droop-wing eagle coin from the rail. Doolan must have taken my bold move as a dare, and with the engine now maybe 15 feet away, ran across the tracks toward the stone wall. He seemed to disappear in a howling and desperate blast of the engine’s whistle as the three engines roared past Eddie and me. We looked at each other in disbelief.
"He’ll get sucked under," Eddie said matter-of-factly. I was scared, not from the stunt I had just pulled, but about whether Doolan would be OK. I knew my parents would kill me if he got sucked under.
It seemed like it took forever for the freight to pass by. I stooped low to see if I could see any sign of Doolan, but saw nothing but the brown stone wall. Twenty, thirty, forty cars, and finally the caboose. My heart stopped for a moment when I looked back and forth and saw no Doolan. Had the train sucked him under and completely obliterated him, clothes and all?
"Yee-oh, you chickens, how’s our pennies?" Doolan called from halfway up the embankment. He lowered himself down the wall and strode toward me with a big grin on his face. I was relieved, but mad too and gave him a shove about the shoulder. He shoved back and an instant later we were a tangle of kicking, punching and jabbing kids rolling around in the cinders next to the tracks. Eddie strode back, staring at the hot, squashed pennies in his hand. He grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me up with little effort and told Doolan to lay off or he’d kick both of our asses, which we knew he could do.
"Look at these beauties," Eddie said, holding out the squashed coins. Honest Abe’s image was elongated this time, like he was looking in a fun house mirror.