Up the tracks and back the tracks and SF's
Jim’s Woods – Up the tracks and back the tracks and SF’s.
Since we now lived in the country, I'd prefer to just wander about, or sit and listen to all the different bird songs and calls. The ‘chirr’ from dozens of crickets all at once and far-off cows lowing. The haunting sound of a train whistle, miles away in the distance. I'd often wander down the tracks, inhaling the evening smells of fresh mown hay, distant cow manure and the spicy odors of wild herbs and wild flowers growing alongside the tracks in the ditch. It was dreamy, it felt like a dream...
I’ve always had a like for walking along railroad tracks and Jerseyville had a great set of tracks. Like all tracks do, they led somewhere and anytime I wanted, I could leave the rails to follow a tractor path instead, cut across a field to investigate a derelict structure, or step up to someone's fence line and feed the horses big handfuls of grass. There was never a lot of traffic on the tracks otherwise. Maybe one train a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. There was one constant though and that was the train that came in the middle of the night at around 3am.
Each night a train would pass through Jerseyville. blowing it's whistle before Field's road and the village proper and then again behind our house, before crossing Jerseyville road on it's way out of the village. Because of the proximity of our house to the railroad tracks, our house would shake and tremble a bit with each train. With that one train passing in the night, I had a good many dreams about trains. Usually in these dreams I'd be stuck on the tracks unable to move, with the engine barreling straight towards me. I always woke up at this point to the second whistle, as the noise of the train receded down the line. This is also how i determined the myth, that if you die in a dream, you die in your sleep, to be false. I can't count how many dreams I had about being stuck on the tracks and each time the train hit me, I'd wake up. Alive and well. I'd dreamt this so many times, it had long since lost it's qualification as being a nightmare. As a matter of fact, it had begun to be almost boring and was more frustrating than frightening. I'm sure most people are familiar with those nightmares of impending doom, whereupon one is unable to move, or scream. So in my recurring dreams of being stuck on the railroad tracks, while a train is bearing down on me, I'd eventually taught my subconscious mind to 'Just move! Dammit.' Then in my dream I'd will myself to step off the tracks... but of course I'd step onto a second set of tracks with a train coming from the opposite direction! It seemed that as long as there were to be a train passing through Jerseyville in the middle of the night, I'd be having these dreams. Unless I was able to somehow take control. I'd also heard that if you had extremely strong will, some people were able to have a certain amount of control in how their dreams played out. I was tired of dreaming about trains running me over every night and was determined to change the outcome. I distinctly remember the night that I put this theory to the test and had it work...and work perfectly, as far as dreams go. My next dream I had where the train was coming to run me over, I defiantly held my ground. I knew without a doubt, that if I stepped off the tracks to avoid getting squished, I'd end up on a second set of tracks with the train coming the other way. So I held firm. In the way that only dreams can manage, the train ended up cornering me in my bedroom and had to come to a halt since it had run out of tracks. Obviously there were no train tracks in my room. There was never any engineer at the controls either, who might feel badly about running down some kid, nahhh...dream trains have a mind of their own dontcha know? But now it had run out of track in my bedroom. Ha ha! So victoriously, I gave it the finger. Yep. In my dream I told that train where to go. Obviously, because I didn't see anyone driving it I didn't get a reaction of any kind either. Just a train, engines running and out of track, but I knew that by flipping it the bird I'd won. Hey it worked like a charm, cuz that ended my recurring dream about trains. Forever. It's kind of funny in a way too, because I love trains and have loved them since I was very little.
I used to play on the tracks as a kid growing up in Hamilton. I'd walk from Burris street, up to the Lifesaver factory, hop the fence and play along the tracks at the foot of the escarpment by the Wentworth steps. So they've never really frightened me. I found them fascinating, they are so big and loud and powerful and I could never understand how anyone could accidentally get hit by a train, either on foot, or in a car. I mean you can literally hear them coming from a mile away, plus they are so big, they're kinda hard to miss...
In Jerseyville, we all walked the tracks. We'd make a day of it. Follow the tracks somewhere and explore someplace new, or revisit someplace else that had already been discovered. As teens, we'd collect together, call each other up and meet at Ludlow's general store, or the school. We had places that we called secret forts, or SF's for short. Since we had so many, we had to name them by number, SF one, SF three. Clearly you had to be in the know, to know where the hell we were talking about. One of our secret forts was already numbered for us. It was a little wooden railway shed on the tracks behind the Motorcycle sales and service shop along Jerseyville road. It was painted green with white trim and had tin numbers 72 on the front of it it so we called it Seventy Two. There was never a lock on the door, it was always open, but it was really dusty in there. Some of us tried to clean it up a bit and swept as much dust up as possible. It was like a little clubhouse on the tracks with lotsa dust and mouse droppings. It even had a dark and dusty loft where none of us ever ventured. There were also other odds and ends lying around, that clearly spoke of another era. Bills of lading and Purchase Orders from wayyy back, when things were busier there in Jerseyville, when it had a train station. Little bits of equipment, that made you wonder just what they'd been used for and dry dusty pages, so faded you couldn't even see what had been written there. Mouse nibbled and brittle. We'd all hang out there and have a great time, just like any of the other SF's, like at Prosser's for instance . "Wanna go to seventy two?" Sure! If it was raining after all, or snowing, then we had shelter.
You'd pull open the double doors and step up in. The first thing you'd smell was the dust. It did have two little windows though. One on the side facing towards the village and one on the back wall that looked out over a very large field. That way you could close the big doors, nobody would see us in there smoking and the windows aired it out nicely too. At the same time we were sheltered from the rain, or winter winds, there was also a narrow bench built into the wall where we could sit. Good old seventy two. Places like SF 1 and two, were just little groves, or lean to's with old boards and a little fire pit. Sometimes SF 6 and 7 might be much more elaborate, depending on what SF it happened to be. I'll never tell though..that's why they are 'secret' forts.
We had forts back the tracks and up the tracks. For anybody that knows the area, then for us, going back the tracks, meant heading towards Copetown and eventually Dundas. Going up the tracks would be to go further west out of town, on a long sweeping curve into Brantford. For some reason we spent more time going back the tracks.
One summer day, when my brother Jason and I were young, maybe ten, because much of the area was still undiscovered for us, we went back the tracks. I'd already had a pretty good idea where they went, before deciding how far to follow them. I had a friend with a cattle farm down the road, and they had fields of corn that stretched all the way back to the woods where the tracks were. I once walked down the tractor lane with him, back to the woods and their fence line at the railway. From Field's road, where we'd start back the tracks, you could see there were fields and pasture on both sides, for at least a mile and then a small forest. That's where we decided to go. It was one of those summer days when the sun is hot and the sky is dotted with quickly moving clouds. There's a steady wind blowing that's moving the clouds along and also making the grass ripple and it doesn't let up for a second. Now and then it gets a little dark and you can see the shadow of a cloud racing across the field, before getting sunny again. so we made it all the way back the tracks and came to a meadow right before the treeline. There was a tractor path crossing the tracks and an old metal gate to the pasture stood open. So we crossed into it and walked diagonally through the clover and hay towards the woods. As we came up a small hill you could seen there was a pond, it had trees all the way around it. The trees were big maples too, suggesting the pond had been there a long time. Recently though within the past ten to twenty years, someone had built a fort underneath a large Maple a little bit aways from the pond. It was a doozy too. It'd been properly made with boards and nails and even some big wooden highway signs. One of the signs acted as a storm shutter that could be opened or lowered with chains at the corners that you could hang from large nails by hooking the chain links onto them. you could have it wide open and sit inside on a bench looking out over the meadow, or unhook the chains and lower the sign from its hinges to closed. then the fort was totally sealed with a sturdy floor, roof and walls made from boards and plywood. It was the first official secret fort and Jason and I had discovered it. We sat inside on the bench with the storm window open and watched the shadows of clouds crossing the hills. Nothing else was in the fort, some raccoon poop in the corner and that's it. So we went to check out the pond. It was obviously manmade. It was rectangular and well shaded by the trees, the far end of it was marshy and muddy where the forest started. Painted turtles sat on logs and the frogs croaked to each other. From where we stood it looked deep, judging by how big it was. It looked like a nice place to swim, if it got too hot during the summer. We both decided to do just that sometime soon, but we didn't. Not for three years at least.
So three summers later, probably both hot and bored, we remember the fort by the pond and decide, today's the day we go swimming there. I don't remember bringing towels with us, I did bring a couple of cigarettes and a lighter though. I imagined us sitting in the fort smoking and looking out over the fields after having swum in the pond. I don't think either of us planned on hauling a towel all the way back there though.
Heading back the tracks, we left the asphalt of Field's road and stepped onto the weathered railway ties that wept black creosote in the sun. They say the sense of smell is closely related to memory and I agree. My memory of Jerseyville is powered by the memories of all kinds of smells. Pig manure, cows and horse barns, the village's wood smoke in the winter, steamy greenhouses in the summer. One of the strongest memories powered by smell, being that of the tarry odor of creosote oozing from the railway ties in the sunshine, mixed in with the smell of herbs and wildflowers lining the sides of the railroad tracks. I swear I could smell every single item and plant around the tracks within a fifteen foot radius and I could also smell if it changed. I could detect new plants being introduced, or the dampness of a soggy ditch nearby, much in the same way I have memories from the city of hot concrete on a sunny sidewalk. In the country though, the smells around you can change quickly and often. Those memories come back in a flood, a rush of recollection. Of course I can never forget them.
So off we go back the tracks again, going all the way back to the woods. Shortly after leaving Fields road, the tracks cross over Jerseyville creek. The tracks are raised on a hill high above the creek, falling away steeply on each side down to the old concrete tunnel the creek flows through. After which, the fields come up level with the tracks again. When we came to the tractor path crossing the tracks, we went through the open gate into the field again. Jason and I briefly visited the wooden fort by the big Maple and left our socks shoes and the lighter and cigarettes in there. Since it was now later in the summer than the first time we had visited, the hay and clover had already been cut and baled everywhere else. That meadow grew straw. All that remained was the short sharp stubble from harvest. It was golden and dry would pierce your ankles if you weren't careful walking through it barefoot. There were a lot of "ouches" as we tenderly and slowly made our way to the pond near the edge of the field. By the time we got out of the field, to the green grass and the shade of the trees ringing the pond, mosquitoes and horseflies showed up. There were so many starving mosquitoes, just slapping at them did no good, The only escape from them and the incessant horseflies humming around our heads would be swimming in the cool water of the pond. The breeze was still steady, but reduced under the trees in the hollow of the pond. Mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies swarmed us from the marsh in the shade of the woods at the far end of the pond. Quickly rushing into the grass so we could get to the water and dive under, suddenly there was a new problem... the edge of the pond was completely surrounded with Saw Grass. Saw Grass has tiny serrations along the edge of it's leaves, that easily slice your skin and sting worse than any paper cut. After five steps into the grass with bare feet, your ankles and shins are crisscrossed with hairline cuts that sting with sweat. The mosquitoes and horse flies flock to your bleeding legs, making the desire to get in the water that much more desperate. So there's nothing to do about it except just push on through the grass to the water's edge. Each step resulting in a fresh set of grass cuts, eventually the saw grass petered out by the water, where the dark mud squished up between our toes. As we waded into the cow pond, we both sank deeper and deeper into oily black mud, the pond water was very shallow, but the mud was super soft and deep. At the other end of the pond, where the bullrushes grew, came the sounds of "Plunk! Plop! Splop!" And other splashes as turtles left their logs, startled by our shouts.
When I was up to my knees in black muck, I was actually only standing in about six inches of water. The horse flies and mosquitoes loved us too, relentlessly circling around our heads. The only way to get away from them, would be getting to deeper water. So I pushed through a few more steps of mud, each time sinking up to my knees and finally dove in. I struck out for the middle, where I hoped it would be deep enough at least to dive under. When I got to the middle though, I was very disappointed to find that the pond was no deeper in the middle than it was at the shore. "Hey Jason?" I said. "There's a lot of turtles in here with us." I stopped paddling and immediately began settling into the soft black mud. Mosquitoes landed on my face. Biting my forehead and cheeks and would you believe it, lips? "Gagh!" I choked and swiped a muddy hand across my mouth. "Pah!"
The water was still no more than a foot deep and my fingers sank into the mud while I crouched, my body under the surface and only my head and shoulders sticking out. Poor Jason had tried the same, but had realized sooner that the pond was shallow all over. It was useless, by no means refreshing, nowhere deep enough to swim in and seemed only to perform as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, gnats, horse flies and now deer flies too. I remembered the painted turtles I'd seen jumping in here with us and figured there were probably snapping turtles too. This was a mistake. It had looked good, but it in no way delivered as advertised. "This is awful!", I called to Jason. "I'm getting out!"
"So am I!" He cried,
"This is disgusting. Why is it so shallow?" He asked.
My brother had a special knack for asking questions that were generally unanswerable. Not all of them were like that, just every now and then he could ask a perfectly sensible question that may, or may not have an equally sensible answer, or no answer at all.
"I don't know why it's so shallow." And then realization, in dawning horror, it's probably full of leeches.
"It probably has leeches in it!" I gasped. "We gotta get out now!" Oh my god, laughing in horror.
We quickly headed towards the spot where we'd entered the water, since it was here that some of the saw grass was now already flattened by us. We climbed out, our legs covered in black mud up past our knees, but I could see the leeches already, sticking to my shins and off we went through the saw grass anyway, feet and legs sort of protected by the mud this time. We grabbed up handfuls of dry hay from the stubble of the field and started scrubbing the mud from our legs. The whole time we're laughing though, when in doubt, laugh it out. It scratched our shins up even more, but more importantly, it got rid of some of them before they attached to us. And they were, lots of them too. The mosquitos and horse flies still circled our heads, biting exposed skin, foreheads and eyelids, making everything itchy and miserable. We hobbled over to the fort and sat on the bench inside, because that kept some of the bugs at bay, but it also gave us a place to sit and start pulling leeches off our legs and also from between our toes. When leeches are that hungry though, they attach themselves very firmly and you hafta use your fingernails to pluck them off, right where their mouths meet your skin. Even then, sometimes if they're full of blood already, they will burst. Then your fingers are slippery with blood and slime and they are even harder to remove. I'd known already that salt will get them off. Anybody who knows about blood suckers knows that. If you sprinkle a pinch of salt on them they'll drop off right away. I also knew that burning them with cigarettes worked pretty much the same way. So we lit the cigarettes that I'd brought and burned them off. Whenever we found one, we'd take a long drag of our smoke to get it red hot and stick it on the head of the head of the Leech with a sizzle. It would curl up and drop off in an instant. Unless it was hiding between our toes, then we had to be careful not to burn our self, or put the cig out.
I never set foot in that pond ever again. Another time when I was back there by myself, I noticed that the sturdy little fort with the storm shutter had disappeared completely. The only indication that it had ever been there, was a bare patch of earth where the floor had been. Nothing was left behind. That still remains a mystery to me. A couple of us tried to establish 2 other forts back there at the pond, but nothing could compare with the hut made from highway signs. Neither of the forts we attempted really worked out.
For instance, my friend Craig convinced me that it would be cool to have a treefort back there in one of those big trees.
I thought, " Good idea."
So little Craig and I humped a buncha boards back the tracks. Pocketful of fricken pointy nails and screws and went to work, nailing a ladder into the side of the tree and screwing boards into the branches. We were starting to make progress and morale was high. One afternoon we were working on the treefort, putting boards in fifteen feet from the ground. It was getting comfortable too, It was a big solid tree and you felt safe in it. Up in the tree, probably trying to figure out how to keep the boards level, I heard a train coming in the distance. Like I said, the tracks were never super busy when I lived there. There were maybe two regular trains a day. An afternoon freight and the sleeper train in the middle of the night that I dreamt about. So I was excited and wanted to get down and run over to the tracks to watch it go by. When you heard one coming from way off, you'd also have plenty of time to put something on the tracks. Of course a penny or a nickel, but I've squashed other stuff too, like bottle caps and caps too. you could get a little box of five rolls of red paper, cap gun caps for twenty cents at Ludlow's any day of the week. So we'd put a full roll of caps on the tracks and that was always fun. Bang!
Anyway, I wanted to get out of the tree in a hurry before the train got there. Craig was a little bit above me and I didn't hold much hope that he'd make it in time. I was pretty sure I'd make it though. Basically, I planned to edge out onto a branch on my knees, grab the branch and hang drop to the ground. I chose a lower branch to go out on, but it was dead. By the time I got half way out on my knees, it broke and I did a mind numbing faceplant into the hard dry earth under that tree. It was a pretty good drop onto my face too. I remember picking up speed as I fell. Luckily that wasn't the worst part of the fall. The worst part was when my body slammed into the ground with rib cracking force. Most of us have probably had the wind knocked out of us before. Especially if you've ever played sports. Some of us have had the wind knocked out of us bad. Where you don't think you'll ever be able to take a breath quick enough and you might die. Where if you could puke, you would? But it feels better to just writhe on the ground in silent agony. This was that bad. The worst part is that it felt permanent. I wasn't sure if I was going to get out of this one. So you start making declarations to try and save your ass. Like, God if you let me live, I'll never kill another frog again when I'm fishing... I promise to be a better brother to my little sister, shit like that. Meanwhile the train at the edge of the field rolls by, on it's way to Brantford. Poor little Craig is standing over me asking, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" Over and over. I don't know yet Craig. If God lets me breathe, I'll be able to tell you.
When I could finally take my first few breaths, relief was a tangible thing. So real, I cried with relief. The tears left muddy tracks down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying because I was hurt, but because I might live. Nothing else mattered. If I had any other injuries, I couldn't feel them just yet.
I slowly got up off the ground and started dusting myself off, checking for blood. I felt the right side of my face, since it was the first part of me that made contact with the ground. It felt okay though, it was scratched up and getting a little swollen, but at least I didn't have a broken nose or missing teeth. I wasn’t bleeding profusely anywhere either. Lucky me. It was my ribs that ended up hurting the most. The adrenaline wore off quickly and the rib pain started to kick in on the walk back home. It was a quiet walk back. Craig didn't have much to say and for me it hurt to breathe. So we walked in silence. He lived on the corner of Union street and Sunnyridge road, maybe 75 meters away from my house, so he walked me home and then turned up Sunnyridge by himself. I had to go see Doctor McHarg in Ancaster the next day. He was a really good Doctor though and a kind man. He carefully looked me over, found a few ribs he thought were cracked or bruised and promised me I'd be alright. Every time I saw him, he always told me that I’d be “Just fine.”, no matter what had happened to me. He also told me that if he wrapped my ribs with a bandage, like I wanted, it would hurt a lot more and I'd be just fine if I took it easy for a little bit. No tree climbing. I was fine too in time, just as the good doctor had prescribed. Unfortunately, I was also playing soccer that same summer and had to play a few games with cracked ribs. It was a long couple months of not being able to get comfortable while trying to sleep. Finally, they felt healed.
Craig and I never finished the tree fort either. I don't think I even remember him going back there after that. I did though and it wasn't long before I saw another opportunity to make a new fort. At the far end of the pond just at the edge of the woods, a tree had been uprooted by the wind. All the roots and moss and soil that were pulled up when the tree went down, made a cave from the roots big enough to walk into. I gathered up armfuls of dried grass and straw for the dirt floor of the cave. It was so close to the edge of the pond that the soil was damp making it easier for the tree to blow over. Also making for a damp earthen floor. I threw the dried grass and straw around and kept going out for more, until it looked and smelled a little drier inside. It was roomy too. If it had just been a dirty little hole under a tree, I wouldn't have bothered. The cave was big enough to fit three or four people slightly hunched over, so big enough to qualify as a Secret Fort, as far as some standards went.
Intent on capitalizing on my find, I paid the cave multiple visits. My first return I brought candles and matches and freshened up the floor of the cave with more straw. Then I installed wooden shelves made from notched branches and twigs, where i put the candles for light. Another visit, I thought I'd like to decorate it somehow. So I wandered deeper into the woods looking for something to put outside the mouth of the cave. I wasn't sure what it would be until I found it, or found them. I stumbled across two large metal milk cans. The kind with handles on the shoulders, to make it easier to carry when they're full of milk. These ones were rusty and only had a bit of soil and old leaves in the bottom of them. They were also peppered with shotgun blasts so wouldn't have held milk anyway. There were two of them though, one for each side of the entrance, so I took them. My next visit back the tracks, I wanted to find something to hang over the mouth of the cave, so I went back into the woods to look for something, anything. This time I went in a different direction and found what seemed to be a trail. It didn't take long for me to realize it was an animal trail. Even though the ground had been worn by passage, there were lots of branches and vines at my height, so I had to duck under everything to keep going. Eventually, after going uphill for a little bit, things thinned out and I was able to stand upright again. I came into a clearing with a bunch of bones on the ground. They looked like deer bones, and cuz it was a clearing, most of them were sun bleached. I found three deer skulls, two of them were small and one was large. I considered what I'd found and deduced that it must have been a mother deer that had died during birth of twins. But the skulls were perfect for over the door to the cave, so I took them. I found out much later in life, that a close friend of mine had taken credit for finding and placing the skulls over the mouth of the cave. We aren't so close anymore, but for entirely different reasons.
Since skulls have a hole at their base for the spinal cord and central nervous system, it makes it possible to hang them from this hole. All I did, was put three notched twigs into the soil above the mouth of the cave and hang the skulls from them. The biggest one in the middle and one of the small ones on either side of it.
The next time I went all the way back the tracks to the cave, it had been raining for a few days. Many of the roots from the mouth of the cave as well as the roots in the roof, had the soil washed from them and were exposed. It made for a very creepy effect. The cave itself also smelled of animals and urine, as if something had been living there, so I abandoned it. I left it that day, cuz it had started raining again, but I remember looking back at it. The way it looked with the three skulls hanging over the entrance and all those muddy dripping roots, made me think of trolls. I also thought of prehistoric people and got the shudders. Clearly, some S.F's are better than others!
About the Creator
Jim E. Beer
I was raised outside of Ancaster, Ont. I write about what I know and what I've survived. I hope you enjoy what you read. Leave a comment and feel free to tip. There is an option to do so at the end of each story if you feel so inclined. Jim
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