Risk is defined simply as a situation involving exposure to danger. Most of us learn early in our lives to put our brain to use and it does a pretty good job of keeping us safe. However, sometimes our brain fails us, and we make dumb decisions and take bad risks with possibly catastrophic consequences.
Back in the late 1980s when I took my two young sons to see the movie Stand by Me, I wasn’t familiar with its content. I knew it was a big hit based on a story by Stephen King and directed by Rob Reiner. I was less familiar with the cast that included Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. I expected to be entertained, but little did I realize I was the one about to be terrorized by my memory.
Let me explain. It was the summer of 1955. My mother worked hard to try and make a living for herself and two young sons. We lived in a small house with my maternal grandparents where we moved after my parent’s divorce. Our grandparents were in their 70’s and had raised six children, buried three, and had helped raise two grandchildren and a nephew before we appeared on their doorstep.
In that place and time, there was a lot less adult supervision than is true today. I had the freedom to wander, explore and discover all of Wabash, Indiana and its environs. My only limitation was how far I could ride my bike or walk and get back home to present myself at the table at mealtimes; the rest of my time, like that of my friends, was unsupervised and mine to do whatever I wanted.
Boys, for the most part, love the water. They love getting into it, splashing around, and having fun playing games and getting lost in their fantasies. I loved every chance I had to go swimming. I grew up in Northern Indiana where lakes were readily accessible, and we often went to one of three small lakes offering swimming amenities for families in the 1950s. But while going to the lake was something I loved to do and took advantage of every opportunity to go there, it is not where my most important swimming lessons were delivered. It is not where I learned to ‘swim.’ The most important lessons were what I learned going or coming home.
The place I frequented most and where I learned how to swim was in Treaty Creek about a third of a mile upstream from its confluence with the Wabash River. In an earlier decade, a small iron dam about 4 feet high had been built across the creek to impound water. Its location next to Wabash Water Works suggested it was built to supply Wabash with drinking water, but the community quickly outgrew the creek’s capacity to provide water and the city drilled wells a few miles farther south to take water from the now buried pre-glacial Teays River.
The part of the creek next to the Water Works, still dammed, created a place that was popular with many Wabash area youth to fish and swim. In summer we went there often, removed our clothes, and passed many lazy afternoons splashing in the water. The Wabash River then was little more than a public conveyance for sewage discharged by every community bordering the river from the Ohio State Line to the Ohio River. We never considered swimming there. We went to this place of impounded water on Treaty Creek whenever we got hot or ran out of other things to do, and no one ever thought of telling our parents or seeking permission. This was the 1950s. We just did it. We got there by walking or riding our bikes the two miles, and I never dreamed it might also cost me my life.
I was ten-years-old and had gone swimming with neighborhood friends as we often did on hot summer afternoons after playing baseball, cowboys and Indians, army, or maybe just out riding our bikes. We often walked and took a “shortcut” using the railroad trestle to get over the river. On one particular day walking back we encountered a short freight train heading in our direction that had stopped for a crew change. As we walked beside the string of freight cars the train began to move. In that instant, I had a bright idea of grabbing hold and hitching a ride. It never occurred to me there was mass and momentum involved so when I caught hold of the car, I hadn’t matched its speed and it threw me to the ground close to the moving freight car wheels. I got to my feet and felt my arm where I had been jerked and rubbed my pained knees where they met the gravel roadbed. I knew better than try that trick again and continued walking quickly forgetting the incident.
On another day later that summer my friends and I went swimming and it was around 3:30 pm when we had had enough started our trek home. As we approached the dam impounding the water, we met my older brother, Larry Joe, and a friend, who had been fishing. Strangely, this was the only time I ever encountered my older brother here.
We hadn’t ridden our bikes, so we walked the tracks toward the trestle. The “Big Four” Railroad, which was this rail lines original moniker, was a lightly used north-south New York Central line (now part of Norfolk Southern) running in a straight line from home to the swimming hole. In an even stranger twist of fate, my brother and his friend decided to accompany us and take the short cut walking the trestle rather than ride their bikes the longer way around over Huntington Street Bridge farther to the West.
The trestle stretched 400 feet or more from the north to the south bank over the Wabash River at its confluence with Treaty Creek. It was also a point where it narrowed into shallow rapids. The structure curved and tilted slightly to the east to line up with the rails going north through a cut on the other side. We knew we were safe using this short cut because no train came until around 6:00 pm. We ‘knew’ there were two trains every evening; the schedule never varied.
The sun was hot and there was scarcely a hint of a breeze to cool our skin as we set out across the trestle. I liked peering down through the evenly spaced rail ties as I measured my steps, casting my eyes through the slits at the river 40 or more feet below. I knew in the middle I could see the river foam as it funneled through this narrow point and rushed and poured impatiently over the rocks.
We had walked about a third of the way across trestle when a faint, but discernable sound brought us to a halt. No one spoke; we all focused our attention on the unmistakable sound of metal on metal. We knew that sound! It wasn’t a horn or whistle, but we knew that rumble as well as we knew any train whistle — the unmistakable sound of steel rail cars as they were pulled behind a locomotive descending the man-made cut through a bluff that was part of an ancient reef about a half-mile behind us. As the locomotive braked the cars compressed forward banging together. The naked stone sides of the cut acted as a megaphone, focusing the low metallic sounds and sending them rolling down the tracks toward us like a bowling ball streaking toward the pins. In an instant we were off, scurrying like insects feeling the vibrations and hearing the rumble of an approaching Goliath. My heart pounded in my chest and my breathing became short and quick as I ran down the middle of the tracks as fast as I could, knowing I might misstep and fall or worse step between the ties and break a leg and be unable to get up. Thinking about this possibility, the toe of my shoe caught the edge of a tie and I went tumbling on the tracks, but there was no time to acknowledge the pain. No one else was going to stop and help me up. All I felt was the tightening of my stomach as I quickly pulled myself up as fast as I could, my heart throbbing. I knew if I tripped again, I might end up under the train’s wheels or fall the three or four stories onto the partially hidden rocks in the shallow rapids below. We could hear the monster’s approach, getting louder each second. As I trotted toward the far end of the trestle, I searched for an answer to what I was going do if the train reached me before I could get off. I thought about hanging on the ties and trying to hold tight until the train passed but knew I wouldn’t be able to keep hold and endure the shaking of the trestle. I thought about jumping to my death rather than being hit by the train, feeling the lump in my stomach grow as each second-turned-to-hours passed. I sensed the terror my mother would feel hearing her two sons had perished. I heard my grandfather, an old railroader; warn me repeatedly about staying away from the railroad tracks. I felt panic, sensing the black monstrous head of the metal snake that was closing quickly upon us.
There was no time for my brother and his friend to push their bicycles and reach safety on the other side. Luckily, the trestle had a small platform jutting out over the river about a third of the way across coming from the other side where a 55-gallon barrel was placed. I never knew its function, but always figured it was filled with water in case the trestle caught fire — a thought that seems comical today. We scrambled along the track toward the barrel, hearing the gathering sound of the mass of steel and momentum as it nipped at our heels. My brother, his friend, their two bicycles and I reached the barrel platform as the distant rumble turned into the screech of metal against metal. Larry Joe’s friend hoisted his bicycle on top, my brother held on to his as he held it over the railing allowing it to dangle above the river, and I gripped and hugged the front of the barrel. There we were, the three of us, grabbing hold of each other, the bikes, the barrel, and held on. Three others, including my friends, continued running for the far side. I still have nightmares watching the big diesel locomotive lunge onto the trestle as my friend, the youngest and last of the kids who went on ahead, reached a catwalk, which extended out a ways from the side. In a matter of seconds, the locomotive was across the river and heading on up the track pulling its assortment of freight cars behind. As it passed the platform shook and I was sure it was going to give way and send us hurling onto the rocks below. I was drenched in the smell of diesel as the locomotive expelled its hot breath; I could have easily reached out and touched it.
As soon as the caboose passed, we abandoned our perch and scurried across the trestle and quickly ducked out of the site of any railroad detectives who might have been alerted, none appeared. Normally we would have followed the railroad for another mile straight toward home, but this day we got away from the tracks as fast as we could and followed the streets. My brother and his friend rode off.
It is worth noting my brother and I never mentioned or talked about this moment. In reality, none of us talked about it, but we never mentioned or suggested using the trestle again. It never entered our minds.
Of all the incidents in my life where I have faced certain death, nothing was more terrifying than the moments I spent running across that trestle in advance of the consequence I fully comprehended and appreciated was pursuing me. In this one instant, I learned my most important lesson in taking a risk-based upon faulty assumptions, information, and without consideration of what might be wrong, what might go wrong, and what alternatives were available to me in any event.
What I experienced did not make me more conservative in my behavior, but it did cause me to pause and take time to more fully examine and explore all the possible outcomes of the decision I was about to make. It taught me to consider the ‘what if’. We live and grow by taking risks, but in doing so we have to take time to think our way through all the possibilities.