Charles E. Rice
The Endless Playground
The playground was but a few yards wide and we still don't know where it began or where it ended. After nearly half a century it is still an unforgettable part of our childhood adventures. The Central of Georgia Railroad cut its proud swath through the textile village of north Georgia—the mill town of Rossville that we called home. The railroad, from the south, probed and snaked its path along the apron of historic Missionary Ridge. It spun off a few sidetracks into the mill yards of our town before it arrived confidently in the maze of railroads that converged in Chattanooga.
We had heard rumors that this awesome stretch of steel, gravel, cinders and crossties went as far south as Cedartown, Georgia. But none of our boyish gang had been far enough to verify that notion. We settled for the fact that the railroad went a long way—far out of sight and beyond walking distance.
Before we were old enough to think about girls, we knew the schedule of the trains that moved north and south on our playground. Passenger models especially caught our attention when we were nearby. Usually four to six cars in length, they went south every morning about seven thirty and came north every evening about five. This event, regular though it was, never became monotonous. We often stood alongside the track and gawked at the people riding the train and thought how lucky they were to be aboard.
Word got around that you could board the train in the Rossville station and for twenty cents you could ride to downtown Chattanooga. It sounded tempting but we knew that we could ride the bus for a nickel on our infrequent trips to what we called "town." Years later we would be informed that the times of our childhood were the years of the Depression. We didn't know that while we were coming of age, but we did learn very early what you could buy for a nickel.
Freight trains puffed and whistled their way up and down the track, too. Their schedule and their length were less predictable. Counting the cars and reading the names of faraway places were part of our play. What could we make of a name like "Delaware, Lackawanna and Western"? "Southern" we thought we understood.
The big war came and the traffic on our railroad became a moving picture. Imaginations ran amok when flatbeds laden with tanks, artillery and such moved through. Long passenger trains packed with uniformed soldiers passed in review before our very eyes. Innocently and proudly we envied these unknown countrymen. Some of the older boys in our hometown had also boarded their trains and ships and gone to faraway places with strange names like Guadalcanal.
Despite the war, most of the time the tracks simply belonged to us so far as we knew. We walked the smooth steel rails barefoot like tightrope artists and laughed at the clumsy mis-steps of any who slipped a foot one way or the other. In the heat of summer bare feet preferred to tread the crossties and shunned the hot steel and the rugged gravel and cinder. On the hottest days the distant rails shimmered like a mirage, lizards scampered and spots of tar steamed and we left this playground.
Once in a while one of the boys would become extravagant and lay a copper penny on the rail when a train was approaching. This indulgence usually sparked the argument whether we were destroying government property. No one ever reported such acts thus the debate was never settled.
When a new culvert was laid under the tracks it became for a time an adventure in itself. Before sediment, debris, and snakes could occupy these tubes of cement, we would crawl in and relish the roar of a big freight thundering overhead. We showed proper respect, however, when railroad maintenance crews toiled in our neighborhood track. We waved vigorously at the men who rode the little handcars and stared in awe at really important executives who toured the tracks but rarely in a sedan fitted with railroad wheels.
Tragedy also touched down a few times on our narrow but infinite play corridor. A teen-aged boy, sick with guilt and Biblical obsession, used the track in literal obedience to the words about cutting off the offending hand. He put leather tourniquets on his right thigh and armpit and laid two members of his body at the eleven o'clock night freight. The trainmen probably never knew what they had obliged in fulfilling this lad's crazy vow.
One afternoon, shortly after five o'clock, sirens sounded from the direction where the tracks crossed the highway near the big woolen mill. From our backyard we could see black smoke billowing skyward and obscuring the familiar smokestack of the mill. A textile-laden truck had made a careless exit through the mill gate and turned into the path of the passenger train. The engine wedged the tractor and trailer between its own unyielding mass and a brick wall alongside the track. The driver was pinned behind the wheel as the cab burned and onlookers helplessly watched in shock and pity.
But, oblivious to the fortunes of man and nature, the tracks ran on and on, seemingly as permanent as the ridge and mountains that flanked them. And they still are anchored along the same roadbed and are one of the few landmarks of the old hometown that look the same as they did forty-plus years ago. They run so straight for more than a mile south of town that our high school physics class, some fourteen hopefuls, used that space to test for ourselves the speed of sound. A stopwatch, shotgun, and two clusters of youngsters a mile apart comprised the experiment. The textbook proved accurate after all.
History rode the rails through our town. As children we learned about the land around us and the events which had come and gone on our familiar soil—about the Cherokees and their leader John Ross, about the Civil War and the battle of Chickamauga nearby, about the troops of two great wars who had filed through Fort Oglethorpe. But one night and day history centered upon our playground.
It happened during World War II and we were there. They took our railroad away from us for a short time. I was walking home from the local movie house where I had just seen "Gone With The Wind." I approached the crossing of the tracks in the darkness of the summer night. A gruff voice barked, "Halt, who goes there?"
I gave a startled and nervous answer, "Just me."
The flashlight glared in my eyes as the unseen challenger asked, "Where you goin', boy?"
"Home," I told him quickly.
"Where is your home?" came from another voice.
"Right up that road . . . the third . . . the last house . . . at the foot of the ridge."
"O.K., go on home fella," the second voice allowed.
Early next morning several of our gang gathered at the spot where Peachtree Street makes a grade crossing of the Central of Georgia. Two armed soldiers stood sentinel duty there. Up and down our stretch of track two soldiers stood at every crossing and at comparable spaces alongside the uninhabited curves and hollows of the ridge. The two at our crossing were friendly but talked little. They became even friendlier when Grandma sent them a sack of fresh biscuits and a few slices of our homegrown ham.
About mid-morning we were still there and the train came. I was about as long as the familiar five o'clock passenger run but now it was heading south and all the windows were covered with closed drapes. How could we know that we were standing so close to the President of the United States who was en route to Warm Springs, Georgia? By the time we had learned this, he had arrived at his destination. But we were proud to have been even such a small part of history. And we easily forgave the GIs who commandeered our playground.