"Paying the Price
for a Free Train Ride," #5 Swapping Stories
J. T. and I played down here, caught the train everywhere. The train would stop and come to Arcadia then to unload the feed off the train. It would also put cross-ties on the train. They had a lot of horse and mule feed, and they'd unload the feed for all the feed stores. Flour sacks and shorts for hogs. There'd be a bunch of cars over there. We'd play in the cars, in these old box cars. We'd go to the show up here, and we'd see all these train shows. We'd go down there and play on the train. The train would come, pull off the side track and hook into these empty cars, then get back on the main track. We'd ride a little way on the train.
There were so many people riding then on the train, there were more people riding the freight train than there was the passenger train. You'd just see a few people on the passenger train, because nobody could afford the fare. This was back during the Depression. But every hobo in the world was on the freight train. Had so many they had to have what they call bulls at the yard. People that worked in the big train yards, not Arcadia, but like Shreveport or Monroe, the bigger towns. They'd have a guy they called the bull. He would get the hobos and knock them off the train, keep them off the train, to where the train wouldn't be so many people riding it. Wasn't supposed to be that many on the train. There'd be hundreds of them on it. Looked like a Mexican bus--if you've ever seen a Mexican bus--in one of these third world countries. They were just riding all over it. That's the way the freight train was.
Anyway, we'd play on this freight train. We'd ride it from one side of town to the other. When they got down here, they had a water tank back there. This was during the time when they had steam engines. They didn't have diesel engines. So they'd take on water up here at Morgan and Lindsay's Store.
So one day, J. T., he was the marshall's boy, and I were playing up in the train. High up in one of these old box cars. When the train picked it up, we just thought we'd ride it down to the water tank and get out, which was what we'd usually do. This day, I don't know that the train didn't stop for water, and it was a short train. By the time he got to the water tank, he was flying. We were way up high. We wasn't down by the rails where we could jump off. We were up in the box car. It was just flying. We kept looking for a place to jump off, never could find one. He kept picking up speed so we thought, "Oh my God! We are into it now! We don't know where we're going!"
But we'd already been whipped once about riding the train. I rode it all the time. Daddy had already gotten after me about that train. I did hate to leave home and wound up on that train. Anyway, the train just keeps going. So J. T. is crying. Not that I wasn't just as afraid as he was, but I was still trying to look for a place to jump off. Never did find one.
Finally, we wound up over here at Gibsland, and the train, fortunately, stopped. Course, now, Gibsland was eight miles down the road. But that was a long way. Finally, the train pulled in over at Gibsland. We got off and went into the depot. Depot agent asked us, "Who are you all?"
So we told him, we said, "We're from Arcadia. Wish you'd telegraph Mr. Howard Moses." He was the depot agent in Arcadia, big old tall, white-headed fellow. Said, "Telegraph Mr. Howard Moses and tell him we're over here."
He said, "How did you boys get over here?" We told him what happened. Course, he acted like we'd violated some federal law. Just scaring us to make us feel bad. We thought maybe we were going to get sent to the penitentiary. I didn't know what was going to happen to us. [Laughs.]
Anyway, he telegraphed Mr. Howard and tells him he's holding us over there. Boy, I hated to see that car coming to pick us up because I knew it was going to be trouble. But anyway, Ms. Taylor came to get us in an old T-model car. You talk about mixed feelings. But I was glad to see her arrive because I wanted to go home. But I hated to see her, at the same time, because I knew we were going to face hell. I knew that woman, she was going to come over and beat me and J. T. [Laughs.]
She showed up, mad as a wet hen, and got out of that T-model car. I'm telling you the truth, she beat us every step we walked. We finally got in the T-model, and I thought, "One good thing about it, she'll have to take both hands to drive it. When we get in there, maybe she'll quit beating us. She won't have another hand to beat us with." We finally got in there and started home. We had that train ride every once and a while, even after that.
Notes to the Teacher: Harold Talbert's tales walk the thin line between the personal experience story and the tall tale. These reminiscences richly and lovingly illustrate the small-town backdrop for so many of the subsequent stories in this collection. Having sampled the 1930s as presented in Talbert's words, one can more easily imagine the world depicted by tall tale tellers Lonnie Gray, Bill Cox, and Jimmie Davis. A master at depicting the daily concerns of small town Louisiana, Talbert is also expert at pushing his accounts to the regions where fact and fantasy overlap. In the midst of delivering a vivid account of the role of the movie theater in his boyhood life, Talbert inserts the story of a boy so impressed by the lifelike quality of the cinematic experience that he shot the movie screen. A tale that begins in a sleepy town ends in frenzied flights from a man in a wild gorilla suit; a baptism nearly becomes a drowning. Because Harold Talbert's oral art makes his own life a tall tale, he draws on far fewer internationally distributed tale types than any of the other British-American narrators. Only two of his tales possess clear analogues in international oral tradition.