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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gravel Pits, Railroad Yards, Large Machines

Oh, the times and adventures in the pits and yards. I now realize that the northern boundary of my larger neighborhood growing up was an ancient riverbed. In some geologic time,the Mississippi River or one of its channels must have flowed through. In my time it was the dip in the landscape that divided us from Como Park to the northeast and the State Fair grounds to the north-northwest. Both places attracted me and my friends to many boyhood adventures. Crossing the old riverbed was beginning and end to each. I think I was oblivious to the geology—though I would like to think I can remember speculating on the geology and ancient river. I fear, however, that such a memory is a self congratulatory rewrite of history.

Everybody in the family and neighborhood knew this east-west swath to our north hosted railroads, gravel pits, settlement ponds, machinery old and new, various slopes of underbrush, bridges, and a promise of things beyond. Most years of my nine at Saint Columba school we would walk the mile or so to Como Park for a end-of-school-year picnic in the picnic grounds at Como. Our walk would take us along Hamline avenue, across Minnehaha, then through a few blocks of the neighborhood to Hamline's dead end. There we walked onto and across the pedestrian bridge over the mainlines of the railroad tracks that hugged the south edge of the depression. While the journey was a common one, to us kids the bridge always gave an extra sense of adventure. If we were lucky we would see a train or two pass below. Or we might see the ovens of the Koppers Coke plant disgorge their red hot and steaming contents into open railroad cars.
Minnesota Historical Society Photos

My buddies Genie Forcier and Jerry Weiman and I would cross this bridge taking our rubber-band, home-made paddle boats to and from Como Lake to try their “sea” worthiness on its waters. Often after descending from or before ascending onto the bridge we would watch activity at the Como Shops where my Dad had started his career on the railroad. Here they repaired and refurbished passenger cars. Several tracks held cars stored outside before and after repair. There was a shuttle track where cars could be shifted sideways from track to track entering or leaving the shop. It was the rectangular version of the “roundhouse” used for steam engines. At times we would climb up into cars just to check them out and pretend one adventure or another. We never committed vandalism. However, one time, as we returned from Como park walking directly across the yard toward the bridge, out of nowhere a man walked forcefully to us and gruffly accused us of having vandalized some of the cars. We protested our innocence, but he scared the bejesus out of us. We reluctantly gave him our names. He said he would report us to the police and this would be on our record should we ever (in our lives) be caught on the wrong side of the law again. Despite our innocence we had no choice but tell our parents lest they find out from the police. My Dad believed me; he knew well the ways of the “railroad dicks” (slang for railroad police, and short for railroad 'Dick Tracy' with reference to the cartoon police detective). He assured me the man was trying to scare us out of ever playing around the cars again; we never did.

Beyond the railroads, rising out of the old riverbed we passed an equipment yard of a highway department. It might have been property of the city's street department or the county or state highway department. It had no fence around it that I can recall, and it was filled with fascinating pieces of machinery. Our favorite was the tanker trailer; we could climb up on top and descend into what seemed like a cavernous tank. It must have been for carrying water because it was reasonably clean inside. The acoustics and seclusion gave great sense of adventure and opportunity for imagination. I don't recall ever seeing an adult in the area, or maybe it was that we only stopped to play there the few times we saw nobody around. Exotic adventure, but we could not linger long with this distraction because our important destination was either Como Park or home.

When we went to the fairgrounds or its neighboring University of Minnesota farm campus to play, we crossed the Hamline University campus a block north of our home block and crossed the ancient riverbed on Snelling Avenue. The railroads passed under wide bridges so there was not the intimate contact with railroading we had on our Como Park journeys. Rather, the attractions here were gravel pits. There were pits on both sides of Snelling, but we usually walked the east side of the street and descended into the gravel pit on that side. This is the location of my adventures with my buddy, Buddy (when I was five years old) and a year or so later when he threw a rock that gave me a painful blow and major swelling to the back of my neck—but those are other stories. The gravel pit too had equipment from time to time, crushers and such. One piece offered another opportunity to mount and then descend into a more rectangular (wooden, I believe) tank--dusty, but fun none-the-less. One could hide from unseen enemies, and rise up to throw rock grenades at them before disappearing again into our “tank”. Of course, we might have to first attack the tank with our bravery and rocks from the outside before capturing it for our own defense.

My final adventure in the ancient riverbed happened when I was a bit older, perhaps a summer when I was 14 or 15. That time we headed home from the farm campus and fairgrounds through the gravel plant and settlement ponds west of Snelling. The settlement ponds had a dangerously tempting character about them--water over what seemed to be quicksand. This day Genie and Jerry and I teased our fears by playing at getting stuck in shallow water near the shore. We would sink in leg deep and then play at enjoying the challenge of getting unstuck. Genie and I enjoyed it but we had to admit we saw danger in going too far into the ponds. Jerry, however was fearless—we thought foolish. He went out toward the center of the pond. While Genie and I urged him to get out, he got stuck and unstuck--enough times to raise our fears for his safety. He finally came out. As we tried to dry a bit, put our shirts and shoes on, and clean off some of the filth before heading home the gravel-pit version of the railroad dick appeared. Again, we got the bejesus scared out of us. He took us to a shack from where he called our homes. Mom and Dad were not home; my sister Dolores took the call.

Here diverge two versions of the story. Dolores and I both remember that I realized I had been foolish and had flirted with real danger. Dolores remembers a promise by me to never do it again, and her agreement not to tell Mom and Dad. In my memory, however, I sat at the dinner table that night while Dolores told Mom and Dad about the call. Her kindness in this version is her telling the story without the spite of a tattler. I see Mom and Dad as frightened by what they heard before their stern-but-not-angry response. My memory too has me contrite for my foolishness, promising to never do it again.

I can't give up my version nor can I reject with confidence Dolores' version. I suppose, if we must accept that an old river can have more than one true riverbed, we should expect that an old boy can have more than one true boyhood.

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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