Somewhere on the old back roads of Fayette County, a bugaboo still haunts me to this day. I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about it. It’s not often that you stare death right in the eyes, but that image will forever haunt me. I feel I can talk about it now, without the aid of a blankey. But, I warn you, this story is not for the faint of heart, or at least those who don’t want to waste a good five minutes. You have been warned.
I was 20 years old and enjoying the summer break from school. This summer was particularly memorable as I had just become single and was unemployed. Believe me, those two things are very much agreeable because if you’ve ever been bumming it for a summer, at your folks, and you have a girlfriend it becomes an issue. As a single man, you could make the money last a little longer. It’s not that I didn’t want to have a job but I was quite content with doing the little stuff like cutting my grandmother’s grass. Now, I was paid $20 to do the job at my grandma’s house and that was 1995. I don’t know what the going rate is for a high school or college kid to come cut your grass, today. I don’t want to know. 15 years later, cutting my yard is one of my few activities that can qualify as exercise. If I give that up, you might as well call Maury or Geraldo and have them cut me out of my house, right now.
I might make it to my grandma’s in the morning or the late afternoon, depending on how much slacking I planned on doing or how late I had been up the night before. While the yard was extremely graded from top to bottom, I had the use of a riding mower. It wasn’t too difficult to do, but I did use a push mower for the front so that I could do the edging around the walks and driveway. Otherwise I rode a Craftsman riding mower. A couple of times I had driven that thing into a tree and on a few occasions thought I was going to flip over after popping a wheelie from going up the steep hill without leaning over the steering wheel. Then, once I reached the top, I had to remember to lean over the left or right side as I cut back and forth along the hill. There was a definite strategy and method to cutting her yard without rolling the mower.
This day in question was a rather hot one, if I recall correctly, or perhaps I just decided to slack all day and cut the yard after dinner. It usually took me all of two hours to finish the yard. I was just finishing up the front as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was an eerie evening, hot and sticky, yet something gave me a chill. It was one of those “The Lost Boys are coming” feelings. I decided to quickly get all the mowing equipment back into the garage and head out before Kiefer Sutherland ripped the roof off of my 84’ Pontiac Firebird.
For some reason, I decided to go the back way home. If you think about the geography of rural Southwestern Pennsylvania, most of it IS back roads. Instead of the more direct and major route that took me across the Dawson Bridge and up route 201 towards Dunbar Township, I decided to swing out past the old racetrack and head up 819 towards the Mark I bar, turning and heading down Hickory Square Road by the Old Overholt Distillery and up through Broadford into the North end of Connellsville.
As I made the turn at the church, continuing on Hickory Square Road, I knew I would be coming down to Broadford Road, which sat just beyond a set of railroad tracks. I made that mental note because I wanted to slow up and take it easy going over those tracks. I didn’t want to lose my tail pipe, again. The year before, I was out driving with my, then, girlfriend in Tarrs, PA and we had come across a set of tracks on old 119. My entire exhaust system broke free from the undercarriage and drug on the ground. Yes, I was going too fast and forgot about the tracks. Young and stupid, I felt the only thing I could do was to pull the muffler and tail pipe completely off and haul it home. I probably did a hell of a lot of damage to the car, at my father’s expense. Well, I did try to tie it up to the spoiler, but all I had was a rope that was quickly burned through by the heat of the exhaust. So, I drove on the shoulder and drug it in the rocks until it fell off, probably due to extensive rust. I plopped it into my back seat and drove home. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake again, and on a much scarier road, all by myself. Nope, this time I was going to gently cross the tracks at the bottom of the hill.
By the time I reached the bottom of Hickory Square Road it was completely dark. My driver’s side window had been open to take advantage of the cooler air that had come with the darkness. I took my time and stopped just past the tracks at the sign. The intersection sat on a bend and you had to pull all the way across the tracks to the stop sign in order to see if any traffic was coming. My focus was primarily forward and I looked in that direction first as the road curved in front of me towards the right. As I was finishing up my scan of that direction , I began turning my head and that’s when it happened. I received the fright of my young life, and nearly shit myself, right there.
I came face to face with this beast, lurking in the darkness. It had to be at least ten foot tall, all black with a huge face. There were also no streetlights, save one eerie looking dusk to dawn light affixed to a pole to my left. That orange light shone over top of the beast and somewhat blinded me from getting a good look at this monstrosity sitting right outside my open car window. My life flashed before eyes and it was a pretty short flash. After a split second, the initial shock wore off I regained my composure enough to see what it was.
It was a train. A huge ass black locomotive was a mere five feet from my driver’s side window. Panic set in twice in as many seconds. How the hell did I not see it? There were no sirens, no horns, no warning. The sight of it in the dark nearly stopped my heart and started my bowels. I prepared for impact but it wasn’t moving. It was parked. The orange light from the pole had partially blinded me and made me think it was the engine’s light shining at me. Here I was, scared of a parked car.
After I calmed down, I laughed at how foolish I was. It was that relieved laughter you get after a scare that kind of jolts the adrenaline and endorphins. I wish that I had brought a camera with me but at the time I would have not had one that could have taken a decent nighttime picture. After a day or so, the train was gone and I never saw it again. In fact, I have just recently been down that road once in the last 15 years, but I’ll never forget that initial two seconds of sheer terror and 15 minutes of embarrassment after I shrieked like a little girl. Thankfully, no one else was out that night to hear me, except maybe the Lost Boys sitting up in the tree waiting to rip the roof off my car.