World’s Greatest Playground

“Bandits on our tail at twelve o’clock high! Climb for the clouds!” “Rustlers, and they’ve captured the ranchers daughter. Let’s ride buckaroos.” “Crocodiles. Beat them over the head with that boa constrictor!” “Oh, oh, she just raised the Jolly Roger. They’re pirates. We’re in for a fight maties. Give them a broadside, and prepare to board.” “A bank heist on 33rd street. This looks like a job for Captain Marvel ‘Shazam’!” “Hold everything. Run for cover behind the house. It’s Ol’ White Shirt!”

The civilized world may never appreciate what it owes to the heroes who did battle against the forces of evil at 455 East Utah Avenue in Payson, Utah.

An unheralded band of sandlot superheroes conquered foreign warlords, thugs, rustlers, space aliens and assorted enemies of goodness and the American way. The only opponents who could route these champions were Ol’ White Shirt, and Mom calling them home for chores, homework and/or supper.

I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks I guess. This was embarrassing – for the tracks and the Orem Train Line who owned them So much so that the company eventually pulled up their spikes, ties, and rails and went out of business. But they left us with unforgettable make believe adventures. We were at the south end of the line which featured not only the turntable to head the engines back toward Salt Lake City, but the repair and maintenance yard that had old box cars, flat cars, coal cars, and assorted wheels and axels, junk or treasures depending on your perspective, sand and coal piles (for the shops’ heat. (The train was electric with a wheel on a spring arm to draw current from an overhead wire.)

The pounding of double jack hammers on steel, the clanging of cars being hooked together, the muscular men, including my dad, in rolled up shirt sleeves, the magic of the forge turning black steel to glowing orange; this combined with the lure of danger underlined by the warnings from our mothers to “be careful over there” to whet our imaginations.

Our mothers scenarios of what could happen were well intended, but pale compared to the ones we dreamed up ourselves. The rails running to the back lot were perilously close to one of the massive brick train car garages.. Instead of moving the tracks, the company put up a one by two foot black sign with white letters reading, “Warning: Will not clear man on side of car.” I pieced the message together one word at a time; that being the level of my third grade reading skill. But the message still didn’t make sense. I had seen workmen hang on the ladder rungs on the side of box cars being shuttled to the back lot for storage or repairs. I figured those were the men the sign was meant for. But what was the “won’t clear man” part of the message.

Not a problem. Mildred Bjarnson who lived next door knew everything because she was four years older (half a lifetime at this age). She explained, “It means if you are hanging on the side of a train car when it passes that corner of the building, it will squish you like a June bug against the box car. The company won’t clear you off. Your family members will have to come and scrape you off the side of the car.” Enough for me. I resolved then and there whatever others follies I might stumble into in life, I would never leave this world as bug juice on a box car.

The only thing more frightening that not clearing was “Ol’ White Shirt.” He was a mysterious stranger with a paunch who sometimes stalked the train yard even in broad daylight. We would spot him from a distance and run in panic out of the yard, across the street and hide behind our house. He was easy to spot, being the only white shirt in the train yard, or maybe in the town on a week day. Rumor was that he came down from the head office in Salt Lake ostensibly to check out the workings of the shop, but in reality to capture children and do who knows what with them, bury them in the coal pile and feed them to the furnace, put them “on side of car?” No one ever told us; not surprising since those who found out were never seen again.

I am impressed by the fertile minds who create amusement parks, computer games and sci-fi movies. But they are rank amateurs compared to kids whose imaginations are light years ahead of their information banks and reading skills. Especially if they have a train graveyard and Ol’ White Shirt with which to create their fantasy world.

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