The world’s greatest playground

Every person’s life is worthy of a book. I hope you are writing yours, or saving and collecting the material to one day write it.

I am in the midst of mine.

I’d like to send you the stories and observations as they come hot off the keyboard.  I hope they will give you ideas and inspiration for your own book.

This is the next installment of my memoirs currently in production. The previous installments are available on my web page I hope you find this interesting.

The book is titled Live Long*, Learn a Little, Laugh a Lot.

She was a gentle and an elegant lady in her day. Regal in movement with her train flowing behind her. She was sleek and smooth and poised. And she could be exciting sparking along under her overhead electric line. She was a friendly neighbor, stopping by the way for the convenience of all her acquaintances. That’s why it took her two and a half hours to cover the sixty six miles from Salt Lake City to Payson, the terminus of the Salt Lake Interurban Line. Sometimes she would pull a caboose and sometimes she had an open observation car on the back. From here you had the best seat in the world to view the vistas of Utah and Salt Lake Counties as you clacked along at speeds up to 65 miles per hour. No children were allowed on the observation deck. But if your father worked for the train line and your mother was very convincing with the conductor and very strict with you, sometimes on a slow day they would let you and your brother slip on to the deck for the last part of the ride home.

It is probably poor taste to discuss a lady’s personal habits, but to a child they were too interesting to ignore. Environmental concerns in their many forms were decades in the future. And so the Interurban Line restrooms consisted of an open throne of the type to which many of us were accustomed in our own homes. Or to be more specific, out back of our own homes. A portable one holer speeding down the track was a scary but fascinating piece of technology to my brother Gordon and me. Looking down the hole you could see the gravel and the railroad ties zipping by underneath you at supersonic speeds. The thought that one’s personal possessions or one’s personal self might somehow fall down that hole and be sandpapered into individual child molecules on the train bed roadway was a frightening but always intriguing possibility. To my knowledge no watch or pencil or child ever fell through the toilet hole on to the tracks below.

Other things did, of course, but Utah was open country then and so long as you did not use the facility inside the city limits or heaven knows while stopped at the train station, no one but the cows in the trackside pastures would be aware.

Parts of the Salt Lake Interurban was designed and built by Mrs. W. M. Smith, of Redlands, California reportedly the only woman railroad contractor in the United States. She was assisted by her daughter Irene. Though Mrs. Smith was described as a “formidable lady,” she and Irene may have some input on the aesthetic side of the trains. They boasted some of the finest interior appointments of any such train line in America. Green upholstery inside, red colors outside made a bold statement as the train wound its way through the city and countryside. Two special guest cars had wood paneling above the upholstery and carpet on the floor.

Few things in the world are perfect, however, and to us children the Interurban was never quite a train because it didn’t blow smoke, go chuga chuga and hiss out steam. The electric motors that drove it were a little too civilized for our liking.

Once they parked it in the yards across the street from our house, however it was a train of the old west. Cowboys, bandits, sheriff’s posses and outlaws inhabited it. Even Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Pinkerton Detective Agency did battle back and fourth across the tops and through the corridors of this train. At least in our minds they did.

I don’t care how rich, favored, pampered or advantaged any child in the world may have been. The Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the young Princess Elizabeth, the children whose parents owned Lagoon Amusement Park, nobody had a playground to match the one at the east end of Utah Avenue in Payson, nobody.

Forget your toy trains and miniature cars. We had the real thing. One day they dumped a pile of fine coal next to the tracks. The word went out through the neighborhood grape vine and we were there on the heels of the train crew to play King of the Mountain in that wonderful slippery, black dusty coal.

The train repair crews would kindly leave out big pieces of trains which we could convert to submarines and space modules. They left acres of abandoned train cars we could hide in and run back and forth across the tops of. Ore and coal cars with their slanted floors, became the Himalayas for climbing and sliding with a little imagination. Sets of iron wheels on axles we could roll down the track and burl on them like a logger until with a mighty clang they would hit together. At that point we had to take off running because that would draw the attention of the train people.

The blue-collar workers would just holler at us and waive a hand. We would skitter away until they left and then come back. Everybody knew the game and played it. But there were serpents in this child’s Garden of Eden, specifically Old White shirt. When you saw Old White Shirt appear it was time to run for the house, hole up and start making up your alibi in case White Shirt came pounding on your door. He never did, but he might we told each other.

Sometimes you could see two White Shirts or more walking around the facility, poking around here and there, talking about who knows what. White Shirts were the executives from the Salt Lake office and they took our shenanigans more seriously than those who worked in the yards did. But nothing short of posting armed sentries shoulder to shoulder around the place would have kept us out of there. I think the company; the workers and even the White Shirts knew that. I suspect they even sympathized with us. Maybe the white shirts weren’t working there at all. Maybe they just liked to play in the trains too.

We would occasionally peak into the windows at the plush interiors of the rolling stock. But it was out in the back where the outlaws, the aliens, and the enemies of goodness, truth and the American way hid out. There was a war going on in much of the world. The war outside was horrible. Even little towns like ours were touched. Every week the Payson Chronicle had a story of another of our sons dead or missing in action. But we kids wouldn’t find out about that ghastly aspect of war until we got older. In the train yards war was an adventure. We did battle with the Germans and the Japanese. They were known then by terms that would not be polite or appropriate to use today.

Whatever the enemy, he wouldn’t have stood a chance against us. In the train yard we had not only our battalions of land troops. We had a naval armada as well. Peteetneet Creek drains from off the slopes of Mt. Nebo and other mountains through Payson into Utah Lake. But on its way in those days part of the creek would pause and make a big puddle on the lower end of the train yards. In summer it dried up to the great relief of the mothers, home owners and mosquito swatters. But in the spring it could be a couple of feet deep.

If you took a small loading pallet from the train yards and you and three or four friends dragged two abandoned railroad ties down to the frog pond as we called it—Lake Inferior would have been more appropriate—but we didn’t think of that. Anyway you put a small pallet on top of two railroad ties and launch them into the pond and you had yourself a pretty speedy PT boat. It would hold up a crew of one, powered by a pole from the grove of willow trees that grew next to the pond.

If you needed a cruiser, a battle ship, or heaven knows an aircraft carrier all you had to do was drag down more ties and find a bigger pallet to put on top of them. Now three or four friends could man this worthy vessel.

But we learned in actual combat the same lesson the Spanish learned when the English destroyed their armada in 1588. Spain had monstrous Men of War battle ships. The British had their small but nimble ships that could sail around and attack the Spanish in their vulnerable spots and then speed away before they were under the big guns of the Spanish Men of War.

That’s what happened in the battles of the frog pond. Not only were the big ships unwieldy, but the crews were shamefully undisciplined. Some people would push from one direction with their poles, others from the opposite direction. The captain’s orders went totally unheeded. This was because every member of the crew thought he was the captain. Before long the worthy vessel would show some engineering flaws. The main one was that the pallet was just sitting on top of the railroad ties. In the heat of battle all the crew would gather on one side and it would start to tip. We would run back to the other side and tip it the other way. In the process the railroad ties would slip out from under the pallet and float away. The wounded warship would try to limp off to dry dock, but it was too late. She would sink with all hands aboard. Or tip and leave us standing knee deep in our school shoes. Then for us the war was over. We were all POW’s sentenced to house arrest just as soon as our mothers heard our squishing shoes come through the back door. Monte Montegue would get the longest sentence because his parents were the most strict. Mine were in the middle. Max Reece would get off with a scolding. Partly because his parents were more lenient, mostly because he was a genius in negotiation. He might even end up with a new pair of shoes. Before we faced the inevitable we would wade in our soggy Levis and squishy shoes, and go lie on a rock on the bank and see how much the pollywogs had grown since we did this last.

That was what the Utah Interurban Line meant to us. Our beloved playground and training ground for life. We learned mechanical engineering, excavation, military science, marine biology, and penology when we got home.

We knew it was a dangerous place. For one thing there was a sign nailed to the wall of the big brick shops where they worked on the trains. The track went close to the building. So posted on the building was a sign. In black and white letters with rust around the edges it said, “Warning. Will not clear man on side of car.” I knew the words, but I couldn’t understand what the message was. I learned later it meant that a person holding the ladder and riding on the side of the car had better get off before he got to the building because there wasn’t room to clear him. But this was a little complicated for me to figure out. Fortunately Mildred Bjearnson who lived a vacant lot and a house down from us was smarter and older than we were. And she knew everything. She mentioned that to us occasionally. She carefully explained to me that the sign meant if you got squashed on the side of the railroad car the company would not come and scrape your remains off. That is they would not “clear man on side of car.” Apparently your friends, family and loved ones would have to come with a shovel, a paint scraper, a sponge and bucket and clear you off and take you home.

Eventually even the gentlest of ladies grows old and so did the Salt Lake Interurban railroad line. They began to call her The Red Heifer or Leapin’ Lena. The automobiles took away her passengers. The trucks made off with her freight, and soon instead of 22 trains a day they were down to 12, then six. Her roadbed got less attention. It got so bumpy and out of alignment that they said you could buy a ticket to Salt Lake and get twice your money’s worth. Instead of 66 miles straight to Salt Lake you got double your travel for your dollar (actually a cent and a half a mile) by the journey from side to side and up and down on that wiggly train bed. In 1946 she pulled her last string of cars through the Peteetneet hill cut and off to Salt Lake. They shut her down.

Fortunately for us it took a few years to get all the junk out and then the city took it over to maintain their equipment, so it wasn’t a total loss.  Eventually it went away. But our train of the old west still has its memorials. One is the cow barn turned tool shed in the Hiatt’s back yard. This was made out of wood from a boxcar that my father negotiated with them. We and the neighbors tore it down, hauled the wood away and built our chicken coop which later became a cow barn, then a shed. We were recyclers before it was fashionable. Good thing, otherwise they would have burned it up as they did the other box cars; a spectacular fire, but a loss of valuable wood in those post-war days.

And even more impressive than our cow barn memorial was landmark to the name of the eastern financier who put up the money to build the line. He wasn’t quite sure he wanted to do it, so the fruit growers on Provo bench sweetened the pot. They wanted to carve a city on that cold, windy, rocky hillside above Prove and they proposed to name it after the financier railroad man. He took them up on it. His train died in 1946. He died in 1951, but his name just keeps getting bigger. Pushing past fifty thousand people now write his name on their return address. The name of Walter C. Orem.

Orem is a fitting memorial for a sharp businessman and a lovely lady of the rails. But there really should be another big brass plaque somewhere saying, “Here was the greatest playground any child ever had.”

What do you think about this part of the book?

Everybody I know is busy, including me.  Where are those golden years I was planning on of sitting on the back porch picking my guitar? So I will send just one little part of the book at a time. You can give it a quick read and tell me what you think if you would like.

I’ve slimmed that process down to two questions, and four strokes on the key board (six if you count “Reply” and “Send.”)

The questions are these:“A” How much did you enjoy this?

“B” How much do you think a person who doesn’t know Duane Hiatt would enjoy this?

The rating is:1. Glanced at it, printed it out and lined the bottom of the bird cage with it.

2. Sped-read it and filed it with my tax return receipts

3. Thought it was about as interesting as a well written obituary

4. Could have put it down, but didn’t want to

5. Couldn’t put it down. Put it in a magnetic frame and stuck it onto the fridge door

So your response would perhaps be A-4, B-3, (Or maybe A-5, B-5, I’m expecting a minimum number of those.)

Also feel free to add comments if you like.

Also, also, feel free to forward this material to anyone you want to.

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