Saturday, July 15, 2017

DOWN BY THE TRACKS – The Forbidden Allure of St. Paul’s St. Clair Park

How ironic that the same steamy, southeasterly summer breezes that wafted over my boyhood home with the stench of death from South St. Paul’s Swift and Armour slaughter houses also carried the romantic, mournful wail of trains passing, blocks away, down below the bluff at St. Clair Park.

Those sounds were among my first and fondest childhood memories. Once in a great while, Dad would drive my brother and me over to the park’s scenic overlook where we waited for 15 or 20 minutes to see if a train would come.

PHOTO: Doug Kroll

By the time I was ten, I’d learned that, come nightfall, that overlook was for a different kind of “parking,” the one involving couples doing…what couples do. My trouble-making little pals and I were always tempted to spy on them…but, alas, we weren’t allowed out that late.

      Our parents weren’t idiots; they warned us
      about the shady connection between slow-
      moving freight trains and desperate men.

When I got to be twelve or so, I enjoyed a bit more parental leeway. By that time, my friends and I found what was going on above the hill at St. Clair Park far less interesting than what happened down below on the banks and along the railroad tracks. On those slopes we explored a maze of tunnel-like paths among the thick underbrush, where we found the kind of dangerous and exotic things that begin to open up the real world to a boy that age.

There were the bums. Our parents weren’t idiots; they warned us about the shady connection between slow-moving freight trains and desperate men. Nonetheless, we had a few encounters with those characters. We weren't quite sure which was more com- pelling: the alleged danger or our fascination with the sights, sounds...and smells of scrag- gly men and their paradoxical freedom.                                 
There were the lovers. Once, deep in the underbrush, we happened upon a couple doing what they didn’t quite dare do up above the bluff in their cars. I still feel bad for interrupting them. And they evidently weren’t the only ones; we must have found dozens of used prophylactics down there. I’m pretty sure one of my more worldly pals had to tell me they weren’t balloons.

This romantic appeal of St. Clair Park’s nether regions wasn’t lost on me; in fact, it turned out to be the setting for my first kiss with a girl. I had a serious crush on my little class-mate, Susan. I don’t remember how we arranged for the tryst, but we ended up in a sort of cave under an abandoned coal elevator, where we very deliberately agreed to see what it would be like. It was like…well, what can I say;
I guess you never forget your first time.

         It was like the very best,  funnest class 
         in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, 
         sociology…all rolled into one.

Then there was the wildlife. Turns out we weren’t the only creatures plying those rabbit warrens below the park. There were…okay…rabbits. But also snakes, foxes, raccoons, possums and all sorts of creepy, crawly things. Even—probably because the trains spilled lots of grain along the tracks—the occasional skulking rat.

I must say we rarely looked up lest we miss another rubber, a cheap piece of lost jewelry, a spent bullet casing or maybe a still-smokeable cigarette butt. But when we did, above us was a flying menagerie of other critters: songbirds, crows, raptors, and winged insects. And all of it as exotic as those far-flung jungle scenes we'd see in a Tarzan movie.

And, of course, there were the trains. To a young boy, seeing and hearing one with your dad from fifty feet up and a block away is one thing; being right on the tracks as a 150-ton locomotive approaches—feeling the ground shake, hearing the explosive blast of that horn—that’s another thing altogether.

Who knows how lore like this spreads, but we’d heard that those big locomotives were so heavy they could squash a penny. (We’d also heard that putting one on the track could cause a train to derail.) So, guess which rumor moved us. (Yes, a train actually does flatten a penny quite nicely.)

Maybe it was something we contracted from all those hoboes, but we were also fascinated with the idea of hopping one of those trains and seeing where it might take us. Though I don’t think it would ever have entered my parents’ minds to say, “Never…ever…hop a freight train,” somehow I knew it had to be insanely dangerous.

Still, that didn’t entirely stop us; we’d pick one of the slower trains and run alongside a boxcar’s U-shaped step-up just to see if we’d be fast enough. I think one of my buddies actually did hop up and grab on—but he jumped right off again when he realized the train was speeding up. That whole thing, thank God, could have turned out badly.

Besides all the fun and adventure, it’s hard to overstate the amount of learning that transpired down there at St. Clair Park. Climbing up things; sliding down things; building things; lighting things on fire; blowing things up with firecrackers; digging, piling…oh, and—I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad were smart enough to have guessed as much—smoking.

It was like the very best, funnest class in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, physiology, sociology…all rolled into one. And no silly parents telling us we couldn’t do what we knew darn well we could.

        Most of parents’ cautions are based on 
        culturally-fomented fears, not facts, about 
        the actual incidence of childhood accidents 
        and crime.


Just now, I googled “St. Clair Park, St. Paul,” and next to nothing shows up; I can’t even find a picture of the place. Though I haven’t driven by for many years, I'm guessing it must have changed considerably. Who knows, maybe it’s not even a park any more; maybe it’s covered in luxury condos.

And I’m sure that kind of place is even further off the radar for today's generation of kids. Hell, parents barely let their children out of their sight any more, much less set them free to actually explore their own limits the way we once did—the only way, in fact, that kids can truly exercise their creativity, judgement and self-reliance.

Much easier to let the little ones fall under the spell of whatever’s lurking on those mesmerizing little glowing screens. No danger there, right?

What a shame, for most of parents’ cautions these days about letting kids roam are based on culturally-fomented fears, not facts, about the actual incidence of childhood accidents and crime—neither of which has proven to be any higher than it was in those halcyon days of our own youth. But I guess lawyers, insurers and the media have their own reasons for letting them think otherwise.

I can still feel the exuberance of testing our boyhood metal against the worst challenges our little urban jungle could dish out. It was a time of such freedom, such camaraderie and fun—a priceless time. Sometimes I dream of going back and being that impressionable, awe-struck boy once again. And now and then, albeit in other, more distant wild places—including some real jungles—I still live that dream.

Except now my lusty, full-voice Tarzan yell comes out in a wavering baritone, not soprano.


jean said...

This post makes me wish I had been a boy growing up! :) We girls ran around in gangs but we did things like ride elevators from floor to floor in newly built department stores and drool over sweaters and charm bracelets. But we could go anywhere unsupervised with no parental fear of our being kidnapped or harmed in any way. We ran all over town and loved our freedom. I do feel sorry for the kids today who will never know how that feels.

Jeffrey Willius said...

You're right, Jean. I'm hard-pressed to think of many ways in which today's technology and all its effects on life really make life any better for a kid.

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