Stories from Exeter

The Gentry Boys Go West
by Carla Gentry Kaufman
If it were not for the telling and retelling of this tale I would never have known about the adventurous train ride that my older brothers embarked upon as it happened in the summer of 1933.

We lived right beside the railroad tracks. The depot was just across the street east of our house. The trains always stopped there to unload the freight. These were the big steam belching locomotives pulling the train. The caboose for passengers was always the last car.

In those days there were a lot of hobos riding the rails. This may have been the incentive for the boys trip. Or perhaps their older sister. Joyce, encouraged them to go to get them out of her hair. Whatever the reason the two boys, Sonny, 8, and Delbert, 7, armed with a fruit jar full of water and some bread and butter sandwiches climbed the ladder to the top of a box car to head west.

I don't know how my mother found out what they were doing. Perhaps it was a mother's instinct or more likely, brother Herbie who was only five and not allowed to accompany them squealed on them.

Anyway my mother who was very pregnant, expecting her fourth son in August, found out they were on the train as it was pulling out. She was running down the tracks, stumbling on the cinders and ties, screaming. When the conductor, who was in the caboose saw her, she started wildly pointing to the top of the train. He climbed up, saw the boys and started swinging his lantern to signal the engineer to stop. The caboose was a block west of our house, right on the main street of Exeter.

In those days corporal punishment was immediate and severe. As the boys descended, the conductor with one foot on the ground and one foot on the bottom step of the ladder, put them across his knee and blistered their behinds. By the time he was finished my mom had arrived to lead her howling boys home.


by Carla Gentry Kaufman

You could almost see the school house from our front steps. It was only two blocks away with three streets to cross.

This can be a pretty treacherous journey for a five year old; especially for one who grew up behind four brothers with vivid imaginations whose main goal in life was to torment their three sisters. The other two girls were older than the boys, so being younger I became their main target.

They had me totally intimidated with their tales of the boogie man, the thunder man, hobos, lightning, the dark, trains, snakes, bugs. Oh the gruesome stories they could tell.

The youngest boy was five years older than me so the ones still at home would have been 10 and 14. Under no circumstances were they going to walk their stinking little sister to school. My mother walked me there, via the shortest route, a few days before school so I would know the way. This was the only way I knew.

It involved carefully crossing the road. Then you were on the depot property. It ran for about three quarters of a block. Here you stepped off the brick platform and crossed the dangerous railroad track. There was a short little dirt path across the empty lot, another street to carefully cross, then the next block had a sidewalk. At the end of it you crossed the street and were on the school grounds. What could be simpler?

These brothers who would not walk with me to school still wanted to be sure that their little sister got there safely. So when our mother was not around they took it upon themselves to warn me of the dangers of the trip.

Trains in those days had steam locomotives. They always stopped at the depot. The huge wheels made horrible sounds as the brakes were applied. Sparks flew from the rails and firebox. Black smoke belched from the smokestack. Huge clouds of steam poured out from the bottom of it. It was one big horrible frightening monster and I was scared silly of it.

The boys pointed out that if you were too close to the track and the engine happened to become derailed, you would be crushed. Just a bloody heap under that train, but it would be fast. On the other hand, if you were too close and the scalding steam got you; it would just cook the meat right off your bones. That would be a pretty painful way to go. You also had to keep looking over your shoulder to watch for the trains because they could come anytime they wanted to. It just wasn't safe to walk too close to the tracks.
Of course you didn't want to walk too close to the depot building because the hobos could jump out and grab you. This warning was always followed by a demonstration which involved my arm being twisted behind my back and a hand clamped over my mouth so mom wouldn't hear me scream.

The safest course was to count the bricks and mark a middle one and then follow that row of bricks to the end. This brick platform between the tracks and building was probably all of ten or fifteen feet wide, but I followed their directions carefully.

The first few days all went well. Mom stood in front of the house and watched me most of the way there. I had it all down pat.

A few days later I had made it past the hobos, if there were any lurking in the depot to grab me, and no trains had come by to scald me or crush me. I carefully crossed the tracks and started down the dirt path. Then I saw it.

There was a garter snake in the path. The boys had told me about them too, how they attacked and the part that was bitten turned black and fell off. Of course, you died. No one ever survived a snake bite.
What a dilemma. I could go back and follow the tracks the few more feet to the road and walk down that. Mom had definitely forbidden me to walk in the road. I knew if I followed the tracks down the next block there was a cinder path because I had seen it from the school corner.

The tracks, however, ran through an empty lot and there were weeds on both sides of it. There could be a lot more snakes out there. If a train happened to come along, not wanting to get scalded or crushed, I'd have to walk out into the weeds and get bitten. Death seemed imminent at every turn.

I mulled all these options in my little mind and finally came to a decision. I grabbed some cinders off the tracks, hurled them at the snake to make him move and ran like hell down that little path.