Exciting, funny, and just a little odd—it’s all good! Jerry

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How different could it be? It was only four or five blocks from where I lived, just across the tracks.

The Southern Pacific railroad lines went through my little town in the Central Valley of California. Often you would see trucks loading fresh produce and livestock onto freight cars. At night, mostly during the summer months, the freight yard would be all lit up with workers offloading trucks into freight cars that were being pushed into place. The loud locomotive engines with the clanging of the cars being coupled together was exciting to watch and hear.

My friends and I often visited the freight yard. Although there were only one or two main tracks there were several other side tracks that only went only a little way. Some of these side tracks were used for loading off of elevated ramps but others had old train cars that were out of service. It was kind of like a graveyard of these old railroad cars. We loved to explore those cars, especially the old passenger cars, but there were old engines, cabooses, and all types of old freight cars. We liked to sit in and on the cars and imagine we were on a journey somewhere.

As we goofed around in the freight yards we would look over to the other side of the tracks, always wondering what was going on over there. We did not really know much about what was there. We lived on one side of the tracks and a lot of other people lived on the other side of the tracks.

As we watched people walking back and forth across the tracks it was easy to see that they did not look like anyone who lived in our neighborhood. Everyone on our side of the tracks was white, and everyone on the other side of the tracks was not white, mostly Black.

One day we spotted a woman crossing the tracks that we knew from our neighborhood. It was Linda. She worked in a house a few doors from where I lived. We figured she took care of the kids that lived there, and we knew for sure she baked pies. We had often eaten fresh pies she had made, and they were so, so delicious.

As time went on, my friend Leon and I got more and more curious as to what was going on, on the other side of the tracks. We started to put together a plan to see what was over there.

It would be too dangerous, we thought, to just go on our own, although we had not really heard any bad stories. Maybe we could just walk over during the day, go into a little store, buy a coke, and rush right back to the freight yard. Then it came to us, we would stop Linda as she crossed and ask her if we could go to her house for some pie. That seemed a little corny, but we figured she would know that we just wanted to look around.

The day finally came where we worked up enough courage and when we saw Linda crossing the tracks in the late afternoon, we jumped off a rail car where we were sitting and rushed over to her. She smiled and said “hi,” and we replied, “we love your pies and were wondering if we could get a slice.” It did sound corny, but she knew we just wanted to look around where she lived. She asked if it was okay with our moms, and we, of course, said “oh yes.”

Off we went; myself, my friend, and Linda. As we walked along, we could see it was different than were we lived. The houses were older and smaller and there were not any sidewalks. There were some little stores here and there and a lot of people, mostly kids, like us, playing. But they were not like us, we were white and everyone else was not white. We did hear some Spanish spoken but mostly we heard English.

As we walked along, Linda would glance at us and smile a little. We were staring at everything and everybody, but no one seemed to notice us.

Within a few blocks of the tracks we arrived at Linda’s house. It was not at all like the house I lived in. It was a lot smaller for one thing with only a few rooms. It had a big wooden porch and a big front yard but there was no grass, flower beds, trees, or fences.

Linda introduced us to everyone. There were several kids about our age, and I was not sure if they lived there or somewhere nearby. Everyone was nice and polite with a lot of handshakes and smiles. It seemed kind of like a birthday party, family reunion, celebration of some sort, because everyone was so friendly and cheerful.

It was about this time that reality hit home for myself and my friend Leon. We started looking at each other and without speaking I could tell we were both thinking, this is so different than where we live, but at the same time everyone seemed just like us.

Before too long we were playing baseball in the street. While we played, I wished I had my nice Wilson mitt, but I noticed no one else had a mitt.

It was like we were playing with the kids in our neighborhood, but why didn’t these kids go to my Junior High School? I never saw them at the local plunge, and everyone went to the plunge in the summer. I guessed they went to another school and must have had their own plunge. But it was a small town with only one Junior High School and one plunge.

We played for a little while then Linda called everyone for pie. I remember it was a fresh cherry pie and it was so good, just like we ate where she worked. I quickly deducted that she brought the pie home with her from where she worked. The house where she lived did not seem to have much in the way of a kitchen. It was not like the house where she worked or my house.

After a couple of hours, we decided to head home. We thanked Linda and her family and said goodbye to all the kids. We ran all the way until we crossed the tracks.

I did not say anything to anyone about our experience, except my older brother. He told me never to go there again and I was lucky I did not get in serious trouble. The first thing I thought was you do not know what you are talking about. I had a lot of fun and everyone was so nice.

As I talked more about this experience with Leon, we both concluded that someone was fooling us, and a lot of people, about what was on the other side of the tracks. The difference was not the people. The kids were just like us; the only difference was they did not look exactly like us. It became clear as we talked more and more that the only difference was that we had more than those kids; bigger houses, bigger yards, cars, a lot of things, including plenty of bats, balls, and mitts. At the time we could not figure out why that was, but it did not feel or seem right to us.

It was a fortunate and mind opening experience that Leon and I had that I did not fully understand until later in life. Why Leon and I took the chance to cross the tracks is hard to say. Yes, we were curious, but there must have been something else driving us to explore and find out about a different place. But as it turned out it was not different in what really matters, the people. Linda took a big chance too. Later I figured out that if anyone would have known she escorted us to her house she may have been in big trouble. My hunch is that she consciously thought, this is an opportunity to teach us about how she and her family and community lived.

We eventually grew out of the thrill of goofing around in the freight yards, but we did cross the tracks several times to go to Linda’s house. It was always the same; everyone was glad to see us and pie was served. Where Linda worked it was pie, ice cream, and milk and seconds if you wanted. But at Linda’s house it was just pie. The pie at Linda’s house was always better because of the people we shared it with. Thank you, Linda, for everything.