Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chapter Three - Death Cheating Maniacs Part II

Chapter One
Chapter Two

(Quick tip. As you're reading the story and looking at the pictures, you can right click on the picture and select "open link in new tab" -if you're using Firefox- then you can alternate between reading the story and looking at the enlarged picture just moving from tab to tab)

So, I'm still 8 years old and having a blast. One day, a Saturday, I head down to the train tracks to meet up with my buddies. Unfortunately the weather really sucked. It was a cold spring day, very windy, very grey, and drizzling rain, but I wanted to do anything but hang around at home. I got down there, over the people bridge across the tracks and out on to the deck next to the first set of tracks and looked around. Nobody. No doubt they were cuddled up at home studying old issues of their father's Playboy magazines.


The people bridge was attached to the one lane street that led to the tracks and the Ohio River. It was a bridge that crossed over the 4 sets of tracks and then down the stairs on the other side to a loading platform where working people would congregate waiting for the passenger trains to take them to downtown Pittsburgh to work. Those trains went fast all the time... no messing with those suckers. My dad took those trains into work everyday.

I'm there by myself, nothing to do really. I half-heartedly threw a few rocks into the river and all of a sudden I see my dad crossing the bridge, heading for me. Wowsa.
There was no where for me to go, so I just stood there. He got to me, grabbed me by the arm and propelled me back home by pushing my entire body into the air and forward using his hand on my backside. No exaggeration. As I remember it, this day really sucked. Well, needless to say, I stayed away from the tracks for at least a week.

Here's a picture of the area. The island is Neville Island. Click for larger version. The house I grew up in is somewhere on the right hand side close to this side of the island where you can see the smoke stacks. The thing on the right that looks like a bridge is actually the Emsworth lock and dam. Just to the right of it, you can see the train tracks running along the river. Notably , you cannot see the tracks from that point further back towards you. That's because just between the tracks and the residential area is a 100 foot cliff, obscuring the tracks, that we climbed all over like mountain goats. This is where the story goes next.

At this point, I'm around 10 years old now. A bunch of us are down there one day and, in an unusual appearance, is my older brother Steve. He was a year older than me and of course his friends wanted nothing to do with his one year younger Dweeb brother.. We're climbing the cliffs starting from the point just above the little street that leads down there. We're about 20 feet up and I'm resting against a tree watching my brother scale a somewhat sheer rock face that's about 20 feet high leading to a horizontal trail on the cliff. All of a sudden he loses his grip and comes rolling back down straight towards me, rolled up like a pill bug.

Instinctually, I wrapped my left arm around the tree I had been leaning against and just threw my right arm out in his path. He came out of his pill bug configuration right at the time he rolled into me and I wrapped my right arm around his waist and caught him with my right arm while staying attached to the tree with my left. No thought, total instinct. I was more surprised than he was. Man, he told that story every time the two of us were together and people were telling stories and other times no doubt when I wasn't around. According to him, it was 50 feet to the street below and I saved his life in this incredible feat of strength. He exaggerated a little. We cooled the cliff climbing for the day.

In the Neville island picture, the section of river that went between the tracks and the island was about 3/4's of a mile. Barges were constantly running up and down the river hauling coal and other materials to the steel mills just off the picture on the top right.

We would swim in the river and back in those days the river was more of a chemical experiment. Every heavy industry around Pittsburgh dumped their waste into the river and my Mom always knew I was lying about swimming in it because she'd have to soak my black underwear in Clorox to get them white again. Plus, she'd see us hauling inner tubes down there. We were lazy liars. I can only imagine what my Mom thought about our activities, the details of which she didn't find out about at all or until much later but she must have had some idea.

We would swim out to these barges, and the guys on the barge would always warn us about getting too close, because the barges tend to suck you under and draw you right for the propellers. They would throw us bags of apples and other food items that we could catch and haul back to shore. Before we swam back, we'd wait until the barge just got past us and swim like hell to get directly in back of the thing where there would be 3-5 foot waves coming off the back from the draft and those propellers. A quick thrill. The one in the picture doesn't have his engines cranked up much from the looks of it.

Swim back to shore, try not to step on any broken glass on the way out, which was usually caused by us tossing bottles into the river then throwing rocks at them to break them before the current took them too far away. Then it's time for a snack and see what kind of stuff we can think up to do next.

Well, one of the guys in our group was a big crazy mother. His name was Dwayne. We found a spot where the maintenance crews had several bottles of oxygen and acetylene lying around by the tracks for miscellaneous welding jobs and they were usually full. We cooked up a scheme to build a catamaran type deal out of wood that was lying around. The Ben Avon lumber company was nearby and they often dumped junk wood 'out back', which happened to be near the tracks or close enough. Onto this catamaran type deal, we would lash one of the oxygen bottles to the top, point the sucker out into the river and wait for a barge to come chugging along.

Took us a few days to get the thing built and haul one of our dad's sledge hammers down there.

We're ready to go and here comes a barge. We slip this contraption into the river and as the barge starts to come close; Dwayne hauls off with the sledge and knocks the valve off the top of the oxygen bottle. That sucker propelled this catamaran thing just like a torpedo straight out into the river and slammed into the side of the barge - BoOiIoIIoong!. The dudes who were working on the barge looked kinda scared for a second when they saw it coming, then shook their hands at us after it hit and they saw who the perps were. Man, that was beautiful, funny as hell and total luck. We never did it again.

I know you don't believe this. This is one of the stories I stopped telling. But consider we were 10. We could tear our bikes down and put em back together. We built wooden cars and knew how to make them so they'd go straight down the hill. We were in Boy Scouts and had built wooden lookout towers lashing logs together with rope. We read Playboy magazine. Well we looked at it mostly. We were entrepreneurs ! And Damn, that was a blast, and I admit I was no where near that oxygen bottle when Dwayne pounded the valve off the top.

Well, back to the Ben Avon Bridge. Click the picture for a larger version.
I guess this really is THE Ben Avon bridge. It is further away than it looks and it is taller.. or maybe we were smaller. Anyway, my brother Steve and I are down there and we approach the bridge from the underside from the road area.

I tell him I'm gonna climb out to the middle area underneath. He can't believe it.

I start going. The vertical cement pillars you see coming from the arches to the bottom of the bridge are wide enough that as I passed them, my toes and about half my foot would be on the arch portion and with my arms extended, only my fingers and half my palm of each hand would be on either side of the pillar. As I said, they are wider than they look. At 10, I guess my reach is about 2 feet. Maybe a little more. Too late to check it. So I make may my way past all the pillars and I get to the top area of the arch.

As you can see on this angle, there is a pillar, a wall, a pillar, a wall,and another pillar. On the inside of the bridge, where I was travelling, there is actually a 'room'. No wall. So you could get yourself around the pillar and get into a 3 sided room between the top of the arch and the bottom of the bridge. Given the height at that area, I had to lay on my side to go around the pillar. Again, the ledge is about wide enough to get a size 6 shoe halfway on and halfway off as the toes are pointed toward the pillar, so there isn't a lot of room to put your body as you traverse from the arch to the room around the pillar. I start going anyway. Steve is yelling at me that I'm out of my mind. I am of course. I get around to the point my head is all the way around the pillar which puts a lot of my body weight into thin air as I grasp at the far side of the pillar with my gecko-like finger tips and just then a bunch of freakin pigeons fly out of the room (their nest) right towards me. Scary. But I don't move. They're gone now. Jeeesh. I make my way into the first of 2 rooms. I breeze through the next one, down the other side of the arch and off to the middle set or rooms.

We figured this bridge was about 150 feet from the ground below in the middle. The lumber company had some German Sheppard dogs who would wander around underneath like junkyard dogs and we were convinced that if one fell and lived, the dogs would eat us. Actually, they'd probably lick your face. Your dead face.

So, I get into the first room and rest. My God. I look out across the underside of the bridge and sticking out from the underside of the roadway are a number of rebar pieces sticking straight down out of the cement about 8 to 10 inches long. I don't have a picture of it but this gives you a conceptual idea of what we're talking about.

The underside of the bridge, given it is a 4 lane roadway, with no center turn lane, guessing about 8 feet per lane gives us 32 feet across from one side to the other. Subtract the width of the arches and we're talking 20 feet or so.

IN THE MIDDLE of the underside of the roadway next to one of the rebar pieces is something written in black spray paint. It says Dwayne G.........

Are you shittin me?

Dwayne either swung out there 10 feet like a monkey with a can of spray paint and wrote his name on the bottom of the bridge holding on with one hand, or built some kind of contraption to hold a spray can out there and using some sort of remote control to press the trigger on the spray can wrote his name. I shit you not. Wow. I was impressed and not inclined to try to top the dude.

As an aside, isn't it cool how you can go to Google and actually find pictures of this stuff? Hell, you could go to Microsoft Live Earth (better pics than Google) and get a recent satellite close up image.

(Believe it or not - Even more tracks, river, cliff stuff to come in Chapter 4)


  1. I think you must have been a U boat commander in a previous life. Good writing!

  2. I get the feeling I've been many things. ;-)

    Thanks Gene.

    Hope you're enjoying it. It may be on the North East Milford Ohio's best seller list someday.