I don’t know if I woke up that morning with a plan or, like many boys, decided to turn found junk into opportunity. Or perhaps it was another kid’s idea. But the plan on a hot, sunny, summer’s day in the early 1970’s was to catch some frogs. Nothing at all unique about this endeavor for rural preteen boys, but for urban youth, it required a measure of planning and adventure.
2438 Seabury Rd in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD was home. It was my home. I lived in Section 8 housing but I didn’t know it at the time. A single mom and two boys living in an apartment on the right-hand side of the court, eventually moved to a townhouse over on the left. That court was our world and we did not often venture far beyond its borders except to cross the street to the elementary school playground and basketball court, or to the nearest corner store to buy penny candy. We all new each other. It was the kind of place, and a place in time, when the neighbors were empowered to discipline you. And the maintenance workers might toss a football around with you in between tasks.
On this day, though, we were going to catch us some frogs. But where? First things first. We needed a vessel for the frogs. My friend Keith, a brown, lanky kid with a small afro, and my brother’s friend, Tony who was a year or two older, joined me as I rummaged through neighbors hot garbage cans for frog storing containers. We emerged with plastic jugs and milk cartons that we, with ghetto ingenuity, transformed by cutting the tops off and creating handles using pieces of twine.
Now, where? Beyond the borders of the court and the elementary school, sat the Patapsco River which fed into Baltimore’s harbor. Good for catching crabs, not so much for frogs. Our attentions turned west to the train tracks.
Someone told someone who, in turn, told Keith that creeks and streams ran parallel to the tracks so we surmised that frogs must exist in the general vicinity. In tank-top, cut off shorts, Jack Purcells and pals in tow, I headed west for a couple of miles in search of amphibians. Along the way, Keith tells tales of strings of fireworks that dangle from passing trains. He tells us, “If we can hop the train without getting caught, we can snatch some firecrackers to take back home.” Even as an 8-year-old, that hardly seemed plausible. But what the hell, I was up for anything.
The tracks were rusty looking and raised above grade. They were surrounded with crushed stone on each side. To our delight, a stream ran along side a portion of the tracks, among a thin line of trees. Even at 8 years old, I had experience catching frogs. My grandparents bought a parcel of land in Carol County and I spent many a summer’s day catching frogs, snakes and turtles. So I lead the way. We filled our containers with water from the stream and set them on leveled ground.
Wading ankle-deep, hands held 6 inches or so apart, we moved slowly so as not to disturb the wildlife. Frogs sat along the bank of the stream, unsuspecting, warming their cold blood. Keith, too anxious, misses his first. He mutters a choice profanity or two. I snag my first. Then a second. The others join in with better success having watched a pro in action.
In the distance, we hear the clacking of train wheels on tracks drawing neigh. “Firecrackers”! Keith yells. The frogs that we managed to catch were put into the 3 containers and sat closer to the tracks. We waited patiently and grew excited as the train came into view. Keith told us to run along side the train and grab any rail or handle to pull ourselves up. I think Keith lied about the fireworks. I saw none. Still, hopping a moving train seemed fun and so we moved, like experienced hobos, to make our way on-board.
The train appeared to move slow on approach but seemed to gain steam as it was upon us. Clacking with rhythm. Clacking with purpose. And so were we. Moving alongside the train as fast as our little preteen legs could carry us. We three intrepid boys searched for something to grab onto. I trailed the other two and began to run out of steam. Keith and Tony kept trying in earnest. Laughing and running along side the cars, looking for something, anything to grab a hold of. Hands on knees, huffing and puffing, we three boys watched the train move on down the line. Victorious.
An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. I was scared and afraid to admit it. Not afraid of getting on the train, but getting off of the train. Jumping off of a moving train was not something I even remotely wanted to attempt.
We made the long trek back to the frogs, failures as hobos. What seemed like miles of track was most likely a few hundred yards. Back at the site, the frogs were gone, containers smashed. Shocked and perplexed, we three boys stood there silent, speechless, and dumbfounded. Who would do such a thing? Who would ruin the perfect afternoon? It was such flapdoodle that we struggled to comprehend what might have transpired during the short time that we chased the train. One frog remained in my plastic milk container, smashed and bloodied. A sad and truculent act.
I watched Keith’s eyes as he spied a figure emerging from the tree line. A boy, much older than the three of us, carrying a hunter’s bow with bladed arrow. This older boy told us that he was looking for some “white dudes” that assaulted his father. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would-be hunter of white dudes was not himself the capricious, frog-murdering bastard that ruined my afternoon. But Tony and Keith were enchanted by the bow and arrow and did not share my suspicion. They had never seen and hunter’s bow and arrow up close. Neither had I for that matter.
“How far can that thing go?”, Keith chimed. “Really far”, answered the stranger. Now he had my interest and attention. “Let me see”, I added. “Shoot it up”, I pointed to the sky. The stranger, bow in left hand, motioned with his right, gesticulating that we give some clearance. He pointed the bow upward, pulled the string back to his ear, and loosed the arrow. It flew straight up, climbing until it was out of sight. We three boys stood, planted in the gravel, mouths wide open and eyes bulging out of our heads. The stranger’s faced turned from a look of accomplishment to having a real “oh shit” moment. “Run!”, the stranger yelled.
Without knowing the intricacies and particulars of the laws of gravity, even we three boys knew that what goes up, must come down. We scrambled. Nervous laughter echoed and gravel flew as we made our way to the tree line. My foot slipped and I landed on one knee. With a thud, the arrow landed in my back. Lodged into my right scapula.
I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the shock of being shot. Given all the wide open space, what were the odds that a single arrow shot into the air would find its way through my flesh and into bone? I fell face down in the gravel, arrow shaft sticking out of my back. Cowboys and Indians for real. The stranger panicked. He grabbed hold of the arrow with one hand and placed the other hand on my left shoulder. He yanked. He shouldn’t have done that. Every western movie you have ever seen said don’t yank the arrow. But he yanked. And he ran. I stood. And I bled.
Gash in the back and bleeding profusely I, with my friends, started the long trek back to Seabury Rd. The energy drained from me with every step. The sun grew hotter and my tank top began to stick to my skin as the blood coagulated. The boys were concerned but none of us had any idea how serious the situation had become.