(This short story is based on a true story I have heard my mother, Etta Gibson, tell over the years. She and her brother Clinton did hobo a train from Robbins to Somerset, KY. in the late 1930's. I have added some fiction to help format this memory into the form of a short story.)
Dan Gibson, author
Copyright © 2002
Etta sitting on the porch of her home in the Black Creek community of Scott County Tennessee viewed the beautiful Cumberland Mountains. It was early June and the landscape was adorned with every spring color you could imagine. The morning mist was rising from the creek and almost hiding certain areas of the landscape. The view would be a dream for the impressionist artist to paint. She thought of her birthday the previous month. She had turned fourteen and had blossomed into a beautiful, young lady. She looked at the mountains in all their glory and could not help but wonder what lay beyond these east Tennessee mountains. She thought of the year, 1937, and wondered what the rest of the world was doing this very moment.
The times were hard. My parents, Bruce and Ethel Willoughby owned their home and they lived off the land. Dad was not in good health and could only work on the farm. Mother took in laundry from the well to do people of the nearby town of Robbins to help make ends meet. My sister Hester is a little older than I am. Our older brother's Clinton, Albert and Basil and younger brother Verdon made up the Willoughby children. We were poor but we had love!
Thinking of her future Etta walked out to the barn and set next to the chopping block. Dreaming of the places that she will visit and the different people she will meet. She wished her life could be more of an adventure. Everyone had told her she was a dreamer and she guess she was. She thought to herself there is nothing wrong with wanting to experience life to the fullest. She looked forward to each new day and wanted to make the most of every minute!
Etta noticed Clinton walking up the lane toward the house. She was especially close to Clinton. She always could talk to him about anything. She waved at Clinton and when he spotted her he made his way toward her.
Etta asked, "Where in the world have you been big brother?"
Clinton walked up to where Etta was sitting and sat down grinning from ear to ear, "Etta how would you like to go on a trip with me today? You can't tell anyone where we will be going. I have it all planned out."
Etta asked pointedly, "What in the world are you talking about?"
Clinton picked up a splinter of wood and put in between his teeth, "Were going to hobo a train all the way to Somerset, Kentucky and back! I have already told dad and mom that I have been hired out to work on the Pemberton farm all day. You could beg mom to let you go with me. I could tell her that you would be a big help to me. We could catch the train a little up the track from Robbins, spend the day in Somerset and hobo a south, bound train back. We could be back in Black Creek by dark. I have done this a couple of times. I can show you how to do it all! Somerset is much larger than Oneida. It will be an adventure for just the two of us! It will be our secret."
Etta pondered, "Clinton do you think we can get away with it? I would love to go!" Etta got chill bumps just thinking about it. She had never been out of Scott County. The north part of the county bordered Kentucky. You had to go through two counties in Kentucky to reach Somerset. Etta got up and started pacing, "I will do it! Clinton, you will have to show me how to get on and off of the train. It sounds scary, but exciting!"
"You go on in the house and start asking mom if you can go with me. Tell her that you can help me and that I said I would watch out for you."
Etta knew this would work. At times her mother would let her and Hester go places if one of the older boys would walk with them. These places were usually churches in surrounding communities. Etta made her way to the back porch. She could hear her mother singing. She took a deep breath and opened the screen door and stepped into the kitchen.
Etta paused, "Mom, Clinton just told me that the Pemberton's have hired him for the day on their farm. He said that he sure could use my help if you would let me go. Can I go mom? I never get to go anywhere! Clinton said that he would watch out for me."
"My my child, how you do ramble on," Ethel said. Etta watched her mother standing at the kitchen table cutting up a chicken in a dish pan for supper. She could tell it made her happy to see her so excited.
Ethel continued, "Let me think about it for a minute Etta. You know that you will be gone all day. It is a five mile walk to the Pemberton farm. You all are sure use to walking though. I guess since you will be with your brother it will be alright for you to go."
Etta gave her mother a big hug and said, "Thank you."
She raced out of the kitchen letting the screen door slam back hard to find Clinton! Etta yelled, "Clinton, Clinton, where are you?"
Clinton answered back, "I am out behind the barn sloppin' the hogs."
Etta ran through the back yard dodging the freshly, washed sheets hanging on the clothes line blowing in the wind. Etta reached Clinton completely out of breath, "She said that I could go! She really said I could go!"
Clinton smiled at his little sister, "You go and do what you need to do to get ready. I will be ready to go in thirty minutes!"
Etta dashed back to the house. This time she went through the front yard to the front porch. She opened the front door and went straight to her bed room. Hester was sitting on the bed sewing on one
of her dresses.
Hester declared, "Etta you look like the cat that caught the mouse! You are up to no good. What's going on?" Etta made a face, "Mom agreed to let me go with Clinton to the Pemberton farm for the day. Clinton wants me to help him. That is all!" Hester rose from the bed, "You and Clinton have something up your sleaves. What ever it is, you better be careful and not let dad and mom find out!" Etta snapped, "Oh Hester, you just think the worse of me and Clinton!" Hester started out of the room and turned around and smiled, "Sissy, I know you like a book!"
Etta would loved to have been able to tell Hester the truth. Clinton had said that this was their secret. When it was all over, she would share everything with Hester. All she could think of now was what would she wear. She decided on a full, circle skirt. It would be easy to run in if she had to. She picked a rose, colored blouse to wear. She would also wear her flat, heeled shoes. They would probably do a great deal of walking. She sat down in front of the dresser mirror and put on some make-up. She brushed her hair with swift strokes. She put on the clothes that she had picked out. She stood up and inspected herself in the mirror. She was pleased! She heard Clinton outside hollering for her. Etta said good by to everyone. She hurriedly walked to meet Clinton. Side by side, they walked down the lane toward the creek.
They started the two, mile walk to Robbins. It was good the Pemberton farm was in that direction.
Clinton walking tall and proud, took out his comb and started combing his black hair straight back. Etta
laughed, "Clinton, you have enough hair oil on to fry a big, fat cat fish!" Clinton playfully tried to comb
Etta's hair with his comb. Etta shouted, "Clinton Willoughby don't you dare put that oily comb of yours
in my hair!"
They walked in silence for awhile. It was a beautiful, fall day. The morning air felt good and cool.
The sun sprinkled through the trees. The light looked as if it were dancing! They spotted a ground
hog at the edge of the woods. It was sitting up on his hind legs. The ground hog had something in his
front paws eating it. He would eat for a few seconds, and then he would stop and look both ways. He
would then commence to eat again. Etta and Clinton stood under the shade of an oak tree for a few
minutes and watched the ground hog have his breakfast. Clinton broke the silence, "Come on Etta, we
have to get to the tracks before the train comes in. The train just might get into Robbins at the right time
When they got to Robbins, they headed for the train station. The train had not arrived yet. Clinton
put his head close to Etta's head and whispered, "Will just start walking up the side of the track. People
will probably think were headin' for the Bowlin' place. I know a place where we can jump the train so no
one will spot us!" Etta excitedly said, "You mean that we have to get on the train while it is goin'!" Clinton snapped back, "What do you think hoboin' is? The conductor won't let us on with out a ticket.
Do you know what a ticket would cost all the way to Somerset? You don't have to worry Etta. I will show
you exactly what to do." Etta felt nervous, but she felt safe with Clinton. This would be one day to
They had walked about a fourth of a mile up the track when they heard the train whistle blow. This
singled that the train was leaving the station. Clinton grabbed Etta by the arm and pulled her behind
some tall under brush. "We have to hide here so the conductor can't see us. We will wait for all the
passenger cars go by, and then I will pick one of the open box cars for us." The train started going by,
faster and faster! Clinton spoke, "See that box car with SOUTHERN wrote on it. That's the one we will
try for. Run as fast as you can behind me. When I get up in it, I will pull you up. Do you hear me Etta?"
Etta's heart was pounding. A part of her wanted to be back on Black Creek, but the biggest part of her
was pulling her toward the train and adventure! "Yes, I hear you Clinton Willoughby. You had better
not let go of me. You hear!" Clinton smiled, "Get ready, run Etta run!" Clinton and Etta started running
beside the train. Clinton yelled, "faster Etta faster!" Etta was right behind Clinton. She was a good
runner. She saw SOUTHERN written on the box car as Clinton jumped up and grabbed the iron ladder
and pulled himself up in the car. Clinton down on his knees was holding the ladder with his left hand.
With his right arm stretched out, He yelled to Etta,"Run faster Etta." Etta felt as if her lungs were
about to explode! She reached for Clinton's hand. She liked four inches to touch his fingers. The train
was picking up steam. She knew it was now or never. With one last spurt of energy, their hands locked
together . She could feel Clinton pulling her upward. She stuck one foot on the iron ladder and hoisted
herself up. Still holding Clinton's hand, she landed half in the box car and half out. With her long, skinny legs dangling outside the train, Clinton pulled her in! With arms around each other's shoulder gasping for breath, they both laughed and at the same time said, "We did it, we did it!"
Etta and Clinton sat quietly watching the landscape rolling by. She liked the sound that the train
made. There was a constant thump she felt from the iron wheels rolling on the railroad tracks. She
thought to herself, if only Hester could see her now! Clinton broke the silence, "Oneida will be the next
stop. The train will be there no more than ten minutes. We will have to move farther back in this here
car so nobody will spot us. Do you think that you can be quite for that long Etta?" Etta knew that
Clinton was kidding her. "I can be quite as a mouse for ten minutes but no longer." They both heard the
train whistle and knew that they were entering Oneida. Clinton pulled Etta to one side of the box car
that was in the shadows. They sat leaned on each other and waited.
Etta could hear people talking in the distance. The passenger cars were way up front. She knew that ten minutes had past and more. All of a sudden the train jerked forward, and the whistle blew. She could feel the train moving slowly. Etta let out a sigh, "Well, that was the longest ten minutes that I have ever waited!" Clinton said, "O ye of little patience." Etta snapped back, "Don't you go quotin' the Bible to
me Clinton Willoughby!" Etta was not for sure if that was the Bible, but she always had to have the last
word. Clinton just looked at Etta and laughed. Etta asked, "How many miles is it to Somerset?" Clinton looked at his little, sister's, serious, face and stated, "I reckon it's about sixty miles from Robbins to Somerset, Kentucky." Etta thought to herself how far that was. She was going to another state!
She and Clinton sat for awhile in silence looking at the landscape passing by. She was amazed at
how fast the train went. The train rocked and swayed as the iron wheels rolled on the railroad track.
Clinton had just informed her that they were in Kentucky now. She noticed many cedar trees. Large and
small ones everywhere. This part of Kentucky had more cedar trees than Black Creek. The train followed a rushing river for a few miles. Clinton said it was the Cumberland River. He also told her about a big water falls on up the river called Cumberland Falls. She would love to see that. Eastern Kentucky was rugged, wild and beautiful! Etta looked at her brother. He could have asked Hester, Verdon or anybody to go with him, but he had chosen her. She loved all of her brothers, but she was especially close to Clinton. Clinton is always fun to be with. He always treats me as an equal!
The swaying of the train was making Etta sleepy. She stretched out and laid her head on Clinton's knee. She watched the mountains and sky pass by. Etta fell asleep. The sudden jerk and the loud noise of
the train jolted Etta awake! She sat up and ask, "Where are we at Clinton?" Clinton smiled at his little
sister rubbing her eyes with the palm of her hands, "Were coming into Somerset."
The train started slowing down for a big curve a mile or two up the track. Clinton said, "Etta that is where we have to jump off. Somerset is to big of a city to get off right in downtown. Train people will be everywhere. "My goodness Clinton," Etta said, We had to jump on the train while it was movin' to get
on, and now we have to jump off the train while it's movin' to get off! If mom and dad finds out about
this, they will skin us alive!" Clinton snapped, "They won't find out unless you open your big mouth and
tell!" Etta knew that Clinton was just giving her a hard time. "This won't be bad at all Etta. The train slows down real slow to make it around that sharp curve. I will tell you when to jump, and we will land in a big patch of sage grass. You have to do as I say! When we hit the ground, just fall and roll. If you don't do like I say, you could twist your ankle real bad or worse! Are you with me?" Etta laughed and said, "You don't expect me to stay on this train forever, do you! I will be right behind you Clinton Willoughby!"
Etta and Clinton started walking toward the sharp curve on the railroad track. Etta stopped when she first got a full view of Somerset, Kentucky. She realized it was several times larger than Oneida. She could see many church steeples rising toward the sky. It was a beautiful city and a beautiful day!
She and Clinton stepped off the tracks unto a city street. They made their way to the downtown area.
Etta noticed how big the houses were, and every street had a wide, concrete sidewalk. There were many
cars and people on main street. The court house looked old and grand and covered a complete block.
There were statues made of stone in the court house yard. The county seat of Scott County was in a
small town called Huntsville. It had a beautiful court house, but not as grand at Somerset. Etta noticed all the different stores, especially the dress shops. She saw beautiful dresses and hats that she had seen only in movie magazines. She grinned and said, "Clinton Willoughby I like Somerset, Kentucky!" Clinton looked at Etta, "We have just a few hours to look around before we have to jump the south bound train back to Robbins."
They walked for a couple of hours just looking at everything. Etta noticed that Somerset had a huge
theater. The marquee must have a hundred lights flashing! A Greta Garbo movie was playing. Etta
declared, "Clinton if we had the money, we would just go in and watch the movie!" Clinton said, "We
sure don't have the money."
"Etta, I'm hungry," declared Clinton. "Follow me, I know where I can get us some food." Etta started walking beside Clinton. "Where are we going? There doesn't seem to be any stores on this street."
They turned right at the next street. Etta said, "This must be where the rich people lives!" The houses
were huge, with big yards and iron fences around them. Etta gasped, "Look at that one, it looks like a real
southern plantation! Clinton, what are we doing on this street?" Clinton grinned, "This is where I come
to beg for food. I go to the back door of the house which is usually the kitchen. I tell them that I am
traveling south, and that I am hungry and could they spare me a little food. I have done this before Etta,
and it always works." Etta spoke, "Clinton Willoughby I have heard everything! I did not come here to
be a bum. I am hungry also, but not that hungry." Clinton told her that he was not expecting her to beg.
"You go and walk on the other side of the street. When I get enough food for the both of us I will come
and get you. Go on little sister, it is gettin' late!" Etta shrugged, "Well alright, but you had better hurry."
Etta crossed the street and walked slowly down the side walk. She noticed that nobody was out
in their yard except one, old, black man trimming bushes next to a house. She wondered how in the
world could people have that much money to live in such fine houses. She admired all the beautiful
flowers in the yards, and how everything looked so neat and trimmed. Each house had a long, winding
driveway that went right up to the front of the house and then circled back to the street. She would love
to see the inside of these houses. Every house had an upstairs and large windows everywhere. Each
house had two, huge chimneys, one on each end of the house. She turned around and saw Clinton go to the back of another house. Clinton did not have a bashful bone in his body, and he was a charmer! Everyone had said that Clinton was a real smooth talker. Etta walked a little farther down the street. She stopped for a second and listened. She could hear voices of women and laughter at the house that she was looking at. There were several, fancy cars parked in the driveway. The sounds were coming from the back yard of the house. They must be having a garden party! She could picture the ladies in their white dresses, fancy hats and white gloves. They were probably drinking tea in tiny cups and eating cucumber sandwiches, and later they would have pecan pie. She had read that in a magazine once. She was
dreaming of what was taking place in the back yard of the rich house.
Etta heard a loud whistle. She turned her head toward the sound and she saw that it was Clinton.
He was on the other side of the street a few houses down from where she stood. She saw that he
was motioning for her to come. Etta started walking down the street still looking at the fine houses,
but the growl of her stomach made her wonder what goodies Clinton had received! Etta crossed the street to where Clinton was standing. She noticed that he was holding a paper poke in one hand. With a smile on her face, "Clinton I see that you have begged us a poke of food." Clinton pulled another poke out from under his shirt and replied, "Two pokes of food! Come on, we will go back to the court house square and set on a bench and eat our dinner. We can watch people go by." They were both hungry.
They walked faster back into town than they did away from town. They smelled the food in the pokes. When they were at the edge of the court house square Clinton said, "Where do you want to set and eat little sister?" Etta looked around and saw a bench under a huge, magnolia tree and said over there. The magnolia tree had huge, white blossoms everywhere. The scent was like lemons, and they were beautiful! They sat down on the bench with the two, paper pokes between them. Etta could also smell the
aroma of the food. She was starving! Clinton acting playful as ever, pretended that he was a waiter in a
restaurant. He pulled brown paper out of the paper poke and brushing the bench off he placed the paper
between them. He spoke as he was unwrapping the paper, "Miss Willoughby, the finest fried chicken in
the whole South. Two, sweet potatoes that were ever baked." He opened the second poke and said,
"Miss Willoughby, for desert we have two pieces of prize, winning, Georgia, pecan pie!" Etta smiled
a big smile and said, "Clinton you are the best waiter that I have ever had, and I will tip you well!" They
both grabbed a piece of chicken and began to eat. They ate everything and they ate in silence watching
people go inside the court house and out.
Clinton looking at the court house clock said, "Etta look at what time it is. It's goin' on four o'clock! We have to catch the no. 18 going South at four o'clock." Etta jumped up and brushed crumbs off of her lap. "I am thirsty Clinton." Clinton began to gather up the chicken bones and brown, wrapping paper and put them in the paper pokes. "Get you a drink over there at the water fountain by the statue, and hurry up. We have got to make haste!" Etta slowly walked over to the fountain and got her a drink of water. It was good and cold, but it had an odd taste. City water she thought. She made her way back to where Clinton was standing. With one eye brow slightly higher than the other he snapped, "Hurry up,
we don't have all day!"
They made their way back to the railroad tracks. They went past the sharp curve to where they had
jumped off the train coming in to Somerset. Clinton said, "It won't be as hard to jump on the train since
they will still be going slow to make it around the bend." Etta started pacing, "Clinton I need to pee, and I mean real bad!" Clinton turned around to face Etta, "you'll have to go behind those bushes and squat. You sure picked a fine time to go! Why didn't you back at the court house?" Etta stuck her tongue out at Clinton and started toward the tall bushes. Clinton grinned to himself because he had to go real bad also. He went in the opposite direction toward a big, maple tree. He steped behind it and relieved himself. Just as both were getting through, they heard the sound of the train whistle blow two, long blows. Clinton coming out from behind the maple tree yelled, "Etta hurry up! The trains a comin'!" Etta came out from behind the bushes running toward Clinton. "We will do just as we did in Robbins. Come over here Etta and hunker down behind this big rock." Etta ran across the tracks to where Clinton had knelt down
behind the rock. She squatted down next to him and waited. "Are you scared Etta?" Etta laughed, "Clinton Willoughby, I am getting to be pretty good at this hoboin'!"
They heard the train getting closer and closer. When the engine went past them, Etta looked up at the smoke that the train was belching out. It turned the sky black for a moment. Clinton said, "Get ready and follow me." When they saw a box car with the door open, Clinton made a dash for it. Etta was right
behind his heels. Clinton jumped up into the car and reached for Etta's hand. When they made contact,
he pulled her in. It was easier for Etta this time, because she landed on her bottom. Etta shouted, "That was fun Clinton!"
"I'm mighty proud of you Etta. Your better at this than most boys." Etta gave Clinton a big smile!
She sat with her legs hanging off the edge of the train. Holding on to the iron bar and with the wind
in her face, Etta was happy. This was the most exciting day of her life. She knew it was an adventure
that she would always remember fondly. They sat quietly as the no. 18 rolled down the tracks taking them
home to Black Creek.
Etta and Clinton jumped off the train as it was pulling into Robbins. Etta did better this time. She
rolled as Clinton had taught her. They walked down the tracks and around the front of the train. Black
Creek road was just a few feet away. Etta was tired, but a happy kind of tired. They made their way
around the horseshoe bend. It was down hill all the way to the house. They walked in silence, except
for Clinton whistling every now and then. Etta broke the silence, "I want to thank you for taking me with you today. This morning I was planning on telling Hester about our trip when we got back. I have decided not to. It's been a special day, and I want it to be just our secret. Maybe we will tell everyone years and years from now!" Clinton laughed at his little sister, "It will be just between us Etta."
They walked across the foot log and up the lane toward their home. Verdon was outside playing and Albert was carrying wood around the house to take into the kitchen. Verdon spotted them first. He
shouted as loud as he could, "Mom! Clinton and Etta are home!"
Ethel came to the front door and said, "You two look worn out! You all go around to the back porch and wash up, suppers about ready." Etta and Clinton smiled at their mother but did not say anything. They went around the side of the house to the back porch. She paused as Clinton went on into the house. Looking up she watched as the sun slowly made its descent behind the mountains casting light and dark shadows over the Willoughby land. She had wanted an exciting adventure and today had surely been one. Stepping up on the porch she softly said to herself,
"But it sure feels good to be back home!"
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