The Great Train Ride of '71

The Great Train Ride of '71
The following story appeared in VISTA, the Shippensburg University's Alumni Magazine. It was originally printed in 1996, for an anniversary edition. Absolutely no names were changed to protect anyone and as always, every bit of it is true.

It was in the spring of my freshman year at the Ship (1971) and a group of us in Old Main (a men’s dorm at the time) decided to hop the freight train as it went through the lower part of the campus. We had heard great tales of students taking train rides but really didn’t know of anyone who actually did it. So, after lunch, an a Friday afternoon in April (yes, we cut our Friday afternoon classes) Jeff Nagy (’73), Tom O’Leary, Gene Lakin (’73) and I jumped on a moving train as it slowed to enter the campus and town of Shippensburg. I’ll never forget the cheers from the gang on the fourth floor of Old Main as all four of us made it safely aboard.

The train was hauling new automobiles destined for a dealer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And as fate would have it, the doors to a brand new Chevrolet Monte Carlo were left unlocked, so we jumped in. In the glove compartment we found the keys to the other cars on our section of the train, so we had a choice as to what car we traveled in. We decided that the Monte Carlo would be fine, so we got comfy and relaxed on real leather seats.

What an experience! When we got a little chilly, we started the engine and ran the heater for a few minutes. There we were listening to the radio, eating cereal left over from breakfast from Kriner Diner and having the adventure of our lives.

We got a kick out of observing the expressions on the faces of the people as we went through intersections. A little toot of the horn and a wave from the four of us, and motorists just stared back in amazement.

Once late that night, we hit the headlights on our car and we received a signal in return. Someone else was aboard another car on the same train on the same night. We thought that maybe train hopping wasn’t so uncommon after all.

Later on in the night we got a shock as we peered out the window. The ground was pure white. Our first instinct told us that maybe the train was heading north and that we were in Canada. But Saturday’s dawn proved that we were in Roanoke, Virginia, where the city just so happened to experience a freak snowstorm in April.

After a quick breakfast in Roanoke, we started hitchhiking home on Interstate 81. I doubt today that four hitchhikers would have much of a chance getting a ride, but in 1971 we had little trouble.

We spent Saturday night in a cheap hotel in West Virginia and a dozen rides later, arrived back on campus Sunday evening. We didn’t have to cut any Monday classes.

I was surprised to learn that quite a few people on campus were aware of our trip. I remember Anton Slysh, professor of biology, asking me a few questions about it during class on Monday. He said he learned of the excursion when he over heard a conversation about it in a Shippensburg restaurant that weekend.

My parents, as usual, were the last to hear of that train ride. I sent them a post card from Roanoke but it didn’t make it home until a couple of weeks later. They weren’t particularly happy with me but it was all part of one’s education. At least that’s what I told them.

Years later, as a schoolteacher in the Northern Bedford School District, that infamous train ride was brought to my attention once again. Some of our college-bound students took a tour of the campus one day. The tour guide was a Shippensburg student and she told them a story where a train used to go through the campus. There was a rumor she said, “that students would hop aboard and go for rides.” Of course, I played ignorant and pretended I knew nothing about it. How could I admit to my students that one of those train-hoppers was their teacher? I still wonder though, was she referring to the train ride of 1971?    

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA