‘Hop a freight’ before it’s too late

Published 4:00 pm Friday, December 16, 2022

By Harold Brummett

When in college years ago, a friend of The Boys sometimes flew down from Illinois in his 1943 Taylorcraft. We knew him as the Sergeant Major, an honorary title like “Colonel.” 

To us younger Boys he was Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart all rolled up into one. The Sergeant Major was idolized and emulated for his daring, love of life, and the value he placed on friendship. 

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One day we heard that the railroad from Oxford to Water Valley was to be abandoned. The Sergeant Major, learning of this, swore he would ride on one of the last trains on the route, not as a passenger, but as a hobo in an empty boxcar. 

The route was only 25 miles, but it was the experience, not the distance, that mattered to the Sergeant Major. 

The Sergeant Major asked several of The Boys if they wanted to ride with him, and Jack volunteered. Early one morning the two drove to the railroad yard along Water Valley’s main street. They found an empty boxcar for the trip, but at the last minute Jack changed his mind. He had an early German class that day and returned to the University, leaving the Sergeant Major to make the trip alone. 

The Sergeant Major’s route was rich in history. Slaves dug the cuts in the 1840’s. Union and Confederates fought over the rail line. Casey Jones drove his engine along its rails. These same rails took Water Valley watermelons to cities as far away as New York and were featured in some of the finest restaurants there. 

The ghosts of people’s dreams and wishes were the Sergeant Major’s companions.

The boxcars rocked back and forth laying the base line as the steel wheels made music with the worn rails. In time, the train crossed the highway bypass and the Sergeant Major hopped off at the Oxford depot where Jack waited. 

The following autumn, the Sergeant Major was practicing aerobatics over his home field in Illinois when the Taylorcraft nose-dived into the ground, and he was killed. The cause of the crash was never discovered. 

A year or so passed, and late one night The Boys were around a campfire making toasts with peach brandy to the memory of the Sergeant Major. 

Jack voiced regret for all of us. “I cannot remember a damned thing I learned that day in German class,” he said, “but if I had hopped the freight with the Sergeant Major, I would have remembered the ride for the rest of my life.”

Next spring, graduations will be taking place, and kids will be out of school. 

When deciding what is important to spend your time on, look to the children and old folks. Consider old friends. Make sure your decisions of time are significant; decisions that will be remembered 20 years from now. 

“Hop a freight” with someone – not for the destination, but for the experience, companionship, and memories.