“They told me to get a lawyer.”
Now this wouldn’t be much more than a tempest in a teapot ‘cept Stephens drove his pick-up truck up on the tracks and left it there for a couple of days. Now why would he do a thing like that?
Up here in the mountains, where folks have been livin’ real close to each to other, cousins and all, for longer than anybody can remember, you got to expect a little craziness now and then. I don’t know who done what to who, but it sure does recollect me of my Cousin Eugene and the time he fought the train.
Cousin Eugene was a few cards short of a full deck mentally speaking. He’d got that way by racin’ his homemade chopper-style bicycle through the woods. For Eugene it was “live to ride and ride like hell,” and it seemed that every time I stopped by to visit he’d hit another rock, flown through the air like Evel Knievel the motorcycle daredevil, and knocked a considerable amount of bark off a hapless tree with his head. In fact, Cousin Eugene had been held back in the third grade three times and twice in sixth for his mental deficiencies. Sayin’ he actually graduated would be kind ‘cause when Eugene turned 16 he quit darkenen’ the school house door.
Cousin Eugene’s need for speed eventually led him to make a deal with Fred the junkyard man on Scott’s Creek to let him work stripping cars in exchange for a beat-up 1962 Chevy pick-up. It back-fired and lurched a lot, but it got Eugene on down the road. Soon as Eugene had real wheels he made a deal with some fellers (no names please!) up the branch he lived on to haul certain illicit distilled spirits over to some warehouse in Asheville.
On the way home Eugene always liked to sample a pint (yep in a Mason jar) of the latest product. By this time the ‘shine might have aged a whole day! Somewhere between Waynesville and the house Eugene would get a little drowsy from sampling that Smoky Mountain mother’s milk and usually fall asleep right on one of the railroad crossings that cut over U.S. 74.
Now Southern Railway, which by the early ‘70s was pretty much running one passenger and one freight train a day, would sometimes put on an extra freight to haul cardboard out of the Mead plant in Sylva. All of the regular engineers knew about Cousin Eugene and had figured out that the easiest way to get him off the tracks was to drive the engine right up to Eugene’s truck and slowly rev the big diesel motor. Cousin Eugene would come to, see the immediate necessity of moving his truck off the tracks and slowly pull off down the road.
One time for some reason or another the extra freight had a substitute engineer driving it. He was from up north somewhere and had a low tolerance for Southern “Hillbillies.” Cousin Eugene had made it as far as Balsam before passing out on the crossing and was slumped over the wheel with the beat-up Chevy blocking the tracks like he owned ‘em. The Yankee engineer gave out a couple of short toots on his air horns.
These warnings weren’t successful in cuttin’ through Eugene’s befuddled head. The frustrated trainman pulled the train a little closer to Cousin Eugene’s truck and hit the air horn with a longer, much louder blare, kinda like a thunderstorm reverberating off Waterrock Knob. Finally the engineer moved right up to Eugene’s truck, gave it a nudge and cut loose with a blast that could have raised the dead down at Ochre Hill.
Cousin Eugene jumped up, grabbed his .12-gauge double-barreled shotgun and blew the engine’s head light into a thousand pieces. This scared the Yankee engineer so much he wet his pants and backed the train up almost to Barber’s Orchard. Eugene calmly cranked up the truck and headed down to the house.
Later on Cousin Eugene had to pay for the engine’s headlight. I don’t know if he ever apologized to the substitute engineer though. I reckon if Cousin Eugene was to pass on a little experience to Ed Stephens of Dillsboro he might say, “Don’t let’em try to scare you with a huff an’ a puff an’ a big noise, ’least as long as you got a .12-gauge double-barreled shotgun in your pick‘em-up truck.”
(Carl Iobst lives in Cullowhee.)