On the South Side of Chicago, during the summer of 1947, my girlfriend Tootsie and I walked to the 31st Street beach almost every day. Tootsie and I were alike in two ways; we were both nine years old, and we liked to do naughty things on the walk to the beach. Sometimes, before we left the neighborhood, we stopped at the corner grocery store and walked around inside for a while. When we left the store, we held the screen door open to let the flies in. The store owner chased us, but we were too fast for him.
On other occasions, we stopped and picked flowers from people’s gardens. After we had a handful of various colors, we sold them to people we met walking down the street. Men usually bought them, paying us a nickel or dime. Not one person asked us where we got the flowers from. After we left the neighborhood, we always stopped to play in the playground in the park near the beach.
One day, Tootsie suggested it would be fun if we walked across the railroad tracks on our way to the beach. I didn’t think it was a good idea because I had my 6-year-old sister Shirley with me, and Tootsie had her cousin, Rosalee, who was 5 years old. They didn’t know how to cross the railroad tracks.
“I can do it. I can do it,” they cried in unison, eyes wild with eagerness. So instead of continuing to walk across the overpass that led to the beach, we went down the open wooden steps to the train platform that separated the tracks. On the west side of the platform, trains traveled south on five sets of tracks. On the east side of the platform, trains traveled north on five sets of tracks. Tootsie and I looked in both directions to make sure a train was not coming into the station. Then we all jumped down onto the tracks on the east side of the platform. Before we started to cross, Tootsie told Shirley and Rosalee how to walk across the train tracks.
“See this? This is the third rail,” Tootsie said pointing towards the ground. “Don’t step on it.” Tootsie had pointed out the third rail to me several times, but I couldn’t get it. I never knew from that day to this day where the third rail was. The rails seemed to look alike to me, so I tried not to step on any rail. My main concern was keeping my sister and myself out of the way of the trains.
By the time we were between the train platform and the safety of the grassy hillside that came before the park, an IC train came in our direction. We waited for the IC train to pass. We waved to the riders; but instead of waving back, they stood up from their seats and looked back at us with shocked faces. Now I would have a shocked face, too, if I saw four little girls crossing what seemed to me like a half-block of train tracks. After the IC train passed, Rosalee was somewhat unbalanced by the wind force the train blew at us. She stumbled and fell over some gravel and rocks and scratched her knee. She hollered loud. Tootsie calmed her down, and we moved quickly to the hillside where the grass grew.
After climbing the hill, we went into the park. We spent about two hours at the playground. We pushed each other in the swings, slid on the sliding board, and jumped on and off the merry-go-round. We played tag on the monkey bars, and Tootsie and I played hide and seek with Shirley and Rosalee. Afterwards, we walked over to the beach and raced each other to the end of the rocky pier that stretched out over the water. We came back to the beach, walked to the water’s edge, took our shoes off, and stomped our feet in the water-our way of enjoying ourselves. Before we started home, we shook the sand out of our shoes while we relaxed under a tree in the picnic section of the park.
On our way back, we decided to cross the railroad tracks again. We didn’t know that someone was watching and waiting for us this time. A white man was standing at the edge of the platform, looking down at us as we climbed up on it. The man was middle-age and thin. He wore a white shirt with long sleeves rolled up to his elbows and dark trousers. Tootsie and I would have run, but we knew Shirley and Rosalee couldn’t keep up, and they would have gotten us caught. My legs were short, but I could run as fast as Tootsie. The man didn’t scold us. He took a small piece of paper and a pencil out of his shirt pocket.
Speaking in a soft voice, he asked for our names and addresses. I believed he spoke softly because he didn’t want to frighten us. Tootsie and I weren’t afraid. He couldn’t do anything to us. He didn’t know our parents, and he couldn’t whip us. So, we gave him our names and addresses.
Neither Tootsie nor I thought about the incident again. Later, our parents received formal letters from the president of the Illinois Central Railroad. Our parents weren’t very happy about the content of the letters. After Tootsie and I received several whippings, we weren’t very happy about the content of the letters either.