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How Did We Make It to Adulthood?!

A story by David Kulle



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It was 1962, and I was 10 years old. My mother, father, brother and I were on our annual summer trip to see my grandmother in Stewartsville, Ohio, a small coal town near Bellaire, Ohio, which was right across the border from Wheeling, WVa. There were a lot of things I liked about being at my grandmother’s, especially taking long walks past the nearby caves with my father and playing with my grandmother’s dogs Rusty and Baby. And there were things I didn’t like—the 10 hours it took to get there from our home in Syracuse, NY, the water at her house that had a high sulfur content and smelled like rotten eggs, and the lack of an indoor bathroom (!). Anyway, the thing I liked most—the thing I couldn’t wait to do every time we visited—was climbing the high slate dump that sat several hundred yards across the road and a large field from my grandmother’s house. It had been created years before from the shale, soil, and stone removed from the mountains across the valley to get at the coal seams that lay within. This slate mountain—my own Everest—was about 200 yards long, 50 feet high at the low end and well over 100 feet high at the far peak end. I’d scramble up the low end and then walk along the narrow path to the highest point, where I could see all of Stewartsville and the surrounding mountains. There was no guardrail, no fence, no rope—nothing—and more than once I lost my footing while climbing to the top and almost cascaded down the steep slope to the rock surface below. Today parents would probably be arrested for letting their kid take such a risk, but back then it was no big deal; it was the sort of thing kids did as part of having fun and growing up. In fact, my parents would come outside after I had reached the top, and from far away we’d wave to each other.

But the thing I remember most about that particular trip, and probably the most dangerous thing I ever did as a kid, involved my older brother and two older cousins from Cleveland, who were also at my grandmother’s that summer. The four of us made our way about a mile down a nearby lane that ended at a railroad trestle and tracks that ran about 50 feet over a stream. We walked in high-wire fashion along the tracks until we came to a tunnel, and there we waited. What did we wait for? We waited for the next train to come barreling through the tunnel, while we were pressed against its sides, seeing how close the train could come without touching us. Each time the wind from the train as it rushed by felt like it might knock us over. It was an incredibly irresponsible, foolish, crazy thing to do, but we laughed and laughed after each flirt with disaster. Eventually we tired of the game, and retraced our steps back home. At least we knew enough not to tell our parents—ever—what we had done. Even back then, we would have been grounded forever if they had found out.

I survived both the slate dump and the railroad tunnel that summer, and had a great time doing so. When I think back now, I shudder at how close I came, along with my brother and cousins, to oblivion. And that was hardly the last dangerous thing we would do in our foolish youth. But yet, despite the risks, we all made it to adulthood. I’m not sure how, but we did.

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  Stewartsville, Ohio
Summer of 1962


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