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POP'S OLD BOXCAR WAS QUITE A TREASURE

We recently replaced the cellar stairs in this old house, a great improvement, although I was somewhat shocked at the price of lumber. You can no longer buy a board for a buck. It brought to mind the day Pop came home and announced that for a precious $10, he had bought a boxcar.

The year was 1937. He was working only two days a week at Bethlehem Steel, so there was little money to spend at the hardware store or lumber yard. After he paid the bank and the grocery bills, there was not much left.

What we did have, though, was our four-door 1928 Chevrolet, bought when times were better, and long since paid for. Gasoline was cheap and insurance wasn't required, so we always had wheels. Pop also had built a little trailer to haul "found" materials.

What he actually bought was any part of the boxcar he could haul away, except for the wheels and undercarriage. The car stood behind some dilapidated houses in the old village across from the steel plant in Lackawanna. Painted rusty red with faded white letters identifying it as belonging to Baltimore & Ohio, it seemed enormous to me.

Pairs of sliding doors on each side must have been a foot thick. Attached to them was a collection of hardware: hinges and handles, bars and bolts. The inside of the car was a thing of beauty. It was a refrigerated car, so every inch was lined with highly varnished maple wood. I guess that's why Pop bought it. Cheap lumber was needed for fixing up our old house.

Pop went after work every day to dismantle his boxcar. Sometimes, my brother, Harry, and I went along to help load the lumber. I don't remember anyone else along that track doing what we were doing. Pop talked about its cargo and the miles of track it had covered and all the places it might have been: Chicago, Denver, Omaha, and yes, Baltimore and Ohio. A hands-on geography lesson was a bonus in this bargain.

To stand inside was scary -- you could suffocate. Pop said a carcass of beef or a crate of vegetables needed no air. I breathed easier when the doors were removed and blue sky appeared in the opening.

How would Pop tackle this latest treasure? Gingerly, at first, lest he mar the wood. But then there was so much and time was short. Soon it all came down, the beautiful maple, laid so airtight, and the exterior boards, not as pretty, but just as strong. The last to go and the hardest to haul away on our small home-made trailer were the heavy sliding doors.

They would rest in our yard as garden seats for years to come, forever a reminder of Pop's boxcar. The maple was eventually transformed into flooring, window trim and bookcases. Odds and ends fueled the kitchen stove. The heaviest pieces of hardware were sold for scrap, the rest put away "because they might come in handy some day." Not much was wasted.

Pop surely got his money's worth with that boxcar, for only the skeleton remained when he was finished. When it came to recycling, Pop was a man ahead of his time.

Today, on those rare occasions when I stop at a railway crossing, I check out the boxcars. Somehow the refrigerated cars look the same. They all look just like Pop's boxcar. Those were the days.

RUTH STAHL lives on Grand Island.

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