I spent my childhood in a small, Indiana farming town, where children were protected with a blanket of neighborhood security unknown today. Where everybody's mother watched out for anybody's child and our idea of crime was stealing watermelons, or turning over somebody's outhouse at Halloween. I'm sure there were some ugly secrets inside closed houses, but by and large, we were innocent of the knowledge of evil and fear in our world.
Since we never had the occasion to experience the real perils, we found it necessary to place ourselves, occasionally, in some sort of risk or imagined danger. How else could we feel, firsthand, the delicious thrill of controlled, elective terror. Of course the youngest children could test their courage at "Frankenstein" and "Wolfman" movies. As we watched the action on screen through fingers held ready to completely cover our eyes, we demonsntrated our bravery by describing the action on screen to our more fearful comrades.
But the real tests of courage, the rites of passage from baby-hood, were the tests that took place on the railroad trestle over the river and in the water sewer that ran beneath the Woodlawn Cemetery.
Just outside of town, and accessible only by dirt road, was the B&O Railroad trestle spanning the Salamonie River. The Salamonie is not a large river, but counting the sloping banks on either side, the trestle itself was perhaps 90 feet long. The test, of course, was to walk or run the trestle over the river. Of itself, this was fairly easy. The catch was, one could never be certain there was not a train approaching around the curve preceding the trestle. The ultimate thrill of terror could be felt when one of the lookers-on would shout, "I hear a whistle! There's a train coming!" Bare feet never flew so fast over railroad ties and cinders as we raced to the other side.
The second rite of passage involved less real physical danger but infinite possibilities in the way of suspernatural terror. Under the Woodlawn Cemetery and running the full length through its center was a huge storm sewer. It was large enough for a child to stand upright, and there was often ankle deep water on the floor. The cement walls were appropriately damp and cold, with ominous cracks from which water oozed into the sewer grates on the surface. Since the sewer had a 90 degree turn near its half-way point, one could not see the "light at the end of the tunnel" until one reached the middle of one's journey.
We usually made our first trip, our initiation, accompanied by older friends whose job it was to remind us at each step that the next step might reveal crumbling walls exuding bones or worse. An oft repeated question was, "Do you smell something rotten?" With dry mouths and white faces we turned the center bend and saw the distant square of light that signaled the end of our ordeal. What a wonderful sight.
A personal note. I was never very brave at the scary movies, and since my fear of heights was worse than my fear of being run over by a train, I never negotiated the trestle. But, I am proud to say, that before I reached 6th grade I did run the gauntlet of ghosts and graves under the cemetery. Fifty years later, I smile when I remember.