Sunday, June 29, 2014

Allen Park's Missing Champaign Park Train

Courtesy of Images of America - Allen Park.

Every time I visit Allen Park, I usually find a reason to drive past the high school and look on with approval at improvements made by the district. The remodeled high school has a pleasing facade, the windows throughout the school have been upgraded, and a Performing Arts Center has been added onto the west end of the building. I only get into town occasionally, but I usually make the pilgrimage and reminisce about the old days.

While I was thinking about my upcoming trip to the Detroit area, I flashed on something I had not thought about for decades. Whatever happened to the steam locomotive and tender car that was once on display in Champaign Park next to the high school? I remember the train having a ten foot high cyclone fence built around it which did little to deter anyone who wanted to climb over. What started out as a public school hands-on exhibit became an attractive nuisance and a public liability risk. 

I looked into the subject further and discovered that the train was built in Buckley, Michigan by Alco and owned and operated by the Detroit Edison Line. It was in service from 1923 until 1961, when it was driven under its own steam power to its display site in Champaign Park. A special track spur was built off a nearby railroad line. The Buckley No. 207 and its coal tender were removed in 1970 because the floor boards were rusting out and kids playing on it often got hurt. Old No. 207 was cutup with torches and hauled out of the park in trucks for scrap, said Arnie Ciupka, formerly of the Allen Park Recreation Department who was an eyewitness to its dismemberment.

On the day of its installation, a crowd of local youth, community members, and dignitaries watched the train roll in. Current Allen Park City Schools Superintendent John Sturock played trumpet at the steam locomotive's dedication when he was in sixth grade.

One of the more notable moments in the train's decade long history in Champaign Park was when it was painted pink by some rapscallions as a Halloween prank in 1965. Two unnamed high school kids from Dearborn Heights and George Jolokai from APHS Class of 1966, decided to turn themselves in and went to the Allen Park Police Station. Reading George's account of the incident makes me wax nostalgic and want to be young and stupid again.

What follows is George Jolokai's reminiscence of the train painting incident in all its charming innocence.

***


Appropriately, the idea to paint the train in Champaign Park pink came to us while we were sitting on the roof of the engine of the train. It was early October, 1964 and some guys I knew from Dearborn Heights had come by. They were seniors, this was junior year for me. I lived across the street from the park, one house off the corner of Champaign and Buckingham. The train had been moved there a few years earlier and eventually the city put up a fence and locked gate, but going over there, hopping the fence and hanging out was not all that unusual. It was a few weeks before Halloween, somehow the talk had turned to pranks.
 

The notion of “Hey, we could paint the train!” was obvious and it would have died there except I hadn’t tumbled to the fact that blurting out things that just popped into my brain wasn’t always a good idea. Things like “Hey, my dad’s got a bunch of pink paint down in the basement that he forgot all about!”.
 

On a Friday night within a week of our rooftop epiphany we did the deed. I grabbed a couple gallons of pink paint and some black paint from our basement and we headed over to the train in the dark. My folks were out of town, I’m sure it was after 10:00 PM when we started. Maybe spent two hours painting at most. We were more into transforming the train and getting a reaction to the whole thing being pink instead of just painting initials or slogans. (An early Heidelberg Project?) We used rollers and big brushes, got a lot done before we ran out of paint, and stuffed all the paint cans in a park trash can.
 

The reaction after that was kinda cool, but I knew I couldn’t tell anyone, so in school it was a lot of listening to other folks tell me they “knew who really did it.” It ran in the Mellus newspaper, folks came by the park to look and pretty quickly it was just there, no big deal.
 

Until a few weeks later. My uncle was over, he and my dad were talking in the dining room about it. I was in the kitchen. My uncle was into building Heathkit electronic stuff and figured the guys who did it must have had a police scanner. And a lookout. And a whole bunch of guys painting and they must have worked until almost dawn. He and my dad started talking about tipping over outhouses and what a good prank the painting had been since the train looked better, and at least folks came to look at it now.
 

They are almost dropping the topic when my uncle says “Hey, so what was George up to that night?” Har, har. Choke, choke in the kitchen when my dad answers, “Oh you don’t have to worry about that kid. He was with us up at…no wait, he was home that weekend. Yeah, but ya don’t have to worry about him.”
 

Phew, it’s sounding like I’m in the clear. Until he adds, “Of course I do have all that pink paint down in the basement. Maybe I better count the cans!” Bigger har, har. Blam! The kick to my chest as I realize “of course”, it’s not like my dad was so stockpiled with paint he wouldn’t know the inventory was down by three or four gallons. I just knew he had never used it. It had been there forever bought from some sale at Sears. Duh! How could I have ever thought he had “forgotten” all about it?
 

Well, my uncle left and I figure I better confess before my dad goes and counts. Predictably dad does his real angry bit. Wants to know who I did the prank with. I wouldn’t tell him, so he made a simple declaration. I either go turn myself in, or I don’t leave the house. Forever. While I knew I might only serve three to five of that “grounded for life” sentence, that was still too bleak.

I called the other guys, told them they didn’t have to come with me, but that I was going to go to the cop shop and turn myself in. They manned up and said they would come with me. Next day, we went down to the Allen Park Police Station, asked for the detective in charge of the case, like they must have had a special inter-departmental task force assigned to it. The guy at the desk asks if we want to give our names or not, thinking we were there to rat someone out. I say “Uh, I think you’ll want our names.”
 

I seem to recall them not taking it too seriously, until they noticed we were being sort of too casual ourselves. Then the “We’ll turn this over to the D.A.’s office” started. Oh, and since I was fifteen, I was still a juvenile, but the other two guys had already turned sixteen, so “You guys could be in a lot more trouble!”

My friends both glared at me, probably figuring it was a setup all along. One of them had applied to the Air Force Academy, so a possible arrest might not go too well. Then the cops blew their edge when they told us “You know, we were getting pretty close on this case. We had tracked down where you got the paint!”. Wow, ace detecting, that and the ability to read the “SEARS Weather Beater” label on the paint cans.
 

The city soon contacted our parents, told us to be at the park the next Saturday at 9:00 AM sharp to repaint the train. We spent the next two Saturdays at it, painting all day with some guy supervising us who knew we were saving him a whole lot of work. He made sure we did a job that would last. A few weeks later, they sent my mom a bill for the paint and she went ballistic. No way was she going to pay. The city already had budgeted for the paint, they were going to repaint the train soon anyway, and we saved them the labor. So no way! The guy’s mom who was applying to the Air Force Academy, however, paid it immediately. Case closed.
 

George is to the right. Photo taken by his brother.

That was it. No repercussions, no arrests, no court records. Simpler times, yeah, but then again it wasn’t like we were out to destroy capitalism or anything. We were just dumb guys with a dumb idea and an overactive sense of mission. The one friend of mine did eventually make it into to the Academy and graduated. I talked to the other guy a few years ago. He had made a career of the Army and had recently retired as a colonel.
 

Me, I didn’t paint any more trains. It was a fairly thoughtless prank that didn’t take anything to pull off but might have been a whole lot more consequential. We were lucky. The repainting seemed fair, so lesson learned: Do something dumb and you could be held responsible. What a concept! Certainly wasn’t a bad take away lesson…though I still think the train was more interesting when it was pink. // gj

Images of America link: http://www.amazon.com/Allen-Park-MI-Images-America/dp/0738551090