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Hump Day
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I miss The Hump. Let me explain.

I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., a town not unlike Chico. Lincoln had a rural/city atmosphere like Chico and a thriving university. My two brothers and I were among thousands of free-range baby boomer kids who roamed the newly minted postwar neighborhoods.

We were largely self-entertaining. When we weren’t in school we were let loose in the morning and miraculously returned for lunch, then let loose again, returning for dinner. Formal entertainment was limited. Thus, we relished special events. Humping was a special event.

From time to time, in order to coerce the Keister boys to go to Sunday School at First Plymouth Congregational Church without the usual grumbling, my father would bribe us with his secret weapon, the promise of glazed doughnuts from Wendelin’s Bakery on South Street. And maybe, if we were very very good, a trip to The Hump.

On those extra special days, after securing the sugary concoctions, we’d drop Mom off at home to tend to the bubbling seven-bone chuck roast she had wedged into her Dutch oven before leaving for church. (Truth be told, being alone at home with a chuck roast was also a welcome respite from her boisterous boys.)

Then dad and his boys would shed their Sunday clothes, pile back into our forest-green Mercury and motor on over to the rickety wood-plank bridge on Coddington Avenue. The bridge traversed Lincoln’s Burlington rail-yard. There we would perch to watch the trains hump.

What’s that, you ask? You may be familiar with placards on railcars that state, “fragile goods, do not hump” or simply “do not hump.” (Purloined placards frequently adorn dorm rooms of male students) There is a reason for the humping admonition (on railcars anyway). A Hump is a hill in the rail-yard where locomotives nudge railcars up an incline so they can be coupled (humped) with other railcars. This is one of the ways trains are made up.

Here is what we saw from the rickety Coddington Avenue bridge. After the locomotive pushed a railcar up the hump and it reached the zenith of its upward journey, the railcar’s brake was set so it could be unhitched from the locomotive. Then the locomotive reversed its direction, making its way back to the yard, presumably to secure another humpable railcar. The railcar at the top of The Hump was now poised to hump another railcar.

The three Keister boys watched in anticipation as a trackman released the railcar’s brake. The railcar crept forward, little by little picking up speed until it was rocketing back down The Hump. At a precisely timed moment, another trackman pulled a lever to switch the railcar to a different track. The yawning coupling of the humpee awaited as the humper skidded along the rails. We all held our collective breath in anticipation, then, wham!

The resultant thunderous crashing of metal on metal was deafening and exciting beyond belief. Whoops and nods of appreciation followed. (The high-five had not yet been invented.) It was male bonding at its best for Dad and his three young boys. The Wendelin’s Bakery doughnuts were a bonus.

A side note. A couple of decades later, during my brief tenure as an employee of the Westinghouse Electric Company, one of my jobs was to secure a hump detector on a railcar that contained some fragile electrical equipment. I was one of the few people who knew the derivation of the term, “Do Not Hump.”