Bill Kirby Jr.: A leap of faith onto a boxcar
By: Bill Kirby Jr.
I was thinking it could be the end of us. There was a time when I gave up and said, ‘God, take me.’” But on April 21, 1966, the doors opened on the boxcar.
“I just started praying when I saw the light. I fell to my knees and started praying to God Almighty.”
Talk about faith, well, Billy Waddell and David Harvey were two youngsters who, more than 50 years ago, took a leap of faith like none other.
Call ‘em, if you will, the boxcar boys.
Or the boxcar stowaways.
“I think about it sometimes,” said Harvey, 67, who lives in Southern Pines. “I saw some photos online and it flooded me with emotion. It was just like yesterday.”
The tale began on that spring afternoon 55 David Harvey recalls the 12-day journey in a r ailway boxcar ‘like it was yesterday.’ years ago, when Harvey and his boyhood pal found themselves at the old Sullivan Wholesale beer distributing business along Country Club Drive in north Fayetteville.
“We went on a tour of Sullivan Wholesale, and they showed us the warehouse,” Harvey said. But as the boys were about to straddle their bicycles and head for their homes near Eutaw Village, they noticed the nearby railroad tracks and a boxcar – destination Milwaukee and the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., more than 900 miles from Fayetteville.
“As we were walking out, Billy said, ‘What do you think about going to Milwaukee?’ He was 13, and I was 12. I said, ‘Well, I haven’t been there. So that’s what we did.”’
They returned to the railroad tracks the next day – April 9, 1966.
“We left our bikes in the woods,” Harvey said. And into the boxcar they hid. “We thought we’d be there in a couple of hours. But they locked the doors. Billy said, ‘Be quiet. We’ll get in trouble if we get caught.’ We sat there for two days, and then we were on our way.” David Harvey and Billy Waddell, students at the old Belvedere Elementary School, found themselves trapped in a railway boxcar full of cases of empty beer bottles. Meanwhile, their parents were frantic and beside themselves about their missing youngsters. They had reported the missing boys to local law enforcement and feared foul play.
“There was a good jolt,” Harvey said, referring to when the train began its journey toward Milwaukee with the stowaways aboard.
“We wanted to get out of there. We were getting hungry. I wanted out. We both had a panic time. But we calmed down.”
The boys, Harvey said, shared an Army sleeping bag they had brought along, and the dregs from stale beer bottles. “I remember having the dry heaves,”
Harvey said. “I tore off one of the box tops of the beer bottle cases and ate it,” he says. “It stopped my dry heaving.” But these were two youngsters in fear.
“We were scared for our lives,” Harvey said.
“We slept, told jokes and did a lot of praying. I was thinking it could be the end of us. There was a time when I gave up and said, ‘God, take me.’” ‘I Started Praying’
David Harvey remembers that April 21, 1966, morning when the doors to the boxcar were opened by a switchman at the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.
“They popped both doors of the boxcar,” he said. “It was pretty early in the morning. I saw a bright daylight. I just started praying when I saw the light. I fell to my knees and started praying to God Almighty.”
The railroad switchman couldn’t believe his eyes.
“How’d you guys get in there?” he asked the boys, who had spent 12 days trapped in the railway boxcar that had just arrived from Fayetteville to the beer distributorship.
The boys gave their account of how they had come from Fayetteville, North Carolina to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“They thought we were lying,” Harvey said, remembering the authorities who converged on the railway yard. A Milwaukee newspaperman called the Fayetteville Police Department to inform local authorities that the missing boys had been discovered in a boxcar.
Pat Reese, the late Fayetteville Observer reporter, wrote that David Harvey and Billy Waddell were safe.
“Hungry, tired, dirty,” Reese wrote. But safe.
The boys were given water before being transported by police to County Emergency Hospital.
“They cut a beer can and gave us a big beer can of water,” Harvey said. “It was very good, that water.”
The boys, according to a United Press International wire service report, were dirty and scraggly, but they otherwise were declared in good condition by medical personnel at the hospital, where about 20 news reporters had heard about the youngsters and their ordeal.
“We had this black, gummy stuff on us,” Harvey said. “A nurse had to scrub and scrub to get that off of us. I didn’t know if it was the effect of the alcohol or just being in the boxcar.”
‘Hello Mom’ Soon enough, David Harvey was calling home.
“I said, ‘Hello, Mom,’” Harvey said. “She just started crying.”
Billy Waddell was making a call, too, to his mother.
“His mother was crying,” Harvey said.
“They were tears of happiness. I remember all of it being very emotional.”
And soon enough, the boys were heading home, and this trip via the blue skies, with a stop in Washington, D.C. “It was a prop plane,” Harvey said, “and Dear Abby was on the plane.” And then it was on to Grannis Field.
“I looked out that plane window, and I thought half of the town was there,” Harvey said. “There were our classmates, my three sisters, my mother and father.” You might think Sgt. David Harvey would be there with some stern words for his son, but that wasn’t the case.
“I knew our parents were glad to see us,” David Harvey said. As for the boys, they never saw much of one another again.
“They didn’t want us hanging around each other,” Harvey said. Particularly not around any railway boxcars near the old Sullivan Wholesale beer distributing business in north Fayetteville.
After graduating from Pine Forest High School in 1994, Harvey married, had a son in 1984, a daughter in 1992 and worked for a Dallas, Texas publishing house before his
marriage eventually ended. He never saw Billy Waddell again but would often think back to their adventure.
“I went to visit my mother once,” he said, “and she told me he took his life.” Billy Waddell and David Harvey were two youngsters who took a leap of faith like none other.
‘Just Like Yesterday’ You’ll find Harvey these days living in his late grandmother’s home along May Street in Southern Pines. He does benevolence work in the community and works with a food bank.
He is long and lean.
He wears thick, wire-rimmed eyeglasses because of vision issues.
He was humble telling the story of his Huckleberry Finn journey to Milwaukee as he sat in a downtown Southern Pines restaurant with a chicken croissant, french fries, a pickle … and, believe it or not, a Michelob Ultra beer, and then another.
The frosty, cold beers brought back another memory, and something of a smile to David Harvey’s lips.
“The National Beer Drinkers Association made us honorary members,” Harvey said.
“They said 12 days is not a record, but it is for a 12-year-old.”
Every so often, Harvey said, his mind wanders back to Billy Waddell and that April 9, 1966, day when the boys took their own leap of faith onto a railway boxcar bound for the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Occasionally, he’ll search for the story on the internet. “I saw photos online, and it flooded me with
emotion,” he said. “It’s just like yesterday.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at bkirby@ cityviewnc.com, email@example.com or 910-624-1961. Read more of his columns in our weekly Insider Newsletter. Subscribe at cityviewnc.com or text CityView to 22999.