• Leta McCurry

The Great Railroad Crossing Holdup

When I was a child, there was literally nothing to do. We had no television, no movies. No video games, no bowling alleys, no restaurants, no nightclubs, no school extracurricular activity. What we did have was work, family, church, dominoes, and radios.

Railroad crossings in our part of the country didn't have guard gates.

Pranks, at least in our family, was a major entertainment. Not only the planning and execution, but also the retelling of the stories for years. One such prank is the family legend of the Great Railroad Crossing Holdup.

One Wednesday night when I was about ten or eleven, my two younger sisters and I went to Wednesday night prayer meeting with Grandpa Levi Brawley. We were living in Morgan Hill, California and the church was in San Martin, maybe ten miles away.

Grandpa didn't drive so Uncle Leonard and Aunt Dorothy drove us and picked us. On the way home instead of taking the routine, most direct route, Uncle Leonard turned off early on a road we normally didn’t use.

As soon as Uncle Leonard stopped the car at a railroad crossing, two men jumped out from some bushes on either side of the narrow road with guns drawn. Grandpa didn’t even notice that Aunt Dorothy, sitting in the middle of the front seat, reached across him to unlock his door. Neither did he notice that the guns were toy Roy Rogers pistols.

“This is a stick-up!” one of the masked men shouted. “Give us your money.”

“I don’t have any money,” Grandpa said.

True. He had put his last few dollars in the church offering plate.

“Then give me your wallet,” the robber growled.

Grandpa handed over his wallet, sputtering, “But, my b..b..bank book!”

While this was going on, my two sisters are screaming bloody murder in the back seat. I’m hunkered down on the floor board with my hands over my head as quiet as a mouse. I certainly didn’t want those robbers kidnapping me if the thought occurred to them.

(Picture L to R: Walter, Leonard, Alton - the Brawley Brothers, Missing: Earl.)

Instead of choosing the shortest way home, Uncle Leonard took a turn that took us the really long way (to give the culprits time to get home ahead of us.)

“Why are you going this way, son?” Grandpa was popping his false teeth. “We need to get home and call the law. They got my bank book.”

“I want to make sure they aren’t following us,” Uncle Leonard said.

All the way home Grandpa kept raving about how they had his bank book showing his deposits and bank balance.

Stomping his cowboy boots into the house, Grandpa said to my Dad, “Walter, we got to call the law. We been robbed.”

They played Grandpa for about an hour, with him insisting on calling the law, and them stalling him, until they finally confessed.

Grandpa just said, “Ah, pshaw, you boys.” He was used to being the target of their pranks.

As I remember, the robber on Uncle Leonard’s side of the car was either Tommie Estes or Uncle Alton. Whoever it was, they didn’t speak during the robbery. The one on Grandpa’s side of the car was the oldest Sturdevant boy, Leonard, who Grandpa really didn’t know that well. He did the taking because the culprits figured his voice was the one Grandpa was least likely to recognize. (I don't have a picture of him or Tommie Estes).

The telling of this story over the years provided more entertainment than the hold-up.

Dad was waiting in his car in the shadow of some big trees, waiting to take the bandits home. He often said over the years one of the hardest things he ever did was to wait while Millie and Louise were shrieking in absolute terror.

Grandpa was the inspiration for Big John Clayton, a character in my first book, High Cotton Country.

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