The #28 bus was pretty much the main route downtown from the Southside. Charlie Downs had left Mississippi to join the Air Force as soon as he was old enough. Fresh out of the service, he had briefly worked at Montgomery Ward’s catalog house, like so many postwar southern refugees before him. But driving was his talent and his passion. There was freedom in taking the wheel and setting out on roads that take you far away from home and bring you right back.
Charlie drove the #28 up Stony Island through South Chicago, Chatham, Jackson Park, Hyde Park, Kenwood, up the outer drive next to the lake, into the Loop, back out and down again. The voice on the radio asked for help when another bus had broken down up ahead. Since Charlie had no passengers, he adjusted his sign to “Out of Service” and soon caught up with the disabled bus. It was certainly dead. The two drivers worked to chain the buses together—Charlie driving the lead bus, towing the other down Stony Island, back toward the 77th Street garage.
The double bus crept past Jackson Park in stop-and-go traffic. As they passed over the 71st Street railroad crossing, traffic stopped. Just to his right, the South Shore train approached. The back of Charlie’s bus was on the tracks with the other driver sitting in his own driver’s seat looked helplessly out the back. Charlie honked his horn for the cars ahead to move. The motorists ahead saw what was happening and tried to squeeze together to make room. He inched ahead. The crossing lights started to blink, the bell rang and the gates started to come down. It looked like the traffic was starting to move. Charlie heard the gate hit the top of his bus.
DING – DING – DING – DING – DING – DING…
Charlie looked into his side mirror. He either saw, or imagined the face of the other driver—eyes as wide as silver dollars—ready to jump away from the impending collision. The gate scraped along the top of the buses and fell between them. Charlie could see the traffic moving ahead of him. The South Shore engineer blew the horn. At that moment, the way ahead cleared, and Charlie hit the gas.
The crossing gate broke off between the buses as they cleared the track ahead. Parked safely, the relieved drivers moved the broken gate off the street and reported the accident to the dispatcher. The CTA and the CSS&SB would sort out the repair.
The men would laugh about it later; and thenceforward forever, every time either of them crossed the railroad tracks at 71st and Stony Island, they would tell the story of that improbable moment.
Writer: Craig Downs
Photograph: Craig Downs
Location: 71st Street & Stony Island