Fifty years later, armless boy’s tale of train theft keeps rolling

Nearly a half century has passed, so Larry Jones, an honorary deacon in his church, was surprised to be shown an old newspaper photo of him the night he stole a train.

He smiled.

“That’s me,” he said, bending to the picture. “That was 50 years ago, a long time. It was a Monday.”

He was 12 and barefoot that late summer evening when he came upon an idling 2,000-horsepower diesel locomotive in the Argentine rail yard in Kansas City, Kan. He wasn’t supposed to be there, but Larry loved trains and it was as if a voice called from the young boy’s heart — “All aboard!”

And so he did. He climbed into the cab, released the brake and pushed the throttle forward with his foot. Oh, right, forgot — Larry didn’t have any arms. Never did.

Men in the Santa Fe tower ran to watch Engine No. 552 leave the yard. It was “running the pots” — the railroad term for going the wrong way. Against traffic. Without lights.

Larry, wearing dirty shorts and a pirate T-shirt, didn’t know and didn’t care. He hit 25 mph as his locomotive ran the banks of the Kansas River.

Railroad officials sent word down the line to get that train somewhere and derail it.

Larry pushed the throttle to go faster as 552 made the bend north toward downtown Kansas City. He sat in the engineer seat as cool air rushed past, the sun setting behind him, engine roaring and tracks clicking and clacking beneath his locomotive.

This day, in a way, was his

carpe diem

. A few minutes for the rest of his life.

He would later paint tricycle wheels for Goodwill Industries, the brush between his toes. He picked up aluminum cans, lugging them home in a burlap bag made by his mother. Now 61 and living on disability, the highlight of his day is watching “The Price is Right.”

That train ride? He’ll tell you he shouldn’t have done it. But the wind on his cheeks, the noise, blowing the whistle with his foot — all like a pretty girl smiling at him years ago and he’s never forgotten her face.

Larry hasn’t gone far. His home, a tan split-level, sits on the bluffs above those same rail yards.

He’d lived there with his parents, both of whom have died. They left resources so he would never have to move. A caretaker or family member is always there.

Larry welcomed a visitor a recent day by opening the front door with his foot.

The house is tidy, with family photos on every wall. His mom and dad, brother and sister. Church outings and picnics. Larry knows when every picture was taken and he’ll tell you in a flash how many years ago that was, sometimes even the day of the week.

He talks fast. He’s very friendly and polite. He wears a plaid shirt, tucked in. His hair is neatly combed.

With prodding, he tells about his train ride. His caretaker on this day listened open-mouthed.

“How far did you drive this train?” Paul Dillard asked.

“About seven miles,” Larry told him.

Dillard shook his head. “Well, Larry, I don’t think I’d know how to make a train go.”

A fair point. Most of us need to study the owner’s manual before we get on a riding mower.

Larry shrugged. “Nobody told me. I just figured if I pushed that thing forward, that would make it go.”

His sister, Janna Holland, thinks Larry had been to the yards before and an engineer had befriended him. But Larry always could do amazing things with his feet, she said.

“He can bowl better than me,” Holland said. “He can shoot baskets. He plays the piano. I’ve seen him in our basement stand on one leg and put the other foot on the ceiling.”

Larry was a “thalidomide baby,” according to Holland, a term for children born with birth defects after pregnant women took the drug to ward off morning sickness. Most of those babies are now around Larry’s age. The drug now is used to treat multiple myeloma and skin conditions.

“He had prosthetic arms, but by the time he got them he was used to using his feet for everything, so he wouldn’t wear them,” Holland said.

Then she chuckled.

“When my daughter was a baby, Larry taught her to hold a bottle with her feet. I said, ‘Larry, you can’t do that. She has to learn to use her hands.’ ”

She paused.

“He remembers everything. Especially about that night.”

She remembers some. She was only 6, but she answered the phone when police called.


“Runaway in the yards!”

The alarm went out at 6:30 p.m. for Engine 552 headed toward Kansas City. Railroad officials sent word down the line: Put him somewhere — just get him out of the way.

They were switching tracks to get oncoming trains out of Larry’s path. Then the order: “Take it into the yards along the West Bluffs and try to derail it.”

Thomas H. Jones, a railroad carman, saw 552 approach the 23rd Street viaduct.

“I said to myself, ‘Look at him come, all black,’ ” Jones told a newspaper reporter that night, meaning the train was running without lights. “He was coming good, about 35. Then he was even with me and I saw that little white face. I said, ‘Hell, that can’t be an apprentice engineer.’ ”

Larry was fiddling with dials (with his feet), trying to get the lights on. As downtown approached, he was also thinking about how to stop his train.

Behind him came a second locomotive trying to catch up and hook on. The switch had been thrown to take Larry into the yards beneath the bluffs.

A boxcar sat on the tracks at the 12th Street viaduct.

According to a newspaper account, Larry slowed, moved in close and expertly threw the engine into reverse — with his foot — and backed off.

“I wanted to hook on, so thought I’d try again,” Larry said that night.

That’s when Gene Schieble, a switchman running along the track, grabbed a handle near the rear coupling, locking the brakes and bringing 552 to a halt.

End of the line.

Larry was taken off the train and into an office near the American Royal building, where police and railroad officials grilled him. The group, according to a Kansas City Star story, was “relieved, amazed and curious all at the same time.”

Larry didn’t say much until he heard a locomotive pass on the nearby tracks. “They’re taking my engine,” he complained in near tears.

Someone assured him his locomotive was still parked down the way.

Larry then smiled.

“Went good, didn’t I?”

Last week at what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard, Jerry Long, whose father was an engineer back then and saw Larry’s train go, nodded when reminded of the story.

“ ‘The darnedest thing happened last night,’ ” Long remembers his dad saying the next morning. “ ‘There was this little boy with no arms’ ”

“Everybody was shocked and amazed,” said Jerry Long, who just retired from BNSF after 34 years.

“It was also unbelievably dangerous.”

So a 12-year-old boy with no arms climbs aboard a locomotive and “runs the pots” through a big city while railroad workers try to derail it.

How would that story play today?

Of course, there would be video. Probably live from a news chopper. Local TV, maybe even CNN. In Web hits, Larry’s train might have kept up with O.J.’s Bronco.

It would be on YouTube. Larry might be on Leno. The story would probably reach a cosmonaut in the Russian space station. But Larry’s great adventure merited only a few stories in The Star, including one in which he said, “I just wanted to keep going and going.”

The final article tells of a Wyandotte County juvenile judge ruling that no charges would be filed. He just wanted to talk to Larry’s parents about more supervision.

Larry probably preferred the low-key coverage. In the newspaper picture of him taken that night, he looks to the camera as if it were an angry teacher.

Then and now, his story is mostly his own.

Doug Carr, an elder at Shawnee Boulevard Christian Church, knows it because he also worked for the rail yard. When he first joined the church in 1978, he noticed that a man in front of him wore a watch on his ankle. Strange, Carr thought.

Then the guy pushed his glasses back with his foot. Wow, Carr thought.

That guy turned out to be Larry Jones, the kid in the train story.

“Everybody looks out for him,” Carr said of the people at the church, which is a couple of blocks from Larry’s house. “He reads the bulletin, sings loud — not always on key — and if he’s not there on Sunday, we all wonder why.”

Larry said he doesn’t think about the train ride often these days because he has too many other things to do. Church being one. Another is the two-mile walk he takes at 5 every morning on the bluffs above the rail yards.

“I hear ’em honking down there,” he said with a nod.

No, he’s not tempted. He walks on. Larry has had his train ride, and nothing could ever top that day.

It was a long time ago, a Monday.