Trains, A Memory by A. Y. Stratton

June 30 2012

I was ten years old, on a mission, flying on my bike along the sidewalks, feeling free and bold and very grown up. I couldn’t believe I’d talked Mom into letting me have the white buck loafers I’d been eyeing for weeks.  But after I wore them to school a few times, they were smudged. (Mom had warned me that would be a problem with white shoes.) Luckily I had saved just enough of my allowance to buy the special polish they needed. Rugen’s Store was half a mile from my house, down four blocks, over five blocks, and just the other side of the railroad tracks.

I’d been warned a zillion times about crossing those tracks. “Cross at the signals where the gates go down. Never cross at the station. It’s not safe.” Mom’s words echoed in my head as I took the short cut. I saved a block by crossing at the train station.

The shoe department didn’t have the polish, but the hardware section did. I pulled out my wallet, handed over my stash of change from my allowance and carried the package to my bike.  Immediately,  I realized I had a problem.  The polish was in a squat glass container that barely fit into my hand. My bike had hand-breaks, but no basket.   If I dropped the package, the container would break.  I’d better not have to slow down for anything.

Clutching the bag with the polish and barely gripping the handlebars, I pedaled toward home.  I had to choose my route quickly—Mom’s way or the short cut? Mom’s way or the short cut? My hand was cramping.

I chose the short cut. Focusing on the polish, I rode right up to the tracks and got off to walk the bike. My front wheel rolled onto the track. I looked up. On the other side of the tracks two boys were grinning at me and pointing, making fun of me with my package.

That's when I heard the whistle. And the dinging of the crossing gates.  I glanced to my left, down the tracks. There it was, the large black engine! Thundering along. Right at me.

I didn’t move. Couldn’t move.  Was the train on the same track I was?

Yes.

The boys were laughing. I saw them. Laughing. They were thinking I was going to die right there in front of them.  One of the boys was my friend DeeDee’s big brother. He and his buddy must have been carving their names in the wooden chairs. Still frozen on the track I thought how naughty they were.

I looked down the track again, grabbed my bike, and yanked it. At that moment I remembered something my big brother had read in his science magazine, how the force of a moving train can pull things beneath its wheels. Still gripping my bike, I leaned away from the tracks. 

The train whistle howled. The monster engine screamed past. Past me, past my bike, past my shoe polish. And was gone, a fading monster heading north.

Arms gripped me. I looked up at a man in a blue uniform. Deafened by the locomotive, I was stunned and amazed.

I was still alive.

“Are you okay?” The man in the uniform frowned at me and squeezed my arm too tightly. “Didn’t you hear the whistle? Is your foot all right? I thought,” he stuttered.  “I thought your foot fell beneath the wheels.”

I started to cry. The station master, such a nice man, put his arm around me and walked me to a bench to rest.  He dashed away and returned with a cup of water. “Here, drink this, and I’ll sit here with you.”

Across the tracks the boys weren’t laughing. Their mouths hung open.

The station master was stern. I should never use that crossing, he said. Ever.  I put down my polish and sipped the water.  He kept asking me if I was okay.  I told him I wanted to go home.

He helped steer my bicycle across the tracks. As I passed the boys I noticed their shocked faces. “You almost died, you know?” one boy said with a sneer. “That train almost hit you.”   

I walked my bike all the way home, holding in my tears.  When I stepped into the house and saw Mom, I sobbed and dove into her arms.  She pulled me into her lap, as if I was a tiny girl again, and listened to my story, cooing how happy she was that I was safe. 

Whenever I recall that day, I remember the smiling face of that boy. I still want to understand--why was he smiling?