Yesterday, as I shuffled down the cement steps to Margaret’s School of Custom Dress Making, aka sewing class, I heard the whistle of a train in the distance, out to the west toward the lake; the familiar, mournful whistle, followed by the percussive churning of the wheels as it rolled along out there in the flatlands. It took me back to my childhood, back in the woody hills of southwest Pennsylvania.
|My 50-year-old horse, |
minus his tail and mane.
Our family moved five times in two years, between kindergarten and second grade. One of the places we lived was on Jean Drive, in Whitehall. I don’t recall much about the house itself, except for the back porch where I fell on a patch of ice and spent a bit of time unconscious, my face ending up one large swollen chunk of green and purple and black and blue. I missed a week of school after that concussion, and I can still feel the bump when I wrinkle my forehead. I remember the woods across the street, which seemed massive to me as a little one, but which may have been, in actuality, a plot of undeveloped land the size of our yard. But the trees in that part of the world are so thick and varied and lush that a little girl could get lost on ¼ acre of land. I still have a small wooden horse my mom and I glued together, gathered from the mulchy floor of those woods. We collected little pieces of fallen trees and set them on the kitchen table. I remember Mom biting down on a dried pinto bean, urging it to split in half. We used Elmer’s glue to attach those half beans to either side of the horse’s head to make his eyes. I see her thin-filed thumbrnail working its way through soft fibrous bark, creating a dark shaggy mane and a fairly believable tail.
What I recall best about Jean Drive, though, is the set of train tracks that ran through the gully just barely down the hill from our back porch. Nowadays we would panic as parents to think that our children had such ready access to live rails. I don’t presume to know how my parents felt about it, or if they even thought about it. I’m sure they warned us to stay back when we felt the rumble. And since we all survived with our limbs intact I assume we had enough sense to follow the rules.
|We called them pollywogs.|
Back there, against the railroad tracks, there were puddles of water where I discovered tadpoles for the first time - maybe the only time. We visited them daily, watching as they morphed from tiny little fishes to fish with feet, then legs, then one day they were gone. It took till fourth grade science for me to know where they went. We laid pennies on the rails, and returned in the morning to see if any of them were smashed. It takes some skill to know just how to lay a penny on a track so that the rumble doesn’t shimmy it off. Skill, and luck, I suppose.
Up in my bed, on Jean drive, my hair still damp from a late evening bath, I would scrunch my feather pillow under my head, lying there with both ears exposed, in position, waiting for the train. I guess I never really thought about the fact that trains generally run on a schedule. Maybe that’s why the memory is so haunting. It repeated each night, as the summer sun was setting. First, against the chorus of cicadas, there was the rumble. Deep throated, like the earth was humming. It grew to a groan, and then a pulsing howl, and the bricks of our house shook, and my bed with it. Then after it passed, some countable number of seconds after, the whistle would blow, the pitch falling as it turned into a ghost of sound. I don’t recall if this frightened me the first time I experienced it as a six-year-old. But in the end, it became a comfort to me, that dependable snip of time when the powerful forces of life whizzed past and I was safe in my bed, my mom down in the kitchen, and the trees still growing in spite of that mighty rumble.
If you grow up near a train, then it just becomes part of the sensory landscape: the smell of tar in the hot summer sun, the screeching of metal on metal. The pulse and the rumble and the whistle, so loud that you missed a few measures of the muffled music on Lawrence Welk drifting through the floorboards from the television below. It moves from annoying to bearable to comforting pretty darn fast, in fact. So much so, that when you move away to Angelo Drive you feel a sort of loneliness. You miss something, but you’re not sure what it is, until years later and you’re walking down the steps in a place thousands of miles away and you hear a train in the distance. Then you feel, strangely, like you are small and weightless and, against all reason, everything is right with the world.