The train was going too fast for the turn. The results were tragic. And we also learned that, seconds before the accident, somebody threw something at the train. In fact, we learned that things being thrown at trains is a rather common occurrence.
The car was pulled over. Snow was falling and I had just come under a bridge. I noticed the driver of the car was hunched over the steering wheel, so I braked, slowed, pulled into the breakdown lane, stopped, and carefully backed up.
I can hear the whistle of the train in the distance as I write this, and I recall going down near the river as a boy, where the tracks crossed the road. I don’t know if it carried freight or people, but I remember that day waiting nervously, hoping that I would not be responsible for some tragic accident.
Have you ever done something and then prayed for all you were worth that you would not regret it?
“When the train runs over this, it will make it so flat you won’t believe it!” That’s what my friend said, holding a penny between thumb and forefinger. I half believed him and … I half didn’t. “Is it OK to do this to money?” I asked. “Who’s going to ever know!” was the reply. Those famous last words that enable us to convince ourselves – if not of innocence, at least of anonymity!
It was a woman in the car, and she was crying. I stood outside the door of her car and she rolled the window down. “Are you alright?’ I asked. She couldn’t talk through the tears; she nodded her head.
In many ways life was so much more predictable back then; in other ways it was much less so. Organized sports were almost non-existent in my childhood. Summer was free time on steroids, with hours, days, weeks (it seemed like forever back then!) to do nothing. I don’t recall being bored; but we played as a matter of course outside the aperture of our parent’s eye. Off to the playground on our bike; downtown to get a soda or fudgesicle; or, in the case of some of the older kids, hanging around waiting for the afternoon papers to come in before heading out on their paper route. But this day, we were in the business of sabotage. Today, we were going to do something really big … and dangerous. This could change everything.
She collected herself enough to be able to speak. “Some kids were standing on the bridge back there. They threw a snowball and it hit my windshield.” She was tearing up again. “It brought back memories …”
We glanced around to make sure no one was watching. The caper was on. The penny was placed well down the tracks from our hiding place. We were tucked in under a pile of brush and ducked low so as not to be seen from the train. Then, we heard it. There was a crossing about half a mile away, and the whistle blew. There was no rushing the tracks now, no undoing what we had done.
The big locomotive could be heard rumbling toward us. Think of it – a time when placing a penny on the railroad tracks was paramount to sedition! I would graduate to more serious pranks as I got older, but by today’s standards the bar was extremely low for our misbehaving antics.
I glanced back to the bridge. Whoever had thrown the snowball was gone now. She continued to explain her tears, crying and talking. “This happened to me before, and I had a terrible accident. I don’t know …” Her voice trailed away.
I remember being very nervous, praying that train would stay upright and on course. As the engine lumbered by us I recall the feeling of relief. And as the caboose faded safely into the distance, having waited to make certain no engineer could spot us, we ran to the location. There it was: the flattened penny; pancake currency and the feeling of exhilaration believing that we had taken a tremendous risk and come out of it unscathed.
Are you going to be alright? I asked her. Silence. She looked up at me. She nodded. “I need to sit here for a while. I’ll be Ok.”
We’re told it is not unusual that people throw things at passing trains. It’s not likely that a flying object was responsible for the tragedy outside of Philadelphia; but then, did it cause just enough of a distraction so as to be a contributing factor?
Snow is for shoveling and backyard snowball fights and snow angels. Trains are for bringing us home or taking us on the first leg of our vacation. Pennies … I don’t know what they are for except to let us charge 99 cents for things instead of an even dollar.
TBT – Morningtown