Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Life and the Long Train

The long striped arm swung down from its sentry position stopping the battered pickup from bumping its way across the single pair of railway tracks. Two red lights perched blinking on the bar like owl's eyes on a swing-down target at a shooting gallery. Indeed, the scene was like a carnival with frantic clanging of bells and flashing of lights that hung below the white X-shaped sign that crowded the side of the road. Of course, that clamour was simply a warning of the imminent arrival of a late night freight train. The farmer in the old truck had often heard the shrill whistle as he worked in the barn a half a mile from the country railway crossing.

While he waited, the rain fell hard and was instantly slapped away by the windshield wipers only to be replaced by another sheet of water. Despite the racket of it all, the weary farmer mindlessly counted the boxcars, covered hoppers and flat cars as they rumbled by some 10 feet in front of his old farm truck's headlights. One, two, three…he could not take his eyes off the passing cars for fear he would lose count. Meaningless, he knew, but somehow the grey-haired man was compelled to continue counting. It took his mind off his longing to get to the welcome of his warm home. Yet, at the same time, the numbers he spoke out loud prodded at a forgotten pain he felt inside his head.

23, 24, 25…he wondered how soon the end would come. His squinting stare strained to count the railcars that slid by. Each set of wheels marked its turn with the same staccato rhythm on the rails. 38, 39, 40…his eyes grew tired of keeping pace. The ache developing in his head began to throb in sync with the groaning rail bed he saw in the truck’s lights. He felt the ground under the train rhythmically sink then recoil under the weight of each set of steel wheel that passed.

61, 62, 63…when would he count the last one? He knew it would not be a telltale caboose. They had long since been abandoned or sold to railroad connoisseurs for private enjoyment of a bygone era. Whatever that last railcar was, he knew it would arrive suddenly and be gone into the stormy night. It would click over the joints of the smooth rails and fade into the distance with only its electronic ‘FRED” (flashing rear end device) marking its departure.

87, 88, 89…then, without warning, an empty open hopper car with nothing behind it fled past. The farmer was left alone with an odd sense of loss. Perhaps, he thought, it was the end of the ebbtide of problems that swept back to claim the territory lost to the train’s arrival. Or maybe it was a dim memory of missed boyhood opportunities to place pennies on the track to be flattened by the daily train into treasured souvenirs. The years had gone by so quickly.

The red and white protective arm, gripped in the claws of the “owl”, red eyes no longer shining, rose into the suddenly silent night. Putting the pickup into gear and touching the gas, the farmer bounced over the rough crossing. As he did, he glanced after the long train and vowed to himself to count the cars on each train he saw at the crossing. Maybe he would keep some pennies in the truck, just in case. After all, life is short.

Life passes like a long train
We count the cars like years
It flattens all our pennies
And leaves us souvenirs
We trade our childhood wonderment
For struggles, hurts and fears
We give up grand adventures
For hurry, wealth and tears.

Wherever our train travels
Until it disappears
Let’s live each moment bravely
Come jeering or come cheers
Let’s live each day in conscientious care
Of family and of peers
Then leave our living legacy;
The truth for eyes and ears.

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