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When daddy drove the train

Posted: June 15, 2014 - 12:08am

“One father is worth more than a hundred schoolmasters.”

– English Proverb

I walk past the card counter, ignore the “Super Dad” balloon display in the aisle, and toss “Father’s Day Sale” brochures into the trash. I feel a twinge, knowing I ignored the man more often during the 42 years we shared than I do the Father’s Day accoutrements I no longer need. Regrets – I’ve had a few.

Sometimes, especially in our youth, we don’t like our fathers. We wish they made more money, had better jobs, allowed us more freedom, or fit the lopsided image we have of someone else’s dad – like my young, adopted son once said of me, “I wonder if my other mother would be this mean.”

Funny how things change when we do, when we become parents or when those regrets include the years and events we wish we still had our fathers with us. “Daddy, remember when...? and no one answers the question.

A slew of letters to the editor some time ago, complaining about the early morning whistle-blowing trains near where I live, sparked one of my fondest memories of my father. I hear the whistles, too, but I don’t complain. Instead, I count the number of times they blow: Two short blasts means the train is starting up; two long, one short and then another long means the train is approaching a crossing, and the engineer wants to make sure anyone else using the roadway is fully warned.

How do I know this? Because my father used to drive the train. I’ve counted whistle blasts ever since the morning he came home shaken, after a young boy riding his bike ignored his whistle and raced across the tracks anyway. Miraculously, the biker beat the train by inches and a tragedy didn’t occur. But Daddy would never forget that day, and neither would I.

“I’m going up to the superintendent’s office right now and make him let me go into every schoolroom in town and tell all those kids never to try to beat a train. When that whistle blows” he would tell them, “you stop because I can’t!” I shudder at the memory now, knowing he couldn’t have lived with himself if, even through no fault of his own, he had something to do with the death of a child.

Because the railroad operates on “seniority,” I had left home before my father made a living wage. He could show up for work – either as the fireman who checked the coal for the old steam engines, or the brakeman who made sure the train was in good working order – only to be “bumped” by someone who had worked there longer than he had. Finally, when he passed his engineer’s credentials and enough of those senior to him retired, he had “bumping” privileges, too.

But there were perks for a railroad man even when he was at the bottom of the pack. What Daddy lacked in take-home pay he made up with something we reverently called “the pass.” With that little card in our wallets, our whole family could ride the train anywhere free.

Oh, the vacations we took because we could ride and sleep on the train: to Florida to escape the Maine cold, to Ohio to visit my mother’s family, and to many points in between. Also, for a very special two years, my pass took me to a city 40 miles away for the piano lessons my parents otherwise could not afford.

There would come a time when I returned the favor, giving “Grandpa” the delight of hoisting our little sons onto the engine so they could “drive” the train from his lap until we retrieved them at the next station. The blinking brakeman’s lanterns he bought for each child became their favorite toy.

I don’t have my father with me on this Father’s Day, but I still have his influence. Patience, for example, was one of his virtues, not mine – until I think of the trains, and remember that he “trained” me well. Besides the whistles, it’s easy to be impatient when stopped for a train, but I rarely am. Instead, I count cars. (In case you didn’t know, if the train has around 100 cars, it’s actually a mile long.) It also helps to remember why we have trains – and trucks and other delay-causing vehicles – in the first place. With a little effort it’s possible to turn those annoyances into moments of gratitude for the supplies, protection, and family provision all those vehicles and the people who drive them provide.

When all these things are “counted up,” the minutes of sleep and time we lose because a train gets in our way don’t measure very high on the priority scale after all.

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