"My children... listen to your father's instruction. Pay attention and grow wise."
- Proverbs 4:1
I have to laugh whenever letters appear on the editorial page to protest the area's early-morning, whistle-blowing trains. Because one of those noise-makers runs regularly near my house, I hear them, too.
But instead of complaining about the whistles, I count the number of times they blow: Two short blasts means the train is starting up; two long, one short and another long means the train is approaching a crossing and the engineer wants to make sure all motorists and pedestrians are duly warned.
How do I know this? My father used to drive the train, and I've counted whistle blasts ever since the morning Daddy came home shaken because 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 was averted. 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'd had something to do with harming a child.
Because the railroad operated on a policy called "seniority," it was a long time before my father made a living wage. He could show up for work anytime - either as the fireman who checked on the coal for the old steam engines, or the brakeman who made sure the train was in good operating order - only to be "bumped" by someone who had worked there longer than he had. Eventually, he earned his engineer's credentials and enough of those senior to him retired so he could inherit his own "bumping" privileges.
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 for with something we reverently called "the pass." With that little card in our wallets our whole family could ride the train for 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 any point in between.
And for a special two years, every other Saturday my pass took me to a city 40 miles away for the piano lessons my parents otherwise couldn't 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 the "co-pilots" at the next station. The blinking brakeman's lanterns he bought each of them became their favorite toys.
The noted theologian Os Guinness says, "Christians think otherwise." Some years ago when a segment of Concordia Seminary's student body moved from its suburban St. Louis, Missouri, campus to a high-traffic area downtown, hardly a class would go by without being interrupted by a siren's wail.
At first the students complained of the noise, until they remembered Guinness' words. Anyone can get annoyed, they decided, but they could adopt another point of view.
From then on, to the Concordia family, every siren blaring from a St. Louis street meant someone was hurt, a house was on fire or someone else was the victim of a crime, and faculty and students alike stopped whatever they were doing to pray for those in need.
I don't have my father with me on this Father's Day, but I still have his influence. It's still easier to be annoyed by sirens and whistle-blowing - or traffic-stopping - trains than to remember why we have trains and rescue vehicles in the first place. But with a little effort it's possible to turn those annoyances into moments of gratitude for the benefits - or memories - they represent.
When all those things are added up, the minutes of sleep and time we lose because a train interrupts our lives don't measure very high on the priority scale after all.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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