Crossing the Main Line

4988 words

“What a piece of work is man!”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii
(speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

“What a piece of work, man!”
– Maynard G. Krebs, The Doby Gillis Show, 1959
(Speaking to Rodin’s The Thinker)

Crossing the Main Line

From my bedroom as a child I heard the diesel whistle, a song a mile of suburban streets away. Distilled by distance in the quiet of the night, the roar beneath the whistled air was a harmony denatured of its mechanical violence: the fundamental pulse of the undercarriage on the ballast, the full-throttled baritone of the engine, the tenor of the groaning timbers, the contralto of the clanging cars, and the ringing clear soprano of the steel wheels shearing at the rail’s endless edge.

Those countless childhood nights the trains would come to me from places unknown, arriving at the threshold of my hearing, their rising music sounding across the known world of my home town, diminishing to extinction at the edge of my imaginings of the further unknown places they would go. And I would wish to be on those trains—not in the sense of being a passenger, but to ride them like a living thing, from the unremembered past through now into the future—to straddle them, alive and rolling forward to that time and place unknown.

Four or five times on hot and sleepless nights the song would reach me as a train passed through. I came to know each chorus for the street where it sounded. As I listened to the growing accompaniment between the whistle blasts, I would whisper the names: Dale and Gilbert Avenues, from the west, Euclid and Richmond Streets from the east. As chorus reached its peak, the longest and closest whistle sounded just behind my school where the single track Union Pacific connector crossed the main line.

The deep alluvial plain that became Orange County California was for thousands of years veined with seasonal creeks that streamed into broad sandy beds of rivers that could only be recognized as such during winter rains, when, bursting from canyons in the chaparral hills in torrents of brown aqueous earth, they scoured their beds and slipped easily over their banks. Then, losing the force born of their constraint, they spread wide and flat the fresh deposit of their sediment. Defused as they were by the coastal plain, the floods were never deep or strong, but when new people arrived determined to make the land give up its wealth, they had to be controlled. So farmers funneled the water into ditches, then builders channeled it in concrete. The living creeks that had for so long pulsed with the seasons became concrete ravines, the barrancas. Barrancas, thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep to hold the winter flood, divided neighborhoods and required bridges, though most of the year they held only a pitiful trickle from the gutters, the street run-off of lawn sprinklers and car washing, water piped in through the surrounding desert to keep the suburban sprawl alive.

Just across the barranca that ran behind my baby boom elementary school, the Southern Pacific main line out of L.A. ran east through the last generation of orange groves, now subdivided, cut and gone. In my primary years I only heard the trains through the trees. But the orange grove was torn out one summer and I remember at the beginning of third grade seeing them for the first time scream across the ditch-dug waste of former orchard that would soon become the sculpture-gardened headquarters of Hunt Foods, Inc.

My father used to tease me about how afraid I was of trains. My sisters and cousins would scream with delight when my dad idled the car as close as possible to the choo-choo train at a crossing. But I would cry and hide on the floor of the back seat. I remember because my dad would never let me forget it. I suppose that’s part of the reason I later took on the challenge of getting as close to the trains as possible. Fear and love together can create a strong attraction.

And now as I find the same love and fear alive within me some thirty years later, it becomes clear that the challenge was to prove that I could mount that train, but would not die doing what risk-taking adolescents do: testing the metaphors of life against my own mortality, as if the world and my very life were merely metaphors.

Until the fifth grade the trains and the tracks remained a distant part of my life. I could see them from the school yard every day, the gleaming silver Santa Fe and the long rush of the freights. I often saw switch engines fetching cars from the side spurs. And on several well-remembered occasions, I saw a dark blue Union Pacific switcher that was not reversing and hitching like the other small engines, but lumbering slowly—sometimes east bound sometimes west—taking its time with its short train of cars, crossing and re-crossing the main line.

Perhaps because I saw them from afar, and perhaps because I was able to actually see them, the trains from the school yard weren’t the same engines of my imagination that they became in the stillness of the night. Though I wanted to get closer—to really know the trains—as a younger kid I just didn’t think it was possible. But I was getting older and more mobile, and right beside the tracks behind the school they were building the Hunt Branch of the Fullerton Public Library. The footbridge over the barranca to the library was my passage to a larger world, a destination and departure point, the beginning, and nearly the end, of my journey.

At first I was content to just observe the trains from the top of the juniper-covered earthen berm that was raised between the library and the tracks. Up close the main line trains were frighteningly violent, their graded gravel domain eerily forbidding to me even when silent because I knew the heedless steel could be on top of me in an instant. I went to the library as often as I could, and half the time I was outside, twenty feet above the back windows, in a juniper bush watching the trains. It was the perfect place for a cautious kid to become familiar with the life of the rails.

I’ve come back to the library beside the tracks this day in the middle of my life to see a train wreck. In my first thirty-eight years I haven’t seen a train wreck, and I figure I won’t get another chance to see one in my next thirty-eight, so when I read about the derailment in the morning paper it was an easy decision to blow off my conference schedule for the day. I chose the conference at Fullerton State as an excuse to visit my home town, and when I saw the library and the tracks and the school across the barranca I realized that the train wreck too was an excuse to come back to this particular crossing of rails.

Just to the west on the far side of the tracks, the largest tomato processing plant in the world is still employing three shifts a day. Memories of my youth are permeated with the smell of stewed tomatoes. Waves of that over-ripe odor wash me into visceral memories as I walk from my car through the lawns of the garden toward the library.

In the cool morning quiet before the library opens the same feeling of reverence comes over me that I felt in the midst of these spacious lawns as a ten year old. Each quarter-acre plot is embellished with carefully maintained hedges, small trees, and flowering plants and surrounded by massive black stone walk-ways, wide enough for a car but raised a full two feet above the lawns. At the focal point of each frame of green is a large bronze statue. My favorites from the collection surrounding Norton Simon’s headquarters were Rodin’s Walking Man and a pubescent Diana, naked except for a quiver and gauntlet. Now, as then, I see them silently holding forth amid the green. I think of how the walker watched as I stroked the hunter’s bronze vulva and felt her cold new breasts. But now, as then, I am drawn in the other direction toward the tracks that I know are just behind the low hill of junipers at the north edge of the lawns. Jumping from the formal path, I jog across the still-wet grass and, gulping the nostalgic scent of juniper, hurdle to the top of the berm and breathlessly survey the wreckage.

It’s really just a derailment—hardly a wreak at all. But having never seen boxcars on their sides, it is an impressive sight. According to the paper, the engineer had taken the curve across the main line too fast and had lost his last five cars. The car that lead the rebellion came to rest upright but blocking main east bound line. Removed before dawn to allow normal traffic to resume, it rests on a spur with the crane car that moved it. There is no other heavy work going on. Railroad people move unhurriedly about the sight inspecting and measuring like cops after a car crash. The four other derailed cars had all rolled off the roadbed and accordioned into one another. The last of them seems to have come directly down the gravel bank and plowed into the earthen berm directly behind the library, just below me. I understand now the purpose of the berms.

After gawking mindlessly for nearly an hour I walk over to the library and settle myself into the reference section again for the first time in twenty years to flesh-in these recollections with paper and ink. I soon find myself waiting for the next train to go by. I realize that this is not a very good place to have put a library. That professionally planted ridge of earth works like a levy to protect the building, and blocks the sight of the trains from the library, but it cannot dampen the cacophony of a seventy-mile-an-hour diesel locomotive. I look around at the people in the library and smile to myself as I hear, then feel, what I guess is a west bound freight. As familiar as a recurring dream, the noise and the shaking are upon us and all activity in the library pauses: the librarian’s serious whisper, her mouth half open; the giggling and poking of the children, now wide-eyed and listening; the seniors’ magazine browsing, their thumbs at the lick; even reading itself—all stop in a collectively held breath for a power too great to be resisted. The roaring engine, whistle blaring, Doplars up and through the building, rattling its steel and glass and shaking every tome and pamphlet. Then, as the forte recedes, thoughts and actions resume to the counterpuntal clanging of the following cars. The decrescendo leaves a startling quiet. The quality of sound and silence in that library is unlike any I have ever known. Each period of quiet is ominously tense—as if the building and the shelves and the books themselves know that each silence has its own indeterminate life which will inevitably end in sudden, violent death.

Over the months and years of my early adolescence, my caution stubbornly gave in to my growing excitement and curiosity. From my perch I would venture up the shoulder of the gravel bed and onto the tracks themselves. I warily investigated the creosote and oil stained minutia of the right-of-way. All the while an eye and an ear scanned the vanishing point for the first hint of an approaching train which would send me scrambling for the safety of the bushes.

During the summer before high school I started going to the tracks with neighborhood friends. Fear engendered courage. Embarrassed by my panic, and more afraid of embarrassment than of the trains, I retreated less and less. Soon I could hold my ground, taking the noise and the shaking and the blast of heated wind full in the face from the very edge of the ballast grade. I discovered true exhilaration and I soon wanted more. We dared one another to get as close as we could.

The signal stanchions were as close as anything to the speeders—just a foot away. The trains never touched them, so we figured if we wrapped our arms around them and held on literally for dear life that we could get the full explosion without being knocked down by the rush of air and sucked under the train. We didn’t know if that was what would really happen, but that’s what we imagined. Holding tight to the stanchion before the train arrived was the only way to get that close without being overwhelmed by fear. I remember the feeling of energy up my spine like the top of my head was coming off. I remember screaming my throat raw and not hearing it.

But even with all of this new train excitement, I knew when I heard the whistle blow across my room at night that it was not really what I had wanted. The main line trains were untouchable monsters. It was exciting feeding on their power and on my own adrenaline, but that was all there was and I didn’t know how to get more. When I started high school I found new friends from other neighborhoods who showed me the way.

Like a geo-social cliché, Fullerton was divided by the railroad line: working-class flat-land grid to the south, wooded hills of luxury homes to the north. The single Union Pacific track that dove across the main line behind the library snaked north through the hills, skirting the grounds of the finest homes in town. The rails had been there since it was all avocado and lemon orchards. The sight of the Union blue switch engine with its dozen cars plodding through the hills beside lawns, fairways, and equestrian trails was an odd anomaly: hot, greasy industrial labor steeling its way through the cool, green serenity of leisure.

The nightly north-bound groaned up the dark residential valleys around ten-o-clock each night, the carbon-arc head lamp momentarily freezing each stark tableau of landscaping. We would hide from the light in a culvert beside the tracks on the outside of a long curve. The curve was sharp enough to slow the engine down and put it out of sight of the caboose coming around from behind. As the engine disappeared around the curve ahead, we scrambled from the culvert and ran beside the train without fear of detection by the engineer or brakeman, assaulting the cars like a horseless James Gang. The path had been worn smooth along that curve by other wide-eyed boys long before the night I took my first grab at the side ladder of a boxcar.

The speed of the train was just less than a fifteen year old boy could run. As the ladder slowed and came to me, the train changed from a moving shadow into something that I could see clearly for the first time. I had climbed on boxcars parked on sidings before, but what I saw in the moonlight that first night was not the same object at all. Those other cars had been facsimiles—like something dead, stuffed. Seeing a moving train as if it were not moving was like being face to face with a wild animal. The train seemed to be alive as it rolled beside me at a run.

I was intimately close—the thick chipped paint of the ladder, applied over thick chipped paint over steel, the stenciled routing codes on the car, the rows of rivets on the edges, the dents, the smears of grease—each detail standing out like the features of a face. A deep blackness yawned between the cars where the couplings screeched and strained against each other while the bushes and trees on the other side of the tracks flickered by like a silent movie.

Running beside the boxcar, I could not see the wheels below. I could hear and feel their crushing ring, but it was different than I’d heard before. I had never heard a moving train that was neither coming nor going. It was as if I held that sound between my ears that had always been so far away and moving. I heard sounds that I had not known were there—the countless little sounds, the overtones, the individual vibrations that make the whole. It was a sound that I had loved for so long, and for the first time it was close and did not move away.

With the car so still and clear, and with a rush of selfish discovery, I might have run to the end of the path and fallen off the shoulder of the grade, but the voices of my friends pierced my running reverie with shouts of, “Grab on! Grab on!”

I reached across my body with my right hand and up with my left to the rung at eye level. I gripped the pale steel and pulled it toward me. I had not been aware of my feet and legs as I ran, but as they lifted from the path I felt them searching for new purchase. That sickening moment of dangling caused an adrenaline jolt that gave me the strength and presence of mind to pull my feet up to the bottom rung. I hugged the ladder and tried to catch my breath. When the sensation of movement returned, it was not the train or me, but the rest of the world that was flying by! I had hopped the train. I was riding it.

I got very good at hopping those trains. I rode as often as I could that summer, through the school year and into the following summer. It was some of the greatest fun of my life, but it never got me anywhere. There was no destination except the pleasure of the ride. And though the pleasure is intense on the top catwalk of a tank car with good friends rolling under summer stars into the cooling warmth of a stiff Santa Ana that snaps your clothes and dries your grinning teeth as it whips your face with a sense of speed and freedom, there was always the problem of jumping off the train and hitch-hiking home.

Hitching was no problem in those days, but jumping off a moving train is always dangerous. We chose a soft grassy slope in The City of Industry, easy hitching distance from Fullerton. I was always anxious before I jumped, but nobody ever suffered more than a few scratches.

Just as it had that night twenty years ago, another passing freight train rocks my recollecting and sets me in motion. What was I thinking that night? I was in the library until it closed at 9:00 that late spring night. Instead of the studying I was supposed to be doing I had been reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Baba Ram Das’ Be Here Now. I remember thinking bitterly how it was easy for Ram Das to just be here now—he’d gone somewhere and been somebody already. My there and then seemed to be nowhere, ever. My high school friends were all headed for universities. But my future looked like it would soon include a trip to Viet Nam. Dropping out and blowing the hinges off my doors of perception was looking like the best way to deal with not dealing with my future.

I retrace my steps out the back door and up along the top of the berm. I was planning on already being on the train when my buddies hopped on three miles up the line. I was so full of myself that night—grinning like the fool I was. The mindlessness of my vain pride is too clear to me now even to allow a smile as I reach the east end of the berm where I had waited for the northbound switcher.

I look east down the Union line as I had that night. It parallels the main line, keeping forty yards south on its own right-of-way elevated above a drainage ditch. It runs straight through town to this point below me where it starts a wide right turn. It takes a severe angle across the double main line with its many sidings and then continues turning to the north on the other side. In the hazy noon sun I can see all the way down the line to where it seems to merge with the main line in the distance. That night I stared at the same spot, but into darkness where the headlight of the switcher would appear.

I planned to hustle down the berm when I saw the light and hide on the steep side of the road bed just before the turn. After that it would be automatic. There were forty to fifty yards of gravel runway before the knot of crossing rails began. My only other plan was to be extremely pleased with myself when my friends hopped on—as they were sure to do on that warm Friday night.

The crane car was set in motion as soon as the last freight had gone through. I watch as they maneuver it into position to pull a toppled boxcar back onto the spur. The crew works with an obvious sense of urgency. They know the window in the schedule they are working with. They know exactly when the next train is due and they need to get this car righted before it come through. I squint through the smoggy haze to the east where my eyes were fixed that night so long ago.

When I saw the Union headlight it felt as if I had willed it to appear. Whooping and clapping in gleeful anticipation, I staggered down through the juniper. It would be more than a minute before the train arrived and I wanted to gather my muscles and wind for the run, so I lay face down on the gravel slope, breathing in the musk of creosote, and waited. I felt the individual point of each rock that pressed the skin of my forehead and cheeks, the rest of the gravel a coarse texture against the length of my body, muffled by my tee-shirt and jeans to a single sensation into which I ground my chest, my hips, my thighs to form a hollow that would hold me. I dug in with my feet at the bottom, my arms outstretched above, my hands flat on the edge of the level top of the roadbed, and waited with mounting pleasure as the gravel and the air began to vibrate with the coming of the train.

Just as the pleasure of the moment began to sap my strength and will, the monotone blare of the switcher’s horn punched me back to my purpose. Recoiled at the sound, I began to slide down the embankment, then, coming up on all fours, I looked up to see the engine burst by like a shadowy building in motion.

Spraying rocks and scraping knuckles, I scrambled directly toward it. As I got to the top of the road bed, the engine was past me, into the turn and blasting its horn in preparation for crossing the main line. I turned to my left as the end of the first car flew by just a foot from my right shoulder. The sound of the diesel engine ahead of me bellowed and swelled with increasing intensity. I know I heard that engine, but the meaning of its rising roar was lost to me as I noticed how much narrower this gravel shoulder was than the path I was used to. But as I began to run the curve it widened a little and I opened up my stride and began looking for a ladder to grab.

The boxcar on my right moved steadily ahead even as I ran my hardest. The loose gravel gave way slightly under every step and, as in a dream when you run and run but can’t get going, I was running faster but seemed to be slowing down. I could see the dull glimmer of the main line tracks looming ever closer on my left. I couldn’t see them around the curve directly ahead, but I knew I would be out of running room suddenly and soon. I still don’t know why I was so determined to get on that train that night, why it seemed so important that I not lose that chance to ride, but when the end of the boxcar came up from behind I set my jaw and lunged with both hands at the rung just above my head.

I felt my arms and shoulders jerk taut and my feet left the ground. The locomotive growled. My arms pulled, but they weren’t above me, they were ahead of me. The horizontal rung felt like a vertical pole that was slowly sliding through my hands. I wasn’t dangling down from the ladder, but was being pulled along, flapping like a flag, nearly parallel to the ground. I heard the engine roar again and felt the acceleration. I finally knew what was happening but it was too late to let go.

From somewhere below I heard the staccato percussion of the wheels striking the crossing rails. I looked down over my shoulder and saw the steel and ties of the main line flickering by. The thought of death blew through my entire body at once like a convulsion. I coiled around my middle, trying to bring my knees up. When I did, I realized that I was bent at the waist with my legs around the back of the car. In that position I would fall down between the cars when I lost my grip. I began to scream. I let my body go and my hands slipped from the rung.

I would have fallen between the cars except that the train continued its turn to the north just before I fell, flinging me off a little to the side. I landed on my back, spinning and tumbling beside the train. My legs flew forward and out, forcing my head and shoulders in toward the tracks. For an instant I was looking at the spacious underside of a boxcar, the rail just inches away, the wheels rolling toward me. Time seemed to pause just then and it was silent under the car. I must have thought I was going to die because I felt so detached and could see so clearly—the connecting rods and hydraulic lines framing the nightscape beyond that faded to the east into the silhouettes of trees and houses, black against the glow of city lights on the horizon—I accepted it all as some final image. I came to rest with my face to the stars, the wall of indifferent boxcars still lumbering by. I gasped to pull the air back into my lungs, unable to move until the last wheels had passed, inches away.

Stumbling and crawling in the dark, feeling sorry for myself and more injured than I really was, I made my way toward the lights of the library grounds. I found myself leaning against the Walking Man, thinking about Diana and wondering what to do. The mile walk home seemed impossible, but I wasn’t about to crawl to a pay phone. Ashamed of my failure, I wanted no one to know.

Standing on the footbridge above the barranca I took stock of the damage. I was covered with cuts and scrapes, my back was sticky with blood and the pain in my shoulders wouldn’t let me raise my arms. I hung my head over the railing of the bridge. Glowing like granite, the sides of the concrete ravine starkly framed the black ribbon of water in which a shimmering line of silver reflected the half moon that I hadn’t noticed before. I pulled in deep shuddering breaths, wet with the dankness of drainage and resignation.

I think now of my mother and a poem that she loved and had recited to me often,

“Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy with cheek of tan.”

It ended,

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

I did not know I would not go to Vietnam, that I would ride the main line far and wide, finish college, find love and have a family. I did not know I would go where I have been and do what I have done. I did not know I would be happy with my life. I could not know my joy for fear of losing it.

With my parents asleep in front of the TV set it was always easy to slip in—no questions asked. After a stinging shower I lay on my bed in the dark trying to find a position that didn’t hurt.

On a cool breeze through the window came the song again. I didn’t hear it slowly come and go because as the first strains echoed off my walls I felt a tightness in my throat that I had not known was there give way to pressure in my gut and I was wracked with unexpected sobs I neither understood nor questioned.

When exhaustion and relief had stopped my crying, I stretched my ears to listen once again. The suburban night was layered with soft sounds: the surrounding deep white rumble of city, the closer sounds of neighbors, crickets in the yard, the murmur of TV, my breathing, and the beating of my heart. But I was listening for a whistle—trying to stay awake to hear it one more time. And when it came, that steel whispered promise in the wind, I gratefully crossed over into sleep.