Iron Monsters & Memories

In the 1950s my mother and I traveled by bus and train to The States to stay with her parents each summer. A few months later my father would arrive in Lake Andes, South Dakota to drive us back to our home in Canada.

We stopped for root beer floats and foot longs and saw tiny birds that ate mushrooms.  We liberated fresh ears of corn from the susurrus of seven foot stalks and we ate the succulent kernels, savoring the milky juice that burst from them.

Dad always found new routes for us  — said part of the fun was getting lost … he was good at it.

 Mother  complained that Dad stopped at railway crossings.  There were no gates in those days.  Just round signs — easy to miss. Dad said trains had the right of way and they could prove it. You had to watch for ’em.

When watching for trains Dad parked on the railway tracks — much to the horror of my mother and me.  Dad felt one could get a clearer view of approaching trains if one straddled the tracks — such a vantage point provided unobstructed views. He said mother always had her head in the way. 

Once on the tracks Dad switched off our engine so we could hear trains approaching.  I prayed we would not.

On occasions a train barreled toward us but Dad always got the car going before some great steam engine flashed over the rails where we had  parked seconds earlier. 

When I turned 15, my parents let me drive.  Fun for me but I noticed that neither Mother nor Dad slept while I was at the wheel.  

On a lovely fall day we came to a railway crossing and I stopped on the tracks to look both ways.  I turned off the engine as dear old Dad had taught me.  

A million pounds of coal-guzzling steel — roared out of the sunlight.  A one-eyed tiger closing on three frozen rabbits.

switched on the ignition but the car didn’t start. 

“Jesus Christ, abandon ship!” said my Dad. “Get out! Go! Go! Go!”  

Mother and Dad scrambled to safety.   I was still in the car, trying to stop it.

The engineer sounded his warning whistle: Two long blasts; a short, and a long.  The universal code that something that could level mountains would blast through the crossing. Mom and Dad raced to door.

Sparks flew from the train’s wheels as they locked on the tracks. My father yanked on my door. It held firm. Mother handed Dad a rock to break the glass.

The engineer crossed himself and seemed to brace himself for a tiny thud he would never feel.

An instant before Dad could smash his way into our car and save his only child; his only child smiled and started the car and rocketed out of harm’s way.

Dad and Mom jumped to safety. The earth heaved as dozens of boxcars flashed by.  

Stone silence. And then the distant train whistle, fading and changing pitch in the ice blue sky.

We were safe. Mother hugged me and wept. 

My father, shaken, slid behind the wheel. Twisted the key and the Olds purred.

I grinned,

 “You little bastard,” he said. “You pretended it wouldn’t start. Fathead!” 

I thought he was going to slug me but he didn’t.  Nor did we ever stop on railway tracks again.  Dad told the story to our relatives for many Thanksgivings and vowed I would never be allowed to drive until I was 40; Mother would smile.   

 I miss my road trips with them.   Those trips started so innocently. Here’s our first long road trip.

written by jaron summers (c) 2020 Los Angeles


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