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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Train of Thought

While I was growing up, our family owned one car. After sliding bowls of cereal across the drop leaf table to six kids, my mother would yank pin-curlers out of her graying hair, throw a raincoat over her nightgown and drive my father a mile to the train station where he’d catch the 7:40 commuter to Boston.

In the evening, when the whistle at the firehouse sounded at 5:45, she’d climb back into the car to pick him up. As little girls, my sister and I often took these evening trips with her. With no station building at our stop, the train discharged passengers on a narrow sidewalk in back of the one-story brick post office. When our mother pulled up front, my sister and I would hop out, running up the asphalt path along side of the building to wait by the tracks behind. There we’d stand on the hot tar listening for the high-pitched pinging of the rails to foretell the locomotive’s eminent arrival.

Stepping from one foot to the other--flinching as the engine spewed gravel at our legs, we’d grab an imaginary wire and jerk down as the train pulled in, signaling the engineer to blow the horn. Most days, he obliged us, and we’d jump into each others arms with our hearts slamming, never used to the decibels of sound. Then Dad would alight from a rusted metal step tucking his brown leather portfolio under his arm and pulling at his tie--we’d race to him, each grabbing an arm for a squeeze.

While we needed fingers in our ears up close, at our house the train horn was background noise, along with the church bells from St. Paul’s and the cars that swished down the two lane highway at the end of our street. But at my grandmother’s, two streets over from the tracks, china and glassware clinked in the cupboards when a train went by. We slept over often, waking in the middle of the night to car after car of long cargo trains racketing over the rails, vibrating our beds until the train passed.

Long ago, a network of tracks called the Old Colony Railroad decorated my current neighborhood south of Boston too. But in the late 1950’s the government failed to renew the rail right-of-way in a decision my father deemed politically motivated. As he told it, the mayor in the city of Quincy, the next city south of Boston, who somehow also held a state political position too, wanted to stop travelers from bypassing his city. My own research indicates that the rail line suffered financial hardship and the opening of the South East Expressway, a connector highway from points south into Boston, sounded the death knell for the train.

The truth is probably a combination of the two. Regardless, from 1959 to until this decade, South Shore residents struggled to get to Boston. Unless we lived in one of a few fortunate locations, travel to the city required an excruciating bus ride (via a now defunct service), a trip through several traffic filled miles to get to a crowded subway system, or stop-and-go travel with thousands of other cars on “The Expressway.” Those lucky enough lived near commuter ferries, considering themselves blessed to take this less congested water ride in spite of the long walk entailed to get many places after reaching the city.

After eons of debate and years of construction, the Old Colony rail line re-opened and once again the South Shore is serviced by train. In 2007 the ribbons were cut for our own Greenbush branch and now I can back out of my driveway and arrive at the station in five minutes--reaching the heart of the city in less than an hour. The tracks cut down the center of our tiny berg; residents are growing accustomed to peering down rail crossings—and adding extra minutes to cross town trips in case a train appears. At the library, from my customary seat by the window, I look up at each rumble, interrupting my work to watch the metal serpent slither down the tracks behind the trees.

We live in a “quiet” zone; the cars make little sound other than a serene click on the rails unless the engineer, in his discretion, deems it necessary. Once in a while from home, I hear a blare or two of the horn in the distance, and it always brings a smile. Perhaps at the station two skinny girls just pumped their arms and squealed at the blast, then ran pell-mell down the cement path into their father’s long arms.


Tabitha Bird said...

Love the description of you and your sister standing by those tracks I can almost see you :)

Suzanne said...

This is lovely! I learn so much about writing lurking over here.