During our most recent trip into Pennsylvania Dutch country to visit my grandma, my father led his grandchildren and me on a field trip to the railroad tracks. Into the minivan went my father and my two oldest children, through old Myerstown, onto a gravel pull-off, out of the van, and up a slight slope to a twin set of rails.
My father led us to the center of the far set. “Well. Here we are.” We craned our necks each way to see whether a train might stealthily be preparing to pummel us: not a speck, nor whiff of smoke, nor whistle’s toot. We stood looking at each other, at the rails and ties, and at the gravel. Like my father, I am joyfully melancholy and randomly nostalgic. I found these tracks both sad and uplifting, like visiting the hallowed battlefield at nearby Gettysburg.
But suddenly all I could think of was that ghastly scene from Fried Green Tomatoes, when Buddy hops onto the tracks to retrieve Mary Louise Parker’s hat but gets his foot stuck between the rails and ties, and then a train whistle blows and then you see the train and it’s coming and it keeps coming and then everything is deadly quiet and then you are left mad at your wife’s family, wondering why they insisted you watch this wretched movie.
Suddenly my father dropped to the ground and pressed his ear against a rail. “This,” he told my kids, “is how the Indians would check whether a train was coming while it was still out of sight. They would listen for the vibrations. Can you hear a train coming?”
We all knelt to the ground and touched our ears to the steel of both tracks. After a minute we looked at each other. “No trains this morning, I guess,” said my father.
Fifteen seconds later, a train came into view. “Hold me, hold me!” cried my daughter. We scurried off the far set of rails and back over the first. My father paused to place a penny and a nickel on the closest rail, then joined my kids and me ten feet away from the near track. We crouched facing the engine as it grew from a black speck into a dark giant and waited for its wind to bowl us over. The blast sent my Red Sox cap flying eight feet behind me, and the penny–flattened and hot–shot out within arm’s reach of my father. The displaced air forced tears from our eyes, and then dried them.
After the long trail of cars had passed, my kids waved at the caboose, which didn’t look at all like what they had hoped. But soon it moved out of the way, revealing a second train on the opposite rails that blasted us again. As it passed, I told my father, “You couldn’t have planned it better.”
“Yes. But we’re terrible Indians.”
All was quiet when my daughter started to cry. Until then I had not realized what bravery the event had commanded of my two-year-old to confront these locomotives in all their force and physical splendor, when moments earlier they had been figments of her imagination. Without warning, they had charged at her from her child’s world of forms, breaking the barrier between fiction and reality, and converting the railroad tie on which she had just been standing into a locus of death. Here she was, completely safe on the brink of disaster. Here were comfort and terror intertwined.
Later that weekend, as my children slept on our drive back to Dayton, it occurred to me that my daughter had made not a peep as the trains were passing, but only once they had gone. Perhaps it was adrenaline that kept her from burying her nose into my shoulder until the threat was no more. In any case her behavior struck me not as childish, but as human.
It is not just children who find their courage when they must, only to retreat as soon as they can into someone else’s strength–such as a father’s, or a Heavenly Father’s. That is how we were made. That is what we were made for.