If You Miss the Train I’m On
By Lenee Cobb
You will know that I am gone; you can hear the whistle blow 500 miles.
I sit outside on the patio at my parent’s condominium in Lakewood in the wee hours of the morning crying. It is raining softly. Daddy is now 84. Mom is a few years younger. Daddy had a stroke last month and mom had one last week. It is summertime and their window is open above the patio. I can hear them snoring comfortably through it. After all the years of rambling around the country, my parents finally planted a garden. The only reason this garden is here is that they are old now, too old to follow places their youth allowed them to go. They both hate not being able to pick up and just go—anywhere.
The garage wall serves as the patios back wall. There is a dim light sending mere whispers of illumination among fragrant petals and statuary mounted on the near end of the garage wall. A thick bundle of healthy purple Clematises grow up the fanned wooden trellis and spread out beneath the roof ledge of the garage wall. Roses, Shasta daisies, lavender, azaleas, and pansies pleasantly surround the patio. Some spill out of containers and others are planted in the same dirt the two cats like to make occasional use of. Climbing tomatoes twist up and around the three decorative metal posts that support the corrugated plastic awning. Rain drips through a four-inch crack in it. I must be careful where I sit.
Beyond the patio walls, a frog croaks. In the distance, the muted, lonely, double whistle of a train sounds. Haum Haaauuuuummmm. As it fades, I feel the ground rumbling in an old familiar way. The sound never fails to take me back—back to wide prairies and starry nights.
An officer died in the line of duty and my dad had the honor of escorting the soldier home to his family in California. Maybe it is because he is part Shawnee Indian (or so that is what our cousins claim, and I say that because we do not have any gypsy blood but Shawnee Indians are nomadic-hearted and we are part Shawnee,) but daddy decided to take his compatriot home by way of train. Moreover, he thought, why not take his wife and child with him and more, while the train was going to California anyway, he may as well stop off at Idaho and allow the family to visit relatives, and after that, he might as well take the family to go see Disneyland too. Either nobody argued with his logic or no one fully comprehended his strategy. As a child, I never knew about the fallen officer, but I do remember small bits of Disneyland and I will never forget that train ride across America.
It was dark by the time dad held my hand and helped me leap up the train cars boarding stairs. Then the porter escorted us to the sleeping car. Tiny nightlights ensconced within yellowed plastic high up on the walls lit the cars red carpeted hallway. When the porter opened the door, mom said, “How very small and narrow our quarters are. I wonder how we are all going to fit!” Daddy joked with her that she packed too much. I loved our train car.
Varnished pinewood paneled the wall with two bunk beds and the window wall. Red vinyl padded the headboards and footboards of both bunks. Below the window wall was a small table and two chairs made from chrome and red vinyl. On the wall opposite the bunks stood a mirror and sink and some cupboards to put our clothes in. The suitcases barely fit inside the closet. The wall with the mirror and closets seemed smaller than Grandma and Grandpa Stuart’s backyard outhouse. The tiny door to the sleeping cars hallway was centered between the head of the bunk beds and the toilet closet.
Dad lifted me up and set me on the top bunk. I lay down with my feet facing the darkened window and my head next to the wall with the door. It seemed hard that first night to fall asleep but once the train started moving and I became accustomed to the steady chug-achuga-chuga-achuga and the slight rocking motion, they became my nighttime lullaby.
During the daytime, we had to walk through the train cars until we came to the dining car. This was the scariest part of riding the train for a little kid. We would come to the front end of one train car and have to cross over to the next. There were two steps made of metal grates we had to go down. There was a gap between the bottom step of the car we were on and the bottom step of the next car—the car we wanted to get on. The gap seemed large for my little foot to master and it did not help that I could see the coupler holding the cars together and the railroad ties and shale rocks rush by through the grated steps and that gap between them. One misstep and I would fall to my death! At the very least, my leg would be ground to sausage! I was petrified, but neither parent would lift me up and carry me across. They held my shaking hand but I had to take the leap. After weeks of crossing the country, I got to the point where I would cross from car to car without their handholds, but I never did get over my fear of falling through that gap.
Nighttime was my favorite time though. Daddy would take me through the cars all the way to the front of the train. We climbed stairs over the engine and entered a darkened hallway of seats upholstered in midnight blue velveteen on either side of the car. We walked quietly down an aisle of dark blue carpet because it was shadowy and night. The only lights in the compartment were glowing from the base of the seat next to the aisle, the same as movie theaters. We passed all these seats up to go to the very front of the car. This area was full of windows: on the sides, and in front, and above us.
Deserts and prairies rolled past us, rock and scree silhouettes against a huge sky so full of stars and more stars, oceans of stars. Sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, we might pass a train going the other way and the engineer would pull the cord to hoot, “Haum Haaauuuuummmm.” And by the time our train whistle ended its last note, the answer from the other one would begin and fade into the night behind us as it was already miles and miles away. One of the loneliest sounds in the whole world in the middle of a desert prairie at midnight beneath the eternal starry sky.
It was here my daddy softly sang to me, when no one else was in the car with us. “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow 500 miles.”
Another tear falls down my cheek and the rain still patters upon the awning. I will never ever be ready for my daddy to leave me.