Leap Years and Railroad Tracks

Leap Years are special. You get a February 29 which only happens every four years. Good for you! Some people celebrate their actual birthdays for the first time in four years. Good for them!

Leap Years aren’t so special for me. Maybe that’s because 50% the ones I’ve lived through have been within a week of a tragedy occurring within 100 feet of railroad tracks.

Granted, I’ve only lived through four. One when I was 3, one when I was 7, one when I was 11, and one when I was 15.

Let’s start with the first tragedy.

It was February 27, 2012, a cold gray Monday. I was in sixth grade. The kid who sat two seats behind me in Social Studies died, 13 days before his 12th birthday. He was wearing a hoodie and Beats headphones as he walked to school, and he didn’t notice the railroad tracks. He never saw the train. The train blew its horn, but it takes a mile to stop one of those, and this kid, completely unaware, stepped right in front of it.

Dead at 11.

I hardly knew this kid. I looked down on him because he never did his homework, but he always had the nerve to write his name at the top of the page in loopy cursive, and turn the assignment in blank. His name was Joey, but the teacher called him Jokey because of his laugh. It was wild and raucous, and the teacher said if he was constipated, he could have a bathroom pass. This made him laugh harder.

There were many days when he did not come to school, so I was not surprised when his chair was empty that morning. I found out two hours later that we wouldn’t see him again.

When someone dies, you have phases. There is the phase of shock. Then the phase of sadness. Then anger. Then just an empty hole that heals after a lot of time.

On this particular Leap Year, February 29, 2012, I was in the phase of anger. That morning was the Honors Breakfast, where the principal invited everyone with a good GPA to eat breakfast “to get to know them better.” The breakfast was two doughnut holes and juice, and the principle never had a one-on-one with me. On each table was a green piece of construction paper. It was blank. There was nothing on it; it was just paper. The principal made an announcement: the paper was in honor of Joey, let’s have a moment of silence. I guess it was because green was Joey’s favorite color. But I was mad. A whole life was lost, and your little memorial is a few scraps of paper?

March 1, 2012. That evening I went to Joey’s funeral. It was in a city called Waukesha, WI, and the city is like a maze. I’m really good with remembering streets, but in the suburbs of Milwaukee everything is straight and nice with a few angled streets, but they were easy enough to remember. Waukesha, however, was not like this at all. Streets twisted around, none of them had numbers, and it was hard. We got lost and arrived at the funeral late. It made me sad to think of all the experiences Joey never had.

Fast forward to February 27, 2016. I spent the morning at the DMV, waiting to get my driver’s license, as the day before was my 15 1/2 birthday, making it legal for me to drive, given that I had already taken a drivers’ ed course. I felt guilty. Joey would never get to drive. It was a sunny Saturday, and all the snow had melted.

February 29, 2016. I decided that I had a bad stereotype against Leap Years, and that they could be beautiful days too.

March 2, 2016. I drove on city streets for the second time. I also crossed railroad tracks for the first time. It was bumpy. I got home. My dad asked me if I had checked Facebook recently; I said I hadn’t. One of my fellow counselors from the Boy Scout camp I’d worked at last summer had died the day before. It was his 16th birthday. He was driving his car alone, southwest of Sheboygan, when he crossed railroad tracks. He lost control of the car and slammed into a tree. I had just driven across the tracks myself.

I drive a Prius. Some people think it is a wimpy car, but it is still a killing machine. It has the potential to go 100 mph. Whenever you get behind the wheel, you could kill someone. This someone could be yourself.

Life is fragile. People think they are immortal but they are not. All it takes is a moment to end it.

So now I am paranoid of Leap Years, especially when they involve railroad tracks.

That’s all.