In those days, Orange was a railroad town, a dangerous little town. Two tracks, one owned by Southern Railways and the other by the Chesapeake and Ohio split the town right down the middle, cutting through Main Street with the power and authority of black, smoke-breathing dragons. The townspeople could set their watches by the train whistles. “There comes the 9:07,” Mr. Watts would say, pulling his watch out of his pants pocket to check it. After all, railroad time was as official as the great ball in Greenwich. There was a time when the trains passed through without the warning whistles; but the wreck of old ’97 changed all that. After the monster jumped the tracks on the curve just a mile out of town, people demanded not just a toot, but a long blast from every approaching train.
Even at that, getting run over by a train was a worry for every mother in town. They warned their children, “Listen for the train whistle, and don’t get too close to the train, the wind will suck you under the wheels and cut you in half.” Every time Mom and I waited for a train to pass, the slightest puff of wind in my face was a sure sign the passing freight was ready to suck me into its grinding wheels.
There were also other hazards. The engines belched not just smoke, but soot. After each passing coal-burning steam engine — small black particles with tiny edges like cut diamonds filled the air, penetrating people’s lungs, pores, and eyes. Almost every time we went downtown, a cinder seemed to light in my eye. Mom would pull a clean, crocheted handkerchief out of her purse, say, “Open your eye, now and look up.” She’d gently extract the black boulder while I screamed in teary pain.
We lived on the East side of the tracks, in one of the brick houses up on Standpipe Hill. Waugh Furniture, the Orange Hotel, Gill’s Hardware, Dr. Hankins office, Thompsons Food Market, and Gryme’s Drug Store were along Main Street on our side of the tracks. Yet, a typical shopping day downtown would take us all the way up Main Street to Legget’s Department Store, Sparks Grocery, Page’s Drug Store, Lerner’s Store, the 5 and 10, or the Western Auto. The movie theatre and the churches lay toward the far end of Main Street. I liked to look at the bicycles in the Western Auto and the cap pistols in the 5 and 10, hoping someday, I’d save enough from my ten cents a week allowance to buy one of them.
One day, as we walked along Main Street in front of Legget’s, I heard the loud and familiar wail of the mid-morning passenger train approaching the crossing. The ground shook beneath our feet as the engine reached the edge of town. Suddenly the roar of the passing train was punctuated by a bone-chilling scream. I clutched Mom’s hand as we turned toward the tracks while men ran to the crossing. Instead of continuing toward Washington, the train slowed and eventually came to a stop. We could see a crowd gather around something lying next to the tracks. Mom’s face was pale and grim.
“What is it?” I said.
“Someone got hit by the train,” she said.
“How could that be?” I asked. “We heard the whistle blow. Did they get sucked under?”
“Don’t know. Don’t know,” she said quietly.
We went into Legget’s where she shopped for some new material for two shirts she was going to make for me, I had a hard time thinking about anything else but the screaming person who got sucked into the train. We had to cross the tracks to get home and I never wanted to walk over the crossing again.
That night, Mom told Dad the story.
“I heard about it,” he said. “It was somebody from Madison.”
“Didn’t they know about the trains?” I asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t know. Stay away from those trains,” Dad said to me.
He really didn’t have to tell me that.
(This is a story from my book, “Hand on the Shoulder: Finding freedom in the confluence of love and career,” to be released within the next two months on all the major book sites.
Note: This story was written from my memory. I’ve been unable to find a news article about the incident or the person involved. If anyone has more information, please let me know. On the other hand, perhaps this was generated by my own childhood fears.)