Saturday, March 16, 2013

If it had been you...

Just lucky to be alive    Instigator? Me? It may have been me. My frat brother, Steve, and I wanted to hop on a boxcar of the train that stopped at a tiny station less than 100 yards from my dorm. He wanted to jump aboard when the conductor in the caboose wasn’t looking. I didn’t like that idea.

“We’re from Emory University,” I said to the man, “and we’d like to ride on your train.”

He smiled. Three cars up from his perch was the boxcar I’d pointed to.

“Sure,” he said, genially, “but watch out for the railroad detectives.” He explained that their job was to keep people from riding in the boxcars. Of course, in the mid 1960’s, that wasn’t easy to do. Doors on both sides were left open. A sixth grader could leap in and hide; the cars were cavernous.

Since we only wanted to ride ten or fifteen miles, we didn’t slink in the shadows. Instead, we stood at the opening and waved at drivers of cars who’d stopped at the many crossings. They waved back. Some cheered. As we eventually approached the next station, the conductor yelled to us that a detective was waiting around the coming bend. We thanked him, then jumped as the train slowed. We saw the detective in his black suit and white shirt. He appeared to be irate.

Our jump was tricky. We earned a few scratches when we hit the rocks on the side of the rails. Dusting off our jeans, we ran to safety.

Until tonight, I hadn’t thought of that adventure in years. However, when I read the following article, I revived that memory:

LBN-INVESTIGATES: Some people who became homeless during the Depression would ride on railroad cars because they didn’t have money to travel. Some famous men who rode the rails were William O. Douglas (1898-1980), U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1939-1975; novelist Louis L’Amour (1908-1988); and folk singer Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). Some scholars claim that more than 50,000 people were injured or killed while jumping trains.

I didn’t know then that we were in such good company. Nor did I realize how dangerous it could have been.

We were very lucky, I thought to myself, never intending to write about that reflection. Indeed, I’d decided to see a movie: I needed to end this long week with a minor distraction.

“One senior for The Call,” I said to a high schooler in the ticket booth.

She smiled. “One ticket for The Call,” she said, with a Cheshire grin.

I knew the cost of the ticket so I pushed my money to her.

“No Sir,” she said, “your ticket is free.”


“Yessir. Earlier someone gave me money to pay for a ticket. So here.”

I looked around, then looked back at her. She was servicing a couple who’d been next in line. No one else was near. I examined the ticket, then texted my partner about what had just happened. For me, it was a first.

Quickly, my partner answered. “Ur lucky,” her message read.

Maybe so, I thought, as I took my seat and watched Halle Berry do a decent job acting a scary role.

After the movie, I thought again about my luck. When I combined the train experience and the free ticket as indicators, I began to feel pretty special. Luck can do that to a person.

But, minutes later, it struck me. I wasn’t so lucky. Although it was true that the ticket girl chose me, the real reason had nothing to do with my luck. It had everything to do with my age. She’s waited to sell a ticket to first senior so she could use the ten dollars she’d been given. I know that because suddenly it was clear that, after she’d handed me what would have been my $7.50 ticket, she pocketed the $2.50 change.

That left me feeling much more ordinary. In fact, it made me wonder whether the real reason the conductor let us on his train might have been because he knew he would enjoy watching us tumble off.

                                    B. Koplen 3/16/13

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