I like to see it lap the miles
And lick the valley up…
Emily Dickinson, “The Railway Train”
The romance of trains wove into my childhood fabric. I knew, in that way that children in big families know things–knowledge more absorbed than imparted–that my father had had to decide, after World War II, whether to stay at his pre-War job with the railroad or go work for the electric company. He went with the electric company, but there, he drove the heavy equipment. And that included a short connector train; Dad engineered the locomotive that linked to the coal cars and pulled them into the steam station, where their contents became–sootily–our electric light and heat; our clean, dry clothes and our television viewing.
I have a very early memory of a very special day, of riding with great anticipation to the steam plant where my father worked, walking with my mother to the gatehouse where he met me, and entering that noisy, clashing place of big men and loud machines. I was going to ride the train with my Dad. I sat on a buckled cabinet just the right size for a little kid. I watched my Dad make the vast machine move, and I listened carefully as he gently told me what I should and should not do. It was a day of wonder and amazement.
Trains laced our neighborhood, too, bringing supplies to the food processing plant stuck oddly into the middle of our nice residential area. The plant made catsup and peanut butter, mostly, and both products were not sold locally, but only faraway (William F. Buckley famously liked the peanut butter and ordered whole cases of it). Trains would cross the broad main street to pull into the plant and disgorge whatever ingredients they offered–peanuts, no doubt, from some sunny southern state, sugar, and whatever other mysteries brewed together to make the good smelling concoctions.
We crossed the tracks on our way to school; sometimes we had to wait for the train to go by. My mother impressed on me that one did not get too close, that people could get hurt on trains. There was unimagined power there.
My brothers told stories of jumping on trains as they started up. They told of a hobo jungle down past the food processing plant where rail-riders ate baked beans out of rough-opened cans and regaled them with dark and murderous stories. I was pretty sure they were lying, but their stories chilled and scared me anyway.
I think my brothers saw themselves as young heroes, ferociously free spirits for whom the trains were the vehicles to adventure. I thought of them when I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent series late this December, enjoying the thoughtful gift from my youngest son. Tris, the main character, opts for the Dauntless faction, and the Dauntless ride the rails:
The train glides toward us on steel rails (Roth writes), its light flashing, its horn blaring. The door of each car is open, waiting for the Dauntless to pile in, and they do, group by group, until only the new initiates are left. The Dauntless-born initiates are used to doing this by now, so in a second it’s just faction transfers left.
I step forward with a few others and start jogging. We run with the car for a few steps and then throw ourselves sideways. I’m not as tall or as strong as some of them, so I can’t pull myself into the car. I cling to a handle next to the doorway, my shoulder slamming into the car. My arms shake, and finally a Candor girl grabs me and pulls me in. Gasping, I thank her.
That is Tris’s first, but far from last, rail adventure. The Divergent dystopia is a dangerous but exciting world; the Dauntless characters face very real dangers. The worst are from traitorous people; the train’s threats can be mastered. Like the trains of poetry–of Stevenson’s “Faster than fairies/faster than witches…” or Auden’s “This is the night train crossing the border/ bringing the cheque and the postal order…”– the trains in Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant are vehicles, almost, of magic.
There’s a darker side to trains, though.
I remember sitting in the living room with my husband and eleven-year-old stepson–it was 1987–watching the evening news. The footage switched to a California train track, and the commentator warned this might be disturbing to watch. As the train bore down upon a protestor–a man making a point about US weapons sales in Central America–it became clear he would not move and the train would not be able to stop in time.
I got up and left the room, but the thought of that impact haunted my thoughts, hovering for months. I thought of the legless protestor. I thought of the engineer who could not stop.
In one of those weird quirks of fate, we were exploring, with toddler James added to our household and new jobs changing our ideas about ideal areas and commutes, housing possibilities five or six years later, and we toured a beautiful brick Victorian house in the tiny hamlet of Ashville, New York. It was being sold for an outrageously low price; it was filled with the clutter of a vast and ranging mind–papers and books and pencils and pens and notebooks strewn everywhere.
“You know whose house this is, don’t you?” asked Mark, coming back to join me after walking a bit with the realtor. He named the man who’d been mutilated by the train. It was a hot summer night; we walked in the neglected overgrown gardens behind the house–once, they’d been splendid, obviously–and then we went home.
We did not make an offer; our path eventually led us far away from Western New York. On the first leg of that journey, I worked at a small private college in northwestern Ohio. A track rimmed the campus and I heard the train’s mournful horn wail mid-morning when I worked at my desk in the Learning Center. And then one morning, I arrived at work to find emergency vehicles, police cars, and the college’s senior team clustered at the tracks; my colleagues and the students were white faced and downcast. The word trickled over: a student, a junior boy, had laid down on the tracks and died that morning.
I remember I had a meeting with a student support team that day. We tried very hard to stay on topic, to focus on the living students, and then one of the team members, a young faculty member, stopped and said, “God DAMN it!” And we all began to cry.
There is that about the trains, too–damage and death, a taunting allure almost like that of Niagara Falls–Try me, fool, if you will.
Those are the trains–the taunting, dangerous ones–I read about in Enrique’s Journey, the trains that speed from the Honduras up through the vast Mexican frontier. This is the vehicle that children, missing their mothers who have gone to the United States to work, use to try to reach them. It’s a saga–repeated over and over–that is drenched in sadness. Mothers in Central American countries, abandoned by their children’s fathers, forced to work for subsistence wages, cannot afford to feed their children adequately, to buy them clothes, to get them school supplies. And so they leave their babies with a grandma, with an auntie, and they get themselves to the United States, where they find work–work that US citizens are probably not crazy about doing–and they live frugally, and they send home money every week or every month.
The money feeds the children; it buys them clothing and notebooks; it gets them dental care and provides pinatas on their birthdays. The money makes Christmas trees, with gifts underneath them, possible. But what the children yearn for is their mothers. And when they are old enough, many of them try to ride the trains to the United States.
On the rails, they encounter bandits and gangs and corrupt police. They are beaten and robbed and raped. Most often, they are caught and sent home. And yet, most of them will try again.
Enrique, the hero of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey (subtitled “The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother”) attempts the trip seven times before he successfully arrives in the United States and reunites with his mother. He braves all of the dangers of the people on the road.
Suddenly, Enrique hears screams. Three cars away, a boy, twelve or thirteen years old, has managed to grab the bottom rung of a ladder on a fuel tanker, but he cannot haul himself up. Air rushing beneath the train is sucking his legs under the car. It is tugging at him harder, drawing his feet toward the wheels.
‘Pull yourself up!’ a man says.
‘Don’t let go!’ another man shouts. He and others crawl along the top of the train to a nearby car. They shout again. They hope to reach the boy’s car before he is so exhausted he must let go. By then, his tired arms would have little strength left to push away from the train’s wheels.
The boy dangles from the ladder. He struggles to keep his grip. Carefully, the men crawl down and reach for him. Slowly, they lift him up. The rungs batter his legs, but he is alive. He still has his feet.
Eerily reminiscent of the scene from Divergent, but not all of the people Nazario writes about are as lucky as the boy is, this time. So many migrants die on the tracks–in some places, one every other day–that their bodies fill unmarked mass graves along the way. Others lose their feet or their legs, their hands or their arms, making them unable to work. They will never reach the States. Children as young as seven are targets of roving bands of bandits, who beat them and take their money. Police watch for the rail riders; when they catch them, they deport them back to their home countries.
And yet–talk about dauntless–they, like Enrique–return. The yearning to find their mothers is stronger than their fearful knowledge of what can happen to them. Nazario writes of those who are, after multiple attempts, finally broken down, finally daunted; they vow to remain at home this last time when the sad bus takes them back to their own borders. Others are so determined they make the trip again and again–until they die or make their way into the United States.
It is a disturbing, haunting story. On this cold, cold night, I look out the window, from where I sit warm in my kitchen, and wonder how many children are riding the rails, without adequate food or clothing, vulnerable to the uncaring machinery and to the greedy and rapacious outlaws who wait to prey on them. These are not the romantic trains of my childhood, not the trains the poets wrote about–these are trains of bitter life and lonely death.
Enrique’s story changes forever my ideas about trains; and it makes me deeply sad and deeply uncomfortable, and yet I am very glad to have read it. Now, when the immigration debate rages, I give it a name and face. Now, I can never forget that we are talking about people, hurting, yearning, questing, people. I will never hear that mournful blaring howl of a train’s horn without thinking of Enrique and thousands like him, their repeated journeys, their dangerous quests to find their mothers.