Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hopping Trains (for Daddy)

My father the year he jumped the train, years before he met my mother.

This couple would become my parents. I believe they had not yet married when this was taken.

My father hopped a train when he a teenager in Berrien County. Without telling a soul of his plans, without telling his mother or father or brothers or sisters, he drove the tractor from the field where he'd been working, parked it near the train tracks, and waited. When the time was perfect, when the train was pulling away, he hopped it, leaving everything he knew for places he'd never been. It was the beginning of a journey he would carry with him throughout his life.

I sometimes walk the tracks with the camera in my hands and imagine I see my father as he must have been that summer day when he hopped the train, the way must have been in his youth, long before he married my mother. With the sun in my eyes, I imagine I see him near the tracks, in the distance, a lifetime away from me. 

Wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, short sleeves rolled up to make them even shorter, he's watching the train, his father's tractor abandoned nearby. I can make out the smile on his face, the thick, curly auburn hair, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his tee shirt. There he is, anticipating the jump, his amber eyes taking everything in, choosing a level length of ground for his run. He's a ghost, but he's my ghost. I see him, right down the tracks from me. He takes the last draw on a cigarette and tosses the butt. If only I could reach out and touch his hand, his arm. If only I could travel in time and watch my father on this one particular day of his life.

Satisfied with the location, he now stands still and waits for the perfect time to make his move. There's an art to hopping trains. The timing must be perfect, the jump done before the train gains too much speed. The upper body must be strong. There must be nothing to trip on. 

I watch him. The train is moving, rumbling forward, clanging over the tracks, headed toward the future. Burdened with nothing but the clothes he's wearing, the cigarettes in his pocket, and a few bucks in his wallet, he runs, his lean body moving faster and faster with the grace and confidence of youth, his tanned face beaming with excitement, the train whistle shrilling through the air, a sense of invincibility whipping through his heart, and he grabs, pulling himself up with arms muscled from farm labor, and lands in a train car. He laughs.

I blink and the image is gone.

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