Sunday, October 31, 2010

Freight Train Blues: Traveling Kids – Part VII

Freight Train Blues
Bob Dylan

I was born in Dixie in a boomer shed
Just a little shanty by the railroad track
Freight train was it taught me how to cry
The holler of the driver was my lullaby
I got the freight train blues
Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes
And when the whistle blows I gotta go baby, don't you know
Well, it looks like I'm never gonna lose the freight train blues.

Well, my daddy was a fireman and my mama-ha
She was the only daughter of an engineer
My sweetheart was a brakeman and it ain't no joke
Seems a waste to get a good man broke
I got the freight train blues
Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes
And when the whistle blows I gotta go mama, don't you know
Well, it looks like I'm never gonna lose the freight train blues.

Well, the only thing that makes me laugh again
Is a southbound whistle on a southbound train
Every place I wanna go I never can go
Because you know I got the freight train blues
Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes.

While Anna was reuniting with her Vermont friends at the Human Carnival and a large event – Gathering – I was learning about what she really meant by taking the train.  At first when she spoke to me on the telephone at the train station in Chicago, I imagined her sitting on a slightly cracked, worn leather seat watching the landscape as she rolled by. I remembered my own days traveling through Europe on the Euro rail. What a way to travel. I have always loved the romance of trains, in America I have a high regard for the Pullman cars and Buffalo china, which I collected over the years. Coffee tastes better in a thick diner china cup.

That whole idealistic image shattered when I heard from my older son that yes, Anna travels on trains, and no, she never purchases a ticket or sits on a passenger car. Up until that point, my father was off the hook, no bartering with God and I was down to a half of a 3 mg of melatonin to sleep, working towards sleeping on my own. The dosage shot back up to a full pill. Okay. She is hopping trains.

There was a little bit of fingernails left to bite, so I bit them all down thinking in awfulness that my hands looked like those of a nervous twelve-year-old. The thought of my daughter chasing after a train and hopping on brought me back to step one – the coping place. I imagined her be bopping around on crutches with one leg, or worse, I will spare you the details. What if there was some sort of disagreement or problem and she was thrown from the train or fell off in the middle of nowhere. Who would find her?

I fought the urge to pick up the phone that had become a permanent attachment, and call her. Instead, I buried myself in the book that I had been reading by Pema Chödrön. I was working hard on getting my life under my fingertips and eliminating the thoughts that were controlling and defining me. I could do this.

I waited until my next visit with Anna before discussing the train issue. As always, I eased into the conversation, enjoying the initial time that we would be spending together. We were sitting together sipping our morning coffee on the front porch when I asked her about the train. “Anna, when you take the train, you don’t buy a ticket and sit with the rest of the passengers, do you?”

She giggled and smirked the way she did when we both knew the answer. “No, not exactly.”

I gulped a huge mouthful of coffee. “Talk to me, Dottie.” Dottie is a nickname that I gave her when she was a baby, its short for daughter. I think I invented this in the middle of the night when she was a few months old and I was having one of those too tired to think straight, silly moments all to myself.

“Well.” She smiled. “We ride on grain cars.” She twirled her hair around her pinky.  "Grainers."

“Oh my God.” I thought that it would be as good a time as any to start smoking again. I thought about the disgusting taste of a cigarette, the possibility of passing out and opted for the fingernails.

“Mom. It’s not what you think.” She whined in a way indicating that we both knew it was exactly what I thought and more.

“Anna, you actually run after a train and jump on it? You risk life and limb for this?” I needed whiskey. That’s what I needed, plain and simple.

“No, it’s not like that at all. I never run and hop on a moving train.” She said it with such conviction, as if it were such a ludicrous statement. She set her coffee down so that she could really examine the curl that she had twisted around her finger.

“So you’re telling me that you hop on a parked train?” I stood up. “I’m getting more coffee; hold that thought.”

I went into the living room and cranked up the volume of the Grateful Dead satellite channel, poured myself another cup and returned to the porch. “Talk to me.”

I sat and watched the hummingbirds go back and forth above my head to the feeder while she explained her method of riding on trains. Apparently, she does not ever chase after a moving train, hop on it or take chances in that way. The first train that she took was from New Orleans heading north. She told me how beautiful it was on Easter morning when they got off a train in Alabama and there were wild cottontail rabbits in the field. A good sign, according to her still wonderful way of viewing certain things.

“What happens if you get caught?” The image of golden whiskey and ice clinking in a glass that had faded a few moments ago returned, only it was just the bottle this time.

“I haven’t gotten caught.” This time it was she who stood up to refill her cup.

“Not yet.” I called after her. “You haven’t gotten caught yet.” I did a power set of those breathing exercises that they teach you in childbirth class.

She returned and explained how it worked. She told me about the “bulls”- the guys who drive around in the yard in white SUV’s – they were the ones to avoid. She went on to say that the men who worked on the trains were actually helpful and showed them which cars would be more comfortable or better for their ride. She only knew of a few people who had told her about getting caught and the worst case scenario for them was to get booted off the train in the middle of nowhere. Yes, by law they could be prosecuted, but I am thinking that as long as they are not causing harm, or doing anything disruptive that they are generally left alone.

She filled me in on the logistics of train travel. Apparently there are maps and schedules in circulation for the purpose of hopping trains. Old road dogs, train bums, hobos or what have you, have gone to the trouble of making these available.

“I carry a compass.” She pulled another curl out of the mass and started in twirling. “I’m on top of my game; I don’t take chances and I assess all situations. When I arrive somewhere, the first thing I do is check my resources.”

“What do you do when you’re on the train?” I didn’t waver.

“I usually sleep.”

“What’s it like? I mean the train. Tell me everything.” I put my feet on the railing.

She told me about little cubbies and spaces to put their stuff. Which cars or grainers are better than others and why. She said that they bring a jar of peanut butter and bread and make sandwiches. According to her, the scenery has been beautiful. Sometimes it rained and it could be cold; another time one of her friends was very sick with a throat abscess.

“What if you have to pee?” I looked at her out of the corner of my eye.

She laughed. “You hold it until the next stop.”

I went through every possible scenario like an examiner making sure that all of her answers met my constantly changing standards. I covered things from what if you get to the station and the train is leaving and it’s the last train for the next 24 hours? To what if your friends hop on a moving train, would you do it too? My stern, not messing around, voice dropping an octave, self emerged. “You never ever drink on or around trains, right?”

She did a good job assuring me that she would never take any of those risks and that if she missed the train, she would wait.

We veered from our even keel. The seas were rough. We had both of our hands together on the rudder. We carried on in our new way of checks and balances, boundaries and having a right to know or not know. I wanted to scream at her and protect her at the same time. The vision of that little girl with apple blossoms in her French braids scolding our tiger cat, Chloe, haunted me; I kept it at a safe distance, embracing the new face of my daughter – the young woman – while quelling the fearful voice of my own inner child and embracing myself, the mother.
(To be continued).

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