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Edition #87, October 1, 2008
Photographer: Scott Lothes
Photo by Scott Lothes
It was October. That much I know. Of all the months, October evokes the strongest feelings in me. It is a month of transitions, of endings and beginnings. It was the month Mom and Dad split up, and Mom and I moved to St. Albans. It was the month we moved from St. Albans to Cross Lanes, and the month we moved, along with David, from West Virginia to Ohio. In college we always had fall break in October. It was a long weekend to stop, to go somewhere else, to remember and ever so briefly reconnect with all the life that existed beyond the enclosed bubble of Case Western Reserve. With photography, October is now a time to make especially pretty pictures, to chase the changing leaves and the low autumn sun. And with that pursuit comes the reminder that all is temporal, fleeting. Catch me if you can or miss me altogether. I won't wait for you. I can't.
But most of that came later, came after 1987. That it was October then mattered not. My big stepsister Joanna, two years my senior, stayed with me at Grandma's that weekend. At my grandparents' house there was the laundry room in back of the den where we used to play, where we made secret hideouts and headquarters and rigged elaborate booby traps all controlled by the musical tones of a funny-shaped blue keyboard. There were the wooden walls and the wooden stairs, leading up to the second floor and its hidden attic where we would hunt ancient treasure and listen to the rain fall softly on the roof.
Of course, it didn't rain that Saturday. It was one of those make you cry October days of deepest blue youthful innocence. It was morning, and the chill was still in the air of an overnight frost. But the sun was out and the people waited. We were in that morning – Joanna, me, Grandma and Grandpa. The four of us and hundreds more waited, lining the tracks by the C&O depot at 4th and 4th in St. Albans. It was quiet for the size of the crowd. Eyes were fixed on the west, and ears strained to hear above the murmur. After the first far-off forlorn cry, the silence was absolute. And there it was again, louder this time. And again, louder still. And once more, and this the loudest and most lonesome of all. And now the staccato exhaust reverberated up the valley. It became a chant, the incantation of some long-forgotten magic spell that we all longed to be under. Hearts raced to match it in time. Around the trees of the distant curve the white plume billowed, and then the headlight, and the plume was an eruption in the sky, and slowly the form of locomotive #765 emerged behind the light and beneath the plume. The exhaust was at a trot now as she ambled by, bigger than life itself, so we could all have a good look, but fast enough to leave us longing for more. Just like those autumn leaves.
Thirty coaches followed. Thirty. And on them the Chosen would ride. Whether to South Boston or South Charleston, all that mattered was to be on board. We would not be on board that day. We didn't have any tickets. Of course I was heartbroken. That was a given. I would ride any train to any destination on any day (and still will). They ran through my dreams by night and my thoughts by day. They filled my toybox, my books, and nearly every piece of paper that ever met my pencil. Joanna knew all this, and often teased me for it, as sisters are wont to do. That was a given, too. I don't blame her for it. I don't even think I did then. But that day was different. That day there would be no teasing. She looked up with longing eyes at those gleaming coaches, and wished to the bottom of her soul that she could look back down, and find four tickets in the gravel by our feet. I am certain she wished that even more than I did.
If I had it to do over again, I would have grabbed her hand and gotten us on that train before anyone could have touched us. But instead we watched it slowly pull away and gather speed, and lingered by the tracks until it was just a dot and a smudge and a far off whispering of the spell of dreams. I'm sure we went back to Grandma's for the rest of the day, and played and ate and maybe had a fight or two, but I don't remember. I don't remember anything else that happened that day, that week, or even that month. But I can recall that morning like it's been replayed every day since. My big stepsister, who usually teased me because I liked trains, for that one morning wanted to be on board one even more than I did. And my God, if I could have traded every toy I owned and gotten us those tickets, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
Next year we did get on board, with first class tickets. We ate cheese for breakfast in a car called the Mardi Gras and held our hands out the vestibule windows to feel the cinders. It rained that day, but that didn't matter. I enjoyed that trip as much as I've enjoyed any train ride. Yet – and I remember feeling this even then – it couldn't match the magic of that day the year before.Joanna and I grew apart after that. Indeed, I think we had already begun to in that year between wishing we could get on board, and holding first class tickets. Maybe that was the magic I was missing. Maybe that's the magic I'm still trying to find in my annual October pilgrimages to the Mountain State. Somewhere scattered amongst the winding steel rails and the falling leaves, I'm hoping I can look down and find a ticket to a time when all the world saw life as I saw it, and waited alongside me for the magic that was sure to appear around that distant curve.
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