Train Watching

May 11, 2010

(Originally published in the March-April issue of "Life Learning" magazine

We heard the train just after our car began the uphill ascent, away from the train tracks. Ben struggled to hold back real tears, while I struggled not to feel guilty for not turning back into rush hour traffic to see the train. "Do you think," Ben said, between sniffles, "we'll EVER see another train?" Yes, I assured him, I really thought we would.

Next day, we heard another train, just as we were strapping into the car to head downtown. "A train!" Ben said--and then drooped, realizing that we wouldn't make it in time for this one, either. More terribly sad sniffs from the backseat. Then a few moments of silence.

Then, "Will trains be running after we die?" Um, yes, I said, barring some cataclysm, trains will be running then.

Cheering up, Ben asked, "Will there ever be no more people?"

Huh. Well, I said, it's likely that someday, there will be no more people.

"But how?" Ben asked. "They keep growing up, and having babies, and then THEY grow up and have babies, and then they do, too. If they're girls," he added (since he currently thinks that papas are pretty extraneous when it comes to reproduction).

I gave him a mini-lecture about habitat, and how animals can go extinct when something happens that leaves them with nowhere to live or find food. Like many species in the rainforest, I told him. And the dinosaurs. They used to be everywhere! And now they're all gone--they went extinct. Although, I ruminated, other life managed to make it through even when the dinosaurs couldn't make it, so at least--I added this to reassure the front seat as much as the back--LIFE may continue for as long as the earth is...

Ben interrupted: "But what if people looked EVERYWHERE for dinosaurs? MAYBE there still are some! How do you know they've looked EVERYWHERE?" I couldn't answer that one.
But Ben was already back to trains. "Are we going to go by the tracks?" Ben asked. "Because then we MIGHT still be able to see it." At mention of this sad topic, he sniffled again, a little.

No train. We crossed the tracks in a minute or two, and there was absolutely positively no train.

Until we had reached the library, found a parking space, and put money in the meter. THAT'S when we heard the train, for crying out loud, TEN long blocks away. Ben was frantic. "Can we just go back? Right NOW?! Because it's going by!!!" The tears were starting to come, because he was so plagued by the disappointment of it all.

I thought to put Ben and his brother up on the hood of the car, and Ben squinted down ten blocks, and--a miracle!--he could see the cars going by in the distance. When he saw it, he was grinning, insanely happy that in this moment--tears forgotten, standing on the hood of our car as traffic streamed by--we got to see a train Ever Again. "We DID get to see it!" he said. "Jem, you can see the train!"

And maybe that's all you need for enlightenment--two boys on top of the car in the cloudy gray dusk, watching a distant train.