Tony Woodlief | Author


Some things are stitched through your life like a thread. I’m thinking of railroad tracks, which really are like threads, or perhaps great running scars. I learned to fear them when I was little; my grandmother would remind me often that her father was killed at a railroad crossing, run down when she was only a child. When they found him, she would say, his neck was wrapped around the steering column.

I don’t know if my mind recreated the right image; it seemed cartoonish and horrifying, and I don’t know why someone would ever tell a little girl such a thing about her father, or why she would hand it down to her grandchild like a ghoulish keepsake. Here’s the silver teapot your great-great-grandmother saved from the pilfering Yankees, and here’s an image of a neck stretched white and thin and mashed into metal. Keep them safe, dear, keep them safe.

One of my earliest memories of living with my mother and stepfather is of a house perched atop a steep wooded incline that tumbles down onto a railroad bed. At night I could feel the weight of trains passing below; it was heavy and strangely comforting. Some days I would sneak down to the tracks with the boy next door. I can still see the trail, hidden until you are on it, a thin ribbon of dirt zig-zagging between trees and bushes, lying like a snake amidst tufts of tall grass. My heart would beat faster as we approached the bottom, the rush of a boy’s first adventure, for adventure can never be separated from danger.

The only danger in the end was getting caught, and the spanking that followed. Those were plentiful back then, and they grew in supply even as I learned how to steer clear of him. He’s harmless now, but sometimes when I see him I see the powerful, brooding younger man standing over me with a belt, just as his father stood over him. Some tracks stretch far back into time.

Every track comes to an end on somebody’s watch, though, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s an abrupt stop, for reasons that nobody can reconstruct later. The earth doesn’t care; to the earth it must feel like grace.

In high school I drove a school bus. That sounds strange to most people, but in North Carolina you could get a special license once you turned eighteen. In the training we learned how not to run over the kids. Not killing the children is the overriding concern of driving a bus. It’s a good rule, though as with most rules they took it too far; they restrained us from beating the unruly teenagers.

An important component of not killing the children is being obsessively paranoid at railroad crossings. Every school bus driver in America is told a story about some driver somewhere who failed to fully stop, open the hand-cranked door, and listen for the train, only to sentence an entire busload of youngsters (and in the story the bus is always full) to a gruesome fate. Every time I heard that story I wondered if the bus driver’s neck was wrapped around the steering column, as if that’s the macabre calling card of a murderous locomotive.

I always look for a train before I drive across the tracks, even when I’m alone. Most times I think about my great-grandfather, and my stepfather. Someone taught the boys to lift their feet when they ride across tracks, so they expect me to announce, “train tracks!” whenever we drive across some. They each repeat the warning in their chirpy little voices and lift their feet so high I can see them in my rearview mirror. The recriminations are bitter when I forget to tell them, not so much that I’ve once turned around to take another shot at getting it right, but close.

The trick with crossing railroad tracks is that sometimes the spot that looks smoothest really isn’t. Sometimes we want to back up time and take another shot at crossing without the wicked thud that tell us we’ve damaged something. There’s no backing up, though, is there? If we never crossed tracks we’d never go anywhere, but the rub of it is that sometimes we break something, sometimes a tragedy is sprung.

But there’s no other way to live, so long as those scars stretch across the earth. So I cross tracks with care and fear, but my boys are learning to lift their feet and enjoy the ride. There’s grace, you see. Sometimes the tracks end.

On Key

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