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Angels Ride the Rails

Maybe her childhood wasn’t perfect, but she wouldn’t let that get in the way of her happiest memories.

Artist's rendering of an angel perched atop a speeding train, holding a lantern

In the 1940s, trains were my father’s world. A machinist for the Southern Railway, he once surprised me with a trip to the roundhouse in Atlanta, where he worked. I was four years old. The steam engines were the biggest things I’d ever seen, but I wasn’t afraid with Daddy beside me.

He took me right up into the driver’s seat, pulled on his engineer’s cap and set me on his lap. “Ready, honey?” he said. “Here we go.”

The engine blasted, the wheels cranked up, and we were off, chugging slowly at first and then picking up to full speed. From my spot at the very front of the train, I could see the tracks lit up by the engine light. In fact, I was sure I could see angels riding the rails with us.

No princess had ever made an entrance so grand as I did pulling into Atlanta’s Union Station that night. The trip had taken under an hour, but I would never forget it, or my heavenly escorts.

That memory remained a bright spot as I got older and life at home got darker. The father who took me on that special train ride was slowly replaced by an unpredictable, sometimes frightening alcoholic.

He left for work at the train yards in the afternoon around the time I was coming home from school, so I rarely saw him. Truth be told, I was glad to miss him. It was easier that way.

One summer, years after that childhood trip to the roundhouse, I boarded another train with my mother and two sisters. We were off on our annual visit to my grandparents in New England, with free tickets, as always, thanks to Dad’s railroad job.

Our trip north had become a welcome break for all of us, but for me especially this particular summer. My relationship with Dad was at an impasse, and I’d forgotten that he was or ever could have been anyone but who he was at his worst.

“Top bunk!” my sister Diane and I called when we found our Pullman car.

Mom and my baby sister, Vickie, shared the bottom. I breathed a sigh of relief as we left Georgia–and my troubles–behind. We took turns reading aloud until it was time for bed. I stayed awake long after the others were asleep, enjoying the rocking motion of the train.

When it slowed down I raised the shade at the window and peeked out at the destinations passing, one small town after the other. I fell asleep, dreaming of angels riding the rails with me.

Late the following night, we arrived in Providence, Rhode Island. From there we drove on to Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where my maternal grandparents lived. Excited but exhausted, we climbed up the stairs to their three-story flat.

On my pillow was a new pair of pajamas and a new doll. When I slipped under the covers I still felt the train moving beneath me, like angels rocking me to sleep.

Weeks drifted by like the scenery outside our Pullman car window. My sisters and I played house under the grapevine trellis, explored the town square, had sodas at the drugstore. This is the way life should be, I thought one afternoon on my way to the library.

I checked out as many books as I could carry and took them up to my grandparents’ attic along with my new doll. “Today I’m going to teach you about fractions,” I said to my “student.” “And we’re also going to learn some history from these books.”

All afternoon I lectured in my make-believe classroom, dreaming of becoming a real teacher. Why not? On summer days anything seemed possible. Except what I wanted most: for summer to last forever.

Eventually signs of autumn began to appear: back-to-school displays in shop windows, bales of hay in the fields. My grandparents waved good-bye to us at the station.

My angels had escorted me to a peaceful place, and I was sad to leave. That night, when Mom and my sisters were asleep, I peeked out the window, squinting, searching for my angels.

It was hard to see anything at all in the dark. Not like sitting on Dad’s lap in the very front of the train, where I could see by the engine’s light. It was as if my love of trains and angels was born that night. Over time my love for both had grown deeper.

In a way, I thought, each time I got on a train I was taking the best part of my father with me. Maybe I could hold on to my roundhouse-trip memory after all, and cherish the best of my dad.

I lay back and enjoyed the rocking motion of the train. One day I’d be old enough to ride on my own. I could go anywhere I pleased, make the life that I wanted. For now I knew that angels were coming home with me, always lighting my way.


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