“Look! Tommy! Choo-choo!”
Every train to a two-year-old boy is named Tommy or Thomas, but unlike the diesel and electric fueled Amtrak that rockets from city to city, these Tommy trains sound a hard-to-ignore “choo-choo!” To anyone who has ever seen a modern, 21st Century train it is hard to think if they make any noise at all. The only noise is a whoosh of speed as it quickly turns to a blur.
But here in Strasburg, Pa., just 45 miles from Center City, anachronisms reign. Not only do the trains go “choo-choo!” but also they run on coal-powered steam engines along a countryside devoid of strip malls and tacky suburban sprawl. They don’t need a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s here because it’s just as easy to go out in the backyard and dig up all of the organic produce desired.
Nevertheless, we would have to come up with Plan B because we missed that 12:02. Then again, Plan B was the easy part. On the way to the railroad station we had stopped at an Amish roadside stand where we bought a few apples, a bag of pretzels and a couple of drinks. Instead of the ride we parked it on a circular bench under a shady birch tree where we watched the train disappear beneath the inky plume of black smoke on a day so sunny and warm it was almost cartoonish. There, we shared the fruit and the pretzels while he sipped from a small plastic container of juice.
Plan B was perfect. We had nothing to do and all day to do it. There was no ballgame to rush off to watch and write about because the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs again. The Eagles had played the night before, but my companion was in bed long before kickoff. Besides, “Blues Clues” holds much more appeal to him than Andy Reid’s game plan. So instead of talking about sports or work we were going to sit there on that bench, eat those pretzels and feel the sun on a rare quiet day.
There would be time for games later. There always is. That’s the great thing about sports – a game is always there if you need one. Flip through the dial on the TV, or better yet, head out to the field nearby and there is sure to be a game going on. Sometimes the games that are played on those tiny fields in the middle of nowhere are the best ones. After all, it’s not the result that is remembered in the end – it’s the company you kept. No one says, “Remember the score of that game we went to five years ago?” Instead it’s, “Remember when we went to that game five years ago and how much fun we had.”
You know, just being there with your people. That’s what the games are about, right?
My companion pointed out the water tower blooming over a row of old dining cars and cabooses as he scraped the salt off his pretzel. He also pointed out the engineers in their overalls and funny, short-brimmed caps preparing for the next engine to barrel down those tracks. Mostly, though, we just enjoyed the quiet and the company.
It’s hard to imagine anything other than tranquility from our perch on that bench. Miles removed from the tourist traps where folks from New York and Philadelphia came to see the Amish (“are the Amish open on Sunday?”) and the farms while shopping for brand-name fashions in the outlet malls, the fields surrounding the train tracks barely quaked in the gentle breeze that seemed to spread the sunshine as if it were spores from a dandelion.
Yet even then there is quiet tenacity in that energy. To us it’s nothing more than a Rockwellian backdrop to a perfect scene.
Kind of like we are on that bench.
So it’s hard to imagine that just hours before chaos was in command. How could the roads that can barely handle the traffic at roadside stand or a country fair provide access for the fleet of ambulances and emergency vehicles? Forget about the teeming TV satellite trucks rushing to yet another tragedy like flies to manure or the helicopters circling overhead, how are these vehicles going to get where they desperately need to go?
It was a brisk, 20-minute jog from where we were sitting to where the ambulances, helicopters and satellite trucks had rushed. Three miles, tops, which, out here is like a couple of city blocks. Out here miles melt into the horizon like the clouds of smoke into the cloudless sky from that old train.
Sometimes it’s weird how lives intersect – a chance encounter here or there brought about by the ambiguity of geography. Weirder yet is how dreams and hopes haunt each of us. For some of us, all we want is a day in the sun, free from work and responsibility or a respite from the cares that can weigh us down. I’m lucky that I get to live a dream. All my hopes and desires are right here in the country alongside a railroad track. We have pretzels, some apples, a cool drink, great company and nothing else to do.
This could be the greatest day ever.
But for Charles Roberts – who lived just down the road from where we sat – dreams are nightmares. Worse, those little Amish girls who did nothing other than show up at the one-room schoolhouse on the wrong day, dreams go unrealized and unformed.
All we can say is that it isn’t fair.
It’s a shame that Charles Roberts could not find joy in playing soccer with his kids, or inviting his people over to watch a game on television. Why couldn’t he find joy simplicity and the nuance that makes the world spin a create smiles so big that they turn to tears of pure happiness?
Why couldn’t Charles Roberts take a trip up Route 896 to the Strasburg Railroad and sit with his boy at the side of the tracks?
Almost too fast, the food has been eaten and the drinks sipped dry. We’re starting to get restless from staring out into the miles and miles of fields that just won’t end until they reach the clear, blue sky. The platform is starting to fill up with tourists ready to board the 1 p.m. for a trip through the countryside to Paradise and back.
“Hey Michael,” I said. “Let’s get a couple of tickets and go for a ride.”