The Story of "Riding the Rails"
By Aileen and Claire, who came up with the slightly different version the mine, so I blended the two stories together.
In the early sixties I was living in Fallbrook, California with my mom and step-dad. My real dad was living in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles. Christmas and summer meant a three-hour train ride from Oceanside to Los Angeles which cost six bucks one-way. For years, our father would catch the train in L.A. and come to pick my sister and I up and take us to his place. It meant over six hours traveling for him and twelve dollars every time he came to get us and brought us back. I’m sure his rent was less than seventy dollars at the time so the train tickets were dear to him. Then he found out that if one of us was twelve, we could ride unescorted and he could save a lot of money. It was decided that 10-year old me would tell anyone who asked that I was twelve. Now if you knew my lack of long-term memory and powers of sustained concentration, you’d know that that my little sister, Claire, might as well be escorted by a chicken.
In theory it was a great idea. It’s a train; it stays on tracks and doesn’t wander around. You get on here and get off there. And for several trips we did well. We’d find our seats, shove our hard, heavy suitcases in front of the seats and we never moved until we heard them announce Oceanside or Los Angeles, depending on which way we were heading. Conductors would go from car to car yelling “Picoooo Riveraaaa, Anaaaaaaaaaaheim, Los Anjaaleeeeees,” like song titles. We sat in our seats, our short little legs resting on the suitcases in front of us and didn’t speak to anyone. We weren’t allowed to speak to strangers. If someone spoke to us, Claire stared at them like a deer in the headlights and I, with my new-found adult status would say, Twelve.” Conversations didn’t last long. Most people probably thought we were from another country where the children were socially backward but mathematically gifted.
It all fell apart on one of our trip’s home from spending Christmas with our dad. We were over-burdened with all the guilt-loot our dad had given us over the holidays and beside our two suitcases, I was now toting a new portable typewriter Christmas present from Dad. And let me tell you that in those days, portable just meant it isn’t attached to anything. It didn’t mean it was light or small it just meant it wasn’t nailed down to a desk. It was nearly half the size of one of our suitcases, which were over waist high to us. Its’ carrying case was as hard as one of our suitcases. But it was my pride and joy and where I once had to use both hands to carry my suitcase; I now had a suitcase in one hand and something half the size of my suitcase but twice as heavy in the other hand.
Claire, on the other hand, being much wiser and greedier than I, had stuffed half her clothing under dad’s bed to make room in the suitcase for her Dino the dinosaur robot. Figuring that my sister had one arm free, I made Claire carry the book I planned to read on the train ride. It was a book about Napoleon, and I’d gotten it off mom’s shelf of books she hardly had time to read. The Book of The Month Club kept sending these books that our mother rarely, read but we did whenever we could grab one. Most of them were of no interest to make-believe 12-year old’s, but occasionally one was racy for the time and it was the only sex education I would get. Aside from one trip to a Museum of Life, where our mom showed us a statue of a naked man and explained how his hot dog would go into your peepee. Why a man would want to put food in there was pretty puzzling.
So there we sat on the train, feet resting on our suitcases, the typewriter between us making a pretty effective wall and I with my nose in the Napoleon licentious novel pretending to understand what I was reading.
Without warning, a porter, looking to cause grief in the lives of little girls, pulled the suitcases out from under our legs. “Let me get those out of your way,” he was saying. And he tossed them into the luggage rack over our heads. Up, up, up they went, until we could barely see them much less ever have a hope of reaching them. He tried to put the portable typewriter up there, too, but at only six foot and two hundred pounds, he couldn’t lift it. “Isn’t that better?” he asked us.
“Twelve,” I said in a breathy whisper.
I looked at Claire with panic in her eyes. Her face was pale. How were we ever going to get those suitcases down again? We hadn’t a chance in hell of reaching them and we weren’t allowed to talk to strangers so we couldn’t ask for help.
We stood on the seats and the suitcase rack was still out of reach. We jumped up and down and then we could touch the underside of our cases, but the rack curved up to prevent the luggage from slipping and we’d never get them over the curve. I ordered my little sister to lift me, but I still couldn’t maneuver a suitcase over the rack.
Finally, one of the other passengers, after watching these two sweaty, sniffling girls for a good twenty minutes or so says to Aileen, “You girls need help or something?”
And I, mortified at drawing attention to us, just shakes my head, stifles a sob and says “Twelve.”
“Sannnnnn Cleeeeementeeee,” a conductor says walking briskly through the car. We look at each other. We know Oceanside is next. We need those suitcases NOW.
Several things happen in rapid succession now. We’re hanging from the luggage rack like monkeys, the train pulls into the Oceanside station, we’re making monkey noises through our sobs, our mother and stepfather are knocking on the outside window of the car motioning us to get off the train, and finally someone, probably tired of watching the monkey show, grabs our suitcases and throws them into the aisle.
With a superhuman, Popeye-type show of strength, I lift my suitcase in one hand and the portable typewriter in the other. Not just lifts them up, I have the suitcase in front of me and the typewriter behind me at waist height. I’m running for the end of the car where the exit door is, calling to Claire to follow me to freedom! My frightened sister is right behind me with her Dino-packed suitcase and my Napoleon book.
I’m experiencing one problem. Every time I pass a row of seats the portable typewriter is slamming the end of the seat’s armrest. If someone had their hand on this armrest, the 45-pound “portable” typewriter is crushing their fingers between the plastic armrest and my portable sledgehammer. The reason I know this is happening is because the typewriter keeps bouncing off the armrests at each seat, slowing me down from saving us from certain death at the next train station because we missed Oceanside. Claire, on the other had, got to see the full impact of our impediment. Just as she got even with these people she sees them shaking their hands like their fingers have just been burned, they howl, and then they slap me.
Smash, scream, 8-year old Claire gets hit. Smash, scream, Claire gets hit it. I’m bouncing that typewriter off every armrest because it’s built up this rhythm and momentum that I couldn’t stop if I tried. Never occurred to me that people would be resting their hands on the armrest impediment. And rather then blame themselves for their stupid shortsightedness and lack of concern for two struggling children, they lashed out the slapped Claire.
In those days, you could hit your kid. You were encouraged to hit your kid. In fact, if a kid didn’t have a parent handy to hit them it was your duty to substitute-hit the kid. And hard, too, so that the real parent would ask where the bruise was from and you had to tell them and the real parent would be so pissed they’d missed the opportunity to do their job and they would hit you again.
So while I was making slow time getting to the end of the car, Claire began hanging back a little because she was running a gauntlet.
Finally, we make it to the end of the car. The door should be open and the little step stool should be there so we can get out. It’s not. They’ve already locked the door. We both have the same thought at the same time. We’re running for the next door at the end of the next car. Unfortunately, this means running the gauntlet again because I has developed a technique of bouncing the typewriter against every armrest again. All you can hear is the sharp crack of the typewriter, screaming, a slap and Claire crying. Until the end of the next car where she finds that door, too, has been locked. We begin our run through the next car. If we do this fast enough we figure we’ll catch up to the conductor who is locking all these doors ahead of us. At least I think that’s what’s going to happen I tell Claire... it sounds an awful lot like, “Twelvetwelvetwelvetwelve,” from where she is following at a distance.
And that’s it; we’ve reached the last car. There’s no caboose on this thing. I was half expecting a caboose and was a little bit looking forward to seeing one but nope, this is the end. And then there’s a lurch and a hesitation and another lurch and we’re leaving Oceanside. And we can see the Oceanside platform with our parents looking bewildered out there. We can see life as we knew it and will never know it again cause we’re going to San Diego where we’ll be orphans.
And my positive-thinking, think-outside-the-box brain finds my tongue. “Pull that,” I shout to Claire…but it isn’t my voice that snaps Claire out of her panic. She never heard me use that voice before and it was over twenty years before either one of us heard the voice again and that was while watching the movie, The Exorcist. I read that the actress had to strangle herself with a scarf to make her voice sound like the devil. They could have hired me and saved the scarf. The thing I was telling her to pull…right up there by the door…the EMERGENCY BRAKE. Oh, yeah, they put the emergency brake within reach of a little girl, but the luggage is on a rack at an altitude of 29, 028 feet.
But we both knew better. The only person we ever knew that pulled a train emergency brake was Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy. And that didn’t work out well for her. Lucy got in BIG trouble. Even 8-year old Claire knew that was a bad thing to do. “No, you want that pulled, YOU pull it.”, Claire told me in a terrified whisper. But that voice came out of me again and decalcified her spine.
And so she did.
Just like Lucy.
And if you pull the emergency brake a conductor will appear. Right out of the air. You can spend an hour crying like a monkey, assaulting passengers and being beat by passengers and you will never see a conductor. But pull that emergency brake and before you can pick yourself up off the floor there will be a conductor.
“Who did that?” he bellowed at us.
Now c’mon. He must have had a pretty good idea it was one of us because he wasn’t bellowing at any other passengers. I, TwelveTalker wasn’t going to confess or go all chatty all of a sudden.
And since they can only throw twelve and older people in train jail, I pointed at eight-year old Claire.
So the conductor opened the door and threw us out onto the tracks. No lie. We hit the gravel so hard it dug into my little sister - the brake puller’s, palms. But not me, because I never let loose of my suitcase and 140-pound typewriter and they broke my fall.
We gathered up our stuff. Off in the distance we could see our mom and step- dad still on the train platform staring at us with their mouths agape. We were probably less than 100 hundred yards from the station. It just seemed like longer with the damn luggage and the deep gravel and weeds we had to trudge through.
I was leading my little sister back to the train platform gingerly stepping from railroad tie to tie but my legs weren’t long enough to do that so I was sinking into gravel every step of the way. It was harder for Claire, with much younger legs which were bleeding from the knees and palms.
There’d be hell to pay for pulling the emergency brake from Mom and Dad. Like it was all our fault. And after such a horrendous train trip, which my parents never complained of to the train station master, I had one more thing ruin my day. Claire lost my Napoleon book on the train.
For years, every time I heard the name Napoleon , I’d remind Claire that thanks to me she’d made it through the whole ordeal without scratching her suitcase, just her knees; but I lost my book. I had to lead the covert over-twelve operation and she couldn’t be responsible for a lousy book.
Years later she told me. “You know where that book is, TwelveTalker? While you were marching back to the platform the conductor threw it at us and it hit me in the back of the legs. I’d had just about enough of that book and left it where it landed.”