The train’s whistle hooted in the distance, two short blasts announcing the imminent arrival of the Lake Maurer Special. I stood on the wooden platform beneath a sheltering canopy of trees, clutching Mama’s hand. My heartbeat quickened.
“It’s coming,” I whispered.
I peered down the track and watched the shiny, gray engine approach, its single-beam headlight cutting a narrow swath through the gathering darkness of the summer night. Tumultuous clouds of sulphurous smoke belched from the chimney, leaving a thick, acrid taste in the air. I held tighter to Mama’s hand. Soon we would say good-bye, and I would go far, far away.
Excitement surged up from my toes and spread through every limb of my body as the little train with its string of four wooden cars pulled into the starting gate. With its last journey around the half-mile track safely done, the engine shuddered to a stop. One by one, each brightly-colored wooden car shivered in the cool night air as laughing children climbed down and the next load of squealing passengers lined up, anticipating the grand adventure to come.
“All aboard,” cried the engineer, still seated at the throttle. He tugged at the bill of his railroad cap. “Lake Maurer Special departing in three minutes.”
Three minutes! An eternity to a child.
“Hurry,” Mama urged. “You don’t want to miss your train.”
I let go of her hand and ran to join the others. My older sister once told me the best ride was in the last car. You could feel the sway of the train better, she explained. I honed in on the green car at the end and dashed toward it. Up the rubber step I flew, and down onto the hard vinyl-covered bench. With one hand, I held on to the rough wooden side and closed my eyes as the train lurched forward.
The click-clacking of the wheels along the track grew louder, faster. I opened my eyes as we sped through the night, a string of primary colors gliding across narrow ribbons of steel.
Where would this journey lead?
To the seashore, perhaps? I would stroll along the ocean’s edge, feel the tang of salt against my skin, hear the squawking call of the sea birds. I would gather up shells and pieces of driftwood.
Or maybe this journey would take me to another time, back to the days of the Old West. I’d have to get a gun. And maybe a horse. I trembled in fear at thoughts of train robbers waiting around the next bend.
Better, perhaps, to travel on. California beckoned. The allure of sunshine and the prospect, not of gold, but of fame and fortune made it seem a true promised land.
I leaned back and smiled at the glittering stars overhead.
It didn’t matter where the train might take me. It only mattered that I could go.
On through the gentle night, past the tall, lush grasses that swayed as the train rolled by, past the deep ravine where shadows lived even in the brightest of days. Onward, still, past the swings and see-saws, the merry-go-rounds and jungle bars that dotted the park’s green expanse. I waved as we drove by, glad to be on my way. Someplace. Anyplace.
Soon, the grove of trees loomed ahead, their tall trunks rising up like giants come to greet us. The grove marked the turning point. The track looped around the tall, fragrant pines, we bid the giants farewell, and the first breath of sadness chilled the air. Too soon, the journey would come to its end.
I craned my neck as we rounded the last curve. Mama stood near the track. She stretched out her welcoming hand as the train slowed and pulled alongside the platform, its tinny whistle bleating our arrival. Tiny puffs of smoke rose up and faded away.
The journey was done, the excitement past. I was home again.