April 12, 2016

I Was in Heaven

The frosty chill of a New England Winter stung my cheeks as I left the drug store and turned right to walk up Central Avenue toward the railroad tracks. The last rays of the afternoon sun struggled to brighten a disappearing blue sky. At street level, it was already night. My way was guided by the dancing lights of store signs, show case windows, and street lamps.

The delightful aroma of the precious paper package so carefully snuggled in my mittens promised moments of savory delight. As I approached the tracks, the railroad crossing alarm bell sounded and the gates slowly came down. A train was coming! I walked quickly to the gates and looked south past the station. And there it was, the headlamp of a steam locomotive pierced the darkness, coming right at me, the glare of its powerful beam seemed ominous as it rumbled closer and closer. Puffs of smoke and clouds of steam filled the air. I quickly crossed Central Avenue and looked down the tracks from the gate keeper’s little shack. The noisy clang, clang, clang of the locomotive’s bell combined with the hiss of steam as the train drew closer, and closer. Billows of steam blew out across the tracks as the brakes were applied. Then, with a moan of steel on steel, the big steam locomotive came to a stop, not more than 10 feet away.

It was a thrilling experience. Steam locomotives have always fascinated me. One wonders how all those pieces of iron and steel somehow work together. The gate man raised the crossing gates so traffic could proceed on Central Avenue. After a few more puffs of steam the great engine settled down. It appeared to be taking a rest, quietly sending little jets of steam into the air, and occasionally making gentle chung, chung sounds. The 2-6 Mogul steam locomotive was pulling 6 baggage and passenger cars. I slowly walked from the front of the locomotive to its tender, carefully examining every inch; running gear, steam pump, compressors, cylinders, rods, drivers, pipes, valves, boiler; the works. The six big driving wheels were taller than I could stand, even on my tiptoes. I took off a mitten and began to unroll the top of the warm bag I was carrying. The sweet buttery aroma .....

But wait. I am way ahead of myself. This story actually began some 24 hours earlier when a snow storm swept over New England. It left maybe 5 inches of light powder on our town. That meant opportunity. The lady on the next block would want me to clear her front walk and back porch steps. For real money. It was a simple job. No big deal. But I was glad to have the work. When I turned 12, my father made it very clear: if I wanted any spending money, I would have to earn it. And so by 8 o’clock in the morning I was busy clearing off the snow. When she came to the door to pay me, I had a sudden inspiration. Instead of paying me in cash, could I come down to her Rexall Drug store and receive my reward in nuts? Not just any nuts, mind you. These were hot, roasted, buttery, salted beauties: pecans, cashews, walnuts, almonds, and even the big Brazil nuts. My mouth watered at the thought of having a delicious treat. Taken back with surprise at first, she smiled and agreed. She would be minding the store late that afternoon. Could I come then?

Sure thing.

Just as dusk was descending I entered the store - and there it was, right in front of me; the hot glass display case with its rows of nuts, popcorn and other goodies. The smell of hot buttery nuts swirled around me, tempting my senses with delicious promise. I saw nothing else. All of the other display cases in the store were nothing but a blur. I agonized for the woman to see me. After what seemed an eternity, she came to the case and opened the rear door. She smiled as she ladled a few choice nuts from each bin into a small paper bag. When she handed the bag to me, I peered into it. Which treat would I eat first? I thanked her for being so nice, and turned to leave the store.

The station porter had pulled and pushed a rumbling station wagon to the baggage car door. There was much scurrying about as the bags were sorted and loaded. Sounds of sorrow could be heard from people who were saying goodbye to departing loved ones. Sounds of excitement filled the air as friends and relatives greeted arriving passengers. One little girl squealed in delight: “grandma, look at what we got in Boston!”

Carefully opening the bag, I took out my first warm buttery treat. I would slowly eat each nut, one at a time, extending my happiness for as long as possible. Then a steam safety valve at the top of the engine blew open with an incredibly loud hissing sound. It was more than I could stand, so I backed away from the engine to the gatekeeper’s shack. He grinned at me, and then motioned for me to stand away from the gate. To my surprise, he began to lower the crossing gates again. Puzzled, I walked around the shack so I could see down the tracks. And there it was. Another bright light pierced the darkness, more puffs of smoke and steam, and another ominous rumble of steel on steel as a second steam engine pulled into the station. It pulled up exactly side by side with the first engine. After it stopped, the gatekeeper raised the gates and I crossed the tracks to look at the front of second steam engine. It was obviously larger, much shinier even in the faint light of the station lamps, and appeared more important. The gatekeeper called out to me: “That’s the express. Passengers from the local going on to Portland will transfer to the express and passengers from the express going to a local stop between here and Portland will get on the local”.

And so it was. I positioned myself between the two locomotives (not very safe - please don’t tell my father) to watch the activity. Conductors laid steel ramps down to connect the doorways of both trains. Passengers began to scurry from one train to the other. The baggage porters tossed or carried bags from the local’s baggage car to the express baggage car, and then vice versa. It was all very hurried, but also very efficient. I stood in amazement, looking at these two steam locomotives, mesmerized by all the activity, and thrilled by being so close to two steam locomotives at the same time.

Cold night air nipped at my fingers, chilled my skinny legs, and frosted my face. But as for my thin torso... my sweater and heavy coat were so warm I was actually steamy damp with sweat from my neck to my hips. So there I was, standing between these two big steam locomotives, half freezing cold and half steamy warm, savoring my warm buttery nuts one by one as I watched the activity.

I was in heaven.

The conductors called out for any stragglers, picked up the steel plates that linked the doorways of the two trains, and closed the passenger car doors. The gatekeeper called out for me to come back to the gatehouse. He brought the gates down again, but neither train moved. The shrill whistle of another steam locomotive filled the air. Looking north, a third passenger train thundered across Central Avenue and into the station. It slowed to a stop, leaving just enough room behind the last car so that people could use the sidewalk. Three trains in the station at the same time! My joy was unconstrained. Then steam hissed out of the cylinders of the express locomotive and it began to ease forward.  It was a powerful 4-6-2 Pacific class steam locomotive which quickly picked up speed, effortlessly pulling seven cars by me. The train soon disappeared around the bend, accompanied by the fading clickity clak of the passenger car wheels passing over track joints. Again the gates went up. The friendly gate-man called out to me: “The local will leave as soon as the block clears.”

We waited for maybe four minutes for the red block lamp to change to yellow. With that the local’s conductor called out the familiar “all aboard” and the engineer opened the throttle. The local eased out of the station blowing steam from the cylinders and black smoke from the stack. It was equally effortless, but somehow the local seemed to have less authority than the express. After it chuffed its way down the track and around the bend, the station seemed to be eerily quiet. The gatekeeper raised the gates and traffic again began to flow on Central Avenue. Standing there for a brief moment; cold feet, legs, face, and ears; warm moist body; I took one last delicious buttery nut from the bag.

Wistfully, I looked at the south bound passenger train. I could have walked down the station platform to look at the steam locomotive, but it was time to head home. I reluctantly began the long cold walk up Central Avenue, my shoes making a crunch crunch sound as I carefully picked my way over treacherous gray ice and snow covered sidewalks, and past piles of snow covered with soot.

The thrill of seeing these three steam locomotives circulated in my imagination over and over again. 

For this skinny kid, it had been a supreme event of absolute joy. For a few brief moments, I had lived in heaven.

PS: As this story suggests, our experience of heaven is less likely to be physical, and more likely to be spiritual. Although I was aware of physical reality, it was the emotional content of a conscious experience that captivated my awareness.

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