Hanging with Dad
It was late spring in the tiny eastern Long Island hamlet of Center Moriches. The rains had awakened the sleeping grass and colored it a deep, lush, green. The leaves were becoming thick and starting to hang low from the many stately maples trees. The air was filled with the aroma of newly born flowers and a touch of ozone. Most mornings like this, the sun rose and bathed the landscape in warm luminous light and promised a beautiful day. Today, my father decided to visit a neighboring village and run some errands. He was in a light-hearted mood as he whistled softly, and went about preparing for his trip.
Physically, dad was not a big man. He stood five feet seven inches tall and weighed one-hundred eighty pounds. I can still see him in my mind’s eye. His skin was the color of burnt almonds with wide-set brown eyes, a broad nose and a firm mouth. Heredity and middle age had robbed him of most of his hair. Cords of veins stood out on his muscular arms which led down to thick fingers and calloused palms. There was usually a Camel cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. Six days a week he labored at a local duck farm, and although he was almost illiterate, he was quite competent at anything he lent his hand to. His was a time and region where some children were compelled to leave school early to help support the family. On this day, he planned to pick up strawberry plants and tomato seeds from a farmer in nearby East Moriches.
“Can I go?” I asked, running out of the house as he was climbing into his pick-up truck. He plucked the cigarette from his mouth and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the air.
“I don’t know. Wasn’t you supposed to help your mother hang some clothes?”
I stopped running and held my head down. Then in a low voice I said, “Oh yeah, I forgot.” He shook his head and smiled. “Go inside and ask her. She might say yes if you promise to help twice as much when you get back.” I turned around and started to run, but before I reached the door my I heard my mother’s voice coming from the kitchen window.
“Go on. The clothes will be here when you get back.”
I dashed over to the truck and jumped on the running board, while pulling at the door handle with all my might.
With dad’s help from inside, the door swung open and I hopped in. At the age of five, my feet didn’t yet reach the floor and I could barely see out of the windshield, but I was riding with dad, and that was all that mattered. He grinned and backed out of the driveway. As we started to drive off he waved to mom, who was now standing at the front door waving back. I rolled down the window and tried to lean on the door like dad, but all I could manage was to hold onto the arm rest. The air coming in through the open window felt good on my face, as I sat there swaying back and forth with the movement of the truck. We turned left onto Main Street heading east. After about a mile or so, dad said, ”We’d better get some gas, buddy. We’re getting’ low.” He turned into an Esso station and drove up to one of the pumps. The attendant came over to the driver’s side window and asked, “How much can I get for you today?”
“Ten gallons,” dad said.
“Coming right up.”
Soon the strong smell of gasoline drifted into the cab. I crinkled my nose and made a face. Dad pinched his nose between his fingers and made a funny face of his own. I laughed out loud. Back out on Main Street, we passed the old mill that was built over Kaler’s pond. The mill was at least one hundred years old. Time, and the continuous flow of water had worn and rotted away most of it, and what was left, the local kids used as a diving board to leap into the fast-moving water below. That day, it seemed as if every other car that was going in the opposite direction, honked its horn and waved at us. Dad always smiled and waved back. Everybody seemed to know him.
Soon he reached over and opened the glove box and took out a pack of gum. After handing me a stick, he popped one into his mouth. The sweet taste made the day even better. Spearmint was my favorite. I heard the clicking of the turn signal as he made a left onto Pine Street, heading north. The farmer lived a half a mile past the railroad tracks. As the truck approached the tracks, dad downshifted to slow the engine. Halfway across, he lifted his foot off the clutch, and for some reason the motor stalled. There were no automatic crossing gates, so we were not aware that the 11:10 eastbound freight was coming toward us, until we heard two loud blasts from its whistle. Then things happened very quickly.
From where I sat, I could see the engineer leaning out of the engine. A look of confused, terror came over dad’s face. His left arm was gripping the top of the steering wheel, while his right hand was furiously twisting the ignition key. The motor turned over again and again, but wouldn’t start. Sweating and cursing under his breath, Dad looked down the tracks at the oncoming train. It was closer now and moving toward us at a steady rate of speed. Just then, a large blackbird landed on the hood and appeared to be watching us through the windshield. It cawed twice and flew away, as if it knew what was about to happen.
The engineer was really leaning on the whistle now and the sound was deafening. I felt the terrible rumbling from the huge locomotive vibrating throughout the whole truck. Maybe because of my age I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, but I felt no fear that I can remember; only a curiosity as to what would happen next. It was like I was watching the whole thing on television. Dad’s hand was like a vise when he grabbed my arm, and in one motion pulled me toward him and we left the truck with only seconds to spare.
As we stood safely yards away, the locomotive collided with the pick-up pushing it down the tracks. There was a terrific noise as sparks flew, steam hissed, and metal on metal screeched and grinded to a halt. All at once, the day turned overcast as the sky darkened, or maybe it was the thick black smoke that billowed from the stack of the train engine. It was sitting still now, but grumbling like some pre-historic monster holding our truck in its steel jaws. I could smell the eye-watering fumes from its hot acrid breath in the air.
We began to hear voices all around us. A swelling crowd of onlookers were gathering and peering at the beast and its prey. It took a while before they realized that we were its intended victims. Red blue and yellow lights circled and flashed from the racks of the police and the emergency vehicles, which were now scattered about. The police strung up barricade tape and instructed everyone to stand behind it. Some local newspaper reporters were talking to dad and smiling at me, as he held me in his arms. The blinding flashes from their cameras brought spots before my eyes.
The engineer was out of the engine and walking around waving his hands in the air, and shaking his head. He spoke to a reporter from a town newspaper.
“I didn’t know what was going on. There just wasn’t enough time to stop. You can’t just stop this baby on a dime, ya know. I figured the guy must be stuck, so I just gave him the whistle and did my best to brake. I never had any problems on my run before. Jesus Christ.”
Not that anyone blamed him. It was just an accident and fortunately no one was hurt.
We watched as the wrecker hooked up Dad’s truck. It was smashed and twisted and looked very scary. When it was finally towed away the rear fender was rubbing against the flat tire, causing a forlorn moaning sound.
Next week’s edition of the Moriches Bay View Tide carried a grainy picture of Dad and me standing beside the villainous train engine. Dad was smiling into the camera, and I was crying as he held me. My mother cut out the picture and for many years kept it with her personal belongings. After she died, it was lost through my moving. Eight years ago, I spent three hours in the Center Moriches Library archives looking at micro-film, until I finally spotted the picture from all those Sundays ago. Today there is a framed copy in my den. It turned out to be a most memorable Sunday.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed many more Sundays with my dad. Colon cancer ravaged his body and claimed his life before I reached my tenth birthday. In retrospect, even at that young age, I realized that I was fortunate to know such a man, and called him Dad.