Transformed Along the Railroad Tracks


Summertime as a preteen boy felt like an endless run of sunny days. I’m sure there were just as many rainy days then as there are now, but somehow my memory has chosen to edit them out of these recollections of annual summer breaks that stretched between grades and classrooms and rules and teachers.

If I had to guess, I’d say it probably feels like an eternal string of beautiful mornings because of how the entire summer was spent—every day, all day, at the public pool. This is where the other kids were. This is where we swam and dove and horsed-around. Card games and lunches around towels in the grass, a little change to get candy from the concession stand—which would occasionally be boosted by the find of a quarter on the bottom of the deep end of the pool. A pretty simple recipe for a fun-filled day, day after day.

When my parents first bought a summer-long pool pass for me and my brother, we were stunned. “You mean we get to go swimming every single day if we want?” The luxury felt downright ostentatious to my elementary-aged brain. My folks didn’t have much money, but yet they were going to spend $55 each on a pass for each of us? I could scarcely comprehend it.

This was the start of the summer routine—each day passing with us at the pool. It wasn’t until years later, working as a lifeguard at that said same pool, that I realized $55 was a pretty low cost for a babysitting service that lasted three months. Clever parents, indeed.

As a kid, I neither knew nor cared about the true motivation behind their generosity. We got to swim every day—that’s all I needed. We had our own group of friends we’d meet up with daily. We’d talk to the other kids through the fence as they tried to determine whether or not a given day was worth paying admission to enter. We’d fall in and splash and glide through the water, then lay warming in the sun during mandatory break periods. This was how we spent our summer days.

The pool was located about two miles from where I grew up. Most days we’d just ride our bikes. It was a moderate uphill climb to get there, which meant an easy coast home after a tiring session of energetic swimming and full-on roughhousing. If there was a group of us going together on any given day, though, it was just as likely that we’d forego the bikes and all walk there together as a group.

Paralleling the last half of the route to the park where the pool was located ran an active set of railroad tracks. We’d emulate the Indians from old westerns, kneeling in the gravel, putting our ears to the tracks, trying to discern whether or not a train was coming. Supposedly the sound waves would travel through the solid steel of the railroad tracks at far greater amplification than we could hear through the air, thus forecasting the train’s approach. Every time I did this it sounded like there just had to be one right around the bend.

There never was.

We’d walk back those same tracks on our way home, beginning by counting the number of railroad ties from the intersection with the road where we stepped onto its steel and wooden path, stopping at an easy number to remember, where we’d place pennies on the rail to be crushed under the weight of the next passing train. The next morning we’d return, count back that same number of ties, then start looking for our newly-deformed pennies. Each was never on the exact tie upon which it was set the afternoon before, but still were typically only a few feet away. Recovering these thinly-stretched plates of copper—no longer money, but now a talisman, charm, or even just a sliver of newly-fashioned art—was one more bonus added to a carefree summer day.

On a particular summer morning, at age 11 or 12, I was part of a group of neighborhood kids that was all walking to the pool together. Me and my brother. Some boys from up the street. A girl that lived near them. And her younger sister, who was a girl my age. That younger sister was a girl that, for the previous few weeks, had been something of a girlfriend to me. We all walked in a pack, with some splintering ahead or away to tend to whatever captured his imagination in the moment. She and I, we just walked together side by side, carefully navigating the ungraceful gait of inconveniently-spaced wooden 8x8s, each set one after another, running around the bend and out of sight. Under the bright hot sun, learning to understand this connection to this girl, that day’s trip to the pool felt more like an adventure and less like any standard sort of day that had lined up before it.

I wasn’t girl-crazy. Or, maybe I was, but at least I was fortunate enough to be born with an innate understanding of proper decorum. In short, just be cool. And being cool with girls when you’re not yet a teenager isn’t that hard. It pretty much boils down to not saying anything stupid. For this day, at least, I seemed capable of managing that.

But, girls amazed me. My own sister, being five years younger than me, was a non-factor. An older sister—now that would have helped. Instead, it fell to those like my older cousin, who would babysit us—and for whom I had a huge crush—to provide me with a peek into the real world of girls. They were hard to understand. But, even so, they were pretty great. Of course, that they were great was hardly new news.

There was that girl in kindergarten—who someday, too, when we were proper teenagers, would be a girlfriend of sorts. Back then, though, she was just this girl I didn’t really know, sitting on the other side of the room, seemingly waiting for me to look her way. When I would, she’d get this melting expression, donning big doe eyes and an ear-to-ear smile. I could feel my face turning red as I sat there. It was my favorite thing.

Or the girl from Sunday School. We’d sit together every week. I eventually penned her a love letter. Even at that early age I knew it was best to have someone check my work—you can’t give a girl an error-ridden note—so I gave it to my mother for a round of quality control. We didn’t talk too much about grammar and spelling. Instead, I caught a lecture on the appropriateness of an eight-year-old professing his love and affection for a fellow classmate. Summary? Not very appropriate, or so I was informed. But, while that specific piece of paper was never returned to me for delivery to its intended recipient, I worried not. Instead, I penned a second version close enough to the first and noted that I would need to find a more reliable option for proofreading my correspondence in the future.

There was the 4th grade classmate that mutually shared my interest and attraction. We’d sit on the floor beside each other for grade-wide assemblies and, when the lights would fade, we’d slide our hands into each other’s. Once locked in, I would rather die of torture from a random itch on my free arm than remove my hand from hers. And, later, when a school club’s election was a landslide against me—I received a total of two votes, hers and mine—the results came in and she looked devastated. She couldn’t believe that had happened to me. I couldn’t have cared less about the results of the voting. I was far more impacted by that look than I ever could have been by a leadership role I was surely unqualified to fill.

It wasn’t too far forward from holding hands in that dimly lit room labeled “L.G.I.”—for “Large Group Instruction”—that I found myself on that summer day, on our way to that pool, walking along those railroad tracks beside that girl. That day I could sense something was different—a notion confirmed when she stopped walking. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said. She then called out to the others, who had begun pausing to determine why our progress was being halted. “Just keep going. We’ll catch up.”

They turned and continued down the tracks, toward the pool. And we stood, waiting.

After what she determined to be a suitable length of time and space between us and them, she pulled me to her and kissed me. For the first time, a real kiss. Standing close together, held in each other’s summer-tanned arms, the sun beat down and warmed us. I could think about nothing else for the of the rest of that day.