Monday, June 22, 2009

The Tracks

When I was about six and a half years old, my folks moved to Portland, Maine. There, my father bought a house built in about 1910 but which, more importantly to him, had a fair chunk of land – about five acres – that came with it. There were neighborhood kids that I met and didn’t understand, and we played baseball on the cleared part of that triangular tract. There was also “the gush,” where water collected from runoff between the house's back yard slope and another mild slope that came down across our playing field. Aquatically, the gush was foul territory; afield, part of it was in fair territory, down the third base line. Rosie Asali, in her early teens, was a torrid hitter and “parked” many a ball into the gush. Often, when we’d lose a ball in straightaway center in the milkweed, we’d search the gush for a long-lost waterlogged ball, and, man, when you hit one of those, it would concuss from your wrists through your jaw and spine.

Behind the field, there were the woods, and they were significant. When I was very young, I was able, almost, to get lost in them. They were thick and dark; there were lady slippers, praying mantises, a twelve-foot cliff with a rope swing, and there was, buried, an old dump among the trees and undergrowth where you could actually dig up stuff like collectible bottles and tin ware, centipedes, and a million other things a kid could find. Once, I got a still-sealed Ball jar of mustard relish with a handwritten label from 1932.

Behind the woods were the tracks, the railroad tracks. I’m sure one of the subliminal reasons my dad bought that house was that his father was a railroad man. My grandfather is buried only about fifty yards from a set of rails, and I was surely and magnetically drawn to those behind our house. From the first day we moved in, in late winter when no leaves on the trees muffled the sound, freight trains rattled by four or five times a day. That became a sound of my life. It also became a place of my life. Walking up the tracks took me to Morrill School, St, Joseph’s School and a fair way to Cheverus High School, when I attended them. In the first grade, I played hooky one day, just because I wondered what it would be like (Miss Shock – her name, honest to God – never missed me.), and I had my lunch in a bag and fifteen cents "milk money," which I spent on penny candy. I sat around all day at the switching yard near Fox Lumber. (Parents, see if that wouldn't end you up in Family Court today.)

Rock-throwing was a big deal. From the track ballast, there was an infinite number of rocks. If you started to make a divot, you could just move down a few feet. A lot of high school kids used to drink around there, so bottles as targets were easy to come by. I could routinely take the top off a “bullet bottle” of Budweiser from 25 feet and have it toddle but remain on the rail. I left half-shattered bottles up to see the freight trains obliterate them. Many of my diversionary companions were stray dogs, squirrels and toads, butterflies and, in the evening, fireflies. There was also the occasional car full of teenagers partying on the dirt service road or the errant raccoon who each had the chance to scare the hell out of me. I had, however, plenty of ballast ammo, and, as stated, a fair arm.

The tracks went two ways; one way went north to Skowhegan and Bangor, and I sure didn’t want to go there. The other way went to, I suppose, Boston, but you couldn’t walk across the trestle over the Fore River into South Portland without the risk of violent, locomotive-driven death, and hey, the destinations of both South Portland and Boston are not so enticing either, but I used the tracks from age six to age nineteen as a pedestrian thoroughfare. I seldom saw another cross-tie walker, except for the occasional hobo, and, even as a child, I was never afraid. I believe we could see in one another's eyes that we were doing the same thing.

I had a few good friends when I was a boy and as a teenager, but none so sure and stable as the rails. They were always there, like a man-made river, calling, going somewhere and not telling the destination. There were no passenger trains back then, and there still aren’t now, only the conductors and the guys who rode in the caboose who would wave back to all the little boys and girls who hung out by the tracks, longing to go somewhere else.


The rock ‘n’ roll element

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