"There's something about a train that needs watching. I think we forget that." -Neil Ellis Orts
"In Soviet Russia, train watches you!" -Me
This is is a true story. I've tried to recapture what it felt like that day.
Ah, summer time! It was July 4th after we graduated from high school. Martin O'Rourke and I had spent the day riding our 10 speeds up and down a several story bank parking lot in downtown Augusta. Eventually we took a break and wandered out to admire the ancient train trestle over the Savannah River.
Built of giant, concrete pylons and massive, steel girders forming trusses, it stretches about 250 yards from bank to bank. Across the river, the tracks curve out of sight into the woods.
We talked about walking across it.
"I don't think any trains still use it," Martin opined.
"I'm not sure. I know I've seen trains downtown..." I looked back down the tracks away toward downtown. "But I don't recall if they came this way."
We discussed it a while from all points of view. We examined the tracks. Rusty, not shiny. Martin was certain. "Shiny rails mean use. Rusty rails mean nobody comes this way."
"Makes sense to me. Let's go."
We meandered out, stopping to climb the girders a bit (but not too much, neither of us being in love with heights). We explored a small concrete room with no apparent purpose, a little ways out. The river below was broad and shallow, with plenty of boulders.
"No wonder nobody ever jumps off it." We weren't about to.
Just over half way out, we stopped to do what almost any teenage boy would do at this point. We spat. We soaked up the Independence Day sun and relaxed, staring down into the river, minds floating away with it.
We heard a rumble in the distance. We looked at the sky; not enough clouds for lightning. We laughed. "Wouldn't it be funny if there was a train coming?" Quietly, secretly, carefully hidden away, neither of us thought it would be funny. I didn't want to think about it enough to name it.
We felt something. The faintest of tremors, a thrumming. Very low frequency. Something powerful. Something dangerous. Something like an earthquake. The trestle, that tower of strength, those huge girders, now reminded me of an Erector Set[tm]. Not very reassuring.
Still convinced a train couldn't possibly be coming, I thought back to a childhood of westerns, dropped to all fours, and laid my right ear against the track. I wasn't sure what to listen for, but three things happened in quick succession.
The rumble grew, in my ears, against my feet, against my hands, against my head.
The unmistakable, wild scream of a train horn-- all too near-- pierced every fiber of my being.
A light, followed by the front of a diesel locomotive, flew out of the trees, around the curve of the tracks on the South Carolina side of the river.
"Ahhhhhhh!!!!!" We ran. Lord, how we ran! The horn screamed fiercely. The rumble grew. Looking back, that light got bigger, flying mercilessly on, dragging the ridiculous mass of that steel monster with it, faster than we could run. Several thoughts danced nimbly through my head, far more quickly than my feet were moving.
"It's too far; we can't make it!"
"We're going to die!"
"Maybe we should jump! But what if we break our backs and necks and limbs and live? That's worse than getting creamed by a train!"
The behemoth grew closer, horn bellowing, brakes hissing, metal wheels screeching on the tracks in a desperate, futile attempt to slow down. The engineer had his head out the window, yelling. To this day, I can hear him screaming at us to get out of the way, begging, cursing, calling us stupid. It's impossible, of course, but I heard it in my mind then, and I can hear it now.
I honestly don't recall whose idea it was, but as we passed a support beam, one of us grabbed the other and drug them off the tracks. A steel girder stuck up at maybe a ten degree angle from a concrete pier, just a couple of feet from the tracks. One of us leaned into the girder, the other leaned back under it, and we locked our hands around each others' arms. We only had about three inches of concrete to stand on. A second or two later, the train roared by inches away. We screamed loudly enough to hear each other. The engineer's head flew over us, goggle eyed, relieved, furious, amazed.
The train rumbled by interminably, shaking and jarring us, trying to toss us into the river for daring to play in its path.
After a few hours, or a minute or two (it was hard to tell), the train was racing away from us, its red light mocking us from the caboose. The rumble died away, the horn screamed to clear a path through traffic, and the train was gone.
It was at least a minute before either of us could let go of the other. Somehow neither of us fell, and somehow we climbed back onto the tracks despite shaking like mad.
We still had a quarter of the bridge to go. We walked part of it. We ran part of it. We vibrated part of it. When we regained the ability to speak, we mostly just laughed. At one point we were laughing so hard we almost fell down. Then one of us made a train horn sound, and we laughed harder, but somehow got moving again. When we got to the grass, we staggered at least 15 feet from the tracks, fell down, and just stared at the sky, waiting for the ground-- or perhaps our bodies and souls-- to stop trembling, vibrating, and rumbling.
The sky was beautiful. The grass was beautiful. The empty trestle was beautiful. My shoes (dear, magnificent, grippy shoes!) were beautiful. Life... life was beautiful. Trains, at the moment, not so much.
Eventually we were able to walk, then to ride, and headed home, laughing and reliving every terrifying, glorious moment over and over.
We got over the fear pretty soon. I loved trains again, and still do. I've been out on trestles since then.