I have always had a fascination with trains. It started because my parents never owned a car or ever drove one, so we often travelled on trains and buses and it was a lot more comfortable and fun to ride the trains. I would stare out the window at the scenery flashing by and imagine I was running at super speed beside the train, leaping over fences, dodging other obstacles, creating an exhilarating sense of freedom and agency that my real life lacked.
Attraction to trains seems to be embedded in my genes. My family history is largely a deadly train ride. My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Unity McFadden of Donegal, Ireland, had five sons that reached adulthood and all five worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Four of the five died in separate horrible accidents with my grandfather surviving yet another accident and becoming a farmer instead at his wife Tillie’s insistence. Otherwise you would likely not be reading this blog post. The railway deaths were not limited to the men. Unity died in 1913 when she was run over by a train as she walked to church one Sunday morning. Four of my relatives on my father’s side were also killed in train accidents, two while working. So it’s not surprising that my first travelling adventure was sparked by trains.
It took place when I was only seven or eight years old. My best friend at that time was Johnny Howell, who lived in the house directly behind mine in West Orange, New Jersey. Johnny was two years older than me, very smart, and we both shared a spirit of adventure and a fascination with trains. In those days it was common for young kids to run around unsupervised, as long as they showed up at home for meals and when it got dark. The understandable current paranoia about child molesters and kidnappers simply did not exist then. Johnny and I both owned bicycles and over time we travelled further and further on them during the summer months when there was no school.
At Johnny’s suggestion, we began targeting all the railway stations in the general area of Essex County, or as I call it today, Sopranos country. A few times a week we would pedal our way to a train station and collect the local train schedules. I began to treasure my collection of schedules and learned how to read and interpret them. It dovetailed with my other childhood obsession. Numbers. I would fill entire notebooks with calculations that my father dismissed as “my damn little numbers.” I would play games like squaring the number two in my head until I reached a million. Or I would calculate day-by-day the changing batting averages of all the players on my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. So train schedules fit right in. It didn’t take all that long for Johnny and I to bike to every railway station in the general area. That’s when he came up with a brilliant idea. Why don’t we take a train all the way to Hoboken, New Jersey, a real railroad city with connections in every direction, including New York City he suggested? We could stuff our pockets with dozens of schedules, then take a train to Penn Station in Newark to collect even more schedules and then take a bus back to West Orange. Wow! This was it. The mother of all adventures. A quantum leap in our schedule collection mania. The problem was this trip was different. It would cost money and neither of us had very much. So, we scrounged up every cent we had, scooping up loose nickels and dimes round the house, literally pillaging the sofas, and in the end pooled our money and figured we had enough. The sense of anticipation was tremendous. Exactly the way I felt before boarding the plane to Nepal in 2014 for four months of trekking in the Himalayas. A sensation I learned to love at the age of eight, and remain addicted to, to this day.
The day shined bright as we set off early. I will never forget that fabulous railway station in Hoboken. Mention the name of Hoboken and most people think of Frank Sinatra, who was born there in 1915. Not me. I think of train schedules. Row after row of beautiful train schedules and we were there to loot them. We should have brought our school bags to put them in, but had to settle for filling our pockets and carrying the rest in bags. I never dreamed there would be so many schedules. There were so many we couldn’t even carry them all.
We then took the train to Penn Station in Newark and on the way Johnny noted that we didn’t have enough money left for the bus. The idea of bumming bus money from strangers didn’t occur to us. This was around 1956. We didn’t know how far it was from Penn Station to West Orange, but we knew it was a very long way to go. In fact it was nine miles. What were we going to do? My family didn’t even have a phone and Johnny wouldn’t consider calling his parents. That left only one option. Walking. You could say it was my first ever trek. We knew that Main Street in Newark ran all the way to West Orange, to within a block of our homes. So we asked for directions to Main Street and walked for a mile and a half to get there, our arms full of train schedules. Johnny and I were pretty fit kids. We both walked and biked a lot and both of us later ran track and cross country in high school. So we just keep on walking and walking.
Finally we crossed into East Orange, both of us starting to feel it and to lose a little of our love for those train schedules we were lugging with us. We had been walking nearly two hours when we reached the town of Orange. On we trudged. Past the YMCA, past the department stores, past the Orange Circle diner with the 10 cent hamburgers, a few hundred meters from the West Orange border. We were both totally gassed by now, but we couldn’t stop. We marched on past West Orange’s city hall, past my Aunt Helen’s Supreme Bakery, where my mom worked, reached Tory Corner, cut through Colgate Field and arrived at the corner of Ashwood Terrace and Cherry Street. We were home. It took more than three hours, but we did it.
I walked in the door and my mother smiled to see me, and then noticed the train schedules. She quickly dragged the whole story out of me and laughed herself silly. She sat me down, heated up some delicious soup, fed me a wonderful dinner and generally treated me like a conquering hero rather than a disobedient child, bless her. Most importantly she did not tell my father. It didn’t go so well for Johnny. His angry parents burned all of his train schedules and he got a nasty licking, as they used to say. We didn’t see that much of each other after that and Johnny’s family moved down to the Jersey shore a few years later.
I only saw Johnny one more time, when I was about 16. I was invited to join him and his older brother Frank on a long car trip to Pennsylvania to take pictures of one of the last working steam engines in the United States. It was nice to see the boys again, but to tell the truth I was mostly bored. Johnny and Frank made similar trips to see and take pictures of such trains nearly every weekend. It was as if that spanking he endured spurred him to love trains and obsess over them even more. Johnny got the train bug. I got the adventure bug. I liked trains and still do, but I dreamed of unpredictable journeys to unpredictable places, full of crazy surprises no matter how prepared you are. I was still hooked on the National Geographic and yearned to visit the amazing places they displayed in pictures and words. It took quite a few years, but I eventually got to visit those countries and live my dreams.
And it all began that summer day.