A long time ago, I used to drive my car to work at a postal facility in Indiana, traveling from Illinois. My route took me over a railroad crossing next to a gas station not far from my house.
I’ll digress for a second.
I hadn’t known my father at the time. Turns out in life, sometimes you discover you were lucky not to have what you thought you needed. The day came when I met my father, and he was a lout. I was lucky he didn’t raise me. But I didn’t know that then.
Like all abandoned children must feel, I felt I was missing the love and affection of some marvelous hero who had left because there was something wrong about me. Something missing. Some part of a boy a father has to see to love him. I don’t know if that ever goes away completely, but the day comes when you know better.
Back to the railroad crossing.
Back to the tracks.
I remember the first time I saw him. An old man. Not truly old. I guessed he was seventy, younger than the very old man you’re going to read about. He was a bit portly. He wore slacks and a short-sleeved blue shirt. Dress shoes. He moved like he didn’t care much for walking.
He stood next to the tracks with a younger man beside him. I guessed the younger was in his late forties. But I didn’t have to look hard to see he had a disability. He walked with a shuffle, with the older man at his side. His gaze didn’t seem to land on anything at all. It was a stare into nothingness. He didn’t move without prompting from the older man. Neither of the men spoke.
The gates were down. A train was coming. I was stopped in my car behind the gate.
The older man held the younger man’s arm, keeping him just far enough from the tracks. As the train came, the earth shook. And the younger man, whose arms had remained at his side, suddenly raised his right arm to feel the wind and the power of the approaching train. He stood with his arm raised the whole time the train was going by. The train passed, the gate raised, and the younger man’s arm fell back to his side. I never saw an expression on his face at all.
I drove on, worried about traffic and the timeclock I had to punch. At the same time, I was deeply moved. A father, I assumed, with his son. Neither young. But the older man clearly had a powerful devotion to the younger man.
I saw the pair innumerable times after that. It was always the same scene. I wondered what it would be like to have a father like that. Or a son like that. I hoped then, and I hope now, I would be able to bring some small measure of that father’s devotion to my own sons.
The story that follows, of course, is inspired by them. It’s about love. It’s about devotion. I think it’s about life.
This story first appeared in the Governors State University literary magazine The Pond in the summer of 2000. I made some slight revisions for this publication.