One summer, D. and I stayed at Swarthmore to do research work for Professor G. in the math department. Another professor was traveling that summer and she let us stay at her home in Wallingford in return for keeping her two cats happily in kibble. One cat was rather ordinary in its disdain for humans, but I remember the other was positively canine in its affection and willingness to please others. Also, it once leaped to catch a moth and fell behind a chest where it got wedged and mewed pitifully, wanting rescuing. To this day, that remains the most clumsy and ungainly act I’ve ever witnessed by a cat.
Most days, we usually commuted to the computer lab by bicycle, a fairly hazardous enterprise on some of those heavily-commuted, potholed roads. But one day I got caught up in completing a particular algorithm and worked late, with a pizza and several napkins to keep my greasy fingerprints off the keyboard. By the time I was ready to go home, it was too dark to bike, and the last outbound train had already left. I decided to walk home, taking the shortcut on the railroad tracks over the Crum Creek trestle.
It was a clear night. Crum Woods was empty of people, summer-warm, and full of crickets singing. I walked along the railroad tracks, planning algorithms in my head and trying to stay upright on the balance beam of one rail. I remember the crunch of gravel whenever I slipped off, startlingly loud like a cough drop wrapper in a darkened auditorium.
When I reached the trestle, it was a hard to see across, because the moisture of the cold creek water was condensing and turning to fog as it rose, but I didn’t think twice about crossing. I had missed the last outbound train, and though I thought a later inbound train unlikely, there were two sets of tracks, so I could get out of the way if necessary.
Halfway across, tunelessly singing Cat Stevens in my croaking tenor, my attention was diverted by a glow on the horizon, like a distance forest fire, but white. It could only be a train approaching in the distance, out of sight behind the sweep of woods. I was twenty-one, too young to seriously consider mortality, and I wanted to see this, so I gingerly stepped across to the outbound track to wait for it to pass. I say “gingerly,” because there were gaps between the railroad ties through which one could drop a stone to the creek a hundred feet below. The gaps were not large enough to admit my entire body, so I would not have plummeted through, but a wrong step might have sunk my leg up to the groin.
The train seemed to take a long time to arrive, clacking along with gravid determination. But I was mistaken by the scale of it. It appeared around the corner out of the trees on the far bank, like a rampaging bull, enormous, heavy, and very powerful up close. The halogen light on front of the engine shattered against the fog, and the entire valley, the very air, seemed to burn with a magnesium fire, and I in the middle of it, unconsumed. I could see nothing, not even my hands. Every direction I looked, even up and down, the world has turned to a brightly glowing swirl of white light. But that wasn’t all. When the engine was less than 100 feet away from me, the engineer, perhaps suddenly aware of my presence for the first time, pulled and held the “whistle,” a rather antiquated term for that high-decibel horn.
The sound erased my brain. “Too loud to think” doesn’t adequately describe it. The sheer violence of that noise drove everything from my mind, leaving no room for a thought to interpose itself. I felt my heart thumping in my chest, the blood pounding in my ears, but I could hear neither until long after the crescendo of the passing horn was replaced by the comparatively gentle screech and clacking of the metal wheels on the other track, and the groaning of the wooden trestle timbers beneath my feet. I remember feeling very alive at that moment, trembling, my senses assaulted, all my hairs on end, and a new found faith in my utter insignificance, crushable as a bug.
When the train finished crossing, and I heard its brakes from around the far curve settling into the Swarthmore station, it was though my body was finally released from some spell. I moved suddenly, picking my way across the trestle as quickly as I dared and high tailing it home before any uniformed agents of the SEPTA system could track me down.