Thursday, February 23, 2012

Three A.M, Orono Calling

For a week the Native American names that surrounded my youth have been following me everywhere.




And last night in a dream I thought of Orono, Maine, the town where I lived from my kindergarden years until the 5th grade.

Three A.M, Orono Calling

Something wakes me at 3 AM in this Los Angeles suburb, but what I hear is the long ago tin clatter of a rusty alarm clock in a musty tent in a backyard in Orono, Maine.

Orono in the fifties was a sleepy town in the center of Maine, on the banks of the Penobscot River. In the winters the days were short and cold and the snow piled high, but summer days were long, and moisture and fog from the river turned everything green. Spreading trees shaded sidewalks and back yards, and grass grew so lush that children spent an entire week barefoot, only putting on shoes for Sunday service.

I was eight years old that summer, and my brother John was six. We roamed the town unsupervised, walking up to the center of town, exploring the fields that sloped down toward the river, or hanging out at various friends’ houses.

There were two forces that anchored the children’s’ universe in Orono. The first was the River. A large Northeastern river, the Penobscot was wide, grey and deep. It flowed quickly through Orono, and its banks were steep and slick with mud. Parents warned their children of the dire consequences that would befall them if for some reason they got near those banks. We heard tales of drowning, and, perhaps worse, tales of the punishment that would befall us if we even got close. For the most part we gave the banks of the Penobscot River a wide birth.

The other force was the railroad. The Bangor and Aroostook was a small railroad, now long gone, whose reason for existence was to haul the potato crop out of the farmland of Northern Maine down to the coast. Unlike the river, we were on close terms with the railroad. A single rusty engine pulling a few dozen cars would shake us children to our bones as it came right through town, down a little gully with grassy slopes, then across Pine street, our main route to school. The railroad crossing was marked by a faded white wooden “X” with “RR Xing” painted in peeling black paint. It was up to every driver approaching and every kid walking along the track to look for the train and listen for the slow blasts of the whistle.

After Pine Street, the train headed toward the river, where it crossed on a railroad bridge. This bridge loomed large in children’s mythic lore. It was long, spindly, and had a narrow wood planked walkway alongside the track all the way across the bridge. There was no fence or gate to keep anyone from walking out on that walkway. If you got caught out there on that long bridge when the thundering engine headed across, followed by clacking cars and grinding steel wheels – we were sure that no child could survive. One teenage boy who was said to have deliberately stood out there when a long freight came through was viewed by all of us as a living legend.

So we young children were intimately familiar with these lumbering freight trains of red white and blue box cars filled with potatoes and flat cars stacked with logs from the Northern forest. We would put pennies and nails on the track, sit up on the bank as the freight trains past, and gleefully run down to survey these results after the train had gone. This all seems dangerous, but it was hard to be surprised by these trains. You could almost feel the rails come alive when the train was a ways away. They were slow moving and noisy, the whistle was loud, and so none of us ever worried too much about playing and walking on the track.

But these were freight trains. We never saw a passenger train. There were rumors that one came through in the dead of night, and it was so fast and quiet that if you were on the track when it came through it would run you over before you even knew it was there. Our Dad was always willing to entertain our quest for information, so without seeming too interested we asked him about passenger trains on our tracks. A few days later he told us that the only passenger train that ran through Orono Maine came through town at 3 A.M. Well! Now this sounded like adventure!

My brother and I had for several weeks that summer been sleeping out in the back yard in a musty World War Two surplus pup tent. We found an old wind up alarm clock in a closet, snuck it out to the tent, and set it for two forty five. We woke up the next day as the sun peeked into the tent. The rickety old clock was still ticking, but some how or other we hadn’t set it right. So that day we conducted a number of tests, figured we had it, and set it again when we went to bed.

The alarm clock jangled in the dead of night. We fumbled around to quiet it for fear that someone would hear. Our eyes were sticky from sleep, but we pulled on our baseball caps and headed up Pine Street barefoot in the dark. Somehow it didn’t seem as dark as we had imagined it would be. We were exposed, and imagined the eyes of every neighbor and parent watching through black windows as we heading up toward town. But no one appeared, nothing moved. We reached the grassy bank overlooking the track, sat down in the grass and waited.

First we heard the faint click and sigh of the rails. We looked off toward the North, and sure enough we could see the headlight searching across the fields and down the track. Then the light flashed along our bank, and the train was here! At the head was the smooth bluff nose of an F3 locomotive, travelling fast and grinding its wheels as it raced around the curve toward Pine Street.

Nothing terrible happened to us. The wind pulled our hair and pajamas as the engine flew by. We grabbed glimpses of people asleep in their chairs through the windows of the smooth sliver cars. And then it was by us, the rounded tail of the last car swaying slightly and the red tail light growing fainter in the distance across the bridge, drawing our eyes with it down the far off track. We sat for a while after the rails grew quiet. We got up slowly and stepped off the bank onto Pine Street. Turning toward home, we could feel the pull. It lingered in the air, drawing us South down the track, toward places that we couldn’t name, away from Pine Street, and Orono Maine.

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns