A family horror story immediately came to mind when I saw the new object d’art in the main lobby of Boston’s South Station. If you loved trains growing up as I did and if you played with model-train sets, you’d recognize the coupling, even at 9 feet tall. It has special meeting to me.
My maternal grandfather, William Michael, worked the B&O for 48 years until they forced him to retire. He met one of these in a bad way in his early 50s.
As he told it, he knew better but was impatient. As he yard foreman in Cumberland, MD, he told his crew to climb up to the control wheels on top the cars to manually open the coupling when it would not connect two cars just by pushing them together. He didn’t wait when they couldn’t do it.
He took the little ladder up and was doing the work when he fell. As he did, the cars moved and the coupling linked…with him between, breaking his upper right leg in three or four places.
He found himself in his backyard for a couple of months with a cast from his waist down, on the broken side to his heel.
Meanwhile, my sister and I were kindergarten age and had recently returned from being part of the Occupation Army in Japan. Our parents had divorced and our father quickly remarried (a sordid tale for another time).
He and his new wife were stationed back in Fort Sill, OK, my sister and my birthplace. While our mother had full legal custody, she was trying to be a good scout and agreed when he requested that we spend the summer with them there.
That turned out to be a bad gesture. They decided at the end of the summer when he got orders to move to a base in Germany that they’d take my sister and me with them. So is the lesson never to trust an ex or that an officer is not necessarily an honorable gentleman?
They sent a telegram to my mother, who was then staying near her family in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Locale became important. It was before Internet highways and it was a couple of days’ drive, which she immediately planned upon receiving the shocking wire.
Despite his immobile, plaster-cast condition, Granddad was ready to help his daughter. They got into his car and headed to Southern OK. He somehow managed to operate the pedals and they took turns driving.
On arrival, they went into court as a local lawyer they had contacted arranged. Despite my stepmother and father doing their best marketing effort, apparently my sister and I were not at all convinced that we’d be “better off” with them overseas. The judge quickly ruled that our mother had full custody and that meant what it said. Done and done.
With the melodrama resolved, the four of us headed back to Romney, still an intact family. So, what’s a crippled, healing railroader to do?
Years later I got the answer to that directly from him. We’d l long been buddies, I much more than any of the other grands. My sister and I spent summers with these grandparents and I worked his massive (one-acre) gardens with him.
We talked of pesky rabbits, his evolution from pesticides to organic, family, railroading, town history and on and on. However, I think I figured I knew more about him than I really did, just from seeing and hearing over the years.
Eventually in my late teens, I got to a seminal question — how could he remain so placid with such a nasty wife? My grandmother was mean and insulting to me, my sister and mother, my maternal aunt, her own sister who also lived in Romney, and of course her husband. She made some of us fume and others cry.
It had taken me years to ask myself the related question, why did he work into the night on the B&O, run his tailor and dry cleaning shop and even do volunteer work, then spend the summer days laboring in these gardens? I knew he gave away most of what he grew to the less fortunate, but why work so hard? That answer finally revealed itself — that got him away from his unpleasant wife, keeping the peace.
His answer to my underlying question of his attitude started with his usual beatific smile and soft words.
When he was in the backyard, hobbled in the massive cast, he remained his usual impatient, doer self. He read every book in the house and those people brought him, then magazines like Reader’s Digest and Life, which the got, plus the Romney and Cumberland newspapers.
Then he thought.
He said that one sunny afternoon, more than a thought came to him suddenly. He realized with his essence what mattered. If his wife for whatever reason struck out at so many, including him, that truly wasn’t important. He instantly shifted from as irritated as others. He transcended her nastiness and was out of reach.
In other words, amid the rose bushes, within sight of the 4 foot square goldfish pond, across the yard from the picnic table, brick BBQ and massive maple, he was enlightened. It wasn’t that he would no longer pay attention to her nasty words. They were no longer triggers.
He was sure he never would have arrived there without his broken leg and forced meditation. In the end, not a bad way to spend the summer, eh? Rescue your grandchildren and come to peace. What did you do last summer?