Oddments

In search of story


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May 21.19

I grew up in northwest Indiana, just outside Chicago. “Da Region.” Steel mills and oil refineries, cinders and soot. And earthquaking freight trains. Charging, bellowing behemoths, lifeline of thriving industry, they snarled traffic with sadistic impunity.

Mindful that then our phones were back home, attached to a wall, you will understand that life stopped when those behemoths blocked our ways. So there was nothing like the excitement of spotting the caboose. Life could resume! What cheer to the soul! What revving of engines! Until it stopped in the middle of the crossing, taunting us with half a road.

The caboose had the power to make people happy or homicidal.

If you were a kid and lucky, you got to wave at the man in the caboose, and he would wave back. To be noticed by the genie in the caboose was high living tinged with envy: who wouldn’t want to live in a caboose?

Every once in a while, a caboose would show up in some incongruous place, like someone’s yard. Here was mystery. How did it get there? Is the genie still in it?

It was my early introduction to garden art. A caboose in a yard was never mundane. Nor was the occasional non-red caboose, like the jarring countercultural yellow.

As symbol of time and place, the caboose is nonpareil. And when the train is gone and the caboose stands alone in the quiet of clover and vine, what does the caboose tell of the old time and place? Since I am the caboose, I must ask and answer that question.

 

Many thanks to photographer D.J. Berg.

Part Three

 


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May 20.19

On Being The Caboose

Do you remember the words spoken of George Washington: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”? With a trifling modification, they could be spoken of me: last at the table, last out the door, last to finish anything. I was considered the dawdler, the slowpoke, the Grand Pooh-Bah of Time Wasting. My father referred to me as “the late Maureen O’Hern.”

What nonsense. I was deliberate. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept of the clock; it was that the clock didn’t understand the concept of me. I was– ahem — unrushed.

And thus did I become the family caboose. Always, always last.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because now, in a new way, I am last. Of the family I grew up with, I am the only one left. Now no one remembers but me. I am hit hard by this, not least because of my desire to write combined with my amazing inability to tell a story.

Bringing up the rear gives one a certain perspective, perhaps not entirely flattering but in a way whole. Where do I go with that? What words do I give it? I know you understand, dear reader, because you are here. You know about words. We want for permanence; in some pauper’s way, our words give that.

 

PART TWO