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Wrong Way Radcliff’s First Ride

Right now, in every town or city in the country, the same thing is happening: some kid who has recently learned that he is supposed to feel limited by his environment is trying to think of a way to twist the name of his town into a variant of “Nowheresville.” You used to get this in small towns but now it’s everywhere. Probably in New York itself there is a 12-year-old boy trying to outgrow the Star Wars bed set he is sleepily ensconced in, thinking “No-You-Can’t… Nowhere-k… New Yuck.”

I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, so you can imagine. Norfolk, if you didn’t know, is a populous port city which hosts the headquarters of several major transportation corporations and the largest naval base in the world, which by the lights of defensive adolescent cynicism makes it a total backwater. So I grew up knowing, with greater certainty than any country boy ever knew he was destined for big things, that I “had to get out.”

Whatever I thought that meant, it certainly did not mean that by collaborating with the engines of commerce I should secure the means and relations and powers to position myself in the world. The idea of a position then had no charm for me. Having a “position” was about like having “status” — in other words, being static, stagnating, staying in the heart of nowhere. Which I guess is at least part of what I thought I had to get out of.

I didn’t want or need a diploma, a degree, a career, honors or accomplishments of any kind. As far as my personal ambitions were concerned, I might have done best to spend my time on a street corner learning how to play guitar and avoid the police. But school wasn’t so bad and there was plenty of time for perfectly good arsling within its walls. The gym was right next to the lunchroom, so it was easy to sneak out of PE and play chess with my friend Lon. The biology teacher was half-blind so I could read for English class during that period, which meant another solid hour for video games when I got home. And the authorities were impotent blusterers, which fit my picture of the world perfectly.

The problem for me was that the approved next step was alway so simply and obviously laid out for me at each stage that it would have taken such a concentrated effort as I had never learned to muster in order to change course. Besides, I actually liked my parents and didn’t want to disappoint them. What I really needed was a sudden and unavoidable calamity to cut them down so I could leave town under a cloud of grief and begin the romance of my existence. Don’t laugh, because I truly had this exact thought many times in my youth. Perhaps on my way home from school today, I would muse, a grim pillar of smoke and ashes would rise before me as I turned the corner of our street, and there with his dogs rooting through the hot, charred remains, counting blackened corpses, would be the arsonist himself, some secret enemy of my father bent on the destruction of his line, and I would dart quickly into hiding, the tears streaming down my stricken face as I fled through the backyards and over fences to the open country.

All the same, my travels did begin, in the most simple and obvious way. And in case you’re guessing that means I joined the Navy: no. That was a clear impossibility because I was a Pacifist. (Sometime I will have to tell you too how I stopped being a Pacifist, but anyway that was a few days later.)

It just happened one night that Lon and I — You know, Lon was all right, but it seemed like he wouldn’t do anything good until I twisted his arm. He would just be in his books or even sleeping when I’d call him late at night and tell him it was time to get on and have ourselves an excursion. And then he’d go on for a while about what an important day tomorrow was or needing to finish a project. Or just not feeling like it it this time. And I’d have to stir up some high talk to get him dragging his feet out the door. Once I recited the St. Crispin’s Day Speech, which I’d memorized for English class that week. I was always one for memorizing things, even if I didn’t know what they were about, so if Mr. Sandys gave us a choice between writing a paper and reciting a speech, I knew what I was going to do.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.

That would get him. Then we’d be out wandering around for an hour or two, getting nowhere, and finally I’d have to find something for us to do to match the grand promises I’d made in verse or prose. Usually this meant we had to break some law.

So on this particular night, as we were out trespassing on the grounds of a shipping depot, we found on the other side of these grounds, only a low chain link fence away, a long train just beginning to inch forwards. Why it was stopped there in the first place we didn’t know, and I still don’t, since there was no one anywhere near to have been loading it or unloading it. Ahead, the tracks turned slightly right, so that the engine was out of view, like the train was lumbering off into the absolute distance. Nowhere and everywhere. Out.
Naturally, we had to hop the fence and set our hands on this rare creature, as you know you would have to do if you opened your front door tomorrow and found an elephant loping casually by, practically begging you to come feel its heft and might for yourself. (If your first thought is that you might get trampled, then I guess there’s just no talking to you.)

The thing about freight trains is you normally see them hurtling along full speed at railway crossings and bridges, not ambling past at a crawl. So it was like turning the world inside out to walk a piece feeling as though it was we who were leading the way, ridiculously tugging on the leash of a reluctant behemoth.

But the train sped up. Not wanting to slip back out of this fantastic world, as a dreamer will push backwards into his memory, groping against the current of his waking thoughts, I quickened my pace with each step to keep a little ahead of the train’s acceleration. Moments later I was running, my right hand now clasping the cold handle at the back of the train car. Now the only way even to match the train’s speed was to be on it, and so on I went.

Nothing else I have ever experienced has quite so much made me wonder what in the name of a drunken pig I was doing as did the sound of Lon’s panicked and hollering voice, already almost inaudible over the growing racket of the train, quickly and more quickly fading into the distance behind me. Why was I clinging to the back of a rushing train car on its way to who knows where in the middle of the night on a Wednesday? What was I going to do exactly when the train stopped? Would Ms. Jenkins give me an extension on my lab report?
But anyway, there I was.


This story first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

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