She didn’t scream. With preternatural calm, she said to her passenger, a young man of casual acquaintance, “We’re going to hit a train.”
It was 1 a.m., the time of day when the old folk of the world have been in bed for hours and the young are just getting started.
Only 19, she was part of the latter group. Cold sober, she lost control of the car when it hit a patch of ice. She had already been braking for the crossing train, foot off the accelerator, when the car went sideways. She managed to straighten it out, but not stop. It was an out-of-body experience as she watched the 1972 Ford Galaxie she was driving slide into a moving train.
It took the train ten minutes to stop. A full ten minutes. An eternity. The car would hit the train, the train would drag it a bit, release and then the ice would push the car back into the train. Again and again, like a yo-yo in the hand of God.
Milwaukee winters are mean.
The Galaxie was a trooper. When others’ newer cars wouldn’t start in the dead of winter, the Galaxie would fire right up. It had been her dad’s car and the one she had used to take her driving test. Daddy gave it to her as a Christmas present just the year before. The car had always been good to her. It was her first accident and, in typical fashion, the Galaxie came through. She was unscathed though the car was not.
Her door was stuck, but Jim’s opened easily enough. They were standing in the frigid night of a Midwestern February trying to make sense of it all. The sound of the train engineer talking on a two way radio wafted through the air as the railroad crossing lights continued to flash.
The first officer on the scene said to the woman, “I expected to have to scrape you out of this car with a spoon.”
She inspected the car while the visibly shaken policeman wrote his report. He would write for awhile and then ask, “Are you two sure you’re okay? Should I call an ambulance?” They both assured him they were fine even though Jim was bleeding from a small cut on his forehead. He had been troubleshooting a malfunctioning 8-track player when the young woman announced the imminent collision. The cassette tried, again and again, to change tracks, but Bob Seger remained silent. Bent over, on the passenger side of the car, Jim’s forehead slammed into the stereo controls on the first impact. He straightened up, wiped his forehead, and braced both arms on the dashboard as the car hit the train. Again and again.
The front hood of the car was wrapped up and over the windshield. The windshield was intact, but otherwise the front half of the car was destroyed though Seger was finally going to Katmandu. She quietly whispered, “Damn. I love this car.”
As he stamped his feet to keep the cold at bay, Jim thought he should put his arm around the woman while she inspected the totaled car, but she seemed in shock and he didn’t want to startle her. He wrapped his arms around himself and bounced from one foot to the other, wiping his forehead again and again. It was just a surface cut, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding.
The old folk of the neighborhood began turning on porch lights and peering out of windows as more police cars and a fire truck arrived. More porch lights came on when the ambulance showed up, siren wailing. The train engineer had called for it.
She saw the tow truck pull up which is when the young woman walked to the closest house where an elderly woman in a bathrobe and curlers stood peering through the storm door.
“May I use your phone?” Agreeing, the woman led her to a rotary phone on the wall in the overly warm kitchen. The young woman dialed the familiar number one digit at a time watching the dial go round again and again. She unzipped her coat. She waited a long number of rings before there was an answer on the other end of the line.
“Mama, I hit a train. Can you come get me? They’re going to tow the Galaxie.”