Don't Cross the Railroad Tracks

When the cheese phalluses at Big Auto Corporation decided to move forward with the repossession of my SUV, they effectively turned me into a part-time bus passenger around the triad of Portsmouth, Durham, and Dover. The other part of the time was spent: A) walking from Durham to Portsmouth to hold onto my valued civilian employment, then back again, or B) walking from Durham to Dover to take the Coast bus to Portsmouth. Then the return trip. Option A took five hours each way, six when there were snow and ice obstacles; Option B was the easier walk, roughly two hours each way. From Dover, I could pick up the Coast bus to Portsmouth. I used the college bus whenever possible; unfortunately, the majestic Summer of COVID led to no college bus service, and the preceding winter break reduced service.

I had offered Big Auto three payments at once when my tax return came in during February of 2019; no dice.

Mind you, the walks are not all negative. I have often received rides from nice kids from my college who see me out there on foot. I burn calories; as an Army veteran, I’ve often done ruck marches of similar distances, both on active duty and as a reservist. I have seen magnificent sunrises and sunsets, night skies filled with stars, varied indigenous wildlife. (I once was walking in the dark to Dover when I passed within a few feet of a large deer in a wooded area near someone’s house. The deer was startled and bolted, and I almost soiled myself!) My mind runs free as I remember significant times in my life, some pleasurable, some not. I play games in the ambient room of my mind, satisfying my SportsJones by compiling lists of my favorite all-time professional athletes in each of the major sports.

I remember one time on the Portsmouth to Durham walk during summer months when I walked past the abandoned campus of Great Bay Community College. I had an urgent need to relieve myself; occasionally this is remedied by nearby construction sites with portajohns. Not today. I walked past the concrete barrier in front of the abandoned college building and sought out a convenient tree. Wouldn’t you know it, a patrol car belonging to the Stratham Police Department swung in at just that moment. I was finished and waved to the cop as I walked back to the road. He rolled his window down and asked: “Were you just looking for a place to take a leak?” He was friendly and concerned enough. I instantly explained that I was not loitering, just without a vehicle and trying to get home. I resisted the urge to go on a rant like probably every other guy who has ever been stopped by police.

(“Man, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m still a drilling reservist in the Army, I have a master’s degree...”)

Anyway, the policeman offered a bottled water and was just stopping to see if I was okay. I thanked him and proceeded with my walk home.

Now to my intended story, within a story. On a pre-COVID early January day, having just returned from a family visit over the holidays and having taken the C&J Trailways bus to the Portsmouth bus station (and too stubborn to pay for a taxi, two of which were available), I struck out on foot through the fading sun of the winter afternoon, along Route 33 toward the Stratham Traffic Circle and Route 108, which would take me back to Durham. There I would be home safe in one of the graduate dorms, as I was in a two-year program.

By the way, do not let me paint myself as a complete victim. My intensified pedestrian status is a result of my not paying bills on time. Furthermore, I have had one UNH professor and one family member offer to give me a used vehicle, with no payments needed. I still prevaricate, as I prefer not to pay extra money for parking passes and insurance and service and tags and yearly taxes. Also, to be honest, I am becoming something of a tree hugger in my older years. I would rather not use my hard-earned money to feed combustion engines that produce emissions that burn a hole in the ozone and assist global warming. I am, like, the most liberal conservative olde whyte guy with a military background that I’ve ever met.

So, as I walked along Route 33 that late afternoon, the air grew colder, the sun disappearing slowly yet deliberately. I made a stop at the McDonald’s across the intersection from the TA truck stop in Greenland. I kept the meal small as I knew I had a long distance to walk still. As usual, the looks I got from people driving past me were real choice. I had liberal silvertips rubbernecking as they passed me, surveying me with judging eyes.

(Okay, I don’t know for sure if they were “liberal” or “judgmental”; in fact, a lot of the people who have helped me with food and shelter insecurity in the recent and distant past look much the same as these folks.)

I picked up Route 108 close to the Stratham traffic circle and headed toward Newmarket. I knew that once in Newmarket, there was an Irving station where I could use the restrooms and maybe get some coffee or an orange juice. Then from Newmarket (which I enjoy visiting because I lived there many years), it is only about an hour and a half walk to Main Street in Durham, and then my residence hall.

Along Route 108, I believe it is in Newfields, there is a gas station on the right and a Dunkin’ across the street on the left. Shortly after there is a narrow bridge that goes over active railroad tracks. These tracks are frequented by the Downeaster and the occasional freight train.

As the bridge in question is narrow and only two lanes, one in each direction, I on this evening chose to walk down an embankment and cross the railroad tracks themselves. I observed an abandoned train station, about the same size and appearance as the Dairy Bar in Durham, on the other side of the tracks. It cast a kind of lonely, melancholy mood over the scene.

The tracks themselves had a light cover of snow and ice over them; the rail bed was kind of elevated on a running line of gravel as well.

I stood and looked in both directions, watching and also listening for trains. All was quiet.

I now stood about a yard away from the small gravel hill and the tracks. Again, I checked both ways, watching and listening. As I stepped forward to quickly cross the tracks, I clearly heard a strong disembodied voice command, “Don’t cross the railroad tracks.”

Disregarding my own advice, I stepped up onto the raised gravel and checked both ways. Then went across the tracks.

Art by Julian Armijos

I went down the other side with no incident. Then I walked a few steps and that was when the Downeaster train seemed to come out of nowhere and glide behind me – perhaps twenty feet behind me – heading south.

I had not heard it coming. Nor had it slowed down at all, at this abandoned train station. Twenty feet is not ten feet or five feet; that being said, the train was damned close, and I had not seen or heard it coming because, I presume, there was a bend in the route of the tracks through trees nearby.

Friends and family and the UNH community, knowing of my three Iraq deployments, would probably speculate about reasons for my being there had I been struck down by the train. Was he depressed? Did something unsettling happen to him on his deployments?

All the while, the truth would have been very simple. I was only trying to walk home, because: the cheese phalluses at Big Auto Corporation decided to move forward with the repossession of my SUV.

Do I sound angry? Then maybe because that is what I feel from time to time. After the train passed that close to me, I walked a good three hundred yards toward Newmarket before the cold dark feeling left my bones. A cold feeling independent of the dropping temperatures. I tried to unsee images of myself after being hit by a moving train, images complete with separation of body parts and no immediate bleeding due to the violent impact. I tried to fill my mood instead with cool sports thoughts, and the hot meal I would have for dinner when I got home, and other ambient visions.

This had been different than a couple of other “Oh crap, this is it!” moments in my life. These include, but are not limited to, mortar attacks on our base in Iraq; the time I worked briefly as a commercial diver in 1986 and my air hose got fouled and I could not surface. In both instances, I had the help and support of my buddies.

Not so with this train incident. I was alone, and it was damned cold and dark.

Later that evening, as I unwound to ESPN and relaxed in my graduate dorm, I reflected on how lucky I was. I repeatedly told myself, until I listened, that I was not trying to hurt myself. In other words, cut my nose off to spite my face, as I was angry about not having a vehicle.

With the regular buses running again, I rarely must go to these extremes anymore. I do a double-check every time I have to walk somewhere. (Is it better to wait for the bus later? Should I call a taxi today?) I recalled one time I walked all the way back to Durham after playing hockey at Dover Ice Arena, carrying my hockey stick and bag. Such extremes, as I look back on the train incident, are perhaps my way of drawing the line, when I am done with people or circumstances taking things away from me. First the vehicle repo; then my mother passing away from ALS, a horrid disease. Then COVID-19 took away live classes and college interaction that students of all ages enjoy. COVID took away a lot of our other freedoms as well. All through these stressors, I continued to find a way to make it to my Army unit for drill weekends, and keep playing hockey, and work in Portsmouth, and enjoy being part of the UNH community. And being the positive influence that young people at my college respond to.

While looking about for the words to capture my mindset after the trials and travails of the past two or three years, I found the following legend in several places, among them the Nanticoke Tribe website. It reads as follows:

The Tale of Two Wolves One evening, an elderly cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. he said “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. one is evil. it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

the other is good. it is joy, peace love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” the grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “which wolf wins?...” the old cherokee simply replied, “the one that you feed.”