“Before I formed you in the womb I chose you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Most people hear the sound of a train whistle and sigh. Traffic will be coming as railroad bars are lowered to block the road so that the train can go by. If you have a toddler you wait for the squeals of excitement. Every small child seems to have an affinity for trains. When I see or hear trains I am reminded that we all have a greater purpose.
27 years ago my parents were visiting my Aubuelo and Tita and my Dad's prima, or cousin. They were heading back to my grandparents house after visiting a tortilla bakery that was owned by another of my Dad's cousins when they came to train tracks. Mother says that they were hurrying back because mi Aubuelo wanted to watch the baseball game at 4.15. Now back in those days the city of Santa Paula was not as exciting as it is now. It was still largely a migrant community and was relatively unknown. Nothing ever happened in this sleepy little town that was not spread quicker by gossip than the newspaper. I am told it was a better time.
That day my Dad was driving my Mother's old sedan, a big honkin car that I have heard compared to a tank. My Mother's car had this occasional nasty habit of stalling, usually whenever Mother was not driving. Mi Aubuelo never rode in a car driven by a woman. He had never owned a car, rarely drove, and was unfamiliar with cars and my parents did not mind his cultural differences. Mi Aubuelo had grown up in a different era. For this reason my Mother never drove her own car when they were visiting my Father's family.
On the way to the bakery there was a railroad crossing with a stop sign for the next road. Back then the stop sign required all drivers to stop on the tracks and the bells would warn them if any trains were coming and to get out of the way. That day the sedan stalled. As my Father turned the engine over my Mother looked out her window, in the seat directly behind him, and looked down the tracks. Then she saw the train coming.
In moments of impending peril a myriad of things must rush through a person's mind. My Mother says that she had just enough time to scream while my Father notes that there was not enough time to move. The bells went off too late and there was no time to act. I do not know what anyone else in the car did but Tita began to pray, as if there was nothing better to do at a time like that. My Mother says that she heard Tita screaming for la Dama del San Juan de los Lagos to help them. Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes is a famous Mexican icon from the small town that my Aubelita grew up in and that she had an affinity for. Then time stopped.
My Father says that as the train hit the van everything moved in slow motion- the windows cracked, the horn blew, the wheels and tires were rolled under the vehicle- embedded into the bottom of the train, and the engine crunched in, as they were all thrown into motion. Trains do not stop on a dime and the van was dragged a hundred yards down the track.
After what seemed like hours they stopped moving and came to a stop. There were five fire trucks and eight police cars by the time they stopped moving, which was probably the entire force of Santa Paula in that day and age. The entire town heard the commotion and a
For a minute no one dared to speak, because what do you say after a moment like that? Then the train engineer climbed down, picked up the car, and opened the door that had been reshaped by the train, and stared at five shocked faces. The sedan's engine was still running. After he stopped staring he said a phrase that is recited like clockwork in my family. "I expected to find dead bodies," the engineer said in confusion.
Everyone climbed out of the car with varying degrees of assistance. My Father ran to the bakery to let his cousin know that they were alright, because by then EVERYONE in town knew about the train wreck and my Father did not want them to worry. When he tried to return a few minutes later the police would not let him back through the crowd. It took him several minutes and one very irate wife's intercessions later to talk his way back in. Then they would not let my Mother sit with them because she was white and they were speaking Spanish and the police did not understand that they were together. My Mother yelled at them for a few minutes and then showed them that my Father and she wore matching wedding rings. After a bit my parents, grandparents, and cousin were all transported to the local hospital where my grandparents, my Dad's cousin, my parents, and my unborn sister, were all declared to be in good health and their only injury suffered (aside from a lasting fear of trains) was that my grandmother received a minor neck injury (probably from all that praying). It should be noted that with the force from the train they should have all been very hurt. Mother says they were cushioned during impact and that divine intervention is the only reason they survived unscathed. My Mother had not told anyone yet but she was pregnant with my sister, Jeanne Marie.
My Mother's parents had to drive up to bring my parents back South since their car was totaled. The next morning when my Father got dressed he pulled shards of glass from the windshield out of his pockets. He still has them.
Later they found out that earlier that morning all trains on that line had been halted for several hours by the death of a child on the tracks. All incidents with trains require police investigations and therefore the train that hit my parents was trying to make up lost time. At that time trains were legally allowed to go 25 miles per hour within city limits. The train that hit them was going 50 miles per hour and that is why they did not hear the bells before they went off.
Now this might have just been a rather unfortunate story from a time before my birth but it had a happy ending, right? I mean who knows- if they had not gone to visit that day they probably would not have been on the tracks. If my Mother had been driving the car might not have stalled? If they had not gone to the bakery then they might not have been on the tracks at that time? There are endless "what if"s and "maybes" that I could go through so that they would not have been put in harms way. At the same time I have to consider the other side of the coin. What if they had been facing differently on the tracks and had been hit harder? What if they had been driving my Father's car, a much smaller vehicle that would never have sustained the beatings that the van did. What if that child had not died on the tracks? Would they have been hit at all? Or would they have been hit at a slower pace that would have caused them all greater injury? What if my grandmother had not began to pray? It is this question that causes me the most insomnia.
When I think of this day I think of death. That morning a child I will never meet died on the tracks. A few months later my parents lost their first child, the sister I never knew. Less than a year later they lost mi Aubuelo to a long battle with skin cancer that spread. Almost two decades later we lost Tita to kidney failure. So many people died shortly after that accident, but all of these people could have died that day and then I would never have existed.
I like to think that there is a reason to life- that we are not just a "land where we will", throw of the dice. I believe that we were each put on this earth and our time here is worth something, even if we are doomed to die a mortal life with a finite set of days. If one or both of my parents had died that day my life could have ended before it had begun. I could never have existed but because they were spared, because they lived I have life. My parents believe that they were spared because they still had work to do- they had to have five more children, one of whom is me. I have life and I feel like I am living on borrowed time- God's time. Not many people can say that God wanted them here enough to stop a speeding train- well not many people outside of my family anyways. My Mother says that she has always believed that they survived because of their children. She says that we have a greater purpose and that my life has special meaning. When I pray I sometimes ask God what He meant when He spared my family, and I've always heard the same answer. "What will you do with the time you were not supposed to have?"