Monday, July 9, 2012
Childhood on the Train
We know that any "seasoned" woman or man from an older generation is accused of telling anecdotes of how as a child she/he used to have to walk to school uphill in the snow. For at least ten miles. Without a warm coat. I didn't have to walk in the snow to school, but I did have to ride the train. That was forty-seven minutes to school and forty-seven minutes back. "So," I tell my kids, "Your mother had it rough." But looking back, I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.
We were six years old when we started riding the Hankyu line to school in the sixties from Awaji to Karasuma. During the winter mornings, the windows steamed up and we wrote our names on them. In the late afternoons, we crocheted long red scarves, tried to make sense out of math homework, and avoided conversing in English with Japanese men with brief cases.
You had to know a thing or two in order to be a proficient train rider, and the younger children learned the ropes from the older kids.
Rule number one was to walk briskly out our gates from our missionary homes. Once the five of us blond-haired American kids gathered, we marched past the incinerator behind the Yodogawa Christian Hospital, out the hospital gates, to the left, toward the station. Sometimes at 7 AM there was a dusting of frost on the grass. Sometimes one of us lagged behind due to racing back for forgotten homework or a lunch box. We had to pick up the pace; we had a train to catch and it would, sure as tofu is made from bean curd, not be late---even if we were.
Once the train pulled into the station, doors slid opened and passengers boarded the already packed car. Gloved station attendants pushed commuters onto the cars as the whistle blew. Inside the car, we lifted book bags onto the luggage racks or held them between our feet. Then we grabbed the hand rails—loops of plastic suspended overhead—as the train picked up the pace toward Kyoto.
The next rule was to be extremely quiet as the train doors opened at Takatsuki-shi. I think we heard David O talking to himself even before he boarded the car. We held our breath and closed our eyes, as though those actions would keep him from spotting us. As silent as we were, he always managed to find us.
"Hey," he said one morning so that passengers five cars down could hear. "I got this new chemistry set. Wanna see it?" He hoisted a brown square bag.
No one responded.
David O nudged me, his elbow poking both me and a woman trying to read a paperback. "It's really cool."
I was shy, especially around a boy who was two years older than I. While the other kids engaged in conversation leaving me alone to talk to David O, I shook my head and clung to the handrail.
At last, sensing he was being ignored, and the train was too congested to show us vials and test tubes anyway, he offered to show it to us later.
The third rule came into play at our destination. Immediately, when the doors opened, we were to head up the platform stairs as fast as we could. We raced past ladies in gray kimono and weaved between businessmen so that we could be first in line at the taxi stand.
Our final part of our journey was to ride a cab (five of us missionary kids packed into one Nissan) for six miles to our tiny international school where spelling tests and math equations greeted us. At recess, we enjoyed games of Kick the Can and Red Rover, Red Rover.
I have fond memories of those long treks to school. I smile to think how unusual we must have seemed in a land where the natives all had black hair and dark eyes, were dignified and soft-spoken. We were blond, tall, loud and rowdy.
And as for David O and his chemistry set, I did get to see it. One afternoon on a rather empty train car, he spread his set of chemicals and glass beakers onto the seat. As the train rounded a field of rice paddies, the whole car jerked, and my friend Josephine and I watched the green seat turn red and yellow. The conductor raced out of his compartment in a fury, yelling at the Canadian boy for damaging the train seat. David O hung his head while the conductor covered the stained seat with mounds of newspaper.
Which brings me to the next rule for riding the trains---this one became extremely important for survival. When the train conductor fumed over a spilled chemistry set, it was best to run---not walk---away as fast as possible.
And as Josephine and I crouched inside another car, we closed our eyes and were silent, hoping that perhaps no one would notice that we had anything to do with the boy who had caused a scene.
~ Alice J. Wisler grew up in Japan where she rode the train to and from school and dreamed of being an author. Now she lives and writes in Durham, NC and looks forward to the release of her fifth novel, Still Life in Shadows from River North. Her other novels are: Rain Song, How Sweet It Is, Hatteras Girl and A Wedding Invitation (all published with Bethany House). She also teaches writing workshops, both online and at conferences. Visit her website.