When I was nine years old my family traveled by train to visit family in New York State and Mississippi. I loved sitting at the window watching the changes in the terrain. Every town in the west and Midwest had a water tower. Pronghorns ran across the rough dessert of Idaho and Utah. I grew tired of Kansas when I realized the wheat wasn’t going to roll and I yearned to see a mountain, a hill, anything but wheat. The world became alive in Chicago. We stayed in New York for a week and then we rode a packed train to Washington DC where we stayed in a hotel with a swimming pool on the roof before heading to New Orleans.
From DC we crossed a river that didn’t seem like a river and then set out on a path lined by ivy covered trees. Talk on the train turned to the invasive weed and I begin to wonder if the ride through the entire south would lack a view beyond it. I fell asleep.
The next morning, I awoke happy to see the view had changed but the nights always left me disappointed that I had missed a part of our expansive country. A conductor came by and told my parents that there was a family with kids in the last car; we grabbed our backpacks and went to the last car.
A girl with shoulder length blond hair greeted me and my sister and I joined her and her brother on the floor for a game of some sort. We played and laughed and looked out the window every now and then. Another family came into the car and they also had a daughter about our age. I invited the new girl to come play. Both girls silently looked at me, “come play,” I insisted. She obliged, and her family sat near us after my parents swapped nods of approval with them.
Many people come and go on the train. At each stop that is not based on something blocking the tracks, travelers step on and off board. I was disappointed as the family who had been in the car first stood up and gathered their things. They walked down the aisle and then directed their daughter into a seat by the window. I called out to her to come back and she peaked over the seat but was again redirected by her parents. I looked toward my mother who assured me that the girl with blond hair could no longer play.
I returned to the game and taught the new girl what the blonde girl had just taught me. What ever that game was, it was fun. Every now and then the blond girl would peak over her seat again and watch us play, her father redirected her every time. I looked out the window and realized we were crossing water. On closer inspection I realized we were crossing on a bridge with no rails, a bridge narrower than the train. The train swayed on the track. My father invited me outside and I stood on the end of the train breathing in the fresh air of Lake Pontchartrain watching the land slip away and the rail road expose the fragility of our crossing.
I invited the new girl to come out and she came to the door to look. She shook her head and returned to her seat.
After we departed the train my parents pulled my sister and I aside to a park bench along the Mississippi River to discuss with us that many people in the south had different views about other people. I eventually learned that the new family hadn’t been sent to the back train because there were kids to play with. They had been sent out of the car they had chosen, by other riders, because they were black.