Steel and Steam


I was a terrible student.

I rarely did homework but somehow slid by with Cs and just barely advanced from grade to grade. What homework I did was driven solely by fear of a teacher’s wrath but, over time, my skin grew thicker with each passing year. “Homework time” was spent alone in my room with doors shut as I worked on hobbies or reading Science Fiction.

One weekend morning when I was perhaps nine or ten, I vaguely remember a statement I overheard my mother make; it was something to the effect that maybe my Dad needed to spend more time with me.

So, he and I were off that morning in his bright red Ford Crown Victoria to play on the steam locomotive that was on permanent display outside the Fairgrounds north entrance.

I had been there many times. It was a fifteen minute bike ride from home which was almost like being next door with the shortcuts a two wheeler and a youngster with little supervision could make.

But when we arrived that day, the city had put up a fence enclosing the locomotive.

The gate was closed and locked.

We walked all the way around with Dad probably trying to figure out what we could go and do instead.

Getting back to the closed gate and apparently having no other ideas he simply said, “Go ahead and climb over. It’ll be fine.”

My Dad was a surgeon and for those of you who don’t know, when a surgeon gives an order, you do it.

“Scalpel.”

Slap.

“Hemostat.”

Slap.

To the question, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off the cliff, too?” my answer would have been, “If Dad said jump, of course I would.”

So when Dad said to climb the fence, I only hesitated for the briefest instant before grabbing the storm fence with my fingers, sticking the toe of one high-top tennis shoe halfway between ground and hand grip, and pulling myself up and, after a couple of repetitions, dropping down inside the fence.

I ran up the wood ramp and into the cabin of the locomotive to see if anything else had been changed with the arrival of the fence. But no, most of the valves could still be turned by hand and the throttle lever, although rusty and sluggish, could still be yanked out or shoved in an inch at a time.

But after a couple of minutes, I became aware that Dad was talking to someone.

Looking out, I saw an empty Police car, lights flashing and the driver’s door open. And standing in front of Dad was a Memphis police officer with hands on hips and leaning toward Dad.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Dad somehow seemed much smaller than normal. Dad was nodding but, from the general tenor of his voice, I picked up an emotion I hadn’t heard from him before.

He was apologizing.

I froze in amazement. I’d never seen him like this before.

Dad turned his head toward the locomotive and motioned for me to come out. In a few seconds I clambered up and over the fence and moved to stand behind him.

The conversation with the officer ended with a statement to the effect that he wouldn’t give my Dad a ticket “this time” but that this shouldn’t happen again.

“Thank you, Officer,” my Dad said.

I was stunned.

Not only had Dad done something wrong, but he had actually acknowledged it.

He had made a mistake and, even more astonishing, he had admitted that he’d made a mistake.

Doctors don’t do that.

Never.

Suddenly, this was someone I’d never met before, my own father.

Neither of us spoke a word on the drive home.


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