LOOKING BACK AT TRAINS AND TRACKS

by Maureen Pranghofer

An unnamed terror, needless and debilitating accompanied Maureen Pranghofer from early childhood to middle age. In the story that follows Maureen tells of her struggle to get on the right track. Here is what she has to say:

My fascination with trains began on the north side of the living room and gradually spread south. For it was on the north side that the television was located just a little to the right of the front door. And it was just south of this where I played "train" with my great aunt Nora.

As it did with other young children in the early 1960's, television was playing an increasingly important role in my daily life. There were certain TV programs which were rallying points for the entire family. Paramount among these were the famous ones which grabbed the rest of the U.S.—"The Flintstones," "The Jetsons," and the "Mickey Mouse Club." But the most central fixture on the tube which came blasting into the north side of the living room was the program featuring the train of Casey Jones. At noon channel 11, an independent station, delighted area children by presenting "Lunch with Casey."

As the sound of a chugging train was heard in the distance a booming voice would announce "Now arriving on track 11..." Casey Jones would get off the train, which had come to a tooting screeching halt, and run into the club house. He would sit down at his lunch table and remove the napkin from atop his meal and say something like "Well, well, what do we have here? It looks like a peach and cottage cheese and oh yes, a chicken sandwich and a big glass of milk. I'm ready for my lunch. How about you?"

Then the cartoon-filled half hour would progress along as quickly as an Amtrak train speeding along to its destination. I liked hearing the sound of that train. I liked watching Casey hop off. And I was always interested in what he had for lunch. My concept of tracks, trains, and railroads would have probably just remained in a television realm had it not been for my younger brother's birthday gift. In a large square box came a present meant for my 2-year-old brother which I immediately claimed. It was a train set, complete with plastic tracks, switching mechanism, and little cars which hooked together. Truthfully I can never remember playing with the cars much, but the tracks and switching device were major highlights in my seven-year-old life.

At least three times a week I built and then tore down my railroad empire which was situated just south of the TV and which usually ran in an east-west direction. Building was accomplished by arranging the tracks in whatever way seemed to fit my fancy at the moment.

There were countless possibilities. One had only to use imagination and hook the tracks together. Hooking the track together meant simply that you would take each piece of plastic track and fit the end with the round notch sticking out into an accompanying piece of track which had the round notch indented. These track pieces were of various lengths, shapes, and sizes. When fit together they formed one continuous track. This in and of itself was not all that wonderful, but the switching mechanism was the hallmark and centerpiece of the entire toy.

This mechanism was plastic like the tracks and was shaped like a capital "T." There was a small crank which when rotated turned the track until it cut across the opposite track and thus made the train turn around.

Now, if you have been around trains you already know how all this works. But for me, a seven-year-old who had only seen two minutes of an engineer disembarking from a television locomotive it was a big deal.

In addition to my younger sisters and brother I had an occasional lunch time buddy who was equally fascinated with trains. That was my great aunt Nora. Now Nora was the dream fairy godmother of any child. When she came to visit her purse was stocked full of surprises like gum and Life Savers. If you wanted to read, color, play a game or watch television, your wish was her command. She would read as long as one was willing to listen, talk about important childhood things which were seen as being silly to any other adult, and enter into a child's world of play as though she, too, were a kid. Whether or not she was in actuality personally as interested in Casey's train as I was is something I'll never know. But if I was interested in trains then she, too, could be captivated by them as well in order to please me.

So I was not surprised when one noon hour while we were jointly watching the tube, she said, "Maybe we'll take the train somewhere. How would you like that?" I was beside myself with delight. Awaiting the day when we would actually be real live passengers aboard a for real train ride was almost more than I could stand. But finally the day arrived.

Nora, my mother, two younger sisters and younger brother drove into Minneapolis where we would catch the train which would take us across the river to St. Paul. There we would eat dinner at the depot and meet my father, who would drive us home. The entire time on the train was less than a half hour but that didn't matter to me.

With a stomach full of butterflies I walked into the depot. Tickets were purchased, and then a voice over the loudspeaker boomed, "Now arriving on track 29, train bound for St. Paul." "Just like TV," I thought as I walked out of the main area of the depot and over to the waiting train.

The moment I stepped through the glass doors out into the boarding area my excitement turned to fear. It was an intangible eery feeling, but one I was sadly familiar with and was to experience for years to come. The first time I'd experienced this unnamed fear was after visiting a friend. My mother was carrying me out to the car. It was night and, though I was in her arms, I felt totally panicked. Later I again recognized this nightmarish feeling when my aunt Carla took me to a theater to see "West Side Story." And again this envelope of fright would surround me while riding in the car at night, alone in the back seat, while my mother and grandmother talked in the front seat.

It was a feeling I couldn't put into words—a terror which would leave me crying at times and unable to explain to questioning adults what was happening. It was a fear which left my palms sweaty and my heart pounding. And as I grew older, it did not diminish as do childish fears of the monster under the bed or the boogieman in the corner.

As a nine or ten-year-old, I was followed by it when I walked across the busy street by my grandmother's home. It accompanied me to restaurants and to new places. It accompanied me as I was walking at night.

Finally as a 40-year-old woman, I now understand what caused my joyful fascination of trains to turn to fear. I now know why going out to eat in a fancy restaurant was nerve-racking and why an evening walk in our quiet neighborhood was not enjoyable. It all had to do with blindness. As an individual born with partial sight I did not live in the world of blind people. I used my vision and was not considered to be blind as far as my family was concerned. Yes they knew I had "problems seeing" but they were never talked about openly.

Like a train on the right track I did fine as long as I could use my vision. But, put me into a situation where this wasn't possible, and I immediately became derailed. It took an accident in the summer of 1993 which left me totally blind to get me truly on the right track. Not having any sight was at first terrifying, confusing, and depressing. But through the help of the National Federation of the Blind, I have learned at long last that blindness does not have to be a scary thing. I have learned that independence is possible and that travel, in even in unfamiliar environments, does not have to be equated with terror.

I think of all the times when I couldn't enjoy evening walks, couldn't enjoy dimly lit restaurants and of the special time with Nora and the "real live train" that I could not enjoy because I couldn't see where I was going in the unfamiliar poorly lit boarding area. How many others are uneasy about doing these same things and too ashamed to talk about it? Today I travel confidently thanks to the National Federation of the Blind. I know where I'm going, and I'm glad I'm on the right track.