The Hard Truth

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When you’re a little kid, you don’t have that much to be proud of for yourself, so you mostly brag about your parents’ stuff.  Your mom’s chocolate cake, the family’s new car, your dad’s job.

Our dad was an engineer, so the Lundquist kids walked with a certain swagger. Everyone knew that an engineer drives a train and when you’re five years old, that ranks right up there with a fireman or an astronaut.  We reveled in this illusion for I don’t know how long until one day our mother was driving us somewhere in our red and white Ford station wagon.  We had a friend in the car and as we approached the railroad tracks, the signal began to flash back and forth and the bell clanged as the long wooden arm of the guard fell across the road.  A train was coming!

The engineer’s elbow was cocked out of the locomotive’s window and we all waved exuberantly to him.  He waved back. “Our dad’s an engineer,” I said to our friend.  Oh, we were proud. We were beaming. We were downright smug.

“He’s not that kind of engineer,” my mother said. She took a puff of her cigarette and tapped the ashes into the ashtray that was built into the metal dashboard of the car. There were two kinds of engineers, she told us in her matter of fact voice. Our father was the kind that sketched out plans for factories.  He calculated angles, designed instrumentation.

Shoulders slumped, we waited in silence for the train to pass, its gleaming Allied Chemical tanker cars heading for the very plant where my father worked— not driving trains, but doing math problems.

The caboose clacked past, and with hands as heavy as our hearts, we waved little half-hearted waves.  The bell stopped clanging, and the guard arm floated back up.  Our mother put the car in gear and we crossed the tracks into a less shiny world.

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