I have a story I want to show you. It won’t take too long to read, a few minutes at most. It’s a story about trains, coins, Coke bottles, firefighters and hidden treasures. It’s about a flourishing Snowball bush and floundering family. It’s about summer, boyhood, and loss. It’s about never being able to go home again, and about never being able to leave home behind. It’s a true story … as true as a memory can be anyway. Please ignore any awkwardly-inserted, ham-handed literary devices.
It was a late August Saturday … maybe. It was always Saturday in the summer. I was nine, or maybe ten. I don’t recall what I had for breakfast, but I had business in town so I started walking early. I don’t know exactly what time it was, maybe 8 am, but none of the other boys were out and about. I couldn’t wait for any sleepy heads. Our home was infested with chronic anger and sometimes I just needed to be alone anyway.
There were three or four trains that ran before noon each day. I had a task for each of them. I carried an old tin lunch box. It was mostly yellow with some rust, or mostly rusty with some yellow. Ignore that sentence please. It was old and dented, but I had a new one anyway, one embossed with NFL helmets: the Cowboys, the Falcons, and others. The worn lunch box contained at least 100 copper pennies and one slick nickel.
I arrived at the twin tracks just as the first train reached the singular city crossing. I wished I had left a few minutes earlier. I walked atop the ties past the town proper to the place where the tracks passed under a signaling trestle and between two parallel stands of Loblolly pines (Pinus taeda).
I opened the box, stuffed the lone nickel in my short’s pocket, and began lining the rails with the pennies. Just as I placed the last one, I heard the first shrill whistle and felt the tracks beginning to shake. I watched from the pines as the engine, and then the box cars, and then the caboose, sped past.
As soon as the rails quieted, I searched the gravel for the pennies, some were mashed so flat that Lincoln’s face was unrecognizably stretched. Each was compressed in different ways and into different shapes, like copper snowflakes. Some of the coins had vibrated out of danger before being crushed. I collected the survivors, placed them back on the tracks, and waited for the next train. I repeated this ritual till every coin was flat, found, and returned to their lunch-box coffer. It was about noon when I completed my task.
On the way home, I stopped by the city fire station. The station had the best Coke machine, the model with the door that opened reflexively with the insertion of a nickel. Each frigid, greenish, red-topped bottle waited safely in its niche. A cap remover and collector was provided for your convenience. If I had a nickel, I couldn’t pass without sampling six ounces of the real thing. No subsequent beverage would ever be so satisfying.
The firemen were always pleasant and welcoming. Firefighters usually are. There’s something about a person willing to sacrifice their own life for no power and little money. They are a very special group of people.
The lieutenant, or captain, or whomever, the one with the anachronistic mustache, always let me climb on the running boards of the engine. Like Vonnegut, or whomever, I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine. He even let me hold an ax. I recall its heft and its sharp point. He told me not to drop it on my toe. I said thanks, drank my Coke, gathered my treasure, and headed home.
On the West-facing wall of our tiny house, the sunny side, my mother had been digging a ponderous hole for several days to contain an equally-ponderous Viburnum macrocephalum a rich lady on the next street had given her. The excavation was almost three feet deep. A tall smooth-handle shovel still stood upright in the pit. I used the shovel to dig the crater a little deeper. I opened the worn box and looked at, and then handled, my fortune for the last time. I closed and latched the lid, placed the treasure chest in the cavity, and covered it up.
Later that afternoon, my mom planted the Viburnum above the coins. She tamped the loose soil to remove any air pocket and then watered the shrub well. I never told her about the coins. I never told anyone. I cloistered them in that manner because I knew that If I buried them anywhere else I would continue to dig them up till they were no longer precious. The flower flourished, even if my family didn’t. I got married and moved away and made my own family, one that flourishes like that viburnum.
It’s still there you know, almost half a century later. And no, that’s not a literary device. I try to drive by there almost every summer in the blooming season. It’s quite the specimen, and I know there’s a fortune there if I ever need it.
Alan Caldwell lives in Carroll County Georgia, but is working on moving to his rural property in the mountains of Northeast Alabama. He has been married to his lovely wife, Brandi, for 33 years. He has one son, Caleb, who is a firefighter, a daughter-in-law, Chelsee, who is an emergency room nurse, and a grandson, Asher. Alan has been teaching for 27 years and spends much of his free time outdoors or reading. Alan has been collecting stories, mostly about his family, for over 40 years, but has just begun writing them.