It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.

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Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability.

Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado’s continental divide, and inner city cabbie.

Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.