Across the street from my house there lies a strip of barren, rocky land, perhaps two hundred feet wide, still referred to as the railroad easement, though for over a decade now, it has only been sheltering a massive water line, fifteen feet below its surface. But when I moved into this semi-rural neighborhood of citrus groves, chicken farms, and mom & pop businesses, the train tracks still stretched west to Redlands and beyond; and disappeared towards the Santa Ana River wash and the ubiquitous, emerald groves of East Highland to the northwest. Spring rains would carpet the easement in waves of native grasses and California Poppies, knee high, where I could tether my horse to graze.
Originally, I assume, this line was built to serve the citrus packing houses that dotted the the area, but by the early 1970s, most of the old, oil-soaked packing houses had been sold to the insurance company. Torched in the dead of night, the flames of their destruction could be seen, like the pillar of fire leading the Israelites, from miles away. Little did we know they were leading us AWAY from the land of milk and honey, instead of towards the proverbial Canaan. King citrus was dying and Prince Strip Mall and Queen Housing Tract were already laying plans for the kingdom’s reformation.
There is no such thing as level ground in our valley and the tracks reached their apex at the point directly in front of my house. Occasionally, an engine would come by, sometimes detach a car or two to be retrieved at some later date, and move on. So, when I awoke one morning and noticed that the grain cars that had been parked the night before were gone, it made no impression. So accustomed were we to the regular huffing and chuffing of the engines, that they no longer registered in our consciousness, nor in our dreams.
That particular morning, my uncle Ted, who lived downhill from us in East Highland, called with barely concealed excitement to inform us that the missing rail cars had made their unchaperoned and reckless journey down to his house where, like teens joyriding in dad’s car, they had taken a curve too fast and piled into an innocent orange grove. Naturally, we all beat cheeks to go visit the scene of the impact.
The immensity of the impact was horrifying. Wheels and axles were strewn like massive tinker toys yards from the cars which were now half buried in the soft dirt of the grove. Their load of millet was spilled in mounds several feet high and scattered as far as one could see. “Manna from heaven!” I heard one bird exclaim. Miraculously, or perhaps testimony to the rural nature of the area at that time, no cars or structures were stuck as the runaway cars careened across three streets before coming to rest less than a mile from a small settlement of immigrant workers.
Today, as I walk my dogs down the easement to the wash, I like to visualize the scene unfolding: a couple of neighborhood boys playing train engineer, discover the lever that locks the wheels and release the cars from their restraint; the cars begin rolling, so slowly at first that the boys can’t believe they are moving; but as the cars gain momentum, quietly creaking under their load, the kids realize there is no stopping what they have set into motion; they leap off the car and watch in amazed horror, tinged with delight, as the cars roll into the smoggy dusk and out of sight.
Now the cars have a life of their own as they pass under the streetlight at San Bernardino Avenue. Rolling sedately past the shuttered Universal Rundle Toilet factory, they approach the trestle that stands twenty-five feet above the trickle of Mill Creek. The groans of the wooden trestle, audible without the noise of the customary engine, attract the attention of a couple of young, coyotes who are just setting out to forage for the evening. The soft, evening air flows over the angular contours of the clumsy carriage, impotent to slow the ever increasing speed of the cars as they now descend into the wash bottom. Rattling over minor trestles that span runoff from unnamed tributaries, the wheels now sing with their newfound freedom. As the rails curve into the silent groves of East Highland the wheels howl at the strain of bearing the heavy load at such unaccustomed speed. Perhaps a grove worker, making his weary way home, hears the clatter as the cars fairly leap across Greenspot Road over the noise of his rattletrap pick-up truck, but his mind dismisses it as he returns to the anticipation of his waiting supper of beans and tortillas. Moments later, the cars hit the uneven tracks crossing Church Street and the wheels jump the tracks. Momentum carries the doomed cars parallel to the tracks for a hundred feet before the wheels are ripped off and the cars plow into the earth, tearing up rows of mature citrus trees as if they were fixtures in a model train diorama.
Uncle Ted, sitting alone at his dining room table, feels the earth tremble. Thinking it is an earthquake, he gets up and turns off his stereo record player to listen for aftershocks, but hears nothing. By morning, the news has traveled through his neighborhood and folks come to stand transfixed at the spectacle.
Today, a strip mall with a Stater Bros. supermarket anchor, covers the scars and the offspring of the millet-stuffed birds flit about in the manicured shrubbery.