Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Third Rail and the Pilot

All parents try to be diligent about teaching their children how to be safe in the outside world. We hold their hands while crossing the street, we teach them to look both ways when crossing, we teach them how to ride the bus and the train, and we especially teach them about railroad tracks. Or at least I did! Once I seem to have been much too successful about that one.

In Chicago, my children and I rode the "L" all up and down the Ravenswood Line (now simply called the Brown Line, how dull). We used it to get to and from the wonders of the Loop and to and from Wrigley Field. A simple ride on the Ravenswood Line filled many an afternoon, when we "looped the Loop" practically for free. Naturally, I had repeatedly talked to them about not ever touching the third rail of the tracks, because that one was "live", full of electricity to power the train. Going to and from the Loop we never needed to worry about walking across the tracks because everything was elevated above the roadway. Easy as pie.

One day, however, when my son Peter was about 3-ish, I left him with a close friend while I had a job interview or something. An unremarkable day. When I arrived to pick him up, I found my friend laughing ruefully in consternation about Peter. She lived very close to the Rockwell stop on the Ravenswood Line, and she and Peter and her own two children had set out to walk down the street, across the tracks, and then to the bakery, where she wanted to buy some bread. All went well until she tried to get Peter to cross the tracks and proceed down the other side of the street.

No, ma'am. I won't cross those tracks. If we step on the third rail, we'll die. He wouldn't budge. No matter how my friend tried to show him that the third rail didn't extend into the pedestrian crossing, Peter could not be moved. His mother had told him about that third rail. He wouldn't even let my friend carry him across, because he knew she would be killed! So the discombobulated little group had to turn around and return to her house.

My friend and I did laugh about it, but I know she was flabbergasted. Peter and I drove back to our apartment. I praised him very much about remembering what I had told him about the third rail. Then I explained how it was possible to cross those tracks at street level because the third rail stopped well before people would cross and didn't resume until after the train had completely passed the street. I explained how the power fed into the rear cars while the front car disconnected to the third rail and then when the rear cars lost the third rail the front car had already picked it up again. Smooth as smooth. Peter absorbed everything I said (Mr. Sponge), and the next time we drove past the Rockwell stop, we parked our car and walked over to examine the rails very closely. That sealed the deal. He saw exactly how things worked at a level crossing.

Fast forward several decades. Peter now flies 767s for United Airlines. He defines what a careful pilot should be. No pilot in a cockpit is more aware than Peter of everything going on in that airplane. I have never met a more careful pilot or driver of an automobile. Peter pays attention constantly. (He left his first professional job as a flight instructor for a flight school in California because he witnessed the shoddy maintenance of the planes and experienced the refusal of the management to correct the problems.)

He's super careful with his little twins, and we practice train safety with them all the time. Their experiences are on the Metra so far, but pretty soon they'll graduate to the L.  Then it will be his turn to expound on the dangers of the third rail. He will be sure to explain about level crossings, though, unlike his mother!

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