A Station for Life

By James Alexander Jr.

Spring Lake, NJ Train Station, Many Decades Ago...The pay phone kept ringing downstairs in the darkened store. Whoever was calling knew it would eventually be heard and answered. Phone calls late at night usually meant bad news. Daddy hustled down the back stairs.

It was the police.

"We just got word. They're going to try sending the newspapers down by train tonight. You'd better meet the Owl. We've had reports of bundles disappearing from stations up the line."

The morning papers usually came down from New York by truck, but the teamsters were on strike. Nice guys, but a bit rough around the edges, and when they were on strike harsh things could happen.

The Pennsy's Owl was the last train southbound on the New York and Long Branch line, leaving New York's Penn Station at 12:20 A.M., due in Spring Lake at 2:24. Daddy stuck his head in the bedroom door, knowing I would be listening. "If you want to come, get dressed and put on your warm coat."

An hour later, we were waiting in the Spring Lake station's parking lot, with the car heater running against the chill. The Owl was running late. We wondered if there was trouble. At the other end of the darkened platform, the flare of a match gave assurance that the Spring Lake police were on hand just in case.

Everything else was still except the flicker of the platform lights, rocking in the damp breeze coming in from the nearby Atlantic. Tired from a long day with little rest, Daddy started talking, about the opportunities of life in America and about growing up "on the other side." I didn't say much, mostly listened. Got out a couple of times to peer up the tracks, pacing the brick platform worn by the footfalls of bygone travelers and the iron wheels of the baggage carts.

Years later, the individual words were not to be remembered, but the meaning was - a bond forged, never to be broken. Something unsaid about railroads crept into the moment as well, equally enduring if not as profound.

Finally, the wind carried a distant whistle, and soon a light appeared, growing steadily brighter. Into the station thundered the Owl, led by two Pacific locomotives hauling a baggage car and a number of Tuscan red passenger coaches. The earth shook beneath us as sparks flew from the brakes in a battle for control; steam swirled around the platform and cinders flew. A moment of fear before order resumed.

The locomotives paused like two massive, throbbing champions eager to resume their run. Goggled faces, outlined against the flames being stoked, peered back from the cabs as the baggage man threw bundles of papers down to the platform.

The vertical signal of flashlights, passed forward from the back of the train, followed by the high pitch of the communicating whistle in the cabs. Goggles turned to their tasks, the steeds resuming their motion with a series of mighty blasts. Slipping wheels were promptly subdued, and soon only two red dots of light combined into one and disappeared as the Owl headed for Bay Head Junction and a night's rest.

Alexander's Store would open for the day in just several hours, with newspapers on the counter. We gathered up the bundles and got back in the car, shivering from the night but warm for a lifetime.

As remembered at Christmas 1995, some forty years later.