I finish my breakfast and hurry down the hall to the front desk of my train station. It’s early yet, so not too many commuters have arrived. I’ll operate the ticket booth until Sue comes to take over. The early morning commuters generally have season passes, so they don’t have to purchase tickets. The shoppers who like to go into town for the day do. Or perhaps folks that are going to the theater or museums. It’s my job to see that everything runs smoothly and, if I can, on time. I am the station manager, and my name is Bob, though some call me Bobby.
I’m proud of my station and like keeping it running smoothly. There are several train tracks with trains arriving and departing all day long. Some rails run from city to city, delivering supplies and packages, as well as salespeople and office workers working in each metropolis’s tall concrete and steel buildings. Other tracks go out to the state’s urban and farm areas, picking up and delivering cattle, fruits, and vegetables to processing plants and supermarket chains.
But today is a special day for today is the day that the circus train comes to town! It’s an old steam engine train with colorful circus cars full of wild animals and performers. It has a separate side track and platform that they use whenever they come to town. Adults bring their children to see the circus unload their elephants, tigers, and lions, and the clowns come out in full makeup to entertain the kids. Yes, even I will take a minute or two to take a peek at the circus’s old steam engine. I always find it fascinating.
Sue has arrived, so it’s time for me to check the schedule. Everything looks good, and on time, so I stroll around the station, ensuring it’s clean and presentable. There are many kiosks around the station, some selling newspapers, magazines or paperback books to read while you wait. Others have coffee, cold drinks, and snacks. It looks just like the central aisle of a shopping mall, with so many things to buy. The station itself was built in the nineteen forties and is quite beautiful with carved marble and stone. It has ten curved skylights that throw beams of sunlight across the open space of the station and illuminates the ticket and information booths. I smile at the two large American flags draped over the entrance and exit doors. Yes, it is a fine train station, a fine station indeed.
There’s a growing sense of excitement, for, in the distance, I can hear the shrill sound of the steam engine’s whistle as it approaches the railroad yard. As I rush through the crowd, I make sure to excuse myself for stepping in front of them. I’m searching for Frank, my security guard, for I’ll send him to the special platform to control the children’s crowd and ensure everyone remains safe. But, frankly, I’m not sure if I’m protecting the children from the animals or the animals from the children. Finally, with Frank on his way, I step out onto the loading area and walk to the end.
I shield my eyes with my hand, looking for the telltale sign of thick white smoke puffing up into the air. I finally spot it taking the turn by Fifth Avenue and Main, rolling along the two shiny steel rails. As the mighty black steam engine enters the train yard, the engineer continues to blast the whistle and is now clanking the train’s bell as well. The yard man quickly pulls the lever of the rail switch to change the train from the main track to the platform. The circus train finally arrives in a squealing of brakes and great puffs of steam. The engineer actually has clown makeup on as he leans out his window waving to the children and blasting his whistle.
The first to disembark is the ringmaster and a group of clowns who move among the people passing out free tickets for this evening’s show. The children are all laughing excitedly, causing me to smile widely. The task of unloading the tents and equipment has begun with forklifts deftly lifting boxes and placing them inside tractor trailers to deliver to the open-air arena where the circus shall set up.
The forklifts are scooting around the yard doing their work while the children on the platform jostle and maneuver for a better look. Finally, one frustrated young lad slipped under the iron guard rail and races into the work area, hoping to get a better look at the elephants. A panicky high-pitched scream come from his mother, “JOHNNY!” A unified gasp goes up as a forklift swings around, barely missing the boy. In his effort to miss the lad, the forklift driver overcompensates and losses control of the forklift, sending it slamming into the Bengal tiger’s train car. The impact is so hard that it knocks the car off the tracks and springs open the door. There’s a hush in the crowd as a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound frightened female tiger flies through the air and lands on the ground not far from Johnny. Johnny is frozen with fear and stands stock still. The tiger crouches down, snarling with her ears pulled back, not knowing what to do except attack.
I’ve hopped off the platform and am slowly walking toward the back of the boy. I call to my security guard Frank to move everyone off the circus platform and into the station and tell all the other people to reenter their trains and keep the doors closed until this situation is over. As the crowd starts to move, the child’s mother yells, “My baby. I won’t leave my baby!” This draws the attention of the big cat, and I pick up my pace towards the child. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, my yard man Ben comes roaring in on a forklift, scoops up Johnny, and spirits him away to his mother’s waiting arms. A huge cheer goes up for the rescued boy and his hero Ben.
The ringmaster has been busy deploying the clowns to set up a capture cage behind me. It has doors in the front and back that will snap shut once the beast is inside. The lion tamer also moves toward the cat with a long pole with a large metal hoop on its end to slip around the tiger’s neck. I return my gaze to the big cat only to find that now I’m the focus of its attention.
The female Bengal tiger is a beautiful beast. Her orange fur with black stripes shines in the sunlight while her lips roll back to expose six-inch canine teeth that are as white as pearls. She makes a faux charge at me, throwing her huge paws out to the sides while snarling at me. Her ears are pulled back. I stand my ground and look at her, a challenge I know, but I’m too frightened to move. So instead, I call to the lion tamer, “What’s her name?” He replies in a thick Italian accent, “Sofia! Justa keep moving back towarda the cage. The clowns willa take over froma there!”
I suddenly recall that I have a foot-long “Slim Jim” in my back pocket that I was going to have as a snack at break time. I slowly take it out and unwrap it. Next, I bite off a one-inch piece and gently toss it to Sofia. At first, she backs away but, upon smelling it, picks it up and chews it. “How’s that, Sofia? Pretty good, uh?” I keep biting off small pieces and tossing them to her to lure her along as I slowly make my way to the cage. Finally, when I reach the crate, I drop down on all fours with the “Slim Jim” between my teeth and start backing in.
In a panic, one clown whispers, “What are you crazy? That tiger’s going to tear you to pieces!” I shoosh him and talk to Sofia around the sausage in my teeth. “Don’t stop there, girl. Come on in.”
Sofia doesn’t trust me and remains just outside the doorway. So I bite off another small piece and toss it just inside the door. She hesitantly steps in, so I toss another and another until I’m half in the middle and half out. Sofia is exactly the same. I can feel her hot breath blowing into my face. She rolls back her top lip and tilts her head to snatch the last piece from my mouth when I hear, “Bobby! Your lunch is ready! I’ve made your favorite, peanut butter with ham and cheese!”
I call back,” Okay, mom!” And turn to my tiger kitty, Booties. “Sorry, Booties, but I have to have my lunch now. We’ll play this game again tomorrow. I reset the circus train on its track and shut off all the power to the control panel. As I mount the stairs to go up for lunch, I look at the layout. My dad first built it when he was my age, and now we’ve added to it. It fills one whole half of the cellar and is six tiers high. We play together on weekends with my dad wearing his engineer’s hat and striped scarf and me in my name tag, Bob, Station Manager.