April 11, 1993
He tumbled into that narrow space like a shiny penny disappearing into his new ceramic piggy bank. It was a slow-motion movie sequence, and I was powerless to stop it. A quick glance up at me, devoid of all expression, and he vanished. Our careful choreography had gone awry. Parent instinctively trying to watch over child. That grown-up caution that guides the movements of a little boy, not yet 4, had broken down. Failed. People always say, when it happens, it is sudden. It was.
The train ride was to be a small reward for a large rash he was withstanding and learning to ignore. More than I can say for his parents. We had driven into the city to consult with the dreaded doctor. That called for some token goodie, more than lunch at “Old McDonald’s” could provide. A train ride was as good as it got, at least as far as Ben was concerned. So why not?
Truffaut’s film “Small Change” long ago had gently placed the idea of quirky and unpredictable childhood crises into a little wrinkle of my consciousness. How could life be so fragile and children so durable in the same moment? I didn’t have children of my own then. I could not even imagine it. But the horror of that child in the movie plunging out of a 10-story window reaches inside and tears, though in the movie the baby laughs with delight and crawls on.
The sky was bright this Saturday, and when we got out of the car at Marble Hill, on Manhattan’s northern tip, and yelled “Bye, Mom” and “See you at Ardsley,” we headed down the steep stairway to a platform on the river. Ben’s Blue Train would be along shortly. Trains are Ben’s passion. Thomas the Train, the Red Train (Amtrak), the Blue Train (Metro-North). They speak to him. They are childhood’s friends, benign and exciting. Their engines huff and puff across the countryside and tell him wondrous tales in his bed at night. Our train pulled in and sat motionless, poised to head up the Hudson.
We held hands, especially there, because of the dangerous, wide gap between platform and train. The physical contact felt good. Ben needs me too, I always think, when he reaches for me. I am so acutely aware of his magnetic link to his mother. We jumped onto the train and then, as others came and went, Ben suddenly looked back at the platform and yelped: “Look, Dad. Your CNN card.”
My work ID was lying on the platform by the open door. It surprised me, and I quickly told Ben to stay where he was while I fetched it. In an instant I was on the platform, only a long step from the doors, bent over and recovering my card. When I heard Ben yell, “Let me help,” my hand shot up instinctively in the universal language of, “No.”
It’s truly a blur now, but I think I did it. I didn’t know he had jumped to follow, and I think it was my extended arm that knocked him back and down the slot into the toaster. It took a moment to register that Ben was down. Squeezed in between platform and train, thousands of tons of huffing, wheezing steel, ready to roar on. No longer benign, it was a metal monster about to eat my son.
I have covered bloody conflict from Lebanon to El Salvador, and I have never known the razor-sharp terror like that uncertain moment when a little person, your little person, is in mortal danger and you don’t know what to do.
The lesson of the Beirut rooftop comes clear: Do something. The hiss of a rocket-propelled grenade, and anyone who hears it has about two seconds to act. Just do something. Anything.
I pleaded with startled travelers not to let the doors close. Trains with open doors don’t move. People were horrified and motionless. Mannequins. I guess no one knew what to do.
“My God,” I quickly wondered, “where is the third rail, humming with electricity?” The toaster with a knife sticking out.
“Ben, don’t move,” I yelled, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness down there and I saw him half-prostrate in front of a wheel twice his size. He was trying to get to his feet.
“Put your hands in the air. High. As high as you can!” Two little tightly clenched fists appear below the level of the platform. I drop to my belly and scoop up the dazed child I have knocked down there in the first place. No hero. Just the survivors of a self-inflicted wound.
The nightmares have started now. In two beds. It was all probably less threatening than what the mind’s eye captured that afternoon. What might have happened. The videotape in my head plays and replays the hideous possibilities: the disaster that might have been. The same fall on an empty platform with no help. The fruitless scream and a Blue Train in a hurry to make up for its chronic tardiness. It could have happened across the platform where the third rail runs under people’s feet as they get on and off the train.
It’s hard to know what is in Ben’s head. He’s not saying much, though at least he is not accusing me of trying to do him in.
“Tell me about the tracks,” he says when he wakes in the mornings. And before he goes to sleep. He has his videotape, too, but he does not seem to be sure what the images say to him.
“Leave your wallet home. Please,” he beseeches. “You won’t lose your card when you go to New York City.”
Ben also suggests from time to time that he is too young to take the Blue Train for a while. And he tells his mother the Blue Train is crying because of what happened that afternoon.
Fathers have enough trouble convincing themselves, never mind moms, that we are competent guardians for the children, even when we are only out on a summer expedition. She didn’t blame me for the accident, but I wonder what she really thought. I knew that it was my fault. The chasm was wide, the fall quick, but I let it happen. My tears just weren’t good enough.
I won’t stop thinking about this for a long time. I hope Ben does.
In war, your number is up when it’s up. Even at home, on the battlefield that matters, our hold on life is fragile. Sometimes we get only one mistake. Our children can only look up at us. The trust in the eyes of a child is overpowering. Especially when you know you have failed once and been given a second chance.