Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train

It’s Friday night, and my son is taking the El to a high school basketball game. It is “the big game” with their “cross-town rivals.” The trash talk online is brutal. He is wearing his school colors, a bright orange sweatshirt. He isn’t sure if the friends he is going with will also take the El home. I tell him to be careful. I tell him not to ride alone in an El car with kids from the other team. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

But he doesn’t know. Although he’s in the thick of it, he doesn’t see how quickly things escalate with teen boys. Although he knows that just last week, one state over, a boy his age walked into his school and killed four classmates; he doesn’t see how this is related to his mother saying don’t ride alone with the other team.

I think back to two weeks before when he and I were driving home to Oak Park from a concert in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a trip through unknown territory. The whole way there and the whole way back, we sang the chorus to the John Prine song, Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Sometimes one or both of us would change the lyrics to “mama,” or I would answer the question with “yes, actually my son, I will. You are not too late in asking.” It wasn’t funny, but it was last-day-of-a-road-trip funny.

My son is fifteen and learning to drive, and throughout the trip, I looked at him when he wasn’t looking.  I know how little time I have left in the driver’s seat.

A small-town Kentucky cop pulled me over for speeding. Later, my son laughed at how strong my Kentucky accent was when answering questions. The stop was uneventful. The police officer was polite, I was polite, everyone was white, and no one seemed out of place. There was not even a ticket. Just a warning and a “Y’all be careful now.” But I was grateful for the stop. I knew I had to talk about it with him, make sure he understood our privilege in the situation, and even talk about the way I used my accent. I was grateful for the chance to do all of that, but mainly, I was thankful for an anecdote that just the two of us share. I have so little time left in the driver’s seat, and I am stacking up the lessons and the anecdotes as fast as I can.

His team won the basketball game, and he got a ride home with friends. A week after the game, a massive tornado ripped through Kentucky, destroying some of the places we had just been.

Sometimes all you can do is pretend to be in the driver’s seat. You can issue a warning, you can offer a lesson, but you do not know where it is all going. You never know when you will long to go back only to find that the place you want has been hauled away.

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1 Response to Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train

  1. My family is from Western Kentucky. Prine’s ‘Paradise’ always hits me pretty hard. As a child we’d pass the world’s largest shovel on the way to visit grandparents and herds of cousins. As an adult on the rare occasions when I find myself in that part of the world I’m always genuinely surprised that time has passed and it isn’t still 1975.

    I sometimes get it in my head that if I only drive fast enough and believe, I’ll round a bend and the world will go silent but for the buzz of cicadas, and my own personal relativity will have transported me back to a summer day of heat that smells like a corn field, Coke in little glass bottles, and all the time in the world.

    It never works.

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