On the afternoon I will decide it’s a good idea to use my body to stop an oncoming train, I’m fourteen and hungry. A brick of ramen in my hand, I stand at our apartment’s narrow stove, waiting for a small pot of water to boil. My mom and her friend Dot drink tea at our secondhand café table, sitting in the only two chairs we own. They’re griping about President Reagan, how men in power never deal with their shit, which is why we’re spending billions building nuclear weapons.
My mom shifts in her chair, turning her attention to me. “Peach, have you heard of the White Train?”
She’d been calling me Peach forever. I was her Peach long before my parents divorced and got separate places when I was seven. I was Peach when she told me she couldn’t take Los Angeles anymore—the soulless insurance job, the rat race, and hit the road in her VW van, leaving me behind with my father for four aching years. She had said it a year before when she settled in the Oregon town of Ashland: “Peach, you can live with me now.”
I loved her special name for me. I never understood why she didn’t love hers when she’d ask me to call her Kathleen instead of Mom, to “equalize our relationship.” Like a papercut, the request stung quick and bright, then remembered, stings again.
I drop the ramen into the rolling water and consider lying about the White Train but admit I’ve never heard of it.
“The trains transport nuclear weapons and parts,” Mom says. “Plutonium, bomb triggers, even assembled nuclear weapons.” Most people don’t know of the White Trains, she explains, because the government keeps them secret.
“Why are they white?” I ask.
“They’re actually not always white anymore. Sometimes they disguise them, paint them different colors. They have other names too, the Death Trains, the N-trains.”
Dot is going up to Portland to protest the train by sitting on the tracks, she says. Mom’s considering going along. She never holds back on her anti-war beliefs. Sometimes the lectures get on my nerves but it does seem crazy how the U.S. and Russia continue to build up their arsenals of weapons that can annihilate the earth. Why can’t they talk it out?
“I wouldn’t get arrested, though, I can’t miss my classes. And I did my time with protests and jail,” Mom says.
It’s true. For a while she was all about protests and spent time in jail more than once. Now she’s all about finishing up her bachelor’s degree with an art major. That’s how she does things, all or nothing. It’s why our living room is her art studio. No sofa, coffee table or armchair, only a fancy wooden easel, paints and brushes arranged in blue plastic milk crates on the floor.
“What if the train doesn’t see you?” I ask. Now Dot gives me her attention. “Like when you’re on the tracks?”
“They’ll know we’re coming. They’ll know about the protest and stop the train.”
Like a swatch of burlap, Dot is rough and real, no makeup on her weathered face or styling her springy grey curls. I move closer to the table while the ramen boils and get a whiff of her hippie garlic breath. I’m glad my mom can at least hide her hippieness with lipstick, long wiry grey hair up in a bun, pants over the hairy legs. I wish she hid it more.
“I want to do it. Protest and get arrested.” It seems a win from all angles. I get out of school, get a road trip, help save the world, and please my mom.
“Wow, Peach. I am blown away.” My mom says the words slowly, shaping her mouth around each letter. When she reaches for her squat tin of cheap loose tobacco I’m surprised Dot stays quiet. She hates cigarettes. Mom looks down, concentrating as she fills the rolling paper with pinches of earthy-smelling tobacco.
“It’s my future,” I announce, encouraged by her approval. “I want to do something.” I know I have a small window to prove my sincerity—it’s not just an excuse to skip school.
“Well, we’re leaving in a few days and you don’t have civil disobedience training,” Dot says.
Mom licks the gummy line on the rolling paper, then gingerly presses down to form a thin cigarette. “Yes,” she says solemnly, looking up at me, nodding. “The civil disobedience piece is crucial. You really have to know how to deal with the police, fellow protesters, and everyone in a non-violent way. It takes a mindset and tools.”
“Then I can’t go?” I could hear the water boiling behind me.
“Well, we could go and skip CD.” My mom can be so annoying with her abbreviations and hippie-dippy lingo. I stifle my eyeroll; I want to stay on their side now.
“We could do a civil disobedience crash course on the drive up,” Dot suggests with raised eyebrows, looking from me to my mom.
When I practically yell “Ya!” my Mom agrees.
“Oh Peach, this could be really powerful,” she says. Cigarette smoke swirls in a patch of sun filtering in through the kitchen window.
When my mother left me in Los Angeles, an oozing, crusty rash bloomed on my 9-year-old legs, screaming the pain I didn’t know how to voice. My dad tried to give me a sturdy scaffolding, but I needed my mom to build myself. My spark dimmed, my confidence waned. By seventh grade I was skipping school, failing classes. Then everything changed—my mother said I could live with her.
But it wasn’t exactly true. When I got to Oregon, my mom told me her new plan: “experimental parenting.” Why should the moms do all the work when we kids knew how to cook, clean, and do laundry? She and a friend had decided their kids—two teenage boys, an 8-year-old girl, and me, an eighth grader—would live alone in the friend’s house while the parents rented another house a half-mile away. Except for occasional parent deliveries of industrial-size bags of bagels, for six months we fended for ourselves. Our cooking skills were limited to boiling water for noodles or ramen. Since they’d taken most of the furniture for their house, it never felt very homey. The oldest boy, Andy, was a drug dealer. I became a user but nothing serious, I thought—pot, hash, mushrooms, acid, cocaine a few times.
When the Kids House failed my mother blamed it on everyone else’s lack of “commitment” and “communication tools”—we weren’t up to “doing the work.” The two of us moved into a shabby apartment for a few months until she found the artsy Victorian. The partying and skipping school routine from the Kids’ House moved with me. My mother didn’t care much. She felt pot and hallucinogens could expand your mind, and she had her doubts about institutional learning. I still wanted her attention, wanted to be a kid, a good kid, but she was right about one thing: I didn’t have the tools.
On the night my mom says I can protest the White Train, we have a rare dinner together at the little table, just the two of us. I dress up a generic box of mac and cheese with grated heaps of the freebie government stuff. We’re living off of her student loans and child support, so money is tight.
“This is going to be intense, Peach. But we’ve got to open the eyes of the youth to nuclear war. It’s painful stuff but awareness among your generation and action are critical.”
As I eat my mac and cheese, I want to maintain the specialness between us but I’m only half-listening while Mom continues on about the emotional impact of nuclear war. Scenes play out in my mind: What if a distracted train conductor doesn’t see us on the tracks, or worse, what if he pretends not to see us and our bodies are shredded under the train?
A day or so later we get the call from Dot confirming the protest time and place. Mom doesn’t have a car so we pile into Dot’s and head somewhere right outside Portland. She drives so Dot can do the training from the front passenger seat.
“The key to civil disobedience, the really central belief, is non-violence,” Dot says, turning to me in the back once we are on the highway. “And by violence this means physical, mental, and emotional. It’s harder than you’d think.” Often the police are angry, but if the protestors are all trained in non-violence, the cops sense it and respond in kind. She tells me to make eye contact with the police, even smile. Then Dot suggests we do some role-playing.
Hippies and their fucking role-playing, I think, but shrug and go along with it. Dot plays a cop and I’m a protestor.
“GET OFF THE TRACKS AND STAY OFF!” Dot yells over her shoulder from the front seat. Her intensity surprises me.
“I see you’re angry,” I say. “Calm down.” The role comes easily from years of listening to Mom’s “processing.”
“Instead of ‘calm down’ remind them you are non-violent. What they fear is physical violence.”
Then my mom chimes in. “How did it make you feel when Dot yelled?”
God. She is so annoying. “I dunno,” I say.
“It’s important to understand the psychological piece of this, Peach.”
Whenever we were talking about something that my mom was interested in she’d get on me to divulge my feelings, to “dig deep.”
“I will be Anna’s Support Person,” Mom declares. Dot translates: she will keep an eye on me, help out if needed.
“Can the nukes in the train go off when we’re there?” I ask.
Dot explains the train will be carrying triggers, not finished nuclear weapons. I should be prepared, though, to see guns pointing out of turrets in the first several cars. “They usually have snipers for security. But that’s to protect the cargo, so don’t worry.”
We stop for gas and as I stroll the short aisles in the convenience store I feel like those words in a book marked bright yellow with highlighter: important. It’s not a familiar feeling. Since moving to Ashland I’ve skipped school more than I go. My days are aimless, spent with friends smoking and drinking coffee for hours at Denny’s or dying our hair multiple colors while listening to new wave and punk music.
We get to the protest site after driving most of the night. Twenty yards from the tracks a hundred or so people gather in the relentless Oregon drizzle. Homemade signs attached to sticks rise above their heads: “Arms are for Hugging!,” “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day.” A way off, I see a couple of cop cars, a police van.
We walk through the mud toward the protesters and soon Dot and Mom are throwing their arms around people they know, holding on too long with mutual back rubbing and the “mmm” hippie-hug sounds. I scan the middle-aged, hiking-boot, rain-poncho wearing group for younger people and cute guys. Finding none is a disappointment but also a relief; there’s no pressure to be cool. I look down at my dirty soaked high tops, my fashionably ripped pegged jeans, longing for a raincoat I don’t own.
I walk over to the dull silver tracks. They look narrow, insignificant. I imagined proud menacing rails high up on a berm. These are just tracks on the flat ground atop worn-out ties. I light a cigarette and wonder how fast the train will be heading toward us. I’m scared but also feeling needed. I stomp my cigarette out so I can return and receive praise for my bravery.
When Dot calls over to me, “Ready?” it’s time for the civil disobedience protestors to head to the tracks.
Mom hugs me. “You are a strong woman, Anna. You are doing good.”
Her words ooze and fill in all of my empty cracks. I go to Dot determined, whole. “Where’s everyone else?” I ask as we join up with the small group.
“This is it.”
What! I imagined a huge group of us, not twelve people. I look back at my mom and the people up on the hill, the people not risking their lives. I tell myself I’m on a daring mission—unlike the lame activities other kids my age do. This isn’t a swim team match or a cheerleader wearing a stupid outfit at school for a Friday night game. This is much more important than sitting in some classroom. We are trying to save the planet and everyone’s future.
We do some practice runs on the tracks. I watch a couple of protestors pretend to be cops, putting their hands under the arms of a sitting protestor, lifting her up and off the tracks. Normally the smell of patchouli and BO makes me grumpy, but right then it’s the smell of my people. My adrenaline pumps. It’s hard to focus and consider last-minute directions and the circulating advice.
Five or six pink-faced cops make their way to us. “Good morning!” Dot practically sings, her wrinkled moon face all smile. The cops look angry and annoyed. I stare at one and remember Dot’s words in the car. They are people. They have families. They get scared.
We sit in twos, cross-legged on the tracks, waiting. I’m partnered with Dot, something I never imagined I’d be happy about. The flat grey sky spits a steady drizzle. By now my clothes are wet and I’m cold. We join in with the chants we hear from the larger group. “No Nukes, No Nukes.” Then we’re all singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” I’m glad I’m the only kid, this is definitely breaking my cool code.
“The train!” someone shouts. I see the nose of a train far off down the tracks. One of the cops announces that we’ve made our point, why don’t we head on home now. We’re there to get arrested though, to make the news, to make an impact.
I want to stand up to spot my mom, my Support Person, but we must stay seated, passive. The cloud-colored train is close enough now I think I see overhanging turrets on the first cars and I silently will the snipers not to go crazy or anything. The train looks like it’s barely moving. The closer it gets, though, the faster it seems.
I no longer hear the chants and sounds of the other protestors or cops. I’m part of the tracks and my world is the drizzle, the wet rocks and sand beneath me, my civil disobedience family. My legs shake uncontrollably–they always do when I’m beyond scared. The train snout inches closer. It’s yards away from the two protestors at the front of the line when the cops swoop in, hoist them up by their armpits and off the tracks. The train inches forward, the process repeats. I can’t take my eyes off the train. I sense the removed protestors sitting down again behind us.
Then strong hands are under my armpits, pulling me up and off the tracks in one fast movement. I’m on my feet walking back to our group on the tracks and sit next to Dot. She grabs my hand and I take hers. The train crawls toward us.
I notice the distant yelling. “No nukes, No nukes.” I look over and think I see my Mom but I’m not sure. I tune into the tracks again. The hands pulling us up feel angrier this time. When Dot and I take our seats on the track again, I notice a cut on her hand. Her scarlet blood mixes with the drizzle.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
Dot smiles one of her reassuring full-face grins. “I’m fine, Anna.”
The cycle continues and people are slipping on wet rocks, stumbling, falling down. I’m so cold in my wet clothes, my teeth chatter. Then the train stops. More cops arrive and this time when we are pulled off they are arresting people. When they get to me they ask my age and there’s a moment of confusion about how to handle me, then I’m cuffed and led up the hill with the others. I’m relieved that I’m arrested, that I remain with my group.
Again I try to spot my mom but we are too far from the protestors on the hill. I wonder if she’s seen me on the tracks. I hope she didn’t miss me getting arrested.
We wait out in the drizzle by the police bus. I want reporters to show up, imagining myself on the evening news and the stupid cheerleaders, jocks, and teachers seeing I’m involved in something truly important. Something requiring real courage.
Inside, after the handcuffs are cut off, we sit in chairs in a big room with administrative workers behind a counter at one end. One of the protesters brings me a coffee from a vending machine. It’s weak and I don’t have cream but I sip it for the warmth. I feel like I’ll never be warm again.
We sit for hours while they call each of us up to the desk. I assume jail cells are next but when they have everyone’s information, we are free to go.
Outside the station, some of the other protesters are waiting as we come out. My mom embraces me.
“Did you see me?” I quickly ask.
“Peach. I don’t even know what to say. I am so proud of you. How are you? How was it?”
I look into her eyes, wide with desire for information, wanting me to process the whole thing with her, wanting me to feed her pieces of my day. I’m not even listening anymore. I know she didn’t see me. And I am starving.
My Support Person. I want to hurt her and I grab the most devastating weapon at my disposal: Silence.
My fellow arrestees are hippie-hugging, sharing congratulations, breaking out the tamari roasted pumpkin seeds and trail mix.
“It was good,” I say, turning to walk quickly toward the food, leaving her behind.
A Los Angeles native, Anna Soref is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. She recently completed the year-long Bookgardan low-residency writing program, is the recipient of two Story Club Cleveland Golden Microphone awards, and was a 2019-20 Craigardan Artist in Residence. She is working on her first book.
© 2021, Anna Soref