Wednesday, October 22, 2008

1963 – Near Death

As much as they have excited me from the earliest age, trains and railways could be deadly with little or no emotional notice. Like the time we were walking along the platform at Otford railway station, on the far southern end of the Royal National Park, south of Sydney.

We were only kids, and my sister, Mary, would have been lucky to have been five. The surrounding sub-tropical rainforest of this part of the Park smelt damp and richly rotting, of aging timbers sinking back into their landscape, constantly washed by repeated rains. The bush birds called incessantly to each other across the narrow valley in which the station is jammed, and the brilliant spring morning sunshine struggled to break through between the trees and branches towering over the station.

But the smell and sounds came to an abrupt end as my young sister, Mary, somehow slipped off the edge of the platform. One second she was with us, walking and chatting as part of our family along the eastern platform. Next second, she was sprawled between the tracks. One second more and she was on her feet, looking up at us, hands reaching upwards in begging grasps. The look on her terrified little face said it all without a word. I have realised down through the years that I was terrified, instantly, of losing her, knowing the expected southbound train would be here at any second.

Dad leapt over the edge, and in a single, swinging motion, lifted Mary up to us and safety. Then, with a deft side hop and a push, he was up alongside us all – just as that south-bound, Wollongong train steamed around the bend to the north and rolled purposefully, almost regally, into the station area, gliding around the curved platform. The gap between fall and train rolling over the same spot wasn’t more than 30 seconds, but it felt like an entire slow-moving, shuddering, freezing afternoon.

It still does when it comes to mind, which, interestingly, it often does. Ironically, Mary is now near 50, and the C32 Class steam loco only survived another few years before falling to the scrapper’s torch.


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