(This is the Story Salon in Valley Village where I presented this true story last night, September 16 along with seven other story tellers to a lively crowd)
I am 16 and the quarterback on a high school football team in Japan
After football practice a week before our family was scheduled to return to America in October 1956, our eight-person carryall broke down a few miles from Yokohama. The engine flooded and the smell of gasoline nauseated me. I had to get outside. Our Japanese driver called the Navy base for a replacement and said, “New van arrive forty-five minute.”
Having been YoHi football team’s quarterback for two years, every teammate formed a habit of following my directions. While standing outside the vehicle and looking around, I leaned in and said, “Come outside now.” They scrambled out. I pointed, “See those tracks running around that hill? If we follow them, they’ll lead to a train station. We can catch one and walk to the Naval Station an hour or sooner than if we wait for a van.”
“Sounds good,” said Tex, a tough first-team tackle.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“We go to find nearest train, Diajobu des ne?”(OK?) I said to the driver.
“Abunaio!” (Be careful!) “Kiotsketi kudasai.” (Take it easy, please,) the driver said mouth open and wrinkled brow.
Seven athletes aged fifteen to seventeen followed me. We scrambled over rough brush and found a pathway up a slope. In ten minutes we reached two sets of tracks. As we rounded the hill, a narrow tunnel appeared that resembled a black hole.
Night view of railway tunnel
“This looks dangerous,” Tex said. “These trains race through the tunnel with little room for us.”
“Don’t worry. If a train comes on one track we can jump to the other,” I said.
“Yeah that’s right,” our fullback, Ron, said.
Two others nodded in agreement and the rest followed.
Running toward the tunnel, the setting red sun sent a glow behind me. The inside of the tunnel was barely visible. After racing into the tunnel, everyone followed at my heels. We had a foot of clearance on each wall in the dark cavity and two feet between the tracks. Dank darkness quickly enshrouded us. It seemed like we had fallen into a black soup as we slowed to avoid stumbling on the wooden planks now in utter blackness.
When we had advanced a third of the way, I sensed danger. A swift-moving train whizzed around the corner at us. A water droplet fell from the moldy ceiling into my eyes. After brushing it away, the flying mass of steel zoomed toward us. A looming light grew rapidly larger and a roaring rattling rumble followed. “Jump right!” I shouted. The blast of the train drowned out my voice. The train’s light revealed seven moving forms.
The steel thunderbolt’s warning bell changed from a high-pitched sound to a descending tone DING DING DINg DINg DIng Ding ding ding din din as it passed us with a deafening clattering at over ninety miles per hour.
Another booming train streaked at us on the opposing track! A horn howled and screamed as it approached. Its warning bell grew louder. Both trains doubled the blaring racket. My heart pounded; my breath heaved; I almost panicked. The heavy weight of shock choked me. I never should have urged my friends to enter the tunnel. Racing on the right track careful not to trip, we were nearly clobbered by the hurtling train from behind. Finally, the first train passed us with a WHOOSH.
“Jump left!” I screamed.
Could they hear me? The new train’s explosive reverberation was deafening. Its rotating light fluttered over our leaping forms. The unexpected steel blur jolted past at blazing speed and threw a forceful blast of hot muggy air at us. Expecting the worst I gazed back as all jumped in time to avoid disaster. The cars bumped and clattered as the steel wheels clickity–clacked and the wind rushed by our sweating faces.
Breathing an enormous sigh of relief, I was ecstatic from our good fortune. We had cheated death. We raced toward the silver light signaling the other entrance of the tunnel. In a mad dash for the growing sunbeams towards life, panting, sweating, I emerged and faced my friends. Tex and a few others stumbled out after me, exhaustion all over their faces. Sweat ran down their foreheads into their eyes and cheeks. They gasped for breath and stumbled toward me. Tex rushed up with fire in his eyes, “Jesus! What the fuck! Lavery, you almost got us killed!”
“Holy Shit! How did we make it?” Ron said.
“Ah Ah I’m so sorry,” passed emotionally out my mouth with fear written over my face. “I never should have led you guys into that tunnel.” We walked towards the station a few blocks away and huddled. “Hey guys. Please don’t tell anyone about this. Our parents won’t understand,” I said.
Tex and the others gradually agreed. We all shook on it.
On the train back, the tunnel train dodging affected me deeply. It made me appreciate life’s gifts I seemed to have taken for granted. Coming close to death not once, but twice in seconds, made me feel I must live more wisely. My thoughtless actions nearly killed eight young men. The shock of near death awakened a feeling of responsibility. That moment of awareness heightened my senses. I clasped my hands, felt the warmth of each finger intertwined, and breathed deeply. Time seemed to slow to a standstill so glad we were all alive.
The advice of my grandmother Ruthie, came back. Having noticed me rushing around as a teenager full of anxiety, “Slow down, Danny,” she said, “Find the harmony in nature. Life is precious.”