St. John’s was not a significant part of my life as a child. Up to the year I started university in the capital city I had been to “town” as we called it only once . So the year I began my studies at MUN was very exciting to me for two reasons. One, I would be totally responsible for myself , living away from my parents and two, I would experience life in a big city . I never thought I would actually look forward to going home for visits during Easter and Christmas breaks. But I did.
I did not have a car. Most students who came in from other parts of the island, didn’t. We relied on our two legs and city buses to get around. When we went home during breaks we took either a plane or the train. Flying was an affordable option then. For twenty dollars and using my Swing Air card I could fly return to Gander. Swing Air was a stand -by arrangement for students. My father picked me up in Gander and we travelled by car for the remaining distance to Grand Falls. The total time from St. John’s airport to my front verandah was around two hours.
The train trip took much more time but it was very exciting. One trip I remember well happened in January of 1967 or 68. It is a memorable trip because that particular night something unusual happened.
I had gone to a dance at St. Joseph’s Parish in Windsor. I kicked up my heels for a couple of hours before my father came to bring me to the station. I got aboard along with scores of other students who were all heading back to the city. We pulled out promptly at 11:00 pm and headed for the next stop in Bishop’s Falls. Once again the platform was lined off with students, suitcases, parents and other travellers . There were so many people that more cars had to be added. Three hours later we were still in Bishop’s Falls , a mere ten miles from home. No wonder the train was jokingly, however affectionately, given the name Newfie Bullet. In fact I would wager there are few people who would know the real name of the train was the Caribou.
As the train chugged along there was a constant stream of chatter and laughter. Some people were in various states of inebriation, seeing it was a weekend and they’d had lots of time to down a few drinks before coming aboard. And there was the hidden bottle that would be surreptitiously shared from a brown paper bag. And at that time you could smoke to your heart’s delight anywhere. A cloud of smoke didn’t just hang in the air. It mixed with the air thick and heavy from ceiling to floor. We all breathed it in, smokers and non smokers alike and no one complained. It was a fact of life. People smoked in cars, taxis, airplanes , hospitals, university classrooms , school staffrooms and doctors did in their offices. It was as common as smog in Bangkok or fog in St. John’s. You might as well pee in the wind as complain in those days.
The only chance of getting away from all the smoke and noise was to go out on the break which was the area where two cars were joined. It was a section of the train where you embarked or disembarked and it was enclosed except for two half doors that served as gates absolutely necessary when the alcohol was flowing freely. On this particular night I decided to go out and fill my lungs.
There was nothing but darkness. The sky was overcast and there were a few flurries. I could see the outline of trees rush past and little else. No stars shone in the sky . I was the only person out there so a peaceful feeling settled over me. The regular rhythm of the wheels on the rails , the sway of the floor beneath me and the distant sounds of people talking in the car was soothing . I was alone but not lonely. I stood hypnotized by the chugging engine and the touch of the air as it gently lifted my hair and glanced off my cheek. I stood like this for about ten minutes.
The events of Christmas ran through my head. I reflected on the season and what it represented. The memory of Christmas Eve , the Salvation Army musicians playing Silent Night under the light pole just outside our house and the story of the shepherds in the field on that first Christmas night. All of it played its part in giving me a sense of wonder. I could envision the scene with the shepherds and the wise men. I could see the star in the sky.
I looked up………rubbed my eyes. Something strange was in the sky. Way up above the train.
It was a cross!
We chugged along. It floated above and to the side . Then we travelled under it. and past it, till it faded into the night.
I had seen a cross in the heavens! No doubt about it.
I couldn’t tell anyone. They would never believe me. I headed back into the car, found my seat and sat down. For the remainder of the trip I gazed out the window thinking I might see it again and I would watch the other passengers to see their reaction. There was nothing out of the ordinary so far.
I began to feel holy. Yes, holy. Surely I was being “called”. I knew I should have done missionary work. It had crossed my mind. I must give it some thought once again.
The train continued on for another hour or so. We arrived at St. John’s station after a thirteen hour trip. The news reported the next day that it was the longest passenger train that had to that point travelled the tracks in Newfoundland. There was even a film clip of it . There was no mention of any unusual event or sighting. To my knowledge I was the only one who had noticed the cross.
As time went by I gave up any thought of becoming a missionary which is just as well because I found out I had not been “called”. My next trip by train was in the daylight. As we approached Holyrood I happened to be looking out the window and what did I see once again? The cross. No divine intervention was responsible. It was obviously a human construction firmly planted on the top of a hill well above the railway track.