My Childhood Memories I
I have described part of my childhood on various occasions to a range of audiences in the past. I told my younger students about my walking along a rail track for miles to look for our new house that my mother took me on a bus to visit one day. They laughed with horror when I described how I used to “walk” dragonflies, explained that the “walk” actually involved snapped tails and twigs on a string. They covered their mouths in gasps but eyes glinting with obvious delight. My older friends have found my tales about catching fireflies and releasing them in the mosquito net in the garden room in my grandparents’ orchard enchanting.
I have vivid memories of my childhood adventures, but what have they got to do with my job as a teacher?
With every telling and rebelling, not only do I remember more details, I also find my tales sound more and more unreal to my students. They listen with their tiny mouths open. I am describing a childhood that can only exist in stories. I wonder if either of us has lost something in our respective experiences as children? Me being out a great deal without any notion of “health and safety”, and them being out only when they are taking part in organised activities. I wonder if modern children have at all lost anything that I have gained from my many unsupervised escapades?
The Railway Children
Let’s return to my railway adventure. I knew the town in which our new house was. But I had no knowledge of its geography in terms of its address and its relations to other nearby landmarks. All I remembered was that on a previous visit with my mother, I spotted a railway crossing. It was 1974, and I was no more than ten. One Saturday in the summer, my mother told us that she was going to go and clean our new house with a neighbour. The four of us were left home alone; my father was in Kinman with the army. After what seemed to be an eternity, at some point in the morning, I suggested to my older brother that we should go and find our mother. He asked me if I knew where the new house was. I replied that I remembered a railway crossing nearby. There was also a railway line running near our old house.
The steam freight train carried sugar cane or sometimes tanks on that line. A few local children had been seriously injured or lost limbs whilst trying to pull sugar cane off the moving train. When I felt daring, I ventured out to the line. We believed that if you press your ears on the rail track, you would be able to hear the oncoming trains. We also made miniature swords out of long nails by lining them up on the track for the hurtling train to flatten them. On that day, however, my childish logic concluded that if we followed the railway track, it would eventually take us to our mother. A ten-year-old and a thirteen-year-old set off – along a railroad, not completely sure whether or not we were heading the right direction. It was mid-morning. When I lead my brother to the rail track, out first decision was “left of right?” Left!
Midday sun was intense in the summer in southern Taiwan. Our shadows were right under our feet like oversized full stops. Tar melted on the street and we used to pick at it with sticks to make drum sticks when it cooled down and hardened. Following a rail line with a clear purpose gave us little time to be distracted by a plethora of things that we could have done along the way. We had been walking for some time until we came across a railway bridge. The river below was a torrent (to a nine-year-old) of angry lost ghosts snarling to snatch their replacements from careless new victims to free them from their watery imprisonment. It was the “ghost month” in the lunar calendar; we were repeated warned not to go anywhere near water. I stood frozen to the spot with that paralysing scenario. Our railway journey was brutally brought to a halt. I was afraid of heights and the only way across was walking on the sleepers with the river raging underneath. My brother tried to piggy-back me. But the risk was too great. We might both fall through the gaps between the sleepers. Then, out of no where, an old farm lady appeared, carrying a basket of freshly picked vegetable. She asked if we intended to go over the river? We explained our predicament. Then, she put her cargo down and carry me on her back across with my brother following behind. Afterwards, we watched her returning to retrieve her morning pickings and disappeared in the horizon.
Several miles later, the railway was intercepted by a busy road. I recognised that it was the same crossing. Pride was not enough to describe my sense of achievement. We made it. The relief was immense. I had proved to my brother that we could find our new house without being taken by our parents. I quickly found the lane in which our new house was located a few hundred metres up the road. The door was not locked and we went in. We look from room to room, calling, “Ma,” as we went. The whole house was swept clean and dustless. Smell of strong detergents hung in the musty air. Our hearts sank when our mother and our neighbour were nowhere to be seen. We decided to go home, this time by road.
Luckily, our adventure did have a happy ending. As we walked past a noodle shop, we were spotted by my mother from inside the shop where she had gone to have bowls of noodle soup with our neighbour for lunch. Needless to say, she was shocked to find two of her sons wondering around on their own in a strange town. She called us in; I explained the situation. To my delight, she ordered two small bowls of noodle soup for my brother and me. A bowl of noodle soup had never tasted so heavenly. We slurped noisily. Or were we trying to drown out our tears of relief inside? We all went home together after my mother and our neighbour finished cleaning the house.
We went home by bus. It mystified me why bus drivers never stopped twisting the steering wheel whilst going down apparently a straight road?