Crossing the B&O Bridge at Night

Way down across their fields from my grandparents’ house the railroad tracks ran close by the Susquehanna. Often, but particularly at night when everything else was quiet, I could hear the steam whistle of a train: Long, Long, Short and Long from far away down below in Perryville, where each of the great railroads, the Pennsylviania and the Baltimore and Ohio, had a long bridge that crossed the river.

That summer at my grandparents’ farm I played with a black boy, the son of one of the tenant farmers, who lived with his family in the little house near the top of the hill. His father, Ollie, was a convict for whom my grandfather, Judge Kintner, had arranged parole. In the kitchen my grandmother sat me down on a chair and spoke lowly and firmly: “Billy, you must never use that word to the boy. You must never use the word ‘nigger’.” I squirmed around. When the boy and I were choosing sides in a game I had said “Eeny, meeny, miny moe; catch a Tiger by the toe,” and had never thought of using the other word.

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