Little boy playing on the railroad tracks
The engine gave a squeal
The engineer hopped out right then
And scraped him off the wheel
SOURCE: Junior High
Little boy playing, on its surface, is a haunting and cautionary tale of childhood misfortune. But on further examination of the facts in these four short lines, the reader can see greater issues at play.
Little Boy, the protagonist, cannot be totally unaware of the danger he faces along the tracks. Certainly he has engaged in the childhood pastime of leaving pennies on the tracks for the locomotives to flatten. Certainly he is no stranger to the terrible power of the iron horse.
Why, then, does he meet with tragedy? Does he linger too long in placing yet another coin on the tracks? Is he so enrapt with emulating the power and majesty of the locomotive that, in a bitter irony, he fails to hear the blast of the horn as the real thing approaches? Or does he simply challenge it – and fail – in a show of prepubescent bravado?
The author does not tell us. Indeed, the author understands that we are all Little Boy, that we all have our own story to tell about the siren lure of the railroad tracks.
The author cleverly underplays the outcome of the tragedy – but in doing so, plays up the true horror of Little Boy’s fate. If Little Boy must be scraped off of the wheel – with, one assumes, a rotten two by four – then his end must have been gruesome indeed. It is a scene of lasting shock and brutality, the horror of which not even Stephen King could conjure in all of his excesses.
But what of the engineer? That he heroically tries to stop the engine and fails is a testament to the human in all of us, that communal experience of unsuccessfully trying to avert catastrophe, whether it is catching a cup of coffee in mid-spill, or that final, uttered profanity before automobiles collide.
Though the engineer stops the train to remove Little Boy’s remains, the author does not give us the motive for the action. Again, it is for us to imagine. Will he bear Little Boy’s remains home to the stricken parent? Will he weep and beat his breast at the side of the tracks until the authorities arrive? Or it it really an impersonal act, one hinted at by the jaunty method in which the engineer disembarks from the train – not with a shuffle or halting steps, a whispered prayer on his lips. It is with a hop. This implies that the engineer has a schedule to keep, and no thing or no one – not even the tragic remains of a small child enmeshed in the wheels of his locomotive – must keep him from delivering his unknown cargo to its unknown destination.
With its multitude of layers, Little boy playing functions well as a cautionary “folk poem” taught to youngsters about the dangers of playing near the railroad tracks. But what lies beneath is the author’s searing indictment of the American military-industrial complex, a searing juggernaut that plunges ever onward toward conquest, caring little about the young lives it snuffs out and grinds into jelly along the way.
Because of that, it is an anti-war masterpiece.