When I was young I used to love going to the playground. The Castro Valley Community Center was my most frequented childhood park, however, for a real treat my mom would take me to “the rocket park” (AKA The San Felipe Community Center) in Hayward or the western town themed park at the San Leandro Marina. They were more than play structures and some swings, those parks were set up like life-size dioramas, off limits to adults, powered by imagination and splinters.
And then there was the Granddaddy of all parks, The Dennis the Menace Park in Monterey. I don’t know how many times I was actually taken there, Monterey was far and my Mother and her avocado Pinto weren’t adventurous, but I remember that park. If my Bay Area favored parks were dioramas, the Dennis The Menace Park was an immersive world, with slides and bridges, metal and concrete, it was beyond Thunderdome, that park was rad.
And at the entrance to the park, like a sentry, sat the crown jewel, a massive locomotive engine, black and imposing and ready to be explored. The rest of the park was fun, but I was drawn to that train engine like a magnet, when I was on that train I was someone else: a young Casey Jones, trying to figure out how to coax more speed from those levers and gauges. Or a western gunfighter climbing across the train to save a hostage. That train might not have moved anymore, but it transported a young boy far, far away.
Sometimes, when you revisit things from your childhood you realize that they aren’t so magical. Maybe that field wasn’t so big, that lake so deep, or that camp counselor quite as lovely. You conflate things, and the whole world is on a different scale when you’re tiny. Almost everything is a disappointment when you return as an adult; memories have a patina, real life has a tarnish. The train at the park however, doesn’t shrink with time, if anything the train has grown.
I have taken my own kids, on the pilgrimage to Monterey, a grown man scampering across playground equipment is creepy, a grown man scampering across playground equipment with his kids is a Hallmark card. That train is still there, and it still inspires me.
And that might be why I felt as if someone had stepped on my guts when I found out that the City Of Monterey was considering removing or fencing off the train. It turns out that that much fun doesn’t quite fit into modern safety standards. I’m not mad at Monterey, and I’m not mad at safety standards, no one wants playgrounds made out of broken glass and razor blades. But I don’t think we want to neuter our children’s experience and imagination. A child could break an arm or worse on the train, that’s not good. A child could also be inspired forever from leaning out the doorway and screaming out, “All aboard,” that’s great. In my opinion the benefits of that train outweigh any potential dangers.
If you took your kid to Rock City at Mount Diablo, or let them climb a tree, or ride a bike down a hill, those experiences wouldn’t fit into safety standards, but that doesn’t mean your children shouldn’t have those experiences. We can’t walk before our kids throwing down compressed rubber like rose petals, we can supervise and impart common sense and cross our fingers and hope for the best. Perhaps the train needs to be redefined, so people don’t assume it’s playground equipment, but instead see it as living history, something that commands a common sense and respect. Perhaps parents need to take responsibility and decide if the train is too much for their children, that way all children can continue to enjoy that piece of history.
Like all causes, the train, and the folks that want to preserve it have a Facebook page. Over 7000 likeminded individuals have liked that page, and the founders are working with Monterey to preserve the train for all of us, our children, and our children’s children. If you would like to voice your support like their page, you can hear what is being done: https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheTrain
Thank you and good day.