The Playground

The Playground

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

The Playground

I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.

John D. Rockefeller

“Carlos, we’re going to the store to get a soda. You wanna go?”

Carlos joined his friends as they walked the few blocks to the store, crossing the railroad tracks, kicking cans and tossing rocks as they went.

It was a Sunday afternoon in January, and they were especially carefree. Monday would be a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and they wouldn’t have to go to school.

Carlos was eight years old, a second-grader living with his mother in the housing project, just blocks from the train tracks. He was the sixth of her eight children. His father lived in Florida.

Carlos had lived in the country most of his life. Their little town of Millen was like a giant playground to him. He and his friends loved to wander and explore. Freight trains were a part of everyday life in their little town. The trains would drop off and pick up boxcars and tank cars at the loading yards, then continue on their way to Savannah. It was a given that since the tracks were between home and the church, as well as the store and their neighborhood, Carlos and his friends often had to jump over them.

Carlos was good at sports and always included anyone who was left out or said to someone who needed cheering, “Come on, buddy; let’s play.” When anyone called to him, “Carlos, come help us,” he always helped them. Upon meeting him, he seemed quiet. He would drop his head; but the look in his eye was playful, and his face had an easy smile. The children liked Carlos because he was fun. He could make playtime out of most any situation. Carlos was not afraid of anything.

It was a cold day, warming slightly in the afternoon from the sun. Carlos hated to wear his jacket, so on this particular afternoon, he was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt with his jeans and tennis shoes. On the way home from the store, he and his friends began to play on a freight train that had stopped to drop off and pick up boxcars, moving back and forth on the tracks in the process. They were near the middle of the freight train, having great fun climbing the ladders and hopping on and off the train. It was exciting to feel the moving train, to hear the squealing of the wheels as it came to a halt and the whistle blowing, to experience the sounds and smells of the engine as the train moved back and forth.

The train began to travel forward on the tracks, and all the boys jumped off—all except Carlos. He held on, yelling to them, “I’ll get off at the next stop. Meet me there.” Just outside of town, there was a dirt railroad crossing. He would get off there. It wasn’t too far away. It was very exciting to ride the train. They would all have a good laugh at his feat.

The sun was beginning to go down, and the wind became cold. Carlos held on to the ladder at the rear of the freight car. He watched for the dirt crossing. As the train moved out of town, it began to pick up speed. He began to wonder if it would stop. He decided he might have to jump off. By the time he saw the crossing, the train had passed it. They were going too fast, and he had missed his chance.

A chill from the cold wind went up his spine. Perhaps it was a chill of fear as he became aware of what had happened. This was more adventure than he had bargained for. He decided to hold on very tightly and look for the lights of the next town. The train would stop there, and he could get off and ask for help to get back home. It was very cold now, and Carlos said out loud to himself, “If I had my jacket, I’d put it on for sure. That’s how cold I am.”

It was hard work holding on to the moving train. The cold was making it even harder. Carlos felt like his hands were freezing. He had not realized the weather would be this cold. The area they were traveling through was very wooded with lots of bushes. He was glad to finally see houses and lights, and got ready for the train to stop . . . but the train kept going!

Carlos felt his first real fear. He had counted on the train stopping, but it was not going to stop! He was getting farther and farther from home. What should I do? Can I hold on until the train reaches its destination? Can I hold on that long? Should I try to jump? It looked too dangerous to do that. His mind was in turmoil as he tried to think of what to do. He decided that his best course of action would be to hold on until the train finally stopped. Surely it would stop somewhere along the way.

He decided to talk to himself, to build up his courage. Come on, buddy, you can do it. Hold on tight, now. I know you’re tired and freezing cold, but you can put on your jacket as soon as you get home. Hold on, buddy, you can do it!

As time went on, the cold and fear kept him holding tightly to the ladder, pressing himself as closely as he could to the freight car to block the wind. The bushes and trees seemed to fly by as they traveled the rails. After a time, Carlos saw lights in some of the houses by the side of the tracks. But they passed through another small town without stopping!

Terror filled his heart as he clutched the ladder; tears of anguish flowed from his eyes as he fully realized his danger. He continued to hold his grip as tightly as he could, but it was getting harder all the time. He was exhausted. The sun had set; it was beginning to grow dark. He couldn’t hold on any longer. Maybe he should jump after all.

Back in the little town of Millen, Carlos’s friends tried to keep him out of trouble for playing on the train. Thinking he was on his way back from the crossing, they said nothing. When they finally told everything they knew, and it was discovered that Carlos was missing, the police began to search for him.

By Monday morning, all four adjoining counties began searching by air, by rail and on foot. Family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike searched for Carlos. On Tuesday, Carlos was found along a desolate stretch of rail forty miles down the track. He had died from a broken neck. Everyone in the community of Millen shared the grief and sorrow of his death.

A lady in Savannah read of the tragic accident. The news account stated that the children in Millen had no playground. It went on to say that perhaps if there had been a playground for them, Carlos might have been on a playground and not playing on the train tracks. As a wife and mother of three children, she was concerned that while her city of Savannah had so many playgrounds, Millen did not. A former Girl Scout troop leader, she was accustomed to leadership. She determined she would get a playground built for the children of Millen.

With the dedication of family, neighbors, friends, merchants and contractors, along with a donation of land, a new playground was completed for the town of Millen. People who had been brought together as strangers ended up as friends. In the process, some healing also took place in the community. By their joining together, their grief and sorrow was lessened.

On a sunny spring afternoon, Millen’s new playground was officially dedicated as the Carlos Wilson Memorial Playground.

The ceremony was followed by playtime for the children. It was as if they could hear Carlos saying, “Come on, buddy; let’s play. Let’s go play on my playground!”

Audilee Boyd Taylor

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