Wednesday, February 9, 2011



The train sat in the old Harvard Square station, thinking about moving. Just as the bell rang, a young man with a large suitcase in each hand started down the stairs leading to the platform, in a very great hurry. He didn't even slow down as he approached the turnstiles. Holding the suitcases high enough to clear, he gave a mighty leap; cleared the turnstiles; landed still running; and flung himself into the train just as the doors were closing.


Justin was about fourteen. We were leaving for school, running late. This wasn't unusual. He hopped down the stairs, one shoe on his foot, the other in his hand. This, with variations, wasn't unheard-of either. It was sort of raining -- misting and dripping, and the front walk was damp. Not wanting to get his sock wet, Justin hopped down the walk to the gate.

The chain-link fence was about three feet high; the gate closed with a horseshoe-shaped latch that hinged down to embrace the fencepost. Justin usually, in one smooth, graceful, and noisy motion, kicked the latch up and the gate open. My position was, "Justin, do you have to do that?" Apparently, he did.

On that soggy morning, Justin hopped up to the fence and considered the available ways of opening the gate. He denies adapting the Crane Kick from one of the Karate Kid movies, much as it looked like it; he also says that he tried his method again a day or two later to establish that he really could do this, that it hadn't been a fluke. He jumped up and, in one smooth, graceful, and noisy motion, with the foot he had been standing on, kicked the gate open and came down on the same foot, crouching low, but without dropping the shoe, putting his foot down, or losing his balance. "I don't lose my balance," he commented.


And then there was a former associate of a friend of my first husband. Six feet eight inches tall, I think Ray said he was -- think of Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile. The local junkyard stacked car engines against the back wall of the lot; Ray's friend would reach over the wall and literally and figuratively lift engines.


The consensus on the subway platform (I wasn't there but was told about it by someone who was) was that the traveler with the suitcases must have been a trained athlete -- track, presumably, a broad-jumper or hurdler, or possibly a pole vaulter. He must have been sure that he could clear the turnstiles, suitcases and all; he could have been badly hurt if he'd miscalculated. It's safe to conjecture that he really needed to catch that train.

Justin had had some martial arts training and watched Bruce Lee movies intently and analytically. He'd done a lot of kicking and punching at imaginary enemies, to the detriment of anything in his room that wasn't mounted on the ceiling.

Both Justin and the track star were applying skills from another context to a real-world problem. I know nothing about the engine thief's background. He could have been a weight-lifter. My guess, based on what I knew of Ray, was that his friend was just a big, strong guy testing himself against the world.

Could anyone really lift an engine over a fence? (Clearly, the possibility didn't occur to the junkyard.) According to Wikipedia, the Olympic weightlifting record is 436 kilograms, or nearly 1,000 pounds. My mechanic estimates the weight of an engine at 400 or 500 pounds. Of course, there is a great difference between an athlete doing, under controlled conditions, something he's trained to do, and a guy swiping engines in the dead of night under conditions with a lot of variables.

Ray recounted his friend's activities as something he definitely knew about and, I think, had witnessed. But maybe he'd just been told about it; maybe the guy was lying, or contemplating engine-snatching as a nifty idea that he meant to try someday. Maybe he did it once when the engines were piled particularly high, and out of respect for his back didn't try it again. Anyway, like so many good stories, if it isn't true it deserves to be.