To my surprise, my mother simply said, "Well, let's see, let's wait and talk to Daddy." When I explained the dilemma to my father, he said that he understood the church's prohibition against participating in the service of another church, but he didn't really believe it extended to attending a lecture by a baseball player in the parish hall. He was certain it would be proper for us to go and would get the tickets the following day.
Reassured, I put my qualms aside until the big night arrived and the moment came to cross the threshold of the white clapboard church. A sudden terror took possession of me, and my knees began to tremble. Fearing that we would be struck dead in retaliation for our act of defiance, I squeezed my body against my father and let his momentum carry me past the door, through the sanctuary and into the parish hall. A podium had been set up in the hall with about 150 folding chairs, and we were lucky enough to find seats in the second row.
The program opened with choral singing, which subsided as the black Baptist minister, the Reverend Morgan Days, came forward to introduce the squat, powerful Campanella, dressed in a black shin and a light jacket with broad lapels. His topic was not baseball but Delinquency and Sportsmanship. Nonetheless, I tried to absorb every word. Children, he argued, were not born with prejudice but were infected with it by their elders. The only way to combat this cycle of bigotry was to bring kids of different races together early on in social and recreational programs. He had a surprisingly squeaky voice for a powerful-looking man, but his message rang with such conviction that he received a standing ovation. When his presentation ended, Campanella stood around for half an hour shaking hands with everyone. There were a dozen things I wanted to say, but when he turned and took my hand, I managed only to thank him for being a Dodger and for coming to our town. The warmth of his broad smile was all I needed to know that this was a night I would never forget.
My earlier fear returned as I climbed into bed that night. The warnings of the nuns tumbled through my head, convincing me that I had traded the life of my everlasting soul for the joy of one glorious night when I held Roy Campanella's strong hand in a forbidden church. Jumping out of bed, I got down on my knees and repeated every prayer I could remember, in the hope that each would wipe away part of the stain that the Episcopal church had left on my soul. I was distracted in school the following day, and again that night had difficulty falling asleep. It was a Friday night, and my parents were playing bridge with three other couples in the dining room, so I could not run downstairs and curl up on the porch sofa, as I sometimes did when I could not fall asleep.
I must have dozed off, because the long-drawn-out squeal of a siren awakened me. Three times the siren wailed, paused, then started again, summoning members of the volunteer fire department. I ran downstairs to find my worried parents and their friends. "They're calling all the surrounding towns!" my father exclaimed, listening to the pattern of the alarm. At that moment my older sister, Jeanne, ran into the house with her friends.
"There's been an awful train wreck!" she announced, breathless. "Two trains—it's gruesome!" Shaking, she burst into tears. We found out from her friends that they had followed the crowd to the station after a basketball game at the high school, but the scene was so appalling that they had to turn around and come home. My parents and their friends debated whether they should go into town; I remember my mother remarking that it was ghoulish to be a spectator to misery and unable to do anything about it.
As I eavesdropped, I began to discern in this calamity an opportunity for my own redemption. If there were no priests present, if I could locate a dying person and baptize him "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," thus granting him entrance to heaven, I would earn considerable points toward purging my sin. I grabbed my coat and slipped undetected out the front door while my parents were still absorbed by the catastrophic news. Although it was cold and dark, I wasn't afraid as I set forth on the familiar route to my grammar school, knowing the train station was in the same direction. Once I rounded the corner at St. James and Brower, the pitch-darkness scared me and I considered returning home, but just then one of my sister's friends offered me a ride, and soon we were joined by hundreds of people, all moving in the same direction. Emergency floodlights and car headlights leached the color from faces as the crowd surged forward. My head hammered with excitement. I was ready. Though I had no water to pour on the forehead of my convert, I figured I could find some clean snow that would serve the same purpose.
My zeal gave way to horror as I approached the station. The fitful lights picked out people huddled in shock and misery, bandaged heads and limbs, men hustling with difficulty up the embankment carrying a stretcher on which lay a motionless blanketed body. I fought the impulse to flee. Pushing my way toward the tracks, I was small enough to maneuver through the immense crowd that had gathered around the carnage.
It was the worst wreck to date in the history of the Long Island Railroad, a head-on collision of two trains, one east-bound for Babylon, the other westbound for New York City. The collision occurred on a short temporary stretch of single track set up to run trains in both directions while a construction project was underway. The engineer of the eastbound train had inexplicably failed to heed a stop signal and plowed straight into the oncoming train. Most of the casualties were from the front cars on both trains, which were split down the middle by the force of the collision. "It looked like a battlefield," one policeman said later. "I never heard such screams. I'll hear them till I die."
Ambulances arrived from as far away as 20 miles. In the glare of their floodlights I saw at once that I wasn't needed. A half-dozen priests were moving through the wreckage, bending down to minister to those in pain, giving last rites, providing comfort to stricken relatives who had converged on the scene. This grotesque and terrifying scene was not the one I had rehearsed with my doll propped up on my pillow. My pretensions suddenly seemed ugly and absurd, and I longed for my orderly bedroom, for my glass cabinet of dolls and the set of Bobbsey Twins books beside my bed. I turned away and started home, running as fast as I could. Quietly, I let myself in through the front door, tiptoed carefully upstairs so as not to disturb the conversation of my parents and their guests in the dining room, put my coat under my bed and fell into a troubled sleep.