The Red Handed Lever: A Story About Coming of Age – Part 2

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The porter and conductor, though still facing me, were looking at a sheaf of papers in the conductor’s hand. I pushed through the door to the vestibule, into the roaring tent between cars, and looked about for the red-handed lever. 


I found it at once, above the brakeman’s wheel. I wrapped my first [sic] around the handle and pulled it all the way down. 

Nothing happened. For a moment. And then the air brakes hit and the great wheels locked and screeched like banshees as the train slid forward over dry hot steel. I felt the coupling buckle beneath the deck I stood on, felt the whole train shuddering and twisting under the violence of the collision between velocity and mass. Through the glass of the vestibule door I saw the conductor lumbering toward me, his face red as a tomato. I opened the outer door, saw the cinders and tie ends moving past below, but not too fast. 

I closed my eyes and leaped. 

The above quote is taken from pages 103-104 of Fire On The Mountain by Edward Abbey published by Harper Perennial, New York.

In my viewpoint this is THE key moment in this gripping novel about a boy coming of age. In Part 1 of this mini-article series I wrote about how Billy encountered a lion and froze. Here he has a choice to make and takes action. He is progressing and moving forward.

The context is that Billy’s Grandfather has sent Billy home. But he doesn’t want to go. Naturally he wants to stay and help his Grandfather. The tension between the Grandfather and the Government has reached a tipping point in the novel and the Grandfather knows it is dangerous for his young grandson to stay.  The Grandfather is standing his ground against the Government and he knows that they may decide to take invasive action.

Billy isn’t old enough to make the decision himself to stay and fight if he has to.

The Grandfather wants to fight the Government to the point of drawing own guns and bullets. Billy knows this but he has a mother back home and the Grandfather is accountable for his actions.

Billy is boarded on a train by Lee Mackie. He is a friend of his Grandfathers and someone who has become a friend to Billy as well. Lee takes precautions and talks with the adult workers on the train to make sure that Billy stays on. Lee knows that Billy may try something dumb.

As soon as the train starts to move Billy takes action and hides in the toilet in the train for a short time. He comes out and sees that the adult workers are occupied and pulls the Red Handed Lever.

It stops the train and he gets out. The experience from leaving the train and getting back to his Grandfathers house shows the struggle Billy has to deal with his very adult decision. Eventually he makes it and remarkably his Grandfather and Lee are not that mad. I think they understand Billy and why he did what he did.

He’s coming of age. He’s trying to navigate how to make his own decisions and live with them.

Billy would later come to discover that there are many moments in life where he will need to pull the Red Handed Lever or not. Sometimes it is wise. Sometimes it isn’t. But when we do, we need to commit to the action. It’s part of growing up.

What is your Red Handed Lever?