It was futile to run or scream. With the thundering sound of the approaching train, the young woman knew in an instant she was helpless.
“I remember it vividly,” Karyl Stoutenburg said, recalling how a summer morning walk with her 4-year-old son more than two decades ago took a frightening turn. “Jay wanted to take his tricycle and go for a ride. We lived next to a park with a rail line bordering the far side about 100 yards from the street. Along the railroad tracks there’s the Prairie Path, and it goes for miles!”
With pea gravel and a long straight stretch in either direction, it was the perfect place for a child to ride and stop to explore the underbrush along the path in Glenn Ellyn, Ill., a pocket community about 24 miles from Chicago.
The tall open trees to the side brought shade on hot, humid days, relief for an occasional weekday walker or bicyclist as they passed through the quaint downtown. A place much like Sheriff Andy’s Mayberry on the old TV show, Karyl said.
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“We made a right-hand turn from the park, and we were going to go as far as my son wanted to go on the path. So, I kind of left it up to him,” Karyl said, thinking back to their more relaxed lifestyle after leaving her banking career to be a stay-at-home mom. “And he went way ahead of me – I’d say about 20, maybe 30 yards – and I was just taking my time.”
While the landscape had been very open, soon Karyl and little Jay were next to a row of 1950s storied apartment buildings on their right, enclosed by an 8-foot chain link fence. On their left were tall bushes, the rail line a ways beyond the greenery.
In the far distance, the low rumble of an approaching train broke the quiet.
“As my son was going forward, I noticed he had gone under a bush – as usual he’s looking for bugs or some kind of creepy-crawly thing – which was very normal for him to do,” Karyl said. “At the same time, there was a man standing behind the apartment fence watching us.”
This mother’s attention was laser-focused on the unkempt person, his beer reflecting in the mid-morning light. And as Karyl drew closer, he moved toward the fence, mumbling something she couldn’t hear, but offering a leering look she instantly recognized.
Karyl’s pace quickened as she began to close the gap between herself and little Jay. Her sense of danger heightened.
“The hair raised on my neck and I immediately felt a flight or fight energy. And as he said something, he started to climb the fence!” Karyl said, her voice even now filled with emotion. “And there was no one on the path. I was alone! I looked backwards and forwards because my thought was that if I could at least get someone’s attention, I could make this guy go away.”
But no one was there, and the sound of the lengthy freight train grew louder. Suddenly the seedy man cleared the fence, rushing straight toward Karyl as the deafening roar from the tracks crushed any thought of crying out for help.
“That was the most frightening thing because I couldn’t scream out, ‘Hey ‘JJ’ come on! Let’s get out of here!’ Karyl said, worried for his safety too. And if I screamed for help, nobody would hear me. The train was too loud and I’d be drowned out.”
But at the very moment when her situation seemed hopeless, help miraculously showed up.
“I don’t know how this happened – I didn’t see these people in the distance at all – but all of a sudden behind this guy were two bicyclists, a woman and a man, a really nice-looking young couple,” Karyl said, recalling their surprising arrival out of nowhere after she had just frantically searched for help.
“They stopped, got off their bicycles, walked by this man – it distracted him – and towards me. The guy went back over the fence.”
Even in the drama of the moment, Karyl couldn’t help noticing there was something very extraordinary about the riders.
“I remember they had such friendly faces. If you could have put a halo on her head, I would have seen her that way. She said, ‘We’re going to help you.’ She was real quiet, but she said, ‘We’re going to help you get off the Prairie Path. My friend is going back to get your son right now.’ ”
To this day, Karyl’s heart is still filled with gratefulness for what she believes was God’s protection, and she often ponders what happened that day.
Why her son, who knew he was forbidden to talk to strangers or go with them, happily responded to the male bicyclist, never feeling any threat or fear.
Or why this couple who escorted her and preschooler, never made any small talk, which would seem typical of new acquaintances. Instead, side by side, they silently walked their bicycles alongside the mother and son, leaving their charges with a brief goodbye once they were within sight of Karyl’s home.
“It was like they had a mission, and when their mission was accomplished and they thought I was OK, they were gone. I truly believe they were guardian angels put there to safely guide me out of a scary circumstance,” Karyl said, explaining how she had quickly turned back to the path for a final thank you, only to find the two had disappeared, the long straight trail empty in either direction.
Exactly as it had been when a silent cry for help was heard.
Psalm 91:11 (NLT) “For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.”
Lucy note: Karyl Stoutenburg lives in Cadillac, Mich., where she reads Light Notes in the Cadillac News. Her son, Jay, now age 29, lives in Chicago, where he often hears the rumble of passing trains.