A perfect day, a fateful night

At 26, Bernadette Lewis was blossoming, eager to take her next big step in life. But then she took one fatal misstep.

November 21, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

Her Toyota Corolla collects leaves outside the Paca Street apartment. A Shasta soda can squinches in a cup holder. The passenger-side seat belt is missing on account of Lola, her husky pup, who chewed it off. "Live Tough. Live Hard. Live Rugby" reads Bernadette Lewis' bumper sticker.

Inside her apartment, books cram a squat bookshelf: "The Complete Walker" and "West Virginia Hiking Trails" and "Dog Behavior." Compact discs from the feminist folkie Ani DiFranco lounge about the rowhouse in Ridgely's Delight, a snug community where everybody knows your dog's name.

It's early November and nothing appears disturbed since Saturday, Oct. 23, the night of Bernadette's "BYOP" (bring your own pumpkin) party. One pumpkin, carved into a Cyclops, is still in the window. Husks of Indian corn and harvesty candles still decorate the living room, Martha Stewart-style.

Life burns on, though. Flower arrangements hog the countertops and tables. Carnations, sunflowers and wild flowers are here in memory of the free-spirited one, Bernadette Celeste Lewis, who at age 26 and on the night of her Halloween party, had finally decided what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Bern, as friends called her, already was known in certain Baltimore circles for her work at a local women's health clinic and at a Baltimore HIV-prevention program geared for adolescents. They certainly knew her at Pleasant View Gardens and other city housing developments, where Bern educated teen-agers about the AIDS virus.

But the Baltimore transplant from Wisconsin wanted to make a deeper impact. Bern wanted to be a rural physician, maybe on the Eastern Shore. By the Friday before BYOP, she had completed her applications to several medical schools. By Saturday, she was in the mood for her coming out party. In her black Converse tennis shoes, Bern danced with her dog, told stories on herself, even opened her family photo album for all to see.

"It was an incredible night," says her boyfriend, Su-hun Seo, 28. "I'd never seen her that happy. She finally had a clear vision of her future."

And then Bernadette Lewis made a sober yet curious decision. On this night of her life, she and four friends left her party and headed for a nearby railroad crossing on Ridgely Street in southwest Baltimore. At 2 a.m., the only signs of life in this industrial zone were Bernadette, her friends, and a CSX freight train rolling along at 10 mph.

The train never knew what it hit.

"I'd rather hop freights around the country and cook my food out of tin cans over wood fires, than be rich and have a home or work."

-- "The Dharma Bums," Jack Kerouac

"It's a choice," says Jeffrey Lewis, "I personally have made in my life." Long before he adopted Bernadette when she was 11, Jeff Lewis spent a lot of time around trains. Lewis, 43, grew up near Philadelphia's Main Line commuter railroad and took the train to school every day. He and his mates dodged trains and made sure their parents never knew.

Once, he hopped a moving train in Pittsburgh. He felt for the ladder, the "grab iron," to hoist himself up, but felt the earth moving too fast beneath his feet. There's nothing slow about a slow train. He was lucky. "I just got a nail in my foot."

On Sunday, Oct. 24, Lewis and his wife, Debra, were visiting friends in Minneapolis, four hours away from their home in Ashland, Wis. Lewis, a family doctor for a Chippewa Indian reservation, had spoken to Bernadette earlier in the week. Berni, the oldest of his four children, the one who "was not great at making decisions," had called to tell him about her career plans.

To his surprise, Berni also mentioned she'd made plans to visit at Thanksgiving. And that she'd already done her Christmas shopping. She didn't mention that she'd been wondering just what it would be like to hop a freight train herself.

Gone all day Sunday, the Lewises had no idea that 33 phone messages and a note pinned to their front door awaited their return. At 8:30 p.m., they arrived home and spoke with the police.

"No way!" Lewis told the officer. "It's absurd. No way she did that."

Later, he thought about the strength it requires to pull yourself onto a moving train. "Why couldn't she have been stronger?" he asked himself. He imagines that somehow, standing alongside the tracks in southwest Baltimore must have given her that Titanic "King of the World" feeling.

Her parents had worried when Berni moved from the Midwest to the "big city" of Baltimore three years ago. "It was braver than anything I could have done," says her mother. But why her grown-up daughter would try to hop a train ...

"The only thing that makes sense to me is that her whole life was a process of overcoming her fears. She was becoming braver and braver, and this was another step," Lewis says.

"In the end, it was a stupid thing to do, I know."

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