Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Like Trains

If you are looking for secrets hidden away in a man’s private life, you won’t find one this time. It is no secret. I like trains.

I like all sizes. Long ones. Short ones. Double stacks. Coal trains. Mixed freights. Through freights and local switch jobs. I even like the bland, “pablumesque” Amtrak passenger trains. It doesn’t make any difference. I like trains.

My childhood Texas home was adjacent to an Espe (Southern Pacific) branch line that ran from Wharton to Bay City and on to Palacios. Dad rode this line to Palacios and Camp Hulen during the run-up to World War II. I am sure, as the troop train lumbered through the coastal rice and cotton fields, skirting at that time what was the edge of Bay City, he never envisioned he was passing the future home site where he and our mother would raise their family of five children.

The Espe used the tracks five days a week. Each morning the local drifted into town to deliver grain cars for the rice mills, flat cars for the cotton gin and implements dealers as well as carloads of foodstuffs for the wholesale grocers. Every evening, after serving its time, the train would trundle back to Wharton with whatever offerings Matagorda County presented to the economy of the world.

Nothing majestic ever happened on our branch-line. Until one day.

Early one morning I had not yet stirred from my bed. The loudest train horn I ever heard shook my room. I remember it hurt my ears it was so loud.

I ran to the window of my bedroom and looked out. What to my wondering eyes should appear but a sleek, shiny passenger engine pulling a string of colorful railcars! It was a circus train! The circus came to Bay City and it took a train to do it.

The railroad crews were our friends. We would hear the train coming, blowing the traditional two longs, a short and a long. The neighborhood children would run to the tracks and wave.

I never knew their names. I don’t know if there was a Jim, William, Grover or Hiram. I never knew if one was Butch, Jake or High Pockets. I did know they were my friends and we never neglected to wave at the men in the caboose.

Ah, the caboose. That shanty, rolling office and emblem of a working man was a sign that all good things must come to an end.

There were two reasons we looked forward to the caboose. We enjoyed getting the conductor to “toot the whistle” on the caboose. The caboose had a small whistle attached to the airline that serviced the train brakes. When an engine pushed the train in reverse, the crew sounded, however anemically, the whistle to warn road crossings or pedestrians of impending doom.

We would shout, “Toot your whistle.” The crew would do just that and we would laugh and clap. It didn’t take much to entertain this pre-Nintendo child.

There was often a special reward. Sometimes the caboose crew would throw candy to us. This was before we x-rayed our children’s Halloween loot and warned them about taking something from a stranger. In a simpler time, it was what it was. A couple of men entertained themselves giving neighborhood children a thrill.

I don’t know when I last ran to that track by our home to watch the train rumble into town. I am sure my “Puff the Magic Dragon” rolled down the track one day wondering about the little boy who faithfully met him all those years.

My siblings outgrew our neighborhood train. I never did. Whatever drew me draws me still.

My daughters could read railroad semaphore lights before they knew how to sew and cook. I once compelled my wife to interrupt our antique foraging so we could chase a Santa Fe Warbonnet cowl unit on the Gateway Western in Illinois. I have photos of trains long forgotten taken in obscure places such as Santa Fe Junction in the Kansas City bottoms, Thompson Hill on the old Wabash and WB Junction near Carrolton.

But oh, the fun I’ve had. I’ve sat in the engineer’s seat of a dinner train in Stillwater, MN and, with Viki sitting in the conductor’s, brought it slowly down the last six miles of track. I rode in the trailing locomotive on an “Operation Life Saver” train outside of Quincy, IL, when everything went into emergency and saw first hand how long it takes to stop something that big and powerful. I rode a motor unit for the Iowa Traction company, a railroad running electric freight trains between Clear Lake and Mason City, IA.

I’ve visited in the control tower with the bridge operator in Hastings, MN, while he raised his tracks to let various boats with their cargos move unimpeded. I once watched the steempowered sternwheeler "Delta Queen" churn up the Missippi River as it passed under the upraised old Wabash liftbridge in Mark Twain's Hannibal, MO. The caliope musician started playing "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" as it went under.

I seldom have time to chase trains now. I suppose I’m looking instead for the more unusual photo op.

Recently, however, while driving from Faribault to Northfield, my wife called on my cell to inquire when I would be finished with my work and on my way home. She had her answer before I could speak. Just as I was ready to give her a time-line, and not wanting to bother her with the details for my current tardiness, the horns on a Minneapolis-bound UP freight I was pacing blew a crossing.

I am sure she smiled, shook her head and wondered if her husband would ever grow up.