By Dan Graves
---- — I’ve always said it ain’t just the freedom that lets a bum enjoy life as much as the mode of transportation he uses.
For years the railroad tracks through our town had been used for nothing but producing rust and growing weeds.
Admittedly, a weed-choked rail bed is an excellent place for hunting rabbits, but more often than not I used the old rails for practicing my tight rope walking ability, using my shotgun as a balancing pole while pretending to be one of the Great Wallendas. Occasionally, a rabbit would scurry away unmolested while I daydreamed about those monstrous machines that plied these routes with their seemingly limitless power.
One day, after years of silence, I heard the faint blast of a melodious horn. Running from the house, I watched as a diesel engine pulling a handful of cars lumbered over the crossing a block south of us. With a rush of excitement I realized that once again I had the means of converting pennies from legal tender into large, thin wafers of copper. I might even lay a dime or two on the tracks. Turning coins into expendable(pun intended) trinkets isn’t recommended for safety’s sake, but it is one of the fond memories I have of the era of the railroads.
Growing up when trains were a major source of transportation and freight hauling, I developed a fondness for them that continues today (since those of you who live along today’s active tracks may not agree, when stoning my house, please use a size that I can use on my driveway). My mother, who seemed intent on working us kids into an early grave, opened a small restaurant along the tracks in our home town and put my sister and I to work bussing tables. Cleaning dirty dishes didn’t anchor my ambitions for a future profession in the food service business, so my sister and I sneaked out often to play around the boxcars parked on sidings. Daily passenger trains would find us standing by the tracks as these thundering behemoths rushed by in a hurricane of noise and wind, trailing sleek passenger cars filled with travelers to such exotic far off places as Cincinnati and Louisville.
Our daily vigil was noticed by a conductor on one such daily train, who would step out between cars and fling a handful of mints wrapped in foil emblazoned with the Monon logo. His timing would either have us ducking the shining missiles or holding up traffic as we gathered our booty from the street.
Leaning out precariously between coaches, with his immaculate uniform and cap highlighting a dark bronze face and a smile that said volumes about the man, he would fling his prizes and follow with waves as he roared by at fifty miles an hour, leaving us dizzy from the motion and noise. We found ourselves anticipating, not so much the candy, but the man, who to this day I regret never having been able to thank for his contribution to my childhood.
Due to the volume and quality of work being performed at the restaurant, and to get us out from underfoot, management decided to deport us to a relative in Norfolk for a few weeks. In those days children could safely travel unescorted. We were turned over to the porters and conductors and royalty couldn’t have received better treatment. We were pampered unmercifully and personally escorted to our seats when changing trains, where the second crew assumed responsibility for our safe travel. While the first train was pulled by the powerful, relatively new diesel, we were carried on through the night by a huge sinister looking steam engine. The sound of a melodious steam whistle and the hammering of driving pistons will be forever etched in memory. Progress be hanged.
The passage of these magnificent machines the exuded such power and seemed to be alive and only slumbering when at rest compares to the dying gasp of the last whale on earth. What other period can evoke such melancholy feelings of a time when children could safely travel such distances under the care of people who smiled at you from under hats with glistening badges on the crown and who tucked your blanket under your chin to ease your fears? Home didn’t seem so far away.
A fishing trip with my dad and brother provided one of the last but most vivid memories of steam power. With a planned all night curriculum, we were engaged in my least favorite pastime of drowning worms in the White River. The idea of consuming catfish dragged from this muddy sewer was repulsive, and I had no intention of touching one of those fish before it had been shot and hung out to dry for at least a week. Having been horned by one of them, I would rather have kissed a rattlesnake on the nose than eat one of those ugly villains.
I had to fish because I was forbidden to pass the time by throwing rocks into the river. By midnight, the river bottoms were bathed in brilliant moonlight while wisps of mist curled off the water in a silence broken only by the occasional bellow of what sounded like bullfrogs the size of beagle hounds.
A half mile away, railroad tracks wound into a tunnel carved through a large hill and faded into the distance like a silvery thread in the moonlight. From a long distance away and getting closer, the sound of a large steam engine laboring under a heavy load drifted through the still air, its two toned whistle playing a melody in short bursts that echoed repeatedly through the river bottoms. Rounding a curve into our view, its huge headlight gleaming, it plunged into the tunnel and subsided into a muffled roar. Belching steam and smoke like a massive cannon ball, the engine emerged from the tunnel mouth, straining against a slight uphill grade with what sounded like limitless energy at the engineers command.
Time and again the whistle reverberated off the hills as even my dad stood transfixed by this spectacle in the moonlight. We continued to watch as the apparition faded into the distance like a noisy ghost disappearing into history, leaving us with a hollow feeling of loss at the inevitable demise of such sights as this. Although progress is an unavoidable part of life, I’ll always believe that moonlight, mist and steam whistles are an unbeatable combination.
Maybe someday someone will find a way to breed a good looking catfish.