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.