I lay awake in bed today in the early morning hours somewhere between 4:30 AM and 5:00 AM. That’s when I heard it. That lonesome whistle; the distant sound of a freight train. And it called to me . . . as it has ever since I was a young boy.
I don’t know what it is about trains, but boys everywhere I’ve lived seem to be enthralled with them. And it happens at such a young age. My grandson, not yet two years old, loves trains. He’ll watch videos of trains, he’ll play with toy trains (right now Thomas is his favorite), he’ll squeal with delight as we set up his wooden train track, and he’s even seen a real train at nearby Stone Mountain Park. What is the source of this seemingly ubiquitous fascination with trains?
I’ll never forget the day (I was 9 years old or younger) when Mickey’s father (he was my next door neighbor) said we could come down to the train yard in Chattanooga and he would give us a short ride in the engine. How exciting! It was brief. And slow. But it was so cool!
My father worked for Southern Railway as a young man; he served as a steward for a time (both Mom and Dad worked at one time for Railway Express, as I recall). This is also where he got to meet (and sing for) his musical hero, John Charles Thomas. This was also the train yard where a man approached my father one night asking for a match to light a cigarette, then pulled a knife on him and tried to rob him. My Dad said when he saw that knife he ran so fast there was no way in the world that man could catch him!
Arlo Guthrie wrote about “the train they call the City of New Orleans.” Johnny Cash sang about that ominous “whistle blowing” in Folsom Prison Blues, and Josh Turner warned us about “that Long Black Train.” In fact, the list of train songs is so long there is no way I could begin to list them all; they go on for pages and pages.
Every day as I drive home from work I pass over a train track that calls out to me. The rails look rusty (which just adds to the mystique), and they curve out of sight within a hundred yards or so. Those tracks beckon me to follow. One day when I was in college in Arkansas I followed some train tracks which called out to me over and over again. I ended up walking the 10 miles roundtrip from Searcy to Kensett on those tracks. I just wanted to see how the town would look from the vantage point of a passenger on a train.
I know. I am a hobo at heart. I’d love to hop a train.
When I was a junior in high school my family took a vacation trip to Colorado. My parents had reserved seats for us on a 45 mile narrow gauge train ride from Durango to Silverton. It was unforgettable! The train was an old-time locomotive, and it would blow hurtful cinders in your eyes if you weren’t careful (and I wasn’t). We crossed over rushing streams far below us, and passed snow covered peaks close to 14,000 feet in elevation.
But what is it about trains that is so compelling?
Working at Stone Mountain Park for the last decade has provided me with ample opportunity to explore trains and train tracks. The train shop and the train yard are filled with old train parts and long sections of track no longer in use. Train parts are enormously heavy (they are made of steel mostly); track can weigh up to 45 lbs. per foot. But there is mystique even surrounding train parts. It’s as if stories lie hidden in the steel; tales yearning to be told, yet muzzled by time.
Engineers, conductors, brakemen, stewards, porters, firemen, etc. As a boy, train jobs enticed me. But I was taught at an early age that trains were a thing of the past, that with modern times they would soon disappear. That made me sad as a 9 year old, and I rued the day. But now, 50 years later, I see that trains are still with us. Not many passenger trains, granted. But trains that carry cargo across our country in the same way they have for 150 years. Trucking and air travel have still not eradicated the train. I wonder if they ever will.
I think not. Trains, I suspect, are here to stay.
But why this intrigue with trains? I wonder if it has to do with power?
There is a reason why we are glued to our seats as we watch Denzel Washington pursue a runaway diesel engine in the 2010 movie, Unstoppable. And there is a reason why we recognize and automatically relate when we hear the HVAC slogan, “You can’t stop a Trane.”
Trains have power. Enormous power. The engine itself weighs anywhere between 240 to 480 thousand lbs., and the cars it pulls weigh in at 60 thousand pounds each (unloaded). No wonder it takes such a long distance (sometimes a whole mile) for a fully loaded freight train to stop once the brakes are applied.
A good friend of mine sent a train video recently for me to show my grandson. It showed a train engine in New Zealand plowing through deep snow drifts on the railroad tracks. Amazing power! It seemed to clear the tracks with no effort whatsoever, easily pushing the snowdrifts as if they were being blown by the wind.
And my grandson watched it. Over, and over, and over again.
I know there is adventure that calls to me in the train tracks, almost like a Greek siren, only . . . different. Not connoting foreboding so much; rather, escape to new lands, unconquered terrain, unexplored wilderness. The John Muir in us all. Or as Tim McGraw might put it, “the cowboy in us all.”
But then, the train itself? For me, at least, it must have to do with power.
The indestructible, the unstoppable, the relentless . . . . That which never quits. It is the John Henry gene. That quality of unsinkableness. That buoyant spirit. That indefatigable and unyielding attitude of persistence.
It is what makes countries. It is what builds bridges over impassable expanses. It is what still achieves when all hope has been lost.
I want this gene.
I love trains.