While driving down a familiar street the other day, I had to cross a set of railroad tracks once again after driving across them many times in the past. There is nothing particularly remarkable about that other than the fact that I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually seen a train on those tracks. It was pondering that absence that triggered memories of long ago trains and their passing.
I can remember many times sitting in my car at a railroad crossing, cursing the bad luck that occasioned my and the train’s convergence at that particular time and place. In situations like that, the train always had the upper hand, being much bigger and incalculably stronger than my puny little car. So invariably I would have to wait for the monster to pass before resuming my hectic life. Sitting there hearing the clicking of metal wheels on metal rails and watching the swaying of the loaded traincars, worked its mesmerizing magic every time. Try as I might, I could never resist counting all those passing boxcars and tankers and flatbeds, with their cryptic markings, either loaded or empty, as they rumbled past.
Where have all those boxcars gone? Where are all those tanker cars and flatbeds now? Gone are the days when the distant rumble of mighty trains, the warning horn blast announcing its imminent arrival, meant that the treasures of commerce were on the move, all manner of wondrous goods being brought to market. I’m sure there are still trains hauling commodities across the country, but they just don’t seem to be as plentiful or to hold the same magic they once did. The trains that still roll along the tracks seem to be mere shadows of their former selves, shorter by dozens of cars and more run down and shabby looking. They appear to be truncated, abbreviated, pared down remnant of their former selves. edited down to bare essentials, the Readers Digest of trains.
The magic of trains first presented itself to me when I was 4 or 5 years old and we lived across the street from a main line of the railroad. The tracks that held the trains in check were planted atop a berm about fifteen feet high only about 40 yards away from our house. That close proximity made the passing trains almost larger than a small boy’s mind could comprehend. I was fascinated by those trains that sometimes roared past like an unchained beast, or that sometimes slithered along like a sloth on holiday. The only constant with all those trains was the whistle that always came before the train and the deafening horn blast that made a raucous announcement of the train’s imminent arrival across the street.
Even after witnessing many of those arrivals, I was never able to predict just when the next train was scheduled to invade my world. And even more confusing was that I never knew which direction the trains would come from. Those tracks knew no direction—they allowed trains to go either this way or that. It was a mystery to my young mind how the trains never seemed to crash into each other. If a train wanted to go south, no northbound train would stand in its way. What a miracle that seemed to me. I couldn’t fathom the reason for that, only assumed that God had a train schedule in front of him and made sure that no two trains ever tried to use the same track at the same time.
Living in a house so close to the tracks meant that we had an intimate relationship with the noise and vibration produced by those passing trains. And while sometimes the noise was nearly intolerable, like when the huge diesel engines, stained with the soot and oil of a thousand miles, were struggling to move the enormous mass behind them. Or at other times, when the train was floating by with effortless grace, the noise wasn’t noise at all, but a soothing background similar to the sound of waves on the shore or crickets chirping in the evening. The vibrations, too, caused by those tons of rolling boxes, had different feelings depending on when they arrived. During the day when we played outside those vibrations were a scary warning of the enormous power and danger riding along the tracks. But at night, when I was nestled under the covers, those vibrations, dampened by the journey through the ground, the concrete of the street, the walls of the house, and the mattress beneath me, were a humming lullaby tickling my limbs leading me to sleep.
Eventually we moved from that house to another house well away from the tracks and the disturbance of trains. I lost touch then with the magic and fascination that those trains had for me. I no longer waved at the engineer who always waved back, no longer heard the horn blast. I always thought that the engineer sounded his horn whenever he passed my house as a greeting just for me, but, of course, he was only signaling a warning to the next crossroad up ahead. Trains gradually became just something else that got in my way whenever I was in a hurry. And now they seem to have mostly disappeared from my life, the only reminders the abandoned tracks that still cross the streets.
So many of the old railroad right-of-ways have lost their tracks, their surfaces given over to pedestrians and bicyclists. So many memories and sensations have been lost with those long gone rails. And though I don’t much miss the noise those trains created, I wouldn’t mind once again falling to sleep to the rhythmic hum and soothing vibrations coming through the house from across the street.
So many trains have passed by in my life, receding into the distance down the track. With them go the magic of boyhood, the wonder at things huge and mysterious. As they fade into the night, they take along the memories loaded in those boxcars, leaving me with only vague feelings that life’s special moments are traveling away with them. Each boxcar carries away a moment from my life, never to be returned. All I can do, all anyone can do, is get on that train and ride it to the end of the line, enjoying the clickclack of wheels on rails, reveling in the swaying motion, and rejoicing in the horn blast as we pass each crossroad. All aboard!