We never notice it during the day. But last night was one of those nights when Sleep was hiding just beyond the shadows, afraid that I would grab her and hold on until morning. During the day there is too much of everything else going on that we would have to concentrate hard if we were to hear it.
Last night, however, during that sleepless interlude when Sleep was flitting in and out of the shadows, teasing me, I counted six times that I was almost lulled toward sleep by the urgent drone of a fast moving freight train. That drone, along with the vibrations that echoed through the ground from a half mile away, together were the unmistakeable announcement that something important was happening either north or south (I couldn't tell which way the train was moving) and it was paramount that the train be there on time, whether to witness or participate I could only guess at.
Clicketyclackclittyclack that train aimed toward its destination, roaring past the barricades that were meant to stop the feeble autos that would skip across the tracks after the train had pulled the last railcar down the line. That roar and its echo changed the night into a Doppler serenade, gradually dying off into a sigh that only those waiting for it could hear.
People have mostly given in to the notion that a passing freight train, heard from a distance, stirs the soul and fills it with romance. There is nothing romantic about a freight train taking its time passing in front of you with a stacked up jumble of cars jamming the one lane street, stopped and waiting for the damn train to pass on by so you can get to your very important meeting. There is nothing particularly romantic about a hungry hobo hopping on a freight train, hoping it was going someplace warm. There is nothing romantic about counting train cars as they move across your only route to that very important meeting. Stuck in a situation like that, I could never count past 50 or so because the cars were whizzing by like they were being chased by a guy named Lionel, who wanted to shrink the entire train and give it to good little girls and boys, or because the passing train was moving so slowly that I would fall asleep by a count of 30.
Can someone please explain to me the immutable law of the Train Gods that says the slower a train moves, the longer it must be with cars overloaded with exotic and other unusual goods destined for exotic and unusual places. And why does it always seem that the train workers controlling their behemoth hunk of machinery can walk alongside their slow moving status symbol, and become more haughty and seem as though they are thumbing their noses at us while we are locked in the parking lot that should be a street, where we are held at bay by that one flimsy barricade pole stretching across our path. I'm sure that there are many like me who formed amazing fantasies about how the train workers would be tortured with rail spikes driven through their skulls with 20 pound sledge hammers, then tied to the tracks just before the express train arrived with its arrogance on full display, and while screaming for you to get out of the way, chopped those workers tied to its track into hamburgers that would later feed all the hobos on board.
Those hobos had it all wrong. I figured that if you were going to ride on the train, you would do so by sitting in a seat in the specially appointed passenger cars, or if you were really special, in the caboose. I never bought into that romantic notion, preferring to dwell on the power of the engine that put forth the Herculean effort to pull so many boxcars behind it. That an engine, usually alone at the front of the line, was able to generate enough power to control its family of boxcars, tankers, flat beds, and the punctuation of a caboose, has always been a source of wonder for me.
My train training began when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. We then lived across the street from a set of tracks that sat on top of a ten foot berm. There the tracks were so close that when it passed we could see the gleam in the eye of the engineer, who knew what a special place he held in the imaginations of the kids he waved to as he chugged on past.
That set of tracks also seemed busier at night, too. That it passed through our neighborhood more slowly than normal may have been a concession to the local powers that be who wanted as little disturbance as possible for the people who lived there. That was fine with me because I could curl up in my bed, listening to the monster across the street roar on by and feel the vibrations that nearly crumbled the walls of the house and feel safe.
I'm sure that the trains, those scary, noisy monsters, fueled my imagination and provided me the early lesson to pay attention to what was going on around me. That's why I would never cross the street without someone holding my hand to make sure I didn't get too close to the tracks. That's why, although I've never seen it, I have such a clear picture of that train in my mind, when I hear the night trains now, not across the street, but that half mile away. That sound wafting over the terrain that separates us will always bring back those early memories of when trains were exotic monsters to be respected, wondered at, and enjoyed for all their power to inflame boys, now men, with wonder.