It’s four in the morning. I am drifting and the train whistle across the valley ebbs and flows with my consciousness. It is a lonely, yet somehow comforting sound, filled with promise, alluring, the sound of moving on.
Of course, it’s all just the mystique of trains; a magic that has lingered since the Golden Spike was driven and the silver rails became roads to anywhere. It made folk heroes out of hobos, and engineers, and trainmen became the riders of chariots of fire. This transport opened a continent, and people could not resist its siren song.
I turned thirteen shortly after our family moved to Talladega, AL. Our stay there was short, only a few months maybe. It was open, lonely country out there with few neighbors and none near at hand. A train track crossed the wide dirt road that led to our house. I could stand on the porch and wave at the engineer and he would toot his horn and wave back.
There was a little red caboose then and boxcars with names of places and companies I’d never heard of. Everything about it told a story. Just the empty rail itself sang to me, called to me to test my skills at walking the summer hot silver line like a tightrope walker, or skipping on the cross ties without touching the gravel. There’s not much I missed about that place when we left except the trains, and the track and the men who rode them.
So naturally I married a railroad man. Mike and I were a railroad family for many years while the kids were growing up. But the long hauls and longer separations took its toll and Mike turned to other occupations. But he was there long enough for our granddaughter Kayla, age three then, to tour a train and toot the whistle.
But he told of long days and longer nights, when sleep crept upon a man unawares and had to be fought like a demon. He told of heart stopping episodes when flesh and blood inside flimsy autos dared the iron horse to tragic effect. Of coming upon men on dark nights while walking the train as it waited in a pass track — some were benign, some you approached cautiously, some you left alone. Of bricks and stones thrown from the wayside through gang-ridden areas. Of friends and co-workers traumatized by derailments, who saw the inevitable and jumped at the last minute. But mostly he told of mind-numbing miles with the sound of the wheels churning on and on and on.
Mike’s hometown, Fitzgerald, Georgia, was a railroad town. For many years the local economy centered around it. Still does to a certain extent. A man told me once that he’d driven across country and only got stopped by a train twice — once when he left Fitzgerald and once when he got back.
I remember when the mayor was just set to break ground for the new library. But when his shovel touched dirt and his political voice was into the first sentence of his speech, a train chose that moment to pass. The new ground was pretty close by the track. As we all waited patiently for our ears to stop ringing, the mayor laughed and said — “That’s the beautiful sound of commerce.”
But, of course, that was a freight train. I’ve only ridden one passenger train, and it was an old excursion model I was writing a newspaper article about. I still loved the experience, even though we didn’t get to go very far.
The love and mystique of trains has not abated, even in the 21st century. Of all ways of travel, the train and the rails have a place in the American heart like nothing else. Somehow, the mystery and magic does not hover over the airplane or the automobile like this chariot of fire, the iron horse. Songs and stories and books abound, as well as hobbyists.
And no one ever penned that intangible longing after that far off whistle like Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem “Travel”. It’s stark simplicity captures the essence of that feeling.
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.
All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.