Sunday, September 20, 2009

Track Walking

I am four years old and skipping along Silver Street, holding my mother’s hand. We are going to see the train. My brother rides his tricycle along the side of the road and with her free hand my mother pushes the baby carriage in which my two sisters sit facing one another. The tracks cross our road down near the main road, not even a mile away from home, but when I turn around after we’ve passed the brook I cannot see our house at all so it seems a great distance. When we reach the tracks, we stand far enough away for safety but close enough for the engineer to see us and wave.

We can hear the train before we see it. There’s a crossing just a mile away in the center of town and another a few miles in the other direction in Connecticut. No matter which way the train is traveling, it must sound the crossing whistles – two long, one short, one long – to warn everyone of its coming. The deep rumble of the engine and freight cars follows quickly on the heels of the last whistle and I peer around my mother’s skirt to watch the engine chug its way toward us. It is very exciting.

The train pulls closer. Now I can hear the clanging of the couplings and the groans and creaks of the swaying cars. I can see the engineer high up in the engine, see him pull the rope for the crossing alarm and raise his arm to wave. The whole train is on us all of a sudden with a flash of metal wheels, the undersides of boxcars and tankers and open coal cars clicking past as we count them - one, two, three, four - all the way up to twenty on good days.

At night I lie awake and listen for the train to go by. In the dark, the whistle sounds lonesome and I think of the engineer high up in his seat, leaning out to wave at the stars and the moon.

By the time I am twelve, the parameters of my world have grown and I often go to watch the trains by myself. There is a factory building now on the far side of the tracks and sometimes a boxcar waits there for the train that comes up from Connecticut. When the door is open I can peer in. Usually the car is empty but one day a man is sitting in the car. He has a grizzled beard and his clothes are frayed and dirty. In front of him is a little Sterno stove and on that sits an opened can of beans. He looks at me and nods. I look around; no one is watching so I pull myself up into the car and sit down.

“Beans?” the man asks but I shake my head. His voice sounds rusty, as though he hasn’t used it in a while. I tell him my name and ask his.

“Beans,” he says, holding out a dirty spoon. I am afraid suddenly, though the man has not moved nor uttered more than those two words. Still, if my mother knew I was talking to a stranger… I hop up and go to the door, then turn back. “Bye,” I say. Beans just looks at me and nods.

As a teenager, the fastest way to walk into town is on the tracks. My friend Jeri-Lynn lives on Main Street but her house backs on the tracks so when I visit her, I go that way. I make a game of walking the rails, holding my arms out like a gymnast for balance. By the end of the summer I can walk all the way to her house without falling off once.

This morning the sun draws me out early. I breathe deeply in the sweet, chilly air when I hear a familiar whistle. I stand far enough from the tracks to be safe and close enough for the engineer to see me and wave. I count - one, two, three, four - all the way up to twenty. It is a good day.


Land of shimp said...

I still have a great fondness for train tracks, particularly photographs of tracks leading off into the distance.

The encounter you had with the homeless person reminded me a great many instances in my childhood. There were two old houses, side by side, on River Street where I grew up. They were termed apartment buildings, but I doubt they truly were. They were boarding houses, and stuffed to the gills with the local drunks.

Some of the strangest conversations I ever had in my life were with the men sitting on that front porch. Sometimes they would just silently stare at the kids on their way to the corner store. Sometimes they'd shout things out, or ask questions.

Now there's a set of childhood memories that has gone the way of the Dodo. Kids aren't allowed to go to the store by themselves any longer, in most parts of the country.

Like you memory of walking down the tracks on the way to your friends house. We have that memory in common but very few kids now share that experience.

I've got no real point here. I was just struck by the fact that if I had my nineteen-year-old son read this, he would have a very different reaction. I doubt anything in it would seem familiar to him. Whereas for me, you could be describing one of my memories.

I guess I never thought common situations would become more or less extinct.

Have a good day, very well done, Pauline.

PhilipH said...

This is becoming 'nostalgia Sunday' for this old guy! I love the way you show us the railway lines and your visions and memories. I've just commented on Star's posting about Lowestoft old transport and now there's you giving such a lovely account of rail tracks!

I left a comment on Francis Frith's website a few years ago; they specialise in old photographs of places in the UK. The URL is:

steven said...

on my morning ride to school i cross a set of railway tracks and without fail there's a kid on their way to their own school doing the balancing act. totally unselfconscious, lost in their own world. the rails do that to you. i loved this posting a lot. thanks. steven

JeannetteLS said...

A GOOD day indeed. Thanks for taking us all with you. Marvelous.

Molly said...

Lovely trip down Memory Lane.....If they are the same tracks now as then, what great continuity! Very few people have that any more.

Ruth D~ said...

I love the memories. I have none of train tracks as a child. No, wait. I do!!! Thanks for the memories.:>)

Meggie said...

Train tracks have figured in my life from time to time. They mean many different things in my memories. I enjoyed reading yours.

Barbara said...

I recently observed how trains have become invisible today. They pass under and over us, seldom requiring us to wait and wave while the train passes. I miss those days. Thanks for the reminder.

Sky said...

i was always able to hear the train in my atlanta houses during the many years i lived there (3 different locations). i loved the sound of the cars moving and the whistle blowing in the distance. i miss these train sounds here in our pacific nw home.

Anonymous said...

There is something uniquely romantic about the loco whistle and the train that passes in the distance. This piece is wonderfully evocative of the great American railroad dream.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pauline….

Thanks for your visit.

God, I loved walking the railroad tracks. Your post is such a great reflection of those days and those memories. To this day I can’t drive across a railroad crossing without looking down the tracks, not for a train, but for a young boy on his own adventure anticipating the next curve and what he would find beyond. And if he were lucky, it would be a trestle. And trestles were the ultimate find for me when on those adventures walking the tracks.

To this day I can still tell you where those trestles were and even at this moment, I’m wondering if they are still there and look the same way they looked fifty years ago. But, perhaps some things are best left to the way they are remembered than to what they may have become.

I’m so tickled to have found this post. In the immortal words of Mr. Hope….. “Thanks for the memories!”

Alan G