Two hours late. Two
The Southern mail was two hours late.
“You running too fast
You ran the last three lights we passed.”
Casey say, “We’ll make
She’s steamin’ better than I ever knew.”
Casey say, “Don’t you
Keep feedin’ the fire; don’t give up yet.
Run her ‘til she leaves the rail.
To be on time with the Southern mail.”
--The Ballad of Casey Jones
Ó2005 printed with permission
hen I was a little boy, I had a burning envy of my two cousins, John and Joe. They had the enormous good fortune to live in a world of trains. Wonderful, awe-inspiring trains—trains driven by huge, steam-powered locomotives.
In the first place, their father, my Uncle Sloan, worked as a clerk for the Cotton Belt branch of the Southern Pacific Railway, and he brought railroad talk home. But more impressive to me was the fact that John and Joe and Uncle Sloan and Aunt Dorothy lived in a tiny Southern village right next to the railroad tracks—in what had been an old train depot.
Dating from the early days of railroading in the area, the 1880s, and now unemployed from its original purpose of serving passengers and freight, the depot had been rolled on logs from the other side of the railroad tracks, down the two-lane highway a bit, and put down where they lived in it—still only a kid’s rock throw from the tracks. It was without electricity or running water, but it was a large and sturdy home for a family without many resources.
To me, that old depot was an exciting place. It had wide and graceful overhanging eaves, tall windows, high ceilings, all kinds of intriguing angles and nooks, and a big bay window that looked out over the highway and the train tracks just beyond. I was a small town and city kid. So when I visited my rural cousins, I found that there were adventures aplenty to be had in that depot, as well as along the country road by the side of the house—and in the crawdad-filled ditches that ran beside the road. All of this was a revelation. But the trains were the best part.
Now, you have seen modern trains: sleek, tidy, domesticated machines propelled by efficient—and muted—diesel-electric engines. But you probably have not seen—and heard—and felt—from a few yards away—the granddaddy of those trains, those steam-powered, fire-breathing marvels that I still think of as r-e-a-l trains. They claimed a far longer stretch of history than have our current trains, and they were, to many of us, far more impressive in looks and performance. They were pulled by a steam locomotive, an enormous iron horse, thick-muscled, strictly working-class, and intolerant of nonsense. These beasts ruled the rails, and knew it. They could thus hardly be blamed for a tendency toward pride, even arrogance.
Those great trains rocketed along straight-aways through the countryside and small towns, their cars swaying and rocking at 75 or 80 miles an hour. They delivered the nation’s heavy freight (iron ore, coal, finished steel, timber, cement, crushed stone, grain, foods of all kinds, farm machinery—an endless list), as well as sacks of mail; and passenger trains had travelers who could enjoy a meal in the dining car as they watched the scenery fly by. If you lived next to a straight stretch of track in a remote area, as my White County, Arkansas, relatives did, high dramas unfolded for you several times every day and night, and you knew the essential plot very well.
Hulking and intimidating in appearance, and frequently covered in black soot, these old coal-fired locomotives got the goods through in all kinds of weather. They bound together major cities and comforted small out-of-the-way towns with their visits; in villages and rural areas, they delighted us by racing by at exhilarating speed and snatching from poles beside the track canvas bags filled with outgoing mail, and at the same time kicking out another bag, laden with letters and news from the outside world, so it would tumble to a stop beside the tracks in just the right spot—most of the time.
They treated passengers to moving luxury, wowed kids along the way, and—when the mood struck—could lay down a long, hanging line of blue-gray smoke that shaded into purple against the red glow of the setting sun. On clear winter days, the locomotive puffed out billows of white steam, and when the caboose sailed by, it might trail off its roof little whirlwinds of snowflakes that would spin and sparkle in the sun as they rolled toward the tracks. Afterward, lingering wisps of acrid coal smoke told you it was not a dream.
And, at night…
* * *
Reaching back sixty years, I remember…
Traffic is infrequent on the two-lane by the depot at night, and things are quiet. John and Joe and I are lying in our beds in the big room—rumored to have been the depot’s waiting room—talking for awhile before we drop off to sleep, and maybe looking out through the bay window at the moon and stars.
Soon, I am on the edge of sleep...
At first, I mistake it for a dream—a far-off, barely perceptible sound. A warning that the beast is out there in the night, ready to attack. Bit by bit, the rapid SHHUU-ka-chug-SHHUU-ka-chug-SHHUU-ka-chug of the steam locomotive grows louder. The deep rumbling of the massive weight it is hurling along the rails toward our beds gets closer. In a short time, it overpowers my senses, shutting out all else. I feel—feel—the rolling mass of the train; even Aunt Dorothy’s little knickknacks on the shelf start to vibrate.
And I know what is next.
Like a vengeful being from the underworld, the locomotive thunders by on its driving wheels, terrible, churning wheels as tall as a kid’s head, and the flames escaping from its orange-hot firebox flash into our room and swirl and flicker around the walls as the mile-long string of cars behind the engine pounds the tracks, clanking and complaining, furious at being hurried so fast through the dead of night. The powerful rhythm of the engine rattles the bay window, and the steel-on-steel screeching of hundreds of heavy wheels tells of vital and pressing business down the line.
In all, it is like a biblical force, come to smite unbelievers, confirm the faithful, and stun through visions of glory. I lie in bed, knowing that the big, bright moon of a headlamp high on the front of the locomotive is probing far forward into the darkness. Up ahead on the tracks, its stark beam, the steadily increasing rumble, and blasts from the steam whistle, warn any unwise creature or human of onrushing, unstoppable death.
It is fearsome and thrilling. My cousins—who have year-around tickets to the performances—are more blasé, and may even sleep through the clamor, but I never tire of the unequalled drama and tumult.
Finally, the train passes on by, and the din slowly fades away. Safe in my bed, I see in my mind the disappearing red tail-light reflecting dimly along on the rails as the train is swallowed back into the night. I know, outside, only a few lingering whiffs of smoke remain.
It becomes quiet...
For a time, it seems unnaturally quiet. But I soon hear the crickets in Aunt Dorothy’s garden out back, and the frogs in the ditch, calling to us. They are seeking reassurance I know. All is well, and I am also reassured.
Destined to be awake for a while, I am left to imagine what mysterious place the train is bound for. “St. Louis,” Sloan had once said as he looked at his big gold pocket watch (the one that we kids are not supposed to play with). I do not know that place. But the fury of the train in its mission to get there tells me it must be a busy and important place filled with wonders, things that I may someday see for myself.
* * *
Time, however, was not on the side of these fine monsters. Even as I lay transfixed by their feats, they were, like dinosaurs, rapidly passing into history. By about the mid-1950s, they had mostly been displaced by modern locomotives. Today, a few can be seen, sitting idly in museums; even fewer meekly roll along (generally short) sections of track, mostly for the delight of train buffs, and curious tourists. The high tide of their utility and glory is gone.
My cousins’ depot is no longer a home next to the tracks. Like the trains it once serviced, its days of work and practical utility have ended, and it has been moved down the highway once more. It now enjoys an honorable rest in the nearby County Seat, preserved as a piece of history, a reminder of an evermore forgotten age.
In time, my cousins would leave their place by the tracks to travel the world; and I would see St. Louis—and Paris, Shanghai, Nairobi, Madrid—each unique and glorious in its own way of course. But, for this kid, the memories of those thundering hot-iron beasts just outside my window, and their enticements to unknown splendors waiting far down the line, will always remain—as vivid and clear as those magical flashes of fire above my bed on long-ago nights. vvv
The writer grew up in Arkansas (Levy, Jacksonville, Ward), Texas, and New Mexico. He received a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a Navy officer in the Pacific during the Vietnam era. Currently, he is a Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at the University of Louisville. He and his wife Melinda live (“with our two Shelties, Andy and Edi") in St. Matthews, Kentucky. He recently became a graduate of nonfiction writing programs at the University of Iowa, the Writer's Digest, and Gotham Writer's Workshop, and has published several magazine articles.