Ridin’ the rails in my memories


Good morning. Come on in. I’ve got trains on my mind today.

I’ve been able to sleep the past few nights with my windows open. I always look forward to this time of the year and its companion time in the spring when it is cool enough to sleep at night without the air conditioner and warm enough to sleep without the furnace and vice versa in the spring. If I’m lucky, it will last until the end of October.  The temperature outside  is 6Oo but inside my bedroom, it is currently 73o. I had energy efficient windows installed almost ten years ago and extra insulation added five years ago. It makes for a very comfortable and quiet home. (I’ve digressed, haven’t I?)

What does that have to do with trains? Simple. When the windows are closed, it is much more quiet at night. Noise doesn’t penetrate the double paned windows easily. I hear very little outside noise unless it is directly in front of the house. My house is situated in the middle of two freight train tracks approximately 1.5 miles apart. When the windows are open, the train whistles that blow at the crossing sound like they are coming from the end of the block. Sometimes, I can hear the train’s wheels speeding over the tracks. The sound of the trains’ lonesome whistles to the west and the east enter both sides of my corner bedroom. Sometimes it sounds almost like stereo.

I can lay  at night in my bed listening to the sounds of the trains and remember my childhood bedroom. I lived on top of a mile long hill that separated my home from the wire company situated at the bottom of the hill. The factory was about 1 1/2 miles away to the north but that wasn’t as the crow flies. The sound was actually in flying distance about four blocks away, given the steepness of the hill. I didn’t pay attention to the noises during the day, but at night, with my windows open on the second floor, I could clearly hear the train cars being coupled together, bumping into each other with loud thuds. The company constantly moved raw materials in and finished products out every hour of the day and night.

Those sounds at night often left me with a melancholy ache. I heard the whistles calling me and thought of  the trains as a way of their being able to carry me away. I thought of the freedom hoboesto “ride the rails” as hoboes did in the decades prior to my birth. Of course, as a child, I didn’t see the poverty, or the despair, or the danger to the women who lived that lifestyle back then. I saw the freedom and the adventure with no one to have control over me.

As a very young child, I always wanted to travel as far as I could go. My aunt, who cared for me during my mother’s illness, tied a  clothes line rope tether onto the straps of my sunsuit which she anchored firmly to a front yard tree. She could go about her daily chores within her house, watching me through the windows, and I was free to safely wander within the confines of the front yard and the length of my tether.

My cousin told me a few years ago that it became the entertainment of the older children in the neighborhood to untie me and watch how far I could run before I got caught again. Back then freedom meant going as far as my little feet could fly. I had no place in particular to go, I just loved the freedom of the run.

The life of the hobo appealed to me. There would be no one around to limit me, to tell me what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It would give me a break from the unspoken gloom held within the walls of our house and allow me to stretch and grow in the sunshine. I could gain friends beyond the other pupils  in my grade school class, my Sunday School, my neighborhood. Those were the limits of my world. In a way it was a mile square box that I wanted to be freed from.

During my childhood, an aunt, who lived in California, would come to visit every few years. My father drove us north about thirteen miles to the nearest train station to await Super Chief 2her arrival aboard the Super Chief which traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago. The excitement of the forever long ride in the car, and the waiting and watching for the train to arrive was almost exquisitely unbearable. We were often the only ones waiting at the small station. There were very few people who ever got off with her. It was like she had her own coach and she was the queen.

My father many times gave me pennies to put on the tracks. When the train left the station, generally within five minutes of its arrival, I would search the track area to find the shiny, still hot, flattened pieces of copper and would store them as reminders of my aunt’s visit. Her visit symbolized the ever so brief return of some love to my life. A week or so later we would reverse our trip and she would disappear to the west again in the early evening as the sun was setting.

She told my father that she often wished she could take me with her to California. It was impossible because she and her sister both worked full time. There would be no one to watch over me. The knowledge of her wanting me meant much to me. The knowledge that she couldn’t care for me saddened me greatly. I would have loved growing up in California in the 50s and 60s at a time when the population was not so huge and the ocean was only a few short blocks from her Long Beach home. That would have been heaven.

When I graduated from high school my graduation present was a trip to California with the tethering aunt to visit the visiting aunt (they were sisters). It was now my turn to ride the train. I was enthralled. We rode in coach, but the chairs leaned back further and were separated more from each other than today’s Amtrak cars. In the dining room we sat at real tables with moveable chairs. White linens covered the tables. The silverware was actually silver. Fresh flowers stood in vases next to the window. Waiters poured steaming cups of coffee from silver pots. Had the car not swayed, I would have thought I were in a fancy hotel dining room. A chef on board actually cooked the meals. Those were nice days.

It took two nights to arrive in California. The second night I met a young man much older than me. He was almost finished with college. We sat in the club car and talked forever as the car slowly emptied itself of passengers. We continued to talk. … and talk…( ok…managed to kiss a few times). I didn’t have a watch on, but it was getting late into the night. We both had to go to the bathroom at the same time. We came back and talked some more. It must have been almost 3 AM or later when I made my way back to a very worried aunt. She had come looking for me at the time we took our mutual breaks. She knew the train hadn’t made a stop, but she had no idea what had happened to me. Maybe she thought I had been dragged into a sleeping car. I didn’t ask.  The ride home was not as memorable.

I took another ride to California during college, this time staying with a cousin I didn’t meet until I got out there. She introduced me to more of my maternal relatives.

I rode from my home to Chicago several times the two years I attended college there. On my trip to Russia I rode from Moscow to Kiev overnight. The bar served marvelous vodka and the Russian guys were cute. I took my son back “home” to visit when he was in pre-school. He had a wonderful time riding in the top bunk. 

 I’ve gone back twice to visit on my own. I gave myself the luxury of a sleeping car on this second trip last December. The “roomettes” have definitely shrunk in the past thirty years. Little did I know how uncomfortable the thin mattressed bunks had become or how much I would have to brace myself to stay in the bunk as the train swayed from side to side. In the morning my back ached. I didn’t know if it was from bruised kidneys or muscle strain.

That still wasn’t enough to make me quit “riding the rails”. Watching the terrain change between Texas and Illinois is always interesting. It was especially so last winter when at numerous places along the way, fresh animal tracks could be seen in the snow.  I  love meeting the folks in the observation car and the dining car which now looks like something out of a fast food chain. The food is loaded on at various stops. The chef and his made-to-order food is gone. The silverware has disappeared, but the chance to meet someone special, or have someone special waiting at the end of the ride even if it is for only a few hours….that remains. There’s still a chance for memories.

Namaste  Attic Annie

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