“Trains” by Steve O’Connor

Another excellent essay by Steve O’Connor:

I spent my early childhood in Lowell on Marginal Street, which is on the margin of the railroad tracks. The tracks ran parallel to the street, just a few feet behind the white picket fence in the back yard. The trains roaring and clattering along the tracks were a regular feature of our days, like the four thirty whistle which told us it was time to stop whatever childish games we were playing and head home for dinner. They were also a feature of our nights.

My brother Rory and I slept in the back bedroom, closest to the tracks. The model airplanes that hung on strings from the ceiling vibrated when the train passed, as if bursts of imaginary anti-aircraft fire were exploding around their plastic fuselages. The passing trains didn’t disturb us, though. They became just another part of our world, like the wind rattling the windows or a dog barking in the distance.

My parents, of course, warned us about the danger, how you wouldn’t hear a train coming up behind you if you were walking on the tracks, and we were careful. But the trains were awe-inspiring. In the rush and roar of their passing you could sense the raw, almost boundless mechanical power; you could feel it inside you the way you could feel the bass drum inside you as a parade passed by on Merrimack Street. You had to be careful near such power, but you couldn’t stay away.

Double lines approached from one horizon and stretched out to the other. We didn’t know where they came from or where they were going, but when we were in the yard playing and heard the train coming, or felt it coming, we had to stop whatever we were doing to stand on the cross board of the fence and wave at the engineer and at the man in the caboose. We loved to see that man in the caboose waving at us as the churning clack clack faded and the train grew smaller. I suppose it was not difficult for my parents to decide on a Christmas present for us: a little green and red engine that pulled brown boxcars around a silver circular track.

When we got a little older, my brother Rory and Petey McNamara and I put pennies on the track and waited at the top of the embankment for the train to come by. We were awestruck with the result– thin pennies, flattened out to almost twice their normal size. We showed my father, who told us that we could spend ten years in jail for putting even a penny on the tracks, and another ten for defacing government property.

When the train passed that night, we heard it all right, like the voice of our conscience whispering “Twenty years! Twenty years!”

The trains brought hobos too. Scouting along the banks of the Merrimack, we found little campfires which everyone said were hobo camps, but of course if we saw any groups of men, we steered clear. I do remember three or four of us talking to a guy who had jumped off the train along the river. He said he’d been a bridge construction worker and had made two hundred dollars a week, but he got in a fight in a bar and killed a man, and he’d been on the run ever since. He threw the guy on the floor, he said, and his head struck one of those brass foot railings, and he died.

I can’t remember much else; it was a long time ago, but I can still picture the fellow sitting resignedly on a rock by the river, from two hundred a week to riding the rails—at least that was his story. And when I heard the train pass later, I thought, he’s gone.

I can understand the lure that many have felt, especially in the days when people were less mobile, and the train was a visible reminder of a world beyond some little prairie town, or some blighted depression era city. “I can’t forget my good old ramblin’ days,” Doc Watson sings, “that old freight train keeps callin’ me away…” I love the vocabulary of the railroad, which is as rich and suggestive as the vocabulary of sailing ships, and like ships, the trains had mysterious and beautiful names like Midnight Ghost, Lake Shore Ltd, and Empire Builder.

Jack Kerouac was a brakeman, and understood as well as anyone the poetry of the railroad. Did he ever write a richer sentence than this as he recalled hopping a local freight up to Santa Barbara in 1955? “By and by they blew the highball whistle after the eastbound freight had smashed through on the main line and we pulled out as the air got colder and fog began to blow from the sea over the warm valleys of the coast.”

About a year ago I picked up a copy of USA today, and saw my brother Rory on the front page, in his conductor’s uniform, standing on a train platform, looking at his watch. There was an article about the Downeaster, the Portland to Boston train, aboard which he is conductor. The wheels of life, like the wheels of the train, turn. There are no more cabooses, but sometimes, as the train pulls out of the station, and gathers momentum for its trip along the coast, he stands near an open door and waves at the children who stop and stand in their yards or along the tracks to watch, and to feel, the great train passing.