I love trains.
I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.
Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.
When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.
The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, Whites Only. But that’s a story for another day.
Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.
So, fast forward to the present. I was taking Amtrak to Beaumont, to spend some time with my dad. I had taken the train before from San Antonio, through Houston, to Beaumont, but the scenery this time looked different. None of the small towns that I remembered from the last time I took the train. More undeveloped areas. Definitely different.
Now, for the non-railfans out there, I should point out that outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak does not own its own tracks – it uses tracks owned by the freight railroads. For this particular trip, that means mostly Union Pacific, which long ago bought up Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, the Katy, and several other railroads. So I asked the conductor, “Whose tracks are these? Is this the old Missouri Pacific main?” The conductor, who was all of maybe 30, gives me a totally bored look and says, “Beats me, man. It’s all Union Pacific to me.”
So, I’m watching the countryside gliding by, and suddenly, there it is, rising out of the foggy mists of a cool East Texas morning. Grayburg. The old siding where pulpwood trucks used to unload. The familiar unpaved road to my grandmother’s house. I only had just enough time to take a quick, blurry picture with my cell phone camera. And just like that, zip, zip, zip, we were through it and gone.
But it was enough. I was overwhelmed by memories of playing with my brothers, as well as thoughts of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and especially my sweet mom, all gone. It was sweet and wonderful and painful and made my heart ache with the love of it all.
People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote on a hot summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.
I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”
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 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.