Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

My Amtrak Adventure

For a recent birthday, I decided to treat myself to an Amtrak trip. Kathy couldn’t really take the time off from work, and I had accumulated enough free miles to earn a free round trip, first class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The MP/T&P operated a number of Eagles that radiated out from St. Louis to Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, and other points across the system. The Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take an Eagle to Houston, Laredo, San Antonio, Brownsville, or Mexico City. Other Eagles would take you to Dallas, Ft. Worth, Abilene, El Paso – even Los Angeles, if you made connections on the Southern Pacific.

Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston & New Orleans, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

eagle-approachingThe train coming up from Austin was about an hour late getting into Ft. Worth – not a good beginning! But since Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks in this part of the country, it is generally at the scheduling mercy of UP, BNSF, and other freight-haulers. But I checked in with the conductor, who pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in.

roometteAccommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette,” which is what I had, is the smallest. It has two bench seats that face each other, and a sliding door for privacy. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also offers bedrooms, family bedrooms, and bedroom suites, depending on a traveler’s needs, some with “en suite” restrooms and showers – see www.amtrak.com for more information.

Meals in the dining car are included with your first class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course. (More about the meals later.)

After the usual wait for servicing the train and loading passengers, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth. Until recently, pulling in and out of the Ft. Worth station required a complicated series of backup moves, crisscrossing through the Tower 55 interchange, and heading to Dallas on the UP through Arlington. Now however, the Eagle takes the more convenient route of the Trinity Railway Express commuter train (formerly the Rock Island line) through Richland Hills, Hurst, and Irving, on its way to Dallas Union Station.

As we pulled into Dallas, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day, and warned any passengers getting off the train at Dallas for a smoke break, to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading east past Deep Ellum, Fair Park, and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Heading through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

dinner-in-the-dinerSomewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.)

I found the sleeping car attendant, and asked him to make up my bed while I went to the club car to read and sip a little bourbon – it was my birthday, after all! I returned to my room, with the bed now prepared for sleeping, changed clothes and crawled between the covers, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy & drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot – we had made up that hour, and were actually a few minutes early. I headed down the hallway in my pjs to the coffee pot – another “perk” of riding first class, complimentary coffee. A few minutes later, I got dressed and went back to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis.

But that’s a story for next time.

 

Remembering the Abilene & Southern

Many people know that Abilene was founded by the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1881, but not as many remember another railroad that served this area for much of the twentieth century – the Abilene & Southern.

morgan_jones

Morgan Jones

The A&S was the brainchild of Col. Morgan Jones, a Welsh immigrant who came to the US in 1866, and assisted with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. He later helped built the Texas & Pacific, as well as numerous other rail lines throughout West Texas. In January, 1909, he began work on the Abilene & Southern.

Jones’ original vision was to build a railroad from Abilene through Winters and Ballinger, and then on to points south and west, but for various reasons, those plans were never completed. Ultimately, the line stretched almost a hundred miles, from Ballinger in the south, through Abilene, and northward to Anson and Hamlin.

18

A&S Engine 18, a 4-6-0 “Ten Wheeler” type

The Abilene & Southern was very much a West Texas road. Its primary traffic over the years was grain, cattle, bales of cotton, and cottonseed oil. Passenger traffic was usually handled by a passenger coach attached to the rear of a freight train. (In the world of railroading, combined freight and passenger service is known as a “mixed” train.)

Those who rode the mixed train report that it was common for the passenger coach to be set out on a side track at a station while the train crew went about their switching duties, picking up and dropping off cars. They would then re-couple to the coach and be on their way. It must have really played havoc with the conductor trying to keep the train on schedule! Mixed train service ended in the late 1950s.

TimetableDuring Col. Jones’ lifetime, the A&S was operated as an independent railroad, interchanging with the Texas & Pacific in Abilene, and the Santa Fe at Tuscola and Ballinger. In 1927, however, after the old man’s death a year earlier, the profitable little railroad was bought by the Texas & Pacific, which continued to operate it for decades to come.

1914 Pass AAlas, economics and the dwindling populations of the towns it served finally caught up with the A&S. The tracks north of Abilene were abandoned in 1937. In 1972, the line from Winters to Ballinger was pulled up. Ownership of the line passed from the T&P, to the Missouri Pacific, to the Union Pacific, which finally abandoned the remaining portion of the line south of Abilene in 1989.

Today, only about seven miles remain, interchanging with the Union Pacific and serving industries in east Abilene. Southern Switching Company handles these chores, and their green switching engines can be seen trundling back and forth along the former A&S tracks.

SONY DSC

A&S Depot in Ballinger, TX

There are still a few reminders of the A&S today. The station in Ballinger, with its unique stone twin turrets, is still standing. Drive along the highway between Ballinger and Abilene, and if you look carefully, you can still spot the old right of way. The old A&S Freight Depot has been moved and incorporated into a brew pub on South First. And, when he died in 1926, Welshman Morgan Jones was laid to rest in his adopted hometown of Abilene, Texas.

Jones grave

Morgan Jones’ final resting place in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery

And that is not all. Although the colonel never married and left no direct descendants, his nephews and other members of his extended family remained in Abilene, and continued to use the profits from the A&S – as well as their own fortunes – to benefit the entire community. There’s a huge wing of Hendrick hospital named for a nephew, Percy Jones, and his wife, Ruth Leggett Jones. The planetarium at Abilene High is named after another nephew, Morgan C. Jones. And every non-profit in town is familiar with the philanthropic investments of the Dodge Jones Foundation.

So the next time you’re sitting in the comfortable Percy Jones waiting room at Hendrick, think about the old Abilene railroad. The next time you’re driving along US Highway 83 through Winters and on to Ballinger, notice the old roadbed that was there before the highway, and remember the men who built that line, and those who operated her.

The next time you’re on Treadaway Boulevard, and you see those little green switchers shoving hopper cars loaded with grain, remember the Abilene & Southern.

15X5 Abilene & Southern photo

A&S Engine #20, a 2-8-2 “Mikado” type, August, 1949.

Dining Cars and Cantaloupe Pie

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines. It featured the state flowers of the states served by those railroads.

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Midwestern “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout.

t&p logoAnd the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert:

Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P, and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country.

But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we now pass along to you.

Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, deseed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
  5. Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  6. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  7. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned.
  8. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Friendships are formed through experiences shared together, whether it’s a meal, a piece of pie, or something else. Because of their proximity, neighbors have opportunities to share experiences and work with each other to build a stronger, safer community. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Great American Railroad Stories

(Note – I am on my way to Guatemala this morning for a mission trip, and will be gone into next week. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Meanwhile, here’s a book review that I wrote for our local model railroad club’s newsletter.)

GreatAmericanRailroadStoriesTrains magazine recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Kalmbach Publishing has released a new book – Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine. The book is available both as a softcover and hardcover.

As the name suggests, it features 51 stories chosen from across the magazine’s three-quarters of a century, including stories by some of the most famous railfans in the country: Lucius Beebe, A.C. Kalmbach, J. David Ingles, David P. Morgan, Jim Boyd, and many others. The stories include selections from the magazine’s first year of publication (1940), up through 2009, but many of the stories are historical pieces that document earlier railroad history – from the wild ride of “Death Valley Scotty,” to a firsthand account of taking a transcontinental train ride just weeks after it opened in 1869, and others.

There are stories about working on the railroad, whether as a fireman or a telegraph operator, and stories about riding trains; some pay tribute to a favorite locomotive or railroad, while others tell about memorable people encountered on the rails. One of my favorites is “Confessions of a Train Watcher,” from 1957, by David P. Morgan, where the then-editor of Trains magazine explains his fascination with railroading.

The book is beautifully produced, with 256 glossy pages and an easy-to-read typeface. The cover has only a single, small photograph of a stream locomotive pulling a passenger train – appropriate, since the emphasis is on the best stories from 75 years, and not necessarily the best pictures. But there are plenty of great pictures; the editor notes that they used the original photos to accompany the article whenever possible, but he acknowledges that there are fewer pictures, to keep the focus on the writing.

If you like reading great railroad stories, or have an interest in how trains shaped American life, you’re going to want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is a railfan, he or she will DEFINITELY enjoy it. It’s probably not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover, but more like a magazine, where you skip around and read the stories that really interest you. The softcover has a list price of $24.99, and is available both at local book stores and online. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but if you have to pay for shipping, it probably comes out about the same.

Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine (Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisconson) is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

Grayburg Memories

(Dear Readers – I’m taking a few days off, so with your kind permission, I’m re-running a blog post from 2013. Thanks and God bless.)

Grayburg.  That was the little community where his grandparents lived, and he loved going to visit.

His grandparents lived in a small white house on two lots, with two gigantic sycamore trees in the front yard.  He loved everything about the place, and he especially loved that during the summer, he could come and stay for a week, and have his grandparents all to himself.

His grandmother’s name was Sallie, and when the boy was little, he had a hard time knowing what to call her.  His other grandmother was “Grandma,” so he tried calling her by the name he heard other people calling her.  But she wouldn’t allow him to call her “Sallie.”  So somehow, “Sallie” became “Sa Sa.”

There was lots to love about going to Grayburg.  The boy loved walking down to see Sa Sa’s sister, Aunt Bib.  Her name was Vivian, but everyone called her Bib.  Aunt Bib was cool.  She taught him how to play dominoes, and how to do leathercraft.  And she had a BB gun he could shoot!  She also had bee hives, and always had lots of fresh honey, whipped into a creamy spread for morning toast.  And when he spent the night, she would let him get up in her bed, and they would put the covers up over their heads, and hold flashlights, and she would tell great stories.  Her version of “Three Little Pigs” was the best.

There was another sister, too – Aunt Hazel.  So Grayburg had lots of family connections.

Walking from Sa-Sa’s to Aunt Bib’s house was an adventure.  The streets were paved with old-timey blacktop, and in the summer, the sun’s heat would soften them to the point that the boy could push down into the pavement and made little dents with his feet.  He thought that was really cool.

Sa-Sa was a great cook, and his favorite was her chicken and dumplings.  The dumplings weren’t the lumps of dough that most people made – hers were more like thick, wide strips of chewy deliciousness.  She would take a hen, and put it in a pressure cooker for hours to tenderize the meat.  And she had another secret – when she was making the dough for the dumplings, instead of adding water to the flour, she would add chicken stock.  The flavor was amazing.  As was the smell going through the entire house.  And the hissing and clattering of the pressure cooker as the steam vented and did its thing.

There was a lady who came and helped Sa-Sa with her cooking and cleaning, an old black lady somewhere between the ages of 60 and 200.  Her name was Daisy, and she was wrinkled and thin with wiry gray hair, but she had a smile that could light up a room.  Daisy had been Sa-Sa’s friend and helper as far back as the boy could remember.  Farther than that – his mother said that Daisy had been a fixture in their home for almost as long as SHE could remember.

One of the boy’s earliest memories was going with his mother Sa-Sa and driving WAY back in the Piney Woods of East Texas, to an old shack where Daisy’s mother lived.  It was important to the boy’s mother, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Of course, one of his favorite parts about Grayburg was the trains.  Sa-Sa’s house was only a block or so away from the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and Beaumont, and on to New Orleans.  So there were lots of trains.  There was a long siding there, where trains would stop and pass each other, and a small yard where pulpwood was loaded onto flat cars, to be taken to sawmills.  And there was a small station there.  It was a sort of creamy yellow-beige color, with dark brown trim.  There was a freight deck on one side, and the station had a bay window where the agent could look down and see trains without having to leave his desk.

Inside, the station was painted in a tired ivory color, that might have been pretty at some point, but now was just dull and sad.  There was a potbellied stove for the occasional cold days, and a ticket window with an iron grill where you could buy passage to all points.  And there was a single small restroom in the corner.  Over the restroom door was a small metal sign.

Whites Only.

One time, the boy asked his dad about it.  “But, if Daisy were here and needed to go, where would she go?” he asked in all childhood innocence.

As it turns out, there was an outhouse out in the weeds and mud at the edge of the railyard.  His dad pointed out to the old privy and said, “I guess she would have to go there.”

The boy just looked at his dad.  He didn’t say anything else.  But all he could think about was how unfair that was.

EPILOGUE: This story takes place in about 1961 or 62.  And it’s a true story, because I was that little boy.  And what I remember was how many people seemed content with things as they were, and seemed not to notice unfairness.

And I guess my point is this – Jim Crow segregation laws are long since a thing of the past, thank God.  But unfairness and prejudice are still with us.  In society.  In our churches.  And in our hearts.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come.  Surely the first place it must come is to our own hearts and our own lives.  And that means being willing to notice unfairness wherever it is.  And to work to change it.

No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

asmr_logoSo I am happy to tell you about our model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and our annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13 & 14. Our layout is at 2043 N. 2nd, behind Global Samaritan Ministries, here in Abilene, and the times will be Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 PM. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome. (For more about the hobby, see my previous post “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”)

The club layout is in HO scale (pronounced “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, 1 foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

CutI have been adding to the scenery on a 20 ft. section of track, representing a rural area somewhere in Callahan County; other club members are doing sections that represent Abilene, Baird, and elsewhere. The scenery is finished in some areas, partially done in other areas, and not even started in some portions.

There are many different techniques for creating realistic scenery. In my case, I used blue Styrofoam insulation board, stacked up and carved to represent ridges and hills, then covered with a thin layer of lightweight plaster. I painted it and sprinkled a product that represents grass, then placed lichen in various shades of green to represent trees. I am pleased with the final results.FW&D_depot

Other scenes: A Burlington engine passes in front of the old Ft. Worth & Denver depot on Locust Street in Abilene –>

theater_corner<– A downtown city scene. Do you suppose patrons at the movie theater complain about the noise when a train goes by?

oil_field1A tank farm, complete with pump jack. –>

T&P_station<– The T&P station in downtown Abilene.

underpassNear the Swift Meat Packing Plant. –>

Mel<– Member Mel Herwick adds details to a section of scenery.

engine_facilityLocomotive shop facility, still under construction –>

Club members are happy to share our layout and our passion for the hobby, and we invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains, and also see our progress on the layout. Besides the main club layout, we will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as an operating Thomas the Tank Engine that little ones can run themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

1. When did the Abilene club begin? Our club started in 1991, partly in connection with the Abilene Railroad Festival which also began that year. The railroad festival is no longer being held, but our club continues to go well.

2. How long did it take to build the layout? The current layout was started a little over two years ago, and is a little over half completed. At some future point we plan to expand our area. Once that’s done, it will be a matter of adding more scenery, and improving what has already been done – there’s a sense in which a model railroad is never finished.

3. Isn’t model railroading expensive? Well, it can be – you can spend hundreds of dollars on one engine if you want – but it doesn’t have to be. Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t have the funds to build a large layout, or the time, space or expertise, for that matter. But by being a member of the ASMR, I can have access to a great layout that I would never be able to afford to duplicate at home. I have also made some great friendships and my fellow members are happy to share their time and experience with me. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

4. What about other sizes of model trains? One of the first things that newcomers to the hobby must decide is what SCALE they want to model. As mentioned, the club models HO scale, which is the most common, and has the widest selection of engines, cars and model buildings available. A good beginner’s layout fits well on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, which is another reason it’s so popular. Other popular scales include N scale, which is smaller – a 3×5 size beginner’s layout works great – and also O scale, which is derived from the traditional Lionel trains that so many older folks grew up with. And there are others.

5. How can I get started? Many people begin by buying a train set at Christmas; that may or may NOT be the best thing, depending on the age and interests of the person you’re buying it for. For younger children, a wooden “Brio” style may be a better choice; for older children (or grown-ups), a set that includes an engine, some cars, track and a transformer, often for around $100, might be a good choice. Most sets will be either HO or N scale; it’s your choice which one you get. HO sets take up more room but are easier to put together and often easier to operate; N scale sets are more compact, but are less forgiving of bumps in the track and other beginner mistakes.

If you decide to buy a set from a “big box” retailer or craft stores, don’t expect much help. Traditional model train stores can be more helpful for beginners, but also more expensive and sometimes hard to find. But there are PLENTY of online resources, and several good hobby magazines that can be very helpful. There are also lots of “how to” videos you can access for free on YouTube.

We hope to see you this weekend!

Holding On to Our Heritage

UP1996_borderAnyone who knows me well knows that I love trains. Real trains, model trains, amusement park trains – doesn’t matter. If it runs on rails, I want to see it, watch it, and ride it if I can.

I also happen to be a fan of history. I am fascinated by the past, by the forces that shaped our society and by the decisions that brought us to where we are today.

So I was thrilled when several railroads began repainting some of their newest and most powerful locomotives in the old, historic paint schemes of some of their predecessors. What’s not to love, right? It combines two of my favorite passions – history AND trains. (The photo shows a Union Pacific engine passing through Abilene, wearing the orange, red and black “Daylight” colors of the old Southern Pacific RR.)

I’m glad that some railroads are recognizing and honoring their history and their heritage, but it’s not just about trains. There is history worth hearing, all around us, in the neighborhoods where we live, and along the streets where we drive. Grandparents who can teach us, elders who can inspire us, and old buildings that can help us remember the struggles of the past.

Learning about the past doesn’t have to be boring. It’s a shame that so many history classes are being led by teachers who think that history is all about dates on a calendar. Truly, they are missing the point. History – real history – is about people and their stories.

Spend some time getting to know the older people on your block, or at your church. They have stories to tell. Another idea? If you’re in Abilene, go to the library and check out any of the fascinating series of DVDs produced by a GOOD history teacher, Abilene’s own Jay Moore, “History in Plain Sight.” You might want to start with his video, “Who is That Street?” It tells the story of the early settlers who came to Abilene, braved incredible hardships, and carved out a living for themselves and their families – and now we remember them by the streets we drive on. They are stories worth hearing.

Understanding something of our past reminds us that someone came before us and dreamed a dream, and we are the heirs of that legacy. It keeps us humble to realize that we are enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor, and it inspires us to work for those who will come after us – to leave something better for our children and our grandchildren.

Holding on to our heritage helps us know who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. Remembering the past gives us hope for the future.

 

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track where they used to load freshly-cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

Grayburg 2011So we climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger, and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.