More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Visiting DC

During our recent vacation, we went to Baltimore, to visit our daughter, Brittany; while we were there, we took a day and went down to Washington. My wife had toured DC several years ago, but although I had been through there, I had not been able to visit any of the historic locations in that city on the Potomac. We made reservations with one of those companies that offer guided bus tours, and off we went.

Brittany helped us plan how to navigate the commuter trains to get there and find the starting point for the tour. Any day that begins with riding a train is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and we had no problem finding our way through the maze of above-ground and subway trains, and sure enough, when we came back up into the sunlight, the tour buses were right in front of us.

A word about these buses: they were about the size of a short school bus, but made with a retractable, open roof, especially designed for tour purposes. We checked in, and were assigned to a particular bus, and didn’t have to wait long before Craig, our driver, and Alisha, our tour guide, came on board and welcomed us to their city.

Alisha was a young, vivacious, African American woman with the build of a long-distance runner. In the course of our tour, she mentioned that she had been working as a guide for over five years (which meant she was older than she looked to me!) – a Washington native and a fan of both learning and telling history. As Craig chauffeured our bus, Alisha gave us some background on the city, how it was laid out and when construction began.

We parked near the Washington Monument, but she began moving us in the opposite direction for our first stop. We came out from behind some trees, and what I saw, literally took my breath away.

Here I am, standing on the South Lawn of the White House

It was the White House. We were standing on the South Lawn, which it turned out, was as close as we could get. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to be there, and to see the Executive Mansion where every president since John Adams has lived. She pointed out some of the other historic buildings that were within our view, before shepherding us back across the street, to get a better look at the Washington Monument. Later on we would stop off at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and see the Capitol Building.

We headed over to the World War II memorial. This is one of the newer structures in DC, having opened in 2004. It features two large, semi-circular areas – one for the European Theater, and one for the Pacific. There is a special “Gold Star” wall, honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who died in that war. Later, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and on that famous black stone wall, I found the name of a young man from Haskell. I’ll have more to say about both of those walls in a future article.

From there, it was on to the Jefferson Memorial, where his statue stands next to some of his words from the Declaration of Independence. And that was just the first of several locations that we visited that day, that call to mind some of the words that are important to our country and to history. Words are important, because they carry ideas – ideas that are truly foundational to our republic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Words of power.

Our next stop was a further reminder of this, as we visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. There, engraved on the arches leading to and away from the stone statue that honors him, were 14 of his most famous quotations, including one of my favorites: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A quick lunch, an enjoyable boat ride on the Potomac River, and then it was on to the installation honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and again remembering his words – “Fear itself” and his “Fireside Chats” – words that led this nation out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II.

From there, we had another powerful demonstration of the power of language at the Lincoln Memorial, with his Second Inaugural Address engraved on one wall, and the Gettysburg Address on the other: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God Bless America.

Thoughts While Traveling

Kathy and I are just back from our vacation, and we had a wonderful time. We went to the Metroplex and got to spend time with our son there, then we flew to Baltimore and spent a few days with our daughter there, whom we hadn’t seen since before Thanksgiving. We were able to go to a Rangers game and we visited Washington, DC, saw a lot of famous sights and historical sites, and ate a bunch of really good seafood. And in the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about where we went and what we saw, but for now, I want to share some observations I had while we were on our trip – random thoughts about traveling.

This was the first real trip we have taken together in over two years, partly because of moving back to Haskell, and partly due to the pandemic. And as a lot of people have observed, we were definitely happy to just be going SOMEWHERE – she and I are both fully vaccinated, and it’s just nice to be able to be “out and about,” to see different locations and some new faces. So here are some things that I noticed in the midst of our goings and comings:

It’s been a very green year. All the way on our drive over to Ft. Worth and Dallas, we both kept talking about how pretty and green the countryside was and is. By this point in a normal year, the grass would be brown, the wildflowers would all be long dead, and even the trees would be looking droopy and dried up. Not this year. The grass is still lush and green, and it’s nice to see. And Thank You, Lord, for the rain.

“O say, can you see?” We went to a Rangers game Saturday afternoon at the new Globe Life Field ballpark – it is air conditioned with a retractable roof, and a very comfortable place to watch a ballgame. (The Rangers lost in extra innings to the A’s.)

Anyway, I was in line at a concession stand before the game started, and had just gotten to the register, to pay the man for our order, when we heard the familiar opening notes of the Star-Spangled Banner. The cashier said to me, “Just a moment, sir – we will wait until the anthem is finished.” I glanced around and sure enough, everywhere I looked, all the concessionaires were standing still, in a posture of respect, and the whole area fell silent.

In my mind suddenly, I was with my mom and dad, my brothers, and our grandmother, and we were at an Astros game in the late 60s. I looked over and noticed that my grandmother wasn’t singing, so after it was finished, I asked her about it. She reminded me that one of her brothers had been killed in Korea, during an enemy rocket attack, and she said that the lyric about “the rocket’s red glare” was painful for her to think about.

Just then, the anthem was over, and I remembered that I was in line, buying nachos and sodas – but now with unspoken gratitude to the management there for putting commerce aside for three minutes and honoring our National Anthem and all that it means.

A lot of smiles. I have to admit, I was a little anxious about my first plane ride in a couple of years. Not because I’m afraid of flying, but because of all the horror stories that have been in the news in recent weeks regarding the extremely disruptive behavior of many travelers. I’m sure you’ve heard these stories, as well, about passengers going crazy on flights, acting disorderly, even trying to open exit doors in midair.

But those worries were absolutely pointless. From the TSA agents to the Southwest ticket and gate staff, to the flight and cabin crews and our fellow flyers, everyone seemed to be smiling and patient, and just trying to get to their destinations with a minimum of fuss and bother. It was nice.

Taking off is the best part. My favorite part of any flight has always been that moment that comes after you’re finally on board and seated, with all of your gear stowed and the seat backs and tray tables in their full upright and locked position. The plane is taxiing along and finally gets to the runway, then turns and gets lined up for takeoff. The engines begin spooling up, and then it happens: You start rolling down the runway, and you notice the seat back pushing harder and harder against your spine. You’re rapidly picking up speed and you notice the bumps of the expansion joints in the concrete below you, as the physics of flight take over and the pilots turn a 90-ton tricycle into a jet airliner. The nose lifts, then the whole plane, and off you go, into the wild blue yonder.

I love it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best part of the whole flight.

The Train to Yesterday

I have been fortunate enough to get to take a number of passenger train trips over the years. One of my favorites was a special trip a few years ago with my youngest brother, David Ray. He’s a pastor at a church in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston.

My brother David and I in front of Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” in Houston.

He 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.

The old Missouri Pacific RR main line ran right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad sidetrack 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, the New York Central and Central of Georgia, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Santa Fe, the 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 I remember running back to the tracks after the train had passed, to find those little squished pieces of copper, still hot from the friction of the wheels that ran over them.

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. I have a very sweet memory of sitting on the freight platform with my dad, next to the tiny beige and brown depot, absolutely enthralled as the massive trains roared past, and watching the rail joints move up and down as the car wheels went across them.

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.

So David & I 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 Southeast Texas countryside and past the little towns.

Grayburg is literally just a blur when you go through there on a fast train.

The Grayburg depot is long gone, but the siding is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. As we went through there and saw where we used to play, I looked over and saw my brother wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking.

He said he thought he saw four little boys running over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a belated 40th anniversary celebration trip to visit “The City So Nice They Named It Twice” – New York, New York. It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time.

We took an Amtrak passenger train to get there, leaving from Beaumont on a Monday afternoon. (At the time, we were still living in Southeast Texas, where we had been taking care of my elderly father. He had passed away a few months earlier.) We changed trains in New Orleans and headed east into the early morning sunlight. Our first-class tickets included a roomette (it’s pretty cramped for two, but we managed) – and the roomette also included our meals in the dining car at no extra charge. And those were great!

I dozed off in our compartment, but a little while later, Kathy woke me up and said that we were in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in the HGTV program, “Home Town.” And yes – Ben’s shop really is right next to the train tracks, and we went right by it. We cruised along the smooth track, riding that “magic carpet made of steel,” and by suppertime, we were in Atlanta, where we turned north. Overnight through the Carolinas, breakfast in Virginia, and then DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and lunch in Philadelphia. Then it was through New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and there we were, at the underground Penn Station, Manhattan, arriving on time a little before 2:00 that afternoon.

Being in New York was exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary, all at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

We came up on the Seventh Avenue side. Kathy had made us reservations at the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, and there it was, right across the street. We got checked in, went up to our room, and unpacked.

A dear friend of mine, a writer, had asked me to take a few pictures for him, and research a particular neighborhood that he was interested in for a novel he was writing. So, we headed for the old Irish part of the city known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” We continued west to the river, where we had reservations for an evening cruise on the Hudson, out to the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. Sailing past Lady Liberty at sundown was a memory I will always cherish.

The next day, we took the subway and headed down to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw the World Trade Center memorial, went past Wall Street, Chinatown, and the Bowery. I learned that in New York, it’s pronounced “How-ston” Street (not the way we Texans normally pronounce “Houston”). We saw famous locations such as Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. We visited the beautiful courthouse with the tall steps, featured in “12 Angry Men,” “The Godfather,” and dozens of episodes of “Law and Order.” We went by the police station where “NYPD Blue” was set – it’s an actual police station, and for fans of the show, yes, there really is a little park across the street with basketball courts, and off-duty cops really do shoot hoops with neighborhood kids.

We had tickets for a Broadway show that evening, where we saw “Beautiful – The Carole King Story;” you ladies of a certain generation probably owned her 1971 album “Tapestry.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the show and our walk across Times Square.

Kathy and I enjoying the lights of Times Square, New York, in 2019

On Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Turner Classic Movies bus tour of Manhattan. They drove us all over the borough, as the knowledgeable guide talked about movies that had been shot in various locations around the city and showed brief clips from those films. We had lunch at a little grocery store-deli featured in “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. That afternoon, we went up to the top of the Empire State Building.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. We ate a hot dog from a street cart and had New York-style pizza from a little family-owned restaurant. We bought some souvenirs and took lots of pictures. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the New Yorkers we met were smiling and friendly, and tolerant of this traveler’s questions. We never felt afraid, nervous or worried. The most annoying part? Learning to figure out which direction to walk when we came back up to street level after riding the subway.

Sunday morning, it was Father’s Day. We packed up, went back across the street, and boarded the train for Baltimore, where our daughter Brittany lives. We spent a couple of days with her, then flew home. While we were there, she took us to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, and we visited some great museums, including Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote a poem during the War of 1812 known as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know it better as, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But that’s another story.

A Very Special Trip

In February 2009, I was blessed to be part of a group from Beltway Park in Abilene that went to the Holy Land. A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv and there we were, in Israel!

Our first stop was Akko, on the Mediterranean coast in the far northwest corner of the country. Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11. In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7. The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

We went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – 1 Kings 18.  We headed east, through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake).

On February 10, we visited the site where it’s believed that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then it was on to a chapel by the lake itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection – John 21. Jesus and Peter went for a walk along the rocky shore, and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next. Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me. We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel. The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood. The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof. Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish. And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people there did not believe. 

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there. I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more. Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would probably fit between the Haskell square and the high school – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing. Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hear them telling me those stories again. And here I was, standing in the middle of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

We were in Israel for almost two weeks. We visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea. Of course, we toured Jerusalem, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

Here I am on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem and the site of the ancient temple.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back. There are some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit. For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so. The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20! Stay with your tour group, and you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible. It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined. And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

No Matter Where It’s Going

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.

MoPac’s famous “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 green 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.

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 and hot steel on a Texas 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.

Remembering a Very Special Trip

Today – February 10 – is the anniversary of a day that is very special to me, part of a very special trip that I was blessed to take, nine years ago in February. (If you would like to read the details about the trip, and the miraculous way God worked it so that I COULD go, see “Visiting Israel,” from this blog for Feb. 18, 2013.)

February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.

Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows Pastor David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were in Capernaum. (This picture shows me standing in the synagogue there.) I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.

Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

After lunch in Tiberias, we went to the museum of “The Jesus Boat” – a truly stunning archeological discovery of a wooden fishing boat from the time of Christ, very typical of the kind of boats Jesus and the disciples would have used. I won’t go into how they discovered and preserved this boat, but it’s a fascinating story.

From there, we walked down to the lake (AKA, the Sea of Galilee), and boarded a small motorized boat of our own, for a ride out on that famous body of water. (We call it the Sea of Galilee, but it’s actually a freshwater lake.)

Brenton Dowdy began leading us in worship, but in just a matter of moments, the weather changed from a sunny, pretty, spring-like afternoon, to a cold, windy, rainy day!

Remember those stories in the gospels about storms coming up suddenly? Well, God let us see one in action. (That’s rain you’re looking at in the picture – and a few whitecaps!)

Finally, with the day winding down, we drove south to where the lake empties into the Jordan River. There, many of us chose to be baptized in the Jordan. It was cold and still raining, but it was a very special, sacred moment, and the perfect close to a wonderful day.

For my part, I still hope to return to Israel some day, maybe even to lead a group over there. It is no exaggeration to say that the things we saw, and the experience of being there, continue to shape and inform every sermon I preach and every lesson I write. I thank God for the opportunity to go, and I still pray blessings over the anonymous friend (or friends) who made it possible for me to go.

“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:1, 2, 6.)

 

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.