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.