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.

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.

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?

A Chapel Car missionary leads a worship service for a small gathering.

Well, neither had I, until I read the book, This Train is Bound for Glory. It tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In many towns, saloons, gambling dens, and “dance halls” (usually brothels) outnumbered all other establishments combined. Most towns did not have schools, nor a church of any denomination. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. They knew that having a church in their community was essential. And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.  They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea. Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style pump organ. The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down bunks that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/ living space, a water closet/ toilet, and a tiny office/ study area.

The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance. The usual pattern was to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding. Sometimes it was parked near the railroad’s shops; often it would be parked near a town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women there.

Baptist Chapel Car #4, “Good Will,” was a frequent visitor to Abilene and this part of Texas. Its history shows several revivals between 1910 and 1930, held in association with Abilene’s First Baptist Church and other congregations.

The missionaries who served on board had to have a special calling. The men had to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work. They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there. They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone. And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

Their wives had to have a calling of their own. It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car. They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment. Most of the couples who served were young and newly married and had not yet started having children. Sometimes they were older couples whose children were grown. There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

There are many stories of the “rolling pastors” intentionally working among the newly arrived immigrants, the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society. At the front of the partition of one chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” written across it in gold leaf. It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board. They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.

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.

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.

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.

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.