Sunday, March 12, 2006

Damage Control

This morning I raced a train to work, catching glimpses of three brawny engines and an endless string of double-stacked red “K-line” cars between the buildings on the north side of Front Street as I traveled eastward. When I climbed the hill and turned southeast onto City View, I glanced in the rearview mirror of the Cadillac and saw the tail of the train snake around the bend, along the river and out of sight.

I have always had great affection for trains. I’ve always lived close to them, in communities dependent on industries that have a necessary and simple symbiosis with them, mines and various varieties of agriculture and manufacture. I love their sounds and the scents that surround them: diesel exhaust, hot iron and steel, and the acrid tang of creosote. I love the symmetry and order of the tracks that crisscross my world, the steel bridges spanning rivers like spiderlace, and tufts of white smoke disappearing into tunnels blasted and hacked through solid rock.

I love the storied history of trains, particularly the way they shaped the American West. Growing up I collected rusty spikes and pennies set on the tracks for the 135-ton locomotives to instantly pulverize into paper-thin copper ovals and fling into the brush. On summer afternoons in Kemmerer, Wyoming, I would sit in the weedy shade of the cottonwood trees behind the butter-yellow metal building where my mother was the director of a senior citizens’ center. I would memorize the engine numbers of the coal trains that passed by and watch the loading and unloading of freight- coal, lumber, machinery and mail. I understood early on that the network of tracks across this country is our economic circulatory system.

Trains are potentially deadly if people are careless, and diesel engines pollute the air with a concentration of carcinogenic compounds. The French-born Dr. Rudolf Diesel, who originally patented the diesel engine, disappeared from a ship en route to London in 1913. (His body was found in the English Channel days later. His death was ruled a suicide due to the cross penned as his journal entry the day of his disappearance, but another theory holds that the Germans- who were manufacturing diesel-powered submarines- wanted to ensure that the British would never obtain the diesel engine design.) I suppose one might say that trains have an ominous stigma of danger and power.

I don’t think of these things when I see trains. I think of progress, history, and tracks across the starched brown prairie or perilously strung along the windswept crags of sheer granite cliffs. I think of the pure bliss I felt one midnight in December of 1986, seated on a plush red seat next to my sister and mother (who was dozing in the dim orange glow). We rocked gently side-to-side while the wheels audibly ground the fresh snow on the steel rails, and as much as I wanted to see Dad (who was waiting for us at the other end of the tracks), I fervently wished the journey would never end. I wouldn’t have minded rumbling on forever, with the bitter black night outside the window of our Amtrak passenger car.

I can’t recall the very first time I saw a train, but I am certain I loved them instantly, and I know that for me they will always symbolize adventure, freedom- that which never comes without a price- and the solitude I seem to thrive on.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Christmas Angel said...

When you were about three and I was about six or so, I guess, we took a train to Laramie (from Rock Springs, when they still ran passenger trains over there) to see Kathleen. I remember the car with the glass ceiling the most...I don't know what it was called...it reminded me of a hotel lobby with comfy chairs and several bars at either end. We had to go up a tiny little staircase to get to it and I thought they were made just for you and me because we were small. We spent most of the trip up there because everytime we tried to leave to go back to our seats you screamed and cried. When we got to Laramie, Mom could hardly get you off the train, you just cried and cried. I guess you didn't want that trip to end either! The thing I remember most about the whole trip was that when we got back to Rock Springs, I had left my new crayons in the back window of the car and they were all melted. I don't think I was sad really, I remember thinking it was so cool that they would melt! You didn't want to get off the train in Rock Springs either, seems you've always liked them.

Word verification: "ucoin" I do?

March 13, 2006 at 8:02 AM  
Blogger Shepcat said...

If only you'd known then what I know now, Christmas Angel… That car with the glass ceiling was the lounge car, and since my seatmates were execrable people, and because they had hot coffee and little bottles of bourbon downstairs in the snack bar, I wanted to cry every time I had to leave it, too.

March 13, 2006 at 11:39 AM  
Blogger A said...

You said "execrable." And since Donnie and Melissa were such inferior, nasty people, they would probably not have been the entree du jour had you derailed in the boondocks. Besides, they had kids, albeit neglected ones. Thank God for the lounge car.

I remember you telling me about the experience, Sister Mine, but I don't actually remember the event... Seems like colored wax and you and I just don't mix. Remember when Mom left the birthday cake in the trunk at the theme park in August and when we went to get it later all the candles had melted into strange shapes?

Nice word verification. Sure, you "coin" all the time, new phrases I adore.

March 13, 2006 at 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Christmas Angel said...

It was the "lounge car," of course, Shepcat, silly me! I was only six, but I read about your excursion to Seattle on your blog and I should have remembered, but still it was fuzzy and I wasn't quite sure it was one and the same, my glass ceilinged memory and your escape car.
A., I don't remember a lounge car in our several by-train-trips to CA., do you? I remember the time that Mom got a horrible head cold when she sat under an air vent that was blowing cold air down on us. She sacrificed herself and let us sit across from her in the slightly warmer seats. She had that red bag with the bear on it that said "It's a jingle out there." It was full of our winter clothes, so she slept in a scarf and winter cap and still got a cold! She could have used some bourbon that night! And then there was the time we got off in Fullerton, CA, and our luggage went on to LA, and we drove all the way there (all four of us) in the front of Dad's two seated semi-truck (the ketchup bottle incident, you'll recall).
Oh, yes, how well I remember the wax flavor and the odd shaped candles on the twice baked cake! (We still have photo proof, you know).
I suppose I do coin new phrases all the time, but I'm sure most of them make your (and Shepcat's) skin crawl! Just remember that they're "Morganisms" you two, I was not gifted with the dictionary placed between my ears...what IS a cannibal, anyway?! (Hee, hee!)

March 13, 2006 at 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wouldn't it be cool to be a hobo for a little while? just hop on a train and travel all over our great country! just think of all the cool things we could see!

one of my roommates and i were going to be hobos for a summer, but then she stoped talking to me (petty girl fight), and i have been unsucessful at talking my hubbie into trying it. i think he is scared.

March 13, 2006 at 7:59 PM  
Blogger A said...

I've always wanted to be a hobo. I'm serious. Of course he's scared!

I remember, M. Funny you should mention the "Jingle" bag, because you know, she still packs all the winter stuff in it, but for a time she used it to pack stuff on the Band Wagon and to this day it smells like the band room.

I remember Mom's cold. I remember the ketchup (I'll never forget it!) and the horrid suspension on that semi, and the lines of red and white lights on the freeway looking like peppermint, and it was a perfect Christmas. I don't remember any glass-ceiling lounge cars on those trips.

I remember driving down once in the Chevette with no heat, and singing "Blue Christmas" at the top of our lungs to stay warm. ("Oo oo-oo oo!") I remember Nellie "shittin' the bed" in St. George one August, and a dead clam and a cockroach and a suntan.

My LORD I need a roadtrip.

March 13, 2006 at 8:10 PM  

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