Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Once Upon a Railroad

Being Born Along Train Tracks
I would suppose most kids growing up these days probably seldom hear a train much less see one. I suppose there are kids growing up by railroad tracks all over the country, but they grow up seeing them as dangerous places and certainly not places you would find kids playing.

I grew up alongside the Texas & Pacific tracks, first in the city where I was born, and then later as a juvenile way out in East Dallas, out on the TeePee, as it was called, as it ran from Dallas east to Shreveport, Louisiana, and coming at us west from Texas places like Marshall, Longview, Terrill, Forney, and into the Dallas Harwood Yard.

My mother had an aunt who was in the Terrill State Insane Asylum, later renamed Terrill State Hospital, but this old aunt's belfry was chocked full of bats, so Insane Asylum fit her to a tee. When we lived in Dallas we went over to see this aunt a lot--sometimes the hospital, they were very liberal with her, would let her come home and I remember mostly the times she was home, rocking on the big front porch of her house, talking a blue streak. She seemed OK to me, a little kid, more fascinated by the fact her husband worked for the TeePee and their house was a yellow clapboard house, a railroad house, situated right by the tracks of the TeePee as it passed through Terrill. Their front yard, sandy and sloping, with two big bois d'arc trees at each side of the yard that ran right up to the TeePee roadbed. There was no fence. The trains literally ran through their front yard.

The fact that this old aunt was looney didn't bother me. I played out in a coal pile close enough to those tracks that when a train came by it rattled the ground I stood on and I thrilled from first waving at the engineer and getting a wave back, sometimes he'd let loose short blast on the whistle and sometimes the big bell would be clanging away and always the power of these montrous machines, some of the biggest things rolling on earth, kept me fascinated. After one would pass, I couldn't wait for the next one to come.

In Dallas, out in those East Dallas Johnson grass fields, our house was only about a quarter of a mile over those fields from the TeePee and me and my friends year 'round always made one of our play stops that railroad track.

I was even close to that track at school, the TeePee running just over the back fence of the schoolyard. One of my classmate's father worked for the TeePee and had a rail handcar that he went to work in and then came home in at night, parking his handcar in a little tin garage just off the tracks with its own set of tracks. That man would stop the handcar, then pick up one end of it, then push it around and down its tracks into its garage.

When we played on the railroad tracks we would of course throw rocks. The ballast between the tracks were great solid clean rocks so easy to throw and we all could throw rocks like rock-throwing Olympians, whiz 'em at the glistening tracks, or sometimes, when we felt evil, and little kids feel evil a lot, we throw rocks at the moving boxcars and things. We would also put pennies and one time I put a dime (a hell of a lot of money for a kid in those days) on the tracks and then go find them after the train had ridden over them and flattened 'em out, elongated them. But our greatest thrill was a game we played. We learned to put our ears to the rails and hear the trains coming before we could see them. Then we would all get up on the roadbed, in the ballast as high up and close to the rails as we dared, the closer the better. We would lay down on our backs as close to those tracks as we dared and see if we could stay there as the full train passed by us. Most of us couldn't take it and rolled down to the safety of the grass off the roadbed. One time one of my friends got really close and a rock from the ballast was blown like a bullet by the roaring train and it caught him in his cheek; it almost knocked him out. We came up with a story for him to tell his parents; we were throwing rocks at a squirrel and one of the rocks struck a tree limb and richocheted back and hit him.

Those were still very active railroad days, WWII being the peak of railroading in this country. After that war, the railroads started declining in terms of business, losing a lot of business to trucks and the new interstate highway projects that started about that time that created a highway network that put most of the old reliable railroad companies totally out of business. The big railroads started going into receiveship in the fifties and started going bankrupt in the sixties and started merging trying to save themselves in the seventies and eighties and by today, there are only three or four lines still running, one the Union Pacific (it merged with the Southern Pacific) and the Burlington Northern (a merger of the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the Burlington) with the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Milwaukee Road, etc.) that then merged with the Santa Fe to become the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, or the BNSF as it is known to railroad buffs, who are called "railfans." The government tried to organize a national railroad, Consolidated Railroads for freight, called ConRail, and the American Passenger Line called Amtrak. The big eastern railroads, the B&O, the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Southern Railroad, the Seaboard Line, the Norfolk & Western, all merged to become the Norfolk & Southern. I believe this road then combined with ConRail to form CSX. The government so mismanaged ConRail and Amtrak, that they soon were terribly in debt; if you want something mismanaged to death, let the government privatize it; it's a guaranteed failure; look at the US Post Office since the government privatized it? It runs billions of dollars in debt every year in spite of postage and shipping rates going up regularly and the fact they wasted millions of dollars sponsoring the bike team led by Lance Armstrong (pumped up, too, don't you think; like was his cancer steroid related?) that won the Tour de France several years in a row.

To this day, I'm so fascinated by railroads, one of my way of relaxing is watching railroad videos and I have over 100 of these, and they are long, too, most of them an hour and a half each, and they are boring, too. Railfans just want to see trains; they care nothing about scenery, nature, that sort of stuff; they only care about the trains themselves; especially the locomotives, the units, as they call them. Most of them are of diesels but I have a lot of steam films, too. I relax on them. But they really are boring.

I feel I'm on the right track with this "riding the rails" therapy. It keeps me chugging right along. It keeps me highballing through life.

I had an electric train as a kid, too. It was a Santa Fe Warbonnet painted diesel unit that pulled 5 cars and a caboose. I never played with it much. Why should I? I had real trains to play with.

for The Daily Growler

Keeping Up With the Kurds


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