IT’S THREE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING AND I AM WIDE AWAKE, laying in bed, and listening to the sound of a train passing through town. Its whistle is echoing, muffled in the fog. A real Woody Guthrie moment.
I’m not sleeping. My body is resting to a degree, but my mind is wandering all over the place – Planning our Texas trip, Compiling a grocery list for later today, and when I heard the train whistle I was taken back in time to my childhood. My childhood – a time of Steam Locomotives and steel ribbons of tracks disappearing around a curve. My late night wanderlust is hearing the Conductor calling out, “All Aboard!”
I suppose that just about every kid, boy or girl, who grows up in a small town dreams, both day and night, of going off to see the rest of the world. Wanting to know who and what is around the bend or on the other side of the mountain is a natural thing I think. That curiosity is what got us out of that African Rift Valley a few million years ago and has us looking at the stars today.
Growing up in a small town with trains going through, but rarely stopping, made me sit and wonder about to where they must be rushing. I know that most of those trains were going back and forth between the iron mines and the steel mills. That still sounds exotic to me, even now.
I was fortunate to be a child at a time when the big steam locomotives still ruled the rails. There were plenty of diesel engines to be sure, but when the huge roaring steam engines came through everything stopped, even a baseball game on the diamond by the tracks. We would all just look in awe at the rumbling giants racing past. The ground would shake and, if we got the Engineer’s eye, the wailing blast of the whistle would have us cover our ears.
As I grew older some of the other kids my age began to start hanging out at the local Pool Hall or go indoors to play basketball. I wasn’t very good at either game so I went to a better place. A fifteen minute walk would take me to the lower part of town and the Train Station.
Our train station was an old, low building with a waiting room for those who were catching a passenger train to take them off to some faraway place I was sure. I would go down to the station and sit on one of the old wooden benches and watch the trains come and go. In my mind I’d be grabbing my bag, pulling the brim of my hat a little lower and climbing up the steel steps and getting on board, heading to,,,
My wanderlust was fed by having as a neighbor a real, honest to god, railroad Conductor – Mr. Hartnett. Every day I would see him leaving his home in his uniform. He worked on one of the passenger trains that ran between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, a run executed by the P&LE Railroad Company. P&LE: the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad.
I wanted to be Mr. Hartnett.
All of that was decades, a lifetime ago. They are memories that today only rise to the surface at three o’clock in the morning when I hear the beckoning call of the train whistle as it passes by me once again and I am ten years old in the dark.