I take a commuter train to work these days, to avoid the maddening hell that is Interstate 95. It’s not perfect — mornings on a train platform in all kinds of weather, crabby people who just have to have this seat, uncomfortable seats, and a pretty noisy ride. But it beats driving. And, occasionally, it gives me time to notice something I haven’t before or — as was the case the other day — something I’d forgotten.
I’d managed to get to the platform early for my afternoon ride back home, and across the tracks sat a freight train. That’s a little unusual, as the tracks are usually empty. Amtrak and CSX freight trains regularly rattle up and down the line, sometimes as I’m waiting on my train, but seldom do I see one just sitting there, inert yet somehow poised, like a large animal waiting to leap forward again.
Staring at the boxcars, flatcars and hoppers, the thought occurred to me that today’s trains look just like they did when I was a kid — maybe a little more graffiti on these, but underneath, still a boxcar. I looked around; the tracks were still steel, twin silver ribbons running north and south, laid over a bed of slag and creosote-soaked crossties. Here and there a rusty spike lay alone, either unused or discarded.
And without getting nostalgic, I thought that the American railroad is still out there and working, even though we don’t see (or even hear) of them much anymore. I say without getting nostalgic because I couldn’t admire the train before me and think about the institution of the railroad business without remembering the trains of my very early years, when trains were a very real part of my life.
The few first three years or so of my life were spent in a tiny Mississippi town named Artesia. Today, it’s a forgotten little place stuck away in a corner of Lowndes County — a little east of Starkville and a little west of Columbus — but years ago it was a thriving little railroad town that was also known as the hay-making capital of the world (go ahead, look it up).
Back in those days, Artesia was an active place, with a general store, “Bubba Cox’s store,” a catfish place, a post office, a service station and other merchants on two streets and no traffic lights (didn’t need them). And most importantly, my Granny and Grandaddy and the Langford cousins lived there.
Across the main drag from the post office was the railroad depot. A real depot, with an office, quarters for the railroad men, a train platform, several tracks, and a cafe at which I spent many an afternoon (my Granny ran the counter for a short period), drinking Co-Colas and eating Rock N Roll ginger snap cookies. The depot, and the town, was a stop on the old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, or “The GM&O,” which invariably sounded like “Jimmino” to my little boy ears. My father worked as a switchman for the Jimmino, as did his brother and at least one uncle. Our house was a little south of the town, not far from the tracks (now that I think about it, nobody lived too far from the tracks), so I heard trains rattling past day and night.
I used to sit at the depot, mesmerized by the motion and thunder of these freight trains rolling through, sometimes groaning to a halt, sometimes rumbling through town at a speed that was just short of being terrifying. I crawled through boxcars, learned how hoppers were loaded, how the cars were kept secure as they rolled across the country, how switches were thrown, how hoboes communicated by leaving coded signs on the sides of the cars, even what those then-funny-looking bar codes also on the sides of the cars meant (we see them every day now on anything we buy, but UPC codes started in the railroad industry). To me, trains were as natural as a tree or a dog, and their appearance was as regular as the sun.
And even though those memories are decades old, like the cars I saw recently, the business of the railroad is still pretty much the same. The cars, the tracks, the locomotives, even the bar codes, look the same. As natural as a tree or a dog. Tried and true, dependable and working just fine.
And at the end of a long work day, waiting for a ride home, that realization was comforting. Some things don’t change because they don’t need to.