Sunday, September 6, 2009


photo by marty kittrell

Beneath the wild melodies of the wind chimes at night, I can hear the low moan of the trains passin’ through a few blocks from our house, especially in this lovely weather, with the windows open, and when the baby monitor’s on upstairs, the sound wends its way in through those shady windows, down the long hall, and flows down these narrow stairs like oil down a drain. To my ears that so familiar woooooooaaan is an echo of past train-sounds of decades, from those hot Delta days whose clock was the train-times; they stopped for water, for coal, to offload and take on passengers, and the mail was unloaded as swiftly as tossing out the bags.

The strong-as-iron mailbags with their leather-belt straps and their old-penny locks had the grinds of cinder-landings and underfoot stompings and dusty-concrete-draggings branded into their indestructible fabric. Not even years of being hung in all weather from the T-frame, feet from the tracks, to be snagged by the hook of the fast-passing express, could pierce the armor of those magical mailbags.

We loved that conjuring trick, and gathered to watch, every time we could---the depot worker would squint his way out into the sunshine, holding or dragging the gray-brown canvas lump, manhandle its weight up the several feet onto its iron gallows, and step back toward the door of that “railroad-colored” building---a sort of blacky-grayish-grunge color which marked every small-town depot I’d ever seen.

The fast-approaching train would shudder past, the clicks of the pin-width gaps between the rails causing those flying silver wheels to give off their trademark ca-CHUNK ca-CHUNK as the open door neared the swinging mailbag. In a move fast as a blink, the hook swung, the bag disappeared into that big maw, and the train was gone, in a diminishing clamor and whoossshhhh that left us breathless ourselves, and again amazed by the magic.

I’ve told of the darkened evenings of watching the colorful displays of the people in the train windows, just their shoulders-and-heads view, reduced to small soundless color TV portrayals in those rectangular windows, kindling a travel-longing in my soul. I'd have been content just to sit there, sidelined on that switch-track forever, living that soundless life of gracious warmth and genial company over the china cups filled by a smiling, white-coated waiter.

But my daytime relationship with the train-tracks was a more personal one, born of years of time-between-trains---we knew the schedules and the whistles and the times of every arrival and departure. During my early childhood, before the engines switched from coal to other fuel, the close-to-the-tracks houses had a whisper of fallout from that coal-smoke. I’d be sent out on washing-day with a damp rag, to reach up high, grasp the heavy wire clothesline in that dampened cloth, and walk one-end-to-the-other, tightly clutching the line as the residue from several-days’ train-passings was gathered into a grimy blackness in the center. And when we took in the fresh-dried clothes, my Mother would “look the corners” for any telltale misses which had been folded beneath the clothespins into her fresh-washed laundry. We ran out in a frenzy many a washday, when the far-down-the-turn whistle reminded us that the train was due. We’d gather armfuls of the whites helter-skelter, holding them in great loose swags as we snatched the pins loose and ran for the back door with hems dragging and socks spilling in our wake.

My lifelong love of the tracks was born of walking the rails for miles---we could walk clear to the next town on either side, and the half-mile to school was accomplished without one step upon the ground. Oxfords and loafers were our school shoes, and it’s not easy walking a slick steel rail, polished by the tons of grinding wheels several times a day, but we did it. We’d hold hands across the gaps, and since we were a three-switch town, whoever got the outside position had quite a gap to span, and we’d giggle and waver and grab each others’ hands tight for balance.

In the sunshine of early morning, you could look WAY down the tracks at a parade of colorful small figures, each strolling along the straight-and-narrow, gathering in others in their turn, making our way to the school grounds. Other times, we’d stop and lay down a penny (it was BAD LUCK to put down any other coin---it might wreck the train, though I cannot figure why a dime would be any more dangerous than its thicker cousin, but perhaps it’s because we never HAD a dime---not to waste on track-play, anyway). Then we’d jump down and run down the incline, where we crouched watching for the train---we’d duck our heads as the gusts and cinder-ash flew, then wait a respectful few seconds as the rumble beneath our bodies receded with the disappearing train. We'd jump up and go get our penny, too hot to touch for a moment, and thin as those little Lord's Prayer or Picture-of-Lincoln souvenir things from tourist-shop gumball machines.

I made my first track-walk to school on the day I started first grade, my small hand held tight in the grasp of our next-door-neighbor, a senior that year, and since heretofore I had walked only with people my own size, I stumbled once, falling on one knee, grinding it into the cinders. I was too ashamed to cry or evince any hint of pain; I stood, walked to school, and spent the morning hiding the wound beneath my skirt. I washed it and put on a BandAid when I got home, but the damage was done---my accidental tattoo, a blue scar which has punctuated my kneecap all these years, faded now to a whisper of the past, as muted as the night-cry of a faraway train.


Tonja said...

Rachel, you opened up a memory in my brain from long ago. I never spent too much time around train tracks, but can remember walking down a few of them. Where? I do not remember. And, somewhere, buried beneath years and years of 'stuff', is a train memory. I remember watching, with whom, I don't know, as the train came by and as the mail hook jerked that mail onto its ride to worlds far away. I had not thought of that for years...but it is nice to think of it now.

Hopefully that is what we all do in this 'bloggy world'...touch the memories locked away in anothers mind, and remind them of sweet times long past. Thanks for reminding me!

Jon said...

Great post as usual for your delightful blog. It brought many memories back to me of trains when I was a child. Thanks for sharing your flashbacks with us.

Jon on Labor Day

Southern Lady said...

Rachel, your stories are like mini-Hallmark movies of simpler, sweeter times long ago, but never forgotten. This one is beautiful and evoked fond memories of the sounds of trains near my grandmother's and granddaddy's house when I was a child. They lived about a block from the tracks, and the sounds of the trains "switching" would rattle their windows. As always, thanks for sharing your beautiful memories.

kouign aman said...

Your post reminded me of a school project - we cut windows into shoe boxes and pasted silhouettes of passengers into them. Back then, we lit them briefly with candles. Now, one could light it for hours with an LED.

Cape Coop said...

How often can I say "I ADORE you, Rachel"- before you get tired of hearing it? When will you share this with EVERYONE and publish? My friend, you MUST.

racheld said...

It's always so good to hear from you all, Dear Friends. And those of you who share the train memories---that's a sound and a feeling never to be forgotten, an ingrained something-bigger-than-I, so powerful that it shakes the earth concept.

Rebecca, your sentiments are returned in kind, and I always love hearing from you---I cannot think of anything I'd love to leave to the children and grandchildren more than the memories of other times, other places, all of which were part of making our family what it is.

I'd have no idea where to start with publishing anything, and I cannot imagine the kvell of holding the pages, slick and new, the heft and weight of an actual BOOK which you'd written full of your words, and put right OUT THERE for the world to see.

That would be a delight past imagining. Alas, I know not how to go about it, and my thoughts and words are so scattered and rambly, it would take an army to put them together into anything cohesive and kin. I SO thank you for the thought and the great compliment.