There is nothing so haunting as a train in the distance, so I grow enthused and nostalgic when I hear talk of a proposed railroad from Bristol to Memphis that would have trains shaking and blowing through Tennessee to charm children of all ages and persuasions for five hundred miles.
"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance," wrote Paul Simon, "everybody thinks it's true." And it is--true as memories allow anyhow....
On winter mornings 44 years ago, my brother Tim and I would finish off breakfasts of cereal or bacon and eggs or homemade blackberry jam and biscuits, then run 50 yards or so up to the Smoky Mountain Railroad tracks that bordered our back lot in Seymour. We couldn't have been more than 4 and 6 respectively, because trains ceased running there in 1961.
Mama warned us not to get too close to the tracks and she would accompany us or else watch from the screen door to make sure we didn't. She needn't have worried. The train was a monster to us, if a friendly, slow-moving one. My sister Rebecca's only memory of the train is of running like crazy when she heard it coming. Tim and I ran too, at first. Later we learned to stand side by side at a respectful distance to greet the engineer, who would stick his head out the window and wave and--if he felt like it--give a couple of toots on the whistle for the mixed pair of boys--Tim, red-headed, pale and freckled, and me--black-haired and swarthy, maybe a head taller.
Our older brother Rodney once took a ride on that train, or maybe we all just imagined it. No one is really sure. On days when it passed really slowly, he could've chased it down and ridden all the way to Sevierville or Vestal, in fact. I picture him running up the tracks and taking hold of an iron handrail on the caboose and riding the rails a ways, but that memory may be an imagined one. He's not really sure, either, now.
At play, we used to lie down, place our ears on the tracks and listen for vibrations of the approaching train. We were Jesse James. We were Geronimo. We were the Lone Ranger or Tonto or Gene Autry. We were going to ambush that train. We were going to jump from the top of our chicken house 25 feet through the air and land on a boxcar, then run bravely, agilely, from car to car until we came to the one carrying the gold.
But wait, an armed guard would see us and here's how we'd fight (in those politically incorrect days) providing commentary as we went.
Let's say the top of this chicken house is a moving train. I knock you down, then you run at me and I stick my feet in your belly and throw you back over my head like th-i-is... but you grab me and push me close to the edge, like this, and we almost tumble off but an Indian with war paint jumps from a tree onto the train and starts to shoot us with his bow and arrow, but just in time a branch from an overhanging tree hits him right in the throat--bam--and off he goes flying but more Indians are climbing on and my six-shooter is out of bullets so I have to jump off that train like this--play like there's a horse down there, Timmy--off the chicken house and onto my horse... Trigger, because I'm Roy Rogers, not you, and... wait, I think I hear the train.
One day the train's engineer became a true-life hero. My mother and I were out burning a small pile of garbage, a common way to get rid of refuse 44 years ago in the country, when all of a sudden a little gust of wind comes up and takes a piece of burning paper and lays it ever so carefully among gray weeds. Next thing you know a fire is burning back there in the weeds beyond the garden. My mother would have been about 30. I remember how her dark skirt flapped and swirled dangerously among those flames, as she dashed in to beat at them with a broom, then fell back. It was getting scary. Just when it seemed the fire would devour the whole wide world, I heard the metallic screech of a train braking. I watched as the train slowed, shrieking and groaning as it came to rest behind our house. Then the engineer climbed down from his cabin.
Memory is a trickster, but in my mind he's a skinny, graying man. He wears blue over-alls, like a farmer. He has on his little engineer's cap. His smiles at us as he cuts a cedar sapling from the railroad right-of-way with his pocketknife, then walks down to that ring of fire and begins patting out those flames, until soon they are gone. He and my mother exchange a few words and then he climbs back into his cab, toots his whistle and rides that old train into a boy's dreams and legends.