Your Sunday Brunch Special #8. Trains and History

This is a memory of childhood and perhaps only invisibly affected (or effected) by Mormonism. So sue me Steve!

As a child, around age 4 or so, my babysitters sometimes copped out, or died,* and so my parents would take me to work and keep me occupied in some inconspicuous manner. Since my mother worked for a coffin (casket was the more urbane term) maker at the time, she upholstered the interior of coffins, it was difficult and maybe a little creepy to drag me around there. Besides, her employer was not down with it.

So, my dad would wake me at 5:30am and off we went to his job and that started at 6am. He worked as a crossing guard for one of the railroads in town, a job he pretty much hated, but the union protected.

Too close to the tracks.

As a much younger man my father, well before my birth, had been working for the “other” railroad in town, at a non-deadend job. One evening he was riding a bicycle to work for the night shift. A train was slowly making its way through the train yard and he figured to save some energy by holding onto a grab iron on a freight car. There were switch points up ahead but he thought

The thing sticking up on the left is the switch stand

he could get over them without a problem. However, one of the bike peddles became entangled with an improperly configured switch stand and he fell, his right arm laying across the track. The train crushed and severed it at the elbow. This was long before surgical techniques for the restoration of severed limbs. Indeed, it was before wide distribution of antibiotics. He lay in the hospital for weeks, delirious from infection, including tetanus (colloquially known as “lock jaw” for its induction of painful muscular rigidity). Somehow, he pulled through, now an invalid. At the time there was not much scripted public policy acknowledgment of disability beyond the, “oh, that’s so sad” kind of thing. My father was somewhat lucky in this.

The railroad took the attitude that the company had some responsibility (somewhat unusual for the time) and offered my father a permanent job at a lower pay rate. Later, a deal between railroads moved my father to another company.

My father often walked to work since we were a one car family and other priorities prevented my mother from driving him. This would take roughly an hour. A dreary stroll in the winter-time with a foot of snow on the ground and a cold wind for company. But at some point my father acquired a pickup truck, already an antique, and that was my transport at age 4 to my father’s job. Fortunately, he had a small 6×6 weather-shack with windows so he could see approaching trains, and a coal stove to heat the place in the winter. In the summer it sweltered.

It was on these occasional excursions that I found my love for trains. I can remember standing by the tracks as huge steam behemoths backed down to the “roundhouse” (the maintenance building was semi-circular for practical reasons) the ground shaking, the gigantic wheels slowly spinning, the loud pulsing exhaust filing the air with steam and coal-smoke. It was a frightening boy’s paradise. I recall my father and a co-worker allowing me to enter a locomotive cab where I was directed to turn a small valve. Suddenly the engine bell began to peel. It scared me because I couldn’t get it to shut off. That seemed funny to the engineer. I wish I could say that that cemented forever in my mind the direction you turn a valve OFF. It took years longer.

Later in my subrosa career on the railroad, when steam power had disappeared, I remember wandering away from my father’s weather-shack, down a street where tracks ran to the mainline, heading off to a distant city I was told. There were tall trees by the side of the road with low branches and I climbed one to what seemed a great height. I sat there in the summer breeze when a string of very large diesel locomotives at the head of a long freight train came slowly down the track, heading for my father’s train yard. They were utterly fantastic. At the time I did not know about the inner workings of such things, but the sound was just amazing. Squeaking, bumping wheels, the rise and fall of diesel rpm, air jets regulating tank pressures and the smell of diesel exhaust. To a young boy, the sights, sounds and smells were mesmerizing.**

Gradually I learned a great deal about the operation of railroad equipment and something about the associated business, but the romance of that moment sticks forever in my mind.

These memories and others always lead me back to the thought that my father was an invariably kind man. I learned much from his devotion to the Gospel of Christ and his family. Thanks Dad! Wherever you are. I love you.

*One of them was abruptly diagnosed with cancer and died within a couple of weeks. I didn’t really care for the babysitting experience there, my main memories were the cigarette smoke, and the adult male of the household loudly slurping coffee from a saucer. I’m sure they were nice people, but my mother was pretty desperate.

A DD35A. They had an effect on a kid.

**For the initiated, the locomotives were DD35As. I’ve always loved their symmetry since then. All went to the scrapper long ago.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    A very satisfying brunch.

    Thanks, WVS.

  2. Bro. Jones says:

    A wonderful brunch indeed. I’ve always loved trains and regret not having the time to learn more about them. A childhood spent around them would’ve been pretty fantastic for me.

  3. Your father was (is) a wonderful man. Thanks for the insights.

  4. Thanks all for your comments.

  5. WVS,

    Are you a model railroader? I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love trains. It’s been a fifty year love affair. I’m currently planning my next layout — which I hope will be my magnum opus.

  6. WVS, this is mesmerizingly vivid. This is childhood–images and details, experienced but not sorted, placed, analyzed, and connected the way we do with everything as adults.

    I remember when my kids were about 2 and they started enjoying Thomas the Train that showed sometimes on our PBS station, I thought it would be fun to take them down to the commuter train station to see the train I sometimes take to work. The trains come every 20 minutes so I didn’t check the schedule, we just went down there. The first train to come into the station wasn’t the commuter train, but the full size Amtrak train that passes through a couple times a day. Standing right there feet from the edge of the tracks while it pulled up the kids were terrified but completely dazzled. To tell the truth, even I was sort of terrified. Trains are so, so much bigger than you think they are going to be.

  7. That’s a lovely story. My mother’s family has long worked for the railroad. Her father and uncles worked on the railroad down in Winslow, and a couple of her brothers do now too.

  8. Jack, good luck with the layout. I’m a bit of a collector – builder, but mostly I’m fascinated with getting things to operate. Never had the energy to actually model an operating rail system. The most I ever had was tracks running from here to there kind of thing. Never enough time to get into the whole layout business.

    Cynthia, there is just something about those things.

  9. That’s an awesome story about your dad.

    My grandfather worked for Seaboard for 50 years before retiring. I thought of him as an engineer, but I don’t know what he actually did. He had a whole room of his house dedicated to a model train set up, but I remember that it wasn’t a toy – it was an adult thing. Kids were merely to marvel at it. And we did. =)

    Recently, I remembered that he always carried around a wooden train whistle. I think I’d like to pick one up to honor him. I’m sure my boys will be into trains, seems inevitable.

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