Saturday, June 27, 2009


As I was washing dishes the other day and generally puttering around my kitchen, I heard the train go by. I live three blocks over from a major expressway bordered by train tracks on the far side. The sound of trains has been with me all of my life.

Commute trains, Amtrak trains and freight trains punctuate the day and night. Now with the windows open for the summer I hear the early and late trains more than I do during the colder months. The length of the trains suggest whether they are passenger or freight, with the longer trains that I assume are hauling freight going through at night.

In Toledo, when I was growing up, we lived a similar distance from trains and I remember all too well the pictures from Life magazine of Anne Frank and the concentration camps. For a brief time in my childhood, probably when I was nine or ten, the sounds of trains scared me. I lay in my bed at night fearful, imagining what it had been like to be pushed into a boxcar traveling in the dark without water or food or a place to go to the bathroom. I had a vivid imagination and for a time the trains were not comforting.

When we moved to California my parents again bought a house that was near trains. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school my family took the Vista Dome train to Chicago from Oakland. This was an elegant train with its dining car, private compartment and second story for viewing the country as it rolled by. I remember sitting in the dining car with a linen table cloth and heavy silver flatware waiting for our dinner with the train stopped blocking a crossing. People were backed up, probably wishing that darned train would get moving.

We pulled into Chicago on the Fourth of July, passing through miles of stock yards and slums such as I had never seen before. (I would see them again from the Dan Ryan expressway years later when I lived in that city.) It was sobering to see a city so different from the areas where I had lived. Then we made a mad dash across town to another train station where we had a long, long wait for the "milk train" that would take us to Toledo where we were visiting family and friends.

We sat it out in the station until eleven pm and finally boarded the next train. I remember taking an escalator in the second station, one of the few times in my life that I ever did that. Escalators are scary things to people on crutches, as I was then, and require some very precise co-ordination of person, crutches and moving stairs to get on and off. Getting off is definitely trickier than getting on if my memory serves me correctly. With Papa behind me, I felt confident to try it, but was not really happy with it.

We had studied geography freshman year and I remember being very excited and waking up my long-suffering younger sister with my excitement that we were passing through the Gary, Indiana, noted primarily for its smokestacks. She still remembers this and has full rights to give me a hard time about it even after all these years. (Nearly half a century.)

When we arrived in Toledo in the wee hours of the morning we were met by the very dear friend, a tall, handsome Irish American with a fine voice and wonderful sense of humor who had been Papa's work colleague before we moved. Some years later, Uncle Ed, as we called him, would become my sister's father-in-law and "boppa" to her son and daughter. I remember his intelligence, humor, kindness and friendship to our family as though he truly had been my uncle. Along with my parents and his own wife, he is sorely missed by our family.

Finally, as a graduate student in Chicago, I lived three blocks west of the El. The stairs up to it were so daunting to me that I never did ride that train. The city traffic noise in Chicago was so great that I don't remember a distinct sound of trains such I experience now or knew as a child in Toledo.

Sometimes I think that I would like to move away from trains, but it isn't likely to happen. Sometimes I think that taking the Vista Dome across the country again would be a fun adventure. Adventures are mostly in my mind though, now that I am definitely aging and I think that I will keep them vicarious through memory and film. (Great train scenes from film would be another post! One that I saw last night was in an old Sherlock Holmes with Holmes and Watson and Holmes older brother catching up with the bad guys on the "boat train.")

I am grateful for my memories of trains and grateful for the relatively cool part of this day that will become quite hot later.

It is hard to believe that the Fourth of July is right around the corner and that Christmas is now less than six months away! (Arggh!)

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