Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Playin' on the Tracks
When I was a kid, the Northwestern commuter trains connected the northern suburbs with Chicago. Now they're part of the Metra system. Right after we moved from our first home near the lake to an historic [old] house several blocks west, trains came into my life in a big way. There were three houses and yards between our house and the railroad crossing. One of my first memories of living in that house is watching big, black locomotives chugging down the tracks, blasting black smoke that streamed nearly to the end of the train. It was a magnificent sight. If a kid happened to be standing near the crossing gates, the engineer would blow the whistle in response to the kid's hand-signal. Truckers will sometimes do that, too, but getting a train engineer to blow the whistle was like winning first prize. Not too many years later, those grand old engines were replaced by sleek, yellow diesel engines. The horns on those trains sounded like meep, meep in contrast to their predecessor's sturdy, basso tooooot, tooot. And, rather than clouds of black smoke belching from the tall smoke stack, a trickle of bluish-gray smoke leaked from a squat, yellow stack. Not impressive. The northbound and southbound tracks were separated by an earthen ridge. It seemed pretty high to us little kids, but it was probably all of 10 feet high. My older brother and I spent a lot of time on the top of that ridge. Someone before us had scraped out a hollow in the top; a perfect hiding place from the putt-putt-man. The putt-putt-man was one mean dude! He drove a little engine up and down the tracks, checking for anything that needed repair. If he saw kids anywhere near the tracks, he would shoo us off with dire warnings. We had to keep an eye peeled for the putt-putt-man so that we could hide before he saw us. I can remember the smell of dry, sooty grass from throwing ourselves onto the ground to avoid being caught. If the putt-putt-man stopped his putt-putt, we'd nervously hold still, hoping he wouldn't find us. Climbing to the top of the ridge was pretty straight forward. It was steep, so we climbed in a zigzag path. Coming down was something else. It involved running at full speed or sliding on your butt -- sometimes in combination. There were a few close calls when kids rushed home in response to a parent's angry hollering. We were free spirits until a parent called us back home. The next time I spent any serious time with trains was during my first two years in college. I rode trains to and from my campus. It was always a big, 4-hour party because there were several more colleges along the route I took. My college was about 35 miles from a railroad terminal in Burlington, Iowa. I will always remember my first visit there. Walking toward the yard filled with dozens of idling locomotives felt a little like walking near the edge of a volcano. The ground trembled and the noise was intimidating. The wheels on some of those engines were taller than me -- much larger than the trains of my youth. It was over-powering just standing near one of them. From then on, I didn't mind being stopped at a crossing waiting for a 100-car freight train to pass by. Now I watch how the wooden ties under the iron rails creak and sag under the weight of those big ole locomotives hauling millions of tons of cargo. [Speaking of wooden ties: once, during a nighttime thunderstorm, a railroad tie at our crossing was struck by lightning and caught fire. Ties were coated with creosote to preserve them, so they were flammable!] To this day, I prefer trains to any other form of transport. I enjoy driving, but you can't get up and walk around in a car! Jets take you above the clouds, but trains allow you to see where you're going and where you've been. Besides, people are more apt to socialize on a train because they're not belted into a seat and stuck there for however long the trip takes. The smell of creosote still conjures good memories of getting up close and personal with Monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed plants and searching for [and finding!] fossils along the railroad track bed. Our choice of playground may sound dangerous, but we weren't distracted by electronic gadgets. We lived in the moment and usually had the family dog with us -- no batteries required.