Trains: A blessing or an annoyance?
When I drive to work, I am delayed from time to time by a train traveling north or south through the small city where I live.
Do I get impatient, wish I had taken another route where no train tracks interfere with my getting to work? Absolutely not.
Christmas approaches and toy trains and tracks are unwrapped to be placed under decorated trees; parents wonder whether their little ones are old enough to appreciate the gift of a train set; toddlers are taken to an area mall where they can board a train with a conductor shouting “All aboard” as bells clang and lights flash.
My experience with real trains goes back to times I recall in bits and pieces. My father believed that he could create a better life for our family and safety for himself by leaving the United States Steel coal-mining operation in Lynch, Kentucky, where a rock fall had sliced into his back and another had landed on his boot.
In those early years, Mother bundled up my sister, my brother, and me, went to the L&N Depot in Cumberland (Yes, there were still drinking fountains at the depot specifying who was allowed to drink from which fountains. And I stealthily drank from the “Colored only” fountain and wondered if my skin would change to the color of my friends, Sonny and Norman), and we headed out to join my father, first to Louisville, then to Cincinnati, and then to Charlestown, Indiana.
Riding the train was exciting with the little paper, cone-shaped cups and ice cold drinking water, the tiny bathrooms, and the cart that rolled through the train with attendants offering drinks and snacks for sale.
Early on, trains thus became an important part of my consciousness as I learned there were cities beyond the small town of Cumberland and all kinds of people engaged in all sorts of occupations, more than a few filling station attendants and several clerks in fewer than one dozen places of business. There were coal miners in Cumberland and adjoining towns, but these men were invisible except for those unlucky enough to work in what my father called “dog holes” where there was no bath house and they returned from their labors covered in coal dust from their faces to their shoes.
And the family travels on trains taught me about alternate housing- apartments, hotels, huge houses with decorative trimmings.
The last time Mother took the three of us to the depot in Cumberland -this time to travel to Toledo where my father had found work at the Mather Spring Company,- was a few days before my fourteenth birthday, and I had just finished my freshman year at Cumberland High School.
Time passed quickly in Toledo and within a flash, I was sixteen and a senior at Woodward High School and had been selected by the Toledo Council on World Affairs to travel by train with all expenses paid to New York City and Washington, D.C. And my world just kept opening up.
Larger and larger, and more complex, more exciting, more enchanting. As I earned college degrees and was hired to play academic roles in Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri, train trips continued to be a part of my life only this time in Western Europe where I took all opportunities to board a train, sit back, observe the landscape, and travel from city to city.
So today as I’m stopped on my way to work by a train on the tracks, I imagine the kids who painted the graffiti on them and I ask myself, How wide is their world? And I consider who loaded the cars and how the old men who once rode in the cabooses feel about the fact that technology has taken jobs they once held and cabooses are only on toy trains now.
Or I remember my childhood. I’m a little kid again walking the rails with my dog Ginger. Yes, he and I could have been a circus act with no fear of falling as we balanced ourselves on those thin rails. Or I’m climbing up the ladder on the sides of the gondolas that are waiting to be filled with coal trucked from the dog holes to the tipple that is on my grandmother’s property.
Very occasionally, I know I’ll find a gondola that has supports in the shape of round bars instead of the typical heavy wide rectangles that I normally find which support the sides of the gondolas. And I know I can practice my gymnastic feats on the round bars until dark when Mother calls me to supper. I know also that those few special gondolas will be filled with coal the next work day and an engine will come to carry them somewhere along the L&N route where the black diamonds will be used to create electricity or power a factory.
Yes, I never mind waiting as that train moves along the tracks through Piqua, Ohio, because in those minutes I am transported to magic moments of my past.
Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.