From Eternity into Time
Mighty the Wizard
Who found me at sunrise
Sleeping, and woke me
And learn’d me Magic!
Great the Master,
And sweet the Magic,
When over the valley,
In early summers,
Over the mountain,
On human faces,
And all around me,
Moving to melody,
Floated The Gleam…
– Tennyson, “Merlin and the Gleam” (7)
When I was coming along, trains were more a part of everyday life than they are now. People used to ride trains then the way people fly now. In the summer time, when I was maybe eight or ten years old, I’d get put on the train by myself and ride to South Carolina to visit my paternal grandparents in the little town of Cameron, and to visit my cousins who lived all over the place down there. My mother made me some sandwiches to carry along. I was told to stay in the same car, because they had to switch it off the Southern Road at Greensboro and get it over to the Coast Line in Raleigh. The conductors looked after me. Cameron was a flag stop, and when we got there they saw to it that the train stopped to let me off at the depot on Front Street. From there I walked the few blocks up the street to Doc and Miss Janie’s house.
Those were the days of segregation but the walls were beginning to crumble, and the railroad cars were integrated. I remember sitting in the seat behind two Black women who had gotten aboard somewhere in North Carolina, one of whom was of gargantuan proportions. They were engaged in animated conversation with each other for most of their ride. I made no effort to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help overhearing the mantra that the enormous one would chant periodically for emphasis: “Well! All I got to say is Jesus leads me and the government feeds me!” I don’t know how well Jesus was holding up His end of the deal, but from all appearances the government was doing an heroic job holding up its!
I don’t suppose people send their children off into the wild blue yonder like that anymore in this age when kids are not allowed to go barefooted to school or skin their knees and stump their toes, but instead are sent out dressed as gladiators to ride their bikes under parental supervision – in between times of being hauled around to karate practice or to soccer practice or to organized and orchestrated play-dates. But the world has changed drastically since then, and there is a lot out there now that was unheard of in those more innocent days and times when we were growing up.
Often after Sunday school, my father would take me down either to the fire station on the corner of Fifth and Main to see the fire trucks and talk to the firemen, or down to the depot on the James River to see if any trains were coming in. The Norfolk & Western and the C & O both ran through there. As the Norfolk & Western hauled a great deal of coal, they still ran the old steam engines – big black puffing monsters blowing smoke and hissing steam and pulling a long line of rumbling and rattling cars, with a red wooden caboose on the end where the brakeman and the freight conductor stayed watching along the train for hotboxes. In the wintertime they had a little coal-burning pot-bellied stove in there to keep them warm, with its little T-shaped stovepipe stuck out of the top of the car.
The engines on the passenger trains were gussied up with a little more style. They sported a bright silver paint job, a sleek cowcatcher, a rounded nose with a headlight in the middle, skirts over the driving wheels and along the catwalks on the sides of the engine, a low, streamlined cab for the fireman and the engineer, and a coal-and-water tender hitched behind to match. These engines were called “Streamliners,” and when we saw one coming into the station, bell ringing, my father would take me over to the track and tell me to put my ear to the rail and listen to it sing.
Although my father didn’t do too much singing he could whistle like a mockingbird, and he taught me “The Wreck of the Old ’97.” That was the ballad about the great train wreck in 1903, when Steve Brodie lost his air brakes coming off White Oak Mountain making ninety miles an hour and jumped the Stillhouse Trestle coming into Danville. It was the first song I ever learned. We went down to S. O. Fisher’s, the hardware store on the lower end of Main Street, and got a copy of the sheet music from the bin they had downstairs. Neither of us could read music, but the sheet had all of the verses. My father knew the tune from hearing it on the radio and he taught it to me.
When I was a little boy we had two different circuses that would come to town. One was the Barnum & Baily and the other was the Ringling Brothers. They would arrive on trains in the middle of the night, and once my father let me skip school to see one come in and unload. Waking me up about one o’clock in the morning, he took me down to the Kemper Street station, where they were unloading the circus and lining everything up for the parade out Memorial Avenue to the fairgrounds. By daylight all was ready, and we followed them in our car out to the edge of town, where we watched the elephants help put up the “Big Top.” That was all very interesting, but I believe I was more fascinated by the enormous clods of elephant droppings that we ran through with the car while we were following the circus procession.
But an even better thing was to come. One day my father took me down to the yards below Commerce Street where he had made arrangements with Mr. Whitmire for me to ride with him in the cab of his switch engine. Mr. Whitmire let me sit in the Engineer’s seat and work the throttle and blow the whistle – with me hanging my elbow out of the window like Casey Jones! Little boys never forget things like that. Big boys, either.
My maternal grandparents lived next door to us. One gray and chilly Fall afternoon, when I was in the second grade, we all piled into my grandfather’s LaSalle and drove down to Union Station to see General Eisenhower make a whistle stop during his first presidential campaign. He stood on the rear platform of the last passenger car and delivered a speech to a large and receptive crowd. It was one of the last election campaigns to be conducted in that old-fashioned way, a way that had been practiced since before the War Between the States.
Union Station got its name, I believe, because it was where the old Southside Railroad connected with the old Virginia and Tennessee. The C & O freights ran along the James River, but the westbound trains on the Norfolk & Western turned away from the river at this point and went through a tunnel under Federal Hill. The tunnel had been cut through solid rock with dynamite, free Irish labor, and contracted slave labor back in the old times. (In those days it was customary to use free Irishmen on the more dangerous portions of projects like these, for – unlike expensive slaves – free laborers were expendable and more economical to replace.)
The N & W rail line followed a long grade up Blackwater Creek and passed not far from our house. We lived at the end of our street, which from there turned into an old dirt road that ran down through the woods to the railroad and the creek. That road was the remnant of what had once been part of General Jubal Early’s outer defenses of Lynchburg in 1864 when the Yankees came. Now it was just a deeply rutted red clay track where people came to park at a turnout in the pine thicket that was littered with beer cans and whiskey bottles and everything. Further on down, where the pines turned to hardwoods, was a turn-around place. That was always called the old bootlegger’s place, but we never saw any bootleggers. Beyond that the remnants of the old road ran beside a steep ravine through the woods a little ways to the fill where the railroad crossed it. On the other side of the tracks Blackwater Creek ran in a muddy bend in the bottom far below. To the left, hanging precariously to the far edge of the railroad, was a frame house that seemingly stood in immanent peril of tumbling down the hill and into the creek. In it lived a Black man (or “Colored” as we were carefully instructed to say in those days) who we boys would torment by throwing ballast rocks onto his tin roof until he came out hollering at us and firing at us with his shotgun. I don’t recollect any of us being killed.
When I was just a little tyke, my father would take me down there on his horse, with me perched in the saddle in front of him and his arm around my middle. When he let Allen go in a canter it gave me a thrill I remember yet, as we attained a velocity never dreamed of when I was on my little tricycle. But I wasn’t worried, because I knew my father had a hold of me. He used to call me “Hot Shot,” so I called him “Hot Shot,” too!
When I got older, he took me down to the tracks above Blackwater Creek and let me shoot at snakes in the creek with the little pearl-handled revolver that my grandfather had chased the Gypsies with to get his money back. Later, we children would ride the horses to the railroad ourselves, or walk down there to play and watch the trains go by. We would put pennies on the rails and let the trains smear them into wafers.
My father cautioned me not to get too close to the engine. He said the driving wheels created a vacuum that would suck you into them and grind you up. One day I was playing in the nearby cut when a big puffing monster suddenly came blasting around the bend! It was too late for me to get out, so I tried to scramble up the steep embankment. It was very steep and very narrow, and as I neared the top there was nothing to hold on to. I began to slide backwards down towards the bottom just as the engine roared by. I was clawing the clay as I went but my fingernails weren’t doing it for me, and my brief little life passed before my eyes as I slid all the way down to the bottom and close enough to feel the breeze from the piston rods and the driving wheels as they rushed by!
I likely gave the engineer a fright as well, for there was nothing he could have done to save me. An engineer once said that the two things he most dreaded to see stopped on a crossing were a loaded cement mixer and a loaded school bus – and that if it were a school bus, he would wish it to be a cement mixer instead!
The C & O freights still run along the river – now as CSX – and the Southern still crosses the James on the big trestle – now as Norfolk Southern – but those old-time trains run no more. Union Depot has been turned into an upscale restaurant, and the old N & W tracks running up along Blackwater Creek have been taken up and the roadbed has been turned into a bike and nature trail running through the city. The old dirt road at the end of our street and the bootlegger’s place have all been paved over, all the woods have been cut, and the land all about has been developed into residential neighborhoods.
One day I took a walk on the nature trail looking for the place where we used to play. I was remembering the time when I got scared out of my wits in the cut the time when that mighty engine came thundering by. I was thinking that the fear I had felt at the time had largely been exaggerated by a little boy’s mind. Then I found the cut. The engineer could have reached out of the window of his cab that day and smacked me on my little fanny as I slid down the near-vertical embankment!
The steam engines are long gone now, and with them went much of the romance of the railroad. Technology determines the age, and inefficiency is the Cardinal Sin – punished by death. On the railroads, diesel power replaced steam power just as steam power had replaced muscle power a century before. In Scotland, it is said, the steam whistle scared the Faery Folk away. I can understand it of a factory whistle screeching out its tyrannical cadence of Time atop some clanking eruption belching concentric circles of grime over the pristine face of Mother Nature, but I remember there being only magic in the wandering whistle of a freight train.
I remember the warm summer nights when my mother would take me upstairs to tuck me in at bedtime. Sometimes she would read to me a story book, like “The Three Little Firemen” or “The Little Engine That Could.” Then she would listen to my prayers – lining them out for me at first, before I learned to say them by myself:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless everybody,
Then she would tuck me in, give me a kiss goodnight, and turn out the light.
It was too warm to sleep under any more than a sheet. The windows were open and the oscillating fan was quietly stirring the night air. I would lie awake for a while listening to the stillness of the night. The crickets were chanting their antiphonal liturgy, while the lightning bugs were winking their vespers in the big oak trees on the lawn. Sometimes a whippoorwill would call, or a bug would thump against the window screen.
Then I would hear it – a long, lonesome wail, faint as the prelude to some distant symphony. As the train came closer, I could hear the pistons working the driving wheels hard – louder crossing the fills, fading behind the cuts – with a
CHOOK-a-like-a CHOOK-a-like-a CHOOK-a-like-a CHOOK-a-like-a
pounding out a rhythm to set your pulse a-racing while the rattle and the clatter of the freight cars sang their clickety-clack accompaniment along the rails.
A steam whistle can be modulated in pitch and tone, and some of those old-time engineers were maestros – partially cracking the valve as a momentary introduction to a long, full throat, followed by an inflection and a sharp stop. Then another pull and a long farewell:
a-W-O-O-O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o – o – o – o – o – o ….
To me, looking back now, it seemed to sound the requiem of an Era – the passing of the innocence and trust born of a happy childhood secure in love – trailing off into the night like the cry of the banshee keening over Elfland in the gloaming of Faith and smoky magic. It was a wail to break your heart.