It was, to say the least, an underwhelming debut.
My wife and I, along with dozens of others, were gathered on the graveled edge of the Union Pacific rail yard in Marysville, the old one whose tracks branched off the new bypass to wing like an arrow through the center of town. Only, alas, to end ignominiously near Jenkins Street; the remainder of the tracks pulled up like so many dandelions, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I remember all too well having to stop and wait (and wait) for trains to pass before continuing into town. With 140 or more trains per day, the chances of having to wait were almost assured. When faced with the rare opportunity of finding the tracks devoid of rolling stock, the usual reaction was to stomp the gas pedal, speed limit be damned. A human foible to be sure but all the more mystifying because I never once saw cops running radar through that stretch. It would have been a cash cow for police coffers but maybe they felt the poor bastards were justified. Give ‘em a break.
The reason for our gathering was the imminent arrival of locomotive No. 844. It was the last steam engine built for UP, 114 feet of coal black ugly that made its debut in 1944. As we waited, I asked several strangers if they’d ever seen it before. Not only had they, but they returned to the yard every time the engine docked. It was like a religion or something. I had a feeling that Lori and I were the only steam-engine-virgins there.
After what seemed an interminable wait, a pinprick of light appeared on the bridge spanning the Little Blue River. A ripple shuddered the crowd. Some began surging forward while others held back. The train inched forward, coasted to a stop, inched forward again. Several workers walked the tracks ahead of it, either inspecting the metal rails or tired of waiting for the engine to move. It started and stopped and mostly just idled.
“Like watching paint dry,” I said aloud.
Two men glanced at me as if I were a terrorist.
I moved off to find a good vantage. Each time I had an unobstructed view someone stepped in front of me. Several other photographers were having the same difficulty. Not that there was anything spectacular to shoot—the engine crawled forward with only a whiff of steam bleeding from the stack, a background of barren trees and featureless sky, a colorless foreground of gravel and dirt. Its size was impressive, though.
The train passed the depot and chugged to a stop. Workers wearing Day-glo vests swarmed it like angry yellowjackets. Circling the crowd, I angled off and knelt for a shot directly down the tracks. A police officer watched intently as if to say, this far and no more. Using a wide-open aperture to blur the background, I focused on the brass bell and touched the shutter release. Something was missing, though, some ineffable quality. At rest, leaking tendrils of white steam, the massive engine seemed anemic, almost caged, barely contained in its immobility. Before the shutter snapped I knew I had to see the engine in motion.
I never was around trains much when I was young so I have no real reference point other than the cheesy country songs I used to hear in the late hours of the night. Those came later in life, after I’d left home. Before that we listened mostly to classical music (my father was particularly fond of Wagner and the symphonies of Beethoven), with a sprinkling of Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and a few others who escape me now. It’s worth noting that after we three boys flew the coop my mother grew addicted to the music of Willie Nelson, whose crooning my father compared to a cat with its tail caught in a fan belt. Willie’s nasal whine was a sore trial for my father. When my mother played his records my father promptly abandoned the room. It was his room, too, his den, manly with scale models of P-51 Mustang fighter planes and a gun rack prominent on the east wall. But I think Willie’s outcast status appealed to my mother’s own sense of rebellion, though hers was certainly more controlled. And, too, I think she was branching out into the woman she would become, seeing a new life sans children and electing to step out of my father’s shadow. Not too far, mind you, but far enough to hear her own voice.
Sometimes on quiet spring mornings when the windows were open I would hear a train rolling down the valley. It was miles away but still an audible presence, making the air throb with a dull rumble that seemed to come from the earth itself. Now and then a whistle would blow, a sonorous note that hung in the air like woodsmoke. I enjoyed listening to the train on a subliminal level but had no desire to see it. What was surprising was how far the sound carried.
Years later after a divorce and exile to Grants, New Mexico, I was thrown in among a motley band of misfits and losers, none of whom cared for Wagner, Beethoven or Mozart. Theirs was a more earthy refuge, booze, drugs and primordial violence underscored to a soundtrack of loss and yearning. Classical couldn’t quench the ache nor did it have the necessary incendiary ingredients to fuel it. Country music was as American as it got, but not the America of my middle-class upbringing. It was trailer trash and Southern gun-and-bible hillbilly, with iconic references to mothers, God, whiskey and unfaithful wives. Prominent within those heartrending lyrics was the lonesome wail of a train whistle, usually at night when loneliness was at its most compelling, piercing like a knife to the heart.
(Continued next week)