I’ve got a train-track mind

Published 1:18 am Saturday, September 5, 2009

During a movie my husband and I watched recently, a scene focused on a railway station in Germany. As a train thundered in, it emitted a long, shrill whistle that carried me back to late December 1960. I also thought of the train whistles I heard as a child when I lived across the road from a Southern Railway Depot.

In that long ago December, I had disembarked from a ship in Bremerhaven, Germany, with our two children and stepped onto a train for the last leg of our journey to Bamberg, Germany. Its whistle screamed as it roared into every station along the way. That European whistle was definitely the most lonesome sound I could imagine.

With each of its strange and unfamiliar blasts, I was well aware that every turn of the wheels took us farther from home. We had traveled first by airplane, next by ship, then by train. We were going to Germany, where I couldn’t even speak the language. I felt apprehensive and at the same time excited to join my soldier husband at his new duty station.

Train travel, of course, was not unfamiliar to me. It had once been my transportation to town for shopping trips and one-way travel from high school.

I had lots of memories of trains coming and going every day in our little community. A mail train arrived in the morning, heading for Birmingham. It returned on the way to a point in Mississippi around 5 p.m. every day. In between, work train steam engines stopped a short distance below the depot to take on fuel. Sometimes at night, when the crew opened the fire box in an engine, the flames lit up its surroundings. It would have been a frightening experience to wake up during that time if I hadn’t known what was happening.

Loaded troop trains flashed by during wartime. The sight of many, many boxcars thundering through was a daily occurrence. My mother, who ran a grocery store, her clerk, and I often stood on the store porch and watched them rumble along. We noted the various names of the railroad lines on the sides of the cars. One day as we stood watching, my mother complained that the letters on those boxcars were all blurred. That’s how she found out she needed glasses.

I never tired of watching the trains and it was fun listening to the work crews laugh and talk when they took breaks in the store. They recognized me as that little girl who eagerly waved back when they waved at me. Once, with my mother’s permission, a crewman lifted me high into an engine to look around. Another time, one let me walk through a caboose. What a thrill that was.

Sometimes when I hear a train whistle, I feel exactly as I did when I heard one in that movie. It takes me way, way back to the time when trains were in their heyday.