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I am truly honored to feature an article by guest writer Cheryl Hilderbrand on The Literate Pen this month. In addition to being a prolific writer and superb storyteller, Cheryl also had the distinction (or misfortune, depending on her point of view) of being both my favorite high school English teacher as well as my instructor in Journalism and on the Yearbook staff. From her and a handful of others, I somehow absorbed, possibly by osmosis, the art and love of creative nonfiction writing back in the days before word processors and spell check became common as the tools of the trade. Cheryl wrote a column for many years in the local newspaper and still is the occasional guest columnist when she can find time to write between all of her other interests, which include singing in the church choir, gardening, bicycling, Bridge, serving on the local Arts Council and of course, her grandchildren. I am pleased to present “Musical Trains”, an essay by Cheryl Hilderbrand. 

Musical Trains

I was surprised when my grandchildren came crying down the stairs one recent morning.  “The Trains,” they whined.  “The trains are loud and scary.”

I was surprised for two reasons: first, in eight years of occasional sleepovers, they’d never before been awakened or frightened by my local trains, and second, it never occurred to me that train noises could be scary.  On the contrary, for me, the rumbles and vibrations, the warning screams are an exciting and delightful accompaniment to my days and nights.

The trains roaring along many times a day are a treasured connection to the past, and to my green and lumpy mental map of the United States.  And they are always a stimulus to my romantic imagination.

I am not a railroad aficionada.   I have never taken these same grandchildren to the Southeastern Railroad Museum in Duluth, though at times, I have actually been in Duluth and quite desperate, in a grandmotherly way, to find entertainment.  I am not interested in any preserved iron and steel Boanerges.  I will admit to being captivated by the romantic aura, the idea, of trains; but mostly I want to hear and see the loaded trains hauling down the tracks toward imagined villages and smoky cities.  I cannot admire the black behemoths for their power and design as I might a car or motorcycle.

I’ve never even ridden on a train, except many times in books where I am inevitably attacked by outlaws or suspected of a murder, or have fallen in love with a handsome stranger who ends up doing me wrong.

The only real trains in my past are The Crescent Limited, the Gainesville Midland Steam locomotive, Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans, and The Little Engine that Could.  I know The Little Engine that Could is fictional, but she became very real to me.

The Crescent Limited was a romantic blur that rolled through my little North Georgia town every evening. (The Southern Crescent came later.)  Daddy or an uncle would say, “There goes the Crescent.”  Aunts would take me to watch it, to observe the dressed up people in the brightly lit dining cars flashing past toward adventures and wealth and love.  We registered only glimpses, but that didn’t stop us from making up stories about where these passengers might be headed, or why.

“That was a funeral hat,” Aunt Gladys would claim, “did you see the veil?”

“What’s in New Orleans?”  Aunt Bell would wonder, and then decide most of the passengers were getting off in Birmingham, a more understandable destination. We had kinfolk there.

Arlo’s train makes my favorites list because Arlo is my all-time favorite folk singer.  And his song, The City of New Orleans is what a Bandstand reviewer would call “singable.”  The verses feature a repeating train-like rhythm, and are complemented with a whining speeded-up chorus. The song has only a line or two of Guthrie’s signature political commentary.  He saddens us in the verses describing the lonely people, and reminds us that “this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.” But then we can get all wound up again on the chugging chorus:  Good Morning America, How are you? / Don’t you know me, I’m your native son? / I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. / Be gone 500 miles fore day is done.

The heroine of The Little Engine that Could, retold by Watty Piper seeped into my consciousness and formed my attitude as a child and again as a mother.  I can recite it and see the pictures in my mind.  It provided my first self-help mantra: “ I think I can, I think I can…,” Can anybody say the same about Thomas the Tank Engine?

MidlandMy favorite specific train is the Gainesville Midland, a steam locomotive that up until the mid-fifties, puffed its way across my North Georgia horizon twice daily. We lived on the side of a small mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians, and most days could see across the rolling hills 10 to 20 miles.  The track, of course, we could not see.

But we could see the white steam trailing along the arc of the world and could follow its progress from Athens almost to Jefferson, where the topography began interfere with our view. People still rode it and sent freight by it, and my daddy taught us to notice the differences in the straight up plume of white steam/smoke when it was stopped at Pendergrass, and the trailing puffy scarf when it was chugging along from Athens to Arcade.

That train is special to me because it was special to Daddy.  He understood the significance of a steam engine still operating in the days of diesels.  He took the time to point it out to us because trains were important in his youth.   It was a rare moment of positive interaction with an unpredictable father.

Instead of a chiming grandfather clock or cute Cuckoo, I have a multiple bird clock that startles even frequent guests with its loud chirping and whistling on the hour.    It is a little mixed up. At 7 am the clock hands point to a picture of a mockingbird, but the bird call will be a mourning dove.  My 9 am blue jay, sounds like a cardinal to me.  But when I hear it, and I don’t always, it is reassuring or cajoling.  Oh my goodness, I think, is it 10 am already, and I’m still sitting at my computer in my nightgown.  Or, Gracious, I’m making good time scrubbing these floors, I’m almost finished, and it’s only been two hours.  (Actually, that last example is a fabrication, in case you couldn’t tell.)

My trains are not bird clocks singing, nor fancy clocks chiming.  I don’t know the schedules and cannot say—“Oh, there goes the 6 am from Dublin.” My trains are not for telling time, though one could.  But they are more than white noise:  My trains are music to me, to my ears and to my soul. At night when I cannot sleep, I listen for a train. They come reliably to my rescue.  Sometimes I fall asleep before one comes, but most often I relax when I hear the first hint of steel on steel and drift off to the horn’s serenade, some nights it sounds like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar electrifying the rails

I believe that I can tell from the slight difference in sounds whether a train is climbing up the Fall Line from Macon or whether it is trundling from Atlanta through Jackson following sit time on a sidetrack in Jenkinsburg.   I awaken and wait for a slight vibration, a hum that is not the refrigerator, a movement in the air that starts about Wolf Creek Road and increases in volume as it curves behind the hospital and crosses Georgia Highways 36 and 16 to cruise on down past Fresh Air Barbecue, coming out of the woods to howl again down US Route 23.

When the trains are coming up from the South I am aware of them sooner; I enjoy a longer concert.  The vibration becomes a hum and then a stage of violins.   I wait for the first clear horn I can hear at the McCoy Road crossing near Stalnaker Lake, less than four miles from me as the crow flies.  I think that the lake makes the warning echo all the way through the bricks on the north side of my home and into my bedroom. Then I listen for all the crossings between here and there and pretend I know exactly when it gets to Ricky Johnson’s welding shop.  I am certain the sounds are clearest when the train veers slightly behind Webb’s Super Market. I can actually hear the screech of metal against metal and the clickity-clack drum like accompaniment.

Now sometimes, I must admit, I hear the train and smile and turn over and go back to sleep.  Some nights, I don’t hear them at all until dewy dawn multiplies the decibels.  That is when I like to open my back door and sip coffee and listen to the train blowing through from Jacksonville to New York.  Or Mobile or Memphis, or Chicago or Seattle.  Wherever I want to go.

The English language has 44 phonemes, but in my opinion not one of them, nor any combination of them, accurately imitates a train’s horn.  The /oo/ it is not.  The older steam engines certainly had a whistle, but our current locomotives are equipped with horns as sliding as Perez Prado’s screaming “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”  Sometimes I think I hear a trumpet, sometimes a clarinet, sometimes a tuba, always with the drumming rhythmic backbeat of engine and wheel and rail.   But always it is music.  Music that lulls me back to sleep, or sends me day dreaming in the night to Sandersville, where an old brick building is covered with white blooming autumn clematis that matches the kaolin of their mines.

I’ve seen the kaolin cars when I am stopped and waiting for the train to pass.  I’ve watched tons of coal piled high and headed toward Plant Scherer.  Lumber I’ve seen go flying by and wondered, “who is building a new house?” I’ve seen cattle and machinery and mysterious closed containers filled with car parts or desperate refugees, perhaps.

Maybe I do need to take my grandchildren to the Duluth Train Museum. Because when they spend the night with me they will definitely hear the trains.  And I need to teach them that trains are commerce and connection, empire building and history, music and memory.  Trains are a part of the imagination of America.

I need to teach them that when in Jackson, the trains are life’s background music and that with a shift of attention they can become a captivating performance or a romantic adventure of the mind.

Cheryl Hilderbrand