Tedi and I are sitting on our deck, while I eat breakfast and we discuss the latest pathology from our group of on-line friends.
In the distance, I hear a mournful whistle... a train...
My grandfather, who died recently, was a train fanatic. Now, I think trains are cool. I remember riding the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railway from Boston to Yale with my mother to visit my father at his post-doc position. I treasure the memory of actually being at the controls of a steam locomotive once at the Illinois Railway Museum track in Union, IL.
My Uncle Red and Aunt Lorrie (my grandfather's sister) lived in Union, and whenever I visited my grandparents we'd have to make the pilgrimage from Elgin to Union to visit them. I found visiting relatives I barely knew, and listening them talk about people I *didn't* know, terribly dull... there were no kids my age to play with while all this was going on, either.
My reward for being civil during these visits was a trip to the train museum. I've seen the Illinois Railway Museum grow from a half-mile of track and a few small buildings to what it is today. Or rather, what it was a few years ago.
In the mid-90s my best friend Bill and I squished (we totaled about 500 lbs together) into a Cessna 152 (N94183, I think) and flew cross country to Frankfort, IL, on our way to the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in in Oshkosh, WI. That's the largest air show in the U.S. My primary flight instructor was now the Fixed Base Operator in Frankfort, so we were able to sleep on his floor, then rent a car and drive up to to the show.
A few days later, we drove back to Frankfort by the scenic route, through Elgin and Union. We visited my grandfather at 542 Grace Street, the house where he had lived for 40 years or so, where my mother and uncle were raised (though not born). My grandmother had died a few years before, and this was the first time I had been to the house since the memorial service. He seemed quite lonely by himself in that place, but he had plenty of friends left in the community (older ladies, mostly... hmmm.)
After we bid him goodbye, I left 542 Grace for what would prove to be the last time. He and my mother sold that house and moved him out to New Jersey the next year. I do miss that house, it was a big part of my childhood.
Well, we still were taking the scenic route, and I drove Bill around the areas where I learned to drive Grandma's 242 Volvo (Leadfoot Alice, he used to call her). I drove down to South Elgin, where my grandmother taught first grade for so many years. When we passed by the Fox Trolley Museum, which was another reward site for me as a small boy, I got inspired to go to back to Union.
I expected it to be disappointing, in the way that childhood places revisited generally are... small and shabby and slightly embarrassing. But no, it was better than ever. They've been adding on and improving, and I hadn't been back in over 15 years. We both had a grand time, and went back to Frankfort, to meet with Gene once again and squeeze into our C152 for the long trip home.
[back to the present, Tedi and I identify the train whistle, which is accompanied by the excited laughter of a young boy. Our neighbor, Bob, has an extensive outdoor train layout in his back yard. He's showing his nephew the toys, and sharing with him his love of trains. It reminds me of myself and my grandfather, 35 years ago. Of course, back then, we had real trains with which to play.]
This is the age of the automobile, and the jet aircraft. Trains today are sad and slow in comparison. There are probably more Americans now who haven't ridden in a train, than who haven't ridden in a plane.
However, when my grandfather was a young man, and when my mother was a child, the situation was radically different. Roads were pathetic, cars were expensive, and planes were a dangerous novelty. People didn't move much, and it wasn't unusual for someone to live and die within 50 miles of his birth.
Through every small town in America ran a shining steel ribbon, on which rode powerful machines, carrying people and goods from far away. The train represented the larger world, and also represented Freedom. Everyone knew they could buy a ticket (or hop a freight car if they were brave or desperate) and within hours be farther away from home than their grandparents had ever gone.
Trains brought books, and movies, and mail. Trains brought long lost relatives and lovers back from war. Trains, above all, brought Choice.
Trains don't serve that purpose any more. They have been replaced by the interstate highway system, by the spoke/hub system of cheap airfare, and, more recently, by the Internet. Those of us who rode the rails remember how they once were.
Thanks, Grandpa, for teaching me romance.