The plan was simple in concept and brilliant in design. Under cover of darkness, I made my way to the Main Street crossing. The early morning train was still slowing down as it passed near the city’s shopping area. There I slipped unnoticed into one of the open boxcars and settled down for my adventure. Thought I would go about 20 miles and then jump whenever it slows down for another crossing. Life on the rails! There was just one problem with my plan. At 8, how do I get my mom to take me to town so early? As you might have guessed by now, I’ve always had a thing for trains.
It’s easy to spot the beginning of my love affair with locomotives. It all started on a family vacation to Blowing Rock, NC when I was 6 years old. This is where my parents took my brother, sister and I to the Tweetsie Railroad amusement park. It was love at first sight. Locomotive No. 12 was a 4-6-0 coal-fired steam beauty built in 1917 that had carried passengers and freight for the ET & WNC rail line from Johnson City, Tennessee to Boone, NC Saved from scrap metal by Gene Autry , The Motor ended up at Blowing Rock as a thrilling adventure that featured a 3 mile journey through the mountains and culminated in a heist by a group of true Wild West outlaws. It was the most exciting adventure of my life at that time! To this day, I can still hear that high-pitched, piercing, lonely hiss of steam echoing in my ears. I was addicted.
With real-time experience under my belt, I wanted to repeat the adventure. When my dad waited at railway crossings, I would look at the open wagons and dream of getting on board to visit towns that I had only heard of. Naturally, I requested a train set for next Christmas – and to my delight, I got an HO scale set from the Santa Fe Flyer. It would be the center of many childhood adventures. On television there was a series called “Iron Horse” starring Dale Robertson, who played a man who ran a train he won in a game of poker. I never missed an episode. I also planned a return trip to my dear Tweetsie Railroad, but alas, it didn’t. The Santa Fe had to make do for a while.
Over time, I had new dreams, but you never forget a first love. I bought the version of “Orange Blossom Special” by Johnny Cash and “City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie and wanted to see them both play live. The song “Desperadoes Waiting on a Train” always chokes me. After the birth of my daughters, they became regulars on the Frisco Silver Dollar steam train. And yes, I held their hand when those same outlaws tried to steal it in broad daylight. There were other trains on family trips. Love is transmitted.
Three years ago my wife and I went to visit another couple in New Orleans over Christmas and they took us to City Park, lit with spectacular Christmas lights. There they had a miniature vacation train loaded with families with young children taking an evening walk in the park. Noticing my wistful gaze, my friend said, “Hey, why don’t we all do it now?” And as I closed my eyes for a moment in that cool night air as the little whistle sounded, I was again connected to the dreams of a little boy, sitting in a covered wagon on the Cotton Belt, keeping a eye on the outlaws. Did I mention that I always have a thing for trains?