By Joe Darby
Have you ever ridden on a train?
If I had a way of conducting a scientific poll, I’m pretty sure the majority of your answers would be no. The whole way that Americans look at and think about trains has changed a lot in my lifetime.
And that’s just one example of how our culture has changed, that things that we were interested in years ago no longer rate our attention. Today, of course, it’s all about electronic devices, which I’ve ranted about numerous times previously. But before those little devices became ubiquitous to our everyday lives, many of us found time to become fascinated by other things.
I think that one factor that led to a diminished interest in trains was the transition, many years ago, from steam to diesel locomotives. There was something intriguing about the old huge, black, powerful, puffing and hissing behemoths that were powered by steam.
Their whistles alone could evoke all kinds of moods in people. Many a young person living in isolated rural communities would lie in their beds at night and listen to the long drawn out call of a passing steam train, wondering where the train was bound and wishing they could be on board.
And trains are so important to our history. It was the railroads that stitched this country together in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If a railroad decided to come through a small town, the town’s future was somewhat assured. If the railway bypassed a town, it might just die on the vine.
When I was young perhaps 8 or 9 or so, Baton Rouge still had railroad marshaling yards down near the river, where you could sit on a little bluff and look down at a couple of dozen of steam locomotives, coming in and going out, as well as countless freight cars. There was a nearby restaurant that Mother and Daddy sometimes frequented and during every visit I would go outside and watch the trains.
It was like having my very own full sized model train layout. Of course I did have a real model train layout at home, which a majority of boys (and probably a number of girls) had as a matter of course in those days. You can still buy model trains today but they’re not nearly as popular as they once were. Lionel was the bigee, with American Flyer running a close second. I had a Lionel set.
Even after the transition to diesels, my love of trains remained. One of my major boyhood thrills happened during a train ride Mother and I took from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. We arrived at the station early and spotted the engineer standing outside his locomotive. Mother told him how much I loved trains and that great guy allowed me into the engine, touring not only the cab and controls, but getting a look at the giant diesel engines as well.
While at LSU I took a train ride to Tulsa to attend a national professional journalism fraternity. I felt like a complete adult, on my own, traveling across America — if only a small part of it — as millions of people had done before me.
Mary and I took an Amtrak passenger train from New Orleans to Chicago some years ago, where we saw the Cubs play, visited some great museums and rented a car to visit Springfield, Ill, Lincoln’s hometown. I’d won the trip through a baseball trivia contest at a New Orleans Zephyr’s game, which provided us with two passes on a coach. But because the trip was 19 hours, I upgraded to get us a small compartment, with double decker bunk beds. The whole trip was a great and memorable experience
We’ve always wanted to visit New England and if we ever fulfill that wish, we would take an Amtrak to Boston, rent a car and drive throughout that historic and beautiful region.
So you can see why this old guy loves trains. Maybe you have a fond place for them in your heart too?