This is simply a word picture of something I often experienced as a boy. As often happens I didn’t know how much I loved these things until I realized they no longer shared my world.
Steam Engines: At the mid-century point of the 20th Century hundreds of awesome black behemoths roamed the rails around our country. Propelled by steam engines that powered anywhere from two to eight “drive wheels” they were “kings of the road.”
A Steam Locomotive with Six Drive Wheels
Before crossing any road or highway no matter how isolated or well-traveled they screamed loud and clear. “Beware beware, I will not stop for anything as insignificant as you!” Their voice was a steam whistle and every engineer, much in the way a symphonic conductor controls his orchestra, made his whistle sing according to his idea of how it should sound. Those men were proud professionals and so talented in playing their song that you couldreadily tell one engineer from another. However, they all had to play from the same “score.” When approaching a crossing their whistle always shrieked four times: two long mournful blasts followed by two short “exclamation points.”
In my lifetime I have participated in or watched many impressive ceremonies: a Solemn High Mass in a cathedral, many full-dress military retreat parades and other rituals and dozens of commencement exercises, but I have found few things more majestic and awe-inspiring than the approach of those magnificent steam locomotives to a depot. They were almost liturgical in their dignity and symbols of power. As they approached, jets of steam shot out sideways as if to brush aside anyone and anything that might interfere with its progress.
Then, with its bell clang-clanging should anyone fail to notice its approach, the engine chuff-chuffed resignedly as it slowly approached the loading platform. Finally, with a loud clatter and hissing of compressed air it came to a stop exactly where the conductor wanted it.
Even standing close to them as they waited for the humans who served them to finish their business conjured visions of power. They didn’t wait quietly. Like thoroughbreds in their starting gates they were impatient to be gone. Mysterious thumpings, bumpings and groanings could be heard coming from somewhere in the deep recesses of their “bowels” If their tenders were too slow it often released a plume of steam with a loud shisshhing sound as if to say “Be done with it!”
Their departure was more victorious than majestic. At the conductor’s signal the engineer pulled a rope a couple of times. The steam whistle responded with a long plaintive bellow, followed by a short “I mean it!” blast telling everyone to "Step aside and make way, I am leaving you." Then there came a mighty “WHUFF!” as steam exploded against the pistons that made the drive wheels come to life. Black smoke billowed from the smokestack as it picked up speed and headed for the open road.
Watching and listening to those mighty expressions of power and majesty was an experience that could not be duplicated by the diesel engine locomotives that all too soon replaced them. I must content myself with the sound track and pictures in my mind of things seen and heard long ago. Maybe in some future year an old man will reflect on some aspect of his youth that touched him in an unforgettable way. I hope so, for among the savors of old age are the lingering memories of beauty, awe, joy, and even sorrows that were woven by the Hand of God into a tapestry we wrap around ourselves and call our life.
This is my favorite kind of story by someone who has a personal tale to share. This story is also an inspiration for me to write about my miles logged on steam engines. New Jersey to Idaho and back; New Jersey to Montana; and California to New Jersey. Not all of them were on steam engines, but there are so many hours of clickety-clack in my memory that the idea excites me.
Thanks for sharing, Millard.
Such kind comments, Dick. I had such a experience-rich childhood and adolescence. Fortunately God has blessed me with a rather sharp memory of most of them. I could also write about riding on those trains - the myriad sight and sounds that made such a trip memorable. I look forward to reading your memories.