Next time

“We’ve decided to drive after the trouble we had getting a flight out for Thanksgiving” Aunt Ruthie said when I asked when we could expect her and Uncle Dan for their Christmas visit.
Their Thanksgiving flight was late, you see, because the inbound flight from St. Louis was late because the inbound flight from Milwaukee was late because a storm in the Pacific Northwest had delayed the inbound flight from Portland or someplace and you have to understand and the airline did say, “we apologize for any inconvenience.”
We should not have to understand anything. We pay good money to be transported by air and then have to put up with delays with lame explanations and lies and extra service fees for baggage and crowded planes and no leg room (unless you pay a little extra for an additional two inches) and overbooked flights (“I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to get you out on the 10:30 flight because it was overbooked but we can get you out at 4:15 on a flight with a 3 hour layover in Albuquerque…”) and we just shrug and say okay because even though we’ll arrive about ten to twelve hours late at least we’ll get out and what else are you going to do?
But then I guess we’ve decided that it’s all about going a thousand miles per hour and isn’t it modern and ever so glamorous and we want to go fast but it takes forever to get through security and it would have almost been faster to drive like Aunt Ruthie and flying is just a miserable way to travel.
“Next time try the train” said the Southern Pacific Railroad’s roadside billboard of the 1930s. And the trains ran on time and they were comfortable and they ran in all types of weather and we let them go because, you know, flying is so very fast and so very modern.


The horn

You really don’t hear it during the day. I guess when you’re sitting there on the train there are too many other sounds and distractions or you’re just too busy watching the world pass by to hear it.
But at night as you sit in the coach dozing or lie in your bed in the sleeper you hear the soft horn leading your train. At night outside there is nothing to see but the lights of farms and small towns and cars on the highway running alongside the railroad right of way. You can’t tell if you’re in New York or Ohio or Kansas or Arizona and so you drift off with only the horn of the engine marking the passage.
Then one night when you’re back home lying there and the bedside clock changes from telling you the time to telling you how long until you have to get up you hear a train horn on the other side of town. You know it isn’t your train and that the sound is probably pulling cars filled with coal or containers or automobiles but as you hear it crossing after crossing it becomes your train’s horn and you fall off to sleep in bedroom C, car 3901.

Breakfast in the diner

Wake up and the landscape has changed.
City streets are gone and there’s nothing outside the window but a golden prairie and snow fences and telegraph lines going up and down and shiny rails heading back.
The orderly seating arrangements have changed to shades up, shades down, sleeping, sprawling and dozing with blankets or sweaters or coats because the train got a little cool last night.

Push the button and the door slides to the side with a whoosh
Step between the cars and push the next button, whoosh
It’s just the same, early morning sleeping, dozing and waking.
Push the door button and you enter the next car and the air is warm and humid and heavy with the smell of sausage and coffee and muffins.
Pots and pans clang and muffled kitchen voices can be heard as you walk down the side corridor.
“Good morning, sir, how many for breakfast?”

The world rushes by as the steward seats you at a table with a smiling gray haired lady.
Be polite and listen to her questions, she’s from New York or Pittsburgh or someplace.
You race through towns where the people look up but this train never stops.
“Yes, my grandmother’s”.
Pancakes or eggs?
“8 o’clock, but I think we’re about 45 minutes late”.
You pick up the slip, “To avoid errors in service our employees are instructed to take orders only on written meal checks”.
Fill out the meal check: scrambled eggs, sausage, toast and butter, milk.
“Eighth grade”

As passengers wobble in and out the waiter glides through the dining car with your breakfast and sets it there just so.
Heavy silverware, dishes with emblems, a water goblet on a white tablecloth and a breakfast that is wonderful at 80 miles per hour with a rose in the vase there by the window.

The change comes back on the brown tray and you leave a tip that produces a,
“Thank you, sir; we’ll see you for lunch”.
But, he won’t.
That clanging of pots and pans signals a meal that isn’t for you.
Whoosh and whoosh and nobody has moved and outside it’s a golden prairie and snow fences and telegraph lines going up and down and shiny rails heading back.

The depot in the summer

A string of yellow reefers marches past the depot

All the same with the ventilator fan shafts turning in the side of each car

Then the caboose and in the distance the light of another eastbound with another string of yellow reefers, all the same.

And again and again but the next time the headlight is different and it’s almost here.

The train slides past, the brakes squeal and the conductor opens the Dutch door.

He steps down as the attendants in the other coaches and the Pullman porters step onto the platform.

Off the train, watch your step, hugs and kisses and smiles

People rush to their loved ones, retrieve their luggage or head for their cars.

On the train, watch your step, hugs and kisses and tears

The old ladies and men stand there smiling and waving goodbye to grandchildren crying in the windows.

The porters and attendants pick up their step boxes and board leaving the conductor on the ground to look up from his watch and give his signal.

He boards and slams the door shut.

It’s silent and then the streamliner glides forward.

The grandparents take a few steps with the train and blow kisses at the sad little faces.

The engines strain, smoke lifts into the air and a cook standing in the doorway of the dining car turns and shuts the door behind him.

In the distance a headlight pulls another string of yellow reefers, all the same.



National security, databases and wiretapping

We are now hearing about the US government tapping into our emails and phone calls and texts under the guise of protecting national security.  Supposedly, the government, using the information provided by the telecommunication companies, has developed algorithms which can look through massive amounts of data for links between people working together on potential terrorist acts aimed at the United States.  Now I know that powerful computers can do amazing things with information but I found it hard to believe that even with the government’s ability to track billions of calls daily that it is possible to find those links since they are looking at such a miniscule percentage of the total calls (just trust me on this, I know what I am talking about, I’ve had a computer for a long time going way back to my TRS-80).  But then after receiving some information recently I am starting to change my mind about the computers and algorithms and the abilities of the people who explore databases for information and I’ll tell you why.

I’ve always been interested in railroad operations, taken numerous long-distance train trips and enjoyed participating in railroad excursions.   Recently I was able to take a railroad excursion with the 17 car train pulled by a large steam locomotive.  The trip was very well organized from the reservation system to the way in which the passengers were quickly seated on the train.  After I made my email reservation through Eventbrite, a company contracted by the excursion group to handle the trip arrangements, I was able to print the ticket and be checked in at boarding time by the same company. Everything went flawlessly and those who rode the train thoroughly enjoyed the sound, sight and thrill of riding behind a steam locomotive as it rolled through the farmlands of northern Ohio (as you would expect, the vast majority of the people riding on the train were men and I would say that most of those men were middle aged or older).  But here’s why I am starting to change my mind about the government’s ability to track phone calls to find whatever it is that is targeted.  Here’s why I think that they can actually do it.  After taking the steam train excursion I received an email from Eventbrite, the company which managed the trip, (Eventbrite apparently handles numerous types of events).  The email said that they had identified another event that they thought would be of interest to me.  Great, like the government Eventbrite seems to be using their proprietary computer programs and databases to match my interests (riding on trains) with upcoming events. From the email it looked to me like I might just be going on another trip. As I sat there reading the words “another event” I started to reach for my credit card to reserve my space so I wouldn’t be shut out on this new trip but then I continued to read the announcement—“Events for You, From Us—Surprise! Our robots have picked out more great events just for you”.  I’m thinking, “I wonder where we’re going?”

I read on, “Check out more recommendations just for you on Eventbrite”—Alright.

A conference on shale gas exploration and,

Speed dating for singles with graduate degrees (ages 25-39)

Not really interested in shale gas but speed dating for singles, with graduate degrees? 25-39? Apparently Eventbrite’s computer programing gurus have designed a program which identifies young females with graduate degrees who like to ride on steam train excursions with large groups of middle aged and older men who love trains. Isn’t this great?  Only in America.  So I figure if Eventbrite can match these two unique groups using its computer expertise then the Federal government with its vast resources shouldn’t have much trouble using telecommunication database information to run down potential terrorists.

On a personal note, I told my wife about this speed dating event and she’s very excited in fact she said she’ll drive me to the event.  She wants to come in to see these women.


NKP 765

And then it started to pull that long train away from the station without a jerk, just a smooth movement forward.  The crowd along the tracks moved back a step or two as the huge locomotive barked and shot its exhaust straight up out of the stack and up and around the highway bridge passing over the tracks.  A machine built in 1944 thrilled people on its Ohio Mother’s Day trip.  A locomotive that has not been in regular revenue service since 1958 pulled that train down the tracks and made huge crowds wave and applaud as it passed with its whistle screaming and steam rolling behind it.

Was it the size of the engine?  Was it the noise and the power? Was it the memories that it touched?  Was is it all of those things and the wish that they had a ticket to ride behind that black locomotive pulling those 17 cars?

In a world where nobody even looks up anymore when a jet flies overhead people will drive long distances and wait for hours to see a steam locomotive at speed heading toward them, pass and disappear with its whistle trailing off.

There is definitely something there that will bring out the crowds and the riders the next time Nickel Plate Road 765 heads out.

Watching all the trains go by

In the mid-fifties there was a popular song which seemed to be on the radio all the time: “Standing on the corner” with the lyrics, “Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.”  I’m pretty sure that in 2013 if you’re “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by” there’s a good chance that we’ll see you on the local evening news getting into the back of a Ford Crown Victoria.  I like to watch trains and although, following 9/11, there were some homeland security directives about watching trains and taking pictures of railroad operations, train watchers are usually considered by the authorities to be harmless and/or nuts.  A few years ago, on a bright Saturday afternoon while I was train watching, a pickup truck passed by and the passenger yelled out, “get a life, they’re just trains” so I guess that answered any question I had about how train watchers are viewed by the general public—they’re nuts.

I could tell you that I like to watch trains because I have been involved with the railroad industry and like to stay current on the latest equipment and operation methods.  I could tell you that the motion of the trains passing by gives me an opportunity to improve my action shot camera skills or I could tell you that I enjoy the camaraderie of other train watchers (some of those guys really are nuts).  That’s what I could tell you.

So what is it that creates my interest in watching trains pass by?  To me it’s what the railroads represent.  Drive across railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere and you know those rails connect to other lines somewhere and go everywhere.  The old depot which has not seen a passenger train stop in decades still looks down the same tracks toward Omaha, Cheyenne and San Francisco.  The tracks still head east to South Bend, Cleveland, Buffalo and New York City.  They still head south to Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Miami. Those tracks may now only see two or three local freights a week with loads of lumber or plastic pellets but the loads come from somewhere far away and may have moved over the same routes once used by the Twentieth Century Limited, The Sunset Limited or The Champion.  Those tracks or connections remember when silver Rockets and Zephyrs and Chiefs and yellow Cities flew by.  Those tracks remember Hudsons and Berkshires and E-8s and Pullmans and domes and round end observation cars.  And now giant diesels pull mile long strings of containers or hoppers or tank cars or auto racks and change the commerce of the country once again and those tracks will remember that too.

Years ago small town folks would head to the depot to meet the evening train which connected the town with everywhere and made the town someplace. That train was taken off in the early fifties but everywhere is still at the end of those tracks and everywhere includes far off places and people and products and memories and yesterday just like it did then.

Stare down the tracks and your destination is there.  Stare down the tracks and the people you know or knew or will know are down the line.  Stare down the tracks and wait for the sound of the horn or whistle and watch for the headlight growing larger.  It’s all there just down the tracks. It’s all there if you watch.