The Trains Took Us to School

©Eric Schoonover

Symphony of the East Wind. © 2016 David Tutwiler (b.1952)

Symphony of the East Wind.                                                                  © 2016 David Tutwiler (b.1952)

I like to see it lap the Miles—Emily Dickinson

By Eric Schoonover

 

I, too, as Peter Anastas (Enduring Gloucester, 13 April 2016), “come from the era of trains.”  In fact, my earliest understanding of Gloucester (probably 1942 or 1943) was of an enormous billboard advertising Gorton’s Codfish Cakes alongside the tracks of the Boston & Albany just outside of Boston, probably somewhere between Framingham and Natick. Little did I know that I was to move to Gloucester some sixty-five years later.

In those days, I favored sitting toward the end of the train so that I could see its full length as we went around curves—from the locomotive, the baggage and mail cars and then passenger cars. The locomotive belching black smoke and steam formed the focus of my view: perhaps a heavy Pacific, or a Hudson or, if lucky, a behemoth Berkshire pounding the earth with its immense power, perhaps let loose from a freight obligation to the West. Moreover, when sitting toward the rear, the cinders were not as aggressive, for in all but the coldest days, I sat with my head out of the window, reading the signals ahead, practicing for when I would grow up to be an engineer of a streamlined Hudson. Too, the trip was to Filene’s or Jordan’s war-limited counters with my mother. Her purpose was to buy fabric and patterns with which to make our clothing. (We could not afford off-the-hanger clothes in those days.) The real purpose of the trip was to enable my father to meet with his Ph.D. advisor at Harvard. Thus the beginning, in a way, of the train taking one to school; and which would end in my graduate days in Philadelphia. A good tradition.

We would return late in the day from Boston with cinder smuts in my eyes. Those steam locomotives that pulled my trains to Boston were unlike any of our current-day locomotives: one saw the machinery that drove those enormous wheels, pistons pushing long rods, connecting rods attaching to wheels, and at night, the firebox projecting light onto the roadbed. Whitman wrote of this power: “Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel. / Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides.”  In 1881, the power of the locomotive so impressed him that he termed it “Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent (“To a Locomotive in Winter”).

Today, our engines are shrouded: we don’t see their power, their gears, their turbines. All is contained.  Only their sound is left to us:  the 747 roaring into the sky, the Electro-Motive diesel thundering on the earth. Of course they are sleek and silvery; only the streamliners of the early part of the last century could compete.

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Trains have been intimately connected with my education from the demise of steam in the early 50s to the Modern Era of diesel-electric traction. The great days of rail are gone, and despite Amtrak’s optimistic claims, even it is not doing very well. Yet so many years ago, when I went away to school and then to college, the railroads were still fairly strong. They were my sole means of transportation. They were my habit.

I spent most of my teens in Europe where the trains were mainly electric and fast and in Africa where the trains were hot and slow. On  returning to the States, I attended a secondary school located near the end of the New Haven’s Springfield extension. Often, I would board that train at 125th  street. My father, then teaching at Columbia, would take me up there by taxi; and in the winter twilight a tired New Haven train would depart the city, to struggle through the rest of Manhattan and into Connecticut. In the dark we crossed above the Norwalks, looking down on their empty neon streets, shining in the rain, spaces as lonely as a Hopper painting. Often, a man would burst into the car shouting out “Sandwiches, soda, candy bars!” Sometimes I would buy something. (“Ham and cheese, egg salad, ham salad. What ya want?”) The two salad sandwiches made me nervous. How long had they been sitting in his fiberboard box? How many days ago had they been made up? So, I might settle for the safety of the ham and cheese (on puffy white Wonder bread).

Later, my college fortunately was located equidistantly between two railroads; one the Pennsylvania Railroad, the other the Philadelphia and Western (the Pig and Whistle as we called it). Both originated in Philadelphia but from different terminals.  Both were an easy walk from my college. Most often, though, I took the PRR’s Paoli local, an eight-mile ride in to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. The local was the most ordinary of trains, day coaches that had seen much better days, but it shared the tracks with those streamlined GG1 electric trains of Raymond Lowey’s design, as they roared their way to Harrisburg. Four tracks and demanding curves could make the Main Line of the PRR a dangerous place, and locals were known to play “chicken” on its tracks. The P&W was a more like a bus, wandering though tree-lined suburbia and pleasant landscapes. In fact it looked like a bus: cream top, maroon sides, and it stopped only on command. Would-be passengers on the platform pulled a rope that turned on a signal lamp, or so one hoped. It always made me anxious: maybe the lamp had burned out.

*

I still ride the trains today, but they seem so different. The Acela may take the prize, for the long-distance hauls. The Lake Shore Limited and the California Zephyr have steadily declined over the past six years that I have taken them. Recently in Denver I strolled down to the head of our train, thinking to take a photograph of its Genesis locomotive with its consist trailing off into the dusk. A police officer approached,  saying, “No photographs!” She was armed, a sub sandwich in one hand, the other resting on her gun. The food in the diner that night was served on thin plastic plates and was inedible. The officer’s sandwich, even that egg salad on the New Haven in the 50s would be preferable. I ordered some more wine.

Although my school days are over, I still take the train, mostly the local commuter rail to Boston—not for education but for medicine; and once or twice a year I take the longer hauls.

We are in the 21st century. Like it or not, I must cope with the limited seat space on my flights to the West or to Europe. There’s no hopping at the command of a conductor shouting “All aboard!” Just standing and standing and taking off my shoes. But when the wind is coming from the Northwest, I do have the joy of hearing the whistle of a train as it crosses Maplewood Avenue here in Gloucester.

 

 

eric schoonoverEric Schoonover, Professor Emeritus of American literature and literature of the sea, now lives in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, a writer. His next book, Telling Tales will be published in June.

 

 

 

 

 

Night Train at Wiscasset Station

Peter Anastas

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000 ~ David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000                              David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

 

I come from the era of trains.  As a child during the war, I would lie in bed on Perkins Road listening to the shrill whistle of the Boston & Maine’s  Gloucester Branch crossing the trestle over the Annisquam River.  Ever since then I have associated trains with the mystery of travel.  I could never get enough of them, pestering my grandfather Angel Polisson to take my brother and me to the station in Gloucester to see the trains arrive.  I especially loved it when we could watch the passengers getting off and I could only imagine where they had been or where, if the train was about to depart, they might be headed.

As we got older, our mother took us to Boston on the train, when she went shopping at Jordan Marsh’s or Filene’s.  I’ll never forget the time I got separated from her in Filene’s basement.  I went screaming up and down the aisles of bargain clothing piled on tables that women fought over, cursing each other, sometimes tearing the garments to shreds in their furious attempts to possess them.  After that incident, my mother took to pinning a name tag on my brother and me, so that if we got lost or separated from her the clerks would know whom to page.  Luckily, it never came to that, and we quickly learned how to navigate our way around the big department stores, or the Peabody Museum in Salem, where our mother also took us so we could look at the ship models that fascinated us, or the life-like local birds and mammals that the taxidermists had exhibited in large glass cases.

Recently I thought of those cities I came to know in wartime when the gasoline ration prohibited travel by car—Boston, Salem, even New York when we got older—and the trips on trains it took to get to them.  I was on the train to New York again, racing along the Connecticut coast, in and out of harbors and across russet colored fields on the way to see my new grandson in Brooklyn.  The train was packed, the early spring day was bright, and I felt like a child again on an adventure.

It was the way I felt in Europe, where I took the train everywhere, never thinking of schedules or reservations.   If you wanted to go somewhere, you showed up at the station and there was a train waiting or about to arrive.  One night a group of us were sitting over dinner at the Buca Niccolini, on Via Ricasoli in Florence, just behind the Duomo.  It had been a grand meal, well moistened with the local red wine the Florentines call “vino nero.”  We were about to order desert when someone suddenly suggested, “Let’s go to Vienna for desert!”

We jumped up, settled the check and set out for the railroad station, a short walk from the restaurant.   The Brenner Express was about to depart.  We knew we would never get to Austria for desert, but we did arrive in time for one of those marvelous Viennese breakfasts.  We took a spin around the city and got back on the train, arriving in Florence in time for dinner.

Naturally, this was the kind of gambit you engage in when you are young—we were in our early 20s, students: Americans, English and Italian.   I never did it again, but I took the train at every opportunity—to Bologna for lunch (best pasta ever); Pisa for a run up the steps of the Leaning Tower with my high school classmate Bob Stephenson; Viareggio to get my beach fix when I missed Gloucester.

Trains were even more important for me before I lived in Europe.  I went to college in Maine and most of the time I took the train to Brunswick or back home.  I’d hop on a Gloucester train to North Station, where the Flying Yankee left for Portland, Bangor and points north.  There was a club car serving beer all the way to Portland, where it was uncoupled before the train left for Brunswick.   On many a night we could be seen stumbling up to our rooms from the Brunswick railroad station.

At midnight the mail train stopped in Brunswick, allowing those who had girlfriends in Boston to post letters that would be delivered to them that morning.   I can see myself hastily typing a letter, throwing on parka and boots, and trudging through the snow from my room on Federal Street down to the railroad station on Maine Street, often getting there just as the train was about to pull out.  The guys in the mail car knew us.  Obligingly, they would lean out of the doors to accept our letters on the fly.

At four a.m. every morning the Milk Train coming through from Northern Maine to Boston woke up those of us who lived near the railroad bridge on Federal Street.  If I was reading or studying late, I knew that its whistle in the dead of night was the sign for me to go to bed. But the big event of the day was the non-stop rush through Brunswick of the freight train.  Imagine an engine pulling 100 or more cars all the way from Aroostook County tearing through the center of town, the late afternoon traffic sometimes halted for close to 30 minutes.  Our philosophy professor told us that if we still believed in the non-existence of un-thinking matter we should stand next to that freight train as it roared through town each afternoon.

While some students had their own cars, most of us depended on the train for a fast getaway to Portland to see a movie or to eat Chinese food.   Often enough we traveled north to Rockland, and sometimes further Downeast, stopping at Wiscasset on the way to Rockland, Camden or Belfast.   There was something special about Wiscasset, a sense of arriving in a small riverine town with redbrick buildings, the train pausing, it seemed, until the very last passenger appeared out of the dark, the conductor waiting with his lantern and finally shouting, “All aboard, all aboard,” as the train pulled slowly out of the station.  I can still hear the chugging of the steam engine, the way the wheels clicked on the tracks, and the eerie whistle as the train plunged into the darkness.

It is the image of that night train at Wiscasset Station that remains with me above all others, a sense of the isolation of the station itself and the deserted town, the slowly diminishing sound of the whistle and the rhythmic clicking of the wheels on the tracks, the lights from the cars gradually becoming bright points in the darkness and then disappearing altogether as the train itself faded into the night.   It is an image that takes me back to the boy awake in his bed on Perkins Road, listening attentively each time for the train to cross the trestle over the river, imagining what it might be like to travel on it, to arrive in unknown places, connected only by the trains themselves, the infinite network of tracks, as they raced through the vast spaces of the night.

 

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.