by: Mildred Swanson
I walked across the street to the overgrown right-of-way that led to the railroad tracks, less enthused than I should have been. I perched on a pile of rusty rails overlooking the right-of-way. I wondered what this would be like in the next sixty years (the closing of our little depot and the abandonment of the track was only three months ago). Already it was making me ill but I knew I would be a fool to postpone this few minutes and journey into the past. Now I could invert my memory to the turn of the century when I was a barefoot “tyke” growing up with a railroad in my front yard.
I was young when we moved to this small town of Clive. As I grew older, I could see a monster with a big black tail roaring toward me. I remember how I would cup my hands over my ears and cringe. I remember it was the first train I had ever seen. The smoke traveled too fast for me to scamper out from under it. If I stood, it would crush me to a pulp, so I ran back to the porch and crouched down behind a barrel. The giant’s shadow disappeared, the ground quit shaking and the noise harried yonder. I was still alive. I emerged from my hiding place in time to see a funny box climb over the hill. I wasn’t afraid anymore!
I learned to love trains and to recognize a caboose. It was fun to wave at the engineers as the trains chugged up the steep grade. They always waved back at me. When I got big, I vowed I would like to ride up there with the engineer. I’d ring those bells and blow me plenty of whistles to echo through the night.
I remember my brother would run alongside a slow moving freight. He would try to catch a ladder but would lose his grip and tumble onto the gravel.
Mother warned him “stay ‘way from those trains! If you slip under the wheels and get smashed, I won’t have my little boy anymore”, but it wasn’t more than a week ‘til he tried again! This time he latched onto a lower bar all right, but couldn’t find anyplace for his feet, so he let go and got shinned on a pile or rock. Mother wouldn’t whip him in that condition. She was too softhearted. Besides, an only son was very special.
He kept working at it until he could snatch toe grab irons and hoist himself up where he could plant his feet. Then he would leap off just before he reached the crossing and land up-right like a cat.
I interrupted my reverie to raise up and look for the spot on the rails where my little dog was killed under a locomotive’s wheels after he decided that he couldn’t chase the train out of town. That was one sight that I wished I had been spared. Mother and I picked up his scattered remains that afternoon and buried them under a large stone near the accident. I looked around for that headstone but it was no place to be found.
Re-entering that narrow realm of yesteryear, tears blurred my eyes. I could not help wanting to break down and have a good cry.
As I turned to trudge back toward the house, I wandered where I had hid those pennies I had flattened on the rails. I thought I heard mother calling, “Mildred! Suppertime!” I was tempted to sprint across the street where I used to stumble in the mud. She would look me over in disgust. “I do declare! You’re a sight for sore eyes. Get that bucket off the back porch and wash up.”
Just then I thought I heard the five thirty out of Des Moines toot. I knew it was old number #729, a fast “passenger.” I could tell most of the engines by their whistles.
I closed my eyes and visualized pulling a gold “retirement watch” from my pocket. Snapping open the cover, I saw that it was time to return to the present.
I started to wade the weeds to cross the new paved street, back to my rose garden.
Wait—I thought I heard the sound of #729 returning down the track. I am sure I remembered the shrill whistle-only on #729. Perhaps I should wait and wave at my old friends.
I look back once more with a heavy heart at the poor simple ways of yesterday. How I wish I could reclaim them.
I am glad I took time to cross the street and find my place on this rusty rail and visit the past. What will another 60 years bring—taller weeds—less trains, deserted tracks, vanished rose garden and faded memories. What will our younger generation have to remember from all this?
What will I see if I should return sixty years from today?