When the Train Whistle Blows

Trains, and memories etched in my mind of experiences and stories whose subjects included trains, had been floating in a cloud above me for days, waiting for a saturation point to release them like a gentle rain.   Picking up a book this morning, intent on recovering from a super-bug I hadn’t banked on catching, my cue to find an undisturbed space and time to write, looked back at me from a page I had started reading in a new chapter :   “Allow me a train metaphor,” author Madison Taylor began, “….the mind is used to being stuck on a certain track, and the writing process takes you off that track and on to a new one.  On the new track, you will find the answers that you need in order to get to the station.” (Unmedicated, pg. 51).   No more delays leaving this station, I thought, so I packed a couple of hydration drinks, collected my writing tools, dog leashes and two dogs to go with their water bowl, and headed for the car.  I had to get far enough away from all the construction work, traffic congestion, helicopter noise from a nearby military base, and conversation-starved people to give my thoughts a chance to congeal.  (I don’t sit or think well in concrete jungles where even complete strangers seem to approach as if you’re their long-lost buddy.)  I wish I’d had a shirt to caution unwanted intruders:

I’m sick! Don’t bother me today….and besides, I’m THINKING!

Working in a spa where a train track runs behind the building has resulted in an interesting phenomena, I HAD been thinking.  The “woosh” of tension leaving rooms as trains steadily rolled along their intracoastal route, within yards of the building, was noticeable.  Though out of sight, the muffled “clickety-clack” and gentle vibrations of each train’s passing, seemed to serve as a reminder that everything comes and goes, like seasons, rolling past, heading somewhere new.  The mere thought of a destination beyond a darkened room, if one could just “get on board”, added quality to the assurance. (The Universe knows I’m ready to get on board one of those trains soon, so maybe I’m just creating the interpretation, you say?  Welcome to the world of creative writing and progressive thinking!  To stay in one place and be content with sameness equates with stagnation and eventual death for some of us in this world.)

One of my favorite scriptures from the New Testament is John 3:8 , addressing spiritual rebirth and how the Spirit of God blows through peoples’ lives in different ways, effecting visible change whose long-term effects cannot be foreseen:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

I’ve thought about trains in this way too.  We don’t always know what station they’re coming from or their ultimate destination, but we see and hear the effects of their coming and going, and we are somehow changed.

Some say this passage gives credence to a wanderlust or gypsy-spirit, endorsing rootlessness.      I wonder how the Disciples of Jesus would feel about that interpretation.  They might agree, since they left all to follow a Teacher they recognized as greater than themselves, to do the will of a God they couldn’t see, but whose power they were experiencing.  If the goal is to be “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17), implying action, as well as a place seated in the heart and soul of its host, “taking root”, doesn’t always mean staying in one geographical place and never moving beyond it.

Another memory of trains from my youth comes from a Grandfather’s love of trains.  In his lifetime, he told stories of riding on stock trains between Texas and California during WWII when his future father- in-law, George Washington Brumley, was the largest supplier of pork to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.  (Evidently it was a kind of test to see if he was worthy of the daughter he was proposing to marry, because this also happened with one of my grandmother’s sister’s suitors!)  Descriptions of walking across the top of cars to check on livestock, and riding in the caboose with other train-workers on the circuit sounded like great adventure to my formative mind.  Later in his life, he’d invested in toy train tracks, train cars, and villages displayed on a ping-pong table in a loft above a garage.  He delighted in making a steam-whistle blow as the engine pulled it’s scaled down load in large circles, sometimes navigating sharp curves.  (A right-of-passage for his grandchildren was being handed the controls, along with instructions to take care and not go too fast, so the payload wouldn’t derail!)

It was also wonderful when schools let out for the summer, and my siblings and I would ride with our mother on a passenger train from Illinois to Texas.  Eating in a dining car, sleeping in berth-cabins, and putting our patent-leather or saddle-shoes in a little hallway cubby before bed to find them newly cleaned and polished the next morning, enhanced a feeling of privilege.

As a pre-teen, living far from the place where those fonder memories had their origin, my parents’ rented house with a large unfenced backyard, also had a train track behind it.  The trestle, rising high above the mown lawn, had provided a challenging hill to climb, while underneath a cement bridge section, a shady stream with crayfish and minnows provided hours of after-school entertainment when we’d catch and release them back into their free-flowing habitat.  When no one was looking, we’d follow the train track’s cross-ties as far as we dared—-sometimes to a little “Whistle-Stop” store—once a small train depot.  Other times we’d walk along the rails like a balance beam, always listening for the distant whistle of an engine’s warning.  Adrenaline producing vibrations, felt in our feet, became a fine-tuned warning to get clear of the tracks and slide down the steep embankment to the safety of our backyard.

In the years to follow, it would become a place associated with danger, because drug dealers and addicts cruelly demystified the creek under the overpass with their darker, clandestine exchanges.  Then the train’s allure for me was totally lost the evening a beloved dog didn’t follow us quickly enough descending the trestle.   She had been sniffing at something and lingered behind, long enough to be hit and killed instantly, not by a train, but by a motorcyclist who’d appeared from the brush, gunning his motor to race along the shoulder next to the tracks.  Misty’s limp body was enough to make me start having nightmares in the second story Cape-Cod bedroom where I tried to escape the sorrow thru sleep.  But after the tragic loss of our beloved family pet, whenever a train or motorcycle barreled down the tracks behind the house after dark, a depressive dream-state trapped me in the top of the house as it seemed to sway and bend towards the ground, paralyzing my cries for help, while its pendulum motion swung back to the roof, before it’s next elastic arc sent me back down to the ground.  From that point on I wanted to get away from the mind-numbing drone of trains, motorcycles, and household discord.

Before High School graduation, on a family trip to western Europe, Eurail passes enhanced our mobility between several countries for weeks.  Backpacks, instead of suitcases, had been welcomed on buses, as well as the trains, taking us on an incredible sight-seeing journey with stops to see friends and family, occasionally.  There’s nothing like being rocked to sleep by a train, a conductor waking you up to check a passport, and receiving a new stamp at another country’s border.  The only stop that cast a somber mood on our group was when a couple of those stops included Concentration Camps where the Nazis regime had delivered railroad-cars full of people to workcamps and extermination chambers (now museums).  In my sorrow and through some kind of communal guilt that came with a German heritage, I  was thankful my memories of trains had been much kinder.

Fast forwarding to a time in my adult life when my own family of six lived near a commuter train, Amtrak connected the suburbs with our nations Capitol, and the Light-Rail saved us in downtown areas where parking spots came at a premium cost, if they could be found.    Trains also became a friend when taking breaks from section-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  I’ll never forget seeing New York City from a train window, after getting off trail, following an extended time in the woods.  It was like waking up to a more benevolent form of travel, still regarded in some cities as a valuable form of public transportation.   I was gaining an understanding of trains as passenger-friendly with the added luxury of “wiggle room” not found in planes, and the benefit of sight-seeing from huge windows as diverse scenery rolled by like a movie. There was a certain romance gifted back each time I rode the rails to and from a destination.

Trains and their whistles had been given some of their innocent allure too, when my Grandad who loved trains taught me a mournful song, “Please Mr. Conductor, don’t put me off this train”, as a child.   Later in life, my own Dad, whose eclectic taste in music always intrigued me, introduced me to contemporary folk-singers and songs-writers.  One song in particular resonated with my spirit, then as it does now: “Morningtown Ride” by Malvina Reynolds.  Written the year I was born, it is a lullaby of reassurance to children in uncertain times.  (Malvina was also well known as the writer of “Little Boxes”, a social commentary poking fun at the standardization of the American Middle Class.  Now I understand why my Dad used to sing it with a note of sarcasm in his voice.)  Only recently I learned she was also a political activist, born in San Francisco (1900) and a resident of Berkeley, CA until her death in 1978.   Never the less, “Morning-town Ride” remains one of my favorite songs to hear or sing at the end of a long, tiring day, in uncertain times.

Train whistle blow’in

Makes a sleepy noise

Underneath the blankets

Go all the girls and boys


Rock’in, roll’in, rid’in

Out along the bay

Heading now for Morning-town

Many miles away


Driver at the engine

Fireman rings the bell

Sandman swings the lantern

To show that all is well


Rock’in, roll’in, rid’in

Out along the bay

Heading now for Morning-town

Many miles away


Maybe it’s a rain’in

Where our train will ride

But all the little travelers

Are snug and warm inside


Somewhere there is sunshine

Somewhere there is day

Somewhere there is Morning-town

Many miles away


Rock’in, roll’in, rid’in

Out along the bay

Heading now for Morning-town

Many, many miles away


     A few years ago, while living in Kentucky, I visited a town called Paris in Bourbon County, initially built and occupied by people who developed the railway system instate to accommodate the movement of coal and livestock. (Bourbon and Thoroughbred horses are a part of Paris’ history, as well, so trains most likely moved them about too.)  In one part of Paris there is an old railroad bridge arching over a road descending past a fork of the Licking River.  While driving the road on one occasion, a train blew its whistle and a conductor waived from the engine— a friendly gesture I once recalled seeing as a child.  It was almost as if the train was asking for a second chance to be considered a “friendly” relic of history.  It made me think about references to trains in songs, and about preachers who admonish their listeners to “Get on Board the Glory Train” (bound for Heaven).  In any event, trains represented forward movement and work to get to a new destination.


Now, a different kind of train has arrived and new tracks of a different sort need to be lain.  Receiving news from a close friend fighting for her earthly life against a silent disease, she is preparing to step out of the comfort zone of one station and get on board a new train of clinical trial protocols.  She is a pastor, who has faced all of her life challenges with a positive outlook and faith inspiring many.   In a recent writing, she referenced God’s promise to give people a “hope and future”—a new destination,  if you will.  She suggested that we are not always put on the track we had imagined for ourselves, but that grace is given for times we need to be at a resting place, before being given a push to forge ahead. (OK, Pam, I paraphrased.)  She believes in a “kind God who takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into radical life-change” when needed.  The premise being:  God knows the how and where of our journey and the new destination.  She further interprets Jeremiah 29:10,11 to remind herself and those following her posts: “God will not abandon me, but I might not have the same future I had once hoped for—-but it will be okay.”

Etched in my mind from multiple readings of the classic childrens’ book:  The Little Engine Who Could when I was a young reader and then years later read to my own children, the benevolent engine with a simple hard-work ethic, backed by her friends, made the biggest of challenges surmountable.  Somehow the virtual memory-cloud above me isn’t so daunting as before, acknowledging the past, and allowing a refreshing wind to blow new thoughts and possibilities into air space we share.  Sensing the Universe is preparing a time “When the Train Whistle Blows” again, I choose to stay open to a new course, towards a “radical life-change”, and a new story-line for those in a friendly caboose behind a cheery Blue Engine to write about.

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