Train Lovers, Welcome Aboard

3 Snapshots from Memory

  • Aunt Ruthie Longenecker takes us to Philadelphia, my first recollection of a train trip. I feel the rocking motion of the Pennsylvania Rail Road train car we occupy, the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails, and the prize of the big city zoo at the end of the trip: lions and tigers and elephants, oh my!
  • When I pick raspberries with Grandma Longenecker, I hear the train’s clatter-clack over segments of track speeding from Lancaster to Harrisburg. With our round aluminum kettles laden with berries and handles that cut into the palms of our hands, we stand just 50 yards from the track, feeling the vibration of the passing train through our shoes, gazing in awe.
  • Years later, the young Beaman family bridges the gap between Florida and Pennsylvania via Amtrak’s Silver Meteor. The miles disappear behind us effortlessly. Parents and children eat, read, stretch our legs as some passengers wonder “Who’s that little kid running in the aisle?”

Train Trips Engage the Senses:

  1. Rocking motion as the train speeds along
  2. Sound of the wheels on the rails
  3. Smells of warm exhaust, food in the dining car,
  4. Surprising views as train wends its way through towns, countryside
  5. Spontaneous, easy conversation sometimes with strangers

Alexander McCall Smith, known for his light mysteries that kindly expose the foibles of his characters, describes the mystique of train travel in his recent novel Trains and Lovers (2012):

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 6.30.12 PM

“I’m thinking that’s a fishing boat.”

It was. He saw it from the train, but not for more than a minute or two, as the line followed that bit of coastline only for a short time before it suddenly swerved off, as railway lines will do. The view of the North Sea was lost, and trees closed in; there was the blue of the sea one moment and then the blurred green of foliage rapidly passing the window; there was slanting morning sun, like an intermittent signal flashed through the tree.”

Train Poetry

Of course, nostalgic verse has been written about train travel, Sara Teasdale hearing and seeing from In the Train the “restless rumble,” the “drowsy people” and the “steel blue twilight in the world (1915).

Edna St. Vincent Millay reflects on viewing the distant steam locomotive in Travel (1921)

The railroad track is miles away,

And the day is loud with voices speaking,

Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day

But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,

Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,

But I see its cinders red on the sky,

And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing;

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

    No matter where it’s going.

You can hear the rocking rhythm of the train in W. H. Auden’s lines from Night Mail – This is the night mail crossing the Border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order.

The Destination

Arriving in Pennsylvania from Philadephia more than ten years ago, grand-niece Heidi runs to meet Aunt Ruthie at the tiny Amtrak terminal in Elizabethtown – exchanging cold, wet weather for a warm, welcoming hug.

Aunt Ruthie meeting Heidi_2002-_300

Your experience with train travel . . . tell us about it.

A response to the anecdotes or poetry here? All replies welcome.

Coming next:

Moments of Discovery #2 – Daddy’s 1912 Report Card & Mother’s 1989 Dodge Spirit

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36 thoughts on “Train Lovers, Welcome Aboard

  1. As a child being one of eight, my mom would send us away for camp. We would take the train to Iowa. It was exciting with all of my siblings on the train together. We’d read, play games, and laugh along the way. Arriving at our destinations families would be there to take us to their home for two weeks. We all went with a different family. Every year it was an exciting time for us because we got to experience a different kind of life. Sometime suburban other times country. Looking back I believe that those train trips brought us siblings close with all the fun we had on those trips. We’d all meet again and share our experience. Those were great times. Today we ride the train to the city. We all love our time on the train because we can enjoy each other with story and laughter. We live a mile away from the train now. On a still night I can hear the train. What a nice sound. Thanks for the memories.

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    1. With each story you tell about the days before you met my parents, I am learning more about you. It sounds like you enjoyed time away from the big city as your Mom did having a stretch of quiet time. Most readers can relate to a train trip or two. I’m glad you are one of them. Thanks, Gloria.

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  2. Thanks for your wonderful collection of train related literature! I’m not a big fan of trains, although Sage is, but I love the writers you cited, especially Alexander McCall Smith and Edna Saint Vincent Millay. Thanks for sharing them!

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    1. English majors like you can relate to both the literature and the vicarious experience. I enjoyed your last blog post featuring the adventurous Sage. The thanks goes both ways this time!

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  3. Beautiful piece in which you have invoked so many points of view. I wish I had more train travel memories. My father’s cousin put me on the train in Amsterdam bound for Paris where I spent a wonderful year. It was nice someone saw me off to that big, strange and beautiful city. Years later I took daughter to Paris from brother’s home in Belgium on the train. Otherwise, I can say I have taken many a subway in Mexico City, Paris, London, New York and Washington DC. I want to take grandson to DC next spring. My sister says we can take the subway from her VA town to the Pentagon and then connect with another taking us into the capital. He LOVES trains and I will be so happy not to drive that.

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    1. Someone has said that stories are the best souvenirs of travel and yours are a case in point. When you can include your grandson on the trip doubles the richness of the experience. Happy travels!

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  4. Marian — I particularly enjoyed the three word pictures you painted in the opening of this post. And you’re absolutely right about trains engaging the senses! When we lived in San Diego, Len and I would take the Amtrak train (locally known as the “Coaster”) each year to San Juan Capistrano when the swallows returned. Your post this morning brought back lovely memories — thank you!

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    1. I’m thrilled when readers find points of connection in posts I write. Maybe from Boise you can invent a reason to make another annual pilgrimage of sorts. Laurie, I so appreciate your faithful visits to my blog with tweets afterward – thank you bunches!

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  5. We had a passenger train that ran through our small town and every year the fourth graders got to ride the train thirty miles to the dairy and get ice cream. The little town doesn’t even have a depot anymore, but a freight train runs through there. We sit at the Country Store restaurant on the side of the mountain and watch it run on the tracks below. We have the SunRail in Central Florida now, but it is just not the same.

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    1. I love the mystique of the train, just like you. Not sure why the allure is so strong: maybe because it weaves in and out in fanciful ways along the track. When you’re ready for a bit of nostalgia, there’s another blog post theme.

      I like your post today too. Something I wanted to add: Somewhere I read that changing tenses is okay in transitions involving flashbacks or author reflections. Thanks for being here (present tense!) again today.

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      1. memoir writing is also so very much different from fiction storytelling. It is usually first person present tense, but telling a lot about things that happened in the past. Like I said in the post, that’s the major exception.

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  6. Likely about 1962 or 3, I was privileged to travel with my Aunt Susie to Chicago by train from Elkhart, Ind., which was my first train trip outside of small amusement parks or tourist attractions. Her frequently volunteered in Chicago in association with a women’s and family shelter called “Gospel League Home”* which gave me a tantalizing introduction to life in the inner city—and also its heart wrenching needs. We rode Chicago’s “L”, went to the Loop, and she assured us that if we stayed long enough, we too would get used to the noise of city traffic, sirens and blaring horns all through the night. I marveled at this small town aunt so wise to the ways of the city. I’m happy to be able to still travel much the same train going from Martinsburg WV to Elkhart (but not on to Chicago.) I wrote more about Aunt Susie here: http://findingharmonyblog.com/2014/04/15/awesome-aunt-susie-roth-mennonite-bible-school-teacher-extraordinaire/

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    1. Melodie, I just clicked on your past post. Ah, it looks as though your Aunt Susie compares in courage to my Aunt Ruthie though my aunt never left her home town. Your photos are great, especially the quilt pic.

      Our kids/spouses lived in Chicago while working on graduate degrees. We toured the grand part of the city then, but since Joel and Sarah lived in a Mexican neighborhood, we saw the struggle of immigrants. Yes, I remember the L too!

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      1. Aunt Susie was a home town kind of gal for most of her life. I have to ponder whether I am having any kind of influence on my many nieces and nephews. Likely not like your Aunt Ruthie or my Susie. My sister Pert, since she never had children, is kind of that for my children though. My sister Nancy is another kind of special role model. I thank God for siblings and family, for sure! And I know you do too, especially as you together deal with all of your mother’s things and the memories.

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        1. Your influence is spreading to nieces and nephews because they are paying attention to your example with your own family. Count on it!

          Thank you for the good wishes regarding our mother’s estate. Our precious memories make this more a labor of love than an ordeal.

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  7. Wonderful post, Marian. Very vivid details.
    I learned to write cursive on a place mat in the club car of an Amtrak taking our family from Kansas City to SanDiego. My dad had excellent penmanship, and I filled four place mats with cursive letters…then cursive words…then full sentences. I was six years old, and it was Christmas vacation. My first grade teacher had me write lists of my favorite animals at the SanDiego zoo on the board…in cursive.
    I equate Amtrak with having my dad’s undivided attention, so I love trains.

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    1. These stories led me on another magical train trip, Marylin. Your dad the teacher, you learning cursive, and the train entertaining you both all the way to the west coast. My guess: you have beautiful handwriting.

      Our son Joel teaches cursive writing as an art form to middle-schoolers in his 2-D art classes. A dying art as you can imagine.

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  8. I enjoy trains, even if I am waiting at the crossing . I still have my childhood habit of counting cars. I find the graffiti interesting, something not as common years ago.

    So those metal pails cutting into your hands….lard pails? That’s what we always used.

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    1. Now that you mentioned it, I counted cars too when the Pennsylvania RR train came through, but I don’t remember graffiti.

      The metal pails? An aluminum kettle from Grandma’s stove collection. When the kettle was full, the thin, round handle hurt our hands. I appreciate all the detail in your comments, Athanasia.

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  9. I love trains. It’s a passion I share with Alfred Hitchcock who used trains in quite a few of his movies. We live about a mile from the train tracks – and did when we lived in Central New York as well. Its mournful sound as the whistle blew was haunting and spoke of exotic and beautiful places that I hoped to travel to one day.

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Marilyn, the video of the poem, and your grand-niece’s warm welcome after she disembarked from the train. 😉

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    1. I know you are quite a movie aficionado judging from your blog posts every week. Because you like sight and sound, you would enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s description of the wheels of the train which “made a strange sound as it approached–a ringing, humming sound, like the sound of metal strings being plays with a great bow . . . .” (57) Yes, mournful and mysterious.

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  10. Oh, I love the sound of trains, Marian. The small west coast town I hale from had a train station, so I grew up with the distant clatter of late night track switches and uncouplings. There’s a train crossing about two miles from where I live now, and its nightly toot is such a friendly sound, and always reminds me of childhood. Thanks for this lovely post!

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    1. For some reason train sounds, though often described as loud and clattery, are seldom thought of as an intrusion. I wonder why that is. So many of the commenters today remember those sounds from childhood, so maybe train travel evokes thoughts of adventure. “Polar Express” is certainly a case in point.

      Welcome to “plain and fancy,” Cynthia. I hope you will visit often.

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  11. My first train ride was when I was 4 or 5.We took the train to visit my father’s parents at Christmas. It was full of coal dust and my pretty new pink mittens where black by the time we got there. Mom was upset. My mom’s parents lived in the city and the train track was behind their house. The sound would lull me to sleep. We take the train in Europe all the time and I love it. It is such a relaxing way to travel. I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith and had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years ago.

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    1. Thank you for the childhood anecdotes from both sides of the family, Darlene.

      You mention train travel in Europe. I wonder whether you had a EuroRail pass. On one of our first trips to continental Europe, we rode everywhere on trains. Big wheels and a small suitcase!

      I envy you meeting Alexander McCall Smith. I imagine many of his characters, insights, and plot lines derive from his career in medical law and interest in bioethics. His books are so readable, just the right fare for train rides.

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  12. I missed this post from Saturday–it was a busy weekend! There’s so much to respond to. I remember hearing the freight trains as they passed by my parents’ antique store in Dallas. Now they seem more of an annoyance–there’s always a long train to stop for when you’re in a hurry. 🙂

    The rhythm of the Auden lines reminded me of the opening scene in the musical “The Music Man” with the traveling salesmen discussing how you have to know the territory. That sparked a memory of a Twilight Zone episode in which a man boards a train every night to go home from his job in the city, but he has an unexpected stop in a peaceful town from about the 1890s or early 20th century.

    I haven’t read “Trains and Lovers,” although I’ve read many of his other books. I will have to look for that one.

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    1. Hearing the sound of trains passing and having to wait for one are two different experiences. Of course, having to stop for a train is annoying.

      Thanks for the Auden –> The Music Man –> Twilight Zone allusions. Going back to a peaceful town in the Victorian Era sounds very alluring right now. Your comments, always welcome whenever you have the time to wedge them into your super-busy schedule, Merril.

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  13. My most recent train journey was to Bristol and back for work so not all that exciting although Bristol was nicer than expected. My next is likely to be in Paris where we’re going for a short break later in the year. I’m hoping that will be nicer.

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    1. We’ve visited your country but have never seen Bristol; I’m glad the town was a nice surprise for you.

      We Americans attach so much romance to the city of Paris, and for lucky you it’s just across the channel. I can’t think of a more enchanting place to take a short break, which will be all the more appreciated after your recent challenges. Thanks for the update, Marie.

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  14. I never took the train as a child, but now living in New England, I hop on Amtrak every so often to ride down to Wilmington DE to visit my 90-year-old mom, and she does the same to visit me. We both LOVE riding the train – so much more civilized than flying. The soft back and forth on the track helps us relax, unwind, get away from everyday worries, and just ‘enjoy the journey.’

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    1. Pamela, welcome to my blog today. I immediately clicked on your “about” page and found that your students named your creative writing course “Rough Wighting” both an homage to your last name and to your teaching skills. My favorite line in your comment: We both LOVE riding the train – so much more civilized than flying. I agree! Do visit again soon.

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  15. What a lovely collection of train memories, both yours and ones from literature. The W. H. Auden video was amazing. I wonder how it came to be? It must be about 50 years old — long before the time when poems and film usually came together.

    As for my own train stories, the Lancaster train station was important to my story about Vicky Martinez, our Fresh Air girl.

    And, of course, our BookTourAnniversaryPalooza this summer provided material for several blog posts. I love trains! http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2014/08/06/my-amtrak-writers-residency-five-tips-for-authors-after-4000-superliner-miles/

    You would have laughed as much as I did at the Mennonite Women’s Retreat when one of the skits was an Amtrak Survival Kit complete with Depends and shower caps over the face. Oh my!

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    1. Yes, I remember well reading your chapter about fresh-air Vicky and also this summer’s Amtrak BookTourAnniversaryPalooza. And now another tour: Where do you get all the energy?

      Yes, I smiled at the Amtrak Survival Kit – so clever. And the Depends and shower caps cracked me up!

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      1. About the recording, yes Auden’s words were recorded sometime in the mid-20th century. But even more remarkable is the recording by Tennyson of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” on Edison wax cylinder I used to play for my students. He died in 1892, so it had to be recorded before then. Amazing!

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