Hear that lonesome whistle

My love affair with trains is in my blood. The circa 1900 photograph accompanying this post is of my paternal grandfather, Marion Monroe Turner (left), with shop hands and "Boss" (seated center) at the Illinois Central Railroad maintenance shop in Water Valley, Mississippi. The men who built the rails built America.

To this day the distant whistle of a train brings back memories.

When we were little kids and living on Second Street in Grenada, Mississippi, my brother Isaac and I knew the daily schedule to run the two blocks up the street to the train depot and watch the City of New Orleans pull in. Our day wasn’t complete until we received a friendly wave from the engineer. (The Panama Limited with its Pullman cars came through at night.) Across the tracks was the Yellow Fever Cemetery. I’m not sure if it was off limits because of the possibility of lingering germs or because we would have had to cross the tracks. I suspect a little of both.

Hoboes riding the rails carved a cat on our fence post – a sign that meant “a kind woman lives in this house.” Rarely a day passed that one or more didn’t knock on our back door for food. Mother would give the hungry man a rake and tell him she would give him a plate of food if he would rake the leaves in our small back yard. Some took off, while others worked for Mother’s good cooking.

After we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1951, Isaac and I had our first train ride. My daddy, who had to return home to work, drove us to Chincoteague, Virginia, an island in the Chesapeake Bay, where we spent a glorious summer with my sister Mary and brother-in-law Paul. Paul was stationed at Norfolk Naval Base, a daily commute on a ferry boat. At the end of our island adventure, Mother, Isaac and I rode the train home. What a thrill for a couple of kids.

My last train ride was a thrill, but of a different nature. In the spring of 1983, a friend and I rode the City of New Orleans from Jackson, Mississippi, to Carbondale, Illinois, where we were to retrieve some furniture pieces I had stored there. The train left Jackson in one of the worst spring floods recorded. For 200 miles we rode at a snail’s pace on rails three feet under water. When the engineer cleared Memphis, Tennessee, for higher ground, he made up for lost time. “How fast is this damn train going,” I accosted the conductor. “Is this Casey Jones’ trip to the promised land?” “70,” he chuckled. “More like 120,” I snapped back. My embarrassed companion escorted me to the dining car for a prescribed “stiff drink.” When I stepped off the train at Carbondale, happy to be in one piece, I declared, “That will be my last train ride,” and it was.

A few days ago I was relating this tale to my friend Jenny as we entered a Walgreen’s pharmacy. Overhead the Musak was playing.

Good morning. America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son.
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans.
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

A tear for a long-ago childhood ran down my cheek.


Sue said...

oh sweet story BJ!! I grew up in dumb NJ after living my first 3 years in Kansas and Colorado, why would my dad move us to NJ?, because his dad lived here! In our little neighborhood was a train track right at the end of our block, we would all run up and sit to watch the train go by and yell "Blow your whistle" but now I can't remember, were we yelling it to the engine or to the caboose? We walked those tracks to school every day too, 4th and 5th grade. I can't imagine that young of a child walking to school nowadays by herself. We used to walk to the library, movie theatre, swim club, and these were far walks and we were YOUNG kids! (my mom didn't drive). Lot's of good memories for me, we had 6 kids in our family and the neighborhood was full of large families too. That's another change we see today. There are smaller families and you don't see kids playing in the street til the street lights come on!

Happy 4th BJ!

Nurt said...

Oh B.J., How your wonderful stories bring back my own childhood memories. I can remember my one and only train ride. It was from Jackson to Memphis with dad. Grandmother Hill was sick and we only had one "family" car. Mother needed it to go to work so dad and I took the train. I was only three but I remember it well. We went to the bar car for a cup of coffee and a fountain Coke. What a treat!! Now days the trains barely run the tracks with passengers. My grands just don't see the wonder of the train the way we did. Thanks for this post. I still love the train!!

Ranch Chimp said...

Cool story Ms.BJ! I rode a few train's here and there, but no real cool stories. Once was sent by train as a boy from New York City to Los Angeles by familia, most of the time flew though, but what a beautiful train ride that was.

Good day ........

Joyce Ferguson Wells said...

Hi BJ, Love your story. The City still comes through Jackson but nothing else is the same.

Good Southern Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.J. said...

Sue: New Jersey kids probably weren’t that much different from Mississipi kids when it came to having to walk everywhere!

Nurt: You should have mentioned that Mary and Paul of the Chincoteague story are your parents. And, I’ll bet you remember when Jim and I went to Carbondale!

Ranch Chimp: That must have been the ultimate train ride – from New York to California!

Joyce: Hi, classmate! Yep, I remember when Jackson’s population was 50,000, and we knew everybody and every street in town!

I hope these wonderful comments continue. What fun!


Good Southern Man said...

Wow... what a wonderful story! Great Great Granddaddy Turner looks just like Great Granddaddy Turner. I have actually never taken a train. When I was coming up, Greyhound bus line was a much better choice for safety, time and price. Recently, my friend Wendy took a train to Dallas and I took her to the station. Upon return, the train was canceled twice due to no customers. She finally decided to take her Dallas friend's proposal to drive her back to Austin. Needless to say, train travel for passengers may become a thing of the past very soon.

I think the thing that touches me most about this story is that Great Grandmother Turner gave food to the hungry. My Grandmother Mary Hill (daughter of Great Grandmother Turner, sister of BJ) did the same thing. She always told me that money was something that she could not promise me but if I ever needed a meal that I would always have one at her house.

Gosh, this story brings back so many memories and stories that my Grandmother and Grandfather told. I think their happiest time was living on Chincoteague Island. I had to watch so many television programs about that island whether I wanted to or not. lol.

I remember the flood of '83 well and seeing only the roof of the fairground building while the rest was totally underwater.

THANK YOU SO MUCH BJ. The memories are flowing as easily as that tear that I know has not left your cheek. This is one more story for the book you have to write!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

bj adkins said...

My grandfather, John Winston Phillips of McComb MS was an engineer on the City of New Orleans for over 50 years. How exciting it was for PaPa to bring Santa Claus to town! When I was older and allowed to go to New Orleans alone to visit an aunt, I could not waited to be grown up and independent (I was 12). As I sat down to soak in my surroundings, I could hear the colored porters shouting from car to car "Mr Johnny's baby is in here!" And everyone knew I was being well taken care of!
I well up with tears when I hear The City of New Orleans!

tnlib said...

Memories of a more innocent time. Trains have always been a big part of our lives. When I was very young we lived across a field from RR tracks. My brother and I would run down when we heard the first sound of the whistle and wave at the conductor and anyone else as they passed. We were always thrilled when he blew the whistle just for us.

I had an uncle who was a lineman all his life and we road the rails everywhere we went. I used to have a lot of paraphernalia - logs and lanterns.

It wasn't too long ago that I took my kids and rode the train from Denver to the Winter Park Ski area. Another time I road it to California.

There is absolutely nothing that can begin to compare to the aura and mystery of riding trains. Why the U.S. can't get their system running - as they have in Europe - is a crying shame.

tnlib said...

PS: An exceptionally good post, BJ. Obviously it has struck a chord with a lot of us.

PSS BJ adkins: The best boss I ever had was my Managing Editor in Denver. He was originally from McComb, MS.

Debra said...

Hey B.J.,

I didn't have such a great experience with trains. When we were little, we were all traveling down a road and a car load of boys came toward us hanging out the window and yelling "Train Train" and Daddy said "look at those crazy boys" and turned his eyes back to the road just in time to come to a screeching halt right in front of the train tracks (no bars came down over the road to block you from crossing the tracks back then). A split second later the train barreled down the tracks right in front of the car. We were SAVED!! Mom calmly said, "well thank goodness for those crazy boys yelling at us and getting our attention or we would have been killed by the train", and Daddy humbly agreed. (Windows up, a/c on, radio blaring-couldn't hear the warning whistles from the train-a few young teenage boys saved a family of 5 that day and we never got to thank them). I know in my heart, God blessed them for their good deed that day.
So I have been afraid of trains ever since that day. Just hearing the whistle blow sends chills down my spine. I stay far away from RR tracks and say a special prayer if and every time I have to cross one.
Happy Fourth of July. May God's blessings be with you.
I love you, Debra

Infidel753 said...

I remember reading about those hobo symbols -- even used to have a book that had a chart of a couple dozen of them and what they meant.

I like trains -- I've traveled all over Germany and Japan on them, including on the Japanese shinkansen ("bullet train") which actually goes faster than 120 mph. You see much more that way than by driving. I hope to cross the US by train someday.

There is a train track that crosses an intersection a block from where I live, used only by slow freight trains, and I hear train horns occasionally -- to warn the cars, I assume.

tnlib said...

My ex and I traveled from Denver to Chicago by train one time. The fellow in the cabin next to us got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Instead of hitting the handle for the toilet he hit the one for the shower.

B.J. said...

These comments are GREAT! Perhaps at this point (before Frodo gets here), I should mention that my favorite train ride ever was on the Hogwarts Express, leaving from “nine and three-quarters” at King’s Cross Station. :-) BJ

Frodo, kinda likes bananas, said...

Cousin Minnie Pearl used to tell the story about taking her nephew on his very first train ride, from Grinder's Switch up to Nashville. As they rode along the countryside, a young lady entered their car selling "Apples, Oranges, Bananas," repeating "Apples, Oranges, Bananas."
The boy turned to Cousin Minnie and said that he knew all about apples and oranges, but he had never tasted a banana.
She took the hint and bought the boy his first banana, offering an explanation about the necessity of peeling it first, of course.
After some effort the youngster was prepared to take his first bite, just as the train entered a long tunnel.
From the darkness, Cousin Minnie heard the malevolent scream of her nephew, and she rushed headlong in the direction from whence the scream had ensued.
Just then the train emerged from the tunnel, and Cousin Minnie observed him throwing the remains of the banana out of the open window.
"Well boy, whatever is wrong? What happened?"
"Cousin Minnie," he said, "I no sooner put that infernal banana in my mouth and be durned if I didn't go stone blind."

Frodo believes the boy became a Republicant.

Tiny said...

LOL at Frodo's post.

Tiny's first train ride will never be forgotten. As a new bride, Tiny sat on the Chessy (Chesapeake and Ohio) for seventeen straight hours without a drink of water or to use the bathroom. At Alexander, VA she had a short lay over before boarding the train to Quantico, VA. where her husband was stationed.

As she went in the train depot she saw a bathroom sign, made a hasty bee line to it. Came out and gulped scads of water from the fountain just outside the door, walked across the floor, sat down and lit a cigarette.

Tiny looked up and noticed everyone in the depot staring at her. She was most uncomfortable and inconspicuously started tugging at the back of her dress to see if the hem was caught up in her bloomers. She would pull the front down hoping no one could see up her dress. She squirmed like a worm in hot ashes as all eyes were on her. She kept trying to figure out why. What had she done?

Had she done something that was going to get her in trouble? Was she going to be arrested? What would her husband do if she didn't show up at the Quantico depot? What would she do if he didn't show up there?

A million thoughts kept storming through her mind. She grew even more concerned that her dress tail was caught up in her bloomers. She felt embarrassment, shame and fear that her scrawny butt night be showing, for every time she dared look up all eyes were still staring at her.

As her fear grew to the size of a mountain, Tiny wondered, "Would everyone in the place pounce on her at the same time?" She had not learned that the world consisted of more than church, work and school. And in that order! And that the world was full of evil people like those she heard about in church.

Let Tiny just say that Rosa Parks would have been so proud of her back then. For when she stood to leave the depot, she saw the sign "Colored People" posted over the fountain and bathroom area where she had relieved and refreshed herself.

In retrospect, she often wonders if people thought that was the first blond-haired albino Negro they had ever seen.

Loulou La Poule said...

A lovely story and thank you! I have some hopes for the future of trains in America. Maybe not for the lonesome whistle you and I know so well, but for rail travel and rail transport as an energy-saving alternative that we need...and soon. Play it forward.

Anonymous said...

Hello BJ....Nice sentimental journey. I remember my first train ride was with my Mom from Jackson, MS. to New Orleans when I was 4-5 years old. Don't remember a bunch (was probably asleep most of the time). I do definately remember when we crossed Ponchatrain Lake! That will get your attention. Water in all directions and and you can't see the wheels...eeerie feeling. The next time on a train was a troop train in Korea where everytime you went through a tunnel you had to remember to put the windows up or the smoke from the engine whould blow right in the windows. I think I liked the first train trip better..........
W. N. Hatten
Peculiar, MO.