Driving the train

My mother doesn’t fly.  Never has, never will. She’s afraid of heights at every level. Airplanes, bridges, ladders–doesn’t make a difference to her–they’re all the same and she can’t do ’em.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t gotten around (well, she’s 92 now, so her getting around days are kind of removed) but she’s managed to travel all over North America.

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My brother and me at a train station in Florida; I think that’s my dad off to the side (look, he wore a suit on the train)

When we were kids, we used to take the train down to Florida to visit the grandparents (both sets).  It took two and a half days to get there from New York. I remember that we would have these little roomettes, where the porters folded down the beds while we went to the dining car, and once the beds were down, the little port-o-potty toilets were  covered up, so you had to go down the hall to the public bathroom to pee.

I remember waking up in the morning and looking out the window as the countryside rolled by, and I remember that I would go to the dining car famished and ready for a big breakfast of pancakes and bacon only to sit down and be completely unable to eat (it took us a few trips to figure out that I have a problem riding backwards; once I got turned around and faced where we were headed, I was fine).

When I got bigger, I took to flying and so the train trips fell away.  Until I moved to Canada.

My first year in Calgary, we still had the main east-west train running through the city, from Halifax, I guess, all the way to Vancouver. This was the year of Expo ’86, so my mother took the train from New York to Montreal and then hopped on the cross-Canada special.

It was summer, really hot, and I remember that she was delayed on arriving because the

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Banff train station is right around the bend….

tracks had separated near Medicine Hat.  But she stayed for a few days, before we joined the train again at Banff and headed to the west coast.

The ride through the mountains was incredible.  We passed big horn sheep and mountain goats on the side of the tracks and we wound our way through the spiral tunnels in the Kicking Horse Pass in British Columbia (note: you can see them from the highway, so if you pass through that way, plan to take a break and watch–you’re bound to see something go through if you’re a little bit IMG_20181105_0085patient). IMG_20181105_0092We traveled  the inland desert near Kamloops in the dark and woke to the

bustle of Vancouver the next morning.

We spent a few days at Expo 86 which was a good time; we also got over to Vancouver Island, all the way to Ucluelet–my first time on the real west coast of Canada, and hers for sure.

After that, I had to go back with her to New York (student visas and all, plus I got a summer radio job in NY, so I needed to go back anyway) and we rode across Canada to New York through Montreal.  I remember we got delayed coming down from upstate NY because someone had been hit and killed by a train that had been going in the other direction and we were the first train to pass the body (it was the first time I’d seen a dead body, except for that guy on the bench at St. Mark’s Square).

She came to visit a couple more times, taking Amtrak from New York to Montana–two

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Shelby, Montana

and half days on the train.  I haven’t been on an overnight in a while, but would certainly do it again.

When you grow up on Long Island, you don’t see too many freight trains; in fact, you don’t see any at all, which explains why the western half of the island is basically asphalt–everything is brought in on trucks.

The first time I saw a for-real freight train was in the middle of the night on some back road in Arizona, or maybe New Mexico.  I was headed for the nearest Motel 6 and I got stuck at a level crossing.  First time I’d ever seen more than 50 cars on a train.

So I popped out of my rental, lit up a smoke (yes, I did), and sat on the hood in the darkness, just watching the train whip by.

train 3

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Kinda snug

I’ve also ridden quite a few trains in Europe (how efficient!) and even did an overnight train from Inverness in Scotland to London, although it wasn’t quite the same as a grown up.

My only other experiences, and I’m sure I’m not alone on this, were with the Long Island Rail Road.

I got to thinking about this a year or so ago when I found a button in a box of keepsakes; while it’s buried somewhere in storage right now, here’s what it looked like:


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Anyone remember Dashing Dan….?

I found the button in a box with some others of the time (“Nixon’s the One!”  “Attica is All of Us”), and it made me think of the time I got to drive the train.

I used to listen to it every night from my bedroom, and in summer when the window was open to let in the breeze (and the occasional boy), I would first hear the whistle–from a distance initially, but there was a level crossing a mile or two away and that’s when I’d listen just a little harder, because I knew that I would hear the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks as it passed closer to my house. It was a comforting, regular sound in the middle of the night–much better than the creaks and groans of the house, or the snoring of the monster under my bed.

There was an overpass about five minutes’ walk from my backyard (for those in the know, it is not the “Virgil is Frog Boy” bridge but the one right after), and sometimes we’d head out after dinner in time for the 7 pm train to come by.  We’d get there a few minutes early and scramble up the side of the bridge to lay pennies on the tracks.  When the train came by, we’d stand underneath and scream and wait for the pennies to drop. As I got older, sometimes I’d walk the tracks from the station back to the bridge as it was a much shorter distance to take the rail line.

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East Hampton LIRR station, by Dan TD at English Wikipedia

When I was 19 or 20 (a million years ago), I had a boyfriend in the city.  I used to take the train into New York on Friday afternoons and spend the weekend there. Now this was back in the day that most people commuted out to eastern Long Island on Fridays (rather than now when it looks like no one ever leaves), but the train obviously had to go back, and very often, I was the only one on board for many, many stops.

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A bazillion people waiting on the platform to go to the US Open in Southampton this past June.  It was stupid crowded

I got to know the conductors pretty well, and they were nice enough guys. So one day I asked a regular conductor I knew whether I could see the engine from up front.

Much to my surprise, he said yes.

I recall leaving my bags (40 years ago you could do that) and climbing into the locomotive car; it was greasy and grimy and smelled like hot oil.  We had to turn sideways to get past the massive generators and engines, and it was hot and loud.

Once I got to the front, I could see everything; having the windows to the front of the train must be like being the pilot on a plane–you can see all over. There were two high chairs on lifts–sort of like if you took your office chair and pumped it waaaay, wwway up.

When you’re driving the train, your feet stay on a pedal at the base of that chair, as there’s a built-in dead man’s switch, in case you keel over. And tons of gauges and dials, and the arm, or lever, that controls the speed.

Now, this would never happen now, but they let me drive the train.  No kidding–fromspeonk Speonk (yes that’s a place)  to Patchogue (yep, that too). Sliding the speed control lever, we trundled along at about 40 miles an hour or so.  Believe it or not, I kept on track.

I also got to blow the whistle, a cord pulled down from the ceiling at designated spots on the route, and that’s when I learned about “here comes the bride”.

All those years of hearing the train sound, and I guess I’d never really listened to it.  The train engineer always blows her/his whistle using the exact same rhythmic beats each time.  Two medium length blasts, followed by a quick one, and then a longer one. Think “here comes the bride”.

And now, a lifetime later, when I hear that tune, I think of trains….and, when I hear the train whistle, I think of….well, getting to drive the train.

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