Looking forward to connecting the next set of dots

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” —Steve Jobs, (1955 – 2011) Former CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc.

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Apple’s mastermind of the Mac was right on both accounts. While his point was looking forward to plotting one’s future, I contend it’s fun looking back connecting the dots between events in our past.

It was especially fun last Sunday as I watched a 78-year-old steam locomotive roll through the small East Texas berg of Hallsville headed for its next stop in Marshall. Steam spewing from enormous pistons to the rhythm of their “chug-chug” power thrusts and the massive locomotive’s haunting horn heralding its presence delighted crowds lining both sides of the track for miles. 

For me, it brought back memories of my grandfather who worked for the railroad from the age of 13 to his retirement at age 66. Many are my memories of evenings sitting with him on his front porch across the street from tracks that ran through Pittsburg, Texas. A check of his pocket watch with each passing train prompted comments regarding the “on-time” status just as if he were still on the job. Every kid loves a train and the kid in me Sunday remembered those times when steam locomotives still shared tracks with the “new generation” of diesel-electric locomotives.

It was in the 1960s—’67 to be exact that I spent the summer in Southern California with mom’s younger brother and his family while acquiring skills with a paint gun working in the automotive body shop Uncle Bill managed. My mentor, Ralph Kyger, was nothing short of an artist at applying paint to anything from a VW to a Rolls Royce and matching colors simply by sight. He also possessed a colorful personality, a mixture of prankster and comedian one minute, and a perfectionist the next who didn’t mince words about the quality of work he delivered and likewise expected from me. 

“You would enjoy meeting his son, Leroy Kyger,” my cousin Danny offered at a family reunion last July when conversations about that summer in California more than 50 years ago turned to Ralph. “He races motorcycles in the desert,” said Danny, “He has a restored Datsun pickup that has won tons of awards, and he’s a big fan of the old steam locomotives. I think you two would enjoy knowing each other.” 

Through the modern miracles of social media, that meeting with the Las Vegas, Nevada, resident was soon accomplished. Leroy admitted to being a huge fan of the Big Boy locomotives for 25-plus years, and a supporter of the efforts to restore Big Boy No. 4014 that passed through East Texas Sunday.

According to Union Pacific’s website, 25 “Big Boy” steam locomotives were built for Union Pacific, the first being delivered in 1941. At 1.2 million pounds and just 12-feet shy of twice the length of a modern-day locomotive, they are the biggest locomotives in the world. Eight survive. Seven are non-operational displays in various cities around the country, and No. 4014 is the world’s only operating example. 

No. 4014 was retired in December 1961 after traveling 1,031,205 miles during 20 years of service. Union Pacific reacquired 4014 from a California museum in 2013 and restored it in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before returning it to service in May 2019. Its inaugural tour was to Ogden, Utah, for Union Pacific’s 150th-anniversary ceremony where the Big Boy and historic steam locomotive “Living Legend” No. 844 met nose-to-nose, recreating the iconic image of the May 10, 1869 meeting when the last spike was driven at Promontory Summit completing America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Completing my Sunday afternoon tour, I hurried from Hallsville to Marshall before No. 4014 got there to capture images of the historic locomotive’s chugging and steaming arrival at the depot. This final 2019 tour for No. 4014 started in September and will have taken the historic locomotive through 12 states when it returns to Wyoming.

My Sunday tour connected this set of dots looking back over memories of family, friends, and trains through most of my life. It also left me looking forward to the next set of dots.

—Leon Aldridge

(All photos by Leon Aldridge)

Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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