“You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four,— Song lyrics from “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” by Glenn Miller
Read a magazine, and then you’re in Baltimore.
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer,
Than to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina.”
Another small piece of Americana faded silently into history some years ago; mostly unnoticed.
Eliminating the caboose at the end of every train crisscrossing the countryside was a sad event not only for generations like mine, but for kids who will never experience the thrill of watching a train go by and waving at the man in the caboose.
What summertime fun it was to park our bicycles, sit in the grass and count the cars in a passing train and then wave to the man riding in the red car at the end. Wondering where the train had come from and where it was going. Fantasizing about riding the rails.
In any case, we were confident that a friendly greeting was essential training for the job because someone was always in the caboose to wave at any youngster watching a train go by.
Without cabooses, what’s for a kid to dream about?
The caboose, once required by law at the end of a freight train, provided shelter for the crew that performed jobs like switching and braking procedures, damage to equipment and cargo, and overheating axles. However, rail operations, technology, and safety progressed enough into the 1980s that the law was relaxed. By 1988, the familiar caboose had all but disappeared in the U.S.
When it happened, I opined on the loss in a column. Without cabooses, I offered, there would be no one to wave at kids entranced by the mystery of trains. What was the country coming to?
Apparently, not everyone was as deeply disturbed as I was. No calls came from representatives of the railroads or the unions meeting on the issue. I was never consulted about the matter.
My passion may have been because I was prejudiced. My grandfather went to work for the railroad in 1901 at the age of 13. He retired 53 years later, having spent just over half a century maintaining the rail system in Texas and Louisiana.
My childhood summer evenings were spent sitting with him on the front porch of his Cypress Street home in Pittsburg, watching trains rumble down the tracks across the street. With each one, he checked his pocket watch and commented regarding its on-time status and destination. At the same time, I delighted in counting the cars and waving back at the man riding in the caboose.
Along with memories and my grandfather’s stories, I also have my parent’s recollections of riding the rails. With half-fare tickets for servicemen and a weekend pass, many miles could be covered by a World War II G.I. One of those soldiers in uniform was my father. Being from Texas with a new bride from Kentucky, the rails played an essential part in my mother traveling home to visit her family while dad was overseas fighting a war.
Even after the war, I remember my first train trip with mom when we boarded in Gladewater, the nearest passenger service to Pittsburg. After a day of watching the countryside go by outside the window and a night spent in a sleeper bunk, we arrived the following day in Louisville, Kentucky, near mom’s hometown of Winchester. I still remember family members waiting on the platform at the station.
That memory is some 70 years old. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, today’s rail system is almost 140,000 miles. That same source cites the U.S. freight rail network as the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world, creating more than 167,000 jobs.
Many countries offer subsidies to their railways because of the social and economic benefits they bring. According to Wikipedia, rail subsidies are the largest in China at $130 billion followed by Europe and India. The United States, however, has relatively small subsidies for passenger rail with no freight service subsidizing.
Even after 35 years of trains without a caboose, the child in me is still disappointed when I watch one roll through a crossing. Yes, I still count the cars, but I miss the caboose.
And I have to wonder how today’s younger generation can ponder the adventure of riding the rails without a friendly wave from the man riding in the caboose.
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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, the Alpine Avalanche, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.
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