Memories real enough to smell the creosote

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

― J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish author and dramatist, best remembered as the creator of Peter Pan.

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While I’m hoping my life’s calendar is closer to the October or early November pages, matching memories with memorabilia best describes how I’ve spent fleeting flurries of what little spare time I have had lately.

That exercise of tending roses in the memory garden is a resoundingly rewarding exercise. Fuzzy recollections focused by photos, newspaper clippings, and notes, stored for decades in albums and boxes. Fading pieces of family history.

That exercise last weekend refreshed fond memories renewing the bond between today and my grandfather whose life journey ended in 1967; a life spent working for the railroads. He is probably the reason why train tracks still allure me. Even today, I will stop to gaze at the distant vanishing point where two rails converge, fantasizing about where the steel ribbons go. I even smile at the peculiar odor of the creosoted cross ties that support the rails.

Creosote is the black tar-looking stuff used to preserve the wood ties that hold the rails upright and keep them spaced to the correct gauge—the distance between the rails. In the hot summertime, it’s a black, messy residue, impossible to remove from shoes or clothing. Its pungent odor is not quickly forgotten, especially for the grandson of a “railroad man.”

My father’s father, born in 1888, began a lifelong career with his first full-time job working for the railroad at the age of 13. He retired in 1954. I got to spend 19 years of my journey with him.

Even in retirement, my grandfather was still a railroad man. He delighted in taking me to the depot when I was a youngster to watch the telegraph operator sending and receiving messages in Morse code. The “rat-a-tat” rhythm hammered out on used Prince Albert tobacco cans commonly used as a sounding board on the communication devices was “magic” in a kid’s mind.

A special treat was the rare ride on a motorcar, a small open-air vehicle designed for short trips on the tracks by railroad workers. I used to think it was something he did to entertain me, but I still remember the smile on his face.

My grandparents lived across the street from the railroad, just a few blocks from the Pittsburg, Texas, depot. Of course, we’ll never know, but I suspect now that buying a house in sight of passing trains might not have been a coincidence. For as long as he could sit on the front porch in his rocking chair, my grandfather checked the on-time status of each one, glancing at his pocket watch as they rolled by.

They moved into the house in the northeast Texas community Halloween night of 1930 shortly after my father’s seventh birthday. My grandmother lived in the same house when she died in October of 1993, almost 63 years later to the day, and 26 years after my grandfather’s death.

The smell of creosote still stirs memories of S.V. Aldridge, the tall, broad-shouldered railroad man looking at his pocket watch to keep track of the time and the trains.

I inherited the watch when he died. I used it briefly as my timepiece, just for the memories, before retiring it to a display case for safekeeping. Unfortunately, the glass in the display was broken some years ago, and his watch was retired again, this time to a jewelry box.

A couple of years ago, daughter Robin gifted me with a piece of her artwork, a painting of three generations of Aldridge men: my grandfather, my father, and me. Lacking a spot in my house for the large canvas representing four generations when considering the artist, I temporarily placed it in my home office where it sat on the floor leaning against the wall for frequent viewing.

With a recent redo of my house in progress, I now have wall space to exhibit Robin’s artwork properly. With it, his watch has been brought out of retirement once more and will be mounted in a new display with photos of my grandfather.

The two will hang together, one of my December roses that bloomed when tangible pieces of history met with memories. Memories real enough that the smell of creosote still lingers when I pass by and glance at them.

—Leon Aldridge

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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, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and the Naples Monitor.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. 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 full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

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